[This article first appeared in Stand To ! 20 Summer 1987] pp 7 - 8


First let me say a word of reassurance: it's only a few weeks ago that a number of you will have received a longish burst from me at the National Army Museum on Founder's Day.

Don't worry - this time I shan't keep you long.

I only want to say two things, really, about ourselves on the occasion of our seventh AGM.

First, my impression - for what it's worth - is that the last twelve months have been a good year for the WFA.

When you think back to this time last year, I don't think there can be much argument about that. We looked pretty much of a wreck a year ago, and it is only thanks to the real feeling of so many members for what we are about that we have survived - against, one might have said at the time, all the odds. I should like to acknowledge that feeling and the goodwill that goes with it, with gratitude now.

I said a good year; I don't mean a brilliant one. It has been a time for repairing damage, picking up threads and setting the course to FORWARD again. I have the sense of there still being some distance to go in these matters; consolidation before we attempt a further advance. I may be wrong - it is, as I said, merely an impression. When the officers have reported, we shall all be able to judge better.

My second point - and I am sure you will want to second me on this, is sadness that Peter Scott will no longer be editing Stand To! and great gratitude to him for having made it the high quality journal that it is. I know that Peter doesn't want a lot of fuss, but I can't let this AGM go by without expressing the very sincere thanks of all of us for what he has done.

And now a few words about our subject - our big, permanent subject: the Western Front that we have set ourselves to remembering.

Last year was the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme - and much else besides, I need hardly say, but it is fair to say that the Somme was the central event, and the Somme is one of the great landmarks of the war, above all on the Western Front.

The anniversary prompted, I regret to say, a grisly outpouring of awful nonsense in the worst traditions of 1920's Disenchantment and 1980's Media Drivel. We had Lions led by Donkeys - that hoary old tag that seems to belong anywhere but where you usually find it.

We had The Monocled Mutineer, that TV series in which the BBC pioneered a new historical approach - "a greater truth" which is independent of facts and unblushingly resorts to lies.

And in the theatre, for good measure, we had a revival of For King and Country which is another sample of the same sort of thing.

It has been - and continues to be - a heyday for "historical drama", and I fear that "historical drama" is usually very bad news for history.

And now we have arrived at the 70th anniversary of 1917, one of the worst years, one of the most traumatic and transforming what the Media have in store for us, but I know this: I dread it. And I am absolutely certain that they will once more miss — or avoid - the main point in order to pursue cheap box office effects.

What, you may wonder, do I consider the main point of 1917?

Well I can perhaps best express it by saying (as I have been doing for a good many years) that when you look at what 1917 actually contained, it has a far better claim to be called the "Year One" of the 20th Century than 1900, or any other year.

Two events took place in it which have dominated the world ever since: the Russian Revolutions and with them, the arrival of Communism as a world force, and the American entry into European affairs, ending the long tradition of Isolationism.

I can't think of two matters of greater importance.

But on another level, there was something else as well which is 20th Century through and through.

All through 1914-16, there had been an increasing intervention of technology in the conduct of war and increasing influence of the material factor and the dehumanizing process that goes with that.

In 1917 those processes reached an unmistakable fruition. This was the year when:

  • air bombardment of cities by high performance aircraft arrived;
  • submarine blockade threatened to force national surrender;
  • the internal combustion engine fulfilled its promise as a modern contribution to the battlefields - with the massed tank attack at Cambrai;
  • science stepped in to bring the war's most important weapon - artillery - to a high pitch of precision and effectiveness with calibration and predicted shooting which were the keys that unlocked the deadlock in 1918;

Science and technology, in other words, were putting a brand not merely on the war, but as we can now see, on the world in true 20th Century style

What will the Media make of all that I wonder?

What will they make of the large events of the war itself?

  • - the disastrous replacement of General Joffre by General Nivelle?
  • - the real mutiny (without benefit of monocles) of a considerable part of the French Army when Nivelle's offensive failed?
  • - the breathing space when Russia collapsed that gave Germany a chance to recover and perhaps even to try another throw for victory?
  • - that also gave Austria-Hungary another brief lease of life against all expectations and so enabled another blow against Italy at Caporetto which nearly knocked her right out? Shall we be hearing about any of these events
  • - they are after all, the context of the year, without which it is impossible to understand it?

I wouldn't be surprised if we heard a great deal about the French mutinies - such matters are meat and drink to the Media people.

I think we can depend on hearing a lot about the Russian Revolutions, but I doubt if there will be much about their effect on the war, or, indeed, the war's effect on them.

But one thing I think we may be sure of: we shall hear about Passchendaele, one of the most emotive names in our language.

So now, a few final words about the British Army in 1917; it's a good subject, and one which I feel fairly confident is going to be lost or fudged or distorted.

My text for such a subject would be the words of Charles Carrington which I have quoted often enough; referring to the Battle of the Somme, he wrote:

"Enthusiastic amateurs when the fighting began, the British were soldiers at the end, with the cynical notions and the prudent habits that professionals exhibit."

Or, as our late patron, General Glubb put it, referring to the spring of 1917;

"...there was a great revival of smartness and discipline, and a new spirit of hope... we wanted to be fine professionals."

"Professionals" - that is the key word. It comes through in the diaries, the memoirs and reminiscences, time and again.

It comes out in the training: the Army Schools and courses to teach this and that and the other thing that had now become regular features of the BEF's life on the Western Front - in the anxiety to master this extraordinary, lethal art-form that the war had produced in its most advanced department

And it came out in the battlefield performance.

1917 was when the British Army started to produce what cannot be called anything but brilliant feats of arms.

The first was the opening Battle of Arras, on 9 April. If you look closely at the planning - especially the fire-plan - and the execution of the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps, you seem to be in a different world from the clumsy battering that marked so much of the Somme. There seems to be no connection.

But of course that is a silly way of looking at it, because what we really see in April 1917 is the lessons of 1916 well learnt, and new technology well applied - where it existed.

We see it again in June, when the Second Army performed its altogether brilliant capture of Messines Ridge on 7 June.

The very opening of "Third Ypres", the first advance on 1 July, is in absolute contrast with 1 July 1916 - in fact it was too successful: the infantry advanced too far and lost touch with its artillery - and here technology stepped in again, because the weather prevented the Royal Flying Corps from making any of the observations on which the artillery now relied, so the infantry was robbed of support, and the Germans as ever put in a powerful counterattack. Even so, the casualty rate for this phase-just under 32,000 casualties in three days - makes another significant contrast with the Somme, whose first day alone cost 57,000.

In the middle of August the Canadians distinguished themselves again, at Lens, further south, when they did tremendous damage to the Germans at relatively low cost in a six-day battle.

In September and the first week of October came General Plumer's three step by-step blows at Ypres, culminating in the battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, which the Germans called a "black day". The "Passchendaele" that is usually forgotten!

And finally, on 20 November, there came the great innovatory battle of Cambrai which saw the debut of predicted shooting, the battle-winner of 1918, and massed tanks which also helped greatly in 1918 but showed their true paces in 1939 and 1940.

Oh, yes; there were setbacks, there were disappointments, and there were heavy losses.

Third Ypres ("Passchendaele") always steals the limelight, but for sheer grinding misery to no good purpose, the later stages of the Battle of Arras, fought to lend help to the French when Nivelle's offensive went disastrously wrong, always seem to me to be the most depressing part of the year, because there was not even any significant success to hope for.

And as regards casualties, I'm afraid it has to be said that if you engage 131 German divisions in battle, which is what the BEF did in the course of Arras, Messines, Lens and Ypres, yes, you will have casualties and they will be heavy.

This was, without question, the "main body" of the German Army; someone had to engage it, and 1917 was our turn. But it's a sad business, no doubt about that; and to me the saddest part of it is not how far we were from success, but how near to it - yet not quite near enough. I wonder what the Media will make of it all? Well, it's time for me to stop now, so I'll leave you to ponder that one while we get on with the AGM.