John Terraine’s 1983 Address to the Western Front Association. 1984

[This article first appeared in the journal of the Western Front Association, Stand To! No.10 Spring 1984 pp24-27. John Terraine was the first President of The Western Front Association, founded by John Giles in 1980. For much of 1984, John Giles had been unwell which explains the first reference. Members have access to a growing online archive of past issues of the WFA Journal 'Stand To!']

I think that on this occasion there are three things which require to be said today before anything else and the first of them is this, how more than delighted we are, John, to see you here o the platform again, after a very rough year indeed. I say “more than delighted” quite deliberately because I think that is true. We are indeed delighted that you have got over a very serious bout of ill health - yes, we certainly are, for your sake and for Margery’s too.

We are more than delighted because we know how much this Association owes to you, personally, how much we still lean on you, and how much we hope you will continue to be the pillar of the whole concern for a very long time to come. And I am very glad that Colonel Cave has already caused everyone to put their hands together on behalf of that sentiment but I really think we should do it once more as well.

The second thing is, I need hardly say, that wonderful fact, to the best of my knowledge, of having, 1,500 members. I said last year that “there’s something about 1,000”. Well, so there is; 1,000 is a lovely number. But I’m not sure that 1,500 isn’t at least twice as lovely! Who would ever have thought that in such a short space of time one might be thinking of such matters as an “optimum figure”? Who could have supposed that we might have fears of getting too big - as our treasurer has just indicated to us.

I don’t think we need to worry ourselves about getting too big just yet - there’s still some way to go I would have thought, or hoped, the Treasury permitting - but the mere fact of it coming into mind is I think highly indicative and its one more reason, I should say, for saying “thank you” to John. I am sure that in this connection he will certainly want me to extend the thanks to all the other hand-working officers of the Association who have helped bring this about.

Which brings me to my third point, which is oce again a word of very sincere congratulations to Stand To!, which seems to me to be getting better and better, and extremely handsome and valuable affair, and to be making a place for itself in the main stream of military periodicals. So, to Peter Scott I should like to say “Well done, and thank you very much indeed!”

Manoeuvres, 1913. A Royal Artiller column passing through a Buckinghamshire village (Photo: NAM 15495)

Manoeuvres, 1913. A Royal Artillery column passing through a Buckinghamshire village (Photo: NAM 15495)

And now for the “sermon”, which as usual will not, I imagine, please everybody. On the day it does please everybody, I think I shall have to consider retiring into a nice, quiet home!

Well, this year I want to say this: our watchword - and a very fine, simple one it is - is “Remembering”. I support that entirely; there is nothing like enough remembering, in my opinion, nowadays. The Western Front of 1914-1918, which represents the greatest single military endeavour that this country has ever made, is certainly not sufficiently remembered. And possibly worse still, if it is remembered, it is frequently for the wrong reasons.

So I would like to make a plea for another word - not to be added to our motto, because that would spoil the simplicity and the clarity - but to be present in our minds while we are remembering: and that word is “understanding”.

We all know that some terrible scene unfolded from time to time on the Western Front. It was, beyond doubt, the costliest part of the costliest war ever fought by the British Army, and that fact, certainly, is to some extent remembered. But I do beg that in the act of remembering that - and who can visit the battlefield cemeteries without remembering that? - we should also make the extra effort of at least trying to understand, because if we don’t, it seems to me that we are robbing those dead men of their due.

It is not enough to grieve for their suffering; we must also praise their achievement.

I often think that of all the sections of our population which do from time to time consider the First World War and the Western Front, the one who find it hardest to understand are those who fought through the Second World War. Two books that I have recently been reviewing, both concerned with the campaign in Normandy and North-west Europe in 1944-45, seem to me to illustrate this point to some extent. In one of them I found no less distinguished a soldier than Field-Marshal Lord Carver speaking - derogatorily, I need hardly say - of what he called “the 1914-1918 standard tactics of attack”.

The second upset me a good deal too because on the very first page I found the author - who was an Eighth Army veteran-writing of Field-Marshal Montgomery being wounded “at Mons in September 1914”, and lying in “no-man’s-land” for four hours before being rescued.

Let’s take that second case first - it isn’t too difficult to deal with howlers like that. But you would think that Mons, the British Army’s first battle on the European continent since Waterloo, 99 years earlier, might be sufficiently well known for its date - August 23rd - to be remembered by an ex-soldier who is also a historian.

No, Mon as not in September; and there was no “No Man’s Land” because it was part of a war of pretty rapid movement. If there had been a No Man’s Land, it would have been sprinkled with dead and wounded Germans, because they were the ones who were doing the attacking - but, you see, even to military historians with Army experience, the image of World War I battles is too frequently stereotype. World War I means trenches which eans No Man’s Land between them, always and everywhere, and that is why I plead for understanding. (Incidentally, before I move on, for those who are curious, Field-Marshall Montgomery was wounded in October, in the First Battle of Ypres).

And now, what about Lord Carver? What is my quarrel with him? Well, it is the same one, really: I quarrel with the stereotype images - the “1914-1918 standard tactics”. There was no such things; these “stand tactics” are a fiction. Let’s just consider the Western Front in 1914. What did it consist of? What was going on?

First of all, of course, and above all, for the first three months, August, September and October, movement was going on. General von Schlieffen’s famous plan, by which the German Army marched to way, called for a march, and by march I mean something you can do with you feet, of no less than 400 miles in 40 days by the right wing of his army. They didn’t wuite fulfil that, but they didn’t miss it by very much. And to meet the threat of the great German encirclement, General Joffre had to pull large forces across from this right wing in eastern France to the Paris area and the north-west - and that’s a distance of 200-250 miles.

The BEF’s retreat from Mons to the Marne area covered a distance of 136 miles as the crow flies, but then soldiers aren’t crows, and as the soldiers marched I would say the distance was much more like 200 miles. When the time came for them to go north again, the distance from the right of the BEF line on the Aisne to the left of its line at the end of the Battle of Ypres, that is to say just south of Ypres, was about 140-145 miles.

So, you see what I ean by movement. And I need hardly remark to you that it was going to be a very long time indeed before the Western Front saw movement like that again. And the next point to note is that for the whole of this time the main features of that movement were being observed and reported by airmen - for the first time in history, so there was definitely nothing “standard” about that.

Carrying war into the air was probably the most significant of all the innovations of 1914-1918 - but when we say “all” we do, of course, we mean a very great many.

In 1914 it came as a shock to all armies to encounter the sheer weight and volume of the odern artillery fire - especially the heavy artillery which the Germans brought into the field in large numbers, and in particular the famous 5.9, the 150mm. Howitzer, whose shells were soon referred to by the BEF as “coal boxes” or “Jack Johnsons”, because of the thick black smoke of their very destructive explosions.

The mass European conscript armies - the Germans and the French - using dense infantry formations, had another shock coming to them when they ran into massed machine-gun fire. A Belgian officer, describing what happened to the Germans when they tried to rush the Forts at Liege by sheer weight of numbers, said “It was slaughter - just slaughter” and Sir Edward Spears, describing the French attacks in the Battles of the Frontiers, shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing red caps and red trousers, with colours flying, drums beating and bugles blowing, said “the sense of the tragic futility of it will never quite fade.”

We, who are concerned with remembering, should always remember that - and the 211,000 French officers and men who fell in that very first month of the war, a casualty list more than twice as large as the whole strength of the BEF.

Those were “standard tactics of attack” for the European conscript armies; what were the “standard” British tactics? Well, in fact the British didn’t do a great deal of attacking in 1914, we were on the defensive most of the time, but we are fortunate in having a most precise account of what the BEF’s attacks were like from the point of view of those who had to meet them.

It is supplied by Hauptmann Bloem of the Brandenburg Grenadiers who witnessed the British 12th Infantry Brigade in action on September 13th on the Aisne. And he tells us this:

“Stretched out across the broad expanse of meadows between us and the river was a long line of dots wide apart, and looking through glasses one saw that these dotes were infantry advancing, widely extended: English infantry, too, unmistably. A field battery on our left had spotted them, and we watched their shrapnel bursting over the advancing line. Soon a second line of dots emerged from the willows along the river bank, at least ten paces apart, and began to advance. More of our batteries came into action; but it was noticed that a shell, however well aimed, seldom killed more than one man, the lines being so well and widely extended. The front line had taken cover when the shelling began, running behind any hedges and buildings near by, but this second line kept steadily on, while a third and fourth line now appeared from the river bank, each keeping about two hundred yards distance from the lie in front. Our guns now fired like mad, but it did not stop the movement; a fifth and sixth line came on, all with the same wide intervals between men adn the same distance apart. It was magnificently done.” (1)914.

Yes, magnificently done indeed; those were British “standard tactics’, quite unlike the French or the German - but they were, of course, the standard of a regular army which was all too few in numbers, and virtually vanished by the end of 1914.

And what happened after that on the Western Front was so different that at times one feels that one is dealing with another war altogether. Now, the point I am getting at, you will observe, is that it is simply not possible - and it is certainly not sensible - to talk about “standard tactics” of 1914-1918.

Nineteen-fourteen was a thing apart; and when we remember the “Old Contemptibles” we should pay them the courtesy of remembering that - remembering that they were, unit for unit, the most skilful army in the world. But modern war, up to 1945, has been a war of masses, and masses were what the BEF of 1914 did not have.

It began to grow into a mass army in 1915 and that was a year we may call “growing pains”, and very severe they were. It was also the year in which the trench systems on both sides began to harden out, to thicken up in depth and increase in complexity - creating, in act, you might almost say, a new European Geography.

The Germans had an advantage here over the French and the British, not because they had foreseen any more than anyone else that this style of warfare was going to last for years, but because they had expected ot have to besiege and capture a number of fortress systems, and they had stocked themselves with siege warfare material for that purpose. This proved to be most useful - indeed, essential - in the warfare of field entrenchments which now began.

There are, undoubtedly, close resemblances between this field entrenchment warfare, and siege warfare - so close in fact that the British Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, insists that trench warfare was really only siege warfare by another name, and that giving it another names was actually mischievous. He tells us:

“A fresh vocabulary was creatae to meet that supposed new conditions. Instead of using the old-fashioed word ‘breach’, the higher commands called upon the troops to make a ‘gap’; a ‘retrenchment’ became a ‘switch’; a ‘sap’ was not made by sapping; ‘mining’ was renamed tunnelling; ‘subsidiary’ attacks, were demonstrations that could not possibly be developed into a ‘break-through’, took the place not only of ‘false’ attacks, but also of the minor attacks of old days; and the new words were misleading. The Germans stuck closer to the older methods …”. (2)

Well, I think Sir James Edmonds was right to be critical of this habit - which proves to be characteristic of the twentieth century - knowing better than previous generations, changing the names of things for the sake of change, and causing a great deal of confusion thereby.

But I think he is wrong on the large point. Siege warfare, after all, is no novelty; one of the very earliest military operations of which we have an extended account was a siege - the 10-year siege of Troy by the Greeks in the 12th Century BC. History has been sprinkled with famous sieges ever since. World War II affords a number of examples - Malta, Tobruk, Sebastopol, Stalingrad spring to mind. A sombe turning point of affairs in Vietnam was marked by the siege of Dien Bien Phu.

There is no mystery about sieges; they are what happens when one side is trapped by the other in a position from which it cannot retreat, where it cannot be reinforced, and where it cannot be supplied (or can only be supplied with very great difficulty). The classic form of a siege is, of course, to surround the enemy force completely.

None of these conditions applied to the Western Front.

From the end of 1914 the Germans always had plenty of enemy territory to retreat in, if it suited them; not unitl they ran out of manpower at the very end did they run short of reinforcements and they were always able to supply their army. The Western Front was not a siege, whatever Sir James may say. It was a war of field entrenchments-and there was nothing new about that either.

The first regular use of them, I should say, was by the Romans, who used to dig in at the end of every days’s march, constructing a fortified camp surrounded by a dicth and a parapet. The Duke of Marlborough knew all about field entrenchments and he suffered very sever casualties indeed when he tried to rush the French of of theirs at Malplaquet. Napoleon’s Grand Army suffered heavy losses attacking the Great Redoubt at Borodino in 1812.

The American Civil War: Federal entrenchments at the foot of Keneshaw Mountain, 1864 (Photo: IWM Q451790

The American Civil War: Federal entrenchments at the foot of Keneshaw Mountain, 1864 (Photo: IWM Q45179)

But the most outstanding war of field entrenchments was the American Civil War, especially in its latest stages. Like the Romans, both sides in America habitually dug in when they took up new positions, making lavish use of timber, which there was plenty available, to construct the parapets, and chopping the branches-they were called “slashings”-to make the same sort of obstacle that barbed wire later served to supply only too well.

European soldiers, before 1914, paid very little attention to the American Civil War, because they thought is was a performance by amateurs. It received much more notice in Britain Colonel G.F.R. Henderson, whose biography of Stonewall Jackson is still the classic work on him today, was Chief Instructor at the Staff College when the “top brass” of World War I were students there. Unfortunately though, military science at that time tended to concentrate far more on “Great Captains” and “The Art of War” than on such mundane subjects as muck-shifting-which is what the business of entrenching is mostly about.

And so, for reasons with which I should think we are all pretty familiar in this room, the armies took to their field entrenchments in 1915 as they had done in Virginia in 1864-65, and they stuck in them for three years.

Those three years have been allowed to form the image of the whole war - that’s where the stereotype comes in and when people speak of its “standard tactics” they are always thinking of trench warfare. This is quite wrong, and I hope this Association will do all it can to discourage that error.

Even within the trench warfare period itself, it is really absurd to speak of “standard tactics”; the whole time from 1915-1917 was one of constant change, constant experiment to try to overcome the astonishing deadlock brought about by the simple fact that the trench line extended from the sea to Switzerland, with no open flanks anywhere that could be turned.

That, at least, was unique.

But year by year the attempt was made to overcome this overwhelming difficulty.

In 1915 there was very little the BEF could do about it; it was too weak in numbers, and too short of every single item of equipment it needed.

Nevertheless, it did its best; at Neuve Chapelle, on March 10th, it introduced battle rehearsals for the first time, aerial photography for the first time, artillery time-tables for the first time, dummy trenches for the first time, light railways - certainly for the first time on the BEF front, and supply dumps for the first time - none of which appeared anywhere in any “standard” tactical instruction. But as I say, basically the BEF was too weak, and too unskilled in 1915: the old army had practicall gone, the Territorials and the New Army had everything to learn.

It was the Germans who introduced the year’s great novelty-poison gas. It is one of the war’s eternal mysteries that they should make their first use of this dreadful weapon in a secondary operation - the 2nd Battle of Ypres- whose chief purpose was to divert Allied attention from their main effort, on the Russian Front.


Tank versus barbed wire, October 1918. But tanks were "too slow, too unreliable and too vulnerable" to be war-winners. (Photo: IWM Q 6425)

The coming of gas, needless to say, opened up an entirely new range of tactical considerations and tactical possibilities for which there was no precedent whatever, and which therefore cannot be describes as standard in any sense that does not rob the word of all its meaning.

The French contribution, in 1915, was the build-up of those vast masses of artillery which from now on were to be the outstanding features of the Western Front battle-practice - the factor which leads me to call the First World War in general an “artillery war”. Indeed, the thread that runs right through from about September 1915 to the Armistice is the steady, continuous techniques. Well might that soldier in Frederic Manning’s wonderful book The Middle Parts of Fortune (Previously known as Her Private We) (3) sum it up in the pith soldierly sentence:

“There's too much f…..g artillery in this bloody war”.

Nineteen-sixteen was when the guns really took over; 1916 was when it came to be accepted that a battle-programme was an artillery programme; that, as General Foch said, “when he is asked to attack a position, he no longer asks how many divisions he will be given only how many heavy guns”. (4) Or, as General Pétain put it about the same time,”artillery now conquers a position and infantry occupies it” - alas! It wasn’t quite as easy as that!

But 1916 was the year when the creeping barrage came into its own, and infantry tactics were shaped to its requirements-they had to be be; it was the only defence the infantry had. Once again, however, there was nothing standard about it.

It was very easy to see 1917 as a year of tragedy for the Allied cause-indeed for the human race. The year of the unrestricted submarine campaign, the year of the Gotha air-raids, of the French Army mutinies, the Russian Revolutions, Passchendaele and the Caporetto disaster - it sometimes seems a miracle that we ever came through it.

But from the Army’s point of view, though it was a grim year indeed, it was the year in which certain important things began to come to fruition - in fact, from a number of accounts by those who lived through it, it was the year when a new professionalism made itself felt. I think our Patron, Sir John Glubb, makes the point very strongly in his book Into Battle.

The high spirits and enthusiasm of the New Armies, which enabled them to live through some terrible experiences in 1916, were replaced in 1917 by what appears to have been a dour determination simply to do the job better. It found its expression in new infantry tactics, favouring the small unit - and, obviously, calling for very high qualities from NCOs and junior officers; qualities familiar enough in 1914, but not much seen since then. Indeed, in the following year Lord Haig remarked that the war was in fact “a subaltern’s war”.

The new professionalism displayed itself in some very fine feats of arms in 1917: the storming of Vimy Ridge in April stands out  conspicuously. It was followed in June by the capture of the Messines Ridge by General Plumer’s Second Army.

This, I don’t need to remind you, was the occasion when an important piece of landscape was drastically altered by the explosion of about a million pounds of high explosive underneath it. That was certainly not a “standard tactic”.

And the Battle of Messines is worth our remembering, and our understanding, because it was one of the only two occasions in the whole war when the infantry, having so often been told that all they would have to do was to walk over and take possession, actually found that it was so.

At Messines, when the infantry reached the enemy position, right on time, it found virtually no opposition there; and its casualties were almost all caused by bunching on the sky-line after the attack.

This only happened on one other occasion - and then it was in reverse: the German attack on the Aisne on May 27th 1918, when their infantry found the Allied defence practically obliterated.

General Plumer was also responsible for the three astonishing "clockwork" attacks in Flanders in September and on October 4th, thanks to an artillery preparation on a scale never before achieved by the BEF.

And finally, 1917 was the year which witnessed those "standard tactics" of massed tanks, for the first time in history, and on the same day (November 20th) the first use of predicted shooting on the Western Front.

It was these two things which brought back mobility to war.

As I have repeatedly said, tanks were not war-winners in 1918; they were too slow, too unreliable and too vulnerable. But tank warfare was the mobile element in World War II, and November 20th 1917 was when it really took off.


A 9.2 Inch Howitzer in Carnoy Valley, September 1916 (Photo: IWM Q 1294)

A 9.2 Inch Howitzer in Carnoy Valley, September 1916 (Photo: IWM Q 1294)

In 1918, it was the guns that unlocked the Western Front - first, the 11,000 guns and mortars with which the Germans blasted their way forward on the Somme in March, then the great orchestrated 2V2-hour bombardment with which they opened the deepest one-day advance since trench warfare began, on the Aisne on May 27th.

And when the Allied turn came to advance, in July, it was predicted shooting that kept the battles rolling, by restoring the long lost element of surprise. This was what made the mobile warfare of that year possible - surprise at last, plus two other attributes which the artillery had now perfected: precision, so that it could shoot at targets, not at landscapes, and protection, the protection  which it was thus able to afford to the infantry when they went forward.

I said at the beginning that World War II participants seem to find it hardest to understand World War I.

These 1918 artillery techniques perfectly illustrate how the failure to understand hampered all our endeavours in the second war: the famous barrage at El Alamein was only a pale imitation (a mere 592 guns, compared with, say, General Rawlinson's 2,070 at Amiens on August 8th 1918) but it was a definite and deliberate return to the 1918 techniques which had been virtually forgotten and unfortunately it had had to wait until 1942 to be revived.

In every field of war, land, sea and air in World War II, neglect of what had been discovered at such a price of blood and suffering in the First World War delayed progress and caused further heavy losses in the Second, and some lessons never were relearned, with sad results indeed.

So you see, understanding is important in a very practical sense, for the benefit of those who come after.

But understanding is also, surely, absolutely the due of those who performed all those mighty deeds, in particular on the Western Front.

  1. Walter Bloem, The Advance from Mons, pp.181-2 (London, Peter Davies, 1930), quoted in John Terraine, White Heat, p.94 (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982).
  2. Br.-General J.E. Edmonds and Captain G.C. Wynne, Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1915 [Vol. I], pp.152-3 (London, Macmillan, 1927).
  3. Frederic Manning's novel first appeared pseud- onymously (as by "Private 19022") in two forms: the unexpurgated version was printed for private circulation in two volumes under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), while the edition offered for public sale appeared as Her Privates We (1930).It was not until 1943 that the author's name appeared on the title-page of Her Privates We; an edition with an introduction by Edmund Blunden was published in 1964. The text of The Middle Parts of Fortune did not become freely available until an edition was published in 1977.
  4. 4 Reported in Lieut-Colonel G a Court Repington, The First World War 1914-1918 vol. i, p.264 (London, Constable, 1920; 2 vols.) Diary entry for 7th July 1916.