“1914” ~ Rupert Brooke

On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and mobilised. Russia's ally France also mobilised on the same day. On 3 August, at 6.45pm, Germany declared war on France. The next day Germany invaded Belgium, which had been declared a neutral country by the Treaty of London in 1839. Now the British were drawn in. They sent Germany an ultimatum asking her to withdraw from Belgium. There was no reply and by midnight on 4 August, Britain and Germany were at war. The British had been the only nation to declare war on Germany rather than the other way round. As the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, waited for the midnight deadline, he remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.

Why Did Gavrilo Princip's shots in Sarajevo lead to a world war? At first the incident was hardly noted in Britain. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany did not believe that Russia would intervene on behalf of the Serbs. He was not going to let the crisis interfere with his planned holiday cruise. What went wrong?

“Lamplight” ~ May Wederburn Cannan

Over the tangle of great power rivalry in Europe, with its shifting alliances and brutal jockeying for imperial position, lay the shadow of the huge conscript armies assembled by the continental powers in the late 19th century. Industrial muscle and expanding populations had produced deep pools of manpower which could be mobilised as acts of political policy to achieve national ends. The politicians calculated on their deterrent effect to avoid war, but did not anticipate that these great armies, accumulated to keep the peace, would once mobilised, propel the nations into war by their own fearful weight.

The staff of each army had prepared detailed war plans in advance. Those of Germany and France involved the use of precise railway timetables for the mass movement of men and material. The technological gears that made these movements possible could not be thrown into reverse by the politicians,

who at this point had irrevocably surrendered control to their generals. In the first fortnight of August 1914, some 20 million men -nearly 10 per cent of the populations of the combatant states -donned uniforms and took the trains to war.

All believed that they would be back home, “before the leaves fell"

“Strange Service” ~ Ivor Gurney

On the eve of war the German Army, drawing on a reserve of 4.3 million trained men, was organised in 25 army corps comprising 87 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions. The front-line army was supported by 32 highly capable reserve divisions. The German cavalry, diluted with light infantry to increase firepower, proved a disappointment in the opening phase of the war, as did the field artillery, with its standard equipment of the obsolescent 3-inch gun. The great strength of German artillery lay in its heavy guns for use in the field, particularly the 5.9-inch howitzer.

The polyglot army of Germany's Austro-Hungarian ally, with its 49 infantry divisions and 11 of cavalry, was more of a liability than an asset. Over 50 per cent of its troops were Slavs, Czechs and Italians -men whose natural sympathies lay with Austria's enemies rather than the Dual Monarchy. This was a factor behind some of the more spectacular Austrian collapses of the war. The fragility of the Austrian armies was exacerbated by the Chief of the Austrian General Staff, Field Marshal von Hotzendorf, whose strategic reach generally exceeded his grasp.

When mobilised, the Russians would field 114 infantry and 36 cavalry divisions, the legendary 'steamroller'. Although much had been done to revive it following the humiliating defeat by Japan in 1905, the Russian Army remained poorly equipped, with reserves of ammunition and rifles in short supply, desperately short of competent officers at the lower levels and riddled with corruption at the top.

The French Army had made a remarkable recovery from the utter ruin of 1871 to field 75 infantry and 10 cavalry divisions infused with the doctrine of all-out attack developed after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. Symbolic of this spirit was the infantry's retention of conspicuous red trousers and heavy, dark blue coats. They were not replaced by 'horizon blue' uniforms until 1915.

Field Marshal Alfred Von Schlieffen was planning ahead as early as the 1890’s, his aim was how to solve a strategic problem ~ War on 2 fronts ~ France in the west and Russia in the east. Thinking that Russia would be slow in mobilising, Schlieffen decided that they should strike at France first by drawing the French army towards the Rhine by poorly defending this sector whilst delivering a swift right hook ~ drive the German army through Belgium and into northern France, down past Paris finally taking the French from behind, Schlieffen retired in 1906 before he could see his plan in operation.

Helmuth Von Moltke, his successor took over the plan and steadily changed it to his own liking - that of a very cautious man - the left wing was strengthened at the expense of the right, this weakened right hook was not enough to push through the unexpected force met by the Belgium army causing the plan to fail and for him to be replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn.

“August 1914” ~ Isaac Rosenberg

The opening days of August 1914 seemed to promise a  fluid war of movement. While the Germans drove through Belgium, the French launched their own attack -Plan     XVII -a headlong offensive in Alsace-Lorraine where German machine-guns mowed down thousands of men advancing in open order, However, as the German armies began to swing round into France, the Schlieffen Plan began to unravel, General von Kluck's First Army, on the extreme right, turned south-eastwards, exposing its flank as it marched obliquely across the face of the defences of Paris, Kluck was now passing east, rather than west of the French capital.

This movement was reported by British aviators on 3 September, The information made little impact on the slow-thinking French C-in-C, General Joffre, who was shuffling his forces to the left to protect Paris and to meet the Germans head-on. But its significance was not lost on General Gallieni, the military governor of Paris. On the morning of 4 September Gallieni ordered General Manoury's Sixth Army to prepare to strike at the German flank and rear, Engaged by Sixth Army on the 6th, Kluck turned west to meet the threat, simultaneously opening up a dangerous 30-mile gap between First Army and General von Bulow's Second Army, which was now taking the brunt of Joffre's counter-offensive.

The BEF, which had halted its retreat, now advanced cautiously into the gap with the French Fifth Army on its right, The nerve of the German C-in-C, von Moltke, far away in his HO in Koblenz, cracked as he cast an anxious eye towards the Channel ports and the threat to his rear posed by the (unrealised) intervention of fresh British armies.

On 9 September he ordered Bulow and Kluck to retreat to the Noyon-Verdun line. The Allies tracked them for five days before being halted on the Aisne by a hastily improvised line of German trenches.

“Trench Duty” ~ Siegfried Sassoon

After the Battle of the Marne, both sides extended operations northwards, each trying to work round the other's flank. As this series of leapfrogging manoeuvres reached its conclusion, the BEF sought to deny the Channel ports to the Germans, crashing head-on into the Germans at Ypres on 20 October. Such was the initial confusion among the British high command that the C-in-C, Sir John French" believed for at least 48 hours that he was attacking while his heavily outnumbered forces were barely holding their ground. His optimism gave way to something close to panic when he finally grasped the true nature of the BEF's position.

The British line held, supported by the French on their right. On the British left the Belgians opened sluice gates to halt the German advance. Bitter fighting on a narrow front continued until 11 November when torrential rain and snow halted the final German offensive. The First Battle of Ypres was the last chapter in the history of the old British Regular Army, of which nearly 80 per cent had been lost in the fighting. From the Channel to the Swiss frontier, both sides now began to dig in. Trench warfare had arrived.

“Suicide in the trenches” ~ Siegfried Sassoon

The opening weeks of fighting had given the false impression of a war of movement. But in September 1914, as each side tried to outflank the other in the 'Race to the Sea', the first trenches -initially mere scrapes in the ground ­began to make their appearance. Within weeks the stalemate they had produced on the Aisne spread down the 500-mile battle line from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

At first the picture they presented on the long, congealed front was by no means uniform. The Germans packed troops into the front line with little immediate support beyond some machine-gun positions. In contrast, the British, in the low-lying, frequently flooded coastal plain of the Yser, quickly dug a three-line system of front, support and reserve trenches linked by zig-zag communications trenches.

The British system set the basic pattern which troops endured for the next four years, from Flanders to the dry chalklands of the Somme and Champagne to the wooded terrain of the Vosges. Beyond the trenches, at a grenade throw's distance, lay the barbed wire entanglements, and beyond that the narrow strip which divided the opposing trenches -'no man's land'. Its width varied from sector to sector, from as much as 500 yards to as little as 50. Near Zonnebecke in 1915 The British and Germans were only 10 yards apart.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead” ~ Charles Hamilton Sorley

As the war progressed, trench engineering became ever more elaborate. The German Hindenburg Line, built in the winter of 1916-17, consisted of three lines of double trenches to a depth of two miles, the first of which was protected by six belts of barbed wire, the densest of them 100 yards thick. Dozens of communications trenches linked the lines and to the rear were sited hundreds of guns zeroed to plaster 'no man's land' with shrapnel and high explosive or gas shells. Further forward, machine guns with interlocking fields of fire were positioned to strafe 'no man's land' the moment the enemy went 'over the top'. Railways were built right up to the rear areas to speed reinforcement and supply.

Living conditions in the trenches were often grim. During the wet season, they became morasses, particularly in the British sector on the Western Front. Men and mules could drown in the glutinous mud. Wounded men were particularly vulnerable. A survivor of Passchendaele recalled finding: ~ khaki-clad leg, three heads in a row; the rest of the bodies submerged, giving one the idea that they had used their last ounce of strength to keep their heads above the rising water. In another miniature pond, a hand still gripping a rifle is all that is visible while its next door neighbour is occupied by a steel helmet and half a head, the eyes staring icily at the green slime which floats on the surface almost at their level.'

Sanitary conditions in the trenches were appalling. Rats gorged themselves on corpses lying in 'no man's land' or embedded in the walls of the trenches themselves. Trench foot and frostbite claimed about 75,000 British casualties during the war. On 'quiet' sectors boredom was a deadly enemy, although even here artillery, snipers and mortars caused a steady stream of casualties. During two months in the Neuve Chapelle sector in late 1916, the 13th Yorkshire and Lancashire lost 255 men although they had been on the defensive the whole time.

The tedium of trench routine was broken by the German dawn barrage and the Allies' reply at sunset, each side using the glare of the sun behind them to prevent the enemy from registering the position of their batteries. At night, patrols and trench raiding parties moved through the lunar landscape of 'no man's land'; wiring parties, burial details and re-supply detachments went warily about their business, keeping an eye open for star shell or enemy patrols, while the latest batch of wounded went 'down the line' to the rear.


“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” (Dulce et Decorum est) ~ Wilfred Owen

At 5pm on 22 APRIL 1915 two sinister greenish-yellow clouds crept across 'no-man's-land' towards the Allied lines at Ypres. They were pressurised chlorine gas released from over 500 cylinders in the German trenches as the preliminary to a major offensive. German prisoners and a deserter had warned of this new tactic, but no countermeasures had been taken. The two French colonial divisions on the north flank of the Ypres salient were engulfed by the cloud and fled in panic, leaving a four-mile gap in the front peopled only by the dead and those who lay suffocating in agony from chlorine gas poisoning. Having achieved total surprise, the Germans failed to exploit the breakthrough. Nevertheless, the gas had caused at least 15,000 casualties, 5,000 of them fatal.

Chlorine gas poisoning led to a slow and agonising death by asphyxiation. On 25 September 1915 the British released chlorine gas on the German lines at Loos but little of it reached the enemy trenches. Thereafter increasing use was made of gas shells. Some 63 types of gas had been developed by 1918 but the most familiar was mustard gas, smelling like a rich bon-bon filled with perfumed soap~ which literally rotted the body within and without.

The first countermeasures against gas were primitive, among them pads of cotton waste soaked in urine. The chlorine gas was partially neutralised by the ammonia in the urine. The famous box respirator did not appear until the winter of 1917 and soon became standard issue for troops at the front. Gas caused nearly a million casualties during the war, although this is only a conservative estimate.

 To be continued.....

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow,  between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still singing, fly - scarce heard amid the guns below.  we are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie - in Flanders fields.  Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.  If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow..... In Flanders fields....