This week has been a a very mixed one. This Sunday I was supposed to be travelling to the Western Front for the annual family pilgrimage to the Battlefields of the Western Front. Not only with my Father but with my Brother in Law Justin on his first ever trip to the sacred fields of Flanders and Picardy. Sadly the Covid 19 pandemic has sadly dented our hopes of making that trip. Hopefully in late September we will be able to fulfil the covenant that we made with those heroes back in 2016, a trip that still has a very significant impact on me to this day.
It was about the same time last year that me and my Father delved and drove for the very first time into the killing fields of the Chemin de Dames and the mincing machine that was the citadel of Verdun. I think of all the numerous trips I have made to France and Belgium, the cemeteries and memorials I have visited that show the suffering endured on the British side of the wire. All those sites are nothing compared to the now forest covered secret of the battlefield of Verdun. That place has every possible emotion shrouded, its ghosts linger underneath the trees begging for the reclamation of their souls. Abandoned fortresses, heroic bunkers of men such as General Driant in the Bois de Caures. Long abandoned trenches, bone filled ossuaries and the legacy of a battle that mentally and scarred France, its ramifications probably in part contributed to France’s eventual capitulation in 1940. A generation later and in a completely different war at the hands of the German Wehrmacht with its array of Panzers and wailing Stuka dive bombers. The carnage of Verdun was too much of a burden to bear again.
Futility, fear, terror, a place where humanity no longer was allowed to exist as industrialised mechanical warfare destroyed and maimed many. The villages that once thrived with life, now left in ruins, destroyed heroically for the survival of a nation. The village of Ornes and Fleury a testament to the carnage and suffering endured on both sides. It was a place of overwhelming sadness of which I have never known in my existence.
To have experienced Verdun was to change my whole perception of the Great War in a new and inspiring way. It was an incredible honour and privilege to be there. It was no longer looking at one sides perspective but also the other side of the wire. Remembering that the German army in their attempt to destroy France in February 1916 lost tens of thousands of men. You also have to bear in mind that later in July to November 1916, the British and a comparatively smaller French Army would give battle on the German forces on the Somme and the that the bloodletting in both campaigns was from German point of view unsustainable, and contributed to eventual defeat in 1918.
Tens of thousands of German soldiers were killed attacking at Verdun and defending their gains on the Somme in 1916. The bloodletting of that year changed the German Army immeasurably in loss of manpower and in its tactical development as a fighting force. In my opinion their tenacity and determination to hang on in such horrific conditions has to be accepted, acknowledged and most importantly admired. The losses sustained at Verdun and the ferocity of the battle on the Somme was so extraordinary in its violence that the newly appointed German commanders, Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul Von Hindenburg constructed new defences on ground of their own choosing in the spring of 1917. Reducing the ground occupied allowed the German Army to have more troops in reserve if they needed them, as and when they were needed on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The Hindenburg Line became Germany’s new frontier defences. The unrelenting nature of the fighting in 1916 undoubtedly left its scars and influenced their overall tactical thinking.
This Wednesday I received results of my second University Assignment that I had written on the campaigns of Mesopotamia and Palestine and I’m delighted to have passed with a far better score than I originally thought I would receive. It was a particular moment of joy for me to have finally broken the academic stalemate that has really hindered me. On the other hand I have been able to look at a new and considerably different area of the the Great War. Being allowed to delve into the new campaigns that I really did not really understand was something that I really enjoyed, to have been introduced to characters as the infamous General Townshend of Kut, Generals Nixon, Maude and one of my heroes of the Great War, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby.
Allenby, who had commanded the British Third Army on the Western Front at the Battle Of Arras in April 1917, triumphed in the Palestine campaign later on in the year, notably with victories at the Battle of Megiddo, the third Battle of Gaza and at Beersheba. The successive victories as well as bringing his experience of modern industrialised warfare from the Western Front was to prove instrumental as he led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) from Gaza to the gates of Jerusalem and Damascus. His army’s entrance into Jerusalem in November 1917 became legend as he entered the city on foot, showing humility to the Holy City and the bringing the end of Ottoman rule. It gave the British people a much needed ‘Christmas Present’ in the words of Lloyd George. Politically it was significant for his government as it relieved the pressure after the unending bloodletting in the mud of Passchendaele. Allenby had finally achieved in Jerusalem what General Maude had accomplished in March 1917 with the seizure of Baghdad. Britain was fully in control of the Middle East and its oilfields, with a modern and industrialised force.
Allenby probably saw his removal from the Western Front to Palestine as a punishment for his failure to break the deadlock at Arras. But due to the organisational and logistical efforts made by his predecessor in Egypt, General Archibald Murray, Allenby was able to bring his experiences in France and have the freedom to put his methods into practice. In the planning of his operations, although the administration was controlled by London, militarily on the ground and many miles from home he had full autonomy over his intentions, and his officers shared his vision of using combined arms using every means at their disposal. The use of aircraft, artillery, armoured vehicles, cavalry, camels and the continual construction of a water pipeline and railway system contributed to eventual victory, and the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Army.
But the British occupation of the Middle East and Palestine sadly was to bring consequences, sadly of which last to this very day, and the legacy of British rule is still seen with contempt amongst many.