Sunday, 18 September 2016

One Man's War

Sergeant FCJ Wood, photographed
late in the war
The First World War changed the map of the world and destroyed or damaged the lives of countless millions. Sadly, the divisions that led up the war and those that emerged from it still feature in the major national and political issues of today.
But this blog post is about the experiences of just one man amidst all of that upheaval. One decent, ordinary man: a man of his time, who signed up to do his patriotic duty for King and country: one small piece of the gigantic machine that built up to and culminated in the Battle of the Somme. He survived that battle, suffering a 'Blighty injury' in the latter stages of the campaign, but returned to front later in the war, and was awarded medals for bravery in the line.
I should declare an interest. He was my wife's grandfather - and recently I traced his steps across Flanders and Picardie from 1915 to 1916.

Frederick Charles John Wood was born in 1895 in South East London. His military record does not record his parents’ occupations, but this was a working class family living in Eltham. As a boy, Fred must have been attracted by all that emanated from the nearby mighty arsenal and weapons depot at Woolwich, because on 17/6/12 he joined the Territorials. He enlisted in the 6th Company of the London Royal Field Artillery Brigade, giving his age as 18yrs exactly (he was just turning 17). He was listed as a preliminary trainee, and his occupation as a plumber's mate. He took his oath of faith to the King - named as Edward VII on the official paper but scratched out in favour of George V.
At the outbreak of war two years later, he was promoted to Assistant Bombardier on 26/8/14 and then, almost as he received his call up papers, was made Bombardier on 26/9/14. His call up paper is interesting, the "Agreement to be made by an officer or man of the Territorial Force to subject himself to liability to serve in any place outside the United Kingdom in the event of National Emergency." It was countersigned by his officer at the nearby RFA Station at Plumbsted (sic).
It seems that Fred was occupied in preparation and training exercises in England for much of 1915, while the desperate battles of Neuve-Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos were raging. However, at the beginning of October his battalion crossed to France and a year of intense activity began (see map). In the sense that he had joined in 1912 as a Territorial he was not one of 'Kitchener's army' - the million plus civilians who had flooded the recruitment offices in autumn 1914 in response to Kitchener's famous call. But he was decidedly part of the Kitchener army that left home shores in late 1915 to prepare for the big push of 1916.
 From this point onwards he kept a diary - still in the family's possession - in (now) faded pencil on squared A5 paper. (Strange to hold it, knowing that it made those journeys across so many mangled sectors of the Western Front.)
Within 2 days of landing at Le Havre, he and his company boarded cattle trucks on 4th October 1915 for an eleven hour train journey to Amiens, twenty miles behind the front    (a 115 miles journey that can be covered in two hours by road today). On 9/10/15 they moved forward to Thievre (numbered 1 on map), a billet five miles behind the line; and the following day their 'wagon train' moved on to Hebuterne (2), immediately behind the line at the northern end of the Somme battlefront. This was the time when the British were taking over more of the front to give the French some relief. Hebuterne itself had been the site of vicious fighting and very heavy French casualties earlier in the year in the second Battle of Artois (see Blog 4/6/2015 Allied offensives in Champagne and Artois). More recently the area had stabilised and was now known as a quiet sector, with an unspoken 'live and let live' policy between the French and German trenches.
A proud moment - to be inspected
by the King
The British Generals determined to put an end to this, and Fred's company and the rest of the field artillery were kept busy from 11-19th October supporting constant forays and raids on German trenches by the infantry. His diary records that on 25/10 his battalion was inspected by King George V and the French President, Poincare.
After further training behind the lines, his company was moved to the north to support the established forces there. From the large railhead at Pont Remy (3), on the Somme river, they were entrained on 11/12/15, arriving at Aire-sur-Lys (4) on the same day. He spent two months in this sector, including Christmas at Laventie (5) close to the La Boissee canal. In 1915 there was none of the fraternisation that had marked the first Christmas of the war, and it sounds like Fred enjoyed a bleak and cheerless white Christmas. He moved back to the front line at Loos (6) on 16/1/16, operating field artillery from the remnants of that shattered town (See Blog 'Battle of Loos' 6/10/15)
On 25/2 Fred was transported back from Lillers (7) to Pont Remy(3). The next three months were spent in further training for the Somme offensive. He gained instruction in signalling and communications – two areas of great weakness in the British army. He describes some hair-raising journeys across country with his horse in driving snow during that time. Life was tough and the demands seem unrelenting, even away from the front line. 
Fred's diary: First entry starts
Oct 4th. Left Havre for Amiens
in cattle trucks.....
In early May, as the big day drew nearer, the battalion was moved back to its original position at Hebuterne, returning to very different conditions of extensive preparation. Fred’s company moved backwards and forwards across that sector, between Hebuterne, Sailly au Bois and near to Gommecourt, before digging in to semi permanent positions near Sailly during June (8). He was involved in heavy action on 15th May for which he was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). He was in action for two full days of the seven day pre Somme bombardment, and for the whole of the murderous first day of the battle – July 1st. His diary entry:
“…the burst lasted for seven days till July 1st which we termed Z day when the boys went over the top and in our sector was the London Scottish Rangers and Fusiliers and they made very good progress but could not do much as Fritz had concentrated all his artillery on Gommecourt and Serre and I saw the advance myself and nearly got killed when out of my lines and oh the sights I saw wounded of all descriptions and shells bursting all over the place. Horses and wagons lying all over the place, wounded, fainting and it lasted in all a day in which we wore our guns out, and serviced them”
Mercifully for Fred and his mates, they were relieved and sent to the rear to recover after that terrible day. On August 2nd he was promoted to Corporal, and spent the next three weeks in that stalemated northern section of the battle. He describes the awful sight, followed through his signalling telescope, of a colleague whose parachute failed to open when he plunged from a kite balloon observing enemy positions. On August 28th they received morale boosting news, dropped from an aircraft, of Roumania’s entry to the war and Italy’s declaration of war on Germany.      
On September 1st the final phase of Fred’s year in action began, with a transfer to the south east of the line via Ovillers and Bois de Hardicourt (9). He passed through Mash Valley below Ovillers, the site of massacres through July, and describes a gruesome passage through Trones Wood (by now behind the British front line) on 10th September: “a terrible sight of dead germans and british all over the place, and a Hun 77th mortar battery wiped to hell, found a water bottle and a cap of ammo and a German rifle, and fritz made a counter attack and got repelled.” He was in constant action from 11th to 20th September, and his diary records many friends injured and killed. Another move came on 22/9, to the extreme right of the British line, linking up with French artillery on the advance from Ginchy and Guillemont towards Combles and Morval (10). A particularly violent action on 25th September resulted in men and horses around him being blown up and seven close friends being killed.
Reinforcements arrived on 3rd October, and you can sense his pride that they included hardened veterans of the Royal Field Artillery who had been involved in the Great Retreat of 1914. On 10th he suffered his ‘Blighty’ injury, severe damage to his leg, behind the contested village of Morval, and received his second commendation for a DCM. He spent one week in a field hospital, before being transferred back to a hospital on the coast at Ault, prior to transport back to England (11).
There is now a gap in his military records - like so many others that were lost or damaged in Luftwaffe air raids on London in WW2 - and no diary to help us. It’s known that he returned to the western front, but not where, or in what capacity. He had continuing disability from his leg, and may not have been in front line action. He was promoted to sergeant in 1917, awarded the Military Medal for bravery, and his military discharge record confirms him as a member of the BEF from 3/10/15 to 20/11/18. He was discharged from service on 22/3/19 and demobilised on 10/9/19. He was awarded a 20% disablement pension from 3/9/19. This was for the princely sum of 6s 6d (37.5p) per week, to be reviewed in 9 weeks!
After his discharge, he resumed his occupation as a plumber; married Trinity Irene Carter, and they had two children, June (b1923) and Frederick (b1929). Like so many he would not talk about his war experience - except in occasional reunions with his old pals, where reminiscences with people who could comprehend the horror of it all must have been helpful. In WW2, he was a senior member of the Home Guard from 1941-44. He died of cancer in 1958, aged only 63.

All I can do is pay tribute to this unsung, typically brave man, and feel pride that my son had such a great great-grandfather.  

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Battle of the Somme 8 - Who 'won'?

Irish Riflemen in a support trench on July 1st 1916 at the Somme.
This image, used by the BBC for the series The Great War
is what first sparked my fascination. The haunted face of the
soldier in the foreground conveys so much. 
Probably for many people in Britain the Somme is the First World War. It sums up all that we tend to recall today - appalling conditions, senseless slaughter; lions led by donkeys in an attritional battle fought in a sea of mud.
While all of that may be true, it does not tell the whole story of WW1 by a long way, or even the Battle of the Somme. For a campaign in which all sides lost so heavily it seems wrong even to pose the question, but can we decide who "won' an event as awful as this? What criteria should be applied?
The Battle of Jutland, which concluded exactly one month before Day 1 of the Somme, is still viewed, at best, as a disappointment, and the Somme as a famous if costly victory. In my view it should be the other way round. This is in no way a reflection on the heroic actions of the soldiers and sailors involved in them, but on the battles' influence on the course of the whole war.

The true picture of the numbers of casualties took a long time to emerge. Claims and counter claims were made by both sides, and the full extent of the early British losses was kept from the British public. The headline figures are generally accepted as 1.2 millions in total - around 600,000 German; 200,000 French and 420,00 British of which nearly 20% were Empire troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland and South Africa.
Within the figure for Britain over the 141 days of the battle, 60,000 (15%) occurred on July 1st - the worst single day in military history. German casualties were a fraction of that on July 1st, despite the preceding 7 day bombardment that was meant to annihilate them. This in itself might be enough to claim a victory for Germany, as that day squashed the British plan for break through on a wide front. But the British would not stop, and they ground forward relentlessly, as we have seen. As the weeks went by the German casualties rose, particularly in their numerous counter attacks to regain positions. By the end, a total of approx. 600,000 on each side suggests stalemate - a draw.

Here there are arguments to be made for a win on both sides. The British case is complicated by the disagreement between Haig, as Commander in Chief, and Rawlinson, chief of the 4th Army, Britain's main force. The latter's 'bite and hold' approach was vindicated by the events of the first day. Thereafter, the British bit frequently and held doggedly - successful to a degree, especially in gradual weakening of German strength. Haig's ambitious plan to breakthrough to open country, and within days for his cavalry to roll up German forces to the north was stillborn. In order to justify the continuing battle his dispatches took on the cynical nature of Falkenhayn at Verdun - the enemy was being constantly weakened (degraded in today's terms) by British superiority and they would surely fold soon. The first part was true, the second manifestly was not.
Overall, the strategic impact must be judged as irrelevant in territorial terms. A glance at the map of the whole Western Front confirms this. The map needs to be large scale to show more than a blip (rather like Brusilov's offensive in the east). Of course it was much more influential in other terms.

Both sides learned a lot. Kitchener's inexperienced army, although decimated, became a hardened and formidable army, highly respected by the Germans and, perhaps more importantly, by the French. Initial British weaknesses in communications and dud ammunition improved steadily, and new weaponry - notably the tanks used for the first time in September - was developed.
German defensive strategy and tactics - so impressive in denying the British pre-bombardment and tidal wave of July 1st - adapted over time to the more mobile tactics that were to serve them well (defensively and offensively) in later stages of the war.
Falkenhayn. Sacked and
consigned to Transylvania,
where we shall hear more.
In military leadership, the highest profile casualty was Falkenhayn, the German Commander in Chief. He was removed from office in mid-August and posted to a command on the Eastern Front. He was paying the price for the failure of the Verdun offensive rather than the Somme defence, but his departure brought the Eastern front victors Hindenburg and Ludendorff to supreme military control of Germany. Hindenburg became Commander in Chief (he had complete control over the Kaiser) and Ludendorff the Chief of Staff. They soon decided to dictate the terms of their own defence by planning a strategic withdrawal to a new fortified line, which would be known as the Hindenburg (or later, the Siegfried) line. Intensive but covert preparations for this continued through late 1916, while the Somme battle continued to rage. In February 1917 the Germans would carry out a scorched earth withdrawal and in March the Allies would find they were suddenly able to advance across their day 1 Somme objectives of Bapaume and beyond. But they were advancing across another desert of destruction, and they came hard against the new strong German defensive line, which ran from Arras to Laffau near Soissons (see map).
The ground conceded when the Germans emptied 
their salient to establish the Hindenburg line was
around 20 times greater than the ground won in the
Battle of the Somme
When the Germans had made their strategic withdrawal to fortified lines after the Battle of the Marne in 1914, this was seen as confirmation of the great French victory in the hour of greatest threat. This had similarities, but was a more positive move by Germany than in 1914. The irony was that Britain gained - at a stroke, and barely firing a shot - ground that the Somme battle had failed to achieve over 5 months. Even worse was to come in 1918 when the Germans steamrollered their way back across the whole battlefield and beyond.
No government did well out of the Somme. The German people were now suffering badly after two years of deprivation and sacrifice, and the leadership was unpopular. The people's military hero Hindenburg gained power at the expense of the Kaiser and Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg.
In the British Parliament, the campaign marked another nail in the coffin of Asquith's premiership. In addition to the personal tragedy of losing his own son in the battle, Asquith had to preside over an unhappy and divided War Council. Led by Lloyd-George, some were at odds with the costly military strategy and were looking to seize political control over conduct of the war. Haig's main supporter in the War Council, Robertson, was under severe pressure, but for now he held on, and so did Haig.
The French Government's survival was dictated far more by Verdun in 1916, and with the French contribution to the Somme being so relatively successful, Briand stayed in power.

Did it prolong or shorten the war?
The goal of a major breakthrough that brought an early end to the war was not even approached by the Somme.  In fact, it stands only as a major battle at the mid-point of the conflict. The withdrawals and changing tactics forced on the Germans by the British pressure probably prolonged rather than shortened operations. However, it was great events elsewhere in 1917, as we shall see, that were more influential in determining the duration of the terrible conflict.

My view? Nobody won the Somme. Everybody lost. Well over a million men, millions of animals, and countless communities were destroyed - and the war went on, and on. Grim.