Tommy, p.10Richard Holmes
And in the background, the Allied blockade, obdurate and unseen, was slowly throttling Germany. There were food riots across the land in 1916, and widespread misery during the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916–17. A shortage of horses saw six-gun teams reduced to four, and lack of good leather was emphasised by the frequent removal of boots from British dead. The blockade no more broke German civilian morale in the First World War than did strategic bombing in the Second, though this has not stopped some historians from suggesting, in an argument pressed with fierce passion though wholly unencumbered by evidence, that ‘the Royal Navy … played the most decisive part in winning the war’.110 It did not. It contributed to a growing sense of desperation, made it harder (though never impossible) to obtain essential strategic raw materials, and by the summer of 1918 it combined with the disappointment of empty victories to erode morale at the front. Nor was life comfortable in England. The depredations of German submarines had seen the introduction of rationing in 1915, and by 1918 many soldiers who went home on leave were shocked at the shortages they found there.
The first major Allied counterattack was delivered by the French in mid-July. The British had already launched a smaller-scale venture, when the Australian Corps carried out a slick assault on the village of Hamel, near Amiens, using tanks and a lightning bombardment in a plan that presaged later, larger ventures. Gough had been replaced as a consequence of his army’s ‘failure’ in March, and a restructured chain of command saw 5th Army disappear, to be replaced by a restructured 4th Army under Rawlinson. He conceived of a much larger attack, using principles proved at Hamel, and although both Foch and Haig tinkered with the scheme it retained features which mark it out sharply from what had gone before. There were sufficient aircraft to ensure Allied air superiority over the battlefield and even (though the experiment was not wholly successful) to drop ammunition to advancing units. Rawlinson had almost 350 new heavy Mark V tanks, and enough guns (2,000 to perhaps 500 German) to give him a density of one per 22 yards of front attacked. And this front was not well dug and wired, like the old Somme front or the Hindenburg line: it was the high-water mark of a tired army running short of men.
At 4.20 on the morning of 8 August 1918 the attack began, and by nightfall the Australians and Canadians attacking south of the Somme had penetrated 8 miles and inflicted 27,000 casualties. There were moments when the battle seemed to be opening right up, and the activities of some British tank crews have a very modern ring to them. Lieutenant C. B. Arnold took his light ‘whippet’ tank ‘Musical Box’ deep into the German rear, mangling gun-lines as he did so.
I turned hard left and ran diagonally across the front of the battery at a distance of about 800 yds. Both my guns were able to fire on the battery, in spite of which they got off about eight rounds at me without damage, but sufficiently close to be audible in the cab and I could see the flash of each gun as it fired. By this time I had passed behind a belt of trees running alongside a roadside. I ran down along this belt until nearly level with the battery, when I turned full right and engaged the battery in rear. On observing our appearance from the belt of trees the Germans, some 30 in number, abandoned their guns and tried to get away. Gunner Ribbans and I accounted for the whole lot. I continued forward, making a detour to the east and shot a number of the enemy who appeared to be demoralised, and were running about in our direction.111
Rawlinson thought that ‘we have given the Boche a pretty good bump this time’, and he was quite right. The German Official History was to acknowledge ‘the greatest defeat which the German army had suffered since the beginning of the war’. Ludendorff himself admitted that: ‘August 8th was the black day of the German army in the war’.112 It is a telling reflection on the way the war is remembered in Britain that 1 July 1916 is reverently commemorated: I always find myself blinking hard as the pipes shriek out, at 7.30 in the morning, year on year, at Lochnager Crater on Pozières ridge. But 8 August is not: yet it was not simply an important victory in its own right, it was, in the most profound way, the shape of things to come.
Over the next three months the British elbowed the Germans back across northern France. Theirs was not an isolated effort. The French and the Americans attacked further south and south-east, called on by Foch’s ringing ‘Tout le monde à la bataille’. The Americans pinched out the St-Mihiel salient in mid-September, and then swung northwards to slog through difficult country against a stout defence in the battle they call Meuse-Argonne. Yet it is no reflection on Allied valour to observe that, during the war’s last three months, the British took twice as many prisoners, and almost twice as many German guns, as the Americans, French and Belgians put together. And lest it be thought that the British were simply snapping up exhausted Germans who were now too tired to fight, let Private Stephen Graham of the Scots Guards assure us otherwise.
The brave [German] machine-gunners, with resolute look in shoulders and face, lay relaxed beside their oiled machines … and beside piles of littered brass, the empty cartridge cases which they had fired before being bayoneted at their posts … On the other hand … one saw how our men, rushing forward in extended formation, each man a good distance from his neighbour, had fallen, one here, another there, one directly he had started forward to the attack, and then the others, one, two, three, four, five all in a sort of sequence, here, here, here, here, here; one poor wretch had got far, but got tangled in the wire had pulled and pulled and at last been shot to rags; another had got near enough to strike the foe and been shot with a revolver.113
The breaking of the Hindenburg line by 46th (North Midland) Division in late September caused particular satisfaction, as these Midlanders had been badly mauled on the first day of the Somme.
The last Hundred Days of the war cost the British army over 260,000 casualties, well over twice the total strength of the British regular army at the time of writing.114 The headstones in the comet’s tail of cemeteries that trace the army’s path from Santerre across to the Belgian border tell the story all too well. In York Cemetery near Haspres, between Cambrai and Valenciennes, lie a company’s worth of the York and Lancaster regiment, with, up by the back wall, most of the machine-gunners that killed them.
The whole agonising mixture of triumph and tragedy that constituted the Hundred Days is nowhere better summed up than in the Communal Cemetery at Ors, not far from Mons. It contains the graves of two Victoria Cross holders, Second Lieutenant James Kirk, commissioned from the ranks into the Manchester Regiment, and Lieutenant Colonel James Marshall, Irish Guards by cap badge but killed commanding a Manchester battalion. It is also the last resting place of Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC of the Manchesters, killed when his battalion crossed the Sambre Canal on 4 November 1918. His parents received the official notification of his death as bells were ringing to announce the armistice.
FLESH AND BLOOD
ONE WAR, FOUR ARMIES
In one sense there was not really a single British army in the First World War, more a collection of regiments, drawn together in loose association into brigades and divisions which had personalities of their own. As we look at infantry battalions across the best part of a century we might be tempted to assume that the Old Army 1/Grenadier Guards had much in common with the territorial 4/Queen’s or the New Army 11/East Lancashire. To be sure, on one level they did look alike. All were commanded by lieutenant colonels, had four companies, and formed part of brigades which had four battalions apiece. But on another they had different histories, traditions, compositions, attitudes and aptitudes. Although the remorseless corrosion of casualties meant that, especially after mid-1916, these characters began to change, this was an army which, start to finish, revelled in an extraordinary diversity.
There were allegedly rurally-recruited regiments which marched past to A Farmer’s Boy and cultivated close contact with the county’s gentry, but actually drew their strength from mean streets and smoky factories. There was a single battery of artillery which shot two
There were some officers who would have fitted comfortably into a Wellingtonian mess: and others who might have sold the great duke his coal. And then there were ex-officers who served as private soldiers because they had no other way of getting to the front. Arthur Arnold Crow resigned his captaincy in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment because of ill-health in 1916. When he recovered he found that he could not regain his commission without giving up hope of foreign service: he enlisted and was killed as a private in the Essex Regiment in 1917. J. B. Osborne, invalided out as a lieutenant, rejoined as a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was killed in October 1918. And the Hon. M. F. S. Howard, son of the 9th Earl of Carlisle and once a lieutenant in the 18th Hussars, died as a private at Passchendaele, and has no known grave. There were ex-privates who commanded battalions, ex-convicts honoured with His Majesty’s commission, sexagenarians who soldiered on and boys, like Private Reginald Giles of 1/Gloucesters, killed on the Somme at the age of fourteen, who died in the trenches when they should have been at school.
Reality sometimes confounded expectation. Some veterans argued that the territorial 5th Scottish Rifles was more reliable than one of the regular battalions of the same regiment. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow, who went to war as a regular lieutenant in the Royal Berkshires in 1914 and commanded a Berkshire battalion at Passchendaele three years later, reckoned that most temporary officers were good as long as their units were well commanded, and ‘many were better than regulars’.1 One officer with the rare combination of Distinguished Conduct Medal (won as a corporal in South Africa) and Military Cross (won as an officer on the Western Front) was never a professional soldier, but fitted both conflicts into a long and successful career as a tea planter in India. Sidney Farmer MM, seventeen times wounded, with a record that many a regular might have been proud of, served only for the duration of the war. After it, like so many others, he returned to the community from which he had sprung, running the Golden Lion in the Herefordshire town of Knighton, though troubled by the occasional appearance of shrapnel which travelled down his body to emerge from his feet.2
Although the casualties of the Somme created a demand for reinforcements which helped blur many old distinctions, British regiments remained resolutely different. The Grenadiers, the senior regiment of foot guards, trace their origins back to the Low Countries in the 1650s, when they were formed to guard Charles II, and in consequence have an enduring rivalry with the Coldstream Guards, who trace their descent from General George Monck’s (Parliamentarian) Regiment of Foot. Three regular battalions strong in 1914, the Grenadiers raised a 4th battalion during the war. As one of the regiment’s historians observed, ‘they did not have a monopoly of discipline, smartness and professionalism in the BEF, but as an elite they did believe in the highest standards in all three, believe in them, demand them and maintain them whatever might be the circumstances and whatever the cost’.3 A regimental history written forty years before the war had suggested that:
The soldier in the hour of need and danger will ever be more ready to follow the officer and gentleman whom education, position in life, and accident of birth point out to be his natural leader … than the man who, by dint of study and brainwork, has raised himself (much to his own credit, certainly) from the plough or the anvil. In no profession should the feeling of noblesse oblige be more recognised than in the army …4
Noblesse indeed: one of the marked social changes in the army of the nineteenth century was that noblemen, once scattered widely across the army, had tended to concentrate in the Foot Guards and Household Cavalry. Of course there were exceptions. Major Christopher de Sausmarez, a peer’s nephew, commanded 108th Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery in 1914, and a baronet led one of his sections of two 60-pounder guns. The RGA had many distinctions but social exclusivity was not one of them, and a heavy battery gun-line was unfamiliar earth for sprigs of nobility. In 1914 the Grenadiers’ officers included Lieutenant Colonel Lord Brabazon, Major the Hon. Hubert Crichton, Captain Lord Guernsey, and Captain Lord Francis Montagu-Douglas-Scott. It was as understandable that Raymond Asquith, the prime minister’s son who would die on the Somme, should join the Grenadiers as it was that the Prince of Wales should do the same. The officers
all knew one another well; many, like Lord Bernard Gordon-Lennox, had married the sister of a brother officer (in this case Lord Loch); and many, like George Cecil, had succeeded their father in the regiment or, like Eben Pike or Bernard Gordon-Lennox again, were succeeded by their sons and grandsons.5
These ripples widened across the Household Division as a whole, as Rowland Feilding, then a captain in the Coldstream, discovered when he did his first tour of trench duty in May 1915.
On either side of me I found relations. On my immediate left Percy Clive [a cousin] commanded a company of Grenadiers, and the Coldstream company on my right was commanded by Rollo [another cousin]. I visited Percy at 4.30 on the morning after our arrival. The last time I had seen him was at dinner in the House of Commons, and I was very glad to meet him again. While I was shaving, Rollo brought Henry Feilding [yet another cousin] to see me. He is with a squadron of King Edward’s Horse, which is acting as Divisional Cavalry to a Territorial Division near here, and was paying a visit to Rollo in the trenches.
Rollo (later Lieutenant Colonel Viscount Feilding) survived the war. Captain Percy Clive MP was killed on 5 April 1918, and Captain the Hon. Henry Feilding died of wounds on 11 October 1917.6
Nor was this sense of identity confined to the officers. There were Grenadier families amongst the rank and file, and the warrant officers’ and sergeants’ mess was held together by bonds no less powerful than those which linked members of the officers’ mess. It might take a guardsman two years to get his first promotion, and he would be lucky to make sergeant in less than ten. A regimental sergeant major’s tour of duty was five years, and it was not unknown for Guards RSMs to ask for extensions, arguing that there was still more to be done with the battalion.7
The Grenadiers had a tangible quality, even to its rivals. Its soldiers were nicknamed Bill-Browns, as opposed to the Coalies, Jocks, Micks and Taffs of the other foot guards regiments. Private Stephen Graham, an educated man serving in the ranks of the Scots Guards, saw the Grenadiers assault stoutly-held German defences at the very end of the war.
There were heavy losses suffered there by the attackers, especially by the Bill-Browns, whose discipline, courage and fame committed them then, as ever, to doing the impossible in human heroism and endurance. I lost a whole series of comrades or friends wounded or killed. C—, who had filled up a blank file with me in Little Sparta, was killed; S—, recruited from the S.E. Railway, a jolly, happy middle-aged man, who always hailed me as Steve and had a cheery word, was killed. H—, the American boy who used to dance all night at New York was wounded.8
In contrast, 4/Queen’s was a territorial battalion of the Queen’s Regiment, with a regular adjutant, regimental sergeant major and small permanent staff of regular NCOs: its other members were civilians, who soldiered in their spare time. It originated in a company of rifle volunteers formed at Croydon in 1859 in response to the threat of French invasion which had Tennyson earnestly declaiming ‘Form, riflemen: riflemen, form …’. A second company was added in 1860 to form the 1st Surrey Administrative Battalion; this became the 2nd Surrey Rifle Volunteers seven years later and the 1st Volunteer Battalion the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment in 1881. It sent a company of five officers and 200 men to the Boer War, and in 1908 it was swept up in
Its men trained on weekday drill nights, one weekend each month and at a fortnight’s annual camp. There were perennial problems in ensuring that employers gave men time off for camp, and compromises between day job and military identity meant that in the battalion’s first year, 22 officers and 418 men attended the first week of camp at Brighton but only 13 officers and 241 men the second. In 1914 it found itself at camp, marching from Bordon to Salisbury Plain as part of a large territorial exercise, when war broke out. Mobilised on 5 August, it was sent to Chattenden, near Chatham. Like other territorial battalions it split, forming a first-line battalion, 1/4th, which rapidly departed for India, where it spent the whole war, seeing active service on the North-West Frontier. A second line, 2/4th, which included some men from the 1st Battalion who had not volunteered for foreign service and some wartime volunteers, eventually fought on the Western Front in 1918.
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