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The setting for the two battles at Bullecourt, northern France

Trench at Bullecourt

Set out here is a brief, personal understanding of the origins of the First World War, views of the mindset of those leading and directing the allied war effort, and a short critique of their qualities, inadequacies and lost opportunties. Please don’t take this for an accurate appraisal of the origins of the war: I’m biased as are most writers. Always carry out your own research.

The origins of the Great War are rooted in events of the nineteenth century. This view includes not only relationships and concepts of national status but also of the manner in which military leaders saw and carried out their rôles.

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Origins in the nineteenth century

The beginning of the nineteenth century saw conflict, particularly, between France and England as the latter – fearful of the seeds of revolution on the continent – attempted to defeat the French alliance. This they did and the victories of English armies and, particularly, navies and their protection of trade routes permitted the expansion of an industrial revolution and what is considered to be a period of increasing prosperity in Britain.

Certainly there were great inventions, dramatic leaps forward in terms of the sciences and arts, but there was also a continuing development, if not reinforcement, of the position of the social underclasses.

These people generally had little political voice and were kept that way by the need to find work – generally a process involving moving from the countryside to the urban centres – and, some would claim, the ability to drink themselves senseless on gin, characterised as the opiate of the masses.

Class distinctions were sharply divided. The ‘officers and gentlemen’ had little reason or chance to mix with the working classes, and this pattern was reinforced in the military by a hard regime of training and fighting a continuing series of wars.

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Nineteenth century wars

Most notable among these were, perhaps, the Crimea war, Indian wars, and the Zulu and Boer wars at the end of the nineteenth century. These were characterised by a reliance on formal military manoeuvres led by a small but increasingly professional and expert junior and middle ranked officers – but headed by inexperienced and, in many cases, incompetent general staff.

Sadly, many of these military excursions were broadcast, and encapsulated in British histories and literature, as heroic achievements. The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava is perhaps the most notorious of these. While admiring the bravery of trained soldiers to charge against the appearance or reality of impossible odds, their leaders and communication systems can’t be condoned. Luckily more survived than is commonly realised. Incidentally, this was an area of warfare which, with the American Civil War, was encapsulated on film – the first time that news could be recorded accurately and disseminated for public consumption.

Not all victories were gained easily, there was a general euphoria in military and political circles at the continuing successes of the British Army and the consolidation of the British Empire. This feeling was passed on to the man and woman in the street through the medium of the slowly improving news reporting system.

Although Britain had been badly beaten in a number of battles in South Africa, those in control of the Army continued to believe that, with God on their side in a just war, and with the application of sufficient numbers of troops, they would win any war with which they were presented.

Tommies in battle

Regrettably, their systems of battle were still firmly entrenched in the manoeuvres of the nineteenth century. Perhaps it might be considered that the Zulu wars were more formal in this respect, though with dramatically differently-armed forces. However, the Boer war was certainly different in concept. Sending troops into battle against the Zulu and Boer commandos wearing white hats, red tunics and, in the case of the Scots, kilts, was not seen to be suicidal. Nor, apparently was the continuing use of troops in formal arrangements against rapidly moving and deployed enemies. It was mainly superior numbers combined with coherent supply systems and the isolation of foreign non-combatants which appear to have given Britain the eventual upper hand against irregular forces.

French cuirassiers moving through Villeneuve-Saint-Georges

This, together with an entrenched mentality to resist change, combined to bring about some of the worst scenes of the Great War. I can remember my other grandfather recalling his disbelief at seeing French cuirassiers – dressed in their breastplates and with plumes flying – bravely but senselessly charging their horses against German machine guns.

A German machine gun team

It would be wrong to characterise the leadership of the British army as being incompetent, and to blame them entirely for the massive losses in the Great War. It is certain that some of the high command were committed to the introduction and use of technology, and it is also true that France had the lead in the war being fought on their soil and that Britain was a junior partner in the allied operations. The argument in the high command’s favour seems to rest on the strategic successes made in the attrition of the enemy; this means, of course, the scale and amount of damage caused both in terms of materiel and manpower and, consequently, the socio-economical damage. But this applies to both sides of the conflict on at least one continent.

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Technological introductions

tanks in action

While aircraft and tanks, for instance, had been introduced in the Great War, they were often used in the wrong context and developed poorly. In the context of tanks, this mentality was characterised in the annoyance of mounted officers (who took over the newly introduced tanks) at not wearing their spurs, and by their inability to realise that tanks should not be used within traditional cavalry manoeuvres. It was then left to the Germans to read the writings of Captain Liddel Hart – ignored by the British establishment – and develop their extremely effective blitzkrieg with which they opened the Second World War. In short, British high command was unable to understand how to use new technologies effectively, and it was not until the middle-ranked officers gained some political development within the army that the war swung towards the allies.

A seaplane being winched aboard its tender A seaplane being winched aboard its tender

The beginning of the Great War saw Britain with a powerful navy protecting its far-flung commercial and, now, military interests while attempting to contain and destroy the German navy. But its army was understaffed for the character of warfare envisaged. Led by junior officers many of whom had the benefit of experience in relatively small wars, they were directed by inexperienced senior officers trained in the theoretical formal battles of the previous century, and reluctant to embrace the new technologies. It was a recipe for the disastrous casualties which the war produced. Complicating this, it is notable that both the Army and Navy witnessed serious conflicts between politicians and senior officers with regard to conceptual military strategy and the identification and deployment of resources – even to the extent of the falsification of historical records.

Above, incidentally, are two photographs illustrating something of the mechanics of a seaplane – probably a Short Admiralty Type 184 tractor biplane seaplane fitted with a 240 hp engine, used by spotters – being winched aboard its tender, the H.M.S. ‘Riviera’ on Dover Patrol, its crew sitting on its floats. These were officers of the Royal Navy’s Air Service which, with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps, operated under the separate commands respectively of the Royal Navy and the British Army during the war. They were amalgamated to create the Royal Air Force in April 1918.

Who would have thought that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo would have started one of the major disasters of the twentieth century?

By the end of the nineteenth century Germany, which had emerged as an alliance of independent German states led by Prussia, was the most powerful state in Europe. The Franco-German war of 1870 to 1871 had confirmed Germany’s status and allowed it to expand its interests in Africa and Asia, threatening British interests there.

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Development of alliances

France, now without an army and humiliated by the terms of its defeat and extent of reparations, was isolated, Germany reinforcing its strength first by a treaty with Austria in 1879 and then with the newly formed Italy in 1882 – The Triple Alliance, as it was known.

Alliances were also forged with Britain in self interest, particularly with regard to the Mediterranean and north Africa. More importantly, France managed to establish a treaty with Russia in 1894 as the latter was more nervous of their German neighbours than they were of the revolutionary French. This presented Germany with the possibility of simultaneous opposition on its east and west frontiers.

Britain was, by the end of the century, facing industrial competition from the United States and Germany as well as incursions – real and implicit – from Russia towards India and the Suez Canal in their search for influence and ‘warm water’.

Because of this Britain attempted to become less isolationist and found itself increasingly involved in making a series of agreements with Germany, France, Russia and Japan in order to protect its interests while watching the Germans develop a navy to rival or surpass their own.

Realising that their arms race might end in war, Britain and Germany attempted to negotiate an end to the military build-up. This proved fruitless.

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Balkan conflagration

In 1909 the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – with the reluctant agreement of Russia – annexed Bosnia and Herzogovina. In 1912 the Balkan League, comprising Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia defeated Turkey. This was considered settled but was re-ignited in 1913 with Greece, Romania, Serbia and Turkey attacking Bulgaria.

Arrest of the Archduke‘s assassin

One of the results of the Balkan wars was the fear felt by Germany at the gains made by Russia’s ally, Serbia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand appeared to be a good excuse to attack Serbia. However, there was a difference of opinion within the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Austria favoured an immediate attack, but Hungary favoured discussion.

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Carved letters from a monument to the First World War

On the 23rd July 1914, Serbia was presented with an unacceptable ultimatum. Naturally, they turned it down and mobilised their armies. On the 25th July Serbia mobilised and, on the 28th July Austria declared war, shelling Belgrade. The Russians began full mobilisation and Germany followed on the 31st July, demanding Russia halted their mobilisation. Russia refused and Germany declared war on them on 1st August 1914.

With its ally, Russia, facing attack by Germany, France mobilised so, on the 3rd August Germany declared war on France, swinging through Belgium in order to attack France from the north rather than from the east.

Back in 1839 Britain and the other great powers had agreed to keep Belgium neutral by the Treaty of London. Britain, therefore, asked Germany to withdraw and, when they refused, declared war on the 4th August 1914. Britain followed this up on the 12th August 1914 by declaring war on Austria-Hungary.

All this might have seemed logical, if not inevitable, but I have described it superficially. I don’t want to write a full history of the war here, nor deal with the events at sea and in the air. For a very brief overview I recommend the BBC history site (which I have used for the following outline) and which gives a more rounded view of the war in its wider context than I have here. Of course there are many other sources…

The orgins of the war and its consequences were extremely complex, and the consequences were not just confined to Europe. Japan joined in on the side of the British; Turkey and Serbia joined the Austro-Hungarian and German alliance; and Italy joined the Anglo-French alliance as did Romania and Portugal in 1915, and Greece and the United States in 1917. It can be seen how this was considered to be the Great War and a World War.

British troops in a trench

On the 7th August 1914 four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force landed in France in an attempt, alongside the French, to stop and reverse the German advances. The first great battles of the war were fought at Mons, the Marne and Ypres in August, September and October of that year as the allied forces and Germany attempted to outflank each other.

French and German soldiers in trenches

The character of this fighting developed into trench warfare, a character of fighting involving static trench systems protected by barbed wire, long-distance shelling to reduce the enemy and break down the barbed wire, and the operation of machine guns against successive waves of oncoming infantry. Slowly this brought about massive casualties and stagnation in the fighting on land which put paid to the notion many had – that the war would be over by the end of the year.

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French troops digging trenches One of many shells landing between the lines

Winter of 1914 saw the weather compounding the stagnation along the extensive trench system which now virtually linked Switzerland with the English Channel. The second battle of Ypres took place in April 1915 and other battles followed in that year but gained little, the Germans establishing themselves behind the Siegried Stellung – their name for the Hindenburg Line. At first the allies took this as signs of a retreat even though their own advances met continuing resistance. Soldiers even sang that they were going to ‘hang out our washing on the Siegried Line’, but they soon discovered that the Germans were firmly entrenched for what remained of at least the winter. April also saw Italy changing sides, now fighting with the allies.

With the Western Front now at a stalemate the allies attempted to open another front against the Turks in Gallipoli. Australian and New Zealand troops were landed in April 1916 but were unable to progress their initiative but, in January 1916, were forced to withdraw having sustained considerable casualties on what was considered to have been a badly-planned operation.

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Detail from ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster

The 9th February 1916 saw the introduction in Britain of conscription for all men between the ages of 18 and 41 as politicians felt they could no longer rely on appeals to the public. Their ‘Your country needs you’ initiative had brought in a million volunteers. Bear in mind that the war saw four and a half million British under arms, supplemented by three million from the British Empire.

British troops on a walkway over a waterlogged, shelled, battlefield

Germany initiated an offensive at Verdun intended to break the stalemate in February 1916 and, on the 1st July 1916, the allies launched a counter-offensive at the Somme. The first day saw twenty thousand British dead and forty thousand wounded. By the end of the year over a million casualties had been lost to both sides in the various areas of conflict.

On the 21st November 1916, the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef died, increasing the antipathy within the Austro-Hungarian alliance towards the war. The Hapsburg crown passed to his grand-nephew, Karl I, who accepted his rôle as the Head of the Holy Roman Empire while attempting to be less autocratic than his forebears. This also helped weaken the attitude to the war.

A British stretcher party at work

The number of dead and wounded for all of the countries in the conflict were becoming extremely high, an issue which was increasingly difficult for the respective governments to deal with. In the first two years of the war Russia alone had lost four and a half million dead or wounded, with an additional two million prisoners lost. Three hundred years of Imperial rule were coming to an end from the combination of losses and internal difficulties.

Germany was increasingly suffering due to the effects of the war and the lack of food brought about to some extent by the British blockade at sea. Germany consequently developed their u-boat strategy rapidly, and began attacking all shipping, including neutrals, in an attempt to starve Britain.

In December 1916 Lloyd George and the Conservatives took over government in Britain from Asquith. This gave impetus to the allied war effort in that Lloyd George felt that modernising would assist in allied victory. It is said that ruthless men took over from the moderates, and that this was reflected in the field.

Joffre, blamed for Verdun and the Somme, was replaced in December by Nivelle as Commander-in-Chief with his promise of a more aggressive and successful campaign.

1916 ended with the bitterest winter in living memory, a correspondent writing that the snow, in covering much of the evidence of war, had brought a beauty to the landscape.

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The beginning of 1917 saw the Germans make a strategic withdrawal to their Hindenberg line with the promise of more static trench warfare in prospect. On the 6th April 1917 the United States joined the war as a result of Germany’s encouraging Mexico to attack their southern border.

The allies co-ordinated their attacks in Spring 1917, the major effort for the British being the diversionary battle of Arras designed to pin down German reserves. This part of the conflict included the two battles at Bullecourt in April and May of that year.

A French firing squad

Regrettably, Nivelle’s strategy of a massive attack along an eighty kilometre front – despite opposition by the British Commander-in-Chief, Haig – was launched on the 16th April but suffered from delays and intelligence leaks. His promise of immediate victory instead resulted in massive casualties, a sense of disillusion and hopelessness, mutiny in the French army and Nivelle’s replacement by Pétain.

American troops

In May 1915, the ‘Lusitania’ carrying a number of American passengers had been sunk by a German U-boat, but American opinion appeared to favour keeping out of the war despite this as the presidential elections at the end of 1916 made a decision difficult to take. Germany elected to have their U-boats fire on American shipping at the end of this year and, at the beginning of 1917 the sinking of the American ‘Vigilentia’ proved to be the last straw. The American Congress voted on the 6th April 1917, to go to war against Germany. This was a significant event in that it mobilised considerable resources against the Axis.

Ypres followed in July of that year, mustard gas being used for the first time. Tanks were at last used properly in November at Cambrai though the Germans successfully counter-attacked and regained all the ground taken in that offensive.

By the summer of 1917 the British were increasingly in control of their conflict with the Ottoman Empire and had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem. This allowed the Germans to bring troops back to reinforce their European campaign.

Throughout the year – perhaps driven by the requests for financial and material assistance from France and Britain – the American President, Woodrow Wilson, attempted to formulate a peace plan based on the terms required by the different parties for peace. Even the Pope made alternative suggestions to the President but the two main parties, both convinced of their moral positions, could not be reconciled.

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Italian guns ranged against the Austrians

Spring of 1918 saw Germany intensifying its offensive on the Western front, and with some intial success. The allied counter-attacks at the Marne and Amiens in August, however, began to turn the initiative against them, pushing the Germans away from the protection of their Hindenberg Line and initiating the freeing up north-western France and Belgium.

Germany had attempted to reinforce its northern fronts with additional troops following the ceasing of hostilities with Russia, but their Austro-Hungarian allies were facing increasing difficulties in northern Italy.

Italian guns ranged against the Austrians

In October, Germany and their Austro-Hungarian allies approached America with a request for an armistice. But, despite this, the Italian offensive continued against the Austro-Hungarian armies, and it was not until the 3rd November 1918 at Padua, Italy, that this element of the war came to an end and an armistice was signed following their signifcant battle losses.

Germany signed an armistice at 11.00 am on the 11th November 1918 at Compiègne in northern France, generally bringing the war in Europe to a close.

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The hall of the Paris Peace conference

The beginning of the year saw twenty-one nations opening the Paris Peace Conference. Here there were significant disagreements but, by May the terms were agreed and presented to Germany requiring them to lose a significant amount of land together with all their over-sea territories, permit the Ruhr to be occupied, limit their military and pay reparations. These terms created considerable bitterness in Germany and established a basis for the next war. On the 28th June 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed between the Allies and Germany bringing the war to an official end. This was followed by additional treaties with countries of the Central axis: the Treaty of Saint Germain with Austria, the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria and, in 1920, the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary, and the Treaty of Sèvres with Turkey though this was later rejected by Kemal Atatürk then settled with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

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The impact of women

One of the important effects of the war was the impact it had on women and their rights. At the outbreak of war women were still not allowed to vote nationally, though there was some representation in local election and school boards permitted. The last decades of the nineteenth century had witnessed women agitating for the vote, a movement which became progressively more militant culminating, in 1903, with the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union by the Pankhursts, angry with the lack of progress by peaceful means.

Women working with shells in a factory A woman working at a lathe in a factory

The outbreak of war changed this as the enormity of the effort needed to prosecute the war became evident. Just as men were needed to join the ranks of the military, the numbers of workers required to produce the materiel of war increased dramatically. Women took over a lot of the work on the land producing food as well as moving into the factories which were expanding to accommodate the war effort. Much of this work was heavy and dangerous but was an absolute necessity if the war was to be successful for the allies.

These two photographs illustrate something of the character of those engaged in making armaments, though there was a wide range of activities, both light and heavy, into which women worked, many for the first time. It is probable that this was the rationale for extending suffrage to women over thirty years of age in 1918, admittedly only if they were householders, were married to householders or had gained a university degree.

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The signing table at the hall of the Paris Peace conference

The Great War saw millions of casualties. In addition to this a number of actions had been taken which saw policy introductions and irrevocable changes, altering circumstances for people right around the world. These are outside the scope of this note, but I suggest you read more on the factors which have shaped our world, as many of them led to the second World War.

Part of the wall of commemoration at Hyde Park Corner, London

The Great War left an impression on millions of people and changed the course of the twentieth century. Those who survived the war returned to their countries, now changed forever. Although there have been many wars since then, somehow the Great War continues to be a source of interest, initiating study and investigation as well as creating inspiration and melancholia, perhaps because many of us have family connections to it and regret the personal effect it has had. The war took away a generation, mostly men. It has left us with a profound sense of loss.

more to be written…

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