Tommy's War

An Oblique View of World War One

Jack Cheam

with some points

not always considered

      The British military campaigns of WW1 are commonly, almost universally, viewed as events where lions were led by donkeys. This is probably an oversimplification. Military incompetence and total disregard for casualties were not exclusively British characteristics; they were characteristics of all the protagonist high commands.

      It seems to me that many of the European armies and their officer corps were totally unprepared for modern industrial warfare.

      Psychologically, they were still in the mid-19th Century with cavalry and brightly coloured regalia. Many members of the officer corps of all nations held their positions in the military because of their pedigree, rather than their suitability for command. This would have mattered little in a monarchist aristocratic nation, unless of course that nation were required to fight an industrial war in which some semblance of leadership and military training would have been useful. This did change in the later years of the war, as painful lessons were learned.

      If you set aside for a moment the poor quality and callousness of the high command, ask yourself how could the Allied or Axis forces have broken through the trench defence system with the technology of the times? History doesn't seem to have an answer. The arrival of the tank in 1917 along with the USA pitted against exhausted German forces seems to have been the tipping point. That said, it was a close run thing. Trench warfare was a great social leveller. In the early days of the war, the sons of the aristocracy took a disproportionally high level of casualties. They were amongst the first to enlist and when they got to France they were first over the top.

      When we think of the war in France we conjure up images of the whole army employed in the trenches but this is not true. Many never saw action or at least were only on the periphery of the action; where a soldier ended up was often a matter of chance. Many of all ranks found themselves in lower risk support units, for example stores, medical or administration.

      Approximately 5.4 million men saw service in France and Flanders and of these approximately 570,000 died in service. This is a casualty rate of about 10%. However, the casualty rate across the differing units varied greatly, with the fighting regiments taking the preponderance of casualties. Interestingly, whilst we always associate the Western Front with WW1 almost a third of British and Commonwealth casualties occurred in other theatres of the war. Conditions were often equally unpleasant in these.