Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front

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Scything machine-gun fire and a hurricane of shells had winnowed those who did. This is true. But he still spent much of his time in the trenches, and cold and wet weather made this an act of sometimes extreme endurance in and of itself, as Arthur Roberts attested to at Ypres in The least touch caused slime to ooze through. The bottom was on average covered by a foot of water; plainly speaking what was being misnamed as a trench, was only a common ditch. This continuous line, an earthen fortress from the North Sea to the Swiss border, would be multiplied many times over by command, support, reserve and communication trenches behind the front line.

The system was also duplicated two or three times, leading to several trench systems miles behind the one facing the enemy.


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This all meant that by the mile frontier was the tip of a much larger iceberg. Laid end to end, all the trenches snaking their way through France and Belgium were 25, miles, four and a half times longer than the Great Wall of China.

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As Hew Strachan has pointed out, mud, lice and rats aside, trenches saved lives and the real danger came when troops went over the top. This is something Lewis gunner Charles Moss reminds us of:. Despite these perfectly understandable complaints, one area where the British soldier did fairly well was food. It was not always appetizing, of course, as one soldier, R A Urquhart, makes clear. He and others had displayed gallantry in battle and were not quite as well rewarded for it as they had hoped:. When it arrived we were unable to enjoy it as it had been sent up in petrol cans!

The meal was cold rice pudding, flavoured with petrol. Various accounts attest to water sometimes being conveyed to the lines in petrol cans as well, and a very nasty aftertaste being experienced by many of those who drank it. But at least Tommy actually had plenty of grub, even if it did not always taste good.

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Behind the lines, British troops could obtain tinned fruit, salmon or sardines as well as veg, or even cakes:. People who had lost their living to the fighting now began to provide services for troops running small cafes where Tommy could try exotic delights like vin blanc white wine for the first time. One Belgian dish really caught on and was taken home: egg and chips. Back at the front, Allied attacks would step up in , with the British alone initiating four large-scale assaults. There was the impressive Vimy Ridge operation, marked by the blowing of several huge mines.

It was part of the larger Battle of Arras, which itself was part of a larger French assault, the Nivelle Offensive. His failure to breakthrough and the huge number of dead he used up trying to do so would the last straws that sparked a wave of mutinies.

This was kept secret. Had the Germans found out, they would certainly have attacked and very possibly overrun the French.

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Douglas Haig, though, would come to hear that things were not exactly holding together with his allies. And compared to the staggering , the BEF had sustained over the course of the Somme offensive the previous year. For their part, Sadler and Serdiville say German losses are thought to have been higher than British ones, but that this is disputed, with the political consensus being closer to , on each side. A lot, for no breakthrough. Lloyd also notes that French commander Phillippe Petain had warned Haig not to make the same mistake as Nivelle — namely, provoking a mutiny from huge numbers of casualties sustained in the pursuit of overly ambitious objectives.

This was an important point, particularly since just holding onto ground was extremely trying in a place as wet and cold and violent as the Ypres salient. Again, Arthur Roberts attests to this:. The trenches had been so badly shelled that in some places we were walking in the open, where big shell holes had taken the place of that bit of trench.

Tommy The British Soldier on the Western Front

In the surviving lengths, dead men were so numerous it was impossible to proceed without walking on them. Training related more directly to the situations they were likely to face in the line and included field exercises and hand-to-hand combat, as well as route-marching and more drill. The length of time they spent in places like Beverloo varied with how quickly the men learnt and how urgently replacements were needed at the front.

In times of crisis, they might be there no more than two or three weeks.


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  • They normally waited here until the next time the unit they were to join was pulled back into reserve, when they would be sent up to them. There would normally be a few days for new replacements to train with, and be integrated into, their units, practising simple tactical drills and manoeuvres, before returning to the trenches. So, new recruits in both the British and German armies underwent a progressive system of training designed, as far as possible, to equip them with the skills needed to survive on the modern battlefield and to perform their missions.

    Tommy : British soldier on the western front 1914-1918

    Grumbles about the quality of new men, often from pre-war regulars, remained common. The system was not without problems and did not always operate perfectly. But it often avoided the Second World War situation of green replacements coming up in the evening to a unit engaged on the front line, only to be killed before breakfast without anyone even learning their name. Inexperienced divisions were inserted into quiet sectors of the line to learn their trade.

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    Whenever units came back from the front to rest, they trained. Route marches maintained fitness. Individual skills were brushed up. Training might aim to refresh basic skills; to pick up new techniques learnt from experience elsewhere; or, indeed, to rehearse for specific operations over mock-ups of the enemy defences.

    Finally, a whole network of schools grew up to teach specialist skills, either to equip individuals for a new role, or so they could go back to their units and train others. Thus, men might find themselves sent off to learn, for example: how to command a platoon or company; the skills of a sniper; the use of wireless; or of Lewis guns.

    The subaltern Charles Carrington, serving with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, spent 21 days on courses of this kind in compared with 65 days in the front line. Training millions-strong armies posed an immense challenge to all the armies of the First World War. Time, space, kit and experienced instructors: all were in short supply early in the war, and mistakes inevitably occurred. All the essential facts on ancient Egypt covering mummification, the pharaohs, the pyramids and the mysterious rituals.

    The ancient Egyptians have fascinated and enthralled the minds of millions down the centuries. With extensive scientific knowledge, splendid architecture and many artistic and From aqueducts to baths, from gladiators to emperors, the fascinating history and mythology of ancient From aqueducts to baths, from gladiators to emperors, the fascinating history and mythology of ancient Rome are brought to life in this entertaining and highly-readable guide. With their sophisticated army, monuments, and roads, the Romans literally paved the way to The British Army on the Western Front Bruce Gudmundsson guides us expertly through the history of the British Expeditionary Force in Bruce Gudmundsson guides us expertly through the history of the British Expeditionary Force in as it struggled to become a modern army and turn the tide of the First World War.

    Examining the tactical innovatio0ns that accompanied this change British Generalship on the Western Front Defeat. This book explores the British Army's response on the Western Front to a period of This book explores the British Army's response on the Western Front to a period of seminal change in warfare.

    In particular it examines the impact of the pre-war emphasis on worldwide garrison, occupation and policing duties for the Empire's defence Fortifications of the Western Front Following the early battles of along the Marne and in the Ypres salient, World Following the early battles of along the Marne and in the Ypres salient, World War I rapidly changed from a war of movement into one of attrition, with the opposing sides entrenching themselves in a line of fortified positions