Introduction

  • Tony Ashworth

Abstract

The First World War on the western front began as a war of rapid movement, and this opening phase of less than four months contrasted vividly with the static trench warfare which ensued for nearly four years. Early in August 1914, the German armies swept through Belgium, checked but momentarily by a series of short, sharp battles with the Belgian, French and British armies. But by 24 August, the comprehensive retreat of the Allied armies from Mons to Paris had begun. Meanwhile, in Lorraine, Alsace and the Ardennes, the French armies had assaulted the Germans, but some initial success turned quickly to defeat, retreat, and then entrenchment. The German advance on Paris was halted in September by the four-day battle of the Marne, and there then followed the race for the sea, where, moving rapidly northwards to the Belgian coast, the French and Germans tried to outflank each other, but neither gained the advantage; for as one side brought up a new unit, the other had one to face it. At the outset of October, the B.E.F., entrenched near the Aisne, where it repulsed several German attacks, was transferred gradually to the north, entrenching along a line from Ypres to Bethune. At Ypres, the British army fought, in November, the last battle of the first phase of the First World War.

Keywords

Fatigue Sewage Beach Expense Trench 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Ll. Wyn Griffiths, Up to Mametz (London: Faber, 1931) p. 130 (38th division).Google Scholar
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    C. Carrington, Soldrer from the Wars Returning (London: Hutchinson, 1965) p. 101 (48th division).Google Scholar
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    R. Graves, Goodbye to all That (London: Cassell, 1961) pp. 214–15 (33rd division).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See J. Baynes, Morale (London: Cassell, 1967) for a study of an infantry battalion as a community.Google Scholar
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  8. 12.
    Some historians have remarked that the official war diaries make less than satisfactory sources for conventional unit histories. Thus Professor Atkinson commented that: ‘To be quite candid, these have proved of very unequal and somewhat uncertain value … battalion diaries have varied so much in fullness and value … what applies to battalion diaries applies also to them’. ’Them’ refers to division and brigade official diaries. See C. T. Atkinson, The Devonshire Regiment 1914–1918 (Exeter: Eland Bros, 1926) Preface p. 9.Google Scholar
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    H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division (London: Sifton Praed … Co., 1926) Appendix 2. The two battalions were the 20/Lancashire Fusiliers (38 casualties) and the 15/Sherwood Foresters (96 casualties). The 19/ Northumberland Fusiliers had fewer casualties (32) than the 20/Lancashire Fusiliers but this was a pioneer battalion with different movements in and out of the line than a fighting battalion. It should be noted that the above statistics show the battalion monthly casualty rate, and not the battalion’s casualty rate per 30 days in the line. The two are different since a battalion was out of the line for some part of each month. Most battalions spent about 40 per cent of their time in the trenches. Therefore, to calculate the above battalions’ casualty rates per 30 days in the line, one can take 40 per cent of the 150 days (5 months), which is 60 days, divide the total number of casualties by 60, which gives a daily casualty rate, and multiply by 30, which gives a montly rate. For instance, the casualty rate per 30 days in the line of the 20/Lancashire Fusiliers was 38 divided by 60 = 0.63 (daily rate), multiply by 30 = 18.9 (monthly rate). Secondly, the 15/Sherwood Foresters: 96 divided by 60 = 1.6 x 30 = 48 casualties per 30 days in line. The two statistics are different but both illustrate the central point that casualties varied considerably between battalions in routine trench warfare. In many histories, it is not clear whether casualty statistics refer to casualties per month or casualties per 30 days in the line. In general, the calculation of casualties in trench warfare could be improved; for instance, one author calculates that the rate was 7000 per day, which is consistent with his thesis that trench war was a catastrophic experience but hardly tallies with the facts.Google Scholar
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    D. Jerrold, The Lie About the War (London: Faber … Faber, 1930). It seems to me that Jerrold, like the authors he criticised, overstated his case. The assertion that most trench fighters were bored for most of the time is as inaccurate as the contrary that most were fighting for most of the time. One must distinguish between sectors. Thus there was neither boredom on active sectors nor continual struggle on quiet sectors.Google Scholar
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  33. 49.
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  34. 50.
    Lord Wavell, himself a trench fighter, used the phrase ‘kill or be killed’ to describe the official trench war policy. See R. H. Kiernan, Wavell (London: George Harrap, 1945) p. 173.Google Scholar
  35. 51.
    F. Hitchcock, Stand To (London: Hurst … Blackett, 1937) p. 125 (24th division, 2/The Leinster Regiment, November 1915, St. Eloi, 2nd Army).Google Scholar
  36. 54.
    C. V. Molony, ‘Invicta’ With the 1st The Queen’s Own Royal West Regiment in the Great War (London: Nisbet … Co., 1923) pp. 125, 162.Google Scholar
  37. 55.
    R. Graves. Goodbye To All That (London: Cassell. 1961) p. 105.Google Scholar
  38. 56.
    It seems to me assertions like ‘the infantryman’s was the truly common experience of the war’, B. Bergonzi, Heroes’ Twilight (London: Constable, 1965) p. 190, are misleading, as they oversimplify the complexity and diversity of war experience. There was not one common infantry experience but many.Google Scholar
  39. 58.
    Richards, op. cit., p. 154. Richards referred to the 20/Royal Fusiliers, which was in the same brigade as the 2, Royal Welch Fusiliers of which Richards was a member. For an account of the war seen through the eyes of a member of the 20/R. Fusiliers see J. L. Hodson, Grey Dawn, Red Night (London: Gollancz, 1929). The comparison refers only to the trench fighting skills of the 20/R. Fusiliers and the 2/R. Welch. There is no implication that the former were less brave than the latter. This is another issue, and one on which the reader must form his own opinion.Google Scholar
  40. 60.
    G. H. Greenwell, An Infant in Arms (London: Allen Lane, 1972) p. 251 (48th division). In the preface of his book, Greenwell wrote: ‘The horrors of the Great War and the miseries of those who were called upon to take part in it have been described by innumerable writers. For my own part I have to confess that I look back on the years 1914–1918 as among the happiest I have ever spent.’Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Tony Ashworth 1980

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  • Tony Ashworth

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