Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Second Battle of Ypres

The chilling sight of a wind assisted poison gas cloud
Of the three great named battles for control of Ypres (there were others in the late stages of 1918) the second battle was the smallest in scale, though in some ways the most infamous because of the shocking use of poison gas and its effects on French and British troops. In fact it was a series of actions fought over 5 weeks from mid-April to late May 2015. Sobering to think that this carnage was pretty much a diversionary action by the Germans, who were surreptitiously withdrawing troops from the Western Front to the east to support their massive assault there (see later post on Gorlice Tarnow); so that when they had the opportunity to exploit the breakthrough offered by the gas attack, they did not have sufficient reserves to take it.

As junior partner on the Western Front, Britain faced continuous pressure to follow French strategies for ejecting the German invaders from their country. Neuve-Chapelle was one of these actions, and another British offensive, known as the Battle of Hill 60 (17-22 April) turned out to be the prelude for Ypres 2. Although the hill involved was some way to the south and east of the salient, and in truth was more of an earth mound than a hill, it was positionally important because it overlooked many of the German forces in the central and southern parts of the salient, as well as the main railway line to Lille. This was the first operation carried out by the British Army to lay large mines underneath the enemy position in order to blow up their defences. The fighting was fierce but the British successfully captured the hill and held it against desperate German counter-attacks. It was recaptured by the Germans in the later stages of the main battle in May, but in the first instance part of the German retaliation was a massive artillery bombardment of Ypres itself, presaging a German assault further north from Hill 60, nearer to the Menin Road and the Ypres canal on the north east sector of the salient, and this turned out to be the area for the main battles.
Early victims of the gas attacks
Buchan describes the scene for Phase 1 at Gravenstafel Ridge: “The evening of Thursday 22nd was calm and pleasant, with a light steady wind blowing from the north east. About 6.30 our artillery observers reported that a strange green vapour was moving over the French trenches…. Strange scenes between the canal and Pilkem Road. Back through the dusk came a stream of French soldiers, blinded and coughing, and wild with terror… in the early darkness they came upon the Canadian reserve battalions. With amazement  the Canadians saw the wild dark faces, the heaving chests, and the lips speechless with agony. Then they too sniffed something in the breeze, something which caught at their throats and affected them with a deadly nausea.”
The immediate result was a four mile hole in the defences of the salient and a desperate rearguard action by allied forces to prevent a complete German breakthrough.
Over the following three weeks a number of counter attacks by allied troops tried to regain the ground lost to the Germans.
The shaded area was lost from the Salient
during Ypres 2

Phase 2 was the battle for St Julien. Initially this small village east of Ypres was some way from the front line, but with the large breakthrough made by the post-gas attack surge of the Germans, it became the epicentre of the main phase of the battle. For nearly three weeks fierce attacks by the Germans and counter-attacks by the Allies continued (in which the Canadian forces in particular distinguished themselves) to prevent a complete overrunning of the Ypres salient. The British reserves hurried in to support the Canadians and hold the line. Buchan again: "If the salient of Ypres will be for all time the classic battleground of Britain, that bloodstained segment between the Poelcappelle and Zonnebeke roads will remain the Thermopylae of Canadian arms". The insistent German pressure meant that the line of the Salient had to be shortened defensively, and a further gas attack against the French at the northern end of this line on 2nd May made this inevitable, although by now the Allies were better prepared for the gas.
The shortened Allied line was subject two more major actions. The first was Frezenberg Ridge (Phase 3), where the British line was pushed back to the west of the shallow ridge, and suffered heavy losses from the pulverising heavy artillery of the Germans. By means of another gas attack, the Germans recaptured Hill 60 during this phase. Phase 4 was around the Bellewaarde Lake on 24th -25th May, when again the British were forced to shorten their line in the face of another gas attack that produced high and distressing casualties.
Rather than ending with a crescendo action, Ypres 2 rather ebbed away, and action further south at Festubert necessitated a move of much German heavy artillery away from Ypres, and they were unable to capitalise on the reduction of the Salient that they had achieved.

The outcome of the various actions of Ypres 2 for the Allies was a much shortened defensive line. The Germans were now so close to the town that in the ensuing months they were able to pound it to rubble. Significant changes were now taking place in the high command of the BEF. 
Horace Smith-Dorrien
Smith-Dorrien, whose brilliance at Le Cateau and beyond had made him a star of 1914 was removed as Commander of the 2nd Army. Both French and Haig disliked Smith-Dorrien (or were envious of him), and this was influential in his replacement by Plumer. Whenever I see John Singer Sergeant's great portrait of the leading generals of WW1 in the National Portrait Gallery in London, I feel sad at the omission of Smith-Dorrien - a fine, if capricious, leader.

For the public in Britain, the ghastly nature and the extent of the casualties at Ypres 2 really brought home the enormity of the challenge they faced, and were influential in the pressure to change government that we have seen.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Turbulent times for the new government

David Lloyd George in 1915
Simply creating a new government of 'national unity' was a sticking plaster, for there were deep seated issues of public dissatisfaction and split loyalties that were now becoming apparent at home. Nevertheless, almost everyone accepted that unprecedented unity of effort and sacrifice would now be needed to create the armies and munitions necessary to deal with the ever increasing efficiency of the German war machine. While Britain continued to trade with her empire and the world, and in many ways tried to carry on with business 'as usual', Germany was devoting her whole effort to the making of war. Conquered territories were being stripped of their assets in order to feed the German war machine. Asquith's Coalition Government had to raise armies for the continuing effort, but more importantly they had to make up the huge deficits in armour and munitions that resulted in so much suffering for the front line armies. The man charged with this was the most dynamic character in the government - David Lloyd George. On the face of it, a move from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Munitions Minister was hardly a promotion, but new legislation was to give Lloyd George unprecedented powers to direct the National effort.  

At the heart of the controversies was the ongoing debate about national service and conscription. Those in favour argued there was no alternative to putting all men at the government's disposal, and that the war would have been won already with this in place back in 1914. Pragmatic opponents argued that Kitcheners efforts for voluntary enlistment were already creating sufficiently large armies. More passionate opposition came from those workers who had fought for fifty years for trades union rights and autonomy, and who had been opposed to war at the outset. Lloyd George toured the country, making rousing speeches and pointing out the gravity of Britain's position and the need for total dedication to the war effort.Trades Union leaders agreed to suspend union rules in favour of the war effort (the coal miners were an exception), but could not always control their members.
On 9th June the Bill for the creation of a Munitions Department was passed. On 15th July the National Register Bill became law - a first halting step towards conscription. For the former, the definition of 'munitions' was broadened dramatically and gave Lloyd George, as Minister, authority over all industry however tenuously related to the war effort - not just armouries and weapons manufacturers. He was able to replace private management of any relevant company with government control. Arbitration was made compulsory in all trade disputes (increasingly common at that time), and strikes and lock-outs were forbidden in nearly all circumstances. The Minister could declare any company a 'controlled establishment'. This which involved four steps: limiting employers' profits; suspending trade union rules; wage control, and imposition of special regulations at the Minister's discretion. The country was divided into 10 administrative areas for maximum production of munitions. This set the scene for some ugly and divisive disputes.
Blaenavon Colliery, S Wales
The most notable occurred in South Wales, where coal miners ignored the provisions of the act (and the pleas of their leaders) and triggered a widespread strike for improved condition of service in mid July. There were 200,000 of them, so it was no easy matter to round up strikers and imprison them, as allowed by the act. Lloyd George was forced to travel to Cardiff and hammer out a deal. The Act itself, and the war effort were damaged; the country was demoralised, and the men at the front must have read with complete bewilderment their letters from home. These actions added to the financial strain now being felt all over the country, and a time of austerity and food shortages was being ushered in.
A 1915 Poster to support
women volunteers

But there were good developments also, including the huge voluntary contributions made by thousands - from caring for large numbers of refugees (especially Belgian) arriving in the country; to expeditions overseas to nurse, drive ambulances and care for displaced people near to the theatres of war.
Women demanded a role in every facet of the war effort - driving; manufacturing industry; postal services etc. The pre war actions of the women's movement had produced a generation whose determination and organisational skills were invaluable to the war effort, and at the same time accelerated the social changes being imposed on the nation by the scale of the war.
Vera Brittain's retrospective view of these years is powerful. Life must have bee nearly as tough for those at home:

Today, with middle-age just round the corner, and children who tug my anxious thoughts relentlessly back to them whenever I have to leave them for a week, I realise how completely I under-estimated the effect upon the civilian population of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing light, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The British Government falls

Herbert Henry Asquith
Prime Minister 1908-16
" The British people are not slow to recognise facts when they are pointed out, but the recognition of facts is the rarest virtue among politicians, who are accustomed to a particular game, and object to any tampering with the rules and counters" (Buchan: History of the Great War. Vol II p147)
Imagine the mood in the country exactly one hundred years ago. Having gone to war (once its necessity had been accepted) positively, in many cases jingoistically, with the expectation of a successful conclusion before Christmas, it was now Spring of the following year and things were going badly. Having been force fed initially with nothing but good news and positive spin (not just a 21st century phenomenon), the real picture was emerging with the ever growing casualty lists published for all to see. More often, truthful reports from the front that evaded military censorship were appearing. Indeed some reports, such as the insufficient supplies of ammunition, were leaked by senior military people, including Sir John French. The beleaguered Prime Minister Asquith was a brilliant administrator, and had achieved a great deal as pre war Liberal PM, but struggled as a wartime leader. He was strongly under the influence of Churchill, Lloyd George and Kitchener, but sustained by not one, but two formidable women - his second wife Margot, and friend and correspondent Venetia Stanley. However, continuing with a Liberal only government was becoming very difficult.

The mess that was Gallipoli was now causing unrest in parliament and in public. It was compounded by the loss of 20,000 men at the fruitless battles for Neuve-Chapelle and other parts of the Western Front, and a munitions and weapons crisis. Added to the mix was the Italian vacillation about entry to the war, and further pressure on the Admiralty to release more ships for the Anglo-Italian accord in the Adriatic. This was all too much for Fisher who, after several earlier threats, resigned forthwith on 15th May. The timing of this was sufficient to provoke a political crisis, coming as it did on the heels of a censure motion on munitions by the Conservative opposition, and Asquith was forced into coalition to bring them onside.

Margot Asquith
His second wife, she was
an intellectual and socialite,
 almost a prototype for the
Bloomsbury Group.
Venetia Stanley- A great friend
 of Asquith's daughter and
another socialite. Asquith
became obsessed by her and
wrote regularly for her views.
He struggled to line up a new coalition government but by 26th May all ministers had been appointed. Churchill was moved to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Balfour replaced him at the Admiralty. The first meeting of the Government was held on 26th May, and its first decision was to re-create almost the War Council, naming it the Dardanelles Committee. It had seven members, including Asquith, Churchill and Kitchener. It did not meet until 7th June, when it resolved to reinforce Hamilton for further operations in Gallipoli. Four Division were committed – three of them from the ‘new’ army. However, there was opposition in the Cabinet to persisting in Gallipoli, and every step henceforth was challenged, creating further indecision and delay. As Churchill writes (paraphrased): “for a task which two Divisions might have been sufficient in February, seven were insufficient in April, and fourteen could not do it in August”. August had to be the time for the latest (and would prove to be final) onslaught, for the reinforcements could not arrive in time for the new moon phase of July. Between July and August, when Suvla Bay was eventually attacked, ten new Turkish Divisions came to the peninsula, some from the Caucasus, where Russia was withdrawing troops following defeats in Galicia in June and July.