Historical Notes: `Thank God we are made of the right stuff'

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The Independent Culture
SO THE Remembrance season is with us again, with people's thoughts turning inevitably to the carnage fields of France and Flanders, to the squalors of trench warfare and the grim sagas of the Somme and Passchendaele. Along with the poppies will come out the old cliches and the old anger: the donkeys will be berated for carousing in their chateaux while the lions suffered and died in the muddy shell-holes of No Man's Land.

A caricature: yes, but not far from reality, for the one thing that will surely be overlooked is that the Great War of 1914-18 was not lost by the Germans, it was won by the Allies, and that in its final phase the British army, having learnt from its earlier failures, was the best force in the field.

Nineteen eighteen was an amazing year. The war was never nearer to being lost than during the tremendous German offensives in the months up to June. At one point the British cabinet even discussed the prospect of withdrawing the Army across the Channel, of doing what would now be seen as a Dunkirk, 1940-style.

"If the French cracked" (which as everybody knows actually happened in 1940), that is what things might have come to in 1918. But fortunately the French, recovering at last from Verdun and the 1917 mutinies, did not crack, nor did the British, the Americans began to add their weight and suddenly the tide was running the other way. Now it was the Germans who were reeling back in a way they had never imagined.

But surely, the doubters will argue, the British could not have been a serious player, even in 1918, with all those bone-headed commanders, thick as so many trench-planks and willing, nay eager, to do for Harry and Jack with their plans of attack.

By 1918 there was a total change in the culture. Take the matter of surprise. There had been no surprise in 1916 before the start of the Somme battle. Whether in Blighty or Berlin, everybody knew a "big push" was due to happen, and where. Not so in 1918. One example: the Canadian Corps, a force of calibre, was required for the great offensive to be launched before Amiens in August. But it was in Flanders.

It was brought across in a series of deftly planned night marches, while signal traffic was continued as previously in Flanders so the Germans would think nothing had changed. (In essence this was precisely the kind of decoy tactics which in 1944 persuaded the Germans that D-Day would be launched in the Pas de Calais while in fact the real target was Normandy.) Thus the German supremo Ludendorff was angrily denouncing rumours of an offensive as unfounded just four days before the Allies struck.

What about battle-wearied, doubtless disillusioned-to-his-boots, long- suffering Tommy Atkins? This is what a corporal wrote to his parents in early October as the final advance quickened:

"No doubt you have been wondering how I have got on during the big push we are in the midst of just now . . . It has been a hard task of endurance as well as the fighting and really wants a strong will to carry one through it all but thank God we are made of the right stuff. Jerry is now beginning to realise that we are the master, and before many weeks he will cry out for mercy."

The "right stuff": thanks to Tom Wolfe this now means American astronauts, Apollo 13 and Senator John Glenn circulating the globe in his seventies. But the British claimed it decades before and genuinely pulled off a victory in 1918. It is a shame it has never been acknowledged for the outstanding military success it undoubtedly was.

That it all had to be done again a generation later was not the fault of the soldiers who brought the war to a stunning conclusion in November 1918.

Malcolm Brown is the author of `The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918: year of victory' (Pan, pounds 10)