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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

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Posted November 8, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Africa, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Arabs, Armistice Day, BBC, Britain, British history, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, David Lloyd George, decolonisation, democracy, Domesticity, East Anglia, Egypt, Empire, Europe, Factories, First World War, Flanders, France, Gaza, General Douglas Haig, Germany, Great War, guerilla warfare, History, Imperialism, India, Iraq, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Israel, Jews, Journalism, liberal democracy, Memorial, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Oxford, Palestine, Population, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Revolution, Russia, Seasons, Security, South Africa, Turkey, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare, World War One, Zionism

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

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In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill… pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

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Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany.  Chichester: Summersdale Publishers.

E. L. Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

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