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
'Oh sir, my eyes - I'm blind - I'm blind, I'm blind!'
On the Western Front fighting had died down as the British Army settled down for the winter. Of course, just because there were no major battles did not mean that the troops were safe. Shelling and sniping continued. On 12th January 2/Lieut Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment went with his platoon to man an advanced post between the British and German front lines. They were there for four days and under continuous German artillery fire for about fifty hours.
When he finally returned to the Battalion's billets he wrote home to his mother. "I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it. I held an advanced post, that is, a "dugout" in the middle of No-Man's Land." He explained that the dugout could hold twenty-five men, 'packed tight' and went on, Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air. One entrance had been blown in and blocked. So far, the other remained. The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't. ... I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees. Towards 6 o'clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate; so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No-Man's Land to visit my other post. It took me half and hour to move 150 yards. "
Owen's experiences formed the basis of one of his most famous poems, 'The Sentry' from which the headline is taken. The site of the dugout is very close to Serre Road No 2 Cemetery, the largest on the
In November Sub-Lieut Edwin Dyett, born in
On 2nd January 1917 Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the sentence of death. On the 4th Dyett was playing cards with two other officers of his Battalion when another officer entered with a large blue envelope, opened it and read out Dyett's death warrant. He was to be shot at dawn the following day. As was normal practice the Padre spent the night with Dyett who wrote a last letter home to his mother, apologising to his father for bringing dishonour on the family. The sentence was carried out at 7.30 am. Sub-Lieut Dyett is buried in Le Crotoy under a normal Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. There is no indication on it that he was a deserter.
Was Dyett treated fairly? One man certainly thought it was reasonable. Sub-Lieut Bentham, of the Hood Battalion, was badly wounded on the 13th in the November attack. With other wounded he was to lie in no man's land for thirty-six hours through a November night with only very basic treatment before he was evacuated. About dawn on the 14th, "an officer I knew to be one of the reserves came along. He looked white and scared and asked me where the front line was. I told him it must be a long way now but he would jolly well soon recognise it when he got there. Off he went and I never saw him again, but that same officer was later shot for cowardice. He had deserted his support troops who, without an officer, never arrived in the front line. John Bull [a tabloid paper of the time] however without knowing any of the true facts made a great fuss about it and placards were headed 'Shot at Dawn' and Tragedy of Young Boy Officer. Another badly wounded boy died that morning and others were of the opinion that we should perish there ... Thank God it wasn't raining." We do not know why Dyett never mentioned this incident to anyone.
If things were quiet on all the various battlefronts they were not at home. At 6.52 pm on 19th January a factory in Silvertown in
The story of Edwin Dyett is given in detail, including all the evidence given at his court martial, is told in "Death for Desertion" by Leonard Sellers and published by Leo Cooper, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
"There is very encouraging news from the interior of
At sea unrestricted submarine warfare commenced when the U-53 sank the
In Mesopotamia (
If you are interested in learning more about the First World War you could join the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association which meets in the Conservative Club in Fairwater,
March - April 1917
"For men die of mud, as they die from bullets, but more horribly."
On the Western Front the armies were enduring one of the worst winters on record. Men froze to death in the trenches and, generally, the conditions made major fighting impossible. However it may have helped to reduce the mud which many soldiers felt was the main enemy. A French trench newspaper carried an article about mud.
"At night, crouching in a shell-hole and filling it, the mud watches, like an enormous octopus. The victim arrives. It throws its poisonous slobber out at him, blinds him, closes round him, buries him. One more "disparu", one more man gone. ... For men die of mud, as they die from bullets, but more horribly. Mud is where men sink and - what is worse - where their soul sinks. But where are those hack journalists who turn out such heroic articles, when the mud is that deep? Mud hides the stripes of rank, there are only poor suffering beasts. Look, there, there are flecks of red on that pool of mud - blood from a wounded man. Hell is not fire, that would not be the ultimate in suffering. Hell is mud!'"
Even when there was no fighting planning continued. General Robert Nivelle, the new French Commander-in-Chief, had a plan which would win the war at a stroke. Nivelle had commanded several successful attacks at
Nivelle, whose mother was English, had even managed to convince Lloyd George to support his proposal. Indeed Lloyd George had even tried to get the British Army permanently subordinated to the French command and only gave up when the British generals threatened to resign. For this attack, however, Field Marshall Haig would come under Nivelle's orders and the British were to launch a major attack around
It is, perhaps, a pity that no one at French GQG noticed that the German retreat to the Hindenburg line had removed most of their troops from the Noyon Salient and that French security had been so poor that the Germans had a very good idea of what was being planned. Nevertheless preparations went ahead for the great April attack.
While the West was quiet the East was certainly not.
The Battle of Arras continued into May, not so much because the British felt it was likely to produce major gains but to support the French attacks on the Chemin-des-Dames. The British army had learned the lessons of 1916. The infantry were now armed with light machine guns and rifle grenades so that they could fight their way through the German defences. Guns and shells for them to fire were available in unheard of quantities (during the month's battle the British artillery fired over 6,000,000 shells) while advances in sound ranging made it possible to locate enemy guns so that they could be destroyed while better fuzes meant that gaps could be cut in barbed wire and avoided cratering the ground making it easier for the infantry to get forward. Overall the Germans were driven back between two and five miles on a twenty mile front and lost over 20,000 prisoners and 250 heavy guns.
Unfortunately General Nivelle and the French army were not doing so well further south and the mutinies in the French army continued. General Petain applied both the carrot and the stick. The carrot was more and better organised leave, better food and so forth; the stick firing squads and more informal executions. It worked, but French morale would remain low for months.
However even war-weariness and the collapse of
The situation was made (much) worse by the British Admiralty's refusal to introduce the convoy system. Even today no one really understands the reasons, possibly they thought there were too many ships to convoy, perhaps they wanted to use warships aggressively or quite possibly they had simply failed to study naval history properly. Finally the Lloyd George's Cabinet stepped in and ordered the Admiralty to start convoying merchantmen. Convoys now sailed escorted by warships including gunboats with balloons from which observers could actually see submarines (there was nothing like ASDIC in the First World War) and losses declined although still remaining significant.
On the Home Front a new terror arrived. The Zeppelins had been defeated by steady improvements in fighter aircraft, a warning system and anti-aircraft barrages. Now the German launched their
In May 1917, the Jockey Club suspended horse racing for the duration while the Boat Race, Henley Regatta and the Football League were all cancelled; the war was coming home.
If you are interested in learning more about the First World War why not join the Western Front Association. The South Wales Branch meets at the Conservative Club in Fairwater,
"Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography."
Messines Ridge lies a few miles south of
The plan had started with an idea from 'Empire Jack', John Norton-Griffiths, a civil engineering contractor. Ninety feet below the surface the 'clay kickers' who had dug
The preliminary bombardment started on 26 May and by 6 June 2,266 British guns had fired 3,500,000 shells. On the evening before the battle General Tim Harington, the Second Army's Chief-of-Staff briefed the Press on what was to happen. After his briefing one reporter asked if the battle would change the course of the war. General Harington thought for a moment and replied, "Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography." He was right.
By early on 7 June the nine British and Imperial Divisions who were to make the initial assault were in place; the final bombardment crashed down and then, at about 3.00 am, the guns stopped firing and an eerie silence fell. Then at 3.10 am the engineer officers pressed the plungers; the world exploded as nineteen of the mines containing nearly 1,000,000 of high explosives were set off within a few seconds. Ten miles away in
"The most diabolical splendour I have ever seen. Out of the dark ridges of Messines and Wytschaete and the ill-famed Hill 60, there gushed out and up enormous volumes for scarlet flame from the exploding mines and of earth and smoke all lighted by the flame spilling over into mountains of fierce colour, so that all the country side was illuminated with red light. While some of us stood watching, aghast and spell bound by this burning horror, the ground trembled and surged violently to and fro. Truly the earth quaked ..." Phillip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle.
Unsurprisingly the infantry found little opposition and the German front line trenches and the ridge behind them fell relatively easily; indeed most of the losses occurred because the advance was so rapid that some of our men ran into the barrage on the German second line. The captured ground was consolidated, the inevitable German counter-attacks smashed by concentrated artillery and machine gun fire and by 14 June Messines Ridge was firmly in Allied hands. Casualties were relatively light, about 18,500 in all compared with 35,000 in the first four days at
During June the French held part of the Western Front was quiet as the French generals struggled with the effects of the mutiny. Better leave, better pay and better conditions together with the execution of ringleaders were restoring the morale of the army but General Petain was playing a waiting game; waiting for the Americans. In fact General Pershing, their Commander-in-Chief landed in
On the Eastern Front General Brusilov was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armies by the Provisional Government but could achieve little as the Russian army was disintegrating. In
On the Home Front the German airship L48 was shot down over
The introduction of convoys would eventually cut losses to U-boats but June was a bad month with over 400,000 tons of British merchant shipping sunk. Lord Rhondda, appointed as Food Controller in June, banned the use of rice at weddings and the feeding of pigeons and stray dogs to save food. To help in the crisis the country turned to allotments; by May there were 500,000 of them and tennis courts and flowerbeds were dug up to grow vegetables. Farms were encouraged to increase the acreage under cultivation while the shortage of workers was partly met by the volunteers of the Women's Land Army. Some were too lazy to dig, they stole; fines were increased to £100 or six months in jail to deter them.
The craters are still all round Messines Ridge. One, Spanbroekmolen, is now owned by Toc H and kept as a memorial. It is beautiful, peaceful and well worth a visit. One mine was lost to German counter-mining after it had been charged. It is under Petit Douve Farm just by the road from Messines to Plugsteert. Four mines, just east of Plugsteert Wood, were not fired in 1917. One exploded in a thunderstorm in the 1950s, the other three are still there.
"And then the rain began, - the jolly old rain!"
By July 1917
The attitude of Socialists in the government did not help. Pierre Laval, who was to collaborate with the Germans in the Second World War, was demanding French participation in an international conference of socialists to achieve peace. Joseph Caillaux, another prominent left-winger who had been forced to resign as Finance Minister in 1914 when his wife shot and killed the editor of Le Figaro, was hoping to be called back to lead a government which would agree a negotiated peace ("peace at any price" his enemies said).
Caillaux's nominee, Joseph Malvy, the Minister of the Interior, was linked to left-wing and pacifist campaigners. One who even received subsidies from Malvy was Miguel Almereyda, an assumed name - the second name is an anagram of "y a la merde" (it's all s**t), published Le Bonnet Rouge a militantly left wing and pacifist journal. Eventually the paper's articles became too anti-war and the subsidy ceased. Almereyda found another source of funds in
War weariness was not limited to
Lt Siegfried Sassoon MC made his own protest in July while at home recovering from his second wound. His letter, denouncing the war as one of aggression and the "... callous complacence with which the majority at home regard the continuance of agonies they do not share, and which they do not have sufficient imagination to realise." caused an uproar. He could have been court-martialled but instead he was treated as being mentally ill and sent to
There were peace demonstrations in
On the Western Front the Germans tried a new weapon mustard gas. Mustard gas was a heavy liquid delivered by shells, not a gas cloud. It evaporated slowly and, more seriously, contaminated the ground for many days so that anyone who came into contact with it would be affected. The results were very unpleasant; one typical case was "Exposed to mustard gas on the morning of 28th July 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station on the evening of 29th July, suffering from severe conjunctivitis and superficial burns of face, neck and scrotum. Respiratory symptoms gradually developed and death occurred about one hundred hours after exposure to gas." In the six weeks after its first use 19,000 British soldiers were incapacitated, many being blinded, of whom 3 to 4% died.
Despite this planning for the next British offensive which would drive east from the Ypres Salient, capture the high ground and the railway centre at Roulers, clear Belgium of Germans and end the U-boat menace went ahead. For some reason Field-Marshall Haig did not use General Plumer's Second Army to follow up their victory at Messines Ridge and had given the task to General Gough's Fifth Army. Gough had a reputation as a 'thruster' and, as on the
In mid-July the bombardment started. The ground around
On 31st July the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, started as nine British and six French divisions advanced on a fifteen mile front. Times had changed since the
The first day's objective was the
Of course there were casualties. One in particular was notable; Pte Ellis Humphrey Evans, 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers died, probably on his way back to the casualty clearing station. He is better known, perhaps, as the bard Hedd Wyn. Fortunately he had submitted his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) before leaving for
As the advance started at first light it started to rain; by the evening as they dug-in on the captured ground, fixed barbed wire and sited machine guns the rain was both heavy and steady.
There is a blue memorial plaque to Hedd Wyn on a building on Pilckem Ridge. He is buried in
"I died in hell - (They called it Passchendaele)."
In May, June and for most of July the weather had been dry and sunny. Unfortunately, because Lloyd George had supported General Nivelle's plans for an attack in April and because Field-Marshall Haig had decided that General Gough's Fifth Army should move to
It was difficult for the infantry to move, shells failed to explode in the soft ground and impossible to move guns or wheeled transport forward except on duckboards laid over the mud (when they hadn't been broken by German shellfire). Even when the guns were moved forward it was difficult for them to support the infantry properly because they sank into the mud when they were fired and had to be hauled out and re-layed on the target for every shot.
The initial attack was halted on the 2nd of August because of the rain. It had, by the standards of the war, been reasonably successful and the British infantry were now established, wet, muddy and cold, in shell holes and captured pillboxes. When German infantry managed to move forward over the ground which, by now, resembled porridge, their counter-attacks were normally broken up although the Germans, by a super-human effort, did manage to recapture the
One of the casualties on the 2nd was Captain Noel Chavasse, the medical officer of the Liverpool Scottish. Chavasse had won the VC in 1916 during the
The next big push forward came in the middle of August. Up to the 10th the weather had not been too bad; then, just as the bombardment started, the heavens opened again. The creeping barrage advanced 100 yds in 6 minutes instead of the usual 4 minutes but even this was not slow enough. After the war it was revealed that the German infantry were so demoralised that if the infantry had reached their positions just behind the barrage they would probably have surrendered without a fight. Presented, however, with easy targets as the infantry slogged forward through the mud they recovered, got their machine guns into action and shot down the attackers in large numbers.
Fighting continued in a rather desultory manner for the rest of August with the gain of about half-a-mile. For some attacks tanks were available to support the infantry but, in the deep mud, they were useless and if they remained on the very few harder areas of ground, easy targets for the German guns. Casualties mounted steadily. Of 22 British Divisions involved in the fighting 14 had to be withdrawn and re-formed; 17 of the 23 German Divisions were pulled out as unfit and 9 fresh units moved up from the French front. The battle was putting the German army under considerable strain but this was not nearly as serious as presented in the grossly over-optimistic reports from General Charteris, Haig's Chief of Intelligence. Slowly, however, the front moved eastwards.
It is hardly surprising that cases of 'shell-shock' (post traumatic stress disorder increased to the point where special centres had to be set up to cope with NYDN (not yet diagnosed, nervous) cases. Before the war there was little understanding of mental diseases and the army were not keen to accept that normal troops could be affected by nervous disorders. Since the start of the war pressure from psychiatrists, had produced advances although even then the rules for dealing with nervous casualties may have been influenced by the Government's desire to limit the liability for pensions after the war. However centres were set up in Flanders and in
As well as being under pressure in Belgium Germany faced problems at home as well. Sailors in the High Seas Fleet marched into the town of
Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC VC and Bar is buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery (III.B.15) a little to the west of
'A really great day for XVIII Corps'
During August it had rained steadily and that and the shelling had turned the ground to deep mud. In an attack at the end of the month Lieutenant Vaughan was ordered to go forward to support an attack.
"Immediately there came the crackle of bullets and mud was spattered about me as I ran, crawled, and dived in shell holes, over bodies, sometimes up to the armpits in water, sometimes crawling on my face along a ridge of slimy mud around some crater. … Exhausted by my efforts, I paused a moment in a shell hole; in a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped round the waist and still being dragged in. The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side, and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to the troops in the gun pit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position."
At the beginning of September the weather cleared and something like peace descended on the Salient. Indeed it was so peaceful that General von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to the German Commander, wrote "My inmost conviction that the battle in
Field-Marshall Haig had finally accepted that control of the battle should be passed from General Gough’s Fifth Army to General Plumer’s Second Army and Plumer had obtained a three week pause in operations to allow him to assemble his guns, build up stocks of ammunition and plan a series of attacks. While necessary, this delay was unfortunate as the chance to attack in the relatively dry weather of early September was lost, an unfortunate by-product of Haig’s original decision to entrust the battle to Gough and not Plumer which had, itself, lost several weeks of good weather.
Plumer had very clear ideas about how to conduct a successful attack. Basically these consisted of an extensive preliminary bombardment which would neutralise the enemy’s artillery and knock out the concrete pill-boxes which anchored the defence. The infantry attack would be covered by a deep creeping barrage and the supporting troops would move up in file, ready to swing right or left to clear enemy positions with fire from their own light machine guns and the use of smoke grenades to covering the final bayonet attack. 1,300 guns were brought forward, one for every 5 yds of the front, with 3,500,000 shells for the seven day bombardment and the day of the attack.
Behind the lines 12,500 men laboured to build roads using broken stone to fill the holes and make roadways by laying elm planks on top. In one Corps sector this involved bringing forward 240 tons of 9 ft long planks every day for three weeks. Above the battlefield the British were gaining air superiority as their new aircraft, the DH5 and Sopwith Camels and Triplanes outperformed the opposition.
At 5.40 am on the 20th the
Plumer’s intention was to repeat these short advances at regular intervals as quickly as the guns could be moved forward. The weather remained fine allowing the new roads to be built and supplies brought up and on 26th September the next blow fell. Again the line was pushed forward about 1,000 yds and the inevitable counter-attacks broken up. Pte Frank Richards, serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, found his unit mixed up with Australians. In fact he was sharing a tin of meat with an Australian officer when a shell burst nearby. It killed a man nearby and showered the tin with dirt. Richards had to open another tin to finish his meal. He was to write about the Australians, "It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops. Some brigadiers that I knew never moved from Brigade headquarters. It was also the first time I had been in action with the Australians and I found them very brave men. There was also and excellent spirit of comradeship between the officers and men."
These attacks worried the German High Command. General Ludendorff wrote: "the 26th proved a day of heavy fighting, accompanied by every circumstance that could cause us loss. We might be able to stand the loss of ground, but the reduction of our fighting strength was again all the heavier. … The depth of penetration was limited so as to secure immunity from our counter-attacks, and the latter were then broken up by the massed fire of artillery." If two heavy blows could produce such satisfactory results what would be the effect of the series of similar attacks General Plumer was planning for October?
Behind the lines the Americans suffered their first casualties when four of their men were killed in a German air raid; two more were killed the next day by shell fire while building a railway line.
At sea U-88 was sunk by a British mine. Her captain, Walter Schweiger, had been awarded
In the east
The French air ace, George Guynemer, serving with the elite Les Cigognes (the Storks), was killed on 9th September. On the German side Werner Voss, a German ace with 48 kills, was shot down by British fighters let by James McCudden who will himself score 57 victories by the end of the war.
In Mesopotamia (now
George Guynemer is remembered by a memorial with a flying stork at Poelkappelle which is well worth a visit if you are in
"… death is still riding abroad in
A major German attack aimed at a ridge to the east of Zonnebeke ran straight into the third British ‘bite and hold’ operations. The German troops were caught in the open by the British barrage and destroyed. The British and their Commonwealth allies were able to advance about half-a-mile into the German positions. Of course there had been losses. The Australians, who had fought in all three ‘bite and hold’ attacks had advanced about two-and-a-half miles and had lost 17,000 men. One soldier recalled that his battalion came out of the last battle with 150 men – a battalion should have had 1,000 men. The Australian official photographer recorded that:
"This shelled embankment of mud was a terrible sight. Every 20 paces or less lay a body. Some frightfully mutilated, without legs, arms and heads and half covered in mud and slime … The terrain had become one great slough. One dares not venture off the duckboard or we will surely become bogged, or sink in the quicksand-like slime of rain-filled shell craters."
Despite this morale seems to have remained good. The Australians realised that despite the losses and appalling conditions they had driven the Germans back. It is just possible that, had the weather held, a further series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks would have produced a breakthrough; certainly they would have seriously weakened the German army but in early October the weather broke. In all 107mm of rain fell (as against 31, 32 and 69mm in 1914, 15 and 16 respectively) and with the drainage destroyed by shelling and little or no sun the mud took over. A series of attacks during October gained little ground but the Canadians did manage to push the line forward to the top of Passchendaele ridge and actually entered the village although they were not able to hold it. Haig’s objective now seems to have been to capture Passchendaele ridge although there is evidence that he still had hopes of a breakthrough – does this show that he was unaware of true nature of the ground? Major Alan Brooke (later Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke) certainly thought so.
It was during October that The Rev Theodore Bayley Hardy was awarded the MC for bravery at Larch Wood near Hill 60. Although over 50 in 1914 he had volunteered to serve as a Padre and had already won the DSO in the Ypres Salient in August. A soldier on patrol had become stuck in a shell hole. Despite having a broken arm Bayley Hardy remained with him for thirty-six hours in the rain in no man’s land giving him food and drink on a long pole until the man finally died.
On the British home front
Despite being under pressure in
The battle opened with a feint attack on
"From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond."
General Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps, brought up two new divisions for the next attack on the
"Private Robertson dashed to an opening on the flank, rushed the machine gun and after a desperate struggle with the crew, killed four and then turned the gun on the remainder who, overcome by the fierceness of his onslaught, were running towards their own lines. His gallant work enabled the platoon to advance. He inflicted many more casualties among the enemy and then, carrying the machine gun, he led his platoon to the final position, and got the gun into action, firing on the retreating enemy, who by this time, were quite demoralised by the fire brought to bear on them."
While the Battalion were consolidating the captured position Pte Robertson went out under severe fire to recover snipers who had been wounded in front of the front line trench. He was killed as he returned with the second wounded man and is buried in
On 10th November three divisions launched another attack to push the line to the east of Passchendaele. Unfortunately 1st South Wales Borderers veered off their planned line of advance. The German counter attack found the gap this created and were able to cut off part of the next unit, the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, which lost over 400 men. With the enemy on their flank the South Wales Borderers had to give up the ground they had gained and retreat to their original position. However, apart from this setback, the rest of the attack went well and most of the objectives were secured.
Since the start of the battle on 31st July the Allies had advanced a maximum of 4½ miles. The British, Canadians and Australians had lost 62,000 men killed and 164,000 wounded. German losses were heavier, 83,000 dead and 250,000 wounded as well as 26,000 prisoners. The campaign had put the German army under considerable strain but they could still fight on and they were about to receive vast reinforcements on the Western Front.
In Russia Kerensky’s moderate Government fell to a coup by the Bolsheviks the day after the Battle of Passchendaele ended. Lenin, Trotsky and the other leaders had only one aim; to end the war on any terms and on 19th November
Despite this General Byng’s Third Army launched an attack on Hindenburg Line near Cambrai. The German fortifications were formidable with several belts of wire each up to fifty yards deep protecting the trenches. Byng had about 250,000 men and 1,000 guns for an attack on a front of only six miles. The Germans had roughly the same numbers but the British had a surprise – 324 tanks. For the first time the new weapon was to be used in mass and the Tank Corps, as it was known, was led by its commander Brigadier-General Hugh Elles who actually rode in a tank named ‘Hilda’ in the centre of the line. The tank carried a flag with brown, green and red stripes (these colours because they were what happened to be available in a French drapers) and which now signify "from mud, through blood to the green fields beyond."
"The triple belts of wire were crossed as if they had been beds of nettles and 350 pathways were sheared through them for the infantry. The defenders of the front trench, scrambling out of dug-outs and shelters to meet the crash and flame of the barrage, saw the leading tanks almost upon them." (Capt DG Browne).
As the troops fought their way through the defences the attack slowed. Tanks broke down and at Flesquières German guns, firing at point blank range, knocked out thirty-nine tanks of which Unteroffizier Kruger, who fought his gun alone until he was finally killed, accounted for seven. Despite these setbacks the advance continued and at one point the Canadian Fort Garry Horse was able to charge a German artillery battery. By the end of the day the German defences had been broken and the British army had advanced about five miles. In
German reserves, including a division from the Eastern Front, were rushed up and stopped any cavalry breakthrough and the line stabilised. An attack on Bourlon Wood later in the month failed with heavy losses in tanks and then well planned German counter attacks regained most of the lost ground. The
"Owing to casualties the battalion is now only just over half strength. Everyone seems just beat and worn out. I am as weak as a kitten, feeling done up all over. My face is covered in septic sores and my feet are all blistered," wrote Pte Blunt of the London Regiment. Despite this the advance continued with barely a pause and by the end of the month the front was within striking distance of
The Fourth Christmas – Stewed Nettles on the Menu
By 3rd December the fighting around Cambrai on the Western Front had died down. The British had learned a lot about the capabilities of tanks and about the problems of using them in mass. The attack, although only launched on a limited front had made useful gains but the German counter-attacks had regained most of lost ground leaving the British holding what became known as the Flesquières Salient. Casualties from the battle were roughly equal with both sides losing around 40,000 men including 11,000 German and 9,000 British soldiers taken prisoner.
In the East much more significant events were taking place when the Russians and Germans met at Brest-Litovsk.
The British government were well aware of the implications of the Peace Treaty and Sir Auckland Geddes, the Minister of National Service, warned that while the arrival of American troops would give the Allies equality in men to have the superiority for an offensive more men would have to be found. In addition to young men reaching the age for conscription he made it clear that skilled workers in munitions plants and shipyards would have to join the army with women taking their places in the factories.
Things were tough on the British home front too. An air raid on Essex, Ken and
"Wash the nettles, and put them into boiling salted water, and boil until they are nearly done. Strain off the water, put in two teaspoonfuls of milk and a heaped teaspoonful of butter or margarine, and stir briskly till boiling point is reached.
Another way of serving nettles is to cook them in fast-boiling water until tender, drain them carefully, and press into a pie-dish. Sprinkle over a few crumbs, seasoning to taste, and a little grated cheese with a few tiny pieces of butter. Place in a brisk oven for a few minutes."
However despite hardships the British public seemed willing, if not happy, to press on to victory, attempts by Socialists to start a Peace Movement failed to attract support.
Civilians were suffering on the Continent as well as the Allied blockade prevented the importation of food. In
If things were bad in