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
It was very clear that the war was not going to be over by Christmas.
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
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.
In the Middle-East a Turkish army about 25,000 strong moved out from Beersheeba in
On the Eastern Front the Germans started a diversionary attack towards
'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Well, not quite. The British front in
Some Territorials had been luckier. The London Brigade had been sent to garrison
On the Eastern Front the fighting had never died down to the same extent as in the West. In
The British government had been considering an attack on
The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association meets on the first Friday of the month in
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
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
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
Hill 60 (its height above sea level in metres), about four miles southeast of
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
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
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
In Mesopotamia the Turkish advance on
"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.
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
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
Further south the British attacked Aubers Ridge, just behind the
On 9 May Vimy Ridge, just north of
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
At sea German U-boats were attacking British ships without warning. Captain Turner of the
On 23rd May
Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem, is about four miles due north of
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
In Gallipoli the Allies launch another attack on Krithia, at the western end of the
On the Eastern Front the Central Powers continue their offensives against
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.
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
On the French sector too there were no major offensives despite the French desire to eject
In the East however fighting continues as the Germans launch 120,000 men in an attack on a twenty-five mile front near
It is not quiet in
In South West Africa the German forces surrender to the Allies while in
August was the month when the Turks in Gallipoli were going to be beaten and the road to
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
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
For the airmen life was more exciting. Max Immelman, who was to become one of
On the Eastern Front the German advance through
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'.
In September war came again to
In Mesopotamia, now
In the Balkans Serbia are coming under increasing pressure from the Austrians and the Allies persuade
On the Eastern Front the Germans capture Vilna and have now advanced about 300 miles since the offensive began and have captured
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
Early on 25 September six British divisions of General Haig's First Army attack the German lines near the
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
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
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
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.
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
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
In the Balkans a combined German and Austro-Hungarian army invaded
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.
On the Home Front five Zeppelins made the heaviest bombing raid on
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.
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
In Mesopotamia (now
In the Balkans Germany and
At sea the Austrian submarine the U-38 torpedoed the liner
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.
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
The Serbian army was evacuated from
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
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
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.