"They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward his House"

                                                                                                                                         Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

                                                                                                              Westminster Abbey

 

                                                                                        OVERVIEW - WW1

 

On 4th August 1914, Great Britain and its Empire entered World War One.  It remained at war with Germany and her allies for 1561 days - until the Armistice was declared on 11th November 1918.

 

At the outset of the war the British Army numbered around five hundred thousand personnel - half of whom were spread around the Globe policing an empire on which the sun was yet to set.  Kaiser Wilhelm, with an army approximately ten times larger, is reputed to have dismissed the British Army as "contemptibly small".  

 

For the British Army, the bulk of the fighting and dying occurred on the Western Front - a relatively small area in Belgium and Northern France.  The death of Riverhead's own Albert Valentine Palmer (in Palestine) does, however, remind us that the conflict was more widely spread.

 

WW1 on the Western Front is thought of, almost exclusively, as a war fought in trenches.  For the years 1915 to 1917 this was certainly the case.  The stalemate of the trenches was, however, bracketed by two periods of more mobile warfare which took place in the Autumn of 1914 and Spring to Autumn of 1918.  These were vital periods of WW1 that are often forgotten.  The table below reveals that over nearly 40% of those appearing on the memorial died in the 11 months of WW1 that could be classified as not being periods of classic trench warfare (Aug to Nov 1914 and Apr to Nov 1918) and nearly 30% of the soldiers on the memorial died in the 7 months of 1918 leading up to the Armistice.

 

Popular belief also reigns to the effect that WW1 was fought under the orders of commanders who were  willing to send their men to the slaughter without care or concern and/or as the result of their incompetence.  Lord Melchet of Blackadder fame is an example of the popular view.  While it is undoubtedly true that mistakes were made and incompetence was present in some of the leaders, this  general characterisation is both inaccurate and grossly unfair.  Some understanding of the immense difficulties they faced, fighting a war the likes of which had never been encountered, is necessary to put their actions, failures and achievements into context.  It should also be recognised that many people in influential positions had sons or other relatives in the army.  Wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son and future Prime Minister Bonar Law lost two.  Anthony Eden lost two brothers and another was very badly wounded.  Officers were almost one and and a half times more likely to die than "Other Ranks".  As usual balance is required and the truth lies somewhere in between.  It is to be borne in mind that, ultimately, they won.

 

In August 1914 Germany attempted to execute a modified version of the Schlieffen plan - designed to quickly knock France out of the war thereby enabling Germany to turn its attention to Russia.  This would avoid Germany having to fight a prolonged war on two fronts.

 

As can be seen in this site, although it came close to success in Autumn 1914, the German Army failed in its plan to achieve a quick victory in the West.   As a consequence, in late 1914, the German Army decided to adopt a mainly (but not completely) defensive strategy in the West and to turn its offense to Russia in the East.  With Russia beaten the plan would be to return to a full offensive in the West (as indeed happened in 1918) to complete the task.  As a result, in late 1914 it withdrew - ceding some of the territorial gains it had made in the initial attack.  This allowed it to choose ground suited to defence - high ground wherever possible.  It then prepared an elaborate defensive system, digging in deep and on a semi-permanent basis.  Lines of trenches were constructed one behind the other.  The defences included overlapping/interlocking machine gun positions supported by artillery fire that could be accurately brought to bear on troops advancing across open ground below.  In front of these obstacles were coils of thick barbed wire.  Trenches were, where possible, eight feet deep with a firing step on one side to enable the defending soldiers to fire over the top at the attacking soldiers.  In the event that the attacking force overcame these barriers, and a trench was successfully captured, the firing step would quickly have to be reversed by the occupying force to face the opposite way before the inevitable counter-attack was launched.  This meant carrying equipment.   It was a formidable barrier.  By November 1914 it stretched from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland and it was manned by regular German troops or experienced conscripts. 

 

 

                                                  "Ramparts more than 350 miles long, ceaselessly guarded by millions of men,

                                                   sustained by thousands of cannon..."                                                                                                                                                                           Winston Spencer Churchill

 

 

From the end of 1914 to the end of March 1918 the task, therefore, was this: to advance uphill across open, cratered, often sodden ground burdened with heavy equipment in clear sight of a well armed, highly trained and heavily dug in enemy.  The tank was under development and saw increasing action from 1915 but it was not yet available in sufficient numbers or with the necessary reliability to confine trench warfare to the history books.    Heavy casualties were inevitable.  From the British perspective, Neuve Chapelle (1915), the Somme (1916) and Passchendale (1917) are some of the best known examples of this war of attrition - the war of "wearing down" that ensued and continued throughout these years.  The first day of the Somme (1 July 1916) saw the British Army suffer its largest loss of life in a single day (including amongst the dead Riverhead's own Edouard Herbert Allan Goss - killed on the opening day of the battle - see his page for a description of how he died).

 

The Somme offensive of 1916 lasted from 1st July through to mid November of 1916.  The British Army suffered appalling casualties during the succession of battles that made up this offensive.  So, however, did the German Army.  The Germans had spent the early part of 1916 attempting to bleed the French Army white at Verdun.  The Somme offensive was, in part, designed to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.  In this particular objective it was successful.  The Somme had been chosen for this purpose by the French - being the point at which the British and French Armies joined.   This enabled the French to be involved in the offensive.  General Haig would not have chosen this ground to fight (he would have preferred Flanders where a number of advantages were available).  However, at this point in the war the British Army was the junior partner and had to comply with French demands.  Hence the Somme offensive went ahead.

 

The Somme campaign assisted in causing the German offensive at Verdun to fail.  Furthermore, the German Army  lost enormous numbers of men in the Somme and at Verdun.  Their losses were so heavy in the Somme offensive that they changed the method of announcing them to the German public.  One German infantryman wrote home in the following terms:

 

                                     "We have dreadful losses again.  I shall not get leave I suppose until we have

                                       left the Somme, but with our losses what they are, this cannot be long or there

                                       will not be a single man left in the regiment."

 

Captain von Hentig of the German Guards Reserve Division echoed the sentiment:

                 

                                      "The Somme was the muddy graveyard of the German Field Army

                     

By Autumn of 1916 the Germans were having to make plans to retreat from the Somme - so that they could shorten and strengthen their defensive line on the Hindenburg Line (known to the Germans as the Siegfried Line).  Over the winter of 1916/1917 the Germans successfully withdrew to the Hindenburg Line.  As it retreated it pursued a policy of "scorched earth" - razing or destroying anything that might be of use to the British and French Armies as they moved forward.  Wells were poisoned and booby traps laid.  The conditions in which the local populations were left were such that it damaged Germany's reputation in neutral countries.  More importantly, the scorched earth policy was to come back to bite the German Army when, in 1918, it launched its Spring offensive - which required it to advance and to create supply lines across not only the cratered ground of the Somme battlefield but also the territory it had "scorched".

 

In 1917 mutiny in the French Army became widespread and the French Army came close to collapse.  On 8th June 1917 General Wilson warned the War Cabinet that

 

                                                         "the French would not stick it much longer."

 

The British had now ceased to be the junior partner in the alliance with the French: the World's two economic superpowers of the age, Great Britain and Germany, were now head to head.  In the event the French Army was kept in the war - partly by General Petain's promises of longer leave and an end to large scale offensives until the United States was fully in the battle but also by the relief that resulted from the British Army's fresh offensive at Ypres (Passchendale) which commenced in June 1917. 

 

Throughout the Summer and Autumn of 1917 the British Army fought the Third battle of Ypres (Passchendale).  During this battle mines were exploded, under German lines, so powerful that the shock waves were felt in Downing Street.  Men from both sides drowned in the all pervasive mud.  The human cost of this battle was staggering: losses are difficult to be precise about but Allied casualties were in excess of 300,000 and German losses likely similar.   The territorial gain was very limited.  However, by this stage of the war, the German Army could ill afford the casualties.  The German Official History of WW1 records as follows:

 

                             "The offensive had protected the French against fresh German attacks, and thereby

                               procured them time to reconsolidate their badly shattered troops.  It compelled O.H.L

                               [German Supreme Command] to exercise the strongest control over and limit the

                               engagement of forces in other theatres of war....but above all, the battle had led to an excessive

                               expenditure of German forces.  The casualties were so great that they could no longer be

                               covered, and the already reduced battle strength of the battalions sank even lower."

 

Passchendale came to a close in late 1917.  At the same time Russia, gripped by revolution, effectively withdrew from the War.  The United States had declared war on Germany in April 1917 but its troops were to see little meaningful action until the Spring of 1918.  These "doughboys" (as the US troops were sometimes known) would eventually fight with great bravery and suffer heavy casualties.  In mid to late 1918 the effect of their presence on morale (positvely for the allies and negatively for the Germans) would be incalculable.  They were, however, raw recruits and although their numbers would build rapidly in the middle of 1918, they were not numerous enough to be an overwhelming force.  Germany now required a swift and decisive end to the war and one obstacle stood in its path. The overall commander of the German forces knew what it was:

 

                                                                             "We must beat the British"

                                                                                      General E Ludendorff, November 1917 

 

As a consequence plans were made by the German Army to launch large scale offensives in the Spring of 1918 - directed principally against the British Army initially with a view to separating it from its supply lines at the Channel ports and subsequently from the French Army.  Once that was achieved, the British Army would be turned and crushed against the coast.  Had these offensives succeeded the outcome of the war would have been a German victory.   The 20th Century would have had a very different shape with one conquering power dominating central Europe.

 

However, the British Army was no longer "contemptibly small".  In the four years since war had been declared, Great Britain had raised, trained and equipped 9 million military personnel.  These were drawn not just from the home nations but from an Empire of 1.3 billion people stretched around the entire Globe.  With Russia neutralised, the Germans rushed hundreds of thousands of battle hardened troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. Then, in March 1918, it launched what it hoped would be the final and decisive offensive - beginning with operation Michael in late March 1918. 

 

The German Army made swift gains in late March and April 1918.  The fittest and strongest troops were drawn from each of the German units.  These "Sturmtruppen" ("stormtroopers" or "thrust troops") were armed with light machine guns and flamethrowers and made rapid advances - breaking through trench lines that had existed for the previous three years and establishing a bridgehead over the Marne.  Resistance was, however, stiff and the offensive hugely costly to the German Army; by the end of July it had suffered over a million casualties in the space of four months - with these elite "stormtroopers" making up a substantial proportion of its losses.  Within a few months, along with the cream of its fighting forces, it had lost much of the territorial advantage it had gained in the initial attack.  Eventually it stopped to adopt a defensive position until, if possible, it was able to resume the assault.

 

The reality is, however, that it had run out of steam; the result of the attrition that it had suffered fighting against the Russians, the French (most notably at Verdun where, in one sector, a thousand shells had fallen on every single square yard of ground) and the British at the Somme and at Passchendale and the other battles that had taken place in 1915, 1916 and 1917.   These battles had sapped the German Army of men, machines and other resources that it simply could not adequately replace.  It is here that the vital role of these battles has to be understood.  Without them the German Army's offensive of Spring 1918 may well have been strong enough to produce a different conclusion.  Former soldier Ruaraidh Adams-Cairns puts it succinctly in his book "the Somme Battlefield" when he says (of the casualties at the Somme specifically but it is applicable to all of these attritional battles):

 

                                                      "Some suggest that this was a terrible waste.  They are mistaken. 

                                                                            This was the awful price of freedom."   

 

August 1918 saw the beginning of the fourth and final phase of the war.  On 8 August 1918 near Amiens the allies launched an attack spearheaded by Australian and Canadian troops.  The Germans were thrown back and their lines penetrated to a depth of several miles.  Although the Allied territorial gain was relatively limited Ludendorff recognised the reality - the British Army was not going to be turned against the coast and it would not be beaten.  He dubbed 8th August 1918:

 

                                                                        "Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres"

                                                                           (the black day of the German Army) 

 

Morale in the German Army began to collapse.  Over the ensuing 100 days the Allies, buoyed by the arrival of US troops at a rate of 10,000 a day, embarked on their "100 day offensive"; pushing the German Army back on to its last defensive stronghold -  the Hindenburg line.  This formidable defensive barrier was regarded as all but impregnable.  The  assault on the Hindenburg Line mounted. By the final stages British Artillery was firing two million two hundred thousand shells a week into the German line.  In the final 24 hours before the Hindenburg Line was breached British Artillery fired just a few thousand short of one million shells in 24 hours.   At the end of September 1918 the Hindenburg Line was penetrated and the German Army had to fall back.  Six weeks later, on 11 November 1918, Germany was left with no option but to agree to an armistice and the terms of peace were dictated to it.  In all but name the German Army was beaten.

 

"Contemptibly small" it may have been in 1914 but, ultimately, the British Army had stopped, repulsed and in all but name defeated one of the finest military forces ever assembled.  In addition, it had provided winning forces in other theatres of war - notably Egypt and Palestine.  The people who fought suffered privation, witnessed horror and displayed heroism of a level which defies the imagination. 

 

Almost a million soldiers of the British Army lost their lives.   Millions more returned broken in mind, body or both.   No-one and nowhere was left unaffected.

 

Through our own village memorial we can gain a small glimpse of their story.   

 

                                                                -----------------------------------------------------

 

NB: A link to Ruaraidh Adams-Cairns excellent book - "The Somme Battlefield" appears below:

© 2023 by  Memorial. Proudly created with Wix.com