In The Spirit of War

spacerWithin hours of the declaration of war, hordes of eager men and boys swarmed around recruiting stations in Britain to enroll for military service. Posters blossomed everywhere with Field Marshal Kitchener's pointing finger urging 'Your Country Needs You!' These were part of an intensive programme to recruit a massive new army of volunteers to reinforce the regulars who were already fighting in France. Within the first month over half a million enlisted in Britain and a proportionate number of men stepped forward in every country of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The widespread eagerness of volunteers in far-off Dominions to cross the seas to fight for the 'Mother Country' perhaps indicates better than anything else the degree of loyalty and enthusiasm which prevailed. An officer of the Green Howards wrote of the simple morality of the time:

"People in England then were far more influenced by the traditional attitudes of right, wrong and duty. While few of the officers had a clear idea of the history and politics of the Balkans which had brought on the war, every private knew that Belgium had been brutally attacked and that unless Belgium was rescued, it might be Britain's turn. It was that point that brought the crowds to the recruiting offices and it was that point which maintained morale until 1918 in spite of colossal casualties."

Battlefield Situation


Enlistment in Britain averaged over 100,000 a month for the next 18 months and eventually totalled three million volunteers (later augmented by a similar number mobilized after conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916). In all, the British Commonwealth and Empire mobilized nearly nine million men. They and the Commonwealth troops were to be sorely needed because by as early as October 1914 the small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been badly depleted by an early war of movement following the Retreat from Mons. But the nature of the fighting was to change. When the BEF returned north to counter the German thrust for the Channel ports, both sides collided in a fierce battle at Ypres (the 'First' Ypres). Although the Germans sustained enormous casualties, the dwindling British force was in worse condition with few reserves. Having learned from the German example of entrenchments along the River Aisne, the British dug in. By the year's end the armies faced each other from a continuous line of opposing ditches which ran all the way from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the neutral Swiss border. It was the way they were fated to fight from now on: trench warfare.

soldier in trenchspacer

Trench Warfare

Trenches had been used in the Crimea, the US Civil War and at the siege of Port Arthur just a decade earlier. But never before had they been dug on such a scale, or used for over four years, as they were on the Western Front. Certainly trenches were never dug in a less suitable place. On much of the war zone the ground was a thin layer of soil over non-porous clay, poor material indeed for digging ditches when combined with the area's heavy rainfall and frequent watercourses. Water seemed to be everywhere, coming from rain and streams and marshes; it filled each trench like a dyke and was slow to drain away through the clay bottom. Permanently damp at the best of times, trenches could turn into streams from persistent rain, so that men sometimes had to stand up to their knees in water. Soldiers lived here a week or more at a time with little shelter from the weather. Throughout four years of war men were often wet, cold, muddy, sleepless; without proper sanitation or hot food; sometimes suffering from frostbite and trench foot; and distressed by lice, fleas and rats. Added to this was the ever present danger of death: from shellfire, drowning or gas, to name but a few.

Body in the Battlefieldspacer

German Strategy

Germany conquered so much strategic and industrial territory in 1914, including most of France's coal and steel making regions, that General Erich von Falkenhayn could afford to withdraw his army from less defensible ground and fortify generally higher and advantageous positions. This placed British and French troops at a disadvantage throughout the war; they continually had to occupy militarily less suitable areas and impermanent earthworks. In addition to this, as Germany was the occupier and defending her gains, most of the attacking between First Ypres and spring 1918 was done by the Allies in attempts to oust that occupier--and the attacker almost always suffers more heavily than the defender.

spacer The text on this page has been taken from Courage Remembered, by Kingsley Ward and Major Edwin Gibson.

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