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
During January the Western Front remained quiet although the Germans were building up for their grand offensive at
The capital of German West Africa was captured by the Allies but the German forces retreated into an adjacent Spanish colony and went on fighting. In East Africa General Jan Christian Smuts took over from General Horace Smith-Dorrien and invaded the German colonies there. By the end of the year he had captured most of the German colonies but had not defeated the commander of their army, General Paul von Lettow, who started a long campaign of guerilla warfare.
In the Balkans the Serbian army is evacuated to Corfu while the last allied troops are withdrawn from
Perhaps the most important event, in the longer term, was the start of the trials of 'Mother', the prototype tank. General Haig was so impressed that he ordered 40 (later increased to 100) almost at once.
Col Driant had been worried for months. His regiment of Chasseurs (light infantry) was holding positions in the Bois des Caures near the French fortress of
On 21 February a shell from a Krupp 15" naval gun opened fire hit the cathedral in Verdun twenty miles away to start a nine hour bombardment by 850 heavy guns. It could be felt by troops in trenches in the
On the 22nd the Germans bombarded the French lines until mid-day and then their infantry advanced with rifles, grenades and flame-throwers. The 10,000 men of the 21st Division attacked the 1,300 men under Col Driant's command. The French fought hard, where their positions had not been completely eliminated by the shelling, but by late afternoon Driant's last redoubt was nearly surrounded and the last few survivors fell back. Many, including Col Driant himself, failed to reach safety.
By 24th February the Germans had advanced three miles and the next day reached
General Herr, the French commander, considered falling back but was replaced by General Petain who, the following day, issued his famous order "They shall not pass." More importantly the new commander established the Voie Sacrèe, the road down which all supplies and reinforcements would flow into
Could the war have been ended? Yes,
In the British sector Lloyd George's army was going to war. The 38th (Welsh) Division had arrived in
In the east the Russian army continued an offensive into northern
The attack on
In an attempt to relieve the pressure on their ally the Italians launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo in the middle of March. After five days snow and rain made the mountains impassable and the battle was closed down. The marginal Italian gains were lost to Austrian gas shells and counter-attacks. The Russians also attacked near Vilna. Despite the fact that they had 350,000 men to 75,000 German defenders they gained only about two miles and lost 15,000 men.
The British sector of the Western Front remained quiet, that is to say the units holding the line only lost about one or two men per day. On man to die in March was Abraham Harris, whose real name was Abraham Beverstein. He had enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment in 1914, gone to the front with them in 1915 and, just before Christmas, been wounded when the Germans exploded a mine and bombarded the British line. He rejoined in January and in February the battalion was ordered to move up to the front line. Harris failed to go up with the rest of his unit and having been examined and pronounced fit for duty by the Medical Officer was ordered to go forward and warned that a failure to do so would be a serious offence. Again Harris went absent and was charged with desertion. He was found guilty by a court-martial and, on 20th March 1916, executed by a firing party. Was he suffering from shell-shock? We will never know. The court-martial was fair and, by the standards of the time, Harris was guilty but ....
For some time the British volunteer system had not been producing enough men and on 2nd March all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 become liable to be conscripted.
A classic German book about the First World War Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger has recently been reprinted by Penguin.
The war was to be decided at
The German barrage started at 7.00 am. Under it observers said that Le Mort Homme looked like a volcano. The German infantry gained the crest and about 1.00 pm Jubert's men were ordered to counter-attack. About 100 strong they moved through the German barrage. Although heavy shells were falling they only lost one man and, reaching the crest, charged over open ground, past the bodies of dead Zouaves and light infantry and regained the trench. Now only 10 of the 100 men of the company were left. By 8.00 pm they were still holding it - unsupported. Indeed they were to hold for 30 hours under continual artillery and machine gun fire before being relieved by another unit. In the face of a defence like this it is perhaps unsurprising that General Petain, the French commander, said in his order of the day, "Courage, on les aura!" (Courage, we'll have them!)
In fact the Germans never got to crest of Le Mort Homme, they only took the edge of the summit. A few hundred yards further on and some feet higher, on the true crest, the line remained firmly in French hands. For the expenditure of seventeen trainloads of ammunition and several thousand casualties the Germans had gained nothing. For the next twelve days it rained. "Water in the trenches came above the knees. The men had not a dry thread on their bodies; there was not a dugout that could provide dry accommodation. The numbers of sick rose alarmingly ... " (Reichsarchiv) The German infantry suffered under the rain and French artillery fire from
On the British sector roads preparations for the planned Allied attack in June continued even though the
German attempts to smuggle rifles into
On 151 April the Germans executed a Belgian lady, Gabriel Petit, for distributing the underground newspaper Libre Belgique and helping Belgians to cross the lines to join the Belgian army. She had been held for two weeks after being sentenced to death to try to persuade her to betray others; she refused. In
General von Gallwitz's guns were going to obliterate Côte 304. Five hundred heavy guns opened fire on a front of a mile. They fired for two days and the night between; smoke and debris rose to over 2,000 ft. The French lost men killed, men buried alive and men who died of wounds because they could not be evacuated. Their machine guns were knocked out and no food or other supplies could be brought forward. Even so it took the Germans three days to secure Côte 304. As they dug in the troops' first demand was for an extra ration of tobacco to mask the smell of the corpses. Some 10,000 Frenchmen and an unknown number of Germans had died on the hill.
The capture of Côte 304 opened the way for attacks on Le Morte Homme and, by the end of the month, that position too was in German hands. The capture of the high ground on the west of the river had been costly but the way was now open for attacks on the main French positions to the east of the
However the French were not going to sit tamely and wait for the attack. General Nivelle, now in command at
Since 1914 the British people had been waiting for a second Trafalgar but the German High Seas Fleet had remained in port. This was to change. In May Admiral Scheer sailed north hoping to catch part of the British fleet. What Scheer did not know was that the British had read his signals and that Admiral Jellicoe, with the Grand Fleet, and Admiral Beatty, with the Battle Cruiser Fleet, had already sailed and were coming south.
In the afternoon of 31st May the scouting forces met. Admiral Hipper, leading the German squadron, immediately turned south to draw the British battle cruisers onto the German fleet. Beatty followed and about 3.50 pm the firing started at a range of about nine miles. Ten minutes later HMS Indefatigable was hit by five heavy shells and blew up. Two of her crew of over 1,000 were picked up.
A shell penetrated the roof of a turret on HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship. Major Harvey of the Royal Marines, dying, with both legs severed, managed to give the order to flood the magazine saving the ship from certain destruction. He was awarded a posthumous VC. At 4.26 pm HMS Queen Mary was hit by a German salvo and exploded. The ship broke in two as a cloud of smoke rose 1,000 ft in the air marking the grave of over 1,200 men. "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships to-day," Admiral Beatty said. Moments later the German battle fleet came into sight.
The whole situation had changed. Beatty's task was now to lure the Germans to the Grand Fleet fifty miles away. His ships turned north; the Germans turned to follow. The battle continued with the Germans being hit so hard they disengaged. Now Admiral Hood's ships came into action. He had just congratulated the gunnery officer of his flagship, HMS Invincible, on the accuracy of his fire when, like the other battle cruisers, a shell penetrated a turret roof. The ship blew up; 1,000 men died.
As the Germans approached Jellicoe had deployed the twenty-four dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet into a single, five-mile long line of battle. At 6.30 pm the German fleet, steaming north in line ahead met "the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships ... while salvo followed salvo almost without intermission ... and not one of the British dreadnoughts could be made out through the smoke and fumes." (German Official History) To continue would be suicide. The Germans turned 'like a well drilled squad', steamed away and were soon lost to sight. The British continued south keeping between the German fleet and its bases. Then, at 6.55 pm, Scheer turned and steamed east again straight at the centre of the British line. As the British broadsides crashed around his leading battleships he turned for the third time and vanished into the mist and smoke. After the battle Scheer claimed this was a deliberate move to surprise his opponent; few historians believe him.
Jellicoe continued south hoping to cut the Germans off from their home ports and finish them off the next day. Scheer had only one thought, to get home. His fleet turned east and managed cross behind the main British force losing only one pre-dreadnought battleship to a torpedo, although Admiral Hipper's flagship, SMS Lutzow, sank from accumulated damage. The Battle of Jutland was over.
"The spell of Trafalgar has been broken," claimed Kaiser Wilhelm on the grounds that British had lost more ships and men. However the British fleet was ready for sea within days while the Germans were only to leave port once more before the war ended. Meanwhile the British blockade continued to strangle
In the middle of May the Austrians attacked on the Trentino front. Backed by four hundred guns their initial attacks captured the northern peaks. Snow fell, preventing rapid advances, but by the end of the month the attackers had advanced about twelve miles, no mean feat when fighting in mountains 4,000 feet high, and were approaching Riva at the northern end of
At home German bombs killed a few civilians in raids on the East Coast and
The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association meets on the first Friday of the month in
"When the barrage lifts ... "
In June General Brusilov launched the first of the Allied offensives planned for the summer. On a front of 200 miles in
In the Trentino the Austrian offensive was called off in the middle of June, partly because of an Italian counter-attack and partly because of the need to move men to hold the Russian offensive in the east. Overall casualties in the mountains north of
In June Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener had planned a mission to
The Germans advanced but were halted outside
In the chalk downs of the Somme, scattered with villages and woods and cut by the beautiful little River Ancre, were two complete lines of German trenches, each about four hundred yards deep, protected by belts of barbed wire and well equipped with machine guns. The British planned to destroy the wire, the trenches, the guns and the men who manned them with a five day artillery bombardment after which the infantry would be able to advance without serious opposition and capture the town of
On the twenty-fourth of June fifteen hundred British guns opened fire. There were to be problems. Bad weather prevented the Royal Flying Corps from observing the effects of the shelling and the bombardment had to be extended for two days. Over the next week 1,500,000 shells rained on the German positions. Although most of their troops were sheltering in deep dugouts thirty feet below ground and fairly safe it was a terrible experience. No hot food could be brought forward, it was impossible to
evacuate the wounded, men on sentry duty were killed, men underground went mad and had to be restrained by their comrades, even the rats went mad and had to be killed in the dugouts by hitting them with spades. But the German infantrymen survived and waited for their revenge when the final assault came.
On the British side the fourteen divisions which were to make the initial attack made ready. Two-thirds were
In places raids, to check on the effect of the bombardment failed to get into the German trenches because of uncut wire. Other patrols reported that the trenches were heavily damaged and unmanned. Over the night of 30th June the battalions which would make the attack came up through the communication trenches to the front line. The Accrington Pals and the other Pals battalions from Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 31st Division moved up to the line of copses from which they were to assault Serre, although Privates Crimmins and Wild of the 2nd Bradford Pals, detailed to carry rations up to the front line, left camp with a bottle of wine and wandered off into a nearby field. The 'Incomparable' 29th Division which included the 2nd South Wales Borderers were to take Beaumont Hamel between Serre and the River Ancre. To the south of the river the 36th (
It was raining and the men were loaded down; with their weapons, ammunition, grenades, spades, barbed wire and other stores few carried less than seventy pounds and many carried more than eighty. That night they waited, sleeping as best they could, in the frontline trenches.
People who want to know more about the opening of the battle could read 'The First Day on the
1st July 1916
"We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying."
For seven days the British artillery had pounded the German lines on the
At 7.20 am the Hawthorn Ridge mine, 18 tons of high explosive, exploded under a German strongpoint (the explosion was filmed by Geoffrey Malins and is seen frequently on television). Eight minutes later two more large mines, each with about twenty-four tons of explosives, were set off on either side of La Boisselle. Several miles away a pilot felt his plane flung sideways by the blast and saw the soil hurled over 4,000 ft into the air. A soldier in the Grimsby Chums had his leg broken by the blast.
At 7.30 am the British guns stopped firing on the German front line and reset their sights to fire on the support line. The German guns also ceased fire so for a few minutes there was silence as the officer's whistles blew and the assaulting infantry of General Rawlinson's Fourth Army rose or climbed out of their trenches and advanced through the gaps in the British wire. Mostly they moved forward in lines at a steady walk, as ordered, although, weighed down by loads of over seventy pounds they probably did not have much choice.
On the extreme right, where our army met the French, the 30th Division took Montauban and advanced to their objective beyond without too much difficulty or too many casualties. Almost unbelievably the 1 st Liverpool Pals (17 Kings
Next in line the th Division attacked the
In the centre the bagpipes played the Tyneside Scottish of 34th Division into action. Their objective was the
The 36th (
The 2nd South Wales Borderers moved on Beaumont Hamel. White flares rose, the signal that the attack had succeeded. General de Lisle, the divisional commander, ordered the reserve battalions. To avoid the chaos of the communication trenches the Newfoundland Regiment advanced from behind the British line above ground. They were under machine gun fire for the whole way to the front line and on into no man's land. Eyewitnesses said they hunched their shoulders like men walking into heavy rain. They never reached the German lines but suffered over 90% casualties. General de Lisle wrote, "The attack only failed of success because dead men could advance no further." The white flares had not been a British signal but a German one calling down artillery fire.
Opposite Serre on the left of the attack the 31st Division, Pals battalions from Yorkshire, Lancashire and
What had gone wrong? Although the preliminary bombardment had been the heaviest ever fired by the British army it was not heavy enough to destroy the German defences particularly the deep dugouts and it had been spread over both German lines because General Haig wanted a breakthrough. The fact that about 30% of the shells failed to explode (or exploding as they left the gun, killing the crew) made things worse. Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, had paid too much attention to the quantity of shells and not enough to their quality. Secondly the Fourth Army HQ felt the infantry did not have sufficient experience to advance in rushes and should advance in rigid, controlled lines. General Haig had opposed this but, not unreasonably, allowed the Army Commander to have his way. The slow, rigid advance gave the German machine gunners time to get into action. Either error would probably not have been fatal; together they caused one of the worst disasters the British army has ever experienced.
Total casualties amounted to 57,500, the equivalent of the infantry of six full divisions or two for every yard of the front attacked. Of these 19,240 were killed. German losses are difficult to assess but probably amounted to about 8,000 of whom 2,200 were prisoners. Only on the extreme right had the attack gained its objectives; north of the River Ancre it had failed completely. On our right the French had done better taking most of their objectives. What were our Generals to do next?
Mid July 1916
"We are going to take that position and some of us won't come back."
In Mesopotamia Gen Sir Frederick Maude took commend after the surrender at Kut and started to build up a fleet of steamers to ensure his army could be properly supplied as it advanced on
Although the first day of the
The 38th Division had been raised on the initiative of Lloyd George who, unfortunately, had used his influence to appoint friends to senior positions. Of the Division's three Brigades one came from
115th Brigade was ordered to attack on ih July. The Brigadier's plan was changed by XV Corps who do not seem to have been aware of the enemy's true strength. At about 8.30 am the Cardiff City Battalion (16 Welsh) and the 1st and 2nd Gwent Battalions (10 & 11 SWB) attacked the Hammerhead, a part of the wood which projected to the east. They had about 500 yards to go over open ground. A planned smoke screen which should have covered the attack from fire from enemy positions on the right failed to materialise and the attacking battalions came under heavy fire from the Hammerhead and from machine guns on their right in Flat Iron Copse. None of the attackers got within 200 yards of the wood. Among those killed were Lieutenants Leonard and Arthur Tregaskis who had returned from
General Home, the Commander of XV Corps, was displeased. The divisional commander, Maj Gen Phillips, was sacked and replaced by Maj Gen Watts from 7th Division. Under his command a second attack was launched on 10th July, this time on the southern face of the wood. Before the attack Lt-Col Carden commanding the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers from L1andudno addressed his men, "Boys make your peace with God! We are going to take that position and some of us won't come back. But we are going to take it." At 4.30 am the 113 hand 114th Brigades advanced.
By about 6.15 am the first objective, a ride through the wood, had been taken but casualties had been heavy; they included Col Carden who had been killed at the edge of the wood itself. During the morning reserve battalions moved up and the infantry advanced further into the wood in the afternoon after another bombardment. Most of the wood was taken by the evening although German positions at the northern edge held out until the following morning. Mametz Wood is about a mile long and perhaps
three-quarters of a mile at its widest; capturing it cost 38th Division about 4,000 casualties (600 killed, 2,750 wounded and 600 missing, most of whom were dead).
At one point the infantry came under fire from both German and British artillery. Captain Wyn Griffith sent a message back to stop the British fire. It got through and the fire ceased. That evening he was told that his younger brother Watcyn had carried the message and had been killed as he returned. In Up to Mametz he wrote, "So I had sent him to his death bearing a message from my own hand in an endeavour to save other men's brothers."
The way was now clear for the next major attack. In the night of 13th July six British divisions formed up, in the dark, on the slopes of Bazentin Ridge. At 3.15 am a hurricane bombardment hit the German lines and five minutes later the infantry stormed forward. The German position was in British hands as dawn broke. In fact the infantry could have gone further, the Germans were completely disorganised and had few reserved, but they were ordered to wait for the cavalry and by the time they reached the front the enemy had regrouped. High Wood, which could probably have been taken easily on the 14th fell two months later after bitter fighting with heavy losses on both sides.
The following day the, 15th July, the South African Brigade moved up to take Delville Wood on the right of the British gains. They took most of the wood and beat off a series of German counter-attacks, one by nine battalions - over twice their original strength. They left the wood four days later having lost about 3,000 of their original 3,150 men.
Another casualty of the fighting around Delville and High Woods was Major Billy Congreve VC who was killed on 20th July. His father Lt-Gen Congreve, commanding XIII Corps, had also won the VC in the Boer War. Billy Congreve had gone on leave before the battle and, on 1st June, had married Pamela Maude. In November, Pamela widowed and pregnant, went to collect her dead husband's decorations (the VC, 050 and MC - from King George V.
On the other flank of the advance the 1st Australian Division attacked Pozieres. It took two days of hard fighting to take the village that had been one of the objectives of the first day's assault. The advance to the German third line continued and it was not only the British who were suffering. A German soldier wrote home in July and described his position, "It is not really a trench, but a little ditch shattered with shells - not the slightest cover and no protection. We have lost fifty men in two days and life is unendurable. "
The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association raised the money for the 38th Division's Memorial at Mametz Wood (the dragon was sculpted by David Peterson of St Clears). The Branch is still responsible for the monument and contributions to the cost of maintenance are always welcome.
"It was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down."
In mid July the British had taken Bazentin Ridge but had not been able to advance further. Fierce fighting, continued In High Wood for the whole month. It could probably have been taken by a quick attack as part of the capture of the Ridge with only light casualties in July. Now, the Germans were to hold out there for weeks.
On the right the 55th Division attacked Guillemont to broaden the front. On of the units involved was the Liverpool Scottish. The battalion attacked three times, failing each time to gain any significant ground so that, by the end of the day, ten of their twenty officers and ninety-six of their six hundred men missing. Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC, the Medical Officer, went out into No Man's Land, to search for wounded. In daylight this would have been suicide; even at night it was dangerous especially as Chavasse used a torch, shouted and blew on a whistle to try locate casualties. He also ignored volleys of rifle fire from the Germans and a bullet in his leg. He received the Victoria Cross for this incredible exploit.
On the left the 12th Division and the ANZACs attacked Mouquet Farm ('Mucky Farm') a strongpoint which defended the rear of the German positions around Thiepval and, as often as not, defended against German counter-attacks launched to recapture positions which had been lost. "The first principle of position warfare must be to yield not one foot of ground; and if it be lost to retake it immediately by counterattack, even to the last man." General Falkenhayn, German Chief-of-Staff.
Unfortunately, after General Rawlinson's imaginative dawn attack in mid-July he seems to have lost control of the battle during August. Hard fighting continued but most of the British attacks were small scale affairs and often badly prepared. Larger attacks, properly co-ordinated by Army and Corps Commanders given adequate artillery support would probably have produced better results and fewer casualties.
Many attacks failed, "[They advanced] shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar. I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward, but it seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death. They died. The simile is outworn, but it was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down." Clearly proving that British generals were all incompetent butchers? Well no; this is an account of the defeat of a German counter-attack by British war-correspondent Phillip Gibbs and, while British losses mounted steadily, reaching about 160,000 by the end of the month and scaring the politicians at home, the Germans felt they were under very severe pressure. One wrote home, "I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life. They were those of the battle of the
The British pressure on the Somme had already brought relief to the French at
In the East the Russians, under General Brusilov, continued to advance and by mid-August had claimed to have captured 375,000 prisoners, 400 guns and 15,000 square miles of ground. Unfortunately he had lost 550,000 men and while replacements were available they were getting progressively more disenchanted with the Czar and his government. Encouraged by Russian gains
In Egypt Turkish troops launched a surprise attack on a rail junction to the east of the
At sea the German High Seas Fleet sailed to bombard
On the home front a Zeppelin attack on
'A tank is walking down the main street in Flers with half the British army cheering behind it.'
Then, on 15th September, came the next big push, an attempt to break through the German lines once and for all. Ten divisions attacked on a seven mile front helped by the latest wonder-weapon the tank. The problem was that the Mark I tank was mechanically unreliable, only about twenty-four of the fifty available actually reached the front, and slow, about 2 mph over broken ground and very vulnerable to artillery fire. Nevertheless those tanks which got into action were helpful in destroying wire and German machine guns posts. In the centre they certainly helped to capture the
On the right the Guards Division attacked from Ginchy to capture the
The battle of Flers - Courcelette continued for about ten days. On 25th September the Guards Division attacked Lesboeufs again. Captain Gibbs of the Welsh Guards wrote "We are attacking at the same place that we left off the other day and I think we ought to go through well." Comments like this and those of Capt Noel Chavasse earlier in September who wrote home "It is nice to think that our heavy fighting is coming to an end. The Huns are beaten to a frazzle in front of us. We are feeling top dogs. There is nothing like the losses we had at first." While somewhat over-optimistic these comments do seem to reflect the views of the troops at this time better than the anti-war sentiments which became popular after the war.
September also saw the capture of Mouquet Farm (Mucky or Moo-Cow Farm to the troops) which together with the Scwaben Redoubt and Thiepval had been holding out since the 1st of July. The success of this attack on nearly impregnable positions was due to careful preparation, good training and excellent planning particularly by Maj-Gen Ivor Maxse commanding the 18th Division. The British army was learning its trade but the breakthrough General Haig was seeking was to remain out of reach.
It was in September that Private Henry Farr refused to go to the front line and was arrested, convicted of cowardice and executed. It seems probable that Farr was suffering from shell-shock and his case is certainly one of the thirty or so where, perhaps, some acknowledgement that they may have been unfairly treated because of the primitive state of medical knowledge of nervous diseases may be justified. However the vast majority of three hundred who were executed were undoubtedly guilty as charged making the recent decision to issue a general pardon inexplicable and somewhat insulting to the millions of men who did their duty and, in many cases, died or suffered permanent disability from doing it.
It was in September when Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, reached the Western Front and gained his first victory while on Zeppelin raids continued and U-boats continued to sink allied shipping. The Italians launched the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo but, partly due to bad weather, were only made very limited gains. In the Balkans General von Falkenhayn started an offensive to drive the Romanians out of Transylvania (Dracula country) to prepare the way for a full scale invasion of
Those interested in the question of pardons for those executed in the First World War should read Blindfold and Alone (a Kipling quotation) by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson the most authoritative study of the subject.
'Rain fell in torrents, and the battle area became a sea of mud.'
On the Western Front the
To make things worse the weather had broken. The British Official History stated "Rain fell in torrents, and the battle area became a sea of mud. Men died from the effects of carrying verbal messages." A Canadian in a Field Ambulance wrote in his diary, "Dead lying all over, especially in pieces as shells persist in bringing them to the surface. Bodies in chamber all blackened from smoke bomb. One Tommy with arms around a Boche as in a deadly struggle." Some said the mud was worse than that found at Passchendaele in the following year; this does seem questionable but the
The British army's learning process continued. The Newfoundland Regiment attacked at Guéudecourt behind a 'creeping barrage' where a moving curtain of shells preceded the infantry to stun the defenders. Even though men might be killed from their own shells falling short lives were saved as the defenders did not have time to get their machine guns into action before the assaulting infantry reached their trenches. Although the bad weather did allow the Germans to draw breath and regroup they were still under severe pressure from the British attacks, one of which produced over a thousand prisoners. However fighting was difficult and there were no major attacks in October.
Then the guns fell silent and the Germans heard the French infantry in their trenches cheering. Expecting the infantry assault the Germans brought down their defensive artillery barrage. The French ploy had worked perfectly. There was no assault but now the French gunners knew where the German batteries were. During the next two days the bombardment fell on the German gun positions so that, when the infantry did finally advance, 90 of the 158 batteries had been destroyed and many of the remainder had been seriously damaged. Surprise and deception were still useful weapons of war.
On 24th October General Mangin's eight divisions advanced behind a creeping barrage for two miles over the most heavily shelled patch of mud in the world (even French peasants could not reclaim the land after the war and it is now mostly forest). In a single day the French had recaptured
The Battle of Verdun had lasted for ten months. At its end the front line was back where it had been in January. No one really knows what the casualties were. Probably French losses were somewhat more than the Germans but it seems likely that, on both sides, about 420,000 men died and a further 800,000 were wounded or gassed. Certainly after the war 150,000 unburied bodies, or parts of bodies, were found on the battlefield.
By any standards this was a clear victory. Certainly the French government thought so and General Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief, was replaced, not by General Pétain who had overseen the action, but by Nivelle. Doubtless this was partly due to the fact that Nivelle was extremely good at flattering politicians and telling them what they wanted to hear. Like many political decisions made for similar reasons this one would cause problems.
Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, an ace commander who had sworn he would 'raze
U-boats continued to sink ships, including several off the eastern coast of the
Late in October the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo started. It was called off a few days later after the Italians had gained about two miles at the cost of 24,000 men. On the Eastern Front Russia was nearing the end of its resources. General Alexeyev warned the Tsar that there were only enough reserve troops for a further five months fighting, unsurprising as Russian casualties now totalled 4,670,000, while the censorship department reported that the troops were saying "After the war we'll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy." In Arabia Capt T E Lawrence arrived in Jeddah to act as a liaison officer with Arabs rebelling against Turkish rule.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission's web site gives detailed directions to the locations of the graves of British casualties or the memorials where those with no known grave are commemorated.
On the left, opposite the
On the north bank of the River Ancre the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division attacked. The Division had been formed by Winston Churchill from fleet reservists who were surplus to the fleet's requirements. It had fought in Gallipoli but this was its first major battle on the Western Front and it would fight under a new, and rather unpopular, commander, Maj-Gen Shute who had been originally commissioned into the Welsh Regiment.
Machine guns in a concealed bunker cut down many of the sailors as they advanced through the German trenches but the survivors, under the inspired leadership of Col Bernard Freyburg, were able to consolidate a new line on the edge of Beaucourt village. In the Nelson battalion ten of the twenty officers who had gone into the attack were dead and nine were wounded. Two officers in reserve, Lieut Truscott and Sub-Lieut Edwin Dyett, who had been born in
Dyett, however, got into an argument with another officer at the station and then said that he found such chaos he felt he should go back to Brigade Headquarters for further orders. He was not seen again until the 15th November when he was found waiting in Englebelmer when the battalion was finally relieved and returned to its base. As a result of this unsatisfactory behaviour he was placed under arrest.
During the next four days the British secured the
The territorial gains, a maximum of five miles, were not significant. However the inexperienced British volunteers had learned their trade and were on their way to becoming the highly professional army of 1918 while the Germans had been put under immense pressure, particularly by the British artillery.
German letters home make this point forcefully:
"When you read these lines, I shall no longer be among the living. I shall have breathed my last before the enemy on the
"We are here on the
A German staff officer wrote, 'The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army' and it was partly to 'protect the troops from further Somme fighting' that the German's restarted unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision which would seal their fate by bringing
During 1916 the French developed the idea of a 'creeping barrages', a curtain of shells, sometimes hundreds of yards deep, which moved slowly across the enemy trenches with the infantry following closely behind to fall on the stunned defenders before they could get their weapons into action. It worked and in the first two weeks of November the French, now under the command of General Robert Nivelle, recaptured nearly all the ground gained by the Germans since February when the battle had started.
Of course the ground itself was not worth much. A French staff-officer writing of the
On 1st November the Italians launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo. The battle ended three days later with 28,000 Italian casualties and no ground gained. In Salonika the Allies captured the town of
Emperor Fran Joseph of Austro-Hungary, aged 85, died and was succeeded by the Archduke Charles. A German submarine sank the liner Brittanic. One of those who survived was a stewardess who had been rescued when the Brittanic's sister ship, the Titanic, was lost. Manfred von Richtofen scored his eleventh kill when he shot down Major Lanoe Hawker VC. At the end of the month a Zeppelin raid dropped two hundred bombs but two of the seven raiders were shot down. The following day a German sea-plane bombed Kensington wounding six civilians. This was the first raid on
Albert Ingham and Alfred Longshaw were found in civilian clothes on board a Swedish ship in
'Beaucourt Revisited' by Sir Alan Herbert, who served in the Royal Naval Division, is one of the outstanding poems of the war. Another poem attributed to him about General Shute is also memorable if for completely different reasons.
'We shall put our trust rather in an unbroken army than in broken faith.'
'All quiet on the Western Front'. As usual December was a quiet month for the troops. Well, not entirely. At Verdun General Robert Nivelle, the new commander, launched a major attack. This produced 11,000 German prisoners and 115 heavy guns and restored the French line to about where it had been in January when the battle started. 'I can assure you that victory is certain', Nivelle announced to his men afterwards.
French troops on the
In the last British attack on the Somme in mid November the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had captured the
The Division moved back to rest on the Seine Estuary and Dyett waited. From letters he does not seem to have realised how long he had been absent and seems to have thought that he would not be charged. He was wrong. On 26th December he was court-martialled for desertion. (A soldier is guilty of desertion if he absents himself either with the intention of leaving the army permanently or of avoiding some onerous or dangerous duty.) The evidence established that Dyett had been ordered to go up to the front and that he had not done so. Why he failed was less clear. There are suggestions that he was confused and in his letters he admits he was of a nervous disposition and unsuited to front line service. He did not give evidence on his own behalf, perhaps because his solicitor felt he could not possibly explain his lengthy absence.
The court found Edwin Dyett guilty - it is difficult to see how they could have reached any other verdict unless they felt his nervous nature made it impossible for him to do anything 'intentionally' - and he was sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy on the grounds that he was young, inexperienced and the circumstances were likely to affect a youth who did not have a strong character.
Death sentences had to be confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief so the file moved up the chain of command. Maj-Gen Shute, the Divisional commander, recommended mercy on the grounds the division had done well in the battle and that Dyett was young and inexperienced. Lt-Gen Macob, the Corps Commander, however, recommended that the sentence be carried out. The Army commander, General Gough, wrote "I recommend that the sentence be carried out. If a private had behaved as he did in such circumstances, it is highly probable that would have been shot." The papers reached General Douglas Haig at the end of the month.
On other fronts the war dragged on. In the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt Australian and New Zealand troops pushed the Turks back to EI Arish, only about twenty miles from the Palestinian border. In Roumania the Germans under General von Falkenhayn completed the capture of most of the country giving
In Mesopotamia General Sir Francis Maude, with an army of 48,000 men, 170 guns and 20 planes, started a new offensive to capture
On the Home Front matters were more active. Herbert Asquith, who had lost one son in the fighting, tired and ageing was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George - the one person in the cabinet who had 'any aptitude for war or knowledge of it', according to Churchill. Lloyd George took over on 6th December just in time to respond to a speech by the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, which offered to open negotiations on the basis that
A suggestion by the recently re-elected President Wilson that the Allied powers should formulate the terms on which they would make peace. Well meaning
Books about the