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

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

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

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

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

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

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

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

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

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

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

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

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

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

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

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

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Tommy,

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

Fritz 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

This Week in the First World War: The Battle of Jutland, 31 May-1 June 1916   Leave a comment

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The Battle of Jutland happened exactly a hundred years ago, and was the only major naval engagement of the First World War. Both sides claimed victory, with the Imperial German Navy attempting to break through the Royal Navy’s lines in the North Sea, but despite some successes, this attempt was not decisive. British losses were greater, including the sinking of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary by German shells. After being hit, both ships exploded and sank quickly. From Indefatigable, there were only two survivors from a crew of 1,119. Vice-Admiral David Beatty, after hearing this news, remarked:

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.

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From  A Sketch-map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935 (London: Harrap, 1938).

In 1914, the German navy was more powerful than the combined French and Russian fleets, but the entry of Great Britain into the war had given the Allies a greater preponderance of sea-power.

Instant Readiness…

…has always been an essential part of the Royal Naval tradition, and at the beginning of August 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. By a fortunate chance the British navy was assembled at Portland for a practice mobilization in July 1914. When war became imminent it was ordered not to disperse and was therefore prepared to exercise its superiority as soon as hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, behind their impregnable coastal defences where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that German overseas trade had to be abandoned immediately, but is also resulted in the Grand Fleet itself very much being anchored to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:

Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…

(Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)

A virtual blockade of the North Sea was instituted and all ships were stopped by search-parties from British warships. Germany had to rely on foreign supplies reaching her circuitously via neutral countries. By contrast, Allied shipping was hardly interrupted. There were a few German warships on the high seas when war broke out, and these attacked the principal trade-routes. The damage they did, however, was relatively slight, and the German raiders were practically all destroyed by 8 December 1914. After that the Allies were free to transport men and munitions to every theatre of war and to draw freely upon foreign food-supplies. Moreover, this freedom of movement was denied to the Central Powers, which was ultimately why, suffering such shortages of vital raw materials and food, they were unable to continue the war in 1918.

The situation on the seas was so favourable to the Allies that Admiral Jellicoe adopted a policy of extreme caution, refusing to risk losing these advantages even for a probable naval victory. Any defeat of the British navy would have reversed the tables, for Britain could be starved out within a few weeks by a blockade. Jellicoe therefore abandoned the Nelsonian tradition of seeking out the enemy and forcing him to give battle.  Admiral Beatty won a small victory in the Heligoland Bight, which confirmed the Germans in their decision to remain on the defensive. Three British cruisers were sunk by the submarine U9 off the Dutch coast, the first indication of the future role that these craft were later to play in the two world wars. Scarborough, Hartlepool and Yarmouth were bombarded by German cruisers, but a repeat attempt at this was thwarted by Beatty in the Battle of Dogger Bank early in 1915 and the Germans abandoned coastal raids thereafter, and with them discarded any thought of landing any troops on British shores.  At the beginning of 1916, Jellicoe was quite firm in his rejection of any attempt to draw the German Imperial Fleet into battle on the open seas:

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Jellicoe knew that Churchill was correct in his assessment that he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon. He would have liked to have fought another Trafalgar, but was well aware of the recent advances in mines, torpedoes and submarines, to which even the most modern Dreadnoughts were vulnerable. The German Admiral Scheer, on the other hand, was determined to hazard a fleet-engagement, since the pressure of the sea blockade made it necessary to take some risks. He planned to destroy Beatty’s cruiser-squadron by engaging it with the whole of the German High Seas Fleet. The battle which resulted took place off Jutland, the northern part of Denmark (see maps above and below). The course of the engagement was very confused, although we do have some eye-witness accounts from officers on board surviving British ships.

It was late afternoon on 31 May, at about 3.50 p.m. that the Navigating Officer of the New Zealand reported the action as having begun, almost simultaneously, on both sides. A few minutes later, the Admiral’s Secretary came across to where the Torpedo Officer was stationed in the conning tower and drew his attention to the Indefatigable. He crossed at once to the starboard side and laid his glasses on her:

She had been hit aft, apparently by the mainmast, and a good deal of smoke was coming from her superstructure aft, but there were no flames visible. He thought it was only her boom boats burning. We were altering course to port at the time, and apparently her steering gear was damaged, as she did not follow round in our wake, but held on until she was almost about 500 yards on our starboard quarter, in full view of the conning tower.

Whilst he was still looking at her through his glasses she was hit by two shells, one on the fo’c’sle and on the fore turret. Both shells appeared to explode on impact. Then there was an interval of about thirty seconds, during which time there was absolutely no sign of fire or flame or smoke, except the little actually formed  by the burst of the two shells. At the end of the thirty seconds the ship completely blew up, commencing apparently from for’ard. The main explosion started with sheets of flame, followed immediately afterwards by a dense, dark smoke, which obscured the ship from view. All sorts of stuff was blown high into the air, a fifty-foot steam picket boat, for example, being blown up about two hundred feet, apparently intact though upside down. 

The second report comes from the Commanding Officer of HMS Ardent, one of the destroyers lost during the action:

A terrible scene of destruction and desolation was revealed to me as I walked aft (with some difficulty). All boats were in pieces. The funnels looked more like nutmeg graters. The rafts were blown to bits, and in the ship’s side and deck were holes innumerable. In the very still atmosphere, the steam and smoke poured out from holes in the deck perfectly straight up into the air. Several of my best men came up and tried to console me and all were delighted that we had  at length been in action and done our share. But many were already killed and lay around their guns and places of duty. Most of the engine-room and stokehold brigade must have been killed outright.

The Ardent gave a big lurch, and I bethought myself of my ‘Grieve’ waistcoat. Another lurch, and the ship keeled right over, and threw me to the ship’s side. I could feel she was going, so I flopped over into the sea, grabbing a lifebuoy that was providentially  at hand. The ‘Ardent’s’ stern kept up a few moments, then she slowly sank from view. As the smoke and steam cleared off I could see many heads in the water – about forty or fifty I should think. There was no support beyond life-belts, lifebuoys and floating waistcoats, so I was afraid that few of us could possibly survive, especially  as I realised that all the destroyers had gone on, and that no big ship would dare to stop, even if they saw us in the water.

I spoke to my men, and saw most of them die one by one. Not a man of them showed any fear of death, and there was not a murmur, complaint, or cry for help from a single soul. Their joy was, and they talked about it to the end, that they and the ‘Ardent’ had ‘done their bit’, as they put it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Source:  H W Fawcett & G W W Hooper, The Fighting at Jutland (1921)                                         

The significance of the battle:

  • The British fleet was prepared; the Grand Fleet was ordered to sea, and the German attempt to isolate and destroy part of it was frustrated.

  • British caution and the fear of submarine ambush permitted the German fleet to make good its escape when it might have been cut off and destroyed.

  • German tactics, ship-construction and gunnery proved in many ways superior to those of the British, who suffered more serious losses.

  • The German fleet was once more driven off the seas.

  • Most important of all, the battle gave the Germans no alternative but to renew and intensify their submarine campaign. This had momentous results in 1917.

Altogether 250 ships were involved in the battle, 25 of which were destroyed, fourteen British and eleven German. The RN suffered 6,094 fatalities, with 510 wounded. The Imperial Fleet suffered 2,551 fatalities, with 507 wounded. In addition to the ships already mentioned, a third battlecruiser, Invincible was also lost to the British, as well as three armoured cruisers (Black Prince, Defence and Warrior), and eight destroyers. The Germans lost one battlecruiser, Lützow, a battleship, Pommern, four light cruisers and five heavy torpedo boats.

RIP.

Despite their losses,  the Royal Navy was able to continue its operations, and the German High Seas Fleet mostly remained in port for the rest of the war. Admiral Jellicoe was, somewhat unfairly, heavily criticised if not scapegoated for the British losses, but the overall result was that the German Fleet was kept ‘at bay’ for the rest of the war, as this captioned map shows:

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Above: Map from The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, Harmondsworth: 2001

 

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