Gavin Davies, a member of the South Wales Branch, originally wrote this series of articles for The Glamorgan GEM, a local paper circulating in Barry, Llantwit Major, Cowbridge, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Gavin also gives talks about First World War and the American Civil War in South Wales in aid of the maintenance fund for the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz Wood and can be contacted on
In France the Germans had reached the River Marne. Then from Paris French troops, some of whom had been rushed to the front in the famous taxi cabs, struck the flank of the German First Army. As the Germans turned to face this attack a gap opened in their line opposite the British who were advancing in support of French troops to the east. Worried about being outflanked the German advance halted and they fell back. The attempt to win a quick victory in the west had failed and the Germans now faced a war on two fronts; their worst nightmare.
In mid-September, despite General Henry Wilson's prediction that the Allies would be in Germany in four weeks, the retreat ended on the Chemin des Dames. One of the units who attacked up the wooded spurs of the ridge was the Welsh Regiment. During the fighting Captain Mark Haggard, the nephew of Rider Haggard, attacked a German machine gun which was holding up his company. Badly wounded he was rescued under fire by L/Cpl Fuller but still cheered his men on, shouting "Stick it the Welsh." Capt Haggard died of his wounds the next day; L/Cpl Fuller was awarded a VC. As a memorial to this action
Col & Mrs Alfrred Mackintosh, the then owners of CottrellPark, paid for the words "Stick it Welsh" in gold lettering to be put above the clock in Maindy Barracks.
The Germans, now dug and protected by barbed wire, could not be dislodged and both sides moved troops northward to turn their enemy's flank. By the end of September the French were in action around Arras but, until the lines finally reached the sea, the Allies always seemed to be 'An hour and an army corps' too late.
By late September the Germans, having beaten off a Belgian counterattack, started to bombard Antwerp with their 350 and 420 mm heavy guns which had destroyed the fortifications around Liege in the previous month. On the eastern front the lines stabilised.
At sea there were only minor actions. In one a U-boat attacked three old British cruisers; Midshipman Wykeham-Musgrave, aged 15%, was serving on the Aboukir. As the ship sank he swam to the Cressy and then, when she was sunk, to the Hogue. When the Hogue was sunk he was picked up by a Dutch trawler, one of only 50 of his crew of 800 to survive but still keen to join another ship. In the Pacific a German cruiser squadron under von Spee was at large while the cruiser Emden was disrupting trade and the transfer of Indian troops to Europe in the Indian Ocean. British troops invaded German colonies around the world, in some cases coming off second best.
At home it was realised that Britain had got itself into a Continental war involving armies of millions and could not rely solely on its small, volunteer regular forces. Lord Kitchener appealed for volunteers and by mid-September nearly 500,000 men had joined the army. The joined for a variety of reasons, unemployment, a desire for adventure, a feeling of duty, because their friends were going or because a girl gave them a white feather. Getting the men was proving easy, it would be harder to provide them with uniforms, weapons, equipment and trained officers and NCOs. Meanwhile the Territorial Force had been mobilised and was taking over foreign garrisons to release regular units and providing forces for home defence. On 21 September The Times published a poem by a 45 year old art historian, Laurence Binyon, which included the words "They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old .... "
By the end of September the Western Front had stabilised from the River Aisne to the Swiss frontier and both sides were digging in while, in the north, open warfare continued as both sides tried to outflank the enemy. As part of these operations the British moved north from the Aisne to be nearer our supply bases at the Channel Ports. Units of the Expeditionary Force arrived at Armentieres and advanced eastward towards Lille. As more troops arrived the British front extended northwards until it reached Ypres where it linked up with British troops who had retreated from Antwerp with the Belgian Army who, with some French units, now held the line from Ypres to the coast.
One of the British formations involved in the fighting at Antwerp was the Royal Naval Division which Churchill had formed from naval reservists who were not required by the fleet and with volunteer officers including Rupert Brooke, who wrote "Now God be thanked who has matched us to this hour ... ", a romantic view of war which would soon change, Arthur Asquith, the Prime Minister's son and the writer A P Herbert. Only partly trained and under equipped these sailor/soldiers were no match for the German army; most were evacuated to Britain but 1,500 were driven into Holland and interned.
The Allied plan was to advance on Menin and Lille; the Germans had other ideas. Germany had never needed to call up all its young men and those who were going on to higher education were often exempted. In the patriotic fervour of 1914 they were as keen as their opposite numbers in Britain to volunteer and eight new divisions, about 150,000 men, were formed in August led, mainly, be retired former officers and NCOs. Only partly trained by November they were available for a final gamble; an attack through Ypres to take the Calais and the ChannelPorts.
The British and German attacks met head on along the ridges to the east and south of Ypres in mid-October and it soon became apparent that the Allies would do well merely to hold their ground. Fortunately the partly trained German volunteers could only attack in mass, one student battalion came forward singing, with their arms linked. Against the British regulars who could easily fire fifteen rounds a minute it was suicide, German losses were immense and walls of dead bodies built up opposite the British positions. However numbers and superior artillery told and the British were forced back with mounting losses. The French took over more of the line but still the Germans attacked.
At Gheluvelt the crisis came at the end of the month. The 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment captured the Chateau grounds, breaking the British line. The South Wales Borderers were holding out on one flank but the position was desperate. The 2nd Worcesters, 350 strong, were ordered to counterattack. They advanced at the double over a mile of open ground losing about 100 men to shellfire but the survivors charged into the surprised Germans and drove them back; the line was restored. With hindsight it is regrettable that the Worcesters were unable to kill a certain Private Hitler who was serving with the Bavarians.
In the East the Germans continued to drive the Russians back and were advancing on Warsaw. The Russians planned to trap them by thinning out their front opposite the Austrians but unfortunately intercepted radio messages revealed the plan. However because of the fighting around Ypres the Germans could not send any reinforcements and when a hoped for Austrian offensive failed to materialise they fell back about 60 miles and the front stabilised. It was notable that, because troop densities were much lower than in the west, the Eastern Front never solidified and mobile warfare with large advances and retreats remained quite common.
In Britain units of the Territorial Force, officially only liable for Home Defence, volunteered for active service. The 1st Monmouths and the 1/6th Welsh were among the first to go to France. Meanwhile the New Armies of volunteers who had responded to Lord Kitchener's appeal for men were training; often in
their civilian clothes and with broomsticks instead of rifles. Many found it an enjoyable experience; "I have been having the time of my life here among old friends." one wrote to a friend.
Late in October the Germans attacked the Belgian Army's positions on the River Yser. As their front started to crumble under fierce German pressure King Albert gave orders to open the sluices. The land vanished below six feet of water and the northern part of the Allied line was secure.
From Ypres to Armentieres the British had been holding out against fierce German attacks since mid October. The London Scottish, the first Territorial unit to go into action, fought to hold Messines, just south of Ypres. Equipped with obsolete rifles which could only fire single shots these 'Saturday night soldiers' held out but in early November the British were finally driven off the Messines Ridge.
By the middle of November the Germans were ready for a final push and on 11 November the attack, preceded by the heaviest bombardment of the war so far, started. Hill 60 a key observation point fell to the Germans. On the Menin Road the Prussian Guards Division sent its twelve battalions forward but the massed infantry melted under accurate British rifle and artillery fire. Where they did manage to break into the British trenches they were eliminated by counter attacks. In one sector a line of grey clad soldiers loomed out of the mist; the 1 st Kings readied themselves but no further advance occurred and as the mist cleared they saw only a heap of grey clad bodies. The First Battle of Ypres was over. The much reduced British Army, now reinforced by Indian troops and soon to be joined by more Territorial Force divisions settled into its flooded trenches for the winter.
The old British Regular Army had, almost literally, fought to the last. In August each of the 85 battalions was about 950 strong. Of these perhaps 30 had survived and, even with reinforcements, battalions now had about 150 men. The Germans had suffered too, especially the partially trained battalions of students whose losses gave the battle its name - the Kindermord yon Ypem, usually translated as The Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres'.
On the Eastern Front the Russians continued to advance towards Berlin from Warsaw. However the Germans, warned by intercepted radio messages, redeployed and took the Russians in the flank. Better organised the outnumbered Germans captured 16,000 prisoners and halted the Russian advance on Berlin once and for all. The Austrians moved troops from the southern sector to drive the Russians behind the Vistula. Due to a very tough Russian defence they gained little ground and when the Russian General Brusilov attacked in the south the weakened Austrian line was hard put to prevent him breaking into the Hungarian plain although the line did, just, hold.
At the end of October Admiral von Scheer's squadron arrived at Coronel on the South American coast from China to be met by Admiral Cradock. The British ships were old fashioned and manned by reservists; the German ships modern with heavier, longer ranged guns and manned by well trained regulars. At about 7.50 pm on 1 November the Germans opened fire at 11,400 yds. Within 20 minutes the British armoured cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth were seriously damaged and both sank shortly afterwards with the loss of all hands, about 1,600 officers and men. They had scored six hits on the Germans and wounded three men. The light cruiser Glasgow escaped and headed for the Falkland Islands.
In the Indian Ocean the German light cruiser Emden under Captain von Muller had been raiding British shipping. Since August she had sunk 18 merchantmen, captured others and destroyed a lot of British property. On 9 November her luck ran out when she attacked a wireless station on the Cocos Islands which managed to send a warning. The Australian light cruiser Sydney was only 50 miles away and intercepted the Emden at about 9.30 am. First blood went to Emden when her 4.1" guns knocked out the Sydney's range-finder. However in the long run the Sydney's heavier 6" guns were superior. At about 11.15 am, after taking 100 hits, Captain von Muller beached his sinking ship to save the crew.
If you are in Ypres you may wish to visit the VladsloGermanCemetery to see the 'Grieving Parents' statues by Kathe Kollwitz which commemorate her son, Peter, one of the student volunteers who died in the battle.
In early November the German Admiral von Spee had destroyed a British cruiser squadron off Coronel on the west coast of South America and, continuing eastwards, rounded Cape Horn. On the morning of 8 December the Germans approached Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands to destroy the wireless station. They saw the tripod masts of modern battle-cruisers; their death sentence. The Germans were no match for HMS Invincible and Inflexible, under Admiral Sturdee, and in the day-long chase which developed, one by one, their ships, fighting to the last, were sunk. In the icy waters of the South Atlantic there were few survivors. Lieutenant Danckwerts, the Gunnery Officer in HMS Kent, wrote "They fought absolutely magnificently."
At home the German High Seas Fleet were raiding the east coast to try to draw out and trap part of the superior British fleet. On 15 December their battle-cruisers set out to attack Hartlepool. In 20 minutes 8 soldiers, the first to be killed by enemy action in Britain since 1690, and about 125 civilians had been killed. Hopelessly outgunned the Territorials manning the coast defence battery fired 123 rounds and did score some hits on the German ships. Norman Collins, an apprentice marine engineer, remembered seeing the body of a nineteen year old friend lying in the street and pit props weighing over a hundredweight each being thrown around like matchsticks.
On the Western Front the British settled into trenches between Ypres and Armentieres often standing up to their knees in water in the low lying countryside. Under French pressure the British did make some small scale attacks. Capt Billy Congreve watched one, by 1st Gordon Highlanders, which nearly reached the German trenches at a cost of 250 casualties. He wrote, "It was a regular Valley of Death. Next day, I read in the paper: 'British troops hurl back the Germans at Wytschaete'. A beautiful epitaph on those poor Gordons who were little better than murdered."
The stalemate was broken for a few days by the famous Christmas Truce. Mostly the Germans seem to have taken the initiative by singing 'Stille Nacht' and putting up Christmas Trees and lights. Then, if the British did not fire, starting shouted conversations which led to meetings in No Man's Land. 2/Lt Bruce Bairnsfather, the creator of 'Old Bill', was involved in a truce, during which one of his men gave a German a haircut. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were given two barrels of beer by the Germans but Pte Frank Richards, a reservist from Blaina, was not particularly grateful, " ... [a man] would have bursted before he got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff."
There were kick-abouts with empty tins but, regrettably, the legend that there was an organised match is only that. One German wanted to go back to his job - driving a taxi in Birmingham. Another asked a British officer to post a letter to his English girlfriend. However it was not all sweetness and light. Among others, Private Ernest Palfrey and Sergeant Frank Collins, both of the 2nd Monmouths, were shot, returning from burying the dead and from giving some tobacco and jam to the Germans.
Although General Smith-Dorrien, one of the few survivors of Islandwana and now commanding II Corps, had issued orders that there were to be no truces over Christmas no one was punished for being involved in these unauthorised events; many officers and men had been involved.
On the Eastern Front there were no widespread truces. The Russian advance in the Southern sector met with resistance and troops were moved from other sectors to continue the advance. In turn the Austrians counterattacked the weakened Russian front and there was a vast battle of manoeuvre. Eventually, after some of their divisions had suffered 70% casualties, the Russians fell back to a line from Warsaw to Przemyl. However the success had seriously damaged the Austrian army and it achieved little more for the rest of the war although the German view that they "were shackled to a corpse" is probably unfair.
There is a plaque on the cottage in St Yvon, just north of Ploegsteert Wood, occupied by Bruce Baimsfather and a cross nearby which marks the spot where his daughter and granddaughter met Rudolf Zehmisch, a German who had also been involved in the truce, and his daughter met in 2002.