Armed Forces & World Wars

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World War One - Introduction

1st World War action

The First World War is remembered for nearly four years of deadlock. The reason for this stalemate was two equally matched sides neither of whom was able to gain the upper hand. Instead both devoted resources to the horrendous doctrine of the war of attrition which attempted to kill as many of the enemy as possible - the side which had fewest losses would emerge victorious.

Coupled with this was the fact that the technology employed was largely defensive with huge batteries of artillery pounding enemy trenches and when offensive weapons were developed (notably the tank) they were not employed properly.

There was also the minor but important matter that the commander at the rear had little or no communication with the troops in the front line during battles - wireless was only in its infancy, and communication by runner, telephone or pigeon was easily disrupted. So he had little idea of what was happening and could not easily direct units to where they were needed in the heat of battle.

The Western Front

1st World War action

The Western Front snaked along 700 lines from the Belgian North Sea coast to the French-Swiss border. It stretched far behind the trenches that we immediately associate with the war today, to the artillery lines, the billets, the supply dumps, the training grounds, the casualty clearing stations and the base hospitals.

It was not just a single long trench, but a complex and often confusing maze of lines and connecting paths. The front-line systems was made up of three parallel lines - the fire trench facing the enemy, the travel trench twenty yards from the front line, and further back the support line, close enough to provide reinforcements in case of a raid.

The Life of a Soldier

Soldiers

Most soldiers spent relatively short periods at the front - 48 or 64 hours were not uncommon periods. To an extent this depended on whether troops were being to a sent quiet part of the line or not. But this excluded the time spent marching to and from the front line area and then inching their way through the maze of support trenches, with the intention of arriving at twilight.

Once the men had arrived and become accustomed to their new surroundings, then they would be introduced to an inflexible timetable. Day started with stand-to half an hour before daybreak, when all men waited with rifles on the firestep, because it was thought this was the time at which the enemy was most likely to attack. After dawn leaving sentries in post, most men filed off for breakfast. The day would be spent in a mixture of odd-jobs (perhaps repairing damaged sandbags, carrying ammunition or resetting loose duckboards), sentry duty, or resting. At dusk there would be a flurry of activity as new parties of troops as well as the rations arrived.

Night was the most active and most dangerous part of the day. Raiding parties, always made up of volunteers, were sent into no-man's land to repair damaged barbed wire or to try to find out what the enemy was up to. Pockets were emptied, faces blackened with burnt cork and bayonets dulled with a covering sock, before scrambling over the top, hoping to avoid machine gun fire and crawling through the wire.

Casualties in the War

The War was the first war in which the vast majority of casualties resulted from wounds rather than sickness. This was in part because of the rigorous hygienic practices enforced by the authorities. British soldiers also benefited from very efficient medical services, without them, deaths and casualties would have been far worse. Depending on the seriousness of the wound, men were efficiently ferried back through a series of casualty clearing stations to base hospitals and where necessary to a network of hospitals in country houses and local infirmaries back in Britain.

Volunteering and Conscription

Aeroplanes in dogfight

The men who served in the British Army during the war were almost exactly split between volunteers and conscripts. Just under five million men served in the Army with another half million or so in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Recruits were required to be between the ages of 19 and 35, to be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall and to have a chest measurement of 34 inches. The height was quickly reduced to 5ft 3in in October 1914, when the numbers volunteering began to drop.

All in all about 2.5m men volunteered for military service up until the end of 1915, of whom nearly a third joined in the first eight weeks of the war. Numbers soon fell away, and the authorities had to resort to increasingly desperate measures to keep the numbers up.

Conscription commenced in March 1916. Initially only unmarried men were called to the colours, however in May 1916 the scheme was extended to married men between the ages of 18 and 41. For political reasons Ireland was excluded. Men working in key trades, such as miners and steelworkers, were exempt from conscription.

Some 702,410 British servicemen lost their lives (37,452 offices and 664.958 other ranks). Proportionally, however, casualties were much higher among junior officers (Second Lieutenants and Lieutenants) who led their platoons and sections on raids and over the top into battle. In addition just under a million men were wounded in some way.