Gavin Davies, a member of the South Wales Branch, originally wrote this series of articles for The Glamorgan GEM, a local paper circulating in Barry, Llantwit Major, Cowbridge, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Gavin also gives talks about First World War and the American Civil War in South Wales in aid of the maintenance fund for the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz Wood and can be contacted on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

January 1915

 

In the North Sea a game of cat and mouse was in progress. The Germans were bombarding ports on the east coast in an attempt to draw part of the British fleet into an ambush while the British, who could read the German naval signals and knew when a raid was planned, were, in turn, trying to ambush the Germans. In January the German battle-cruisers came out on another raid; this time the British intercepted them and, as the Germans turned back, a running battle developed near the Dogger Bank. Admiral Beatty and the British battle-cruisers were able to sink the Blucher, an old heavy cruiser, but confused signalling and poor gunnery - only 73 of 958 shells fired actually hit - allowed the Germans to escape without more serious losses.

It was very clear that the war was not going to be over by Christmas. France had lost 300,000 dead and over 600,000 wounded in the first five months of the war. The British regular army had been almost destroyed in the fighting around Ypres. On the Western Front there were no major attacks, both sides improved their trenches and tried to survive the winter weather. Cpl Letyford of the Royal Engineers wrote of making culverts to drain trenches where the water was knee high and building dams to prevent the water running down from the German trenches and flooding ours; "We are all covered in mud from head to foot. ... Wading about in water to our waists until 2.00 am" is one diary entry. It was equally grim for the Germans. Hitler, serving in Flanders, wrote to a friend, "The weather is miserable and we often spend days knee-deep in water and, what is more, under heavy fire", while Erwin Rommel led his platoon forward to capture four French blockhouses in the Argonne sector.

The trench lines now ran for about 450 miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier. However the two sides had very different attitudes towards trench warfare. For the Allies trenches provided protection before the attacks which would finally drive the Germans completely out of France and Belgium. For the Germans trenches were semi-permanent fortifications which allowed them to hold the ground they had captured and intended to keep with as few troops as possible. Any men who released from the front line could be used as reserves or moved to the Eastern Front.

Typically the front line consisted of three individual trench lines about 200 yds apart protected by belts of barbed wire up to 20 or 30 yds deep and with positions for machine guns. Villages would be converted in fortresses by trenches and fortifications in the cellars of the houses. In due course a second defensive line, similar to the first, would be dug three or four miles back, hopefully out of range of the Allied artillery so that an single attack could not break right through the defences.

Britain suffered its first air raid from Zeppelins which caused about 20 civilian casualties and two ships were sunk by a U-boat without warning. The men who had answered Lord Kitchener's call for volunteers were being trained even though many of them had not received their uniforms much less rifles and other equipment. In camp in Hindhead Rifleman Britland wrote about the food - sardines and half a pound of bread for breakfast, stewed or roast meat and vegetables for lunch and half a pound of bread for tea. He said they were well fed; not all would agree.

In the Middle-East a Turkish army about 25,000 strong moved out from Beersheeba in Palestine to attack the Suez Canal which they would actually reach early in February.

On the Eastern Front the Germans started a diversionary attack towards Warsaw using poison gas for the first time to support the opening artillery barrage. Cold weather and adverse winds meant that the gas was ineffective and its use went unnoticed by the Allies. The attack gained ground initially but this was lost to Russian counterattacks. Casualties amounted to about 40,000 Russians and 20,000 Germans.

February 1915

 

'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Well, not quite. The British front in Flanders was quiet. Of course this only means there were no major attacks. German shelling and sniping caused regular casualties; 'wastage' in the jargon of the day. British guns replied but with shells rationed, sometimes to less than ten rounds a day, could only make a limited response. As Lt Tennant of 1/4th Seaforth Highlanders wrote "though we have now been within the sound of the guns for nearly two months we have seen nothing of actual fighting except digging a trench before Christmas."

Some Territorials had been luckier. The London Brigade had been sent to garrison Malta so that the regulars could go to France. However although their actual duties were light, not much more than looking out for German submarines, they were working hard. Everyone drilled while the specialists, signallers, machine gunners etc, attended additional lectures and training. The officers were busier than the men. They had to supervise the training and then to be trained themselves at lectures before breakfast and in the evenings. Of course it couldn't last. At the end of 1914 the Brigade left Malta for France and after a cold journey through France in unheated wagons had settled in near St Omer by the end of February.

In Champagne it was different. Although the Germans had not defeated the French in 1914 they had captured a large area of north-eastern France including a large part of its coal and iron. The French aimed to throw them out as quickly as possible. In late 1914 they had attacked the southern face of the German salient which jutted out towards Arras and Amiens and fighting was still continuing although it was not achieving much except to increase casualties on both sides.

In Egypt it was very different. The Turks advancing from Beersheba had now reached the Suez Canal itself. The British garrison was substantial and included Indian troops and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). A Turkish attempt to cross the canal was stopped easily by the Indians. For the moment the Egypt was quiet too.

On the Eastern Front the fighting had never died down to the same extent as in the West. In East Prussia the Germans under Hindenburg start an offensive around the Masurian Lakes. A blizzard slows them down but they gain ground and if it had not been for heroic resistance by the XX Corps would have surrounded a large part of the Russian forces. Even so the Germans advance about 70 miles capturing 90,000 prisoners although some of the land gained is lost to Russian counterattacks at the end of the month. On the southern sector of the front the Austro-Hungarian army attacks towards Lemberg but only makes very limited gains, in part due to bad weather.

In Turkey the government starts a campaign against the Armenian people who, it thinks, are likely to be pro-Russian. The campaign quickly develops the characteristics of genocide. In Germany Kaiser settles priorities for air attacks on Britain and the German government approves unrestricted submarine warfare and announces a blockade of Britain. From 18 February ships, including neutral vessels, may be sunk without warning. The war is getting more and more serious.

The British government had been considering an attack on Constantinople for some weeks. Winston Churchill had suggested opening a way to Russia and the Grand Duke Nicholas had asked for a demonstration to take Turkish pressure off its army in the Caucasus. The final decision was to try to force the Dardanelles with obsolete battleships. The attack involved the ships knocking out the Turkish forts and then for trawlers to sweep the Turkish mines. The guns in the outer forts were disposed of fairly quickly by the bombardment and by landings of marines when the Turks withdrew. It was harder to hit the forts covering the straits themselves but the bombardment continued in a rather desultory manner while the trawlers started to sweep the first minefield. By the end of the month there had not been a great deal of progress; the battle would continue in March.

The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association meets on the first Friday of the month in Cardiff at the Conservative Club in Fairwater. New members are most welcome.

March 1915

 

In earlier wars the troops had gone into winter quarters and fighting had stopped. Not in the First World War when the armies of all nations endured winter in the trenches. However on the Western Front fighting had died down; now with spring approaching it was time to get the war going again.

Understandably the French wanted the Germans evicted from northeast France as quickly as possible and some of their generals felt that the British were not pulling their weight. The British army was in no fit state to launch a major offensive. Most of the old regulars were dead or wounded and, although they had received reinforcements from India and from Territorial Divisions from Britain numbers were low. Worse, the army did not have enough heavy guns which were vital to smash enemy wire and trenches and ammunition for those which it did have was in very short supply. Even so it was felt that we had to support the French and to convince them that we were serious about winning the war so an attack was planned on a German salient at the little village of Neuve Chappelle a few miles south of Armentieres.

The attack would be launched by General Haig's First Army. The plan was for the regular 7th and 8th Divisions supported by the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps to break the German line and capture Aubers Ridge about two miles away when the 46th Territorial Division would exploit the advantage gained. In the run-up to the battle the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had been developing new techniques to improve mapping, photography and, most important, for spotting for the artillery. By the 10th March everything was ready.

At 7.30 am a barrage by four hundred British guns crashed down on the German lines. It lasted about thirty minutes, then the infantry advanced. At first everything went well. The village was captured fairly easily but on the right uncut barbed wire stopped the Indian's advance. Now things started to go wrong. Communications between the various headquarters was poor and it was difficult to coordinate later attacks while the successful units in the centre waited for orders. After the first hour the fighting really produced no results except to increase the casualty list to its final figure of 17,000 by the end of the battle on 13th March.

Sir John French, the British Commander-in-Chief, was convinced that he would have won a great victory if only he had had enough artillery ammunition. He wrote to the War Office protesting strongly about the shortages; the letter was leaked and appeared in The Times causing outrage among his military superiors and the start of political protests which were to lead to Lloyd George being appointed Minister of Munitions. In fairness, although the War Office could probably have done more, the real problem was that the British arms industry was not geared up to support a war on the Continental scale. Not for the first (or last) time the British Army had been sent to war by its political masters without adequate preparation.

By the end of 1914 it was becoming clear that it would not be easy to defeat the Germans on the Western Front. Was there a way round? Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, thought there was. He proposed that an Allied force of old battleships should attack the Turkish forts on the Dardanelles. Once they had been knocked out minesweepers could clear a channel and the fleet could sail up to Constantinople. With luck this should knock Turkey out of the war and open a new supply line to Russia.

The bombardment started in February but was held up by bad weather. Still by early March several of the Turkish forts had been knocked out either by gunfire or by demolition parties landed from the ships. On the 19th the middle of the month the fleet advanced into the straits to finish the job. By early afternoon the forts had been nearly silenced and the minesweepers were moving forward when the French battleship Bouvet blew up and sank with all her crew. The battle continued; then two British battleships were sunk and another damaged. The fleet withdrew. No further action could be taken until troops were available to support the attack.

Further afield the war continued unabated. General Louis Botha invaded German Southwest Africa and, on the Eastern Front, the Russians captured Przemysl taking about 100,000 prisoners but the arrival of German reinforcements and a shortage of Russian shells caused the battle to be brought to an end.

April 1915

 

Hill 60 (its height above sea level in metres), about four miles southeast of Ypres, is regarded as a war memorial because the of the men who were killed there whose bodies were never recovered. It gave the Germans, who had captured it in December, superb observation over the Salient to Ypres itself and the British wanted it back.

Men, many ex-miners recruited from the Monmouthshire Regiment, tunneled from behind our lines and placed 10,000 Ibs of explosives under the German trenches on the hill. At 7.00 pm on 17 April the mines were fired and the British infantry charged and captured the hill with minimal casualties. A German survivor said "It was just like an earthquake and my whole platoon must have been wiped out.". We had captured an area about 250 yds by 200 yds and the troops holding it faced German counterattacks and were under fire from three sides. Fighting continued for the next three days with heavy losses and many acts of heroism which resulted in the award of four Victoria Crosses, including the first to a Territorial officer.

The German High Command decided that it would be impossible to produce a decisive victory on the Western Front but that it might be possible to knock Russia out of the war. To cover the eastward movement of troops they launched the Second Battle of Ypres. At 5.00 pm on 22 April a Canadian in trenches near St Julien on the northern side of the Salient saw "Volumes of dense yellow smoke rising up and coming towards the British trenches .... It makes the eyes smart and run. I became violently sick ... ". UCpl Keddie was lucky to witness the first use of poison gas on the Western Front from a flank.

The main cloud of chlorine passed over two French divisions who broke and ran; hardly surprising as the chlorine kills and they had no protection. However their retreat left a gap of 8,000 yards in the Allied lines and it was only because the German infantry were, understandably, cautious about following up the gas cloud that they failed to capture Ypres and cut off a large part of the British army.

On 24 April it was the Canadians' turn to face chlorine as the Germans tried to widen the gap in the Allied lines. Cloths wetted with water or 'whatever liquid might be available' (to put it nicely) gave some protection against the gas but did nothing to prevent their Ross rifles from jamming in the muddy conditions of the trenches. Some ground was lost but time and again the Canadians volleys stopped German attacks cold.

A series of British counterattacks to support the French (who rarely appeared) resulted in heavy casualties but failed to regain any of the lost ground. By now the German gains threatened the whole British line and, after sacking General Smith-Dorrien whom he disliked for proposing a retreat and replacing him with General Plumer, French agreed that the lines should be withdrawn.

As the Navy had not been able to blast its way past the Turkish forts at Gallipoli it had been decided to invade and on 25 April the 'Incomparable' 29th Division and the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) went ashore. At V Beach at Cape Helles the River Clyde, an old collier, was run onto the beach and Commander Unwin and Leading Seaman William Charles Williams went ashore to hold lighters in place so that the troops could land. They were under machine gun fire but they stayed there until, after an hour, Williams was killed and the boats drifted away. William Williams was the first sailor to be awarded a posthumous VC; there is a replica in Chepstow museum where he lived. At W Beach the Lancashire Fusiliers were rowed ashore packed into ships boats. More than half the men were hit as they rowed in and more went down as they tried to get through the Turkish wire. The Regiment finally secured the beach having won 'six VCs before breakfast'. A current carried the ANZACs away from their planned beach so that they landed at what is now known as ANZAC Cove a small, rocky beach but, despite this they fought their way up to the heights above. By the end of the day the British and French had, at best, a few toeholds. Turkish casualties had been high, on battalion had virtually ceased to exist.

In Mesopotamia the Turkish advance on Basra had been halted when 6,000 British troops inflicted 3,200 casualties on a Turkish force double their strength. At St Mihiel, in the Meuse-Argonne, the French attacked a German salient but thick mud, bad weather and a strong defence resulted in heavy casualties and few gains. In Armenia Turkish genocide, which would eventually produce 1,000,000 deaths continued. In Germany Anthony Fokker, a Dutchman, invented a device to allow a machine gun to fire through the propeller. The Italian government had discussions with the Allies about gaining territory from Austria if Italy entered the war; at this time the northern end of Lake Garda was Austrian not Italian.

"Magnificent But Not War" by John Dixon, a member of the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association, is a detailed account of the Second Battle of Ypres. John has also written the history of the Monmouth Regiment.

May 1915

 

I write with the report for the current month as usual. I would like to thank you for printing these; a number of people have told me that they found them interesting so they are probably worthwhile.

On 1st May the Germans and Austrians attacked the Russians. Within a week the passes in the Carpathian Mountains had been captured along with over 30,000 Russian soldiers. Florence Farmborough, a volunteer British nurse wondered " ... that a man could be so mutilated in body and yet live, speak and understand." As the army retreated crippled men crawled after the ambulances. Anticipating the final defeat of Russia German industrialists pressed for a peace which would include the annexation of north-west France and large areas of Russia and economic control Belgium. These demands made a negotiated peace impossible.

In the West the Second Battle of Ypres continued as the British and French fell back to a line only about three miles from the city. Among the casualties were William Pritchard, 42, and his son Reginald, 19, from Abergavenny fighting with the Monmouthshire Regiment. They are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres. John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, had been treating the wounded for two days without rest when he wrote a poem which began "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, ". McCrae was to die in 1918 but his poem made the poppy a symbol of the war.

Further south the British attacked Aubers Ridge, just behind the village of Neuve Chapelle which they had captured in March. With inadequate artillery and limited ammunition the infantry had no chance. The Germans wrote " ... there could never in war before have been a more perfect target..." and ordered their men to "Fire until the barrels burst." The first attack failed completely. In the second attack ordered by General Haig the Black Watch went forward behind their pipers but no ground was gained. Casualties amounted to nearly 12,000 men and three VCs were awarded. Another British attack at Festubert gained about one mile on a three mile front at the cost of 5,000 casualties.

On 9 May Vimy Ridge, just north of Arras, was attacked. The barrage failed to damage the German defences and the French troops were mowed down as they tried to cut their way through the barbed wire. One regiment of the Foreign Legion lost its commander, the three battalion commanders and about 1,900 of its 3,000 men. A few of the of the German's forward positions were captured and a few of their men even reached the crest but were driven off by counterattacks. The French did capture the adjacent Lorette ridge, now the site of the French cemetery and Memorial to the Missing of Notre Dame de Lorette.

At ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli the Turks attacked. Despite an advantage of two to one they failed losing 3,000 casualties. The British and French advanced on the high ground at Achi Baba. By 10th May they had gained about two miles at a cost of 25,000 casualties but failed to take the hill. The line stabilized.

On 22nd May a train carrying 500 men of the 1/7th Royal Scots on their way to Gallipoli ran into a stationary train at Quintinshill, a signal box near Gretna Green with a crash that was heard six miles away. A minute later the Glasgow express hit the wreckage. The wooden, gas lit carriages burned for twenty-four hours and some of the trapped men burned with them. Only 57 men answered the roll call that evening. Overall there were 473 casualties, about half of whom were killed in what was Britain's worst rail disaster.

At sea German U-boats were attacking British ships without warning. Captain Turner of the Lusitania had been warned to keep clear of headlands, zig-zag and stay in the centre of channels. On 6th May he was also warned that submarines were active off Ireland. On 7th May Captain Schwieger of U-20 saw the liner steering a straight course only twelve miles off Kinsale Head. His torpedo hit; 1,200 of the 2,000 passengers drowned. 128 of the dead were American citizens and President Wilson protested to the German government. The Germans apologized; America remained neutral.

On 23rd May Italy joined the war in the hope of gaining Austrian territory. Riva, at the northern end of Lake Garda was captured. In the east the Italians attacked across the Isonzo River but made no significant gains. In Mesopotamia the British, under General Townshend, start to move towards Baghdad supported by a flotilla of gunboats on the river.

In Britain the Liberal government formed a coalition with the Conservatives resulting in the sacking of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. He went to the Western Front to command a battalion of the Royal Scots. On 9th May the first Kitchener's Army division, the 9th Scottish, raised in August 1914 reached France while three more 'New Army' divisions were ordered to Gallipoli. The 38th (Welsh) Division continued their training as best they could in view of the shortage of equipment which meant that one of their units, the Cardiff City battalion, received no working rifles until August.

Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem, is about four miles due north of Ypres is well signed if you wish to visit it.

June 1915

 

June 1915 was a quiet month for the British on the Western Front. Although the politicians and generals both wanted to attack the lack of manpower, guns and shells forced them to wait. The French, however, attacked sending 20 divisions forward in the Second Battle of Artois to capture the Lorette and Vimy ridges just north of Arras. Two days later the battle ended with the French having captured about twenty-five square miles of ground but having suffered heavy losses. The Lorette ridge, with its superb views over the plain north of Lens, was taken and a few very brave men reached the crest of Vimy Ridge only to be wiped out by the German counterattack.

In Gallipoli the Allies launch another attack on Krithia, at the western end of the Peninsula, with 30,000 men. They gain a few hundred yards. The Italians launched the First Battle of the Isonzo, the frontier with Austria west of Venice, with the aim of capturing Trieste. Fighting in this mountainous region is difficult and the Italians only manage to gain a small bridgehead over the river. They will try again and again on this front.

On the Eastern Front the Central Powers continue their offensives against Russia at various places in the extensive line. After losing over 400,000 men in May the Russians fall back as the Germans advance on while the Austrians captured. Unrestricted submarine warfare continues at sea. When the Germans sand a United States tanker they apologised and the US took no further action.

In Britain the Government passes the Munitions of War Act which results in large numbers of women working in the arms industry making and filling shells. On the 6th Zeppelin raids on London and Hull kill sixty-four British civilians. The next day Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford, Royal Naval Air Service, was awarded the Victoria Cross for shooting down the LZ37. Ten days later he was killed in a flying accident.

In the air the Allies were having problems. When the war began aircraft did not have the power to carry the guns but by 1915 engines had got more powerful and the French airman Roland Garros fitted a forward firing machine gun to his plane. The problem of firing through the moving propeller was 'solved' by fitting steel plates to its back to deflect the bullets. Garros shot down a number of enemy planes with this Heath Robinson device but eventually his much abused aircraft failed and he was forced to land behind the enemy lines. The Germans asked Tony Fokker, a Dutch aircraft designer, to develop a counter and Fokker produced the first proper interrupter gear which stopped the gun firing when the propeller was in the way. The Royal Flying Corps was to lose many machines to the 'Fokker Menace'.

The French Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette contains about 20,000 marked graves and the ossuary the bones of a further 20,000 unidentified soldiers and contains the Lighthouse, the memorial to the missing in Artois. A visit brings home the scale of the French sacrifice in the war, something which is often lost in British histories.

July 1915

Like June, July in 1915 was a quiet month for the British on the Western Front who were building up their forces and trying to overcome the crippling shortages of trained men, guns, shells and other types of equipment. Men, the first of Kitchener's New Army Divisions, were indeed arriving in France but needed further training and to be introduced to trench warfare. More Divisions were still involved in basic training at home. The battalions which made up the 38th (Welsh) Division, for example, had mainly completed unit training and was concentrated around Winchester for brigade training. In all nearly 2,000,000 men had volunteered as a result of Kitchener's famous appeal.

On the French sector too there were no major offensives despite the French desire to eject Germany from north-west France as quickly as possible. Like the Western Front Gallipoli was quiet. The initial landings had failed to achieve more than a small foothold and the commanders were wondering what to do next.

In the East however fighting continues as the Germans launch 120,000 men in an attack on a twenty-five mile front near Warsaw. The attack starts on the 13th and in four days the Germans have gained five miles.

It is not quiet in Italy either. The Italians initial offensive on the Isonzo River continues at the start of July without making and significant gains. The front is quiet for a few weeks and then the offensive is renewed on the 18th with the Second Battle of the Isonzo. The initial attack gains ground but then shortages of shells and Austrian counter-attacks mean that by the end of the month the front has hardly moved.

In South West Africa the German forces surrender to the Allies while in America a pro-German student plants a bomb at Cornell University and then shoots and wounds the pro-British banker William P Morgan before committing suicide himself.

Arras is a beautiful city, French but with Flemish architecture in its two main squares. The cooking has Flemish overtones - said to produce French quality and German quantity - too. It is a good base for visits to the scenes of many of the battles of the War.

August 1915

 

August was the month when the Turks in Gallipoli were going to be beaten and the road to Russia opened. The plan was for a major attack from the original beaches to take the high ground ahead and, simultaneously, to land two divisions behind the Turkish lines.

On 6 August, after some very hard fighting in the maze of Turkish trenches, the Australians captured a position know as Lone Pine but, mainly due to a lack of bombs (grenades) were unable to break through. "The dead lay so thick that the only respect which could be paid to them was to avoid treading on their faces." In the evening the 4th South Wales Borderers, with other troops, cleared the way for a major attack on the Sari Bair ridge. A pincer attack was planned but one arm was delayed which left the Australian Light Horse the unenviable task of attacking at point blank range in daylight with the sun in their eyes on a ridge wide enough for only 150 men and under flanking fire from Turkish machine guns. Wave after wave of Australians leapt from their trenches only to sink to the ground "as though their limbs had become string". Of the 600 men who attacked 372 were killed or wounded, 234 being killed almost at once. Needless to say the attack failed.

As the Australians attacked the ridge the British XI Corps, which included the territorials of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, was landing at Suvla Bay. Unlike the chaos of the original landings this was a well planned and executed operation. 4,000 men were landed at about 9.30 pm without loss and one of the hills overlooking the landing captured. After that things started to go wrong. It was dark, communications were difficult, the troops were inexperienced and had not been trained for a beach landing and by dawn most of the men were still on the beach. However there were 20,000 of them and very few Turks. A decisive attack would have succeeded but the offensive stalled. Over the next few day's attacks were made on the hills around the beach but by now the Turks had brought up reinforcements and there was no real progress. Poor leadership had been at least partly to blame for the fiasco and the Corps Commander and two Divisional Commanders were sacked. Unfortunately this did not save the offensive which had only produced yet another beachhead surrounded by Turkish trenches.

For the troops of the British army on the Western Front August was another quiet month, just the usual grind of trench warfare and its associated 'wastage' as men were killed or wounded by snipers and shells, while out on patrol or while they were repairing the wire in front of their trenches. More of Kitchener's New Army divisions were arriving in France and were being introduced to the reality of war on quiet sectors of the front. For the staffs it was busier as plans were prepared for the next offensive.

For the airmen life was more exciting. Max Immelman, who was to become one of Germany's leading aces, had arrived. Flying a Fokker with a synchronized machine gun firing forwards through the propeller he started his run of victories and the 'Fokker menace'. It would be some months before the British developed a similar weapon.

On the Eastern Front the German advance through Poland continued with the capture of Brest-Litovsk. Tsar Nicholas sacked his Commander-in-Chief and took over, a decision which would reduce morale as the 'Father of all the Russia's' became personally associated with the failure of the Russian army.

At sea more merchant ships are sunk as the Germans kept up their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare but casualties to neutrals, notably Americans, finally cause them to suspend attacks at the end of the month. On the Home Front, encouraged by Winston Churchill, the British start to develop 'Land Battleships' more commonly known as 'tanks'.

September 1915

 

In September war came again to London. The Zeppelin, L13, dropped a 300 kg (675 lbs) bomb, the largest used so far. It was also in September that Wilfred Stokes, an engineer, designed the 'Stokes Mortar' which gave the infantry with a short range artillery piece for use in the trenches. It was a very effective weapon and the ancestor of the 3" mortars used in the Second World War and Korea.

In Mesopotamia, now Iraq, Gen Townshend continued his advance up river towards Baghdad and reaches Kut-al-Amara by the middle of the month. The town is captured by the end of September and the Turks, having lost about half their men fall back up river to block the way to Baghdad.

In the Balkans Serbia are coming under increasing pressure from the Austrians and the Allies persuade Greece to allow them to send troops to Salonika to support the Serbs. This turned out to be a campaign which tied down large numbers of men and achieved little; the Germans call Salonika 'our largest internment camp'.

On the Eastern Front the Germans capture Vilna and have now advanced about 300 miles since the offensive began and have captured Galicia and Poland from the Russians who have lost about 2,000,000 men.

In the West General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief is planning major attacks to relieve pressure on the Russians and drive the Germans out of France. The British lack guns, men and ammunition for a major attack but agree to support the French offensive. On 25 September the French, supported by 2,500 guns gain about two miles in Champagne but fail to make any further advances. In Artois the French reach the top of Vimy Ridge but are driven off the high ground by German counter attacks after losing nearly 50,000 men.

Early on 25 September six British divisions of General Haig's First Army attack the German lines near the village of Loos. The ground is flat and lacks any real cover while the whole area is dotted with pit heads, spoil heaps and mining villages (think of the Welsh valleys ironed out smooth) which all make excellent defensive positions. Because of the lack of heavy guns gas is used to support the infantry. It has mixed results in some areas it rolls over the German lines, in others it hangs around our own trenches and the infantry have to attack through it. Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the 7th Kings Own Scottish Borderers, one of the newly raised Kitchener's Army units, won the VC for removing his gas mask and piping the men forward into the attack despite being twice wounded.

The initial attack captured the German front line on most of the front. The 9th (Scottish) Division took the Hohenzollern Redoubt (of which more next month) while the 15th (Scottish) Division captured the village of Loos. However none of the attacking troops reached the German second line about four miles to the east, which ran from Hill 70 near Loos through Hulluch to La Bassée.

If the reserve divisions had attacked that afternoon we might have broken through. Unfortunately Sir John French did not release the 21st and 24th Divisions soon enough and even when he did their march to the front was delayed by bad traffic control on all the roads; the military police stopped one brigade from entering Bethune because the commander did not have the right pass. They finally reached the front wet, cold and hungry after dark. As dawn broke on the 26th they attacked the German Second Line.

Neither division had ever been in action, or even been in the trenches, before.They had about 1,000 yards of open country to cross and moved forward in lines, steadily, under machine gun fire from the front and both flanks. Eventually they reached the German line to be faced with uncut wire and undamaged trenches fully manned by the German reserves. The German 26th Infantry Regiment's history said, "Never had machine guns had such straightforward work to do ... with barrels burning hot ... they traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks unceasingly ... The effect was devastating. The enemy could be seen literally falling in hundreds, but they continued their march in good order ... ". So was formed the "Leichenfeld von Loos" (The Field of Corpses of Loos). About half the men who advanced became casualties and the survivors ended up back at their starting point.

About half the men who advanced became casualties and the survivors ended up back at their starting point.

On 27th September the Guards Division, newly formed from battalions already in France and including the Welsh Guards who had been formed in February, attacked the mine at Puits 14 bis and Hill 70. The attack failed with heavy losses among them Lt John Kipling, Irish Guards, the son of Rudyard Kipling. John was posted missing and the last news of him was that he had been seen crying from a bad wound in the mouth. Kipling never found his son's grave but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have identified it as being in St Mary's ADS Cemetery near Hulluch although this identification has been challenged.

Although there were to be no more major attacks fighting continued as the British tried to improve the positions they had gained and the Germans tried to retake them. Among those to be involved were the 1st Monmouths and the 1/6th Welsh from Swansea.

Those who want to find out more about John Kipling should read My Boy Jack? by Tonie and Valmai Holt published by Pen and Sword Books.


October 1915

 

Although we had not managed to break through the German lines at Loos in September we had captured parts of the German front line, including the Hohenzollern Redoubt just south of the unusually named village of Madagascar. The Germans wanted it back and started to bomb their way into the strong point capturing the front line trench (known as Little Willie after the Kaiser's son) and gaining a foothold in the redoubt itself. Bombing involved throwing a hand grenade round the corner into the next section of trench and then rushing any survivors with rifle and bayonet; close combat at its closest and most personal.

Welsh units were involved in the fighting. The 1/6th Welsh Regiment, a Territorial battalion from Swansea, held their ground under very heavy German pressure but their Commanding Officer, Lord Ninian Chrichton-Stewart, the son of the Marquis of Bute was killed (his granddaughter was present at a service to commemorate his death this month at his statue in Cardiff). The 1st Welsh attacked Little Willie trench. At 8.00 pm they advanced across no man's land in dead silence at the double. With a hundred yards to go the Germans opened fire. "Forward 41st Get them the Welsh", the Colonel shouted and although 250 officers and men went down the survivors took their objective. Unfortunately the ground could not be held against severe German mortar fire and counter-attacks.

Fighting was to continue around Loos for most of October but apart from increasing casualties, neither side achieved very much. Over the whole battle British losses were about 62,000 men while the Germans lost around 26,000. The British Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshall Sir John French was heavily criticized for mishandling the reserves in the initial attacks and was found to have lied about the position in his official report. General Haig was one of his major critics and almost certainly used his contacts at Court, his wife had been on of the Queen's Ladies-in-Waiting, to press the case against French. Haig, of course, could expect to become the Commander-in-Chief if French was sacked.

In October the French launched the Second Battle of Artois and attacked the German lines north of Arras. Fighting continued until the end of November with only marginal gains. The French lost 144,000 men; the Germans 85,000.

In the Balkans a combined German and Austro-Hungarian army invaded Serbia. The Serbian capital, Belgrade fell on 9th October and the Serbian army, outnumbered 2-1, escaped being surrounded only by starting a long march through Albania to the coast. Allied attempts to support the Serbs by advancing from Salonika were blocked by Bulgaria who declared war on Serbia at the beginning of the month.

In the middle of the month the Italians attacked after a three-day bombardment by 1,200 guns firing 1,000,000 shells in the Third Battle of the Isonzo. Despite having about twice as many men as the Austrians rain and mud hindered the attack badly and such gains as were made were mostly lost to counterattacks. By the time the battle ends the Italians have lost 67,000 men and the Austrians 42,000.

In Belgium the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell, a British nurse, for helping British soldiers to return home. This was justified legally but very stupid politically as it helped to inflame public opinion in neutral countries, including America, against the Germans. Nurse Cavell's last words, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." are engraved on her memorial in London.

On the Home Front five Zeppelins made the heaviest bombing raid on Britain of the war so far. It was the first raid to be opposed by serious gunfire and only one Zeppelin actually reached London, dropping bombs along the Strand and killing 71 civilians. At this stage of the war Londoners still went out into the streets to watch aerial attacks which may have increased the casualties. In all about 150 people were killed or wounded in the capital and 50 elsewhere.

The poet Charles Sorley, an officer in the Suffolk Regiment, was killed in the Battle of Loos. Perhaps his best known work starts, "When you see millions of the mouthless dead across your dreams in pale battalions go ...". Like other casualties who have no known grave Sorley is commemorated on the Dud Corner Memorial between Bethune and Loos.

November 1915

 

After the failure of the British and French attacks in the previous month November was a quiet period on the Western Front. For the troops this meant holding the line and accepting the steady drain of casualties from trench raids, snipers and shells; 'wastage' as it was known. Of course men were not in the trenches all the time. A typical tour would last for four or five days in the front line followed by a similar period in reserve and then a period of rest although 'rest' was a relative term as resting units were used to move shells, food and all the other stores the army needed.

There was some fighting however. Sir John French, the British Commander-in-Chief, had been criticized for his handling of the reserves in the Battle of Loos. In an attempt to cover himself he allowed his formal report to contain errors which General Haig did not hesitate to point out. Pressure on Sir John grew steadily, the King became involved and by the end of the month the Prime Minister had decided that there should be a change.

On other fronts the war went on. On 10th November the Italians launched the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo. Although fighting continued until early December and the town of Goritza was levelled by artillery fire little was achieved except, of course, to increase the casualty lists - 49,000 Italian and 30,000 Austrian.

In Mesopotamia (now Iraq) General Townshend's army continued to advance towards Baghdad but his 10,000 strong army was now facing 18,000 Turks with 45 guns. On the 22nd the British attacked Ctesiphon. There were some gains but Townshend lacked the reserves to drive home his success. The British lost about 4,600 men and the Turks about 6,200 and as Turkish reinforcements arrived the British fell back towards Kut-al-Armana.

In the Balkans Germany and Austria-Hungary, supported by Bulgaria, launched a major attack on Serbia and by the end of November had more or less overrun the entire country. The Serbian army, some 200,000 strong and accompanied by large numbers of civilians, started to retreat through the mountains into Albania. In an attempt to support Serbia British and French troops were sent to Salonika in northern Greece although Greece itself remained neutral. One of the units sent from the Western Front was the 22nd Division which had a Welsh Brigade consisting of the 11th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the ih and 8th South Wales Borderers and the 11th Welsh, better known locally as the Cardiff Commercial Pals.

At sea the Austrian submarine the U-38 torpedoed the liner Ancona. Over 200 civilians were drowned including 28 from the United States. The Austro-Hungarian government issued an apology which President Woodrow Wilson rejected while maintaining his neutral stance.

Many towns and cities raised Pals Battalions and there are histories of several of them. A play was written about the Accrington Pals and Bernard Lewis has written the history of the Swansea Pals.


December 1915

 

In Gallipoli the decision had been taken to end the campaign and the evacuation began in early December. In twelve days over 80,000 troops with their horses, mules, guns and vehicles had been taken off in a well-planned and executed operation. The Turks had held their ground in Gallipoli; in Mesopotamia they were attacking. General Townshend's army had failed to capture Baghdad and had fallen back to Kut-el-Amarna where over 80,000 Turks now besieged 25,000 British and Indian troops. A relief force set out from Basra but was under constant attack and lost 4,000 men in a battle at Sheikh Sa'ad. Eleven days after the action 1,000 British and Indian wounded were still lying in the open with their original wound-dressings unchanged; not the best planned operation in British history.

The Serbian army was evacuated from Albania after its winter retreat through the mountains by British shipping first to Corfu and then to Salonika. On the Eastern Front the Russians attacked the Austrian lines in Galicia but failed to make any significant gains despite being supported by a bombardment which used 1,000,000 shells. Generally the war was not going well for the British and their allies.

It was wet and cold in the trenches on the Western Front and there would be no Christmas Truce this year. Orders had come down from on high on both sides that anyone fraternizing with the enemy would be court-martialed and, on some sectors, the artillery bombarded the enemy lines. In fact, after the hard fighting at Loos in the autumn there was probably less desire to be friendly towards the Germans. The troops settled in for the winter. Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister's son, wrote that an unpleasant feature of daily life was "the vast numbers of rats which gnaw the dead bodies and then run on one's face making obscene noises and gestures". He added, "A certain number of cats have taken to nesting in the corpses, but I think the rats will get them in the end; though like all wars it will doubtless be a war of attrition." Perhaps the new gas, phosgene, which the Germans used in the Ypres Salient for the first time and which killed 120 men would have helped.

One young woman, Vera Brittain, was working as a volunteer nurse in London. Her fiance, Roland Leighton, an officer in the Worcestershire Regiment, had written that he would be coming home for leave for Christmas. On Christmas Day Vera was called to the telephone. She wrote, "Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland ... it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning but to tell me that he had died of wounds on December 23rd". Roland Leighton had been in charge of a party in no man's land repairing the British wire near Hebuterne on the Somme when he had been shot.

A casualty of a different sort was Sir John French the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. The government had becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his performance and his failure to control the reserves at the Battle of Loos and then to lie about his actions proved the final straw. He was sent home with a title and replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig who was to lead the British army to victory three years later and it was Haig who met the French commander, General Joffre. The plan for 1916 was that the all the Allies should attack at the same time to prevent the Germans moving reserves from one front to the other. The British and French would attack, side by side, on a forty-mile front on either side of the River Somme near the little town of Albert in the summer of 1916.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's account of the war in which she lost not only her fiance but her only brother and several friends, was televised a few years ago.

Back to top