The Great War

Timeline

28/6/1914 - Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

4/8/1914 - Great Britain declares war on Germany

23/8/1914 - Battle of Mons

19/10/1914 - First Battle of Ypres

22/4/1915 - Second Battle of Ypres

25/4/1915 - Landings at Gallipoli

31/5/1916 - Battle of Jutland

1/7/1916 - Battles of the Somme

31/7/1917 - Third Battle of Ypres

20/11/1917 - Battle of Cambrai

21/3/1918 - German Spring Offensive

20/7/1918 - Final Allied Offensive

11/11/1918 - Armistice

10/1/1920 - Treaty of Versailles comes into force



The Great War



.... or The Great War for Civilisation as it was popularly known at the time. Why did it happen? and What did happen? are two of the questions that have intrigued people ever since, neither of which has been fully explained. In this short article it is not possible to even scratch the surface so the best we can do is to provide some clues to give a context to the conflict that Fred Potts was caught up in.

Causes and Belligerents
The war had its roots in three quite different scenarios which were being played out at the time. First there was a desire by the German Kaiser to build an empire similar to those of the other major European powers. Germany was still a relatively new country formed from the merger of dozens of small states ranging from a major power like Prussia to a city state ruled by a Prince Bishop. Second there was the decline of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled most of the Balkans until recently and seen the emergence of nationalist movements intent on establishing a state for their particular ethnic group. Finally the decay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was being challenged by the new Germany as well as having its eastern territories affected by the same nationalist movements that had caused the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

In order to safeguard their own interests most of the European powers had entered into alliances with other powers which contained clauses requiring their ally to come to their aid in case of war. So when a relatively minor conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia resulted in an invasion of Serbia, this triggered Russia to support Serbia, Germany to support Austria-Hungary then France to support Russia and so it went on until most of Europe was split between two alliances of powers.


On the one hand were the Central Powers - Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria with eventually Turkey joining in and on the other the Entente Powers, Russia, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium and Portugal, all with extensive overseas empires, Serbia whose invasion had triggered it all, with Greece, Roumania and the United States eventually joining the conflict on the Entente side.

Both Britain and France drew heavily on their Empires for support with Britain being also supported by its former territories of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. The war began as very much a world wide conflict but it eventually settled down to one centred on Europe and the Middle East. It operated in six major theatres and we shall try to summarise what happened in each of them.

The Western Front
The German attempt to by-pass French defences by invading through Belgium was brought to an abrupt end by the intervention of Britain and stubborn resistance by France which resulted in the stalemate of the trench war with lines of heavily supported defences running from the English Channel near the French/Belgian Border to Switzerland.

Despite determined attempts by the British and French to force a break in the defensive systems with major offensives at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Cambrai very little changed until in early 1918 the Germans launched their Kaiserschlacht which retook in a few days all the territory gained over several months on the Somme. But it was a last desperate throw, Germany was in crisis at home and the Allies had not only been bolstered by the arrival of the Americans, but had become much more expert and professional and were able to stem the advance before launching the counter attack which saw the end of the conflict in Europe.

The Eastern Front
There was a head to head clash between Germany and Russia for control over eastern Europe. The front never degenerated into the same kind of static trench warfare that characterised the Western Front. Instead there was an advance by the Russians to occupy most of what we now know as Poland in 1914/15, then a retirement by the Russians to roughly their present border in 1915/16. The conflict ended after the Tsar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks and the new Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which conceded a great swathe of territory from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea to Germany.

The War at Sea
Since early in the 20th Century Germany had been building a formidable navy to rival the Royal Navy. When war broke out they had fleets scattered around the world protecting their colonies with pocket battleships and other ships deployed as raiders to attack Allied shipping. The Royal Navy set about capturing as many of the colonies as it could which were mainly small islands scattered around the Pacific ocean or parts of Africa.

The first major clash of fleets was at the battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile in November 1914. Here the Royal Navy suffered its first defeat for over 100 years but when the Germans moved their fleet to the Atlantic to take the Falkland Islands, they ran into a major Royal Navy fleet which soon saw them off.

Pursuit of the raiders continued for some time but eventually most were accounted for and Britain with France commanded most of the world's oceans with Japan controlling much of the north Pacific. In the Baltic and Black Seas however the German Navy remained strong.

The main German High Seas Fleet was based in the far northwest of Germany bordering the North and Baltic Seas. Several clashes had occurred in 1914 and 1915 as they ventured out into the North Sea, but in 1916 Admiral Scheer moved most of his fleet to the North Sea with the intent of a surprise attack on Scapa Flow, the main British base in the Orkneys. However British Intelligence were aware of his plans and sent the Grand Fleet out to encounter them. The resultant Battle of Jutland in 1916, although indecisive, saw the effective end of major German operations in the North Sea.

What now emerged was an entirely different type of sea war - the submarine. German U-boats were able to hide in secluded inlets and roam the oceans with little fear of detection and their attacks on allied merchant shipping nearly saw Britain brought to its knees.

The Balkans
The war had begun in the Balkans with the attacks on Serbia by Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Italy and France had come to the aid of the Serbians but had effectively been pushed out of Serbia. The possibility of Greece joining the Central Powers sent shivers down the spines of politicians in Britain and France as they realised the implications for Allied shipping in the eastern Mediterranean should Germany have access to Greek waters for their submarine fleet. The threat to British and French interests in the Middle East and its oil was sufficient for Britain and France to send major forces to Salonika despite furious opposition from the Generals on the Western Front.

For two years in 1916 and 1917 the Allies faced the Bulgarians across the Serbian border between the Vardar and Struma Rivers with a few sporadic attempts to break the Bulgar line, mainly around Lake Doiran as far as the British were concerned. Whereas the Bulgarians and the Serbians were bitter enemies, the British and Italians had little quarrel with Bulgaria and numerous incidents of humanitarian cooperation occurred. The French seemed to spend more time engaging in political quarrels with their allies than engaging the enemy.

1918 saw Greece come in on the Allied side and the collapse of Bulgaria who were unable to sustain the economic effort of the war. This resulted in the occupation of Bulgaria by the British who were given the unenviable task of supervising the hand over of Bulgarian territory to the Roumanians who had joined the Allies at the last minute.

The Middle East
For centuries the Middle East had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire centered on Turkey. They had dominated most of the Balkans and the Muslim lands from the borders of India to southern Spain. Gradually however nationalist movements had erupted and their area of influence by the start of the war had been reduced to little more than Turkey, Iraq and across to Palestine. In Turkey itself the young Turks had seized power with the intent of bringing some democracy to the country.

The Sudan and Egyptian wars of the 19th Century had left Britain in virtual control of those countries with Italy and France controlling most of the rest of north Africa. Oil had been discovered and its importance as a fuel for the newly developing motor vehicles recognised as vital. Britain and France controlled the sea routes but Germany had been intent on building an overland route with roads and railways. In addition of course the Suez Canal had been constructed as a main artery for France and Britain linking Europe with India and east Africa.

The defence of the eastern Mediterraean and the Suez Canal was therefore of prime strategic interest to both Britain and France. When they realised the possibility of linking with their Russian allies through the Dardanelles and at the same time providing an alternative to the trench warfare of the Western Front, the Dardanelles campaign was launched, using mainly forces from Egypt and Anzac troops on their way to Europe. The campaign resulted in disaster and drove Turkey firmly into an alliance with Germany which posed even more of a threat to Middle East security. Allenby set out to conquer Palestine and Syria at which he was reasonably successful, leaving Iraq and the Euphrates Valley to Townshend and another disaster at Kut. Luckily Lawrence of Arabia had been mobilising the Bedouins to oppose the Turks with promises which Britain and France would never be able to fulfil, but keeping the Central powers and their allies from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

Africa
The Germans had two major colonies in Africa - Tanganyika in the east and South West Africa. The latter was quickly seized by South Africa but the former posed a potential threat. Other territories in Togoland and Cameroon were dealt with jointly by Britain and France. In German East Africa however neither the Germans nor the adjoining British Territories of Uganda and Kenya were anxious to engage in hostilities and an uneasy truce was maintained until a German cruiser, the Koningsburg sank a British warship HMS Pegasus. The Konigsburg was dealt with by other units of the Royal Navy but by then the German governor had begun aggression against Uganda and Kenya and raising the German Ensign on Mount Kilimanjaro. South African and British troops were sent in to deal with Von Lettow, the German commander. For the next three years British and German forces were chasing each other around the African bush until after the armistice in November 1918.

The Home Fronts
There were four different home fronts in Europe. In Britain and Germany it was a case of sustaining and being sustained by an indigenous population and for much of France it was the same. But for large parts of France and Belgium it was a case of the local population being ruled by an occupying power and, on either side of the front line, the local population was either displaced with their houses demolished or living directly with the military.

In France and Germany conscription was in effect from the beginning, but for Britain, military service was purely voluntary until 1916. Such was the enthusiasm for volunteering that many industries were left bereft of workers and women had to be taken on to replace the men. Heavy industry and transport were commandeered to make military supplies and weaponry and move them from factory to port for shipping to France. The raider and submarine threats forced the introduction of rationing and the intensification of cultivation and food production.

The country had to cope with hospitals being inundated with wounded and places made for prisoner of war and internment camps, although some of the prisoners were transported to Canada. There was a constant fear of invasion although this threat was never very real, and an even more realistic threat of being bombed from the air by Zeppelins or Gotha bombers. The east coast from the Thames to the Tyne was kept guarded by Territorials and older soldiers.

Nevertheless the population remained intensely patriotic with all but a tiny few conscientious objectors fully backing the war and being prepared to accept the restrictions and privations. For the most part the same applied to western France. For Germany however the situation was becoming more and more desperate. British naval blockades had cut off most of their vital imports and what in Britain would have been regarded as a shortage would in Germany be regarded as the height of luxury. What supplies there were, were allocateed to the military. To put it mildly the German people were starving and becoming rebellious. Guards at Prisoner of War camps were reported as buying bread from their prisoners, who were being supplied by the Red Cross from Switzerland, for the equivalent of 4d a slice to send to their starving families back home.

The British Army
The difference between the British and most continental armies was that it was purely voluntary while they were mainly conscript. On the outbreak of war there were four strands to the army. First there were the regular battalions doing their prime task of guarding and policing the Empire, second there were the regular units stationed in the United Kingdom whose job it was to support their overseas comrades with recruiting and be ready to form an expeditionary force should it be needed. Thirdly there were the reservists, men who had done their time with the Colours but who were available for recall. Finally there was the Territorial Army of part time soldiers ready to be mobilised to defend their country. The Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, asked for volunteers to form a new army. He asked for 100,000 men but by the end of 1914 enough volunteers had come forward to man five armies. These were being trained and equipped while the reservists were recalled and the overseas troops returned to the UK to supplement the British Expeditionary Force which had gone to France at the beginning of August.

An army was made up of Divisions, each of three Brigades of 4 battalions plus artillery and other support troops. A battalion consisted of around 800-1000 men making a Division around 20,000 men. The regulars and reservists who formed the BEF were all well trained and motivated, but were pitchforked into a situation for which they were poorly equipped and trained. The men who had returned from, mainly tropical, countries, were made to face the rigours of a European winter against a foe used to the conditions and not suffering from the many and various tropical diseases which were brought back with the British. Nevertheless they remained cheerful and were soon joined by Territorials and the men of the new Armies. By 1917 they were being reinforced by conscripts.

It took several years before new tactics and strategies were learned from some very hard lessons. However by mid 1918 the British Army was arguably the best equipped, best motivated and best led army the world has ever seen. This was amply demonstrated in the way the German Army was decisively defeated in the last 100 days of the war.

Science and Technology
The war speeded up development of science and technology to an incredible degree.There were enormous improvements in weapons technology, sometimes refinement but more often innovation such as with the tank. The aircraft industry moved from crude post-Bleriot machines to high performance aircraft which revolutionised the role of artillery. The airplane was primarily a device for spying on enemy territory and spotting for the guns so that they could be aimed with accuracy using new mathematical techniques rather than by trial and error as heretofore. The popular image of the fighter ace was at best an irrelevance. In parallel with weapon and aircraft development came enormous advances in photography and signalling, enabling the aircraft to do their job even better. The internal combustion engine changed vehicles from something we would now consider a bit of a joke to powerful and reliable means of transport.

In the field of medicine there had been huge advances since the Crimean and Boer wars but by now the basic principles of antisepsis and anaesthesia were fully accepted and new drugs and new surgical techniques, such as facial reconstruction, were being applied. The medical services were well organised and it is fair to say that medicine advanced more in the four years of the war than in the previous four thousand years.

There were impressive developments in such fields as radio and cryptography which gave the British a huge intelligence advantage. Logistics which were crude to begin with were developed to a fine art and when the German attack overran British supply depots in 1918 the Germans were stunned to find supplies on a scale they could hardly dream of, and to find fresh baked cakes posted from England, while their families in Germany were starving, perhaps contributed more to their defeat by demoralisation that by force of arms.

Memorials
Almost within days of the war starting villages were compiling lists of their men who were in the armed forces and posting their names in church porches. Many of these lists were published in local newspapers. After a few weeks the lists were peppered with casualties. By the time men came to be demobilised, most had endured horrors too awful to contemplate and most flatly refused to talk of their experiences and put up shutters around their minds to block out the terrible memories. However within a few years almost every town and village in the country had its war memorial, as did schools and factories to record the names of those who did not return. This was something the old soldiers could accommodate and each Remembrance Day became an opportunity for private grief and public pride.

The Imperial War Graves Commission was formed to keep national lists and memorials and to look after the cemeteries where the fallen were buried. France and Germany too had their Commissions, cemeteries and local memorials and visiting the cemeteries today is still a very moving experience.

By the 1990s most of the old soldiers had died and there was a movement to scrap remembrance and forget the past. But then their children too were dying. They had respected their parents' desire to keep the subject bottled up and the memorabilia locked away in the loft. But when their children cleared houses to find papers and medals, or began to indulge in family history research there was an enormous turn around. People wanted to know what their grandfathers and great uncles did in the war. At last they understood the significance of their war memorials and learned to respect their achievements.

In that context we too remember and commemorate the achievements of Privates Potts and Andrews, hidden for too long by their own modesty.

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2010 - Present © Frank Toogood (Design) and Potts VC Trust (Content)
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