Regular visitors will be aware that my studies of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War have now reached the climactic year of 1918, when in November the Armistice was signed and the guns finally fell silent.
Having closely studied one Battalion’s experiences on the Western Front, at Le Cateau, the Marine, 1st Ypres, Ploegstreet, 2nd Ypres, The Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and then the Kaiser Offensive and the final 100 Days, it mystifies me how British military history places so much emphasis on Ypres and the Somme, yet the fighting of 1918 – which actually saw the end of the war – are largely seen as a postscript to the massive losses in Flanders and Picardy the previous year. Why is this?
Looking at casualty statistics is one way of assessing the intensity of fighting in particular sectors at particular times. I have now analysed over 2,000 men from Portsmouth who fell in the First World War whilst serving with the British or Imperial Armies. I have been able to trace 1,344 of them. Of those 1,344, a large number of them were killed serving in France or Belgium, and the following numbers were killed during the series of well known battles:
Somme – 187
Hundred Days – 145
Kaiser Offensive – 125
Passchendaele – 103
Arras – 50
2nd Ypres – 23
1st Ypres – 20
Cambrai – 15
Loos – 5
Of course, death totals from one city represents a relatively narrowed down sample. A large proportion of these men came from Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, who happened to be fighting in a particular place at a particular time. Also, as in most cases we do not know the cause of death, we cannot be absolutely sure that men were killed in action, and did not die of illness or accidents. Never the less, 2,000 men does represent a sizeable number to compare and contrast with.
Its interesting to note that more men fell in the battles of 1918 than did either on the Somme of Passchendaele, and signigificantly more than during earlier battles on the Western Front. So why, if more men died in 1918, do we not think of 1918 as a ‘bloody year’?
Possibly, because 1918 brought about victory. The blunting of the German’s Kaiser Offensive and the subsequent counter-attacks during the ‘hundred days’ were succesful in that they resulted in the end of the war, and thus they did not draw the same scorn as do the wasteful losses off 1916 and 1917. Certainly, the vast amount of literature published on the middle years of the war – especially 1916 and 1917 – has perhaps dimmed broader awareness of the first and last phases of the war in the west. British Second World War commanders were haunted by the spectre of the Somme and the huge casualties, and sought to limit losses as much as possible.
Also, I have read before that British military culture does have a fondness for the heroic defeat, such as Arnhem. The popular conception of ‘lions led by donkeys’, of trench warfare, of going over the top, and of Tipperary and Bully Beef is manifested in the Somme and Passchendaele. Yet the First World War DID begin with some mobile, hard fighting at Mons, Le Cateau and on the Marne, and ended with some mobile, well-fought battles in 1918.
It would probably be going a step too far to argue that victory in 1918 would salve Haig’s reputation as a butcher, but never the less the British Expeditionary Force ended the War as a highly professional organisation that had borne the brunt of the fighting in the decisive theatre of the war. The BEF had been victorious in defence and attack. Whilst victory might not say too much about the Generals, it speaks volumes of the regimental officers, NCO’s and men – many of whom were not regular soldiers, and by 1918 were very young indeed.
Another factor to bear in mind about 1918 is that the Spanish Influenza epidemic was killing thousands, both on the front line and at home. Also, after four years of war, millions of men killed or wounded, the privations of rationing, and untold other hardships, war weariness amongst the British people would have been quite understandable.
Does 1918 deserve a new emphasis in military history? I believe that it bears a strong resemblance of the lack of importance given to succesful phases in the Second World War – the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and the advance up until Arnhem; and also the rapid advance across Germany in Spring 1945 – both have been largely ignored, whilst historians pick over the bones of Arnhem, Dunkirk, Singapore and North Africa.