– sadly neither statement was to be true
by Evelyn McKechnie
It was the war to end all wars and it was going to be over by Christmas 1914 – sadly neither statement was to be true. The world had never known a conflict like it before. It was mass slaughter on an industrial scale. A total of more than 60 million soldiers were mobilised and between 8.5 million and 9 million servicemen and women from all the warring nations would not make it home. For some of them, there is no grave, only their name etched on one of the many memorials to the Missing. The flower of European youth was decimated, for example, of the 700,000 British casualties, more than 71% were between 16 and 29 years old.
On the 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand heir to the Austro- Hungarian throne visits the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina and is assassinated by a young Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. He was associated with other nationalist friends who were linked to the ‘Black Hand Society’. His first attempt failed but a twist of fate gave Princip a second chance, this time he was successful and both the Archduke and his wife were killed.
This ignited a powder keg and Austria- Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia believing them to have supported this terrorist act. Serbia agreed to all of their demands except one. They would not allow an enquiry to be held on their territory and Austria-Hungary used this as a pretext to declare war on Serbia. There followed a series of mutual alliances coming into play. The Central Powers were Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey. The Allies included the British Empire, Russia, Belgium, and France who were joined in 1915 by the Italians and the USA in 1917.
At the end of 1918, 33 countries were at war, with a combined population total of 1.5 billion people. This was 80% of the world population, only 12 countries remained neutral in the Great War including Holland.
The first shells fired by Austria Hungary fell on Belgrade on 28th July. Russia allied to Serbia mobilised on the 30th of July. Germany then declared war on Russia on the 1st of August and France on the 3rd of August.
4th August – Germany invade Belgium
On the 4th of August, Germans invaded Belgium when they were denied free passage through to France. The German ‘Schlieffen Plan’ meant they had to attack France from the rear, defeat them and then turn to fight Russia. They also knew they needed the channel ports. Great Britain had guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality and thus declared war on Germany on the 4th of August when they entered Belgium by force.
The industrial scale of the slaughter was first seen on the battlefield at the Battle of Halen when Uhlans of the German cavalry were slaughtered by the Belgians. The German repeated their disastrous attack eight times and afterwards more than 400 horses littered the battlefield.
This was proved beyond doubt that this war would be so different from anything that had gone before.
Only eight days after Britain had declared war on Germany, British soldiers arrived in France under the command of General John French. On the 24th of August, the small but professional British Expeditionary Army of just 75,000 men confronted the Germans at Mons. However, they were massively outnumbered and despite inflicting severe casualties on the Germans, they had to retreat south with the French. They were exhausted but they managed to regroup.
6th September – The Miracle on the Marne (6 -9 September)
From the 6th to 9th September, there was the ‘Miracle on the Marne’ as the French and British counterattack and defeated the Germans at the River Marne just miles from Paris. The Germans withdrew to the Chemin des Dames ridge where they started to dig in. The British and French tried to attack these positions but soon realised that they could not succeed in such well-defended positions. They both tried to outflank each other in the ‘Race to the Sea’ which ended on 17th November.
After their advance had been halted in the south, the Germans tried to push north through to the coast. In the middle of October, the River IJzer and the canal to Ypres formed the last line of defence.
The Belgians withdrew to the River IJzer and they flooded the IJzer plain, effectively stopping the Germans in their tracks.
19th October – The First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22nd November)
The First Battle of Ypres took place between 19th October and 22nd November with the British determined to stop the Germans from breaking through. The ‘Race to the Sea’ ends with the German defeat at Ypres. After it was over the Germans held the high ground around Ypres in the shape of an inverted S. They then continued to fire heavy shells into the town completely reducing it to rubble.
The front had stabilised on the River IJzer and further south in France at the River Marne. Both armies dug in and the famous trench line was drawn from the Belgian coast to the Franco-Swiss Border leading to four years of unimaginable horror and suffering. Barbed wire, machines guns, artillery, disease, rats, poison gas, flamethrowers and the mud all made the trenches a living hell.
The war did not end at Christmas but amid the atmosphere of horrendous slaughter, several ‘unofficial truces’ took place along the Western Front.
Ploegsteert Wood – Christmas Truce
The war that was to be over for Christmas was not over by December 1914. The soldiers who joined up thinking that were sitting in trenches hundreds of miles from home looking up into a bleak and cold starlit sky.
The Christmas Truce in 1914 was a series of unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front. In the week leading up to Christmas, British and German soldiers had been in a festive mood after receiving gifts and parcels from home. The Germans had placed small Christmas trees lit brightly with candles all along their parapets and sang Christmas carols.
Soon everyone was joining in and eventually soldiers ventured out into no man’s land. They exchanged tobacco, cigarettes, alcohol and food. They also took the opportunity to bury their respective dead lying out in the battlefield and some even had joint burials.
The trenches in some areas were very close together and soldiers shouted over to each other, eventually, some left the safety of the trench to go out into no man’s land. The truce was observed by troops at Ploegsteert Wood, Houplines, Bois-Grenier, Fromelles, Neuve-Chapelle and Richebourg-l’Avoué. Similar truces were observed in the French sector around Arras.
It was seen as a moment of peace and humanity amidst the mass slaughter of soldiers unsurpassed in history.
Those who took part in the Christmas Truce at Ploegsteert Wood were the 4th Division: the 1st Royal Warwickshires, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 11th Brigade 1st Hampshires, 1st Rifle Brigade, 1st East Lancashires, 1/5th London (London Rifle Brigade), the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2nd Essex and the 1/2nd Monmouthshire.
The truce was frowned upon by both the German and British High Command and soon hostilities were resumed. There was never to be such a truce on a scale such as this ever again during the war.
The cross at Ploegsteert Wood was placed by the Khaki Chums in 1999 to commemorate the Christmas Truce. It has the inscription, ‘Lest We Forget’.
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