100 years on... Let's not forget our achievement in the Great War
As the August 1914 anniversary approaches, there is already a row over how it should be marked
THE hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War for the British occurs on 4 August next year and the Culture Department has set up an advisory board to organise a programme of national commemoration.
The intention is to focus on three dates in the British experience – the outbreak of war (4 August 1914), the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916) and Armistice Day (11 November 1918).
The board is made up of political, military and academic figures and already tensions between them over the tone and focus of the events are finding their way into the public sphere.
Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford (the top academic), has called the plans "conceptually empty". Other commentators have suggested that political correctness will downplay our national achievement in the war in order to not offend the Germans.
There was always going to be a row. Many people have been influenced by the revisionist anti-war rhetoric of the 1960s – Lions led by Donkeys – a view reinforced by watching Blackadder Goes Forth, set on the Western Front with its hilarious portrayals of useless generals and cynical, shirking soldiers in the trenches.
Nothing could be more inaccurate. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from December 1915 until the end, has a good claim to be considered the most effective British general in history – the principal architect of victory in the most complex and bloody war ever fought by the British Army, knocking minnows like Wellington and Marlborough into their cocked hats.
After the French armies mutinied in April 1917, the BEF under Haig, including its very tough Australian and Canadian formations, took most of the strain on the Western Front. Its most magnificent and, sadly, little remembered achievement was a prolonged and desperate defence against the final great German offensive in the West – a series of attacks the German high command called with habitual Wagnerian pomposity 'Kaiserschlacht' or Emperor's Battle and which brought them within reach of victory.
Lenin took Russia out of the war altogether in the spring of 1918 enabling the Germans to increase their strength on the Western Front from 147 divisions to 192. Early on the morning of 21 March 1918 this force attacked – with the bulk of its fighting power hitting the sector held by the British Fifth Army (General Sir Hubert Gough) around the key town of St Quentin on the River Aisne.
The operation began with a storm bombardment of 1.1 million shells, many of heavy calibre, falling on British and French positions in just four hours. Winston Churchill, then minister of munitions and on a visit to the troops, described being woken in his camp-bed in the Picardy village of Nurlu, slap bang in the middle of the German advance:
"... Exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade…the weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before."
By the end of the day the British were in full retreat having suffered 40,000 casualties. Using new artillery and infiltration tactics, a shed-load of poison gas and aided by foggy weather, the German advance seemed unstoppable.
Things got progressively worse in the following weeks, with the War Cabinet in London considering ordering a general withdrawal to the channel ports, and the French army preparing to fall back on Paris – precisely the German aim.
But Haig held his nerve, liaising effectively with his French opposite numbers and committing his reserves with masterly anticipation. Issuing his famous Special Order of the Day for 11 April, he electrified his weary troops:
"There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."
His words and general coolness in the crisis of the war were certainly inspirational to his hard-pressed troops. But the astonishing thing was that the largely conscript BEF had been putting those words into action from the start. Three days into the fighting a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers could only muster two officers and 26 men – but they were still a coherent fighting force.
The artillery officer, RJ Campbell, who when he was an old man published a book about his experiences during the retreat, was still ashamed 50 years later that he had tried to exchange flippant small talk with a "distraught looking" infantry officer he met at a river-crossing. It was only days afterwards that Campbell realised he "may have been the only survivor from his company".
Cut-off British units invariably fought to the end – their fate only discovered once the lost ground was recovered during the allied advance later in the year.
But their resistance broke the will of the German army. Not bad for a bunch of unmotivated conscripts led by a group of inbred chinless wonders.