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

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

January 1917

'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 Somme, and was excavated a year or so ago. The excavation took place in an area perhaps 200 metres square and even within such a small area was held up by the discovery of the remains of three soldiers.

In November Sub-Lieut Edwin Dyett, born in Albany Road, Cardiff in 1895, had been sent forward to the front line to replace officers who had been killed or wounded. He had never reached the remains of his battalion in Beaucourt on the River Ancre but had spent thirty-six hours wandering captured German trenches behind the front. On 26th December he had been court-martialled, found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death but with a recommendation for mercy. At that time the sentence was not disclosed until it had been confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief so Dyett would have remained under arrest and unaware of his likely fate.

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 London's docklands was obliterated by the explosion of about fifty tons of TNT. The shock wave was felt all over London and Essex, the blast was heard in Southampton while the fires which followed the blast could be seen in Guildford and Maidstone. A large part of the works, and many of the surrounding buildings, simply vanished and some 60,000 to 70,000 houses were damaged. Amazingly only just over seventy people were killed and about four hundred injured. Luckily the blast had taken place at a time when most were downstairs eating supper and many had evacuated the area because of the previous fire which had, in fact, touched off the blast. Tragically the plant, which had been taken over at the start of the war, was not really needed as a new factory had opened in February 1916 but, regrettably the Government had refused to close the Silvertown unit.

Although the Somme fighting had been terribly costly for the British and French and their gains limited the overall results of the battle worried the German High Command. Many of their original, peace trained regular officers and NCOs had been killed and their army had been exposed to the increasingly superior British artillery. Plans were made to shorten the front in France by a withdrawal to what the British called the Hindenburg line a series of well planned defences some miles back from the current front.

Germany also faced slow strangulation from the British naval blockade. Britain, which imported much of its food, was also vulnerable to blockade but the only way Germany could achieve this was by unrestricted submarine warfare which could easily result in the United States declaring war on Germany. The Kaiser sought advice from the Chief of the Naval Staff. Admiral von Holtzendorf advised that unrestricted submarine warfare would force England to sue for peace within six months and, asked about the United States' reaction said: "I will give Your Majesty my word as an officer that not one American will land on the Continent." On the strength of what must rank as some of the worst advice ever given to a commander Kaiser Wilhelm overrode the objections of his Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg and ordered unrestricted warfare from 1st February. As a precaution the German Foreign Minister, Dr Alfred von Zimmerman, sent a coded telegram to Mexico offering German support if they would attack the United States while the German Ambassador in Washington asked Berlin for $50,000 to influence members of the US Congress to try to keep America out of the war.

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.

February 1917

"There is very encouraging news from the interior of Russia ... "

After the Battle of the Somme had shown the Germans the power of the British artillery they had been concerned about exposing their troops to another major offensive. Their solution was to build an entirely new defensive line about 20 miles behind the line. What the Allies were to call the Hindenburg Line was a very formidable defence line protected by deep belts of barbed wire and deep, well sited trenches. The area between the two lines was devastated; orchards were felled, houses demolished or booby trapped and wells polluted with dead horses. On 23rd February the German army withdrew to its new line and the British and French advanced cautiously through the devastated area.

At sea unrestricted submarine warfare commenced when the U-53 sank the Housatonic. By an odd coincidence in 1864 the first ship ever to be sunk by a submarine had the same name. Dr Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, was confident that President Wilson would do nothing; he was wrong. On 3rd February the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Another boost for the Entente Powers morale came when, also on 3rd February, Portugal declared war on Germany and sent a 50,000 strong Expeditionary Force to fight on the Western Front. However these gains could be more than offset by Russia's increasing weakness. Russia had already lost 3,000,000 men killed or taken prisoner, 500,000 more were in hospital, 1,500,000 had been excused further service and 1,000,000 had deserted Even with Russia's vast population losses like these could not be sustained. Bolshevik agitators urged soldiers not to fight and called for the end of Tsarist rule. A German general noted "There is very encouraging news from the interior of Russia. It would seem that she cannot hold out longer than the autumn."

In Italy and Salonika the weather prevented any major battles but the war went on. A Sergeant Benito Mussolini was injured by when a mortar bomb exploded prematurely. In Salonika new three-engined German aircraft with four machine guns attacked the British trenches causing heavy casualties; bombing attacks on the hospitals treating them followed killing wounded soldiers and two nurses.

In Mesopotamia (Iraq) the news was better. The advancing British and Indian army reached Kut-al-Armana, the scene of an earlier defeat, on the 24th. The Turks were also driven back in Persia while British troops overran border posts on the Egyptian border in preparation for an advance into Palestine.

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, Cardiff at 7.30 pm on the first Friday of the month.

March - April 1917

"For men die of mud, as they die from bullets, but more horribly."

Germany suffered a self-inflicted wound at the beginning of March. In January Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, had sent a telegram to the Mexican government urging them to declare war on the United States and recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico which they had lost in the nineteenth century. This was a very serious breach of the US's long standing policy of opposing Old World interference in the Americas. What Zimmerman did not know was that the British intelligence service were not only tapping the intercontinental telegraph cables but had broken the German diplomatic codes. The telegram had been decoded and passed on to the US government in February and on 1st March it was made public. Those who opposed US involvement in the war argued that it was a forgery but on 3rd March Zimmerman confirmed it was genuine. Another, and rather large, nail had been driven into the coffin of American neutrality. At sea twenty American sailors were drowned when the Healdtown was sunk by a U-boat while in a declared 'safety zone'. President Wilson called for a meeting of Congress on 2nd April. Neutrality was wearing very thin.

In Mesopotamia Iraq - the British advance continued with the occupation of Baghdad on 11th March. The populace, freed from Turkish rule, turned out to cheer the victors. In Salonika both sides had settled down to endure the very severe winter weather and there was little fighting but in Palestine British troops attacked the Turkish lines at Gaza. Although the armies were roughly equal in strength poor British planning resulted in a British defeat with about 4,000 casualties as against a loss of about 2,500 for the Turks. Small beer perhaps by Western Front standards perhaps but still a considerable loss for the smaller forces involved. At sea the U-64 sand a French battleship with the loss of nearly 300 men. Behind the lines the German occupation continued. 700,000 men had been deported from Belgium to work on German farms while a rebellion in the Balkans ended when 2,000 Serbs were executed by Austrian and Bulgarian troops.

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 Verdun and had convinced the government that the same tactics on a larger scale would allow him to break into the great German salient around Noyon with an attack around the Chemin des Dames near Rheims. Casualties, he said, would not be heavy because if his initial attack was not a success (although of course this was not at all likely) he would stop the battle after the first day.

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 Arras to draw off German reserves before Nivelle launched his war wining offensive.

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. Russia was nearing the end of its strength. Revolutionary committees were encouraging revolution and army officers were losing control of their men. A cavalry regiment in which Georgi Zhukov, the Second World War general, was serving was ordered to suppress revolutionary activity by other soldiers but ended by joining them. Tsar Nicholas abdicated and a power struggle developed between the Duma (Parliament) in Moscow, where a provisional government under Alexander Karensky was established, and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies led, rather oddly, by Prince Tseretelli. One of the points in dispute was whether Russia should remain in the war. In the meantime Lenin waited for the sealed train which Germany had arranged to take him from exile in Switzerland to Russia.

I do a number of talks on some battles and other events in the First World War all of which look at the people involved as well as the military background. If you would like me to speak to your organisation please contact me on 01446 710669 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

May 1917

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.

France was not the only country showing signs of war-weariness. In Italy the troops involved in the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo had no illusions about their chances of achieving a breakthrough. A song of the time suggested the only way the Queen would see Trieste would be if she bought a picture postcard. Actually the battle was an Italian victory gaining ground and capturing over 20,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners.

In Britain too there was pacifist feeling and several thousand men were imprisoned for refusing accept conscription. Clifford Allen, a leading pacifist, argued in court that the Government should make peace and that any gains from fighting on to victory would not justify the additional losses. We now know he was wrong Germany would have made peace in 1917 only on terms that left them in control of Belgium and a large part of France. However this all paled into insignificance with what was happening in Russia. Bolshevik feeling was growing and although the Provisional Government rejected a German offer of immediate peace with daily desertions running into the tens of thousands it was doubtful if the country could continue to fight for much longer.

However even war-weariness and the collapse of Russia were not, it could be argued, the greatest problem. In April German submarines sank 373 allied ships (873,754 tons). If something was not done, and done quickly, British production would be affected and it would be impossible to transport the millions of soldiers America could provide. So far there had been no food rationing but prices of goods in short supply were controlled to prevent profiteering.

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.

In Salonika a British night attack opened a new Allied offensive. Bulgarian searchlights and artillery fire held gains to a few hundred yards. Attacks by the other Allies, Russians, Serbs, Italians and French were no more successful. The tough Bulgarian infantry backed by German guns holding well fortified positions were simply too strong.

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 GothaBritain but managed to kill 95 people including 25 children and wound 192 more. Five bombs had done more damage than any of the Zeppelin raids. multi-engined bombers in a raid on Folkestone. Of twenty-three machines only two actually reached

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, Cardiff at 7.30 on the first Friday of the month.

June 1917

"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 Ypres. There was fierce fighting there in 1914 when the Germans launched their last major offensive and, despite a brave defence by, among others, the London Scottish who became the first Territorial battalion to go into action, the Germans had captured the ridge. Since 1914 the whole sector had been relatively quiet with the front line curving to the west round the high ground and a second line across the base of the salient. This was to change; in June 1917 the British were going to recapture the ridge.

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 Britain's sewers and miners from Wales and the other coal-fields were tunnelling ninety feet below the German lines. It was an unpleasant and dangerous job. Apart from the normal risks of collapses the Germans counter-mined, digging out towards the British tunnel and setting off explosives to blow it in. Men died, cut off behind roof falls when the air ran out or in vicious hand to hand fights when the enemy broke into a tunnel but the work continued. When the tunnels were dug men slaved to carry tons of high explosives into the chambers which had been dug at their ends and then to carry the sandbags needed to block the tunnels behind the explosives. There were scares. General Plumer, the Second Army Commander was woken by a nervous officer seeking permission to blow the mines before the Germans discovered them. Plumer sat up, said, "The mines will not be blown." and went back to sleep. The mines were never discovered and by June 1917 twenty-three of them were ready under the German front lines.

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 Lille the French thought there had been an earthquake, in Downing Street David Lloyd-George heard the explosion (it is said it was heard in Dublin) and most of the Germans holding the front line died, many due to the shock waves which left their bodies unmarked.

"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 Arras and 69,000 on the Somme. German losses totalled between 23,000 and 27,000 including 7,350 prisoners, many so dazed they hardly knew what was happening and 10,000 'missing' many of whom had undoubtedly been, literally, smashed to atoms by the mines. (Pillars of Fire by Ian Passingham gives a detailed account of the whole battle.)

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 France in June but not many of his men have so far joined him. The target was to build up to a force of 180,000 by the end of the year; not a large number in this war of millions. In the air Billy Bishop, a Canadian pilot, won the VC for a solo attack on a German air base; by the end of the war he will have achieved a total of 72 kills.

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 GreeceThessaly and later in June Greece entered the war on the Allied side. the pro-German King was forced to abdicate in favour of his second son who allowed the Allies to move into

On the Home Front the German airship L48 was shot down over Suffolk. One of the crew, Heinrich Ellerkamm heard the screams of his fellow crew members as the fire reached them. His own coat caught fire and he thought about jumping; a less painful death. Finally he decided to stay with the ship and was thrown clear when it crashed. He survived the war but we do not know if he ever saw Gretel, his fiancée, again. In fact by 1917 Zeppelins were obsolete but two raids by German aircraft on London, Margate, Essex and the Medway towns killed over 170 civilians and wounded nearly 450.

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.

In Egypt there was a change of command. General Murray was replaced by General Allenby, a much more forceful character (his nickname was 'The Bull'). The Government had ordered him to capture Jerusalem by Christmas which Lloyd George thought would be a boost for civilian morale. Perhaps he was right but one might question whether this was a sound basis on which to decide the country's military strategy.

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.

July 1917

"And then the rain began, - the jolly old rain!"

By July 1917 France was growing war weary. As the casualties were now about 4,500,000 killed, wounded and missing since the war began out of a population of 40,000,000 this was hardly surprising. The troops were discouraged and although the army was recovering from the earlier mutinies its morale was not strong.

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 Switzerland; then it was discovered that the source was actually the German secret service the paper was at last suppressed. On the French home front the Government were starting to take a tougher line and the exotic dancer Mata Hari may have been condemned for espionage as part of this new approach. She would be shot later in the year.

War weariness was not limited to France; The Reichstag (German Parliament) passed a resolution calling for a peace on the basis put forward by President Wilson. The Government ignored it. The Kaiser went further. At one of his very rare meetings with politicians he talked about a 'Second Punic War' led by Germany with European allies to destroy England's world domination. He also declared "When my guards appear, there is no room for democracy." The Supreme Warlord was not interested in making peace.

In Britain too, left wingers argued for peace. Ramsay Macdonald sought support in Parliament for the Reichstag resolution only to be defeated by 148 votes to 19. He wrote to President Wilson saying that it America's continued neutrality would have been better for peace. A Bolshevik meeting seeking support for an immediate end to the war; the Government distributed leaflets suggesting locals should turn up and disrupt it ("Remember the last air-raid and turn up.") and 8,000 people, including soldiers in uniform, did just that.

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 Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers. It was during his time there that he met another famous war poet, Wilfred Owen. Sassoon, of course, made a full recovery and returned to the fighting before the end of the war.

There were peace demonstrations in Russia as well. One, on 1st July, coincided with the start of the Kerensky offensive. Under the command of General Brusilov the Russians attacked on a fifty mile front, gaining ground and taking around 10,000 prisoners on the first day while another assault to the south captured another 7,000 Austrians. However there were signs that all was not well when Russian troops refused to obey their officers and when on 19th July the Germans, under General Max Hoffman, launched a counter-offensive the Russian army collapsed and most of the lost ground was recaptured by the end of the month.

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 Somme, Haig wanted a breakthrough not a steady step by step advance. Unsurprisingly it took the new commander time to prepare a plan, bring up ammunition and supplies and get everything ready for the big attack so the two week delay Plumer had asked for grew to six weeks. This was to be unfortunate.

In mid-July the bombardment started. The ground around Ypres is low lying with the water table only a foot or two below ground level. No one could dig trenches and many of the German defences were based on concrete pill-boxes with mutually supporting fields of fire. Naturally rainwater drained slowly; in fact it only drained at all because of centuries of work by the Flemings installing drains. The two week British bombardment by 3,000 guns did not improve the drainage.

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 Somme. The infantry no longer advanced in rigid lines but in small groups. Platoons now had light machine guns, and rifle launched grenades to allow their bombers and bayonet men to close with the enemy not just rifles. Before the battle the guns targeted the enemy's artillery using air spotters and sound ranging devices and when they attacked the infantry moved behind a curtain of shells many yards deep which was maintained until they had dug-in on the captured position preventing (or destroying) counter-attacks.

The first day's objective was the village of Passchendaele four and a half miles away. It was not captured but the initial advance of between one and a half and two and a half miles was quite satisfactory. As part of the attack the 38th (Welsh) Division went forward in their second major battle. Somewhat unfairly criticised for the time it had taken them to capture Mametz Wood in 1916 this time they captured all their principle objectives including Pilckem Ridge and received congratulations from Field-Marshall Haig.

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 France and in September in the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead it won the prize. His name was called by the Chief Bard three times without reply and then it was announced that the poet had been killed in action. Instead of chairing the winning bard the Chair was draped in black in his memory.

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 Artillery Wood Cemetery, which also holds the body of Francis Letwidge, an Irish poet, a few miles north of Ypres in Grave II.F.1Lines written by Hedd Wyn are inscribed on a bench in Danzig AlleyCemetery not far from Mametz Wood on the Somme.

August 1917

"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 Ypres to command the British offensive instead of General Plumer's Second Army which was in position, the attack was delayed for several weeks. The weather broke on the first day of the battle, the 31st of July, when 1 ins of rain fell. During the next month a further 8 ins fell (more than twice the average rainfall). To make matters worse it was spread throughout the month with days of heavy rain separated by dull cloudy weather which prevented the ground from drying at all. With the artificial drains smashed and the ground broken up by artillery fire the battlefield dissolved into mud.

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 village of St Julien.

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 Battle of the Somme for rescuing wounded in no man's land while under fire. When his battalion attacked he was involved in treating wounded in the aid post and, once again, went out into no man's land to treat and rescue wounded men. As he was resting in the aid post a shell burst in the dugout, killing and wounding nearly everyone there. Chavasse himself was wounded in the stomach but managed to crawl to another aid post. He was evacuated but died on 4th July. "Give her my love, tell her Duty called and called me to obey" was his last message to his sister. Posthumously, he received a second VC (only three men have ever received this distinction). The family were to suffer a double blow as his brother, Aidan, was also killed in the Ypres Salient.

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 Britain. Perhaps a third of those sent to these centres recovered quickly after a period of rest away from the battle and were able to return to their units. Of the remainder some could be used in labour battalions behind the front and others might recover after treatment at home; many, of course, would never recover.

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 Wilhelmshaven protesting about the war, one of the leaders was executed and others received prison sentences. However in the east the news was better. The Russian retreat continued in August with the Austrians recapturing Czernowitz and German troops succeeded in routing a Russian army in Roumania and a combined German and Austrian force smashed a major Russian offensive south of the Pripet marshes causing heavy casualties to the attackers.

In Italy the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo started. Viscountess D'Abernon, a British nurse, wrote "The camp has been submerged beneath an ever rising tide of wounded. Seven hundred and seventy passed through yesterday." By the end of the month the Italians had captured about six miles of mountainous ground and beaten off an Austrian counter-attack taking 1,000 prisoners.

Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC VC and Bar is buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery (III.B.15) a little to the west of Ypres. If you are interested in learning more about the First World War the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association meets at 7.00 for 7.30 pm on the first Friday of the month at the Fairwater Conservative Club, Cardiff. New members are most welcome.

September 1917

'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."

Vaughan led his company forward through the mud and shellfire and captured a German pillbox. When they were relieved that evening he found he had only fifteen men of the original ninety.

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 Flanders is at an end is more and more strengthened." He was wrong.

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 Battle of the Menin Road opened. The creeping barrage which preceded the infantry advance was 1,000 yds deep made up of two belts of heavy shells, then a machine gun barrage by 240 guns and finally two belts of field artillery shells. General Ivor Maxse summed up the day. "… a really great day for XVIII Corps, and we have thoroughly proved ourselves. It has in fact been a ‘devil’ of a battle for us all day long, and we have completely defeated the Hun, not only in our original advance of 1,000 yards but in numerous counter-attacks." He went on to praise the troops, "Just think of the second-line Post Office Rifles [a second line territorial battalion, the 2/8 London Regiment] standing up to the flower of the German Army and mowing them down with machine-guns and rifle fire after themselves being subjected to one half-hour of the most furious enemy shelling …"

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 Germany’s highest decoration Pour le Mérite six weeks before for sinking 190,000 tons of Allied shipping. Oddly the citation made no mention of his largest victim, the 30,000 ton liner Lusitania.

In the east Russia was still in the war. On 1st September Germany launched an offensive with the aim of capturing Riga. The commander, General von Hutier, used new tactics which involved a short but very heavy artillery bombardment, the idea of Col Bruchmuller, followed by an attack by small groups of lightly armed infantry who were trained to advance into gaps in the enemy line leaving strong points to be dealt with by supporting units. The attack was a great success capturing over 90,000 Russians. In Russia itself a coup against the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky by General Kornilov is defeated by a rising of armed workers. Russia moves nearer to a complete collapse.

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 Iraq) General Maude continues to advance north along the Tigris and defeats the Turks in the Battle of Ramadi. The pursuit is now aimed at the Turkish base of Mosul.

George Guynemer is remembered by a memorial with a flying stork at Poelkappelle which is well worth a visit if you are in Ypres. Another memorial at Poelkappelle is Pte Condon’s headstone in the British cemetery. According to the inscription he was 14 when he was killed (although recent research has raised doubts about this).

October 1917

Passchendaele Village Captured! (But lost again)

In Flanders September had been dry and the repeated British attacks were putting the Germans under serious pressure. After discussions with the field commanders General Erich Ludendorff decided to hold the forward positions in greater strength and try to launch spoiling attacks before British offensives. It put a considerable strain on the forward troops who were exposed to British artillery fire. Fusilier Karl Böhme of Guards Regiment 5 wrote:

"… death is still riding abroad in Flanders. Every so often it plucks another one from our midst. … At night we carry the fallen to the rear in silence. Several times a day a great hurricane of fire rolls over us from the west: crashing, bursting, flames and thunderous noise! Can we survive amidst it? Is that just a crazy thought? But we have to; we are all part of the grey wall and we must protect the Homeland, our women and children against the bringers of death, because we are all German soldiers!"

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.

Near Rheims on the Chemin des Dames the French army launched a limited offensive with eight divisions supported by eighty tanks. The attackers advanced about two miles capturing 10,000 German prisoners, the obsolete Fort de la Malmaison and depriving the enemy of an important observation point. Although not a significant battle this attack did show that the French army had largely recovered from the earlier mutinies.

On the British home front London was bombed by Zeppelins In the middle of October. The raid ran into bad weather and the British defences. None of the airships reached their targets and 5 of the 11 which set out were lost. This was the last Zeppelin attack. Now London was only threatened by bombers; the new Gothas made their first attack at the end of the month. Only 800 lbs of bombs were dropped – and several were duds – while five of the twenty-two raiders crashed on landing. On the home front in France Margueretha Gertruda Zelle who had been condemned to death for spying for the Germans in July was executed. Readers may know her better by her stage name – Mata Hari!

Despite being under pressure in Flanders the Germans managed to find troops to assist their Austro-Hungarian allies. The Battle of Caporetto, launched on 24th October after a four hour bombardment which included gas broke through the Italian lines. During the fighting a Capt Erwin Rommel won the Pour le Merite (the Blue Max) for advancing twelve miles, making a series of successful attacks and capturing 9,000 Italian prisoners while only losing six of his own men. Overall the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies advanced a maximum of fourteen miles. Then, with the support of British and French troops, the Italians were able to stabilise their front. An Italian journalist called for his readers to "Face the enemy [and to consider] not the gravity of the hour but the greatness of the hour." Benito Mussolini would repeat calls of this sort after the war.

In Egypt General Allenby’s army launched the Third Battle of Gaza. His British, Australian and New Zealand forces outnumbered the Turks by nearly three to one but the long supply lines and lack of water made the attack a tricky proposition. The battle was preceded by a deception. As part of it Richard Meinertzhagen, a British staff officer, rode up to a Turkish position until he was fired on and then fled giving the impression he had been wounded by dropping a bloodstained haversack which contained false orders (not all British generals ignored the benefits of surprise).

The battle opened with a feint attack on Gaza by three divisions while the main attack was launched on Beersheba. Aerial reconnaissance had revealed a lack of barbed wire and the final assault was a charge by Australian cavalry using sharpened bayonets as swords. The Turks fled into the town where they were routed out by the Australians who took around 1,000 prisoners.

Gaza itself was now attacked after a heavy naval bombardment. The infantry were able to overrun the defences without much difficulty and the Turks fell back leaving a rearguard which included Austrian gunners. Again the cavalry charged. Some gunners fled; others fought to the last until their guns were overrun. The cavalry pushed forward riding over Turkish machine gunners and clearing the road to the next objective – Jerusalem.

November 1917

"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 village of Passchendaele on 4th November. As usual the infantry struggled forward slowly through deep mud under German artillery and machine gun fire. On this occasion low flying aircraft joined in although pilot mistook a row of greatcoats, left by the troops on their start line, for men and wasted a lot of ammunition on them. As the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion finally entered the village Pte James Peter Robertson found his platoon held up by machine gun fire:

"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 Tyne Cott Cemetery, the only Canadian VC to have a known grave. The Canadians beat off the inevitable German counter attack later that day and the village was firmly in Canadian hands.

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 Russia asked for an immediate armistice on the whole front. The massive German armies in the east would be freed to move to France.

France, too, had a new leader but far from seeking peace Georges Clemenceau lived up to his nickname ‘The Tiger’ and promised the Chamber of Deputies "War, nothing but war." Perhaps this inspired a British leader’s speech twenty-three years later - Winston Churchill was in the audience.

In Italy the Central Powers drove on. In the last week of October they had advanced about forty miles. Now, after widening the front under attack the disintegrating Italian armies were driven even further back during November. To avoid the complete defeat of the Italian army eight British and French divisions were moved from the Western Front and the line finally stabilised on the River Piave, only twenty miles from Venice.

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 Britain Church bells rang to celebrate a famous victory.

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 village of Fontaine was under machine gun fire from both armies, "No human being could stay alive there for a second after showing himself in the village," wrote Phillip Gibbs. Of the 1,500 Guardsmen who went into Fontaine only 500 returned; among the dead was Norman Chamberlain, cousin of the future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

In Palestine the British and Australians followed up their successes in the Battle of Gaza. The Australian Mounted Division launched a classic cavalry charge on the Turkish defences at Beersheba capturing many of the defenders and, more importantly, the wells around the town which were vital to the next stage of the advance. Among other divisions the 53rd, made up of Welsh Territorials, advanced north through hilly ground following up the retreating Turks. In the ten days following the battle the British captured 10,000 Turks and nearly 200 guns and machine guns and advanced about fifty miles.

"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 Jerusalem.

Meanwhile in France the American Army was building up its strength, albeit more slowly than planned. The first American battle casualties of the war occurred on 3rd November. Later in the month the 42nd Division – nicknamed the Rainbow Division because it contained troops from every state of the Union – arrived. Its Chief of Staff was Douglas MacArthur.

December 1917

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. Russia was now controlled by the Bolsheviks who had one aim to end the fighting at any cost. The Germans also wanted a quick settlement to allow them to move troops to the Western Front but were in a much better bargaining position. The Germans gained vast amounts of land but, more importantly, were able to start moving 900,000 men with their artillery to the west. When all had arrived they would, for the first time since 1914, be stronger than the British and French. Smaller nations also benefitted from Russia’s collapse with Estonia and Latvia gaining their independence.

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. Britain was nearing the end of its manpower.

At sea Britain was winning the war. The convoy system, instituted despite protests from the Admiralty, was working and losses of merchant ships in November had been the lowest of the year. Even so 126 ships, 56 of them British, had been lost. Four American battleships arrived to reinforce the British fleet but, more importantly, the increase in shipbuilding in the United States would ensure that there would be enough merchant ships to bring troops and supplies across the Atlantic. However losses continued. Over 500 merchant seamen were lost in December and the navy lost over 1,000 men, four destroyers and a troopship. Even distance did not protect civilians. The Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, blew up in Nova Scotia. 1,600 civilians were killed and 9,000 injured, 20% of the population of the port of Halifax.

In Palestine the British army continued to follow up the retreating Turks. On 9th the Mayor of Jerusalem surrendered the city which General Allenby entered formally on 11th December. At the end of the month the advance north continued. Armoured cars supported the infantry and the Turks lost over 1,000 killed in the fighting.

Things were tough on the British home front too. An air raid on Essex, Ken and London by German Gotha and Giant bombers killed eight and injured 28 bringing the total casualties for 1917 to 697 dead and 1,644 injured. Food was rationed and, even if it had not been, it was in short supply and very much more expensive than before the war. The Ministry of Food advertised a planned Christmas dinner – French rice soup, filleted haddock, roast fowl and vegetables, plum pudding and caramel custard – which would cost 10/- (50p) for four people. Recipes for stewed nettles were published:

"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 Constantinople 10,000 people had died. In Austria-Hungary seven divisions had to be recalled from the front to keep order after serious food riots.

If things were bad in Britain they were worse in Germany. Civilians there were living on 800 calories a day and electricity and gas were turned off in the evening to save fuel and the winter of 1917 was bitterly cold.

Back to top