Extracted: November 1914

Extract from: A Certain Trace

Michael’s return journey to the front line was slow and erratic, in dramatic contrast to the movements of the front he had left some two weeks previously.

He found himself, with others, taking almost three weeks to reach Locon (France) at the beginning of November.  The officers were mostly transferring from their previous regiments to fill the gaps in the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Bedfordshires.

On 6th November the men of the 1st Battalion marched into Locon and were incredulous at the sight of 500 London buses and their drivers.  Two days earlier the buses had been in London where they had been requisitioned.  The bus drivers in London had all volunteered to remain with their buses and had driven in long, timeless convoy to connect with the army near Loker (Belgium).

Some three weeks earlier the 2nd Battalion had arrived in France from their barracks in South Africa and were moved by rail and foot towards Loker.  Just outside Loker the two battalions met and had time to rest and mingle.  Many of the soldiers were ‘old’ regulars and had been with the regiment for years, many starting as boys, subsequently there were old friendships between battalions.  Over the years men and officers had met between postings at bases like Kempston so friendships amongst troops via commissions and transfers had naturally developed.  In the middle of nowhere and in the rush and muddle of this new war it was a surprising but ideal time to search out old companions and in some cases, kin, to exchange cigarettes and stories.  Food, rest and relaxation were to be grabbed when and where ever.
Re-embarking on the buses, 2nd battalion was joined by the 1st. and the column moved north making its way via Lestrem, Le Donilieu and on.  But not far.

Along the Menin Road, via Hooge, just time for a rest then to march towards Geluveld.  The end of a long day.  The end of a brief respite from the immediacy of war and off into the Klein Zillebeke wood and a dark hell.  From 6th November through to the 19th there was almost continuous fighting in the woods.  The Bedfordshires initially took up a defensive line amongst the trees, preparing positions against the continual threat of German attack and actual sporadic bombardment and sniper fire.  The English and French troops were not alone in working defensive positions, the Germans were preparing just as hard in mirror image on the other side of the wood.  Each side were digging pits and trenches on point, forward or defensive lines.  Nights brought little sleep for lookouts, scouting parties or those huddling in the trenches with permission to rest.  No fires in the open, little to eat, no respite and no relief.  Only defence and persistent danger of wounding or death.  The dense trees gave them cover but the trenches were often difficult to dig, lines were bent and shortened by clumps of trees too close to dig through or just too big to go round.  So digging would stop and another pit started in order to cover the line beside or behind.  The expectation was to excavate to the depth of a man to stand and fire, or peer over a rampart made from the moved earth rammed down or bagged (if able).  Roots from the spreading trees made it impossibly hard work.  Some could be cut out or maybe worked round.  Like demon archaeologists they would dig round or under or hack away with axes or bayonets to clear out what they could.  Stopping and starting, straight or curved, the front and support trenches began to weave through the forest, edging forward like morse code laid on the ground but hidden by the trees and remaining leaves from the buzzing, dangerous, ‘flies’ that flitted through the broken skies.  They were as deep as graves and shallow as pits, waiting for the storm and hail.  Trees cracked and shuddered all around as all through the forest came sound and deeds of war.

Shelling was like an inconsistent tide that moved in and over from different directions as the warring fronts washed round the clumps of frantic workers.  Advancing German troops, albeit some distance away would shift the balance in these local trenches.  Again, like an incoming tide, the British line of defensive trenches, really only shallow pits, might at one hour be a front, a stable hinge that slaughtered advancing Prussian guards with one, rescued machine gun, or part of a lost flank that withdrew 30 metres to another defensive line.  Forward and back. Both forces thinned by death and wounding.  Time and again the British infantry would defend the line by retaking a lost trench with bayonet charge or defend against opposing bayonets with shot, bayonet or even fist.  And the fighting got harder, trench to trench, yard by yard.  The lie of the land in the forest meant it was easy to got lost, difficult to see the trench ahead or behind.  It was difficult to tell who was friend or foe as movement was fast and deadly through day and black of night.  Many died, many were wounded and some got lost in the melees to walk, creep or crawl into enemy lines, of whichever side and out again, or not.

This part was but a small element of the 1st Battle of Ypres.  A period from 30th October through to 22nd November that saw the 1st and 2nd Bedfordshire starting with their depleted, combined, strength of 1100 men and officers move to the new front.  By the end of November, when the defensive lines began to deepen and hold and the tactical movement lessened, both friend and foe were literally worn down by constant battle.  Attack and counter, both sides running out of replacement troops and shells and resources.  By the end of November that original 1100 had been whittled down drastically, the able number, some maybe wounded but still unwilling to leave the field, was 2 officers, 5 NCOs and 200men.

Men were exhausted and filthy and had witnessed each day more than they had seen in previous years of being regular soldiers.  As battalions, as a regiment, part of the divisions of the British Expeditionary Force, they had fought, marched and fought again and again since arriving in Belgium at the beginning of August.  In three months the BEF had received 86,000 casualties and had fought to a standstill.  The Old Contemptables were born across the face of France and Belgium.
Michael might have been considered lucky, he was only lightly wounded, a bullet in the thigh and broken leg as he fell into a trench.

Michael, wounded in right thigh and other leg broken, was hoisted out of the pit and onto a stretcher, still conscious and swearing.  He felt the hand of his sergeant on his shoulder, steadying him and the stretcher as they manoeuvred down the slope away from most of the immediate danger.
“Thanks Henry”, He managed to gasp towards the sergeant crawling beside him as his stretcher was dragged off the sightline
The two soldiers who had tended him in the soft mud at the bottom of the trench and helped lift him out slid rapidly over the top, hugging the ground to limit their profile.  They said he was lucky, he said, ‘like hell’.  They discovered the wound was bloody but not an artery, though his other leg was broken.  Twice lucky, for had the trench been full depth he could have broken his neck too.  Third time lucky, as the three men who had been just before him on the bank had been felled by a burst from a nearby machine gun just as his sergeant had thrown himself into Michael and knocked him down with such force that he rolled into the trench.  He never felt the bullet but felt and heard the crack of the left shin bone as it crashed on to the unforgiving tree root with excess force and left him breathless and temporarily legless.

He had listened to the noise, yells and screams from the base of the trench, unable to distinguish events. Had shivered in the cold of the night. The cold slipped into his core as the warm blood pushed out of his thigh, twisted down and stuck his long-johns to his leg.  It was minutes but seemed endless before two men jumped down beside him.  He was sure his heart stopped with the shock and panic but the the air was dragged into his lungs as he heard the questioning English voices and he had shouted back, “ I’m okay but my legs are done in.”

They carried him to the the medical station and joined the shuffling queues of wounded and dying.  He tried to insist he stayed but the medic sent him down the line.  Michael knew the situation in the woods was critical, vital to hold and secure but it was chaotically fluid and he was immobile, useless.  Michael also realised he was getting light-headed so he had gripped the edge of the stretcher to hang on as they moved him away from the madness.

To medical station, to base, to hospital and home in time for Christmas 1914.

poppy  single

Bibliography:
Many internet sites, 3 listed below.

www.firstww.com

www.great war.com.co.uk

www. history learning site
title:    1st Bedfordshires in World War 1    by Simon Fuller      pub: Fighting Highs

Twilight of the Belle Epoque, A Graph Review

  A Graph Review
50 with highpoints 70

Twilight of the Belle Epoque

By Mary McAuliffe

Hardback published 2014            £18.95                27 b&w plates and 1 map

Published by Rowman & Littlefield

twi bell pic
You dive into this book, this period, with a swirl of the Paris Exposition of 1900, rushing to the opening of the Metro, over to the summer Olympics in Paris, the racing of cars round the street.  Are introduced to musicians, artists, engineers and entrepreneurs throughout as Mary McAuliffe dips into their circles.  The new buds waiting to flower like Picasso and those many others, arrived or struggling like Ravel, all mixing and meeting together with the ‘elders’ like Sarah Bernhardt.  From the first page through the next 16 and onwards to page 350 you are swept along into the Paris of artists of every genre and many nations.  A hub, a glittering city that drew unto itself the fashionable and unfashionable alike.  You do get reminders of the recent past which help to keep the reader in tune with the specifics of the day, very useful if you have not yet read her earlier book.  This book is happily read as a stand alone but you may well thirst for the detail from Dawn of Belle Epoque.

I love the way people appear, artists too numerous, Marie Curie and Paul Langevin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Baron Von Richthoven, Proust, Apollinaire, Renault, just a random selection from an overflowing index.  If anyone from that period were in Paris they will no doubt be in the book and indexed, as and when.

After the first, the following chapters are devoted to each year.  The fine detail, the meticulous quotes and explanations of the developments, forward and back.  Of lives, personal and artistic, woven into the fabric of Paris.  Politics seeps in, the friction with have versus the have-nots and street life; and of course the precursors to war.  Shadows, black clouds that cast out much of the glitter.  The last chapter, 1918, the final year of World War 1, begins with an outline of the situation in Paris. German shelling of the city, their lines almost on the outskirts of the.  The city truly in siege but the flow of names and events still appear.  Picasso, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust and on, inhabit the paragraphs with Clemenceau, and now Dreyfus and Charles de Gaulle.

Armistice saw three days of celebration in Paris.  On the second day the lights along the boulevard went up for the first time in four years.  The war had wreaked its havoc and McAuliffe quotes Proust’s housekeeper in that a society and way of life “was disappearing then and is now gone forever.”  Quoted as having been a ‘golden age’, in reality for the majority it was not but for others, for many reasons it seems it almost was.

A final paragraph concludes this exceptional book. Two books if you include Dawn of the Belle Epoque as its forerunner.

The dazzling excitement of the opening chapter runs through to the intrusion and attrition of the war, completing this finely detailed, researched period.  Highly readable but may make you breathless!

40 pages of notes, 10 pages of bibliography and an extensive index

Definitely to stay on my shelf, with the first volume, Dawn of the Belle Époque   hardback   £16.95    978 1442209275            pprback  978 1442209283    £11.95

 

 

Cambrai 1917: A Graph Review

by Bryn Hammond

A Graph Review
50, highpoints 70

Sub-title: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle

Published 2009      paperback     978 029784553 9.     £14.99

Image
So much happened in World War 1, this is but a small part:

The first chapter neatly lays out the situation of the opposing sides on the Western Front where both sides had lost momentum and were deeply entrenched in positions that were constantly being strengthened, rebuilt. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) being re-inforced with supplies hurriedly pushed to the front as well as troops literally fresh from the training grounds of England or ‘colonial’ troops from all directions that shipped over to fill the huge gaps left by the previous three years of mechanised slaughter by new technology in weaponry and defensive constructions. We learn of the different emphasise the opposing forces put on these developments. Both sides were suffering from serious attrition and were searching out the ways and means of reducing this whilst using the ferocity of each new development to break the seemingly static lines.

For the next chapter the author moves on to the thoughts of various officers from Haig downwards on the next moves required in this, now global, warfare.  A war that was using using unprecedented advances in naval (submarines), mechanisation on land for transporting troops (buses at the very least), design of armoured cars and the sudden importance of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps).

He picks his way through what must have been vast amounts of papers, official and personal, to pinpoint moments and players in the development of the planned attack using massed tanks for the first time. We read of the different tactics devised  to use tanks to clear the wide strips of  defensive wire and systems for getting tanks across trenches. The Tank Corps is moulded from volunteers across the services, transformed from Heavy Machine Gun to be a force that will change warfare on land. In the future. This book now proceeds to show how the plan was put into action and perhaps how much of modern, mechanised warfare was beginning to be developed from the planning, training and implementation. How the tanks fared, how the infantry worked. New tactics for artillery calculated to surprise the enemy and support actual troop and tank movement. Use of aircraft as recce and spotters ( not unusual but critical for this event) and specifically using them now to bomb and strafe targets at time critical moments.

Throughout the book Bryn Hammond offers us writings from all ranks across all events. From planning action, to being wounded and waiting for several days in Bourlon Wood for stretcher bearers. Privates to major-generals all have their place in this kaleidoscope of war.  We read how Italy has a brief role at a critical time for troop movements. By half-way through the book we understand that miles of telegraph cables, frequently cut and needing replacing are unable to replace the runners needed to carry battlefield messages.

The detailing continues, like the first day of fighting for Bourlon Wood and ridge, and the second and the third: the 26th Nov when a determined assault to take the Bourlon ridge and the village of Fontaine. The machine gun fire from Folie wood causing massive casualties on the right flank and the coverage of the whole front of the assault. All described first hand with quotes from assorted letters and reports, diaries etc as well as the author’s own words reporting the specific actions of officers and plans and their associated problems of the moment or mistakes.  Bryn Hammond continues to value the word of hindsight to be used as for learning, errors are pointed out, objectively.  The writing style is beautifully maintained with balanced explanation of aims, plans, actions and results using detailed knowledge of the author and elements of participants own words. Frequently we can follow one man’s personal writings through stretches of the campaign, in all different areas of the forces.

By the laying-out of events of the attack on the wider section of the front to the second, tighter advance from a small salient of success; we understand the attempt at a strategic success on taking Bourlon, village and woods and its high ridge. We come to see how the techniques of infantry and tank working together were being developed but where successful was not often communicated, usually because of the conditions of war and the difficulty of communications in general.  Not withstanding elements of not trusting new fangled machines and having to change to newly developed tactics.

P.394. “Without doubt, the Cambrai battle is chiefly remembered as a portend of the future. ………… Dec1st 1917. …..A day which, if it did not precisely mark the cusp between nineteenth century warfare and the ‘century of total war’, certainly epitomised it.”

Within this scenario we read of the frustration of cavalry divisions, always ready to be used but limited mostly to being scouts or support as dismounted infantry.  But for some it is different.

Saturday night, 1st Dec. “The line at La Vacquerie…..a scene of complete and utter disaster”.   The BEF were pushed out to edge of La V. and a German attack on Dec3 finally re-took La Vacquerie.

20th Nov. to 8th Dec…….Cambrai had failed as an attempt at a single stroke to break through and use its momentum to help end the war. However it was an offensive marked by the overall use, on both sides, of new as well as old, tactics. The BEF, planned co- ordinations of troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft, integrating new ideas and tactics with basic heroism,  The days struck new moulds of warfare; new use of artillery and major play with the newest weapon, the tank.  Even a charge of Cavalry versus machine guns, almost reminiscent of Balaclava. Massive use of aircraft on both sides. Richthofen, using his own squadron’s fame and strategy of maintaining superiority in numbers by integrating other squadrons into his flights. Eighteen days that contained street to street fighting, trench warfare, the deathly crossing of open fields, canals, deep fighting within dark woods.  Desperate attack and defence, re-take or re-defend and withdrawal to lines on a map, ridges on the ground. Logistics problems caused by initial success plus shortage of troops and reserves from the start may, with hind-sight, have held back the success of the operation. In the event Battle of Cambrai is maybe a mis-nomer as it was a target-too-far and maybe we should consider Bourlon Wood and Fontaine as the central characters here. The world has deemed Cambrai, 1917 as the first Great Tank Battle but reading this book would revise this to a battle that used massed tanks for the first time plus an array of new and old techniques that nearly worked but for the old bogeys of reserves, communication, logistics and the enemy.  A move towards the future that tank technology was taking but still had a lot further to go

This is my simplicity.  The last chapter of the book is a brief overview by the author that gives balance to the events. Again inserting personal accounts, thoughts on historical aftermath and brief narrative of the battle events. This was so useful. We got so caught up with the intimacy of events that the bigger picture got blurred.

Bryn Hammond’s last sentence is fitting for the battle for Cambrai and indeed all warfare:

“This story might have been dominated by the steel and fire of tanks and guns but such human tales and emotions, forming as they do a vital other dimension to the battle, could not and should not be forgotten”