Archive for the ‘U-boats’ Tag

The Conquest of Normandy & The Red Army’s Advance to Warsaw, June-July 1944.   1 comment

After D-Day – The Battle for Normandy:

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The landings of 6th June were, of course, ‘just’ the beginning of the campaign to liberate Western Europe from the occupation of the Third Reich. Having got into the fields behind the beaches, the Americans, in particular, were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage, the thick, high and wide hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler. In particular, Normandy had been lost, he claimed, because Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over two thousand kilometres, especially when considering the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of ‘matérial’, and the weakened German potential after five years of war. General Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire in order to  concentrate on fighting a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but he was prevented from doing this by Hitler and Rommel who intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast.

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Timetables were vital to the Germans, and in reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaigns and by heroic acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers. This led to horrific reprisals, the best known of which were carried out by the fifteen-thousand-strong 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, frustrated by losses and delays as it attempted to drive from Montauban in southern France to repel the invader in Normandy. The 450-mile journey lasted three weeks after they had set out on 8 June, as opposed to the few days it would have taken had they been left unharried. In retaliation for the killing of forty German soldiers in one incident, Das Reich exacted widespread reprisals in the town of Tulle in the Corréze. One woman recalled how…

I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and son hanging from the balcony of our house. They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the SS. The children and wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What is there for me to say?

Yet worse was to come the following morning, 10 June, at the small village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where Major Adolf Dickmann’s unit murdered 642 people, including 190 schoolchildren; the men were shot, the women and children were burnt alive in the church and the village was razed. The village can be visited today, left deserted and destroyed as a memorial and a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. This was featured in a special episode of ITV’s ground-breaking documentary series, The World at War in the 1970s. Yet, as Max Hastings has pointed out…

It is important to remember that if Oradour was an exceptionally dreadful occurrence during the war in the West, it was a trifling sample of what the German Army had been doing on a national scale in the East, since 1941. 

It was, however, a stark reminder, if one were needed, of exactly what the Allied troops were fighting both for and against if one were needed. It also showed the lengths and depths the Nazis were prepared to go in resisting the Allied advance. Hardly surprising then that German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days of heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which the Allies could not then use until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. Despite this fierce fighting continuing until more than a month after the initial landings, the London Evening News was not prevented from claiming its capture on the day after D-Day, perhaps an example of how ‘fake news’ was already part of war-time propaganda campaigns. Basil Liddell Hart was proved right in his description of Overlord as having gone according to the plan, but not according to the timetable.

The Coup Attempt Against Hitler:

Years after the war, Dönitz stated that it was the defeat of the German U-Boat which had enabled the success of the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July 1944. That was the point at which the German High Command knew they had no chance of winning the war. Some in that High Command, though not the ultra-loyal Dönitz, decided that they had to try to assassinate Hitler. Far from acting out of any kind of democratic conscience, the vast majority of the plotters were simply determined to remove, as they secretly saw him, an incompetent upstart corporal who had by then become the major obstacle to a negotiated peace which was the only objective alternative to accepting, sooner or later, a Soviet occupation of Germany.

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So it was that on Thursday 20 July a two-pound bomb planted by the Swabian aristocratic war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in East Prussia (now Poland), only six feet from where Hitler was studying an air-reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Despite extensive minor injuries, he survived. Churchill described the July Plotters as the bravest of the best, but in reality, they were extreme German nationalists, if not Nazis, and very far from the idealist democrats depicted by Hollywood.

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The hope of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain and America was flawed since the war was now being fought by an Anglo-Russian-American coalition so that it was unthinkable that Britain could enter into negotiations with Germany and/or its axis allies behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography:

If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.

Re-balancing the Record – The Russian Contribution:

Following the collapse of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, historians such as Laurence Rees have been able to re-balance our understanding of the final year of the Second World War. When he was taught the history of the War in the early 1970s, his teachers got around the moral and political complexities of the Soviet Union’s part in the war by the simple expedient of largely ignoring it. My teachers taught us nothing at all about the Second World War; nor even very much about the First World War. At the time, in the depths of the Cold War, that was how most people dealt with the awkward legacy of the West’s relationship with Stalin. The focus was on the heroism of the Western Allies – on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. None of this, of course, is forgotten, and neither should it be. But it is not the whole story. Before the fall of Communism, the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War was, to a large extent, denied a proper place in our culture because it was easier than facing up to a variety of unpalatable truths. The D-Day commemorations we have just been through, important as they were for both the veterans who took part and for the western leaders, reverted to a self-conscious western triumphalism, failing to involve contemporary Russian leaders and almost completely ignoring the ‘Russian’ contribution, however controversial it may remain. Neither has there (yet) been any reference to the role of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in resisting and ultimately defeating the Reich.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”The Western Allies had agreed to launch Operation Overlord, the long-awaited ‘second front’ in the spring of 1944, following the first Anglo-American Conference in Quebec in August 1943 (pictured right). But because of the slow progress of the Italian Campaign, Churchill had wanted to revisit the whole schedule in October 1943. He had on several previous occasions announced that despite agreeing with the second front in principle, in practice there was always one more operation that needed to take precedence; the Americans had at last run out of patience with him. It was a matter that Roosevelt and the American military leadership, including Eisenhower, did not want to reopen.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”Besides which, there were precious few landing craft in Europe that were not already committed for D-Day. At a meeting on 24 November in Cairo, Churchill had finally seized his opportunity to plead with Roosevelt and the American generals for more resources for the Mediterranean. But, predictably, the Americans would not countenance a delay to Overlord.

Towards the end of the meeting, Roosevelt had reminded Churchill of the relative troop numbers now committed to the overall conflict: very soon more Americans would be involved in the war than troops under British command. On 26 November, Roosevelt and Churchill left for Tehran. In the plane, Churchill had gloomily confided to his doctor, Charles Wilson, that the campaign in Italy had been put ‘in jeopardy’ by the US President’s desire to invade France on the schedule drawn up in Quebec. Wilson (later Lord Moran) had a revealing conversation just before the conference in which Roosevelt’s close advisor, Harry Hopkins, told him that…

The President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working arrangement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people. Anyway, he has come to Tehran determined… to come to terms with Stalin, and he is not going to allow anything to interfere with that purpose.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”

Above: The three Allies at the Tehran Conference.

On the Eastern Front – Operation Bagration:

As the soldiers of the Western Allies battled to establish a foothold in Normandy, the Red Army prepared to launch a massive attack on German Army Group Centre in an attempt to recapture Minsk and push the Wehrmacht back out of the Soviet Union. This operation, which had been agreed at Tehran, dwarfed D-Day in scale. The Germans had thirty divisions in the West to face the Allied onslaught following D-Day but concentrated 165 divisions against the Red Army in the East. Over two million Red Army soldiers took part in their June offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration after the Georgian military hero who had fought against Napoleon. Veniamin Fyodorov, a (then) twenty-year-old soldier with the Soviet 77th Guards infantry regiment recalled his experiences in this assault on 22 June, as he watched the initial bombardment from his own side:

For Bagration we were preparing very carefully. Whatever resources the Soviet Union had were concentrated in this direction. Big numbers of artillery, tanks and ammunition. And big numbers of infantry. … When you look ahead, you see bits of earth flying up into the air and you see explosions. As if you light a match. Flashes, flashes. One flash, another flash. And bits of land are thrown up in the air. After the bombardment, planes came, flying low. We felt more cheerful because we had a lot of military equipment. 

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For the Germans, by contrast, the Operation marked the lowest point in their military fortunes on the Eastern Front to date – lower even than Stalingrad in terms of military losses. Seventeen divisions were completely destroyed, with another fifty enduring losses of fifty per cent. And it was Hitler who was largely to blame for this defeat since he no longer trusted his generals to take the initiative on the battlefield as he had done during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He now gave direct tactical orders to the commanders of the 9th Army who faced Operation Bagration, orders which were increasingly disconnected from the realities of the modern battlefield. On the eve of Bagration, General Jordan, commander of the 9th Army, wrote these words:

… The Army believes that even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defence. … The Army considers the orders establishing “Feste Platze” (Fortified Places) particularly dangerous. The army looks ahead to the coming battle with bitterness, knowing that it is bound by order to tactical measures which it cannot in good conscience accept as correct and which in our earlier victorious campaigns were the cause of enemy defeats.

This sense that the Germans were contributing to their own defeat now pervaded even the most junior ranks. A twenty-two-year-old private with the 9th Army, Heinz Fielder, recalled the demoralising effects of these nonsensical orders received from the division or the army corps:

I remember once that one position had definitely to be taken back again, and the young second lieutenant had refused to attack again because more than half his men had already died and they were all just sacrificed. They attacked again and again until the very last one died and that of course makes you wonder. But those were the men of the General Staff. They had their little flags and they put them on the map and then they say, this absolutely has to be restored, no what the sacrifices are.

Fielder was one of the Germans ordered to defend the Feste Platz of Bobruisk in the wake of the Red Army attack. He recalled:

Everywhere dead bodies are lying. Dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming, medical orderlies, and then there were those who were completely covered, who were not taken out at all, who were buried there straight away by the bunkers and trenches that collapsed. You don’t have any feeling any more for warmth or coldness or light or darkness or thirst or hunger. You don’t need to go to the loo. I can’t explain it. It’s such a tension you’re under … Everything was simply shit. Everything was shit.

Only after the Feste Platz was completely encircled and had been subjected to continuous bombardment was Fielder’s unit, at last, told it could try to escape.

And then the last command arrived. Destroy vehicles, shoot horses, take as much hand ammunition and rations with you as you can carry. Every man for himself. Well, now go on and rescue yourself.

Fielder joined a group of other German soldiers who were trying to fight their way through the Red Army troops ahead of them and reach the retreating German line. He headed West – towards the setting sun, and saw sites which continued to haunt him sixty years later:

There was a private, a young boy, who sat at a very big birch tree … from his tummy his intestines were streaming  and he was crying, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” and everybody just ran past him. I had to stop – but I could not shoot him. And then a young lieutenant from the sappers came. He took off his headgear and gave him the ‘coup de gráce with a 7.65 into the temple. And that’s when I had to cry bitterly. I thought if his mother knew how her boy ended, and instead she gets a letter from the squadron saying, “Your son fell on the field for great Germany”.

In July 1944, the German Army on the Eastern Front lost nearly two hundred thousand men killed or wounded; in August it was nearly three hundred thousand.  In total, German losses as a result of Operation Bagration would be calculated at around 1.5 million. This was an unprecedented defeat for Hitler and his generals and was unparalleled by anything occurring in the same period on the Western Front. By comparison with the Western Allies, the Red Army had made rapid progress against the Wehrmacht, retaking Minsk, capital of Belarus, on 3 July. Fyodor Bubenchikov, a twenty-eight-year-old Red Army officer, remembered that…

… gradually the Germans were losing morale and losing their belief in victory; Germans no longer cried “Heil Hitler!” On the contrary, they were surrendering. They were crying: “Hitler kaputt!”

That summer, Bubenchikov said he felt as if he were “flying”, as did all the Red Army units engaged in the action, from the ordinary soldier to the commander. Operation Bagration, still not known as well in the West as it should be, marked the end of a transformation in the fortunes of the Red Army. The Soviets had managed to increase their manufacture of military equipment and were now out-performing the Germans. In both 1943 and 1944, they produced more tanks and self-propelled guns than their enemy. Added to the increased Soviet output, of course, were the benefits of aid from the Western Allies, the bulk of which came from the USA. Although this remained only a small percentage of the total equipment of the Red Army, it was important because of the superior technology it contributed. For example, the Studebaker US6 truck was used by the Red Army for launching of Katyusha rockets.

The Polish Dimension & Dilemma:

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But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the Red Army moved forward at speed, some of the people whose lives had been changed for the worse by this reoccupation of ‘Soviet territory’ were just beginning their new and bitter existence under an army which, for them at least, was far from being one of liberation. In the wake of the attack on German Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, the Red Army moved forward into eastern Poland and mounted the Lwów-Sandomierz assault. This powerful thrust involved over a million Soviet soldiers of the first Ukranian front under Michael Konev. In July 1944, the Red Army approached Lwów, a city they had first seized in September 1939 in agreement with the Nazis. Anna Levitska, then a teenager living in the city recalled:

In 1944, when the Red Army came for a second time, it was, of course, worse, because we already had an idea of what the consequences might be, because of all the arrests there had been in 1939 and 1940. … So of course it was terrifying.

Anna also recalled one old man coming up to her and her family in 1944 saying, this is the second time. It was better the first time. When they asked him why, he replied: Because the first time, they came and they went. But this time when they come, there is no way they will be leaving. Vyacheslav Yablonsky was part of the great Soviet assault on Lwów that summer. But he was in no sense an ordinary soldier: as a member of an élite NKVD squad, he had a very specific role. Together with two dozen other members of the secret police, and a squad of Red Army soldiers, he entered Lwów just before the Germans retreated from the city. Travelling in American Studebaker trucks they plotted a route via the back streets of the city to the Gestapo headquarters. The location was familiar to them since the German Secret police had simply replaced the NKVD in the building, which had been used previously by the Austro-Hungarian intelligence agency.

The task facing Yablonsky and his comrades was straightforward but considered vital. They had to capture the headquarters before the Germans left, and steal intelligence information that their superiors hoped would reveal just who had been collaborating with the Nazis. They arrived just as the Nazis were packing their files into trucks. The Soviet force scaled the wall surrounding the Gestapo HQ, shot the German guards and prevented the trucks from leaving. Hurrying into the building, they made straight for the cellars, where they knew the intelligence files were stored. While the remaining Germans, panic-stricken, sought to escape, the NKVD swiftly made the building secure and started examining the files they had found. They then immediately sought out anyone whom the German documents had named as an informer. Yablonsky also relied on pro-Soviet informers to tell him who had been collaborating with the Germans or was simply ‘anti-Soviet’. Once arrested for making comments against the Soviet occupation, like that of the old man above, the ‘normal’ sentence was fifteen years hard labour. Looking back over sixty years later, he commented:

Now I think it was cruel, but at that time, when I was young, … twenty-three years old, I didn’t. … Now I understand that it’s cruel because I’m older. I don’t think it was a very democratic time. Now you can say anything, but at that time you couldn’t. At that time most things were censored and nobody could say anything bad about the Soviet Union and I’m proud I was part of it and brave enough to go through the war and not let my country down.

Soldiers like Yablonsky believed they were reclaiming Lwów as a part of Soviet territory, which should never be surrendered again. It was members of the underground Polish Home Army who were some of the first to comprehend this dispiriting truth. These were the volunteer soldiers who had remained hidden under the Nazi occupation, waiting for the moment to strike back, and they played an important part in the battle for Lwów. Around three thousand soldiers led by Colonel Wladyslaw Filipowski had supported the Red Army during the fierce fighting that had lasted from 23 to 27 July. But once the battle was won the Soviets arrested the officers and forced the ordinary soldiers to join units of the Red Army. In parallel with the elimination of the underground Polish Home Army, the Soviet authorities immediately sought to re-establish the institutions of control that they had created during their first occupation. Anna Levitska remembered how…

They organised schools according to their own system. It was obligatory that every student belonged to the Young Communists. And, of course, there were no religious classes. Just those lectures on atheism. And studying the history of the Communist Party was obligatory. The fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism – those were the main subjects. We felt betrayed because we had hoped that the West would react differently. … We were even hoping that England and France (would help us), but that didn’t happen.

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On 26 July 1944, while the battle for Lwów still raged, at Perugia in Italy Lieutenant General Anders (above) was presented to King George VI. Wladyslaw Anders was the commander of the Polish II Corps in the British Army. He had successfully negotiated the release of thousands of his fellow Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union. The British monarch had flown to Italy under the pseudonym, ‘General Collingwood’ in order to congratulate Allied forces on their progress there. During dinner, he listened to the regimental band of the II Polish Army Corps and remarked that he found one song particularly attractive. He was told that the song was called, And if I ever have to be born again, then let it happen only in Lwów. But two days later, on 28 July, the Soviets transferred to Chem in Poland a collection of little-known Polish politicians from exile in the Soviet Union. They were to form a puppet government in western Poland, a territory that he had never claimed as belonging to the Soviet Union. This group of collaborators, officially called the Polish Committee of National Liberation, later known as the Lublin Poles after the city they moved to in early August 1945, had declared in a ‘manifesto’ issued in Moscow on 2 July that they were in favour of leftist policies such as nationalisation, as well as a ‘fair’ border with the Soviet Union, which actually meant the ‘Curzon Line’. As far as they, and their Soviet masters were concerned, they were now the ‘de facto’ government of ‘liberated’ Poland. Nikolai Bulganin, a leading member of the Soviet State Committee of Defence, was sent from Moscow to be Stalin’s representative to the puppet Polish government, which effectively reported to him.

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Of course, the imposition on Poland of a régime controlled by Stalin was not something that either the Western Allies or the official Polish government in exile could accept. The situation was further complicated by the presence of four hundred thousand members of the Polish underground, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) who, though disarmed by the Red Army, owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London. Also that July, the Home Army units that had helped the Soviets to capture Vilnius were disbanded, the officers arrested and the men sent off to join collaborating Polish units within the Red Army. It was against this background that the focus of all the various competing parties turned to the fate of the capital, Warsaw, which rose up against the German occupiers in the summer and early autumn of 1944, exposing to the world the tensions and conflicts within the Allied ‘camp’ which Churchill, Roosevelt and their respective propaganda machines tried so hard to hide.

As Andrew Roberts has written, the war had to be won by the Allies, of course, but it also needed to be lost, as it was, comprehensively and personally, by Hitler himself, both in the West and the East. It is doubtful, however, if the death of Hitler in the summer of 1944, would have shortened the war. Before June 1944, Germany had wreaked far more damage on the Allies than they had inflicted on Germany. If Himmler had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer. A negotiated peace would have let the German people off the hook, although it would have saved millions of lives in Europe, including those who fell victim to the Nazis ‘Final Solution’ conducted by Hitler and Eichmann right up to the very final months of the war, drawing vital troops and resources away from the front lines. Besides, to have concluded an armistice on the demonstrable fallacy that the war was begun and carried on by one man’s will, rather than through the wholehearted support and enthusiasm of the German people, would hardly have produced the most durable and profound period of peace Europe has ever known.

The Race Against the Rockets & Operation Cobra:

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Above: The Liberation of Europe, January 1944-March 1945.

On 24 July 1944, Churchill had warned his War Cabinet that Rockets may start any minute, referring to the Germans’ wonder-weapon, the supersonic V-2 missile. Its sister-weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorising southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged. After receiving an encouraging report on the Normandy campaign, Churchill also reported on his trip to Cherbourg, Arromanches and Caen during the previous three days, saying that he…

Saw great many troops – never seen such a happy army – magnificent looking army – only want good weather. Had long talks with M (Montgomery) … frightful bombing of Caen … remarkable clearing of mines in Cherbourg harbour. 

Admiral Cunningham wrote in his diary that Churchill was full of his visit to France and was more inclined to talk than to listen. But, in contrast with Hitler, the British PM was capable of listening to, and even asking for, news and advice which was unpalatable. After the Bomb Plot, Hitler became highly suspicious of the veracity of what his generals told him, suspecting that many more had actually been involved than those discovered, and than in fact had been. By 24 July, the Allies had lost 112,000 men killed, wounded or captured in France, to the Germans’ losses of 114,000, including forty-one thousand taken prisoner. The more competent and aggressive General Günther von Kluge, who had recovered from injuries sustained in Russia, took over from Rundstedt and Rommel on 17 July.

‘Overlord’ having ended, the next phase of the invasion was known as Operation Cobra and was intended to break out from the linked beach-heads and strike south and east into central France. The ‘hinge’ was to be the British Second and Canadian First Armies in the area east of Caen, which kept the main weight of the German Army occupied while bold thrusts were made cross-country by Omar Bradley’s US First Army and General Patton’s US Third Army. The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Ló and areas to the west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by Spaatz’s heavy bombers. Despite Hitler giving Kluge some of the Fifteenth Army’s divisions on 27 July, the Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month, Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us.

The Warsaw Conundrum:

Of all the myths that would grow up around the Warsaw Uprising, the most prevalent was that the Poles had been lured into insurrection by direct blandishments and promises of assistance from the Soviets. But although it’s certainly true that radio broadcasts were made at the end of July under Soviet auspices that encouraged the people of Warsaw to believe that liberation was near, it is not true that this was a direct attempt by the Soviet military to agree on a joint attack on the Polish capital with the Home Army. The appeals were much less specific. On 29 July, for instance, Radio Moscow announced that, for Warsaw…

… the hour of action has already arrived… those who have never bowed their heads to the Hitlerite power will again, as in 1939, join the struggle against the Germans, this time for a decisive action.

In addition, a broadcast from a Soviet-authorised radio station the following day announced that Soviet forces were approaching and were coming ‘to bring you freedom’. But this fell far short of a direct instruction to the Home Army to rise up in Warsaw in a coordinated way in order to link up with the advancing Red Army. So far, it was all just encouraging rhetoric. The Home Army in Warsaw, together with the Polish government in exile in London, faced a difficult political dilemma. They knew that if they did nothing, and the Red Army liberated Warsaw before they could rise up, then the Soviets would be in a far stronger position to dictate the terms of a post-war settlement. On the other hand, if the Home Army rose up long before the Soviets arrived, then they would be annihilated by the Germans. The timing of any rising was therefore crucial. Obviously, it was critically important to try to coordinate any rising with the imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the distrust between the two sides was so great that this was the one thing that the Polish government in exile did not feel able to do. On 26 July, the leader of the Poles in London, Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, authorised the Home Army in Warsaw to pronounce the Rising at a time to be determined by you. But this was an instruction which went directly against the advice of the Polish commander-in-chief in London who had argued that:

Insurrection without a fair understanding with the USSR and honest and real cooperation with the Red Army would be politically unjustified and militarily nothing more than an act of despair.

Mikolajczyk knew better than most that the Warsaw Uprising could not succeed without the practical assistance of the Allies, but he decided that it was best to approve the insurrection first and then, effectively as a ‘fait accompli’, to push for cooperation. He ought to have known beforehand that this was a strategy which was doomed to failure with Stalin. Mikolajczyk was only forty-three, though he had been active in the Polish Peasants’ Party since the 1920s. He travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin after authorising the uprising on 30 July before it had been launched. Nonetheless, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw had already ordered ‘W’ hour, the launch of the uprising, to take place (without notifying the Soviets beforehand) at 5 p.m. on 1 August. He was aware that not only were the Red Army closing on Warsaw but that on 27 July the Germans had called for a hundred thousand Polish civilians to surrender themselves to help build the capital’s defences. The Home Army was, quite naturally, suspicious of this German order and urged people not to come forward. It thus made sense to the leaders of the Polish resistance to start the uprising at this moment. It was a huge gamble, of course. In Moscow, Mikolajczyk urgently needed to obtain an agreement from Stalin that the Red Army would help the insurgents in Warsaw. Unfortunately, both for him personally and the Home Army generally, Stalin did not see it that way. Besides the fact that he did not recognise the government-in-exile, his commanders were trying to break the power of the Home Army in the sections of Poland that the Red Army had ‘liberated’ so far.

Although the Marshal realised that it would be seen as offensive by his Allies for him to refuse to meet the London Poles, he also knew that he was under no obligation to be accommodating when he did meet them. They were treated with great rudeness from the moment of their arrival, snubbed at the airport, and then told that Stalin was ‘too busy’ to see them. Meanwhile, Churchill was giving a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation in the House of Commons. He talked of having done ‘our best’ to get Stalin to receive the Polish PM, pointing out that the Russian Armies… bring the liberation of Poland in their hands while we have several gallant Polish divisions fighting the Germans in our Armies. Now, he said, Let them come together. But a necessary precondition of this togetherness, he went on to say, was the old proviso that there should be a Poland friendly to Russia. Given the gulf between the Polish government in exile, who regarded the Lublin Poles as Stalin’s stooges, and Stalin himself, who had asserted that the London Poles were Nazi collaborators, Churchill’s Commons statement was wishful thinking to say the very least. When Molotov met the London Poles on 31 July he simply asked, Why have you come? He suggested that they should meet with the Lublin Poles instead. They didn’t manage to get an audience with the Soviet leader until the evening of 3 August, by which time, of course, the rising was already in progress and lightly armed Poles were dying on the streets of Warsaw, desperately in need of help.

(to be continued… )

Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

Posted June 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, American History & Politics, Anglo-Saxons, anti-Communist, Austria-Hungary, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Cold War, Commemoration, Communism, Conquest, Conservative Party, democracy, Ethnicity, Europe, France, George VI, Germany, History, Holocaust, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Paris, Population, Remembrance, Second World War, Technology, terror, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, World War Two

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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).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did not give them willingly.

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

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Above: Women making shells

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

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

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

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

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in the winter of 1916-17.   Leave a comment

It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.

First Sea Lord John Jellicoe,  April 1917

Germany is finished.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The U-boat Menace:

Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.

In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink  U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.

Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!

In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.

Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.

Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:

The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”

President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,

… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.

The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.

Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…

Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…

This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.

Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…

… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…

Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…

The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary  tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.

The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.

Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.

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Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War

One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.

By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.

Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.

More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:

The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands. 

Sources:

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

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

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

Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.

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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