Lancashire and Cheshire, Western Front Association

CHAIRMAN’S NOTES

Good Evening, and welcome to the meeting. My notes will have to be brief. I have been in France over the First Day of the battle period and therefore my remarks are restricted as they were sent to press before I departed. I am sure you will have seen and heard all the events here.

I am pleased to welcome Denis McCarthy and Trevor Adams, who tonight will be speaking on the Easter Rising. The Irish connection was vitally important on 1 July 1916 as the Irish units that penetrated Schwaben Redoubt were the only really successful ones north of the Albert-Bapaume road. The Tyneside Irish also suffered heavily at La Boiselle.

The struggle for the Irish people to gain the right to govern themselves has been a part of the histories of both our nations. Thankfully, we are seemingly cementing a relationship which will enhance this part of Europe no matter what the future will bring following the Referendum. (This article was written prior to 23 June and no political inference can be made from its content)!

Terry Jackson. Chairman.

SOMME COMMEMORATED IN MANCHESTER

With other WFA members I was proud to attend the service at Manchester Cathedral on 1st July, and can commend the organisers on a very well organised event. Unfortunately the day’s timing of the afternoon service and the special concert at Heaton Park in the evening meant that it was one or the other for me. As to the evening concert I was advised that 20,000 tickets had been issued but, as up to six tickets per applicant were available FOC, not all these were taken up and the inclement weather probably dissuaded many but I believe that approximately 10,000 did attend. Starting at 7.3Opm the concert featured soldiers songs from the time performed by a national children’s choir, interwoven with archive film. A dance piece inspired by the Pals Battalions followed by the Hallé Orchestra, who played several well-known pieces linked to the First World War, including a piece by George Butterworth, a young English composer who died at the Somme. Image00001

The concert also featured a range of letters, poems and diary entries depicting the lives of those affected by the Somme, including a specially commissioned poem read by author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay. Prior to the concert from 4pm, Heaton Park hosted ‘The Experience Field’, an outdoor heritage event showcasing stories, artefacts and expert information about life on the home and western fronts a century ago. Earlier at 11am, many school parties were hosted giving all the historians a free hand to explain and demonstrate about the Great War. I’m sure the children would have been fascinated by the enthusiastic uniformed actors and their replica weapons and equipment. 

The following day the ‘Visitor Experience Field’ was open to the general public FOC from 11am to 4pm. The tented area was wide open and easy to navigate. The range of subjects and exhibits were diverse and interesting and all exhibitors should be complimented for their presentations on the day. Although the field was subject to several short sharp downpours, the ground remained firm with only one or two small areas of mud apparent. Sadly, a lot of people were probably put off by the weather but those who attended will say this unique event was very special.  The advertising and promotion of the event could perhaps have been more targeted and, with more notice, I’m sure more people would have attended. The WFA had a stand manned by volunteers and had lots of visitors with some knowledge of their descendants involvement in WWI but looking for further information and guidance. The most common comment of course being that they’d never heard of the WFA. I hope we put that right and a few new members will result. My thanks to Jane Backhouse, Mark Macartney, Paul Conlon, Malcolm Jackson, Martin Logan and my son Garry for taking some good pics. 

Ralph Lomas, Bulletin Editor 

The following six items marked * are taken from the programme for the commeoration service in Manchester cathedral:

*FOREWORD BY THE DEAN OF MANCHESTER

As Dean of Manchester it is my privilege to welcome you to the Cathedral and to pen a few words in this foreword to the service which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916. For the nation, and indeed Manchester, thìs service has a special significance because, like places throughout the UK, this city and the city of Salford produced men who became known as “Pals”. The special nature of the Pals was that they volunteered and enlisted together so that they could serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates. The 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment was amongst them. Our Regiment Chapel is a testimony to them and all who have followed since and our famous ‘Fire Window’ in that Chapel was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1966.

The Pals are part of our local and national heritage and our service today will reflect that patriotic willingness and sacrifice to go and serve for what they saw as a greater good. For me as a South African, there is another special link to this occasion, as the tradition of a two minute silence was born in Capetown in South Africa during the First World War, where every day a two minutes silence was kept — the first minute for those who had returned, in whatever state of health or mind, and the second minute for the fallen who would never return. Thank you for being with us today as we give thanks for these brave men and women. We pray God’s blessing on you. 

The Very Reverend Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester 

*BEFORE THE SOMME: A SON WRITES HOME

“My Dearest Mother and Dad, I am writing this letter the day before the most important moment of my life — a moment I must admit I have never prayed for, like thousands of others have, but nevertheless a moment which, now it has come, I would not back out of for all the money in the world.

The day has nearly dawned when I shall really do my bit in the cause of civilisation. Tomorrow morning, I shall take my men — men whom I have got to love, and who, I think have got to love me — over the top to do our bit in the first attack that the London Territorials have taken part as a whole unit. I’m sure you will be very pleased to hear that I am going over with the Westminsters. I took my communion yesterday with dozens of others who are going over the top tomorrow; and never have I attended a more impressive service. I placed my soul and body into God’s keeping and I am going into battle with his name on my lips, full of confidence and trusting implicitly in him. I have a strong feeling that I shall come through safely but nevertheless, should it be God’s holy will to call me away, I am quite prepared to go; and, I could not wish for a finer death; and you, dear Mother and Dad, will know that I died doing my duty to God, my Country and my King, I ask that you should look upon it as an honour that you have given a son for King & Country. I wish I had time to write more but time presses, I fear I must close now. Au Revoir, dearest Mother and Dad.

Fondest love to all those I love so dearly, especially yourselves. Your devoted and happy son, Jack” 

2nd Lieutenant John Sherwin Engall — 16th London Regiment: Writing to his parents on 30th June 1916. Jack was killed the following day on the attack of 1st July, aged 20. 

*THE WAR COMES HOME

1916 was the tipping point of the Great War. Many influential people, party to the planning of the battle, hoped it would end the war with one massive strike; in fact, the Somme forced the opposite conclusion: the struggle would be long and hard. As many know, 1st July 1916 ranks as the worst day in British military history with some 60,000 casualties suffered. The famous ‘Pals battalions many of them raised ¡n the north of England and the great urban centres of Scotland, as well as Belfast, came to grief on that awful day. By the battle’s end in had suffered some 420,000 casualties. The impact of the battle at home was immense. As people across Britain were plunged into mourning, stories of pride and sorrow poured out in local newspapers. Requiring a focus for their grief, people began erecting simple war memorials recording the names of the dead and those still serving. Such rituals were part of a process of understanding and coming to terms with the battle being fought in France. 

*THE SOMME TRANSFORMED

William Orpen, a war artist, was on the Somme in 1916 returning in August 1917. He found the landscape transformed. Writing in 1921, Orpen described the scene. 

“I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell- holes and mud — the most gloomy dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it.

The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure — dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land: but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked ‘Unknown British Soldier”, for the most part. 

William Orpen, with additional material by Robert Upstone and Angela Weight. From “An Onlooker in France.” 

*William Orpen

Born in 1878 in Stillorgan near Dublin William showed an early interest in drawing and entered the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of thirteen. In 1908 he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in London. In 1917 he was recruited by the Government to produce paintings of the Western Front and was the most prolific of all the artists sent there. His paintings of the Somme battlefields were haunting recollections of ruined landscapes and torn ground. He produced drawings and paintings of soldiers and German prisoners of war along with portraits of general and politicians. Most of these works are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museums. He died on 29th September 1931 in London. 

*THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, 1916

In July 1916, the British and French armies launched an offensive near the River Somme, in Picardy, France. This series of battles, lasting nearly five months, would become one of the bloodiest and most important campaigns of the war.

In late 1915, the military leaders of the Entente discussed a co-ordinated strategy for the following year. With combined attacks on all fronts, they aimed to wear down the Central Powers, preventing the German and Austro-Hungarian armies from sustaining their military efforts. In early February, British and French commanders agreed to a joint offensive around the River Somme, where their lines met.

Only a few days later, the German Army launched its own offensive at Verdun. It would be one of the fiercest battles of the war, lasting until the end of the year. Although the German attack had stalled by the summer, far fewer French divisions were available to fight on the Somme, and the forces of the British Empire would take the leading role.

On 24th June 1916, Allied artillery began a week-long bombardment of the German defences, firing more than 1.5 million shells. Yet the length and depth of the target area, along with manufacturing defects ¡n British shells, meant that many well-constructed German dugouts remained intact and sheltered the defenders. Thiepval, Ovillers and La Boisselle - they suffered terrible losses for little gain. Over the following weeks, British and Empire forces continued the offensive to the south of the Albert-Bapaume road. In mid-July they stormed the German second line of defences along Bazentin Ridge, and heavy fighting began at High Wood and Delville Wood. Later that month, the high ground at Pozieres was ca ptu red. Attacks and counter-attacks by both sides continued throughout August, and the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy were secured in early September. On 15 September, the British Army launched its largest attack since 1st July, between Courcelette and Flers. Later that month, the villages around Morval were captured, and Thiepval was taken.

In October, deteriorating Weather transformed the battlefields into a muddy and waterlogged morass, but fighting continued for the Transloy Ridges, the Butte de Warlencourt, and the heights overlooking the River Ancre. In November, amid freezing sleet and snow, the British Army made progress north of the Ancre, before the offensive was halted on 18th November.

Those serving in the British Army came from every part of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Among them were professional soldiers, territorials, and volunteers — some of whom served in ‘Pals’ battalions formed of men drawn from the same communities, clubs, schools, and workplaces. They were joined by servicemen from across the British Empire, including units from Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies.

The battles of the Somme in 1916 had significant military, political, industrial and domestic consequences for all the countries involved. Every village, copse, farmhouse and rise was fiercely contested, and both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and munitions to the struggle.

An estimated 3.5 million men fought on all sides, and over 1 million were wounded or killed. The French army sustained more than 204,000 casualties. German records documented a total of nearly 430,000 killed, wounded or missing, but other estimates using different measures suggest a far greater number. Official figures for British Empire casualties numbered some 420,000 wounded, missing or killed. Precise statistics are impossible to calculate.
Across the Somme battlefields are cemeteries and memorials built and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are evocative and permanent monuments to those who fought and died there. Some are vast and dramatic, others small and intimate. Standing sentinel over the battlefields, the Thiepval Memorial is the largest CWGC memorial in the world. Other casualties of the battle lie closer to home. There are war dead buried in villages, towns and cities across the United Kingdom, many of whom had been brought home for medical care, but succumbed to their wounds. Every grave, every name, is an opportunity to reflect on the battle and its human cost.
Dr Glyn Prysor, Commonwealth War Graves

*These items above are reproduced from the Official Programme ‘A Commemoration of the Battle of the Somme’ at Manchester Cathedral, 1st July 2016 

 LAST MONTH’S TALK

Making a welcome return to the Branch, Professor John Bourne thoroughly entertained the audience by giving his thoughts on what he considered four of the most important dates in the conflict. 

The first date was indeed the first day of the war 5th August 1914. Did the Government know what it was doing? There had become a choice to stay or go. But what influenced the cabinet to opt for war? The key men were Asquith, Churchill, Grey and Lloyd George. As they were aware that the Germans would stay in Belgium, they knew their ultimatum to them meant war. The prime reason was to prevent the military hegemony of one continental power in Europe, which would threaten Britain’s freedom to trade over the oceans. The British Government were imperialists, and Germany’s actions, together with its increased naval capacity might put unbearable strains on the Empire. The Empire brought wealth and prosperity to the homeland. Britain had tried to obtain an acceptable arrangement with Germany, but the Kaiser, who may well have been clinically mad, wanted Germany to become the most important European state. There were still empirical threats from France and Russia, but Germany was seen as unlikely to accept British dominance in Europe. Germany was second only as an economic power to the USA, but perceived itself as lacking the benefits and prestige that a top nation should have. In the circumstances Britain was able to come to terms with France and Russia rather than with Germany. However, the war we got was not the type that we wanted. It was anticipated we would wage a naval war imposing financial and economic restrictions on Germany and this would require only a small BEF.

Fortunately, Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War anticipated a long war of at least three years and set about raising a mass army. This meant that ultimately, although it was not known at the time, Britain would become the major Allied army of the war. 

The second day was 4th September 1914. The French Army was led by Joffre, an engineer. He was a republican and not religious. He oversaw Plan XVII, which turned out to be a disaster. The French were aware of the German potential for the hook of the Schlieffen Plan and would counter it by smashing into Lorraine. However, the French Army suffered huge losses in the Battle of the Frontiers. Uncertainty of German movements and the retreat of the BEF were problematical. However, German Cavalry was poor and failed to provide good reconnaissance. The German Army could only advance at walking speed in hot conditions, which slowed it down. Joffre calmly took stock and was able to engage the Germans on the Marne, causing them to retreat. This was the decisive moment in the war. Germany had effectively lost the war, although they were not yet aware of this. They could not win a long term war and should have avoided the conflict in the first place. 

The third day was 1st July 1916. For Britain, this day has long been regarded as our ‘Black Day with over 56,000 casualties of whom 19,000 were killed. However, it was the beginning of the unending attrition of the German Army. Whilst the British politicians did not foresee the Somme, the losses that occurred on the first day cemented the realisation that we had to win this war. Equally, the Germans did not see it as a victory. There were no celebrations in Berlin. The German Army began to decline at the Somme. Falkenhayn was sacked and Hindenburg and Ludendorff ran Germany as a military state. 

The fourth day was 4th November 1918. After the indecisive Western Front battles of 1917, Germany was able to close down its Eastern theatre. However, the potential to bring more troops west was tempered by the knowledge that the American army would soon be tapping into its huge manpower resources and also the massive industrial capacity of the country. The Battle of the Sambre in November was the last major offensive of the war. However, the fighting was not winding down. The German March offensive had been a wild gamble that failed. The opening day of this final assault is probably best remembered for the death of Wilfred Owen. However, in contemporary terms he was not then well known. The only chance for Germany was to hold on and hope they could force the Allies to agree to peace on reasonable terms. The Allies were in no mood to call it a draw, even though they too were feeling the strain on resources, both human and material. The Allies had to win the war, otherwise the enemy might be able to recover over the winter and come back stronger. The last day of the war was one of much fighting and it brought home to Germany that the Allies were prepared continue to press them back. This led to Germany suing for peace. 

This was a fine talk, including much of John Bourne’s musing as to the progression of the war.

Ed.