100 years ago the worst war up to that point in history was raging. In our new video see the story of World War I on the Western Front.
Archive for the World War I Category
One hundred years ago today, on May 31 – June 1, 1916, 151 British and 99 German ships-of-war participated in one of the defining naval battles of the First World War, just east of the British Isles, off the coast of Denmark. A huge assemblage of modern warships, Dreadnoughts, battle-cruisers, destroyers, and lighter ships gathered in one of the largest battles wherein modern warships have participated. This was one of largest clashes of modern warships that the world has ever seen. This is the story of the Battle of Jutland.
The battle began with the one of the Admirals of the German Navy, Franz von Hipper, attempting to lure one of the Commanders of the British fleet, Admiral David Beatty, into a trap where Admiral Reinhard Scheer was waiting with his main battleships. Despite Beatty’s maneuvering, before he could react, two of his larger British battle cruisers were sunk by German gunfire. However, with some quick thinking, Beatty turned the tactic around and drew the pursuing German Navy toward the Royal Navy. Within a few minutes Hipper found himself in front of a formidable force of British warships. Soon enough, Admiral Scheer also steamed up without realizing the danger in which he would be placing his ships.
Here the British made one of the most important tactical decisions of the battle. Instead of heading his fleet of ships in line astern down the side of German fleet, British Admiral John Jellicoe turned his ships to port(left) and lead them across the front of the German column of ships. This prevented the German fleet from bringing to bear the full power of their guns, and, in return allowed the British to concentrate their full firepower on the German battleships. German Admiral Scheer realized the predicament he was in, and carried out a brilliant maneuver by turning all his ships away from the British fleet and laid a smokescreen for protection.
Yet for some unexplained reason, Scheer turned back to the British fleet and ran into the same problem. Knowing that a smokescreen could not save him now, he ordered his destroyers to launch a full scale torpedo attack on the British warships. Admiral Jellicoe, like many naval commanders of the day, was very cautious about torpedoes, and turned his ships away from the German fleet. This ensured his ships would be less likely to be hit by torpedoes, but it also meant that now he could never win the battle. By turning away, Jellicoe let Scheer escape beyond range of his guns, and let the German fleet speed away to their home port. Jellicoe gave chase, but both sides never came within range of the other again.
At the end of the battle both sides claimed victory, despite each suffering heavy losses. The British fleet however, may in hindsight have been the victors. Even having lost three of their best ships, they had hit the German Navy hard enough that they never put out to sea again for the duration of the war. But still, there was a terrible cost in lives on both sides. The British Grand Fleet, having more ships than the German High Seas Fleet, lost proportionally more men. There were 6500 casualties for the British, while the Germans only suffered 3000 casualties. An equal number of heavy ships were lost on each side, with the Royal Navy losing a few more destroyers than the German Navy. Despite all that, the German fleet had more ships seriously damaged then the British fleet, which reported 24 ships ready for action the following day. Thus, Britain remained in control of the sea for the duration of the war.
“World War One remains characterised by imagery of the trenches of the Western Front. Yet the sea was Britain’s lifeline and the supremacy of the Royal Navy was crucial to national survival. It is right, a century after Jutland – the largest and last clash between dreadnoughts – that we join together to remember those lost from both sides,” wrote First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas during preparations for the 100th Anniversary commemorations. As this post is being read, a few thousand miles away in Scotland, and elsewhere, services of remembrance are being held for those who died in the Battle of Jutland, and to commemorate the events of 100 years ago. May we never forget the bravery and courage displayed on both sides of the fighting these many scores of years past.
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One of the most famous sayings to come out of the First World War was that the British infantrymen on the Western Front were “lions led donkeys.” It is an easy position to take. A cursory view will show you that the Allies were attacking the German trenches again and again over the same ground, losing thousands upon thousands of men for just yards of ground. It is one of the great tragedies in military history. The blame is often placed upon the British commanders, who are accused of stupidly wasting their men in frontal attacks because they could think of nothing better to do. The reality is more complicated.
The Western Front problem was not a simple nut to crack. The war in the west quickly turned into a stalemate, with trenches stretching from neutral Switzerland, through France and Belgium all the way to the English Channel. They could not be flanked, and simple frontal charges were clearly useless against trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, and modern artillery bombardments. As the war dragged on and the casusalty bills lengthened, many Allied leaders were concerned it was the generals’ fault. David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, wrote:
The Cabinet must regard themselves as trustees for the fine fellows that constitute our army. They are willing to face any dangers, and they do so without complaint, but they trust to the leaders of the nation to see that their lives are not needlessly thrown away, and that they are not sacrificed on mere gambles which are resorted to merely because those who are directing the War can think of nothing better to do with the men under their command. … A mere gamble would be both a folly and a crime.1
It is easy to underestimate the challanges that the Allies faced on the Western Front. The generals had spent long careers in the military, fighting and training with certain presuppositions in mind. World War One smashed many of those in just weeks, and they were having to relearn tatics and strategy while fighting the war.
The idea that the Allies were doing the same thing over and over again is a gross simplification. Their tactics to break through the German lines were constantly evolving. As the weeks and months stretched on, they were learning how to use air reconnaissance, how to use artillery effectively, eventually resulting in the creeping bombardment, developing tanks and breaking down the infantry into specializations to operate more effectively. Unfortunately, all these things could not be developed without bloody trial and error. Thousands of men fell, but lessons were learned which could be applied to give the next attack a chance of success. By the end of the war, an assault on trenches looked far different than only a few years before.
Another important aspect is that the German lines that they were attacking in 1914 were not the same as those in 1918. They were constantly improving their works, digging them deeper, adding further lines behind them, and developing new plans to counter a breakthrough. One set of Allied tactics that was bloodily defeated may have won great success a few months before, when the German defenses were weaker. When the Allies planned to make an attack, it would take weeks or months to prepare for tens of thousands of men to go over the front. The Western Front became a technological and tactical race for whether the assaults could get good enough to beat the constantly improving defensive works.
For these reasons, it is inappropriate to say that the heroic British soldiers were slaughtered en-masse by inept commanders. While there certainly were examples of incompetence, the Allied generals worked hard to overcome the difficult and constantly changing challenges that they faced.
1. The Great War, by Peter Hart p. 352
99 years ago today, on July 1, 1916, the British, with the assistance of the French, made the first attack of the Battle of the Somme. Tens of thousands of British soldiers were killed and wounded, for very minimal gains. We visited the Somme Battlefield on our recent Europe Tour. Here are pictures of how this horrible battlefield looks nearly 100 years later.
One of the greatest horrors of the Great War was the poison gas. One British soldier, defending Hill 60 in the First Battle of Ypres, wrote this of one of the first German gas attacks:
Suddenly over the top of our front line we saw what looked like clouds of thin grey smoke, rolling slowly along with the slight wind. It hung to the ground reaching to the height of 8 or 9 feet, and approached so slowly that a man walking could have kept ahead of it. ‘GAS!’ The word quickly passed around. Even now it held no terror for us, for we had not yet tasted it. From our haversacks we hastily drew the flannel belts, soaked them in water and tied them round our mouths and noses. Suddenly. through the communication trench came rushing a few khaki-clad figures. Their eyes glaring out of their heads, their hands tearing at their throats, they came on. Some stumbled and fell, and lay writhing in the bottom of the trench, choking and gasping, whilst those following trampled over them. If ever men were raving mad with terror, these men were. … Our biggest enemy was now within a few yards of us, in the form of clouds of gas. We caught our first whiff of it: no words of mine can ever describe my feelings as we inhaled the first mouthful. We choked, spit and coughed, my lungs felt as though they were being burnt out, and were going to burst. Red-hot needles were being thrust into my eyes. The first impulse was to run. … It was one of those occasions when you do not know what you are doing. The man who stayed was no braver than the man who ran away. We crouched there, terrified, stupefied.
Private William Quinton, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment
Quoted in The Great War, by Peter Hart, p. 142-143
100 years ago, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, setting of the “July Crisis” which in turn led to the beginning of World War I. A group of discontent Serbs planned to kill the Archduke because they wanted the southern provinces of Austria to break off into an independent nation. At 10:10 am one of the conspirators tried to throw a bomb at the archduke’s car. However, the bomb exploded to late, missing the archduke and destroying the next car and wounding 15-20 people. The would-be assassin tried, and failed, to commit suicide, and was captured by the police. The rest of the conspirators took up a new position and waited.
Soon enough the archduke’s car returned, mistakenly following the same route on the return journey. Gavrilo Princip stepped up and fired twice, killing the Archduke and his wife. Princip and the rest of the assassins, and those who assisted them were soon caught. Four were executed and thirteen more received prison sentences. But by that time the spark of the assassination had already exploded into the Great War.
This photography was taken during the 1918 Battle of Zonnebeke, Belgium. It shows the infantry in their trenches, while planes fly overhead through the smoke of exploding shells. But this image actually isn’t quite what it appears to be. The photographer, Frank Hurley (most famous for his photography on the early Antarctic expeditions), created this image with an early form of “photoshopping.”
Early photographers did not believe that it was dishonest to alter photographs, and Hurley and others were even willing to stage events after the fact to get the photo they were looking for. This picture was probably created by merging a photo of the infantry with others of planes and explosions, to create the impressive final image.