OUR FIRST WORLD WAR
In part 47 of his personal testimony series, Peter Hart reaches April 1918, when the Allies were digging their heels in against the real danger of a German breakthrough on the western front. Peter is tracing the experiences of 20 people who lived through the First World War – via interviews, letters and diary entries – as its centenary progresses Sir Douglas Haig
Haig was commander of the BEF on the western front. With the German Spring Offensive – a desperate attempt to win the war before the Americans could arrive – posing a tremendous threat to British lines, Haig famously attempted to rally his troops. The Allies were stretched to such an extent that General Ferdinand Foch was appointed supreme commander on the western front, responsible for pulling together the efforts of the French, British, American and Italian armies, a move that Haig supported. It was agreed to entrust to Foch “the strategical direction of military operations. The commander in chief of British, French and American Armies will have full control of the tactical action of his respective armies. Each C-in-C will have the right of appeal to their government if, in his opinion, his army is endangered by reason of any order received from General Foch.” I was in full agreement and explained that this new arrangement did not in any way alter my attitude towards Foch, or C-in-C French army. I had always (in accordance with Lord Kitchener’s orders to me) regarded the latter as being responsible for indicating the general strategical policy and, as far as possible, I tried to fall in with his views. Nevertheless, when on 9 April the Germans launched another terrible attack on the British lines in Flanders, it was evident that this was one of the great crises of the war. On 11 April, Haig, that most undemonstrative of generals, felt the need to issue a special order of the day to inspire his men to greater resistance. There was absolutely no room to spare if vital rail junctions and the Channel ports were not to be overrun. Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. 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.
Londoner Kate, born in 1872, trained as a nurse. During her service on the western front she rose to become a head sister in charge of a staff of up to 40 nurses and 100 orderlies. An experienced hand, Luard worked in various posts during the Spring Offensive. She had a period with 2nd Stationary Hospital before being sent to the 41st Casualty Clearing Station. She was acutely aware of the importance of the great battles that were being fought. It is always when odds are greatest that the British Army and the British public comes best up to the scratch. The Timesman is right, the British Army needs everything spiritual, intellectual and physical that England can give it, and it is all
“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 things he has to leave out of his accounts, the little things officers and men from the line tell us, that would show you why. And there are weeks of strain ahead; this is only the beginning. But I’m glad the tanks are coming in with us now; it’ll have a splendid moral effect. There was a good story in the French paper tonight – related by the French – of a British general who came up to reinforce at a critical moment, after eight days’ fighting. “Your men are too fatigued!” said the French. “Sans doute we are fatigued!” said the British general, “but is this quite the moment to repose ourselves?” And in they went with the French. A few days later, she was feeling more optimistic and had heard that Foch was now supreme commander on the western front. I wonder how black it looked in England on Saturday week, when Haig said: “We have our backs to the wall” – worse than close to, probably. Doesn’t it give you a good safe feeling that Foch has us all in his clever grasp now? It does on this side, and what a heaven-sent breather it must be for Haig.
On 8 April, Kate wrote of the terrible task of caring for men caught in concentrations of gas shells.
The enemy made a great bid for Villers Bretonneux early yesterday morning, beginning with a terrific drenching with gas shells. We had over 500 gassed men in, and every spot of every floor was covered with them, coughing, spitting and crying with the pain in their eyes. All hands were piped [summoned] to cope. They have to be stripped as their clothes are soaked with gas and their bodies washed down with chloride of lime, their eyes and mouths swabbed with bicarbonate of soda, and drinks and clothing given. You give them jam tins to be sick in and go round with bicarbonate of soda in large pails. The worst are in a special ward having continuous oxygen, but some are drowning in their own secretions in spite of it. Two trains are now evacuating all fit to be put on them.
Born in 1893 into a mining family in Choppington, Northumberland, Jack was working at the Ashington Colliery when he was called up, arriving on the western front in April 1915. He was promoted to sergeant, but was invalided home in March 1916. Injured while serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers, after his discharge and convalescence Jack Dorgan returned to working as a coal miner back home in Ashington in Northumberland. For a full year or more I was at home. My girlfriend, who was in service in Newcastle, I used to visit her on a Saturday and we did eventually decide to get married, because I had been at home for so long, I thought I would never be called up again. March 31st, 1918, that day was set aside for the wedding. That Saturday, Ma says: “There’s a letter here from the War Office!” I opened the letter and it informed me: “You are being called up for active service”. Well I was to be married that day! I got dressed and went down to Pond Street where my girl’s family lived. The mother came to the door, she says: “You oughtn’t to be here Jack! Go on hop it!” Ashington was very old-fashioned, one never saw the bride before the marriage, you saw the bride in the church! The pair decided to go ahead with the marriage, then had their reception in the dancehall of a working man’s club, and a honeymoon at a relative’s house. Jack left his new bride and reported to an army depot a week later.
Joining up underage, Joe trained with the Northumberland Fusiliers, serving with them on the western front in 1917 and 1918. In early April, Private Pickard of the 1/5th Northumberland Fusiliers finally awoke in hospital after being wounded by a German shell on 31 March. As he came around, he knew that his leg and pelvic injuries were serious, but he was determined to remove his head bandages to see for himself the state of his facial wounds – what was left of his nose. I said: “Have you got a mirror, Sister?”. She said: “Yes.” I said: “Do you mind if I have a loan of it?” “Aye, you can see.” I cut all the blinking bandages off to have a look at it. The nose was off to about half way up the bridge. She was a bit dubious and said, “What do you think?” “Well!” I said, “What can I think? It’s off, it’s gone – you don’t think I’m going to travel up the line to look for it!!” She said: “You’ll get better!”
Nurses tend British troops suffering from the effects of a gas attack during the battle of the Lys, part of the German Spring Offensive, April 1918