Archive for the ‘Boulogne’ Tag

Who was Hereward? Outlaw Legends and the Myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’.   4 comments

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Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

The comic-strip, super-hero and ‘super-villain’ version of the events of the Norman Conquest is an important part of British mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. The legendary story begins with the Norman’s tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. The Saxons and Danes had captured York, pulling down the castle and seizing all the treasure in it. According to a contemporary chronicle, they killed hundreds of Normans and took many of them to their ships. William’s vengeance was swift and merciless, as recorded in his own words:

I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravaging lion. I ordered that all their homes, tools, goods and corn be burnt. Large herds of cattle and pack-animals were butchered wherever found. I took revenge on many of the English by making them die cruelly of hunger.

The narrative continues with the Norman’s ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and It ends with the conquest of Wales two hundred years later. But history is usually written by the victors, and it is all too easily to underestimate the precarious hold which William and his few thousand men held over the combined Danish and Saxon insurgents during the first five years of their rule. It was their accompanying land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, which enabled them to impose control, though this too was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward in East Anglia.

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A King’s Thegn was one of the nobles who served King Edward the Confessor, carrying out his orders and seeing to it that others obeyed the King. Had it not been for the Conquest, Hereward would have become a King’s Thegn after his father Asketil’s death. One of his uncles was Abbot Brand of Peterborough, and all five uncles were all sons of a rich merchant, Toki of Lincoln. In 1063, Abbot Osketil of Crowland had begun the building of a new Abbey Church, for which he needed to raise plenty of money. One way of doing so was to rent out the Abbey lands to local lords who would pay an annual sum to the monastery, and one of those who agreed to do so was a young man of eighteen named Hereward Askeltison. As the son of a wealthy local Thegn in the service of King Edward, the Abbot thought that he would be a reliable tenant. Hereward agreed to rent a farm at Rippingale near Bourne in Lincolnshire for an annual rent to be agreed with the Abbot at the beginning of each year. At the end of the first year, Hereward and the Abbot quarrelled over the rent. The Abbot also complained to his father, who mentioned the matter to the King. Hereward had already upset many of the local people of South Lincolnshire, causing disturbances and earning himself a reputation as a trouble-maker.

Hereward the Exile:

King Edward gave the young man five days in which to leave the Kingdom or face worse penalties. Thus Hereward was already a disgraced ‘outlaw’ before the Conquest, forced into exile by his own father and king. It was said that he escaped to Northumbria, as far away from Winchester, then still Edward’s capital, as he could get. Whichever route he took, at some point he boarded a ship to Flanders and was shipwrecked on the coast of Guines, between Boulogne and Calais. In order to earn a living, he began a career as a mercenary soldier. After winning a duel with a Breton knight, he married a noble lady from St. Omer, Turfrida. At this time, an early form of Tournament was becoming popular in France and Flanders, in which groups of men, sometimes on foot and increasingly on horseback, fought each other in front of large crowds. Hereward fought at Poitiers and Bruges, winning a reputation as a tough and skilled competitor. This was how he met and fell in love with Turfrida.

Hearing that Lietberg, Bishop and Count of Cambrai needed soldiers, Hereward joined his army and became one of the twelve knights who formed his bodyguard. He took part in small wars in the area between lords such as Baldwin II of Hainault, a grandson of the Count of Flanders, and Arnulf the Viscount of Picquigny. Hereward was noticed by Baldwin II’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert was planning a campaign on behalf of his father, Count Baldwin V, who had decided to capture the area then called Scaldemariland, comprising the islands at the mouth of the River Scheldt. He took forty ships with an army under his personal command, with Hereward as commander of the mercenary soldiers. Hereward also had to train the younger, newly knighted men. Fierce fighting followed the attack and at the first the islanders resisted so stubbornly that Robert had to fall back and call for reinforcements.

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The islanders boasted later that they had captured their enemy’s battle standard or ‘Colours’, which was considered a great achievement. The Count’s son then launched a stronger attack against the islands because the whole area had risen up against him. He was attacked from all sides, from the islands and from the sea. The invaders on the island of Walcheren, attacking its defences, and Hereward, in what became his trademark in war, suggested setting fire to the enemy wagons. He led a force of three hundred men ahead of the main army and they killed many hundreds of men. He then took a great the high ground with a force of a thousand knights and six hundred foot-soldiers, following this by attacking the enemy in the rear, killing the rearguard. That was too much for the islanders who sued for peace, being forced to pay double what the Count had originally demanded in tribute. Hereward and his men were allowed to keep all the plunder they had seized during the fighting. He used part of his share to buy two fine horses, calling his favourite one ‘Swallow’.

Return to England:

Just as his success was being celebrated, Count Baldwin V died and was succeeded by his elder son, also called Baldwin, much to the displeasure of the younger brother, Robert the Frisian. That brought an end to Robert’s Scaldermariland campaign, and of Hereward’s role as a mercenary commander, but his successes had made him quite rich by that time. This was when he heard that England had been conquered by the Normans and, leaving his wife in the care of his two cousins, Siward the Red and Siward the Blond, he decided to return to England to find out what had become of his family. Once there, he found out that both his father, Asketil, and his grandfather Toki had been killed in the fighting, in addition to his younger brother, Toli, so he decided to join those Saxons known by the Normans as ‘Wildmen of the Woods’ who were resisting the invasion. Although the English had at first been prepared to accept William’s rule, they had become increasingly rebellious due to the behaviour of the ‘robber’ barons and their knights. There had been widespread looting and the lands of the thanes who had been killed in the three battles of 1066 had been simply handed over to the Norman barons without any compensation to their Saxon holders. Those left in charge of the kingdom when William returned to Normandy after his coronation as King did nothing to control their men.

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The rebels had taken refuge in woods, marshes and river valleys and Hereward, who had been born in South Lincolnshire, now returned to the area he knew best, the Fens. He first visited his uncle, Brand the Monk, who had succeeded Leofric as Abbot of Peterborough. The Abbot had returned ‘sick at heart’ from the Battle of Hastings and died of his wounds. Brand had angered King William by paying homage to the boy Prince of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling (the Saxon heir latterly recognised by Edward the Confessor), who was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot following Harold’s death and before William reached London and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. William made him pay a fine of forty marks for this, a huge sum of money in those days, perhaps equivalent to a thousand pounds in today’s money. Hereward had held some of his lands as protector of Peterborough and now renewed his promise to protect the Abbey. But he also found that all his lands, together with those of his father and grandfather, stretching across more than seven shires, had been expropriated. His own lands had been given to a Breton knight called Ogier and several great Norman lords had shared out his family lands, including Bishop Remigius of Dorchester, who had moved his ‘seat’ to Lincoln, where he was building a new Cathedral on land that had once belonged to Hereward’s grandfather, Toki. Others who had helped themselves to his family’s land included Ivo Taillebois, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey and a Flanders knight, brother-in-law of de Warenne, Frederick Oosterzele-Scheldewineke, whom Hereward waylaid and killed in Flanders, signalling a start to his rebellion.

The Norman land-grab – Domesday evidence:

The rebellion in East Anglia and Northumbria took place against the backcloth of the Norman land-grab as evidenced in the Domesday Survey of 1086. In Suffolk, Coppinger’s 1905 book chronicling the manorial records helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, including those that belonged to Hereward’s kinsmen before the Conquest. We find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall in the west of the county had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith, the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, the father of Edith. Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded Malet’s faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was, in fact, the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert later became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

William de Goulafriere, who had also accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy, also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings. The nearby large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, a Saxon freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William de Goulafriere, as sub-tenant to Robert Malet. There were one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for forty hogs, of which there were twenty, together with six ‘beasts’ (oxen), forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles. William de Goulafriere also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six by Domesday. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings. Winston, an outlying manor of Debenham appears, like the other, larger neighbouring Malet estates, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne.

Like Stigand, Abbot Thurstan was a Saxon, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him to establish his hideout in the Fens. From this base, Hereward began harassing the Normans, killing and robbing them, so that King William himself was forced to offer him a truce after the outlaw thane had almost captured and killed another of his tenants-in-chief, William de Warenne. Hereward then decided to return to Flanders for Turfrida, to bring her back to England with him and also to recruit some of the mercenaries who had fought with him in Scaldemariland. While there he received messages from Abbot Thurstan telling him that his uncle, Brand, was dead and that the sons of Swein Esthrison, King of Denmark, had arrived in the Fens with a raiding army and might be persuaded to support a rising against the Normans. He was also told that King William had appointed a ‘strict French Abbot’ as Abbot of Peterborough, Thurold of Malmesbury, who was on his way to the abbey with an army of Normans from Stamford in Lincolnshire. William was said to have chosen him for his warlike disposition with the clear intention of setting him on Hereward.

Hereward’s ‘Attack’ on Peterborough:

Hereward quickly mustered his men and returned to England, arranging a meeting with the Danes at which he talked them into helping him to upset the Conqueror’s plan by seizing all the treasures of Peterborough to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Normans. Assembling his combined forces of English, Danish and former mercenaries, Hereward advanced to take control of Peterborough, crossing the Fens in large, flat-bottomed boats, using the Wellstream near Outwell, and seeking to gain entry by way of the Bolhythe Gate south of the Abbey. At first, they were resisted by the townsfolk and the monks, who had heard that Hereward and his band of outlaws, including Danes, intended to rob the monastery of its treasures, rather than saving them from the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at Peterborough, records how…

… in the morning all the outlaws came with many boats and attacked the monastery. The monks fought to keep them out.

They therefore failed to gain entry, but when his men set fire to the gate and the buildings outside the walls, he and his men, including the Danes, were able to break in. Once inside, they set about collecting everything movable of value they could lay their hands on. They tried to remove the Great Crucifix, laden with gold and precious stones, hanging at the entrance to the High Altar, but they could only take the crown from the head of Christ’s figure. Elsewhere they were more successful, taking eleven decorated boxes containing the relics of saints, encrusted with gold, silver and precious stones, twelve jewelled crosses and many other objects of gold and silver, books with jewelled covers, and the huge altar hanging, also embroidered in precious metals and jewels. They stripped the abbey of most of its precious possessions, including an ancient ‘relic’, the arm of St Oswald. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the outlaws then burnt down the monastery:

Then the rebels set fire to it, and burnt down all the monks’ houses except one, and the whole town… they took so much gold and so many treasures – money, clothes and books – that no one could add them up. They said they did it out of support for the monastery.

They left the area around the monastery, devastated by fire, on hearing that Abbot Thurold and his men were on their way from Stamford. Several senior monks went with them, and none were harmed. Despite the fire, no serious damage was done, and Thurold was able to resume church services within a week of his arrival. However, the Danes held on to the greater portion of the ‘booty’ and refused to assist in further resistance to the Normans. King Swein ordered them to return to Denmark, leaving Hereward and his men to face King William’s wrath. On the journey home, however, they ran into a storm which wrecked most of their ships with the loss of both men and treasure. Hereward and his men returned to their refuge at Ely and held out for several months against all the efforts of the Norman barons, aided by Abbot Thurold, to dislodge them. Hereward’s forces continued to harry the Normans at every opportunity, eve, on one occasion, surrounding Thurold and a company of men, only releasing them on payment of hundreds of pounds ransom, equivalent to thousands in today’s money.

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Ely – Iconic Isle & Impregnable English Stronghold:

At Ely, Hereward became a magnet for rebel Englishmen and Danes, since he himself was of Danish descent. Following his initial disappointment with the Danes who helped him to ‘sack’ Peterborough, he made all those who joined him swear on the tomb of Etheldreda (see the picture below from the Cathedral nave) that they would stick together against the Normans. The Abbey, sixteen miles north of Cambridge, had been founded as a monastery in 673 by St Etheldreda. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, part of it was still standing in King Edward’s reign, though the present building was begun in 1083, after the events described here. Many of Hereward’s supporters who gathered there were his relatives from Lincolnshire, but he was also joined by another Dane, called Thorkell of Harringworth, who had lost his lands in Northamptonshire. Others included the rich landowner Siward of Maldon in Essex, Rahere ‘the Heron’ from Wroxham on the Bure in the Norfolk Broads, Brother Siward of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Reginald, Hereward’s standard-bearer. They carried out a series of raids against the Normans, pillaging far and wide and sometimes suffering heavy losses themselves. They reassured many people that all was not yet lost. For a time, William did nothing, leaving the task of dealing with Hereward to the local barons such as William de Warenne from Castle Acre, William Malet from Eye in Suffolk and Richard fitzGilbert from Clare. But following the rising in the North in 1069 in support of Edgar Aetheling, the last Saxon heir to the thrones of Wessex and England, the Conqueror changed his mind.

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Many of the commoners followed their thanes, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Two of the last surviving Saxon Earls from King Edward’s time, the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, soon lost all faith in the new Norman king. They feared that as part of his revenge for the rising, which caused William to burn and destroy large tracts of Yorkshire and Durham, they too would be imprisoned. They escaped from their ‘house arrest’ at the King’s court and hid out for six months in the woods and fields, evading recapture. Hoping to find a ship to flee to Flanders, they arrived at Ely, accompanied by other Saxon nobles and their household troops. These included Bishop Athelwine of Durham and two of Edwin and Morcar’s relatives, Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry. They all met up in the Fens near Wisbech and persuaded Hereward to allow them to spend the winter at Ely. They had returned south after the rising when Prince Eadgar and Maerleswein, the English sheriff of Lincolnshire and their supporters, had sought refuge with King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, who had married Eadgar’s sister, Margaret of Wessex, following the family’s flight from the Norman court and their shipwreck at the mouth of the Forth.

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So the remnant of the rebellion against William was now gathered in one place and William could not resist the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But it was not going to be easy to deal with them since Ely was an island surrounded by the Fens and almost impregnable. The rivers and the deep, almost bottomless meres combined with the marshes surrounding the Isle made it a tremendous obstacle to any army, especially one like the Norman army, whose strength was in its heavy cavalry. Any attempt at the waterborne assault could be easily repelled. The available ways onto the Isle from Earith, Soham or Downham were well known, difficult and easily defended. The rebel defenders had built ramparts of peat surmounted by strong fences from which javelins and other missiles could be launched. King William also realised that a large fighting force within these defences, well stocked with food and water, could hold out almost indefinitely and, commanded by Hereward, a soldier of proven ability, a headlong ground attack was unlikely to succeed without heavy losses.

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William’s Attempts to Lay Siege to the Isle:

Hence, the King decided to mobilise both ground and naval forces on a large scale. The chronicles of the time record how he set his ships to blockade the Isle from the ‘seaward’ or northern side and set a siege on the landward side. The various accounts of the attack are confused, but what took place is clear enough. King William gathered his élite troops and commanders together at the castle in Cambridge and planned an assault which meant crossing the fen at its narrowest point by strengthening the existing causeway. This was a very old track called the Mare’s Way, running from Willingham to an Iron Age earthwork called Belsar’s Hill. There he quickly set up camp, building a palisade along the rampart of the old fort. He then forced all the local people to provide him with materials with which he continued to reinforce the causeway, building a bridge which would enable his army to cross the Old West River onto the Isle.

William also set up an advance post at ‘Devil’s Dyke’, near Reach, and some of his men attempted to cross the West River below where it was joined by the River Cam. In the meantime, Hereward carried out scouting forays, building up stocks of food and weapons, killing or wounding any parties of Normans found away from their base. He fortified the weak spots on the dykes with walls of peat and easily repulsed the Normans, counter-attacking at Reach. He led a small raiding party of seven men against the outpost and killed all the guards there, except for one Richard, son of Osbert, who was the last man standing, while none of the seven attackers was killed. Richard later reported on the action to the King’s War Council, and of how Hereward had gone on to burn down the nearby village of Burwell before retreating as reinforcements were brought up. William moved his troops to a point on the West River not far from the modern hamlet of Aldreth, some way to the east, where the fen was narrower than elsewhere. There he set about building a floating structure loosely described as a bridge supported by sheepskins filled with air, which may have been sabotaged by its local peasant builders. There was a suggestion that the bags were partly filled with sand so that they would gradually sink.

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As soon as it appeared to be ready, and before the defenders could react, a large number of knights and men-at-arms rushed onto the bridge, eager to be the first on the Isle with its promise of rich plunder. The whole construction was so unstable that it collapsed, throwing all the men on it into the river and the surrounding swamp so that they all, save one, drowned. Some hundreds, at least, perished, and William retreated in despair to the former royal manor of Brampton, near Huntingdon, while Hereward, entertaining the sole survivor of the disaster, Deda the knight. He was well looked after and invited to dine in the refectory of Ely monastery, along with Abbot Thurstan, his monks and the various noblemen supporting Hereward. They feasted at great wooden trestle tables in the hall with their arms and armour stacked against the walls, ready for use in action. Their shields hung on the walls behind their seats, marking their places. Deda was therefore allowed to believe that the defenders were well supplied with food from the abbey lands, including its famous eels, as well as fresh water from its wells, and wine from its vineyards. He was then set free so that he could report all this to King William. Deda did exactly that at a meeting of the King’s council, in which he told William all about the Isle of Ely:

Around it are great meres and fens, like a strong wall. In this isle there are many tame cattle, and huge numbers of wild animals; stags, roes, foats and hares… But what am I to say of the kinds of fishes and fowls, both those that fly and those that swim? … I have seen a hundred – no, even three hundred – taken at once – sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.

Deda’s information almost persuaded William to give up his attack on Ely. But Ivo Taillebois, in a dramatic speech, persuaded the king that he would never live down such an ignominious retreat. This argument won the day, and work began on a new portable bridge guarded by two tall wooden siege towers. These were mounted on huge platforms on wheels and could be used to fire missiles at the opposite bank of the river to drive back the defenders. Hereward, however, had had Deda followed, enabling him to locate the king’s camp at Brampton. Hereward hid his horse Swallow nearby, disguised himself as a seller of pots and oil lamps and infiltrated the camp. He listened carefully to all that was said about the king’s plans, including one to employ a witch to curse the Islanders using a giant eel from the swamp to cast her spells. But then he was identified as the ‘notorious’ outlaw by one of the King’s men and was forced to make a dramatic escape into the marshes where he found his horse and rode back to Ely via Sutton and Witchford, leaving one Norman dead and several others wounded back at the camp.

Meanwhile, the king’s orders were being quickly carried out. He commandeered all the available boats from Cottingham and the surrounding areas so that more men and materials and men could be brought in over the flooded landscape. Great tree trunks were laid down and covered with sticks and stones to form a platform over the marsh on which the siege towers could be erected, and catapults for hurling stones were placed on the towers. But Hereward’s men had disguised themselves as labourers and mingled with the Saxon workmen. When they threw off their disguises to reveal their armour and weapons, their enemies were thrown into confusion and they were able to set fire reeds and willows of the fen as well as to the piles of wood around the siege towers, calling upon God, in English, to come to their aid. The whole structure and towers caught fire and the Normans fled in terror from the roaring flames and choking smoke. The fire spread across the fens for half a kilometre into the swamp of reeds, whipped up by the wind, with the peat below the water level also burning. The soldiers fled headlong into this in order to escape the raging flames, the noise of the crackling willows and the billowing smoke driving them mad with fear. The peat fires would have been almost impossible to extinguish, travelling underground and even underwater and erupting in explosions of steam clouds. Men trying to cross the swamp fell waist deep into burning peat. Hereward and his men, familiar with the perils of the marsh, pursued the fleeing Normans, killing many trapped by the flames, then retreating once more to the Isle.

King William Raises the Stakes:

King William, enraged by his defeat and horror-stricken with his losses, sought his immediate revenge by seizing all the lands of the abbey of Ely, distributed over a wide area, that he could lay his hands on and distributing them among his barons. News of this was carefully leaked to Abbot Thurstan and his monks, who began to have second thoughts about continuing to resist in case they lost everything. William also let it be known that Earl Morcar and other thanes would be treated leniently if they surrendered, but mercilessly if they continued their resistance. Earl Edwin decided to leave his brother and make his way to Scotland to join the Wessex resistance there. On the way, he was betrayed by three of his own men to a squadron of Norman knights. Caught in the open between a river and the sea, he was slaughtered. His betrayers took his head to King William, expecting a reward, but were themselves executed.

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Abbot Thurstan then contacted the King and offered to reveal how he could gain safe passage onto the Isle from another direction. William accepted his offer and made his way across Avering Mere by boat to a spot near the village of Little Thetford, a short distance from the town of Ely, where the river was placid and easily crossed. William took the Abbot’s advice, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His army had to take a winding march through the marshes to the mere, along a path revealed to the King by the monks. The men lost sight of each other in the eerie silence of the marsh and sometimes found themselves walking over the bodies of men and horses that had perished in the fire in the swamp. They also had to cross the many tributaries and streams running through the fens, wading through deep waters almost up to the level of their helmets and all the time harassed by attacks from the Fenlanders. King William commandeered all available flat-bottomed fenland boats, ancestors of the modern punt, to transport horses and catapults as well as materials to build yet another bridge. He had given up the idea of crossing near Aldreth because of the fires still raging in the marshes there.

The Final Norman Attack along Akeman Street:

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Eventually, William reached the area which Thurstan had described to him, near Little Thetford, bringing up the boats carrying the catapults and setting them up on the river bank. From there he began to bombard the defenders. At first, this caused the unstable ground to shake, threatening the attackers with drowning. But the Conqueror’s ‘engineers’ constructed a pontoon bridge over a number of the flat-bottomed boats lashed together and covered in willow branches, reeds and rushes. His bombardment had succeeded in softening up the Resistance and he was able to lead his men across the rapidly improvised pontoon bridge onto the Isle, driving back the remaining defenders with his horsemen. He then swept forward in a ‘pincer’ movement, one wing advancing directly towards Ely along the old Roman road, Akeman Street, while the other swept round through Witchford, where he accepted the surrender of Morcar and the nobles. However, they had left this too late and Morcar, Siward Barn and Bishop Aethelwine were imprisoned. The bishop died shortly afterwards, Morcar remained a prisoner for life and Siward Barn was only released after William’s death. He went int exile in Constantinople where he was said to have joined the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The other leaders of the Resistance were severely dealt with; some were blinded, others lost hands or feet. The ordinary rank and file were released unharmed.

Hereward had been absent from Ely during the final Norman attack, leading another raiding party with his closest allies. On returning from this, he found that Morcar and the other nobles had surrendered and the King was already at Witchford. In his rage and despair, he threatened to burn down the town but was persuaded by Alwin, son of Sheriff Ordgar, that it was too late to recover the Isle and the Abbey. He and his allies then escaped through the Fens to take refuge in the Bruneswald, the great forest along the Fen edge in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. There, for some months, he carried on his guerrilla campaign against the Norman King. Nothing very definite is known about his ultimate fate. There are two conflicting narratives, one of which was that he was captured by William’s forces of the seven shires in the Bruneswald, only for him to escape in the company of his gaoler, Robert of Harpole, who then persuaded the King to pardon him in exchange for him entering his king’s service. In that narrative, Hereward agreed and was given back some of his lands. He then lived out his life in retirement and was buried at Crowland next to his first wife, Turfrida, who had become a nun there. However, this narrative rests on two false clues. According to the Domesday Book, there was another thane named Hereward, the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, who held lands in Warwickshire in the service of the Bishop of Worcester and the Count of Mortain. Later chroniclers confused this Hereward with the Fenland outlaw. In addition, a later English rebel, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1075 for taking part in a revolt against King William, was also buried at Crowland. So some details of this narrative may be based on cases of mistaken identity.

The alternative narrative, written up in the twelfth century by the poet Geoffrey Gaimar also claims that Hereward was reconciled with William and went with him to the war in Maine where he made another fortune out of booty captured in the war. On his way home, he was ambushed by two dozen Norman knights seeking revenge against him, and died fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds, killing about half of his assailants. Here, the poet is probably giving his hero a hero’s death within the literary conventions of the time. Peter Rex has argued that the most likely ‘denouement’ is that, after seeing out the winter of 1071 in the Bruneswald, Hereward decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain in England, so that he and his close allies and men slipped away by sea to the Continent. Once there, he probably became a mercenary once more, and either died in battle or lived to return to England in the reign of William Rufus, perhaps living quietly in Norfolk into old age and being buried in Crowland. The evidence for this comes from two East Anglian families, at Terrington near Kings Lynn and Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, who both claim descent from him.

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The Primary Sources – The Abbey, the Man & the Myth:

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers. The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard fitzGibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk, referred to above, consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriere (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with de Goulafriere, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he no doubt inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gradually, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings, but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance, and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was a mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Secondary Sources:

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Published by the Ely Society, 2012.

The cover picture was supplied by Grantanbrycg, the Cambridge branch of

Regia Angolorum, http://www.regia.org

 

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

Posted June 3, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Calais, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Compromise, Conquest, Dark Ages, East Anglia, Education, English Language, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Flanders, Footpaths, France, guerilla warfare, History, Integration, Linguistics, Medieval, Memorial, Mercia, Midlands, Monarchy, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Norfolk, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Reconciliation, Saxons, Scotland, Suffolk, terror, tyranny, West Midlands

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

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

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

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

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

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

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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