The Western Front Association’s last meeting coincided with the centenary ofAustria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia which triggered a conflict that soon spread throughout Europe and beyond.
The meeting also marked publication of a book to which the WFA’s Northumberland branch has made a significant contribution, with many never-before-published photos and facsimiles. To order your copy of Ian Hall’s book, Alnwick in the Great War, visit www.wildsofwanney.co.uk or get in touch with Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is priced at £4.50.
Our speaker for the evening was Peter Hart, oral historian at the Imperial War Museum.
His talk, L’Armée de Terre Francaise, 1914, traced re-development of the French Army after its humiliating defeat during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and how it performed, especially, during the early months of the First World War.
By then, it had become imbued with the ‘Cult of the Offensive’ yet, tactically, it was again found wanting with a lack of effective collaboration and coordination between its infantry and artillery arms such that, often, attacks simply lacked sufficient ‘punch’ to break through German lines.
Peter went on to compare the performance of various generals during the early months of the war. The French general Joffre handled himself well throughout as did many of his Army and Corps subordinates but the British C-in-C, Sir John French, did not emerge with too much credit.
What saved France in 1914 and what, then, determined the course and conduct of the war, was the Battle of the Marne (September 6-10) when Joffre was able to withdraw forces from throughout France to create a new Army which successfully attacked the Germans with a flank offensive thereby stemming the whole German advance. Arguably, the Battle of the Marne was the key battle of the First World War.
Peter sought to put into perspective the British contribution in the early years of the war.
He concluded that British Army tactics were also found wanting and that the first few months of the war represented a steep and costly learning curve. By the end of 1914 the British had lost over 18,000 men killed, almost 100,000 wounded or missing and about 17,000 prisoners of war, effectively the whole of the British Expeditionary Force despatched to France in August 1914.
However, during those early years the British were always very much the junior partner in the alliance and their losses pale into relative insignificance compared with those of the French in 1914 – 300,000 killed with at least twice, possibly three times or more, this number wounded or missing.
There is a break in August and the WFA’s next meeting will be on September 22, with Andrew Charlton’s talk Walking the Front – History, Heritage and Helping.
WFA meetings take place at 7.15pm (for 7.30pm) at Alnmouth and District Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth. A warm welcome awaits visitors and WFA members new to the branch. The suggested minimum donation is £2, to include a light finger supper.