Coffman

 

Edward M Coffman: The War to End all Wars. The American military experience in World War I.

This review first appeared in the Winter 1992 edition of the Western Front Magazine 'Stand To!' no. 36

The history of the American involvement in the Great War, first published in 1986 by OUP, has been to many the standard work on the subject. It was based upon some sources new at the time and used interviews with 30 survivors, including two divisional chiefs of staff. In spite of new research which has since been done, the author has decided not to revise his original text. In effect, we have available again this useful account the work done by the Americans on the Western front where over 50,000 of them died. It's a very readable book, too, and worth having solely for the long essays and saucers at the end.

Bob Wyatt (1992)

 

There are many benefits to joining the Western Front Association - including automatic subscription to our magazines 'Stand To!' and 'Bulletin'. To find out more click here: Benefits of Membership. 

 

 

 

 The British on The Somme 1916

 

The British on the Somme 1916

WWI British History Somme

By Bob Carruthers

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military

Pages: 128

ISBN: 9781473837812

Published: 30th January 2017

 

This book continues the series from Pen and Sword, with 79 'Images of War' books on their website with about 10 dealing with WW1. The Great Push, the Battle of the Somme, 1916 is available in the same format. This revolves around a publication of a similar name from the time. These books are all very concise and explanations of the images limited.

A three page introduction is given, describing the battle, those informed may be concerned that massively discussed concepts such a General-ship are given one paragraph and mentioned occasionally in the photographic texts. Hard fought versus poor leadership is there but perhaps the thoughts are more towards poor leadership. There is however very limited space and I am sure the author felt this to be a problem. Credit is given to two photographers Ernest Brookes, the first official photographer and John Warrick Brooke who followed him. There are about 150 images, some quite well known. There are two to three sentences of explanation below each. All aspects are dealt with in as  brief a way as space allows, some might say the explanations do not give justice to the images. It is interesting to note other reviews of books dealing mainly with collections of images referred to them as 'lazy history'.

A still from Malin's film of the Somme is included, the famous image of a casualty being carried along a trench. It is notable that the debate still goes on about the identities and the production of the photograph, whether staged or not. There is a lot of information on the IWM website, it is again a shame that the author did not have more space to deal with this controversy especially as he provides Ernest Brooke's photograph of a similar scene with a different bearer but possibly the same casualty.

I suspect that the descriptions given were written separately for separate photographs as there is some repetition. The authors view that the proceeding barrage used under powered guns (nil about wrong shells or duds or too much spread to second trench lines). Other repetition is seen about animal casualties and transport difficulties involving terrain and weather.

I would wonder if one images showing soldiers making their way across a shelled landscape isn't actually showing two casualties.

I am not too sure who this book is aimed at, I suspect even those with a little knowledge may be a little disappointed about the volume of information but it seems this format is a firm favourite with Pen and Sword and may be of interest to some readers.

 

Arthur Coke far left and David Fyffe
Fig. 1. Arthur Coke (far left) and David Fyffe (second left) pose for a photograph shortly before landing. In the background is one of the River Clyde’s Maxim gun steel emplacements

An insight into the book's origins by one of its authors, Stephen Chambers:

During research for our recent book on Gallipoli, co–author Richard van Emden and I came across some incredible personal accounts, most never before published. One of those to provide a fresh and illuminating version of events was that of Second Lieutenant David Rodger Fyffe, whose diary was kindly loaned by his daughter.

In November 1917 Fyffe trundled into action in tank H11 – nicknamed Helen – during the Battle of Cambrai and at that point any thoughts of his time spent fighting in Gallipoli were probably very far from his mind. Through Fyffe’s written word, however, we discovered an amazing story, including his eye–witness experiences of the landings on V Beach on 25 April 1915, 100 years ago.

So who was Fyffe and what exactly had he experienced on the day of the Gallipoli landings?

Dundee born, Fyffe was 20 years old when he joined the armoured section of the Royal Naval Air Service in October 1914 as a petty officer. Conceived to act in the role of motorised cavalry for reconnaissance and advanced skirmishing, the unit had seen some service, with varying results, in Belgium and France at the beginning of the war. But for the new volunteers like Fyffe, life begun with training. Preparation for war took place at Wormwood Scrubs where the unit busied themselves with general motor–car and motor–cycle instruction. They would spend hours of each day becoming thoroughly conversant with the internal economy of the Maxim gun and the 3–pounder quick–firing guns which, mounted on motor–lorry chassis, formed the heavy artillery of the armoured car brigade. Small–arms also had to be mastered, and the rifle and automatic pistol formed the subject of endless lectures until they found themselves talking in their sleep of ‘breech action’, ‘extractor horns’ and ‘trajectory’. Signalling in all its many forms had also to be worked through, until Semaphore and Morse would have driven them almost insane. One highlight would have been driving the newly–issued, and now armoured, Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Although these would have been fun to handle during field training in Devon and Norfolk, impatience grew as the men itched for active service.

Many of us are familiar with the Gallipoli story and the failure to force the Dardanelles and capture Constantinople in early 1915.

When the failed naval attacks came to a head in March of that year the path was opened for the army to be landed. There was still every intention of forcing ships into the Sea of Marmara, but only as soon as the infantry had done its job of seizing the high ground and rendering inoperable the forts guarding the Straits. There was no thought that such a plan might not succeed; the only question was where to land sufficient troops to do the job.

The Gallipoli campaign was organised with astonishing speed, not quite on the back of the proverbial envelope but at a pace inconceivable today, when plans are made in great detail and contingencies anticipated. General Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander–in–chief, had no such luxury and later conceded that his plans were ‘very sketchy’ and entirely of his own design. This had one merit, as he recognised. His was the responsibility alone, and he was being given free rein to see ‘his’ strategy through.

V Beach Gallipoli
Fig.2 Map of Gallipoli Beaches

In planning the forthcoming operations, Hamilton decided to land his forces across several beaches. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) would land at Gaba Tepe to the northwest of the peninsula, on a beach codenamed Z, whilst the main British landing of the 29th Division would come ashore around Helles to the south, on a series of beaches designated S, V, W, X and Y. Diversionary attacks by the French and the Royal Naval Division were also integral to the operation.

The main British effort on 25 April 1915 would be at V and W Beaches.

The aim at Helles was to land, then capture Krithia village and the heights of Achi Baba that dominated the ground in this southern sector of the peninsula. The following day, British forces moving north would combine with the Anzacs moving east for an assault on Kilid Bahr. It does not take historical hindsight to realise that this was, in terms of pace alone, an astonishing timetable, predicated on a high degree of Turkish malleability. It is fair to say that Hamilton’s optimism was not shared by all his commanding officers, including Major General Aylmer Hunter–Weston of the 29th Division, who believed the men were not prepared for such tough objectives when reconnaissance had revealed the preparations made by the Turks at Helles.

The men would land in daylight in open rowing boats, pulled close to the shore by steam launches. At V Beach the men faced a beach shaped like an amphitheatre, defended by barbed wire and trenches, as well as by two battered forts. The potential for an immediate and serious check here was obvious. At a conference held two weeks before the attack, Commander Edward Unwin voiced his opinion that men rowing in open boats were likely to be easy targets and that a ‘specially prepared ship’ might be rammed ashore from which the infantry would pour from a series of ‘doors’ cut into the side of her superstructure. The ship, once beached, could then support the assault with machine guns while also carrying supplies of ammunition, food and water.

River Clyde approaching V Beach
Fig.3 The converted collier River Clyde approaching V Beach on 25 April 1915

The idea of using this modern day Trojan Horse was immediately accepted and a ship – the ten–year–old 4,000–ton collier named the River Clyde – was handed over for the works to be undertaken. On the decks, casements were made for the protection of machine guns and fired by men under Unwin’s command. Of course the ship might run aground before it reached the beach and so a steam hopper and three lighters were to be towed alongside, ready to be drawn forward to bridge any gap between ship and shore. One of those who volunteered to serve under Unwin was Lieutenant The Hon. Arthur Coke, Fyffe’s very own section commander, who wrote home excitedly in a letter dated 19 April:

‘[The General] said he wanted some marines to man the first troopship that lands. Isn’t it splendid, we have got the job – Wedgwood, Illingworth, Parker and myself. Forty men were taking ten Maxims and putting them all round the fo’c’sle of the ship and we are to cover the landing of the first troops, who are 2,000 Irish Fusiliers (regulars). Captain Unwin of the navy is in charge of the ship with only twelve men (crew). He is going to beach her and has cut holes under the fo’c’sle for the men to immediately jump out and land … I cannot think of anything more exciting, also we shall see the whole thing. We shall have the fleet behind us so if the Turks do shell us I don’t think it will be for long although she is a pretty big target. Today we have been very busy building shelters over our guns. I believe we start the landing this week, I think it will be short but sharp to take Gallipoli.’

The plan was quickly put into action and the River Clyde was soon ready to take on her human cargo. David Fyffe’s account records what happened next:

‘About six o’clock at night, a big tug drew up alongside and the first of the two thousand troops began to come on board. They were the Irish Brigade, the 1st Dublin and Munster Fusiliers, splendid fellows and some of the best of our crack regular regiments. By 9.30pm the last of the soldiers was on board and the eight big holds were crammed with men packed as close as they could stand. They were mostly the Irish Brigade, but there are also several hundreds of the Hants and Worcesters. These are the first I have seen of our first line regular troops, as fit as fiddles, trained to the inch and splendidly equipped. If the landing can be effected, these men will do it. I have never seen such a collection of splendid manhood, and the very sight of them gives one confidence in our success. These famous regiments have been splendidly chosen for this, the most difficult and hazardous enterprise of the war. When they have cleared the way, lesser men may follow. But I do not envy them their night in the stuffy, uncomfortable holds. The lower ones must be a pretty fair reproduction of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and we have been doing our best to keep them going by making enormous cauldrons of coffee in the galley and handing it round. They are big, rough fellows these, but kindly and generous to a degree and it is a pleasure to be among them. Of a truth the British Tommy has a heart of gold under his rough and rather unattractive exterior, and it gave one a queer, choking feeling when one watched these big, light–hearted schoolboys and thought of what might be awaiting them within twelve short hours.

‘About midnight the anchor was weighed and we stood out to sea. Sleep was impossible; such was the crowded state of the ship, not to mention the intense excitement of our mission. It was a glorious night. The big silver moon made fretted silver of the glassy, ink–black waters as we glided slowly between the jutting headland and the island which formed the outer gateway to the Dardanelles. Now we were fairly embarked on our perilous enterprise and one thought with a thrill that dawn would bring our baptism of fire. One felt somehow as if one were clasping hands across the centuries with the great adventurers of ancient times. Was it on such a night as this that the Roman fleet put out from the Gallic shore toward the unknown cliffs of Britain? Did Norman William gaze at that same silvery moon when his flotilla set out on their great enterprise? And the old crusaders: were their warlike spirits watching eagerly the start of this new crusade against the ancient foe? We felt, that night, on the old River Clyde, that we were living history over again as we forged ahead toward the Turkish coast.

‘About two o’clock we slowed down to a mere crawl and we knew that we were near our goal. But now the moon had set and the night was black as pitch. We could see nothing save the streak of creamy foam at our bows and the myriad stars that studded the velvety blackness of the sky overhead. My duties now took me below decks and I was busy at the Maxim belt–filling machine when the dim thunder of guns brought me up on deck. It was about 3.30am and the pearly–grey light that precedes the dawn was chasing away the night. Clearly now could we hear the guns, although as yet we could see nothing of the ships. The dull thudding drew nearer and nearer and more distinct as we slid slowly ahead, until, all on a sudden, away to starboard, we saw a red flash through the murk, and the rolling boom that followed told us we were nearing the fleet and that the bombardment had begun. Now as we clustered on deck watching the dim flashes that came and went at frequent intervals on both our bows and straight ahead, and listening to the dull thudding and rumbling of the bombardment, there loomed up suddenly out of the grey obscurity the long black shape of a battleship, silent and motionless. Hardly had we passed it when a long low destroyer, her knife–like bows slicing the water into two great foaming rolls that surged along her sides, slid alongside and a hoarse megaphone bawled orders from the dim bridge. Almost at once the Clyde began to speed up and soon we were forging ahead toward the booming guns.’

The landing at V Beach proved the hardest fought of all the engagements that day.

Barbed wire and defensive trenches threatened to disrupt severely any advance from the shoreline, while Turkish soldiers lodged in the castle of Sedd el Bahr and Fort No. 1 had a clear field of fire from which to make V Beach a death trap. The wide, gently sloping beach offered an inviting place to pull boats ashore, but it was also overlooked. If the Turks put up a stiff defence, then a sandbank yards from the beach and around five feet high would provide the only shelter. The first men due to land would be 1/Royal Dublin Fusiliers, brought into shore on strings of rowing boats pulled by steamboats. Behind them would come the River Clyde. In its hold were men of 1/Royal Munster Fusiliers and 2/Hampshire Regiment.

‘It was now light enough to discern the black shapes of warships lying on both sides of us and ahead, and soon we could dimly make out a darker grey line along the horizon that showed the land. Nearer and nearer we grew, passing between lines of great ships that flashed and smoked and thundered, and all of a sudden the dawn ran along the eastern horizon in streaks of scarlet and gold and we saw that we were almost in the midst of the fleet. And there, away to port, was a line of shore, undulating in rows of round–topped hills, that was spangled with sudden flashes of scarlet flame … It was the Turkish coast and the guns of the fleet were preparing our way. Now we were right in the midst of the battleships and the thunder of their guns seemed to rend the firmament. Once we passed close under the quarter of the Lord Nelson just as she loosed off both the 12–inch guns of her fore barbette. There was a sheet of scarlet flame that spurted fiercely from the grey muzzles, a great cloud of yellowish smoke that drifted slowly over our decks, and a terrific ear–splitting roar that seemed to burst one’s head …

‘The old castle and the village were receiving full attention and it was fascinating to watch the fountains of stones and dust that shot into the air as the big shells burst against the already battered walls of the fort, or demolished the few remaining houses of the ruined village that nestled at its base. It was just as we came opposite Sedd el Bahr, steering slowly up the channel through the lines of ships, that we on the Clyde got our first surprise in the shape of a big splash in the water a few yards astern. A friend and I, by virtue of our position as ‘bargees’, were now on the poop along with two sailors, standing by the hawsers that were towing the barges alongside and we had scarcely time to mark the spreading rings that circled in the water close to our stern, when all of a sudden there were two more ‘plops’ in the water a few yards short of the ship, and we were now fully conscious that shells were being fired at the Clyde from somewhere or other and falling uncomfortably close too. We ducked hastily behind the flag house on the arrival of two more visitors that shrieked close overhead and splashed into the water on the far side of the ship ‘… We had now passed Sedd el Bahr Bay and turning round, the ship steered a diagonal course toward the Asiatic side. When once more opposite the destined landing place, the ship was turned round and, with safety valves screwed down, headed at full speed toward Sedd el Bahr. Never had the old ship attained such a speed, and with her whole hull quivering under the straining engines, and the smoke pouring in oily black clouds from her funnel, she dashed towards the little bay. Nearer and nearer she grew, and as she approached the land the ships ceased firing and an uncanny silence reigned.

The tows carrying the Dublin Fusiliers were meant to land at 5.30am, but embarkation delays, and a strong current running out of the Straits, delayed their approach and the River Clyde had overtaken them. Even the best–laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, but this one appeared to be unwinding even earlier than that. Commander Unwin had no idea if the tows had landed or not so he had turned the Clyde around. He was concerned that there would be hellish confusion if both forces landed simultaneously. With so many ships close by, this manoeuvre proved extremely difficult. Still he couldn’t see the tows, so he decided to head straight for shore.

‘There was a soft jar that quivered from end to end of the ship, and she was aground. All was now excitement on board and we had our work cut out to ease off the hawsers quickly enough as the train of barges was jerked forward by the collision. Hardly had the ship come to rest when the little steam hopper with her tow of barges rushed out from under the Clyde’s quarter and made for the sandy shore some eighty yards distant. Up till now not a shot had been fired from the shore, and indeed we had begun to wonder whether the landing was to be unopposed, but hardly had the hopper’s bow appeared beyond her huge consort when the whole slope leapt into a roar of firing, and a tempest of lead poured down upon the devoted craft and her gallant crew. Disaster overwhelmed her in an instant. Nothing could live in such a torrent of lead and in a moment the middy at the wheel and every sailor on the deck of the little ship was shot down. Devoid of guidance, the hopper went astray and beached side–on while the barges all went out of line, the connecting ropes broke under the strain, and they came to rest in a hopeless muddle with the farthest barge lying helplessly in deep water about twenty yards from the shore. The bridge of boats had failed and the officers hastily met to construct a new plan.’

River Clyde Beached
Fig.4. The view from the beached River Clyde. The view from the deck of the River Clyde after beaching

Minutes after the Clyde beached, the rowing boats appeared crammed with the Dublins, their oarsmen pulling towards the shore but the dead weight in each boat made progress painfully slow. Huddled together and unprotected, the men were easy targets.

‘Out of six boats that formed one tow, only one reached the shore and beached side–on, and out from among the crowded benches only about a dozen men leapt into the water and rushed for the sand. Their comrades still crouched upright in the boats but they were strangely still, shot dead where they sat. The other four boats never reached the shore. One by one the oars fell from the dead hands of their occupants and drifted slowly away, and the big white boats lay rocking idly on the shot–torn water many yards from the shore, with not a movement amid the huddle of khaki figures that filled them to the gunwales. As we watched in wordless horror, one of the boats floated slowly past us, bumping along our side, and we could look straight down into her motionless cargo. It was a floating shambles. A mass of corpses huddled together in the bottom of the boat and lying heaped above one another across the crimson benches. Here an arm and hand hung over the gunwale, swaying helplessly as the boat rocked on the waves. There a rifle stuck upright into the sunlight out of a mass of shapeless khaki figures. And everywhere crimson mingling with the brown, and here and there a waxen–white face with draggled hair staring up into the smiling heavens. Slowly the ghastly boat scraped along our sides and slowly drifted out to sea leaving us frozen with a nameless horror and an overpowering dread. Such was our introduction to the glories of war, and when one big fellow turned his drawn white face to us with a slow ‘Good God!’ as we stared at the vanishing boat, we could only look at him in a queer tight–throated silence and wonder what in Heaven’s name it all meant.’

The Dublins’ commanding officer was dead, the second–in–command mortally wounded.

A few of the Fusiliers managed to make a dash for the shore and the sandbank. Those lucky enough to reach it lay low with no opportunity to hit back, while just yards behind them men were cut down in the water and drowned, pulled under by the weight of their equipment. Between the drowning men, boats floated helplessly in the water with their dead and dying crews. Only where one or two boats had been taken into shore below Sedd el Bahr Fort was a landing effected without catastrophic loss. None of the infantrymen from the River Clyde had landed. The grounded ship was powerless, and the bridge of boats had to be formed manually if the men were to run down improvised gangways and over the boats to the beach. It was intended that the steam hopper accompanying the Clyde was to move to the ship’s port side and move lighters into position. It was a Heath Robinson idea and, given the circumstances, impossible to execute.

Through bravery and grim determination that would win the Royal Navy six Victoria Crosses that morning, the gap to the shore was finally bridged. The men of 1/Royal Munster Fusiliers could now exit through the opened doorways cut into the superstructure and run down the gangways towards the lighters.

‘We could hear splash after splash as the gallant fellows fell dead from the gangway. A few however reached the nearest barge, raced across her open deck and crouched for shelter in the adjacent open boat. One after another the devoted fellows made the dash down the deadly gangways until a considerable number gathered in the bottoms of the open boats or were lying prostrate on the deck of the barge. Then the order was given and up they leaped and rushed for the rocks while a hail of rifle and machine–gun fire beat upon them. Wildly they leaped from boat to boat in that gallant rush while we on the ship cheered wildly at the sight, until they reached the last boat when they leaped down into the water and started wading towards the rocks that were their goal, holding up their rifles high above their heads. But to our horror we saw them suddenly begin to flounder and fall in the water, disappearing from view and then struggling to the surface again with uniform and pack streaming, only to go down again never to reappear as the hailing bullets flicked the life out of the struggling men … We almost wept with impotent rage. Nonetheless some fifty or more survivors had reached the edge of the rocky point and were crouching up to their necks in the water behind this slight shelter waiting for a chance to rush over the rocks to the beach.’

Further attempts were made to land men and three further strings of boats, packed with infantrymen, made for the shore.

This time more were able to land but a number were cut down by the burst of three shrapnel shells overhead. More men were sent from the beached collier but all were forced to head for the sandbank so that by 9.00am a few hundred men were huddled there for protection. The extent of the disaster unfolding on V Beach was unclear to Major General Hunter–Weston and his staff on board HMS Euryalus as this second assault wave met with a similar fate.

‘The price to be paid was too awful and at slightly less than two hours after the Clyde had run ashore, operations were suspended and it was decided to wait till nightfall before a further attempt at landing should be made. The beach now presented a terrible spectacle, being strewn with dead bodies, some lying half in the water, others high up on the sand, while from the corpse–strewn spit of rocks on the right, crimson streaks ran out into the bay. Word was sent to the fleet of the failure of the operations and the ships recommenced with increased vigour their bombardment of the slopes above the beach and the old castle and village of Sedd el Bahr.

Our huge protectress [HMS Queen Elizabeth] turned her attention to the old castle on the right. There, in a chamber in the walls, a Maxim gun was spluttering busily through a small window, and not all our painstaking efforts could get at that gun. It was situated opposite my gun position on the forecastle and Lieutenant Coke was devoting all his energies to putting the nuisance out of action. But although the bullets from his gun were knocking little spurts of dust off the walls all around the look–hole, the aperture was too small and the belts rattled through the breech all in vain. Then suddenly one of the ‘Lizzie’s’ six–inch presents blew the top off the wall just above the hated window and with a fervid ‘At last’, Coke crawled out of his steel cubby–hatch and crouched behind the rail, glasses glued on the spot. Again the ‘Lizzie’ fired and again the battlemented parapet dissolved as if by magic above the window. ‘Too high, you blighters, too high!’ came in muttered accents from the officer, now flat on his face on the deck, for the air was full of whining bullets. Again came the crash behind us, again the shell groaned over our heads and this time the whole face of the wall disappeared in a cloud of flying masonry and dust and yellow fumes. For a second nobody spoke, and then suddenly ‘Got him! Got him clean! Beautiful oh beautiful!’ came in cries of ecstasy from behind the rail, and our worthy lieutenant danced upon the deck as the dust blew away and we saw that a huge hole gaped in the wall where before the window had been. But nothing the fleet could do seemed to daunt the defenders. The village with its huddle of partially ruined houses was a very nest of snipers and from behind the tree–clad garden walls and the corners of the narrow streets came a never–ceasing hail of deadly fire … Such of us as were not engaged working the guns, would crouch with ready rifle waiting to catch a snap–shot from behind the bulwarks at the dim figures that flitted from house to house as the shells smashed and wrecked the buildings. And that was all we saw of the enemy that day.’

River Clyde landed
Fig.5. The River Clyde sometime after the landing

In the days that followed Fyffe was going to see his fair share of the enemy, but his luck was to run out on 8 May 1915 when he was wounded, leaving Gallipoli for good. Commissioned into the Tank Corps he served out the rest of his war on the Western Front.

Read more of Fyffe’s Gallipoli story along with other harrowing, moving but sometimes darkly humorous personal accounts written by soldiers on both sides, in Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers (Bloomsbury 2015).

Gallipoli Dardanelles Disaster cover
From 'Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Disaster  in Soldiers' Words and Photographs. Richard Van Emden and Stephen Chambers

If you are interested in Gallipoli then you may wish to attend one or more days of the Gallipoli Centenary Conference 26-27 September in London. There will be guest speakers on each day and ample opportunity to discover more and share your own understanding with others. 

 

 

Victory on the Western Front

Michael Senior

Pen and Sword (2016)

£25:00

ISBN 978-1-78340-065-2

235pp

24 b/w photos

7 b/w maps & tables

 

Many military historians were hopeful that the centenary of the First World War would encourage a more balanced public debate about this phenomenally important period of European history. However, despite a few notable exceptions, the traditional and digital media have remained wedded to the idea of a lost generation betrayed by incompetent generals and unimaginative politicians. Occasional diversions into topics like the 1914 Christmas Truce and the mechanics of tunnel warfare have done little to provoke a broader public debate notwithstanding the richness of the First World War’s recent historiography.

The 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme last year offered up an ideal opportunity to make the crossover in terms of public perceptions about the Great War. Last year Simkins, Sheldon and Sheffield, in particular, accepted the challenge and some of their views are nicely set out in a reappraisal of Terraine’s The True Texture of the Somme originally published in 1991 and revisited in 2016 (WFA Bulletin 106). Much of this contemporary thinking coalesces around the idea that the British Army experienced a pronounced ‘learning curve’ during the months following on from the largely failed assault on the 1st July 1916. By the time of the Arras offensive in the following Spring, so it is said, the British Army was at last fit for purpose and well placed to develop further - pressing home its’ advantage during what has become known as the ‘one hundred days’ to achieve a decisive victory in November 1918.

Unfortunately, public perception remains rooted in the horror of the 1st July to the exclusion of all else. Senior approaches this conundrum from a slightly broader angle – arguing that the exponential scaling up of the British Army and the necessary restructuring of the British economy was a unique, war-winning endeavor. He concludes that the leadership, technical innovation and tactical developments that enabled the effective use of this large-scale instrument of war are worthy of considerable admiration.

This book looks at the development of the British Expeditionary Force through a number of lenses. Firstly, the challenge of turning a small scale professional army into an almost two million strong force capable of trading blows with a German Army which had critical mass and attuned capability at the outset of hostilities – a task made harder by the destruction of the ‘old’ army at Ypres in 1914 and Kitchener’s prejudice against the Territorials. Secondly, leadership in the fuller sense – Haig is commended for his receptiveness to new ideas and others such as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George are praised for their foresight in understanding the size of the challenge and mobilizing the resources of the country accordingly. The pre-war contributions of men like Haldane and Wilson are cited as being essential first steps – the former in reorganizing the Army and the latter in aligning strategy with the French.

The next three chapters are concerned with innovation – airpower, tanks and artillery. Clearly the timely assimilation of best practice was of vital importance – no more so than in the development of tactics where successful initiatives by either side were invariably replicated very quickly. The sixth chapter covers this latter point in detail showing, for example, how the high command eschewed the policy of ‘breakthrough’ in favour of smaller scale deep penetration and adopted a ‘combined arms’ approach to offensive action. The author also takes care to cover instances where the British were slower to learn – for example in failing to fully understand and implement the German tactic of ‘defence in depth’ as a pre-emptive response to the Kaiserschlacht in the Spring of 1918.

The real power of this book is in the wealth of empirical evidence that is produced in support of a careful exploration of how an army, which was of marginal importance in 1914, came to be the most powerful force on the critical Western Front during the final year of the war. The author illustrates how the British industry was transformed in short order so as to support a military establishment on a scale that was simply unimaginable in the pre 1914 era. In summation Senior argues very persuasively that the transformation of the British Army was the decisive factor in achieving victory. Other factors such as the impact of the Royal Navy’s blockade, declining morale in Germany and the large-scale commitment of men and matériel by the USA are acknowledged but not explored in depth – an understandable expediency given the need to keep the book to a manageable size.

The text is supplemented by a very useful ‘month by month’ timeline of the First World War that links in nicely with the flow of the narrative. As might be expected given the author’s impressive academic credentials, each chapter is accompanied by a meticulously compiled list of references and there is an extensive bibliography containing published and unpublished sources.

Senior’s conclusion that the development of the British Army was “less of a learning curve and more of an uneasy continuum” does not lessen the positive impact of a fascinating narrative that enumerates the transformation of the British Army during the 1914-18 period with authority and style. In this reviewers opinion the author has produced a succinct and highly readable account of the foundations that underpinned the British Army’s greatest ever victory in 1918.

 

Reviewed by Phil Curme

Retreat of I Corps
Subtitle.
Early Battles 1914

Author. Jerry Murland

ISBN: 978 178346 373 2

Publisher: Pen & Sword Military

Date of publication: 2014

139 pages / Numerous photographs and maps

£12.95 (UK) $19.95 (US)

 

Retreat of I Corps 1914 may be regarded as an accompaniment to three battlefield tours: the three sections of the retreat from Mons.

This is not an introductory text as it assumes a reasonable knowledge of the First World War.

 

The contemporary accounts of the early phases of the Great War are of value.

Retreat of I Corps 1914 is critical of the view that the ‘Old’ regular army was destroyed in the opening stages of the First World War, instead Murland argues that ‘this is true only to a point.’ Whilst agreeing that a significant part of the regular officer corps were killed or permanently disabled in 1914, his focus is on the impact this has had on the loss of a disproportionately high number of staff qualified officers. He adds that the loss of skilled NCOs was just as significant and that it was the reservists who were destroyed.

Murland attributes blame to both Sir John French and to Lanrezac (Commander of the French Fifth Army) for the disastrous mistrust that developed between the French and the British Expeditionary Force.

Murland praises the various levels of command that fill the gaps as losses occur. And he praises the endurance of the British fighting men who had so recently been in civilian occupations. This included long marches under fire, in new boots on poor roads, crowded with refugees. He concludes that the BEF was significant ‘because it existed rather than for what it achieved.’

One difficult the author faces is in trying to deal with a battlefront of some two hundred miles in length.

The focus of Retreat of I Corps 1914 is almost entirely on the route taken by Sir Douglas Haig with the two infantry division of I Corps. This followed the events of 24 August when the retreat of GHQ and General Sir John French were faced with the Foret de Mormal.

The retreat started less than three weeks after the declaration of war and only three days after the BEF had assembled at Maubeuge. Murland disagrees with the Official British History – there is nothing that suggests that this period could be described as a ‘victory.’ There were two parallel groups in full retreat. Murland stresses the vital role played by both major and smaller rear guard actions that lead to the survival of the BEF.

The Retreat from Mons

It was disregard for Belgium neutrality by Germany when they entered Belgium on 14 August 1914 that brought Britain into the War. Some 1,500,000 men deployed in seven army groups from Liege to Alsace. They were following the von Schlieffen Plan that aimed to achieve a swift victory in France and then turn forces to the Eastern Front. The advances were planned to pass through Belgium; then Arden and Luxembourg.

Von Kluck’s First Army was to attack the left flank of the French army and having driven them back, to envelope Paris. It was the first Army that the BEF first encountered. Almost 60,000 British reservists were mobilized. Sir John French was appointed to command the BEF on 30 July 1914. Concern about a German invasion of England and trouble in Ireland over Home Rule meant that French, who had made his reputation in the South African War, had only four infantry divisions and one cavalry division. Thus the British went to war with I Corps (1st and 2nd Divisions) commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig. 11 Corps (3rd and 5th Divisions commanded by Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson and a Cavalry Division under Major General Edmund Allenby. Grierson died and was replaced by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.

Stage 1: Mons to Le Grand Fayt

Murland divides the rest of the work into three stages, each corresponding to one of the battlefield tours he envisages.

During his analysis of this first stage Murland cast doubt as to whether Haig supported Smith-Dorrien. General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, briefed Sir John French on plan XVII, the French Third and Fourth Armies were to march to the northeast to the rear of the German Army. Despite intelligence, Joffre underestimated the size of the German Army. Lanrezac was reluctant to advance and this, Murland suggests, probably saved the French Fifth Army and the BEF. Lanrezac and the French had poor relations with the BEF from the start.

The First Contact with the Enemy

Sir John French, it is argued, had difficulty in believing the huge scale of the German advance. British cavalry units encountered German forces. The BEF was in serious danger of being caught in a pincer movement. The XII Saxon Corps threatened the French Fifth Army and so Lanrezac fell back but did not tell Sir John French. Von Kluck was surprised to find the BEF at Mons; he had expected them to be at Lille.

The Battle of Mons 23 August 1914

II Corps retreated to a second position facing north. The result was that I Corps and II Corps each fought their own retreat. Poor advice seems to have delayed Sir John French’s orders to retreat. Major Gordon Lennox wrote of the retreat being followed by ‘ineffectual shellfire’ and of ‘absolute secrecy pervading everything.’

In the Floret de Mormal no reconnaissance was carried out. The infantry was marched through the area though horse troops were available to have covered the area. These horse unites were fresh. GHQ decided to split I Corps and II Corps and they were divided for several days. French troops and refugees in the roads delayed the retreat. The old Roman Road was used. A long hot march was endured by the BEF. A rear guard action was fought at Landrecies on 25 August 1914. A false alarm from a French cavalryman disturbed the night’s rest at 4.00am. German troop advances were delayed by Royal Field Artillery action against the vanguard. Lance Corporal George Wyatt, a former police office won a VC in the engagement that followed.

Haig was at risk of capture at Landrecies. Murland comments that there is a suggestion that Haig distressed Sir John French’s ability to support I Corps during this phase of the retreat. The BEF were delayed by ‘the countryside emptying onto the roads.’

The rear guard action at Le Grand Fayt on 26 August 1914 left many soldiers separated from the main force, some for several months. The overall impression is of confusion and uncertainty. There were repeated short bursts fighting and enfiladed positions.

Stage 2 Etreux to Cerizy

In this section Murland covers the rear guard action on 27 August that began north of Chapeau Rouge crossroad and ended at Etreux with the last stand of the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers. The action then moves southward to Cerizy where 5 Cavalry Brigade fought a classic rear guard action in the shallow valley near La Guinguette Farm on 28 August 1914.

‘The day promised to be critical” said Brigadier Ivor Maxse commander I Guards Brigade when he learned that practically all I Corps was to use the same road. The resultant melee was inevitable. Heavy casualties are marked by graves along the route.

As the retreat continued there was some loss of control and lack of respect for corps commanders. It can be argued that the state of II Corps was better than that of I Corps. Bridges were – inexplicably – not destroyed on this part of the retreat. The following Germans must have found this helpful.

The Battle of Guise followed when Joffre’s ‘Olympian anger bore fruit.’ Lanrezac turned and fought against the German Second Army. Haig agreed to support Lanrezac, however Sir John French refused. The 18 miles Front was narrowed. The French succeeded against von Bulow and halted the Germans. At Cerizy on 28 August 12/Lancer charged up a slope successfully despite losses. Accurate fire on the German Guards Rifles was very important. Joffre visited Sir John French to coordinate the retreat.

Stage 3 Villers-Cotterets to the Marne

The important action of the 4/Guards brigade in the Foret de Retz, north of Villers-Cotterets is followed. The action commences at Soucy and progresses west of Puiseux-en-Retz. I Corps’ retreat through Boursonne and Betz are examined before concluding at Marne where I Corps crossed the river at Trilport and Meaux on 3 September 1914.

III Corps was formed under Major General William Pulteney. Again shortage of information of enemy deployments seems to have prevailed. The Coldstream and Irish Guards with the Royal Field Artillery halted a German advance at Puiseux. The retreat was having an adverse effect on morale and on Anglo-French relations. The Irish Guards retired. Again some degree of confusion seems to have occurred. (A Guards Grave Cemetery is illustrated). The Royal Berks, exemplified by Harold Birt who was awarded the DSO for his part in the action, defending guns. Haig took an interesting decision to have half the ammunition transported by trains thus freeing fifty wagons to carry troops and kit. Daily marches were typically 28 miles on muddy, refugee filled roads. At this stage rest was four hours in 24.

However the end of the retreat had been reached

The book continues with a section called ‘Following Haig’s Retreat.’ This section is especially useful for those wishing to undertake a battlefield tour. Subsections are added with maps: how to get there, where to stay, taking children, and problems of unexploded ordinance (WW1 and WW2).

Stage 1 Tour : 13 miles from Landrecies. Haig’s I Corps first close encounters were in this section.

The Landrecies Community Cemetery lies within this stage, as does the railway station.

 Stage 2 Tour : 40 miles from Foret de Retz. It includes the Guards Grave Cemetery; the Cecil Memorial; the Mangin Memorial; Boursonne; the Museum of Meaux and the Royal Engineers Museum.

Retreat Chateux
There are maps and photographs throughout

There are two Appendices.

Appendix 1 shows approximate daily march statistics.

Appendix 2 indicates I Corps and German 1st and 2nd Army Order of Battle.

Review by Kieth F Lainton 

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