Tag Archives: Western Front

Fred joins the RAF (1)

When war broke out in September 1939, Fred took advice from his father, Will, about which of the three services to join. Will, of course, had been a veteran of the First World War, and was well aware that, until conscription was introduced, there was a free choice of where to spend the conflict, with, hopefully, a maximised chance of survival.

Will told Fred not to join the Army, as he himself had fought on the Western Front, and had seen the horrors of Passchendaele, followed by a period on active service in the area of the Somme battlefields:

Will knew all too well that for the army commanders, the men remained just cannon fodder, whose eventual fate was of little importance to them, as they ate and drank in palatial comfort, miles behind the Front Line. The ordinary soldiers were just a list of names on a war memorial :

Will could not recommend the Navy either, because, if your ship were sunk, it would take you far too long to die, floating around in the water, with little real prospect of rescue. Don’t miss the shark :

Instead, along with thousands of other First World War veterans, he recommended to his son that Fred join the RAF. Will had seen the aircraft of the then Royal Flying Corps, flying high over the trenches. He knew that when they died, it was usually by burning, a relatively quick, and clean, way to go:

The supreme irony, of course, was that Fred was eventually to find himself in the ranks of Bomber Command. Throughout the entire war, their casualty rates were destined always to bear direct comparison with those of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War, and even with the appalling rates of carnage of specific battles such as Ypres or the Somme.

Fred knew that his mother was extremely worried about her only son when he was away in the RAF. Like many thousands of his colleagues in Bomber Command, therefore, he told her that he had a totally safe job, working from nine till five in the quartermaster’s stores, doling out uniforms to new recruits. Fred’s father, however, who had experience of the sharp end of war, was fully aware that Fred was in aircrew, and of the risks that that involved:

Fred had very dismissive and, at the same time, modest, memories of what rank he had held in the RAF. He always insisted that he had been an AC2, an “Aircraftman Second Class”, but that he had once been promoted to the lofty heights of Lance Corporal, so that he would have the authority to guard a pile of boxes.

Fred’s parents had a photograph of their beloved only son, taken by Wilkes of Elgin:

They kept the photograph on the piano throughout the conflict, and indeed, long afterwards, as, perhaps, some kind of thanksgiving for his safe return. Fred’s mother and father had tried so hard to have a baby, with things going wrong with a number of pregnancies before Fred was born. And he was an only child.

Almost seventy years later, Fred’s granddaughter was to make a public appeal for information about her grandfather’s time in the RAF, and for just a few hours, this particular photograph was to be the main attraction on the RAF’s Facebook page:

 

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal

Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 1)

I reported a long time ago how I had paid for the official records of my Grandad’s service with the Canadian Army during the First World War. In the early part of his military career, which had begun in July 1916, Will seems to have earned some fifteen Canadian dollars per month. This amount appears to have risen eventually to thirty dollars in 1917 and 1918. After his marriage, Will also received a separation allowance of varying amounts, ranging from six to fourteen English pounds. You never know much about your family’s private affairs but I suspect that it was Will’s money from the Canadian Army that allowed him and his wife to buy their own house during the 1920s. Here are their wedding photographs:

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His army documents recorded his leave from the Front after he was given permission to marry on July 15th 1917. There were two other periods when domestic problems caused his leave to be extended. The first of these was a week from October 21st 1918 to November 4th 1918, which was extended to November 9th for “private family affairs”. His service records say that he returned to the Western Front on November 10th, which means that he was probably present when the guns, his own included, fell finally silent the following day. It was too late for many men, though:

The same pattern occurred again with a leave from March 1st-March 8th 1919, which was extended to March 22nd. He had returned to the Fourth Brigade in the field by April 4th 1919. I suspect that both of Will’s extra leaves may have been because of his wife’s miscarriages, when she needed time to recover both physically and mentally from the ordeal. She lost a number of babies before her only son, Fred, was born, whole and healthy, on November 22nd 1922. Here he is, a few years later:

On one occasion when Will was back home on leave from the trenches of the Western Front, he was given a white feather by a woman who accosted him in the street. This was something that happened in the days before conscription had to be introduced, when women, especially suffragettes, would give any man they saw in the street who was apparently of military age, but not wearing military uniform, a white chicken feather as a sign of their cowardice.  Giving one to Will was made doubly ironic by the fact that at this particular time, he had just been given an extra long period of recuperation, because he was recovering from being wounded. Will didn’t get angry with the misguided, stupid, woman. He just laughed, which I suspect may have made her even angrier.

Here’s the caption:

On April 25th 1919 Will finally came back from France for the last time. He sailed for England from the French port of Le  Havre. Will’s journey home was not a particularly rapid process however. He had lingered in the port of Le Havre on his way back from the Western Front since at least Saturday April 19th 1919 when this postcard was posted, via the Army PO1 :

The message on the back of the card reads:

“Dear Wife Trust you are much better. Affectionate love Will  Sig W Knifton 19TH C F A”

“CFA” by the way. means “Canadian Field Artillery”. The following day, Sunday April 20th,  he sent another card:

On the back, he  labelled the card “on active service”.  The message reads “Thoughts of home and you. Sincere love Will. Sig W H Knifton 19TH C F A”

This next postcard was posted on Tuesday, April 22nd 1919, as Will continued his slow return from the Great War.  Perhaps he had important things to think about. He wanted to go back to Canada, but his wife didn’t want to, presumably wishing to stay with her family. Perhaps he was wondering whether they would ever have a child to love. Or perhaps he had just been allocated to a later sailing:

The faded pencil inscription reads “Monday Dear Wife I hope this finds you much better. I hope you enjoyed easter. We are having very cold weather Give my love to all (illegible) my thoughts are of (you ? ) with fondest love to (illegible) leave here Wednesday Sig W H Knifton  19TH C F A

Will’s military records show that he did not leave on Wednesday, the 23rd as he thought. Indeed, he was still in Le Havre on Friday, April 25th 1919, which may just possibly have been the date that he “proceeded to England”. These kind of delays, of course, were enough to provoke mutinies and other serious disorder, most notably among the Canadians in north Wales.

On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops. Five brave Canadian veterans were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason. Here is a picture of Kinmel after the riot:

Will,  listed as a Signaller, seems to have been finally “struck off service on being discharged in British Isles” on May 23rd 1919. From his medical examination, he had put on some sixteen pounds during his time in the army, and now weighed a hundred and forty pounds, a glowing testimony to the quality of the food in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He had also apparently grown half an inch taller.

In later life, of course, Will was to become profoundly deaf. It is tempting to think that the very first steps in this unfortunate process began with the enormous volume of noise he must have experienced in the Canadian artillery during the First World War.

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Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal, Politics

The Officer Training Corps 1915 Part One

This photograph shows the Officer Training Corps in 1915. You might be forgiven for thinking that they are all far too young to have left the High School, to have immediately joined the army, trained as officers, gone to the Western Front and then been killed. But you would be wrong. This time, it was only three dead out of twelve though, and this represents a much better casualty rate than the rugby team of Boxing Day, 1913. On the other hand, though, it is still a staggering 25%!

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On the back row of the photograph are, from left to right, F.A.Bird, J.R.Coleman, D.J.Clarkson, J.Marriott, A.W.Barton, G.R.Ballamy, S.I.Wallis and W.D.Willatt.

On the front row are, from left to right, L.W.Foster, V.G.Darrington, Second Lieutenant J.L.Kennard, Captain G.F.Hood, Second Lieutenant L.R.Strangeways, G.James and R.I.Mozley.

In 1915, the High School, according to the anonymous writer of some reminiscences about school life at the time, was a place:

“…dominated by the War and its effects. Masters disappeared and were replaced by women teachers, the Officer Training Corps underwent intensive training, and the School Flag seemed to be constantly at half-mast for Old Boys, many of whom had left us only a few months before.”

Only a year earlier, before August 1914, the O.T.C. had been poorly equipped and they frequently complained of the lack of equipment, both rifles and bayonets. Over the course of the war, however, the O.T.C. was to take on a much greater importance. According to the “History of the Corps”, written fifty years later by a member of staff, Mr.A.G.Duddell:

“By 1913 the O.T.C. had become a well-established organisation in the school, and while it had exchanged its picturesque uniform, of which the wide-awake hat with green puggaree and plume of black feathers was a striking feature, for the more conventional khaki tunic with flat peaked cap, knee-breeches and puttees, it had also become a contingent of the Officers’ Training Corps (Junior Division)…The reality of war brought a great increase in numbers, and gave urgency to the training ; parties of cadets were taken for camps at Barton-in-Fabis and field exercises were carried out on the Gotham Hills. Field Days then, and for many years after, were held at Ramsdale Park, and as no transport was available in the early days, much of the time, and energy, was used for the five mile long march out and back. Later the position was eased, but at first only by special trams between the Forest and Daybrook Square. Another handicap of those earlier days was the state of the School playground, the surface of which consisted of the raw sandstone rock, with a covering of loose sand. Uneven at all times, from dust in dry weather, it became a quagmire after rain.”

The senior officers in the O.T.C., Mr Leggett of the Preparatory School and Mr Lloyd Morgan, were among the first to join up in 1914, becoming Captain and Lieutenant, in the 11th Service Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters and the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment respectively. The school magazine hoped that:

“they will both have a “smack” at the enemy and return safely again.”

Ironically, Messrs Leggett and Morgan had been the two prime movers in favour of the school’s switch from football to rugby in December 1914. Here is one of the oldest photographs of a school rugby team that I have been able to find. It was taken around 1924:

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Presumably, if they had got to the Front in time, Messrs Leggett and Morgan would have been able to encourage the soldiers during the Christmas Truce to forget the football and play rugby across no-man’s-land.

As soon as they left, the O.T.C. was taken over by Captain Hood, assisted by Mr Kennard. I could not write a biography of Captain Hood, but I can recount one or two occasions when his name was on people’s lips. He had come to the school in 1908 as a teacher of Chemistry, or “Stinks” as it was nicknamed at this time. Mr Hood’s own nickname was “Freddy”, although I have been unable to trace his real first name. After three years in charge of the O.T.C., he finally received his very own chance to have “a “smack” at the enemy”, although by now it was a rather unsporting enemy who was using phosgene, chlorine and any other “Stinks” that could kill human beings in large numbers. Luckily though, the call came as late as July of 1918 so the chances are that Captain Hood may not have seen a lot of action during his spell with the Royal Engineers. A more sinister interpretation would be that when the Royal Engineers sent for somebody with a degree in Chemistry, they themselves were the ones trying to manufacture poison gas in larger quantities and at a faster rate than the Germans:

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In 1925, the School was feeling the financial pinch and seems to have been, on occasion, extremely strapped for cash. Mr Hood, along with Mr Betts, offered to install electric lighting in part of the school while their classes were taking examinations. The offer was eagerly accepted, presumably in the days before that fateful phrase, “Health and Safety” had quite the ring to it that it has now.

A few years later, Mr Hood must have become a pastoral tutor, since, on Monday, July 6th 1931, in an effort to improve the general behaviour of one Burton of 2C, he put in him detention for receiving “too many detentions”.  On Tuesday, April 5th 1932, Mr Hood, accompanied by Mr Houghton, took a group of thirty boys to visit the Home Brewery in Daybrook. They saw the entire brewing process, from barley to the finished product. At the end of the visit, the boys were given sandwiches and soft drinks, while the delighted teachers “sampled the real stuff”:

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In July 1946, Mr Hood retired after decades of service to the school. After 38 years as a dedicated teacher, his departure was marked in the school magazine by a warm tribute and farewell which lasted for just a line and a half of print, and must have been quite a bit short of one word for every year.

Second Lieutenant J.L.Kennard had the first name Joseph. He had come to the school in November 1910, and had previously been a teacher in Switzerland. He was a famous sportsman, having captained Lancashire at rugby, and having played for the North of England in an England trial. Here he is, on the left, with Mr Onion the groundskeeper and the First XV after the Great War in 1926-1927:

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Inside the classroom, Mr Kennard was a teacher of Modern Languages and his nickname was “Guts”. When Mr E.P.Gaskin, the Head of Languages, retired in July 1927, he was succeeded by Mr Kennard. Around this time, Mr Kennard became the Housemaster of Mellers.

When war again came knocking at the school doors in 1939, the school had enormous difficulties carrying on with the ordinary day-to-day teaching because a large number of classrooms were being used by the men of the South Notts Hussars. By the Spring Term of 1940, Mr Kennard, along with Mr Duddell, came up with an emergency schedule, which allowed a full timetable of lessons to be taught, although every form had to spend one day per week at the Games Field, with normal classes in the mornings and then games in the afternoon:

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The masters, who in many cases were forced to commute the mile and a half between the main school and the Games Field by bicycle, were somewhat less than happy with this situation. In 1941 when Mr Goddard retired, Mr Kennard was appointed Second Master. He had himself retired as the school rugby coach in 1939, although he was soon forced to resume these duties at the age of sixty by the absence of younger members of staff who were away in the forces. Mr Kennard finally retired in 1947.  After a splendidly long retirement, he died on Sunday, January 5th 1969, at the age of eighty-seven, after a short illness:

“sentiment had little place in his character, and his guiding principles were devotion to duty, loyal service and firm discipline”

Second Lieutenant L.R.Strangeways had come to the High School in 1908 as just Leonard Ralph Strangeways. He was a teacher of Classics and had been educated at Sheffield Royal Grammar School:

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By late 1916, he was helping to produce food for the starving population of a U-boat beleaguered Britain:

“An area of some three quarters of an acre was cultivated by the boys at Woodthorpe. Despite being a “very uncompromising clay dump”, it was eventually to produce much fresh food. One member of staff, Mr Strangeways, a Classics teacher, dug so energetically that he “not only shattered one spade in sunder, and so bent another that it was impossible to discern which side was which, but also succeeded in unearthing an ancient Roman broom.”

Two years later, in January 1918, “The Highvite” carried the humorous story about two prefects and one teacher:

“Barton, Bird and Co Ltd. had an advertisement for poisons, the quality of which was endorsed by Mr Strangeways.”

Mr Strangeways left the school in 1918. He went to Bury Grammar School where he was Headmaster from 1919-1936. The school still has its Strangeways Library.

In my next blog post about this photograph, I will try to find out what happened to the boys in the years after it was taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Football, France, History, Nottingham, The High School

This sepulchre of crime

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date which, in this country is celebrated, if that is the right word, as Remembrance Day. In the United States I believe that it used to be called Armistice Day but is now renamed as the more inclusive Veterans Day. I always feel rather guilty at this time of year because I have never been able to see the “First World War”, or what we used to be able to call,  unfortunately, “The Great War”, in any really positive light. I am now of such an age that in earlier years I was able to speak personally to at least two veterans of the Great War, both of whom were able to give me their highly critical points of view.
It is not my intention to offend anybody by what I say in this blogpost, but it has always been my firm conviction that there are fundamental truths about the Great War which are always quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them. Because of this, I would fully concur with the writer whose article I read in a newspaper recently, who called “The Great War”, “ineptitude followed by annihilation”.
I have never been able to see The Great War as anything other than the story of, literally, millions of well intentioned, patriotic young men whose idealism was taken advantage of by older men of a supposedly better social class, but who were in reality buffoons who signed treaties, and then declared wars which other people had to fight. And when the conflict itself was fought, the way in which it was carried out guaranteed unbelievable levels of casualties, most of which as far as I can see, were considered as merely inevitable by the top brass as they enjoyed constant  five star cuisine in their châteaux five or six miles behind the lines. In the trenches the average life expectancy of the ordinary soldier was about six weeks. An average of at least 6,000 men were killed every day, as the two sides fought over an area about the size of Lincolnshire, or Delaware, or half the size of Connecticut.
You may think that I am being appallingly cynical, but I have always seen these young men as having been robbed of their lives for little real purpose, victims who, if they had been given the choice, would have ultimately rejected a government gravestone in France or Belgium in favour of an ordinary life in their own home town or village, with a wife and children and all the usual cares and happiness which we now, a hundred years later, see as a basic right. Most of all, I would not take particularly kindly to criticism of my point of view from anybody who has not been to visit the cemeteries of the Great War which are scattered in great profusion across the areas where the battles took place.

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This piece of land is perhaps as large as a medium-sized house with a medium-sized garden. It contains the remains of just fewer than 25,000 men. They were for the most part killed in the very first few weeks of the war, when, having joined up straightaway so that they didn’t miss any of the excitement or the glory, they were worried in case it was all over by Christmas. A very large number of them are now known to have been university students, who were soon to find that war had its negative side. At least one of these young men is not forgotten, though.Here is a little remembrance offered to his brother, Friedrich Stieme from Halle, who was killed in 1915.

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Here are the names of just some of the young men who are buried in that plot of land.

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Here are the names of some British and Commonwealth troops. They are recorded in enormous number on the Menin Gate in Ypres as the soldiers who were killed in fighting around the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. There are 54,896 of these men and they were killed before August 15th 1917, a date chosen as a cut-off point when the people who designed what Siegfried Sassoon  called this “sepulchre of crime” suddenly realised that they had not built the monument big enough for all the casualties to be recorded. These, of course, are just the men with no known grave. If every death is counted, then the total Allied casualties exceeded 325,000.(the population of Coventry or Leicester). German casualties were in excess of 425,000.(the population of Liverpool)

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This whole area is dotted with cemeteries whose names, like this one, I have now forgotten. Some of them have just twenty or thirty graves, whereas some of them have a number that would take you a very long time indeed to count.

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Too many of these men were unable to be identified because the British Army would not pay for their soldiers to have metal dog tags. The soldiers’ dog tags were made of leather, so that if their bodies remained in the wet ground for very long, the dog tags would rot away. This is why so many of them can be identified only as “A soldier of the Great War”. In addition, the fact that sixty per cent of casualties on the Western Front were caused by shellfire often made identification of casualties difficult. Notice too how nearly all the graves are covered in green slime, almost inevitably, given the rainfall totals in north western Europe.

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These graves are in a cemetery containing 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French graves which lies at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial.

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More important, though, is the enormous building itself wherein are recorded the names of the fallen who have no known resting place.

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A large inscription on an internal surface of the memorial reads:

“Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

On the stone piers are engraved the names of more than 72,000 men who were slaughtered in the Somme battles between July 1915 and March 1918. More than 90% of these soldiers died in the first Battle of the Somme between July 1st and November 18th 1916. Here are some of the names.

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Here are some of the graves in another, fairly large cemetery whose name I am afraid I cannot remember …

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It is an insane thought that the Great War still continues to kill people nowadays. I was told by our tour guide that on average usually one person is killed every week as they explore the old battlefields looking for souvenirs.  This shell has been found by the farmer and has been left at the side of a country lane so that the regular patrols by the local council lorries can take it away. Only idiot foreigners, of course, touch these unstable objects. The French and the Belgians leave them alone.

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This graveyard too I am afraid is one whose name I have forgotten. I remember that we went there because one of the other people on the coach had a relative who was buried there and he laid some poppies on his grave.

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This is one of the few places where I saw French graves. France had approximately 1,397,800 men killed in the war, with a further 4,266,000 wounded, giving a total of 5,663,800 casualties. Nowadays there are many areas of the country, particularly in central and southern France, which remain unfarmed wilderness because of this conflict a century ago which left whole provinces chronically short of men. The population of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire added together is approximately 5.7 million.

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This is part of the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is a burial ground for those who were killed in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. It contains 11,956 men, of which 8,369 remain unidentified.

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This is the “Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.” As mentioned above, the builders of the Menin Gate discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names, so the casualties after August 15th 1917 were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. The memorial contains the names of 34,949 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies. The panels on which the names are written stretch away, seemingly  to the horizon.

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Sadly, at Tyne Cot cemetery, there are always relatives looking for members of their family who fell during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

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It is very difficult to find a neat conclusion to all this, but I am happy to leave the last word to His Majesty King George V, speaking in Flanders in 1922…

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

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Armistice signed! But keep fighting!

Let me first say that it is not really my intention to offend anybody by my views in this blog post, but I believe that many uncomfortable truths about the Great War are quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them.
Most people, therefore, are completely unaware that at the end of the Great War, inanely and insanely, combat continued right up until 11.00 a.m. on that very last day, November 11th 1918, even though it had been widely known for five or six hours across the whole world that hostilities would soon cease, and despite the fact that the war had already claimed an enormous number of lives.

On the Allied side there had already been 5,525,000 soldiers killed and 4,121,000 missing in action. A total of 12,831,500 soldiers had been wounded, including both of the veterans that I myself had the privilege of knowing. In the east, the Russian Empire had  suffered casualties of 3,394,369 men killed with as many as 4,950,000 wounded.  On the side of the Central Powers, 4,386,000 soldiers were killed and 3,629,000 were missing in action. A total of 8,388,000 soldiers were wounded.

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In total, Allied casualties were 22,477,500 and for the Central Powers the figure was 16,403,000. Overall, that is 38,880,500, roughly the current population of Poland, or a total more than Canada (35 million) or Belgium and Australia combined. Presumably, a few more pointless deaths on the last day were not seen as being particularly important.

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The last to arrive in the carnage of the Great War, of course, had been the Americans, but they soon began to waste their poor young “Doughboys” lives in the same way as their more experienced allies had already done for three long years.

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In the first four hours in the Argonne Forest, for example, they lost more men than they were to lose on D-Day. Indeed, the Meuse-Argonne was “probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history,” with the largest number of U.S. dead, at more than 26,000. Hopefully, this blood soaked struggle is not as forgotten as many websites claim, and if the Argonne War Cemetery, which contains the largest number of American military dead in Europe (14,246) is apparently often ignored by the tourist coaches, then it clearly should not be. Overall,  the American casualties in the Great War were to number 117,465 men.

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Negotiations to end hostilities had actually begun on November 8th but Marshall Foch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, refused to stop the war, because of fears that the German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, were not totally sincere in their desire for peace.

ger,manThis was after Foch’s own country had lost 1,737,800 men killed. The story is told by Joseph E.Persico

“On average, 2,250 troops on all sides were dying on the Western Front every day. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Maréchal,’ Erzberger pleaded, ‘do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.’ The appeal fell on deaf ears. Before the meeting, Foch had described to his staff his intention “to pursue the Feldgrauen (field greys, or German soldiers) with a sword at their backs” to the last minute until an armistice went into effect.”

So, the next day, November 9th, the Canadians attacked Mons and General Currie, helped by the men of the Canadian Infantry Brigade, captured the town during the night of November 10th-11th. As for the Americans…

“Late on November 9th, instructions from the Allied Commander-In Chief were transmitted, directing a general attack, which was executed by the First Army on November 10th-11th. Crossings of the Meuse were secured by General Summerall’s (V) Corps during the night of November 10th-11th and the remainder of the army advanced on the whole front.”

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Summerall’s actions on November 10th-11th resulted in more than eleven hundred American casualties, mainly in the Marine Corps.

All of this military action took place despite the fact that the Armistice had already been signed at 5:10 a.m. on the morning of November 11th. Within minutes of the signing, news of the cease fire had been transmitted all around the world. The “war to end all wars”, was finally over. And every general and every high ranking officer knew this. They were all aware of what had happened that day at 5.10 a.m., a time which was then backed up officially to 5.00 a.m.

Even the primitive technology of the day allowed the wonderful news to be in every major city by 5.30 p.m. and celebrations began in the streets well before most soldiers were aware of the end of hostilities.
Except that technically, the “war to end all wars”, was not yet actually over, because the cease-fire was not to come into effect until Foch’s deadline: the eleventh month, the  eleventh day and the eleventh hour of 1918. In this way all the soldiers in the trenches would be completely sure of being told the news that the conflict had finished.

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For this reason General William M. Wright thought it would be a fine idea for the American 89th Division to attack the tiny village of Stenay in north-eastern France only hours before the war ended.

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A total of 365 men died because, in Wright’s words,

“the division had been in the line a considerable period without proper bathing facilities, and since it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.”

Indeed, the Americans were to take heavy casualties on the last day of the war. This was because their commander, General John Pershing, believed that the Germans had to be severely defeated at a military level to effectively “teach them a lesson”. Pershing saw the Armistice as being too soft. He supported the commanders who wanted to attack German positions – even though he knew that an Armistice had been signed.

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It says it all perhaps to reveal the detail that the French commander of the “80th Régiment d’Infanterie” received two simultaneous orders on that morning of November 11th. The first  was to launch an attack at 9.00 a.m., the second was to cease fire at 11.00 a.m..

The last British soldier to die in the Great War seems to have been Private George Edwin Ellison, who was killed at 9.30 a.m. after serving a full four years on the Western Front. He was forty years of age, and had seen combat on the very first day of the conflict.

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A soldier in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, Ellison was scouting on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons where German soldiers had been reported in a wood. In just ninety minutes or so, the war would be over and George Ellison, an ex-coal miner and the son of James and Mary Ellison, would go back to 49, Edmund Street, in Leeds, to his wife Hannah Maria and their four-year-old son James.  And then a rifle shot rang out, and George was dead. He would never go home to his loving family, but would rest for ever in St.Symphorien Military Cemetery.

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The last French soldier to be killed was Augustin Trebuchon from the “415th Régiment d’Infanterie”. He was a runner and was taking a message to his colleagues at the front telling them of the ceasefire. He was hit by a single shot and killed at 10.50 a.m. Some seventy five French soldiers were killed on the last half-day of the war but their graves all give November 10th as the date of death. Optimists believe the reason for this discrepancy was that by stating that these men had died well before the end of the war, their family would be guaranteed a war pension. Realists believe that the government wanted to avoid any political scandal if it ever became known that so many brave men had died so pointlessly on the last day of the conflict.

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The last Canadian to be killed was Private George Lawrence Price of the Canadian Infantry (Second Canadian Division) who died, like Englishman George Ellison, at Mons in Belgium. Private Price was killed at 10.58 a.m., and he was officially the last Commonwealth casualty in the Great War. So Private Price would never be going home to Port Williams, in Nova Scotia to see again his loving parents, James and Annie Price. Instead their wonderful son would rest for ever in St.Symphorien Military Cemetery, just a short distance from the grave of Private George Ellison.

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The last American soldier to be killed was Private Henry Gunter who was killed at 10.59 a.m, one minute later than Private Price, the Canadian. A Private from Baltimore, ironically, of German ancestry, Gunter was officially the last Allied soldier to die in the Great War.

According to Joseph E.Persico

“His unit had been ordered to advance and take a German machine gun post. It is said that even the Germans – who knew that they were literally minutes away from a ceasefire – tried to stop the Americans attacking. But when it became obvious that this had failed, they fired on their attackers and Gunter was killed. His divisional record stated: “Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.”

Again according to Joseph E.Persico,

“The last casualty of the Great War seems to have been a junior German officer called Tomas who approached some Americans to tell them that the war was over and that they could have the house he and his men were just vacating. However, no one had told the Americans that the war had finished because of a communications breakdown and Tomas was shot as he approached them after 11.00 a.m.”

The total British Empire losses on the last day of the war were around 2,400 dead. Total French losses on that day amounted to an estimated 1,170. The Americans suffered more than 3,000 casualties, and the Germans lost 4,120 soldiers.

Indeed, Armistice Day, with its ridiculous totals of killed, wounded or missing, exceeded the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day, some twenty six years later. There was a crucial difference however. The men beginning to liberate Western Europe on June 6th, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who died on November 11, 1918, were losing their lives in a war that the Allies had already won.

This account occurs on an American website……

“When the American losses became public knowledge, such was the anger at home that Congress held a hearing regarding the matter. In November 1919, Pershing faced a House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs that examined whether senior army commanders had acted accordingly in the last few days of the war.”

The story is continued on another website….

“Bland, the other Republican on Subcommittee 3, knifed quickly to the heart of the matter when his turn came to question General Conner.
“Do you know of any good reason,” Bland asked, “why the order to commanders should not have been that the Armistice had been signed to take effect at 11 o’clock and that actual hostilities should cease as soon as possible in order to save human life?”
General Conner conceded that American forces “would not have been jeopardized by such an order, if that is what you mean.”
Bland then asked, regarding Pershing’s notification to his armies merely that hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m., “Did the order leave it up to the individual commanders to quit firing before, or to go ahead firing until, 11 o’clock?”
“Yes,” General Conner answered.
Bland then asked, “In view of the fact that we had ambitious generals in this Army, who were earnestly fighting our enemies and who hated to desist from doing so…would it have been best under the circumstances to have included in that order that hostilities should cease as soon as practicable before 11 o’clock?”
General Conner answered firmly, “No sir, I do not.”
“How many generals did you lose on that day?” Bland went on.
“None,” General Conner replied.
“How many colonels did you lose on that day?”
General Conner: “I do not know how many were lost.”
“How many lieutenant colonels did you lose on that day?”
General Conner: “I do not know the details of any of that.”
“I am convinced,” Bland continued, “that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life….”
General Conner, visibly seething, retorted, “The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.”
Bland shot back, “I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost; and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.”
With that, General Conner was dismissed from giving evidence.

Would that such a hearing had taken place in every country, especially Great Britain.

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