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The British Army in the Great War

The Western Front in France and Belgium was the main theatre of action during the First World War and was the scene of heavy fighting throughout. The British sent all their available forces to help stem the invading hordes; the Germans had failed in their major aim of securing Paris and the Channel ports, of crushing the Anglo-French army and forcing a decision in the first year of the war. Although the British fought heroically and stubbornly - between the Belgians and the French - to stem the torrent of the German invasion, they were largely sacrificed as a penalty for Britain's unpreparedness.

The military efforts of the next four years, mingling blunders and costly sacrifice with magnificent achievement, show the weakness and strength of democracy and the price that the British paid for their unreadiness, due in no small degree to timid tardiness of their leaders in revealing to their people the awful seriousness of the problem confronting them. Eventually, however, a vast army was raised, officered, and equipped, which, with increasing effectiveness, contributed gloriously toward the final triumph.

It is pretty certain that at the beginning of the war the losses of English officers were heavier than those of the French, Germans or Russians. All neutrals appear to agree that the British officer exposed himself too much, but that fault has been remedied, and they_ have learned that, after all, an officer is the part of the machinery of an army most difficult to replace. Roughly, there was one officer to every forty men in the British Army. In the early engagements there was one officer to every thirty men in the casualty lists, but sometimes the proportion was as high as one to fifteen.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme had been an unmitigated disaster, but for the rest of the battle the Germans suffered more than the British. Although the British army was in a vulnerable state, there was also promise for the following year. The British army had steadily improved its tactical ability and introduced the new weapons - tanks, light machine guns and mortars.

Although there were clashes between British and German forces over colonial possessions in Africa, the bulk of British forces outside the Western Front were fighting in the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Salonika and Italy.

At the end of April 1916 a British and colonial force at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia had been forced to surrender. Colonial forces regrouped and reorganised until December. The Turks held the north bank of the Tigris from the region of Sannaiyat to the area of Kut-al-Amara itself, preventing any British move up the Tigris to Baghdad.

During January and February 1917 the Turks were forced out of their positions by British and colonial forces. By 12 March the British had occupied Baghdad; after a month the region around Baghdad had been secured and in September the British moved against Ramadi on the upper Euphrates River. At the beginning of 1918 British forces concentrated efforts on strategic defence and operations to destroy Turkish positions in upper Mesopotamia. In October 1918 forces advanced up the Tigris and by the end of the month colonial troops had occupied Kirkuk. The main Turkish position north of Sharqat was successfully attacked on 29 and 30 October 1918, bringing about the armistice with Turkey on 31 October.

The British position in Egypt at the end of 1916 was mainly defensive. In July a Turkish attack on Romani had failed. Positions held by British and colonial forces along the Sinai Peninsula were gradually recovering, and much effort was put into improving water supplies by rail and pipeline in preparation for an attack on El Arish. In December 1916 as the colonial Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) were preparing to attack, Turkish forces withdrew.

In January 1917 the EEF moved up to the Palestinian border and prepared to attack the Turks. In March, Gaza was attacked, but the colonial forces forced to retreat. Gaza was now part of a 12-mile long defensive position, and during the second battle in April, the EEF troops were again unable to make gains. Reinforcements and a new commander, Sir Edmund Allenby, arrived in June 1917.

In October 1917 Allenby was ready to renew the EEF offensive towards Jerusalem. The Third Battle of Gaza finally unhinged the Turkish defensive positions between Gaza and Beersheba, and on 9 December 1917 Turkish forces in Jerusalem surrendered to the EEF. The German Spring offensives of 1918 on the Western Front prevented any further meaningful offensive by the EEF until September. The Battle of Megiddo in September 1918 broke through Turkish defences and opened the way to Damascus, which was captured by British and colonial forces on 1 October 1918. By the time Turkey signed an armistice with the Allied powers on 30 October, the EEF had occupied Homs, Tripoli, Beirut and Aleppo, and were threatening Antakya and Alexandretta.

The British first became involved with Salonika in October 1915 to assist Serbia and Greece. The Allies were forced out of Serbia and retreated. By December 1916 the Allied line was established about 20 miles north of Salonika, with the British holding the East and the French the West. At the Battle of Doiran in May 1917, the British failed to make any significant progress against Bulgarian positions.

With the failure of the larger Allied offensive involving the French and Serbs, the area was effectively inactive until 1918. Then, in September 1918, and as part of a wider Balkans offensive, the British attacked again and assaulted the defences around Lake Doiran. The attack was a failure but it did prevent the Bulgarians moving in units to repair their broken front further East. At the end of September the Bulgarians were conducting a general retreat. On 30 September an armistice was signed between the allies and Bulgaria.

British involvement in the Italian campaign was due to the collapse of the Italian Army at the Battle of Caporetto. In late October 1917 the British were asked to provide assistance. In all, six infantry divisions and a brigade of cavalry together with supporting formations were ordered from France to Italy. With the front stabilised, one division and one corps were ordered back to France in February 1918. After months of being on the defensive, the Allied forces attacked in late October and fought the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (24 October - 4 November 1918). The battle was a success, throwing the Austrian forces back over a wide area and causing a general withdrawal. By 2 November the Austrian frontier was crossed in several places. On 4 November an armistice came into effect between the Allies and Italy.

On the Western Front, 1917 started well as the Germans withdrew about 20 miles over a 65-mile stretch of the front between Arras and Soissons. Unfortunately, the Germans had withdrawn to a heavily fortified position - the Hindenburg Line. The battles around Arras in April and May 1917 (the first, second and third Battles of the Scarpe, the Battle for Vimy Ridge, and the first and second Battles of Bullecourt) were fought in order to support the French offensive at the Aisne River further south. The battles were generally successful in reaching their immediate and small-scale objectives, although Bullecourt was a costly failure.

The ports of Bruges, Ostend and Zeebrugge (used by German U-boats to attack Britain's trade and food supplies) relied on the railway junction at Roulers, five miles beyond the northern end of the German held Messines-Wytschaete-Passchendaele ridge. If Roulers could be captured, German U-boats would be unable to attack. The third Battle of Ypres began in June 1917. Capture of the Messines-Wytschaete section of the ridge was a success, but the weather broke and the battlefield became a quagmire of mud. In better weather during September the British pulled themselves onto the drier Passchendaele ridge around the Gheluvelt plateau. However, due to very heavy rain, the field was a quagmire again by November. On 6 November 1917 Passchendaele village was captured, and the offensive came to a halt - stuck, literally, in the mud.

Two weeks later the British Expeditionary Force attacked at Cambrai. Tanks were used in large numbers for the first time and the Hindenburg Line was breached. However, this was a limited offensive - reserves were short, and despite the elated reception news of the battle enjoyed in Britain, it was not a fatal blow to German defences. The Germans counter-attacked in force and the British were forced to concede ground. By 3 December the battle was over. No breakthrough had occurred.

The British 1917 offensive on the western front began in March, on the sector from Arras to Soissons. Although the French still held from two thirds to three- quarters of the line, fully half the enemy forces were concentrated against the British, who were steadily assuming more and more of the burden which had pressed so heavily on the French.

Russia's withdrawal from the war (due to the Russian revolution) allowed the Germans to transfer a large number of divisions to the Western Front, and in March they were ready to attack. The War Cabinet held back reinforcements for the Western Front and defences were not ready to meet an assault. The British, who had taken over an increasing share of the front line, were now stretched very thin.

The Germans first attacked on 21 March 1918 over a 50-mile section of the front between Lens and the Oise River. By 23 March the Germans were through British defences and into open countryside, pouring through a 40-mile wide hole. The British Fifth Army fell back in disorder. On 26 March the French appointed General Foch to command the allied armies in France. By the time the Germans called off the offensive, the British Fifth and Third armies had been thrown back as far as Amiens, and all the ground won in 1916 and 1917 was lost. A week later the Germans attacked again along the River Lys. The British were forced to abandon all their gains for 1917 and retreated to the gates of Ypres. Having panicked the allies and captured much ground, the offensive came to a halt on 19 April 1918. The final attack came in late May along the Chemin des Dames ridge north of the Aisne river, where a number of battered British divisions had been sent to rest. The Germans made gains of 13 miles, and by 3 June were only 39 miles from Paris.

The British and French nearly lost their nerve (British politicians considered evacuating the British Expeditionary Force) but the allied forces finally managed hold their ground. The Germans began to lose very heavily, finding themselves relatively in the open compared to the heavy fortifications of the Hindenburg Line. The Battle of Amiens was a spectacular victory for the Allies. The allied attack began on 8 August 1918 and advanced eight miles by mid-afternoon, destroying six German divisions and provoking the mass surrender of about 50,000 Germans. The next day the BEF advanced another four miles. After the Battle of Amiens the Germans were forced to retreat from ground they had captured in the 1918 offensives. On 21 August the Third Army attacked and two days later the Fourth Army pushed the Germans back across the old 1916 Somme battlefield.

The BEF's First and Third Armies approached Cambrai on 27 September 1918, the Second Army approached Flanders a day later, and the Fourth Army approached the region of St Quinten the day after that. The Hindenburg line was breached, and on 5 October British troops moved into unfortified countryside. The Germans were forced further back in just over a month of fighting and the Armistice of 11 November 1918 marked the end of the First World War.

The Armistice provided. in substance, for a cessation of fighting and for the surrender of a carefully specified number of heavy cannon, machine guns, airplanes, railway engines and other material. Also, the enemy were to abandon the invaded countries of Belgium, northern France, Alsace- Lorraine and Luxemburg, and all German territories on the left bank of the Rhine as well. These were to be occupied by Allied troops.

The Britih Army suffered killed, 706,726; missing or prisoners, 359,145; wounded 2,032,142; total, 3,098,113. Navy: killed, 33,361; missing, prisoners, and wounded, 6,405; total, 39,766. Australia (included in British)—Killed, 58,035; wounded 166,606; missing, 193; prisoners, 438.

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Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:36:06 ZULU