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

Soldier-Poets, Philosophers,Treaties and Retreats:

We must strike at the earliest moment… before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.

General Erich Ludendorff, November 1917.

The following letter appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 January 1918:

Sir,

Might I suggest that you would be doing a public service if you could induce the authorities to relieve the peaceful inhabitants of the city from the diurnal shock of the One O’clock Castle Gun? At the present time it is all the more an intrusion in that there are so many convalescent soldiers within range of the concussion. Two of these from Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, had to be carried home from Princes Street the other day after the shot was fired. We abolish police whistles in the vicinity of hospitals, why keep up this more violent reminder of their sufferings?

I am, etc, Citizen.

Shell-shock was the common name given to a range of emotional and mental disorders suffered by troops. The symptoms included hysteria, anxiety, physical tremors, sensitivity to noise, and nightmares. Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital treated soldiers suffering from shell shock; it was where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and encouraged him in his writing of poetry. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote or completed the poems that were to be published 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.  Sassoon also directed his indignation against the old and the rich who were making a handsome profit out of the war and who did not share the young soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving. In Blighters, he aims his anger at the vulgar jingoism of a music-hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

 

I’d like to see a Tanks come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes or ‘Home, sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In certain of his poems Owen imitates Sassoon’s irony; for instance, in ‘The Dead-Beat’, he tells how a soldier suddenly drops unconscious and is taken to casualty clearing-station. The stretcher-bearers label him a ‘malingerer’, but the poem ends with Owen mockingly mimicking anyone who talks callously about another’s death:

Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh:

‘That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’

Another special target for satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. Sassoon’s poem, They, satirises the Bishop who is delighted with the way in which war ennobles soldiers:

We’re none of us the same’, the boys reply.

‘For George lost both his legs, and Bill’s stone-blind;

‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…’

In At a Calvary near the Ancre Owen also attacks the military chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom thegentle Christ’s denied.

Owen, who as a patient at Craiglockhart had seen Sassoon’s angriest poems before they were published, is here imitating Sassoon’s mood and techniques. He also condemns the old when in The Parable of the Old Men and the Young he 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.

Despite their anger, both men returned to the western front to be with their men within a few months of writing these lines. The firing of ‘Mons Meg’ at Edinburgh Castle at one o’clock, an age-old tradition, was halted in April 1918 and it remained silent for over a year.

 

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With the coming of 1918, the initiative passed to Germany. For three years every attempt to decide the issue on the western front had proved a costly failure, but in 1918 Ludendorff decided to risk his entire reserves in a final effort to break the Allied line. The collapse of Russia enabled them to put larger forces on the front than the Allies could muster. They had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the USA could send her armies; it was Germany’s purpose before that date to reach a decision in the field. It was their last chance. The submarine had failed; Britain could not be starved into submission. On the contrary, the Allied blockade was undermining the health and morale of the German people. They were weak with privations and sick with hope deferred. A little longer and their wonderful fortitude would break. With all the strength they could muster, with their new tactics to aid them, and with a desperate necessity to goad them, they undertook the last great sally, staking everything on victory. Germany’s allies were giving way under the strain of prolonged war: the Turkish armies were in retreat; the Bulgarians, having already got all they wanted, were anxious for peace; the subject peoples of the Austrian Empire naturally faced privations with less fortitude than the Germans. It was ‘now or never’; the American troops were not yet in the field, but would be very shortly.

Ludendorff’s general plan was to isolate the British Army, roll it up from its right, and drive it into the sea, or pin it down to an entrenched camp between the Somme and the Channel – a ‘Torres Vedras’ from which it would only on the signature of peace. This done, he could hold it with a few troops, swing around on the French, and put them out of action. He must, therefore, strike with all his might at the point of junction of Haig and Pétain, on the western face of the great salient, where the Allies were weakest and the ground easiest. His position on interior lines gave him the chance of surprise, for until the actual attack the Allies would not know on which side of the salient the blow was to fall. His admirable communications would enable him to obtain a great local predominance. For the first stage of the great battle, he had sixty-three divisions in line or in immediate reserve.

The Versailles Council, formed by the Entente towards the end of 1917, miscalculated both the place and the date of the attack. Haig’s Intelligence service informed him of the exact hour, but he had neither the time nor the resources to prepare an adequate defence. He held 130 miles of line, and these were the most critical in the West, with approximately the same numbers as he had had two years before when his front was only eighty miles long and Russia was still in the fold. An initial German success was almost inevitable. Nineteen divisions in line and thirteen in reserve could scarcely stand against a first attacking wave of thirty-seven divisions, which was soon to grow to sixty-three.

Meanwhile, back at home, the historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was jailed for six months in February for writing an article criticising the US Army. His action was described by the judge as being ‘a very despicable offence’ and in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act, as it was likely ‘to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA’. Also in February, William MacCaw MP was found guilty of hoarding foodstuffs (listed below). For this contravention of the 1917 Food Hoarding Order he was fined four hundred pounds:

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During the build-up of Germany’s forces on the western front, it also consolidated the territory it had gained in the east as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to by the treaty. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War after the Bolshevik takeover was formalised by the settlement between Lenin’s Russia and Germany and her allies on 3 March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. The treaty, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the in part the Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Russia lost all of its western provinces: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine (as well as Georgia under the Treaty of Berlin of August 1918).

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They took Belorussia simply to shorten their line, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, they were clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have imposed a third round of concessions on the Revolutionary Russian government. Bolshevik power in this area was at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which became the seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. Anti-Bolshevik forces rallying to the white flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for the local Bolsheviks. In Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had occupied not only the town they had lost in 1878, which they were entitled to as a result of Brest-Litovsk but everything else that wasn’t already in the hands of their German allies.

The Romanians also badly needed some compensation. After the completion of the initial Brest-Litovsk negotiations in March, it was their turn to sign on the dotted line. When they eventually did so (in May), they lost the southern half of Dobruja to the Bulgarians and the northern half to the Germans (another area to be included in the Black Sea Province) besides having to make major frontier adjustments in favour of Austria-Hungary. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had brought the war in the east to a successful conclusion, they now had to try to do the same in the west.

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They had until the summer to do so, before the Americans appeared in France in strength. For the moment, after the transfer of the eastern armies to the west, the German Army had superiority: 192 divisions facing 165 Allied divisions on the Western Front, but this would not last long. The critical blows would have to be struck during March and April, a Spring Offensive, of which ‘Operation Michael’ was the first part. It eventually became known as the Second Battle of the Somme, which continued until 5th April. It wasn’t just a case of overall numerical superiority; Ludendorff also had seventy specially trained ‘assault divisions’ facing just thirty-five similar British units on the Somme battlefront.

This most perilous stage for the British Army – and, except for the First Marne, the most perilous for the Allied cause – opened in the fog of the early morning of 21st March, when at a quarter to five four thousand German guns were released against the British front, firing more than a million shells over the following five hours, while all the back areas were drenched with gas, which hung like a pall in the moist air. When the guns crashed out and the attack went in, the British line simply disintegrated: whole battalions vanished, never to be heard of again. Reinforced with half a million troops from the Eastern Front, the German Infantry made strong breakthroughs using airpower and shock troops to bypass defensive positions in foggy conditions that hampered the defenders. By the end of the first day, twenty-one thousand prisoners were taken as the Germans overran the British positions. Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment commented; We had but no doubt that the great plan would succeed. 

The narrative of the Somme retreat, however, was a tale of confused operations, improvised plans, chances, mischances, and incredible heroism. On the first day, a fifty-mile gap had opened in the Allied line, forty miles of the British line were submerged, and, in a week, forty miles off, the enemy tide was lapping the walls of Amiens. In the face of the German advance, General Carey was given the task of organising a last-ditch defensive unit to be positioned at Hamel, to protect Amiens. As well as infantry stragglers, ‘Carey’s Force’ was composed of an assorted collection of 3,500 soldiers, including kitchen staff and storemen, most of whom were not well versed in infantry tactics. ‘The Péronne Handicap’ was the name given to the ‘race’ by the 17th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in their bid to reach the French town before being caught by pursuing German forces. Forty-six out of the British Expeditionary Force’s fifty-six divisions took part in the battle.

Within the first week, the leading German formations had advanced forty miles, a penetration ten times better than anything the Allies had ever achieved. The attack had broken the British Fifth Army and nearly severed the British communications link with the French. German schools were closed to allow celebrations but they were premature. The advance was magnificent, but it was not enough. Allied reinforcements were rushed in while rushed in while hungry German troops slowed, gorging on appropriated food and drink. After a fortnight, the impetus had gone out of the attack and German losses were beginning to exceed Allied casualties. In their advance, the Germans had outstretched their supply lines and losses of over a quarter of a million men couldn’t be sustained, so the offensive was halted and closed down.  The Germans sent forward large Krupp cannons, capable of long-range firing, their shells able to hit Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles. The huge shells were in the air for three and a half minutes. The French capital was hit by 183 of them, which killed over 250 Parisians.

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Ludendorff achieved much, but he did not achieve his main purpose. By 5th April, though, the main battle had died down, Amiens had not been taken, the front had been restored, and the French were not separated from the British. The ultimate failure was due to many factors; Ludendorff was false to the spirit of his own tactics and, instead of exploiting a weakness when he found it, wasted his strength on the steadfast bastion of Arras; half-way through he fumbled, forgot his true aim, and became a hasty improviser.

Perhaps Ludendorff sought to achieve the impossible, for his troops outmarched their supplies and their stamina, and, accustomed to short commons, lost discipline often when they found Allied stores to plunder. Yet he won a notable victory, and, to the ultimate advantage of the Allies, was encouraged to continue, for, had his blow been parried at the outset, he might have relapsed on the defensive, and thereby protracted the war. For his role in the success, commander Paul von Hindenburg was awarded the ‘Iron Cross with Golden Rays’, the highest medal of honour available. The only previous recipient was the Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher, honoured for his part in defeating Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo.

For its part, the British Army had written a shining page in its history, for a retreat may be as glorious as an advance. By the end of March seventy-three German divisions had engaged thirty-seven British. The disparity was, in reality, far greater than two to one, owing to the German power of local concentration, in many parts of the field the numbers had been three-to-one. Added to this, after the second day, the British had no prepared lines on which to retire, and the rivers parallel to their front were useless from the drought. It was a marvel, war correspondent John Buchan noted, that our gossamer front wavered and blew in the wind but never wholly disappeared. He went on:

Again and again complete disaster was miraculously averted. Scratch forces held up storm troops; cavalry did work that no cavalry had ever done in the history of war; gunners broke every rule of the textbooks. The retreat was in flat defiance of all precedent and law, and it succeeded only because of the stubborn value of the British soldier.

The moment was too solemn for half-measures. A divided command could not defend the long, lean front of the Allies against Germany’s organised might, directed by a single brain towards a single purpose, one strong hand only must be on the helm. On 23rd March, General Haig, after seeing Pétain, telegraphed to London for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the request of Lloyd George, Lord Milner also crossed the Channel on the 24th, and on the 26th he and Sir Henry Wilson met Clemenceau and Poincaré, Haig, Foch and Pétain at Doullens. This conference, held amid the backwash of ‘the great retreat’, was, in a sense, the turning point of the war. The proposal for a supreme commander-in-chief, urged by Milner and supported by Clemenceau, was accepted and Pétain and welcomed by Haig, and for the post, Foch was chosen unanimously. The Allies in their extremity turned with one accord to the slight, grizzled, deep-eyed man of sixty-six, who during a life of labour had made himself into a master of warfare.

The ordeal of the Second Battle of the Somme was the source of other blessings, though some of them were somewhat mixed. The renowned Australian Corps had come under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson in early 1918. He was pleased, if bemused by the troops, as he wrote in his diary:

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!

The US increased its recruiting and strained every nerve to quicken the dispatch of troops, so that it might soon stand in line with the Allies. Lloyd George and Clemenceau appealed to President Wilson and their appeal was generously met. General Pershing postponed his plan of a separate American section of operations and offered Foch every man, gun and lorry which they had in Europe. France was showing that quiet and stoic resolution to win or perish which two years before had inspired her troops at Verdun. In Britain, the threat of industrial strikes disappeared and of their own accord the workers gave up their Easter holiday in order to make up by an increased output for lost guns and stores.

Nonetheless, when King George visited his armies in France in the last days of March, the situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone there for a week during the flood-tide of the first Battle of the Somme and again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units which in a week or two were to be engaged in the no less desperate Battle of the Lys. Already his armies had lost more men in the German offensive than in the whole thirty-four week Dardanelles campaign. His appeal to his troops now was to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts”, an appeal which, two weeks later, Haig put into his own grave and memorable words.

In the meantime, divisions were being transferred from Palestine and Salonica to France and the old precautions against invasion were dropped. On 10th April, the House of Commons had passed a Bill raising the limit of the military age to fifty, and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. These mobilisations meant that within a month from 21st March, 355,000 extra men were sent across the Channel.

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However, few of these reinforcements arrived in time to soften Ludendorff’s second blow, which came on 1st April. Originally designed as a mere diversion, Operation Georgette, it grew by its startling success into a major effort, the Battle of the Lys, and thereby further compromised his main strategy. His aim was to drive for Ypres, pushing through between La Bassée and Armentiéres and then, pressing north-west, to capture Hazelbrouck and the hills beyond Bailleul. This would, he hoped, result in a British retirement and a direct threat to Calais and Boulogne, eating up the Allied reserves. That it achieved, but it also ate up his own reserves.

Depleted British units which had been involved in the great retreat across the Somme of the previous month were now stationed on what was known as a ‘quiet sector’. Portuguese troops were also in the line here, but were under strength and lacking motivation; a third became casualties as the Germans broke through. In three days they had advanced eleven miles,  and Allied troops were moved in hastily to stem the tide. For a week or more he met stern resistance from the British, against all the odds, in what became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres (9-29 April). Haig’s patience was sorely tried by Foch’s delay in sending help, but on 11th April, with the Allies under severe threat by the onslaught, Haig issued his famous order:

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike on the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. 

The British front sagged and bent, but held, and by the end of April Ludendorff realised that he must try elsewhere, and called off the offensive at the end of the month. His second blow had proved yet another tactical success, but a strategic failure. He was now becoming desperate; his original strategic scheme had gone, and his remaining efforts were now in the nature of a gambler’s throw. The Fourth Battle of Ypres also became known for the first combat between two tanks, or ‘armed tortoises’ as they were first described by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell of the British Tank Corps. Three British Mark IV’s faced three German A7Vs. The British were the victors in this first historic engagement, which took place on 24 April at Villers-Bretonneux. Overall, the April attack had forced the Allies to abandon all the territory they had so dearly bought in the Passchendaele campaign and, for a while, had seriously threatened the Channel ports.

 

Sources:

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

András Bereznay (2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Irene Richards (1937), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.

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Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

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Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.

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Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.

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Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 

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He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.

 

Sources:

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

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

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – Spring into Summer, 1917.   1 comment

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The tale of the Allied Campaign of 1917 in the West was one of difficult beginnings, successes which led nowhere, and desperate battles which all but broke the hearts of their participants. As a diversion from the imminent French Nivelle Offensive, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander troops attacked Arras on 9th April. They captured the Vimy Ridge which was strategically important and proved to be an invaluable gain the following year. The first days were successful, but as so often on the Western Front, Haig’s offensive slowed and was only continued for political reasons, to support the ailing French. He was compelled to continue long after the attack was fruitless.

On 16 April, French commander Robert Nivelle struck on the Aisne, with a poor tactical scheme and no chance of surprise, since the enemy had captured his papers and knew his plans in detail. The Germans had been able to strengthen and position their forces accordingly. The French suffered a costly check and for a little it seemed as if their strength might melt away. Nivelle had promised a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames that would finish the war. It was not to be, with the French Army suffering 90,000 casualties on the first day’s fighting.

Disgruntled at yet another defeat and more lives lost needlessly, troops mutinied in over half the French divisions. The front line was left weakly defended but French commanders were able to keep the unrest secret from both their allies and the enemy. At one point, it was believed that there were only two loyal divisions between the Germans and Paris.

Meanwhile, Hill 145 was the highest part of the Vimy Ridge and the objective for the Canadian Corps, fighting as a complete unit for the first time, Their careful preparations, accurate artillery fire and tenacious fighting found success where other offensives had failed. In 1915, the French had lost 150,000 casualties there. On this occasion the Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties, half that of the Germans. Their success was a major boost for the Allies and it had a longer-lasting effect in helping engender a feeling of nationhood amongst Canadians.

Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who restored confidence and order, the greatest achievement of a fine soldier. Forty-three mutineers were shot and the French soldiers were marched past the executed men as an incentive to keep their discipline. But it took Pétain all summer to nurse his armies back to health, and in the meantime the British troops had to bear the brunt of campaign alone. On average, they lost 4,175 men every day at Arras, the highest experienced in any single battle.

By the summer of 1917, on the home front, the British Women’s Land Army had over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, allowing male agricultural workers to be released for military service. This enabled the strength of the British Army on the Western Front to reach 1,700,000 that summer. At a Conference in May, a confident Lloyd George had promised the French that no respite would be given to the Germans.

At Messines in June, the British Army carried out a perfect model of a limited advance. The battle was a preliminary to a major offensive planned for Flanders. It began with a week-long heavy bombardment by the British artillery before large underground mines were detonated. Lloyd George, who was staying in Surrey, asked to be woken early on 7 June, in time for ‘zero hour’ detonation of the 19 mines, containing 420 tons of explosives. He heard the ‘tremendous shock’ at 3.10 a.m. Ten thousand German troops were estimated to have died in the explosion, which created craters of between 140 and 260 feet in diameter. British troops then advanced alongside tanks, supported by closely controlled artillery. It was a major success for the British Army with the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge easily taken and German counter-attacks repulsed. However, there was a cost of over 26,000 British and ANZAC troops. It was soon after described to John Buchan as the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. But neither the politicians nor the generals would allow the Army to rest on its laurels for a while, so Haig turned the offensive towards the Belgian coast, which had always been his main plan.

In a united front, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions, comprised respectively of Catholics and Protestants from the island, fought side by side to take the town of Wytschaete. In 2007 two memorial stones were placed on either side of the road, inscribed with the name of each division and the words Irish comrades-in-arms. In total around 140,000 Irishmen enlisted, with over 35,000 fatalities. The battle ended on 14 June.

In the meantime, following a raid on the English coastal town of Folkestone towards the end of May by Zeppelins, 162 people were killed in a raid on London on 13 June by 26 Gotha bombers. Over four hundred were injured in what was the worst raid of the war. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. During the war as a whole, the number of people killed in aircraft raids on Britain totalled 857 with a further 2,058 injured, whereas 557 were killed by Zeppelins, with 1,358 wounded. Losses and injuries would have been greater had it not been for ‘The Black Flight’, a highly successful unit of the Royal Naval Air Service, which shot down 87 German aircraft. Each Black Flight aircraft’s forward fuselage was painted black and given an individual name, such as:

Black Maria-Black Roger-Black Death-Black Sheep-Black Prince.

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The specifications and details of ten German and Allied aircraft are given in the table below, followed by the statistics relating to the top ten ‘aces’ of the war:

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On 17 July a royal proclamation was issued:

We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.

The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha arose from the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840, but it felt insensitive for the royal family to have German names amidst a world war in which Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson, joked that he wanted to see the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Compared with the stories of the events of 7-14 June, the story of the battle of a hundred days which began on 31 July was a far more melancholy one. The battle is known as Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. There was some merit in its conception, but little in its execution, wrote Buchan. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German lines and drive northwards to the coastal ports from which the German U-boats were reported to be operating and to take railway hubs.

On the first day it started to rain heavily. The bad weather continued, turning the battlefield into a quagmire; artillery fire had destroyed the field drainage systems. This made early success, as at Messines, impossible, and it continued long after the mud-holes and ridges aimed at had lost all strategic relevance. The battle dragged on, with Field Marshal Haig determined to persevere despite little being achieved. This time the German defence showed great tactical ingenuity, but their strength was strained to its utmost and their fangs against France were, for the moment, drawn, since this cruellest action of the war cost them 300,000 men. Buchan commented, with perhaps not  an insignificant touch of irony:

Whatever the reason for the tragic prolongation – the uneasiness of the French, the inelasticity of our military machine – one alleged cause may be ruled out, the personal vanity of Haig. Such was not the nature of the most modest and single-hearted of men.

The mud at Passchendaele made for atrocious living conditions. If a soldier slipped off wooden duckboards into a shell hole it was difficult for him to be extricated and orders were given that men who got into such difficulties were to be left. One soldier fell and was abandoned. When the platoon returned a few days later they found him, still alive but having suffered a nervous collapse, with the mud now up to his neck.

It wasn’t until 6 November that the ruined village of Passchendaele was finally taken by the Canadians. It was claimed that the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but at a cost many found too high. The British Army suffered 275,000 casualties for five miles of territory. One piece of land, ‘the Inverness Copse’ changed hands nineteen times over the course of the battle.

At 4.45 a.m. on 16 August, Allied forces attacked at Langemarck. Amongst the troops was Private Harry Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He survived the battle but was wounded a month later by shell shrapnel when three of his Lewis machine-gun team were killed. He returned to Britain, where he convalesced until the end of the war. He went on to become the last British survivor of the trenches. Private Patch refused to talk about his experiences of war until he reached the age of a hundred, and then his forthright views on the war and its futility made him a popular figure and the focus of much attention even after his death as the last Tommy, aged 111, in 2009. He once said, War isn’t worth one life.

Sources:

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

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

‘The King’s Grace’ by John Buchan: The Reign of George V – 1916 (Part 1).   1 comment

An Introduction to the Author:

This summer, browsing in a school fete, I found a first edition copy of a book by John Buchan, originally published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1935. Buchan is perhaps best known for his spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915. It introduces the South African engineer and Boer War hero of subsequent novels, Richard Hannay, and has been made into a film four times, first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. Buchan (1875-1940) began writing fiction at the beginning of a long career which included his rise to an Imperial statesman, Member of Parliament, barrister, publisher and soldier. He was born in Perth, a son of the manse of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, his family moving to Fife soon after his birth. They later moved to the Gorbals in Glasgow and it was there that Buchan received his education, attending grammar school and then the University of Glasgow. By the time he went ‘up’ to Brasenose College, Oxford, he had already written articles for periodicals, and while there he published his first novel in 1895. He was called to the bar in 1901, but his first job was as a secretary to the high commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner. Returning to London in 1903, Buchan became a director of Nelson’s, the publishing company, in addition to furthering his career as a barrister, marrying and becoming a father of four. During the First World War, Buchan was a newspaper correspondent in France, an intelligence officer and then Director of Information. He later wrote Nelson’s History of the War and became a keen historian. In 1927 he was elected Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities and, on being made the fifteenth Governor-General of Canada, was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935. In April of this year he published his book, The King’s Grace, celebrating the silver jubilee of George V. As he himself wrote in its preface, this was not intended as a biography of the King, the time for which had happily not yet come, since George died late in that year, but was an attempt to provide a picture – and some slight interpretation – of his reign, with the throne as the continuing thing through an epoch of unprecedented change. He incorporated into his text a few passages from his 1922 History of the War. Like his king, Buchan was an extremely well-liked and respected man, whose own death in 1940 also evoked a great deal of sorrow.

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Since we have been commemorating the events of the fateful year of 1916, including the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, I thought it would be interesting to share some extracts from this out-of-print text about the year.

Extracts from the Account of 1916:

” When the year 1916 opened, the main front had been irrevocably fixed in the West. The vast material and mechanical power involved in the new type of war made it impossible to to alter readily the type of campaign which had once been set, or to use the whole world-front to strategic purpose. The unimaginative methods of frontal attack and attrition, as practised in 1915, were the only ones of which the High Command could conceive, since they seemed to follow naturally from the cumbrous mechanism behind them. The fact that they were costly was obscured by the hope that they were still more costly to the enemy. There was perhaps some reason in the view that the German will to conquer could only be broken by a holocaust of suffering, and not by some ingenious strategical triumph which might have given the Allies a victory on points, for we were fighting not only the pride of a monarch and an army but the megalomania of a great people.”

” Nor can much of the blame for the deadlock be laid on the British commanders. They had been compelled to conform to a mode of war which was not of their planning, and fro which they cannot escape. The most that can be said is that, out of a kind of professional loyalty, they had been too ready to defend the indefensible. What could Haig have achieved had he protested against the whole system? A radical change of military policy in the throes of a campaign would be like the uprooting of mandrakes.”  

 

” Only British statesmen could break the bondage of a leaden and ineffective machine. If any charge is to be brought against them, it is not that they interfered unduly with the soldiers, but that they did not interfere enough, and in the right way. In a war of nations it is the civilian who must direct the general strategy… “

 

” Over Verdun, as over Ypres, there will brood in history a strange aura, the effluence of the sacrifice and fortitude of the tens of thousands who fell before her gates. Her little hills are for ever consecrated by her dead… As the weary French infantry scrambled over the débris of Thiaumont, a hundred miles to the north-west on a broad front the infantry of Britain and France were waiting to cross their parapets… Haig would have preferred an attack in Flanders, and indeed it is hard to see why Joffre chose the Somme area, for the German position there was immensely strong, and success offered no strategic advantage.

” The first day brought only slender results. There was no chance of surprise, the lengthy bombardment, owing to the poor quality of the ammunition, completely failed of its purpose, and the front of assault was too wide and the pressure too uniform. We were attacking a fortress without concentrating on the weak spots. The battle, which continued till it was stopped by the November rains, degenerated into a colossal effort of attrition…

” The Somme was the first great effort of the new armies of Britain, and in it they won much glory and a grave. The ‘tawny ground of Picardy,’ which Shakespeare’s Henry V discoloured with blood, was to become memorable for the English people, since few households in the land had not contributed to it a son. It was the final entry of the manhood of Britain into war… In their ranks were every class and condition – miners from the north, factory hands from the industrial centres, clerks and shopboys, ploughmen and shepherds, Saxon and Celt, college graduates and dock labourers, men who in the wild places of the earth had often faced danger, and men whose chief adventure had been a Sunday bicycle ride. This fighting stuff, which Germany had decried, proved a match for her Guards and Brandenburgers.”

 

” The Somme became a name of terror, that ‘blood-bath’ to which many journeyed and from which few returned… On the Somme attrition became at last a menace to Germany, for it was acute attrition: not like the slow erosion of cliffs by the sea, but like the steady crumbling of a mountain to which hydraulic engineers have applied a mighty head of water.” 

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These Weeks in World War One: 25 September – 14 October 1915: The Battle of Loos and the Execution of Norfolk Nurse, Edith Cavell   1 comment

It will cost us dearly and we shall not get far

General Rawlinson, commander-in-chief, IV Corps, British Army.

This British offensive was to be in support of the French, who were keen to have a quick and successful offensive before winter, and to help the beleaguered Russians, bearing the brunt of the German attacks in the east.

British General, Douglas Haig was well aware of the difficulties facing his men: the battlefield was full of slag heaps and mine works, affording the Germans excellent defensive positions. Despite their reluctance French commander General Joffre was adamant that the British attack. Forced to act before his New Army was ready, Haig still optimistically thought a breakthrough possible. The Allies had a five to one advantage in troop numbers.

The attack of 75,000 troops made some progress; however, it slowed due to lack of artillery support, confusion over navigation and the heavy fire of the German defenders. Six thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle. On the second day some German machine-gunners stopped firing to allow their opponents to retreat to their lines. By the end of the offensive in October British casualties were over sixty thousand, three times as many as the German losses.

On 25 September, poison gas, referred to as ‘the accessory’ in order to maintain a level of secrecy, was used by the British for the first time. One of those watching its use was General Rawlinson:

I witnessed the sight from the top of a fosse some three miles distant from the front line and the view before me was one I shall never forget. Gradually a huge cloud of white and yellow gas rose from our trenches to a height of between two hundred and three hundred feet, and floated quietly away towards the German trenches. Amidst the cloud could be seen shrapnel bursting on the enemy’s front line trenches.  

However, the plan backfired when the wind changed direction and the gas blew back into the British trenches, causing havoc among the troops. By the end of the war, the British had used gas cylinders 150 times, compared with eleven attacks by the Germans. Despite the terror it induced, poison gas caused a relatively low number of British Army deaths during the war. Loos was part of the Artois-Champagne offensive, which became a dogged war of attrition in which Allied commanders were always hopeful of achieving a breakthrough. British and French losses totaled 310,000; the Germans lost 140,000. One of the British officers was John Kipling, the son of the poet Rudyard Kipling, killed in action on 27 September. His father wrote the following short poem about his death:

A SON

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would

I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests

are few.

The story of father and son was recently dramatised by the BBC in ‘My Boy Jack’, a powerful  film starring David Suchet and Daniel Ratcliffe.

Meanwhile, a ‘mock’ trench section was dug in Blackpool, to help troops train for trench life and warfare. During the ‘illuminations’ and throughout the war, for a penny a time, visitors to the ‘Loos Trenches’ were shown around by recovering soldiers from a nearby hospital.

In a Munitions Tribunal held in Glasgow in September, twelve apprentices aged between fifteen and eighteen were admonished for demanding higher wages. Although they were working 103 hours a week, the sheriff told them, no boy could be allowed to put his private wage-earning capacity in front of the national need.

Born in December 1915, French singer Édith ‘Piaf’ Gassion was named after British nurse Edith Cavell, who had been executed two months earlier for helping Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. Over twenty places in France, Belgium, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Mauritius bear her name, including a pub in Norwich, her home city, where she was laid to rest outside the cathedral…

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The War of the Poppies – Peace at any Price?   1 comment

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In the 1970’s I was an ‘absolute pacifist‘, based mainly on my Christian faith and interpretation of Jesus’ words in the gospel. Having studied Wilfred Owen’s poetry for A Level, I refused to buy a red poppy when the British Legion volunteers came round. I told them that while I respected the memory of  the soldiers and sailors who died in a futile war (my Great Uncle was one of them), I would not wear a red poppy with General Hague’s name on it. At that time, the Poppy Fund was named the Hague Fund, after ‘the butcher of the Somme’ (a title which I have since discovered was somewhat unfair, and not the way in which the millions of ex-servicemen who turned out for his funeral saw him at the time).  Instead I wore a badge with a white poppy on it (the Peace Pledge Union didn’t sell paper poppies then). It said ‘Peace in our time, for our time’. At that point, I hadn’t studied the history of the thirties, ‘the devil’s decade’ and appeasement. Having done so in detail over the last forty years, it is no longer the red poppy I have a problem with, but the white.

From 1936-38, despite the obvious threat of continental fascism demonstrated by the Civil War in Spain, the Peace Pledge Union conducted a campaign in support of the National Government’s policy of non-intervention in Spain which was then turned into one of appeasement of first Mussolini’s chemical war in Ethiopia  and then Hitler’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. As a member of the largely pro-fascist and pacifist Welsh Nationalist Party commented at the time, this last act, approved by Chamberlain, was just another fascist way of murdering a small, defenceless nation without going to war about it. The Left in Wales, and throughout Britain, supported the democratic, Republican side against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, but the brave volunteers of the International Brigades from working-class areas of Britain like the mining valleys of south Wales could do little against Franco and Mussolini’s troops, backed up by German bombers, like those who bombed Guernica and the refugees trying to escape the conflict. Pacifists like The Quakers helped to receive the Basque refugees brought from Bilbao to Southampton later in the war, but by then the cause  was obviously lost. In the meantime, The Peace Pledge Union fought and won by-elections, Oxford Union debates and signed up millions on its pledge cards. As one of its leading and longest-serving members, Lord Soper, later reflected, it was easy to get people to sign the pledge, but achieving peace in Europe was a far more difficult task.

So when Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, waving his piece of paper with the German Führer’s signature on it, and talking of ‘peace in our time’, he was cheered all the way to Downing Street.  The British public had been fooled into thinking that a permanent peace accord had been struck with Germany. The Peace Pledge Union was the major architect of this, and they were happy to take acclaim. Only a handful of Labour MPs, including Harold Nicolson and Clement Attlee supported Churchill in the House of Commons debate on the issue. They were condemned as ‘war-mongers’ in the House and the press, in November 1938.

So, if we base our remembrance purely on the historical record, it is the white poppy which bears the most shame. However, acts of remembrance are not, thankfully, the acts of historians alone. They are acts of commitment to the memory of all our families who died suffered, whether as civilians in Coventry in 1940, as sailors at Scapa Flow and in the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, or as soldiers in Afghanistan. We are not making historical judgements, which would leave us all shame-faced, neither are we in the business of apportioning blame. Like Donald Soper, we acknowledge all our mistakes of yesteryear, and then re-commit ourselves to what J F Kennedy described as the hourly, daily, weekly, task of constructing a peaceful future.  Sometimes that can only be done by fighting for freedom, as in Spain in 1936 or, more recently, and where I am now, in Hungary, in 1956.

That’s why, when I taught at Sidcot School in the nineties and noughties, I wore both a white and a red poppy together, despite the historical problems associated with both.  These days, I am happy to wear the red poppy on its own for the weeks before Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as a commemoration of those who gave their lives in the wars of the twentieth century, for whatever motivation, since it is not my place to judge them, or question their judgement or bravery. I try to honour their ‘sacrifice’ through my own commitment to make warfare something only referred to in the past tenses, something I hope that my children and grandchildren, yet unborn, will never have to deal with in their personal present or futures. As nurse Edith Cavell wrote on the eve of her death by firing squad in 1915, ‘patriotism is not enough’, but it does, at least, take us beyond our own narrow self-interest.

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