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Remembrance Sunday: Ninety Years On - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
Remembrance Sunday: Ninety Years On

 

It was a world of mist and darkness, between rivers, in the hours before dawn.  On the 8th August of that year, in that place, no harvest home was imaginable: no corn would stand golden in the dawn; no straight furrows would order the land beneath a summer’s sky.  The only scythe that would be whetted for use today belonged to the eldest reaper of all.

 

Men do not fight for abstractions.

 

The month previous had seen much bloodshed; the new troops of a new combatant had been swiftly attacked by the enemy, as had all their allied comrades, in a last offensive, a final throw of the dice.  The enemy were determined to end the war before the crushing weight of the new allied forces could be brought to bear.  A French general officer had addressed his men and their new allies early in July:

 

The strong and brave hearts of free men beat in your breasts.  None will look behind, none will give way. 

 

Nor had they done.  The enemy had failed not only in pressing forwards and forcing them back, but had, rather, in fact lost ground.

 

Yet men do not fight for rhetoric.

 

The commander of these new forces, of the new accession to Allied strength, was as ever laconic and accurate, saying without exaggeration that,

 

On this occasion a single regiment of the 3rd Division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing at certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward.  Our men, firing in three sections, met the German attacks with counter-attacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners.

 

Yet men do not fight to embellish military annals.  And that was the past now, impossibly remote: July 1918 was as far removed from 8 August 1918 as it is from our own day, in the minds of the men who on that day, in the chill hours before dawn, stood to their arms.

 

They faced eastwards, towards the dawn, towards the day.  Towards the German Second Army, von Marwitz’ veteran soldiers, the victors of a hundred engagements.  Westphalians and Altmarkers of the 13th and 14th Divisions; Wurttemburgers of the 27th, who had enjoyed the services of a subaltern named Rommel before his transfer to the Wurttemburger mountain battalion; Prussians of the 41st.  The men who would move forward in a few moments faced German forces entrenched in the Wotan and Siegfried Lines, dug in with all mod. cons: for the Germans had settled in to stay, whilst the Allies had never intended to remain forever in trenches, but to advance.  In that perhaps was the omen of the day.

 

Men do not fight because of omens.

 

The Allies faced eastwards.  They fronted the 43d Reserve Division, Brunswickers and Prussians, men whose forefathers had fought under and beside the great duke of Wellington.  They faced Schleswigers and Saxons of the 54th Infantry Division; Rhinelanders of the 108th and 117th; the 107th with Uhlans in support, who had served on the Eastern Front; Pomeranian Grenadiers of the 109th; the Wurttemburgers of the 243d; the 192d and the 225th.

 

Men do not fight, at the last, even for their fathers’s glories, for their regiments, for pride of corps.  They do not fight, at the end of the day, for the honour of their country, even were it not a thing that was forever lost when neutral Belgium and Luxemburg were overrun, and civilians executed, and men and women and children sent to slave labour in Germany to forge the very weapons that were turned against their allies and their own country and king.

 

At 4.20 ack-emma, the men of the Allied forces in the Battle of Amiens began to fight; they fought; and they went on fighting.  Who were these men, that we may remember them?

 

There were twelve divisions of Marie Debeny’s French First Army, from the IX, X, XXXI, and XXXV Corps and the Corps of Cavalry, and 1,104 aircraft.  Grognards, poilus, the stolid, stubborn French, pummelled into suffering insensibility by the loss of great swathes of their country, burning steadily with hatred of the Boche, a hatred never flaming and never extinguished, ever present, inexhaustible.

 

Men do, men will, men ever fight from righteous and rightful hatred.

 

The Fourth Army, BEF, under General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Bt, the tough innovator who had retrieved the defeat at Gallipoli, fronted the Germans between Albert and Villers Bretonneux.  The left was the ground of III Corps, who would toil through wood and upland; the centre, along the Somme itself, was entrusted to the Australian Corps; the right, the southernmost sector, adjoining the French, between the rivers, was the province of the Canadians, with the 32d Division (UK) added under Canadian command.  Three divisions of cavalry, 412 tanks, 120 unarmed tanks used as supply vehicles, and five brigades of the newly-christened RAF, eight balloons and 800 aircraft, participated.  But it was of course the infantry who fought and died and took the bloodied ground.

 

Sir Henry Wilson, the saturnine, horse-faced advocate of Anglo-French alliance in the years before the War, was by now too far removed from the realities of the ground to matter save on paper.  The Allied supreme commander, Marshal Foch, as stubborn, unimaginative, and magnificently enduring as his poilus, was determined upon an offensive purely from instinct and temperament.  On this occasion, he was, as h had not always been, to be vindicated.  The commander of the BEF, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, was the man upon whose judgement all things depended. 

 

The plan for the Battle of Amiens had been largely developed by the great Australian commander, Lieutenant General John Monash.  A trim bantam of a man, trained as a civil engineer, an intellectual whose penetrating intelligence and superb character shattered the prejudices of the time, he rose to become the commander of the Australian Corps, the largest on the Western Front, and was a principal architect of the Allied victory.  His measure, and that of his plans, would be taken over the next four days; the recognition of his worth and that of his planning is that this man, the father of combined arms doctrine, an Australian – and a Jew – would on 12 August 1918 become the last man knighted upon the field of battle by a British monarch: the first conferral of a battlefield knighthood in over two centuries.

 

Sir Henry Rawlinson had the good sense immediately to forward Monash’s plans to Sir Douglas Haig.  Sir Douglas Haig had the insight to adopt them immediately.  The politician’s scapegoat, the man who would not stoop to defend himself from calumny, the historian’s model of a superb and unjustly derogated commander, Haig saw in the proposal for battle at Amiens the perfect beginning to his Hundred Days’s Offensive: ‘by far the greatest military victory in British history’, in which the BEF, smaller than the French forces and kept so by a scheming prime minister for purely partisan political purposes, took on and defeated the primary German armies and captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns and artillery pieces.  General of the Armies John J. Pershing considered Field Marshal Haig to be the ‘man who won the war’; that victory was implicit in his decision to begin offensive operations at Amiens.

 

Yet the men who do the fighting do not fight for these reasons.

 

The duke of Wellington’s opinion of the British private soldier is notorious; yet most forget the whole of it, expressed when the duke pointed to a wandering Tommy on leave and said, ‘That is the article on which all depends.  Give me enough of him, and I am sure.’  Who were these men, that we may remember them?

 

At 4.20 ack-emma, the men of the Allied forces in the Battle of Amiens began to fight; they fought; and they went on fighting.  On the right of the British line, the Canadians went forward, the victors of Vimy Ridge, under Sir Arthur Currie, ‘Guts and Gaiters’ Currie.  Successful deception operations had left the Germans in the dark as to the presence of the Canadian Corps on their front, the men who had always done the impossible.  Canadians were Canadians in those days.  They went forward in their surprise attack, surging forth in the mist: Rifles and Highlanders, infantrymen from East Ontario and West, from Toronto and Central Ontario, from Calgary and Winnipeg.  The 13th Battalion were present, who had stood at Ypres against the first gas attack of the war even as the French had fled: Cpl Herman James Good and Pte John Bernard Croak would each be awarded the VC for actions at Hangard Wood, the latter posthumously.  There were francophone Canadians fighting that day on the soil of their ancestral France, pays douce, pays belle, including the lieutenant of the 22e Battalion (Canadien Français), Jean Brillant, who would be awarded a posthumous VC for his actions that day: he is to be remembered evermore as Jean Brillant VC MC.  Men from the North West and from Vancouver and Alberta went forward in the fog, the 27th, 28th, and 29th Battalions of the 6th Canadian Bde.  Manitoba, BC, and Saskatchewan had sent their contingents; indeed, all the manhood of Canada was represented on the field that day.  There was no extraordinary courage shown: for these men, extraordinary courage was an ordinary quality.

 

The 1st, 2d, and 3d Canadian Divisions were the first of the Canadians to go over the top, into the kindly fog that hid them from the Germans.

 

At 4.20 ack-emma, the men of the Allied forces in the Battle of Amiens began to fight; they fought; and they went on fighting.  Brigaded with the Canadians were elements of the 32d Division: Lancashire Fusiliers from Salford, the parent regiment of whom saw service in every campaign of the war and which had once been adorned by a subaltern named Tolkien; Inniskillings and the Manchester Regt, Borderers and the HLI, Highlanders and KOYLI, 1st Battalion the Dorsets, the Royal Scots.  They would follow with the continuing attack.

 

In the centre were Monash’s Australians.  The 1st Division, brigades from NSW and Victoria, 3d Bde massing men from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania.  The 2d, the 3d, the 4th, the 5th: all these and the men of Victoria as well.  The 2d and 3d Australian Divisions were the first to go forward in the centre.

 

The Canadians and Australians were supported from the first moment by 288 tanks of the RTC, rumbling forth in the pre-dawn fog and darkness.

 

At 4.20 ack-emma, the men of the Allied forces in the Battle of Amiens began to fight; they fought; and they went on fighting.  The left of the British line, the leftmost of the Allied line, upon higher and perhaps more arduous terrain, was the sector of III Corps, under Lieutenant General Richard Butler.  The 12th, 18th, 47th, and 58th Divisions of III Corps were told off for the attack: Norfolk dumplings, Cambridge men, Essex boys and lads from Suffolk; Surrey, Berks, and Northants men; sharp lads from Middlesex and ploughboys from Beds; the tough, cheeky Londoners of the 47th and the 58th.  The men of the 18th (Eastern) Division and the 58th, the Home Counties and East Anglia side by side with the indomitable Cockneys, stepped first into the mist and the darkness.

 

With the men of III Corps were those of another and cousinly strain of the greatest fighting tradition the world has known: elements of the US 33d Infantry Division, the Illinois Division, the Prairie Division.  Ploughboys and steel-workers, American Territorials – the National Guard – they were the sons and grandsons of Grant’s first soldiers, the fathers and grandfathers of those who would elect Barack Obama to the US Senate and the presidency.  Grizzled men who were at their most profane when surprised at prayer or in doing a tenderness; angelic youths who swore and fought like demons by day and wrote assiduously, under canvas, to their mothers and sweethearts, after.

 

Elements of the 1st, 2d, and 3d Divisions of the Cavalry Corps supported them, dragoons, hussars, lancers, the Household Cavalry, the yeomanry of counties from across the South of England.

 

Men do not fight for the rights of neutrals, nor yet for great causes.  At bottom, they do not fight immediately for a more perfect union or to make the world safe for democracy; they do not fight to end all war.  Men do not fight as such for the regimental colours or a few notes on a tuneless bugle: these are but symbols of what it is they fight for and why it is they fight.

 

Shortly after 5.0 on 8 August 1918, which would be known as the Black Day of the German Army, the French First Army, on the Allied right, not having armoured elements, began its barrage, on pre-registered positions, and moved to attack the Germans.

 

Within hours, objective after objective had fallen to the Allies.  A great hole had been blasted in the German front; German officers and divisional staff were captured at their breakfast table.  German communications were severed; the Germans were placed permanently on the tactical, operational, and strategic defensive; and most importantly, the moral of the German Army was shattered.  Large formations surrendered to small Allied units, and the German officers no longer possessed the confidence of their men.  German losses, of dead, wounded, or captured, were more than three times the number of Allied killed and wounded.  Hindenburg and Ludendorff – not yet having evolved the comforting mythology of the ‘stab in the back’ – realised that all was lost, or should soon be lost; a defeat, as Hindenburg wrote, that could not be seen as anything save ‘the consequences of an open weakness’ that would write the end of German militarism – for a time.

 

When these men whom we remember stepped out into the fog and darkness, they began a hundred days of victory that would shatter Germany and end the war.  It would prove a porcelain peace: too much had gone wrong before and too much would go wrong after the ceasefire, from incompetent generals who were perforce sent to Limoges to the inanity of the Treaty of Sevres, for the peace not to shatter.  Yet a victory there was, and none can deny it, and it was won by these men and their comrades.  Implicit in the events of 8 August 1918 was the silence of the guns at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of that year.

 

Men do not fight for such considerations.  They fight and are willing to die for their comrades, for the loyalty that is between them, for their own self-respect and the respect of their fellows and the certainty that some survivor will tell mothers and fathers, wives and sweethearts, that one fought bravely – or otherwise.  They fight because what they do will be remembered, and remembered by those whom they had loved, their families, their wives and sweethearts, their comrades.  They fight because of love.

 

And we remember them.  At the rising of the sun and its going down, we shall remember.


 

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pathology_doc From: pathology_doc Date: November 9th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for this.

It's good that some of us now living know of and honour the achievements of 8th August 1918 and the Hundred Days which followed. Far too much World War One history unfairly wears an Anglophobic black armband, and I know my own country (Australia) is particularly guilty in that regard.

Too many of us Aussies look at Monash in isolationas the hero of the hour; too few remember that it is the British Army (largely under Haig) which developed and provided the tactics and the technology that allowed him to carry out his successes.
fpb From: fpb Date: November 10th, 2008 07:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I posted the proper comment for this day a couple of weeks ago: http://fpb.livejournal.com/357604.html. What follows is the complete "Bollettino della Vittoria"; there was a time when every Italian knew this by heart. It is the best comment on a generation that has just passed.

Supreme Headquarters, 4 november 1918, 12 noon

The war against Austria-Hungary, began by the Italian Army under the high leadership of HM the King on May 24, 1915, and fought most fiercely and without respite in despite of inferiority in men and means, with unbreakable faith and unyelding courage for 41 months, is won.

The titanic battle began on October 24, in which took part 51 Italian divisions, 3 British, 2 French, one Czecho-Slovak, and one American regiment, against 63 Autro-Hungarian divisions, is over.

The sudden and extremely bold advance of XXIX Corps towards Trento, blocking the enemy armies of Trentino the path of retreat just as they were being overwhelmed West by the troops of our VII army and East by those the I, VI and IV, has yesterday brought about the total collapse of the enemy front. From the river Brenta to the river Torre, the unstoppable drive of Armies XII, VIII, X, and of our massed cavalry divisions, drives the fleeing enemy ever further back.

In the plains HRH the Duke of Aosta is swiftly advancing at the head of his undefeated III army, eager to recover the positions they had once conquered and from which they had never been driven by force.

The Austro-Hungarian Army is annihilated. It has suffered terrible losses in its dogged resistance of the first few days, and in the following pursuit it has lost monstrous amounts of every kind of materials and more or less the whole of its stores and depots. It has so far left in our hands about 300,000 prisoners, whole command staffs and no less than 5,000 pieces of artilllery.

The remnants of what was one of the world's mightiest armies are climbing back, in disorder and without hope, the valleys they had descended in proud confidence.

Signed: the Army head of staff, General Diaz.
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