THE WAR TO END ALL WARS: Tensions in Europe
On July 28th 1914 the continent of Europe was at peace, though riven with tensions between the great powers (Germany, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary and Britain). That Sunday morning, however, a sniper, probably a Serbian activist, shot and killed the Archduke Ferdinand of Bosnia-Herzegovina outside Sarajevo railway station.
For a month Europe held its breath as diplomats and politicians from the major nations went into crisis mode. Those involved mostly knew each other - in fact, several were related. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, after all, was a grandson of Queen Victoria! Yet long-standing feuds in the Balkans, fierce nationalism, new ‘Ententes’ between some of the powers, swollen arsenals of weapons and - perhaps most of all - fear of one another paralysed their approach. July passed, and with it the hope of peace.
No one knew, of course, what dark and appalling forces they were about to unleash, but on August 4th the most terrible war of European history erupted. Not surprisingly it has become known simply as the ‘Great War’. By the time it ended four years later it had involved 65 million troops, brought about the deaths of twenty million soldiers and civilians, and injured another 21 million people. It’s a truism to say that it changed history, but a glance at any war memorial in Britain is a constant reminder of its cruel cost in human terms. Many villages lost almost all their young men. Families were decimated, children lost fathers, women lost their boy friends. Those who lived through it - my parents’ generation - would never forget its consequences.
Throughout this year the story of that dreadful conflict will be re-told as we mark the centenary of its outbreak. It’s surely pointless, so long after the event, to attempt to apportion blame. Thoughts of military conflict between the nation-states involved seem remote and ridiculous today. Yet whatever its immediate trigger, that War, and its strange child, the Second World War, have shaped the modern world.
It must all seem a long while ago now to schoolchildren studying it as history, but for many of us older people it was a conflict that involved our parents or grandparents, and changed their lives for ever. My father enlisted in 1914. He and millions like him had been told they were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’. Sadly, it wasn’t.
THE GREAT WAR: Gallant little Belgium
The posters were everywhere. Lord Kitchener, eyes blazing and finger pointing imperiously, proclaimed ‘Your country needs YOU!’ And up and down the land during those first anxious months of the Great War young men, often urged on by families and girl friends, responded by lining up at recruitment offices in order to enlist in the Army. Those who didn’t, for whatever reason, were in danger of receiving a white feather in an anonymous envelope, the badge of cowardice.
Most, like my own father, needed no such urging. For him, as he would explain to the end of his life, the war was a moral duty in defence of ‘gallant little Belgium’, which had been invaded by the German army on its way, it hoped, to northern France. Britain was bound by its treaty obligations - the famous Entente Cordiale- to share in the defence of France, so (as my father and millions of others saw it) there was a solemn duty to keep our promises.
That is not, of course, necessarily the way history sees things, but I am sure that most of those young men who queued up to volunteer did it for one of two reasons, or, more probably, both of them: patriotism and public pressure. Crowds cheered the young recruits as they marched off to training camps. It would, everyone confidently asserted, ‘all be over by Christmas’. Defeat was unthinkable. These young men - many of them barely fit, through poor diet or unhealthy backgrounds - would face up to the Kaiser’s hordes and crush them. At that point, the country was not an unwilling participant in war, but totally committed to it.
In the event, the euphoria didn’t last long - indeed, barely as far as Christmas. The German army, well-drilled and equipped, simply barged its way across Belgium. There were bloody battles at Ypres and Mons, but it was the Germans who did the crushing and the Allies - British and French - who did the retreating.
However hard they fought, at each point where the generals drew a line and said ‘no further’, the German army simply paused for breath and then swept on. Casualties on both sides were high, and slowly the truth began to filter into the public consciousness at home. This war would not be short; it would not be easily won; and it would be desperately costly.
THE GREAT WAR: The Trenches
The trenches are the defining visual image of the Great War. Both sides created them when it became obvious that for all the ‘pushes’ and counter-attacks not much was happening geographically. A hilly ridge would be taken, at enormous human cost. A month later it would be recaptured. The trenches stretched for hundreds of miles across northern France, once the earlier ones in southern Belgium were abandoned, and they became ‘home’ to hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
The trench was a narrow but deep ditch, designed to shield the men who were on look-out duty from enemy fire. Behind the trenches were the living quarters - dug out of the earth, usually with roofs of corrugated iron, where there were bunks for sleeping and rudimentary facilities for washing and eating. Hot food came from the Company cook-house behind the lines. ‘Too much bully beef’, my father complained - corned beef, to us. Very nice as an occasional choice, but a bit unexciting as a regular diet. Surprisingly, perhaps, to those of us who only know of the War from films and books, in between major outbreaks of fighting the trench provided an adequate if modest degree of normality. Every day, my father told me, the newspaper seller would visit with copies of the Daily Mail. No escaping from the football results and news from home.
The trouble was that periodically the senior officers would decide that it was time for another desperate attempt to dislodge the enemy. Bayonets would be fixed, ashen faced young men would line up in the trenches awaiting the signal - usually a blast on a whistle - which would summon them to climb the steps out into the open, there to face, inevitably, the devastating fire of the German machine guns. It was some time into the War before the Allies were equipped with these deadly weapons, and it was the multiple, sustained rain of bullets that caused most of the casualties.
Above all this was the constant barrage of the big guns, firing from both sides but well behind the lines. Their thunderous roar could be heard at times far away across the Channel in Kent. Most of the shells simply exploded in the soft soil of Flanders or the Somme - they are still being ploughed up by farmers today, a century later. But some were what became known as ‘direct hits’, and those could be devastating.
In the midst of all this - the mud, the stench, the noise and the imminent possibility of death - were the soldiers themselves. Among them moved the medics, the nurses, the chaplains - agents of care and compassion in a world which seemed to have gone mad. Some soldiers simply couldn’t stand it. ‘Shell-shocked’ was the diagnosis in those days. The wonder is that anybody could.
WW1: The front and the long haul
The euphoric triumphalism of the Summer of 1914 - ‘over by Christmas’ - didn’t last long. August saw the German army storming across Belgium and advancing to the outskirts of Paris itself. Because at this stage the Allied forces involved were mostly French, the true gravity of the situation was not generally appreciated in Britain, but in France there was widespread fear of a swift German victory.
However, the Allies - who had disagreed over tactics - managed to sort themselves out. A few generals were dismissed, Lord Kitchener fired off some urgent messages from Whitehall, and in the face of apparently imminent disaster a brilliant counter-attack was planned and launched. Its aim was to drive the Germans back from the river Marne, north of Paris, and inflict a heavy defeat on them by outflanking their forces to the east of the capital. Crucial to this plan, for the first time in warfare reconnaissance aircraft were used to spot movement on the ground and relay the information to the military commanders.
The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 was the Allies first and greatest victory of the entire War. They pushed the Germans back some forty miles, until they managed to halt the Allied advance.
Both sides, having suffered heavy casualties - half a million men were killed or wounded, most of them French and German - then decided to dig in, literally. The trenches which they created following the Battle of the Marne remained more or less in place for the next four years. Finally the generals, the troops on the ground and eventually the public at home accepted that this was now a war of attrition. Over by Christmas? Three more Christmases would pass before this appalling conflict came to an end.
Slowly the British public abandoned the jingoistic fervour of the summer of 1914. The newspapers began to report the casualty figures, and as these rose inexorably during the following months and years the mood of the nation slowly changed. Kitchener called for more men, and hundreds of thousands responded to the call. Women too found themselves involved in new ways: as nurses and ambulance drivers just behind the front lines; as workers in munitions factories, satisfying the artillery’s voracious appetite for more shells, and in taking over jobs previously done by men. My own mother, then in her teens, left her Norfolk village to come to London and work for the rest of the war as a telephonist.
It was a long while, however, before the full horror of what was happening across the Channel became generally recognised. The poet Laurence Binyon could speak at the end of 1914 of those mud and blood-stained young soldiers in triumphant terms: ’they went with songs to the battle, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow’. Even in 1916 the war correspondents were still sending back dispatches describing our gallant young men bayonet-charging the enemy lines, putting terror into the hearts of the frightened Hun. But slowly the truth filtered through: this war, uniquely, would involve the whole nation and touch every single family in it. It would be long and difficult. It would demand resilience and courage. And it would not be glorious.
WW1: They went with songs to the battle
‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go’, sang music hall star Vesta Tilley in the Summer of 1914, when theatre stages became recruiting centres as young men, urged on by their girl-friends and wives, made their way forward to offer themselves for military service. This was, of course, in those first heady months of the war, the ‘over by Christmas’ time, when not to volunteer was to risk being given a white feather of cowardice in the street. Rapidly a huge volunteer army was assembled, and soon made its way to the western front.
The songs of the music-hall went with them - indeed, this was an army that sang and whistled its way into those muddy trenches and kept on singing, even when it turned out that the war was going to be long, bitter and brutal. ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag’, they sang, ‘and smile, smile, smile’. All that was needed was a ‘lucifer to light your fag’. After all, ‘What’s the use of worrying - it never was worthwhile’. Soon that song was joined by others - I learnt many of them from my father: ‘Madamoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous?’ ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and so on.
Popular songs, in other words, captured very accurately the mood and heart of the nation. As they always have been, their trade secrets were smiles and tears.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME – The WW1 battle that changed history.
On 1st July, 98 years ago, two vast armies went to battle in the Somme area, in north-eastern France. A week of heavy shelling preceded the Allies’ attack. It is recorded that 1,738,000 shells fell on the rich fields either side of the Somme river during those seven days - though goodness knows who counted them. With the deafening roar of the big guns in their ears, the allied soldiers emerged from their trenches to be met with the inevitable hail of bullets from the German machine guns. By the end of the first day’s fighting over 60,000 British soldiers were casualties and no less than 19,240 had been killed. The most devastating battle of modern times - and possibly of human history - was under way.
The Battle of the Somme, as it was called, was the first to see tanks and aircraft employed on a large scale. It was fought along a 25 mile front. The battle involved vast numbers of men - British and soldiers from no less than eight countries of the Empire, French and German - and more than a million of them were eventually killed or injured. As the generals poured more and more troops into the battle in the vain hope of what they called a ‘breakthrough’, nothing much happened beyond the constant slaughter.
The battle went on through August, September and October and only ended, on November 18th, when the utter futility of the whole exercise seemed to dawn on both sides. As they counted the casualties - 420,000 British, 200,000 French, nearly half a million Germans - they could also calculate the net gain of all that bloodshed. The Allies had pushed the Germans back all of six miles. It was later worked out that for every mile taken 88,000 men lost their lives.
There were amazing acts of valour and heroism in the course of the battle. No fewer than 51 Victoria Crosses - the highest award for gallantry in battle - were won by British combatants. At home, the press tended to focus on such heroic deeds rather than on the carnage on the battle-field, but the truth eventually emerged. To misquote Winston Churchill, ‘Never in all the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so many‘. Every town, every village, every family would bear the scars of suffering for years to come.
Lessons were learned, of course - most obviously the futility of trench warfare. Battle and war would never be the same again. Face to face, inch by inch, cold steel to cold steel, knee deep in mud men fought and died. All across northern France the millions of graves still bear their silent testimony to the dedication and courage of young men who had their lives snatched from them in battle. Mars, the god of war, had had his greatest moment, though his appetite was not quite satisfied yet.