OUR FIRST WORLD WAR

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY JAMES ALBON Peter Hart is the oral his­to­rian at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum

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.

Kate Luard

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.

Jack Dor­gan

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.

Joseph Pickard

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

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