A Report By Viv Whelpton
At the first of our branch’s annual centenary seminars on the British Army and its development between 1914 and 1919, ‘the men who went to war’ were vividly presented to us by Charles Messenger, Jack Sheldon and Richard van Emden.
About a hundred people attended the event, well over a third of them from our own branch, but we were delighted to welcome W.F.A. members from around the country, including the retiring chairman and the vice-chairman.
The Kesgrave War Memorial Community Centre, where the event was held, the speakers’ book stalls (where their most recent publications were vigorously promoted by Peter Hart), a display prepared by Mark Forsdike on the Suffolk Regiment in 1914, the availability of plenty of tea and coffee and an excellent lunch all helped to make for a day that was sociable and enjoyable as well as instructive. The whole event was very much a communal effort with many branch members contributing to its smooth running.
Charles Messenger gave us a detailed portrait of the B.E.F. in 1914, telling us how the army had prepared itself for the eventuality of war in the decade before the war broke out and assessing the fitness for service of the regulars and the reservists, both infantry and cavalry. He identified the weaknesses that would emerge in the early months of the war, such as the lack of a doctrine of indirect fire for the artillery, the poor physical fitness of the reservists (who made up 60% of the force) and, indeed, of the senior officers, and the separation of operational and logistical elements.
Jack Sheldon told us that the proportion of reservists in the German Army was higher (at 2/3) than in the B.E.F., but that these troops had both been carefully selected in the first place and were better trained. The Battle of Mons was a clear German victory, the consequence of infantry tactics of going to ground and manoeuvring, and of using machine guns on the flanks. Walter Bloem’s account (a recent Suffolk memoir of the month) of his regiment’s severe losses in the battle, was to influence all subsequent British accounts from the Official History onwards, but these losses were actually atypical. In contrast, Le Cateau was a setback for von Kluck, poor use of the cavalry enabling the British II Corps to escape out of the German trap.
Jack argued that, on balance, British and German infantry tactics were equally well developed but that the Germans had the advantage of recent experience of continental warfare and better understanding of artillery; the B.E.F. lacked high explosive ammunition and had yet to build up a practice of indirect fire. On the other hand, the less rigid doctrinal practice of the British led to a pragmatism of approach which could be advantageous.
Richard gave us an absorbing and often moving account of his relationship with Ben Clouting and of all that he had learned from the veteran, who had insisted on accompanying his squadron of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards to war, despite being under-age. Ben had been present when the first shot of the war was fired and at the notorious cavalry charge at Audregnies a few days later, and had subsequently penetrated behind the German lines at Moulins on the Aisne (an incident which branch members had investigated on their visit to that village this summer). Richard will be back in 2019 to tell us about Ben’s experiences in the army of occupation.
We welcomed to the panel debate that concluded the day not only Charles and Jack (Richard having, unfortunately, to leave immediately after his talk to travel to Newcastle for another engagement), but also the W.F.A. President (and early member of the Suffolk branch) Professor Peter Simkins and another regular guest at our branch, the I.W.M. oral historian Peter Hart. The result was a lively debate that both reinforced and expanded upon the talks that preceded it.
The quality of the discussion and the relaxed atmosphere of the day will, I am sure, bring most of those who supported this year’s event back on 24 October 2015 (please note change of date) for next year’s seminar, ‘Trial and Error’, where our speakers will be Peter Simkins, Nick Lloyd and Simon Jones.
Peter will talk about Kitchener’s Army in 2015.
Nick, who is Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, will talk on the Battle of Loos. He will examine the state of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 and look at the way in which operations were planned and directed by British High Command.
Simon Jones is a freelance historian and battlefield guide, and an authority on military engineering and chemical warfare on the Western Front. He will talk to us about the impact of the introduction of gas warfare.
These three talks will create a focus for the day not only on the way in which British manpower expanded in the war but also on the impact of technology and the massive challenge it created for strategy of the attack.
As this year, the last session of the day will be a panel debate. We invite you to send in any question(s) about the British Army in 1915 that you would like to have answered.
‘Each session was just so interesting, and, as I had hoped, I learned a great deal. What an opportunity to have such experts on hand.’
‘I don’t attend a WFA branch meeting, but it was a pleasure to come to this event. Well done to WFA Suffolk branch for organising today. It is a credit to all concerned. Looking forward to 2015.’
‘Brilliant talks, lively atmosphere, great to have the opportunity to talk to people.’
'Loved the seminar and can't wait till next years one'