A report by Viv Whelpton
The second of our branch’s annual centenary seminars on the British Army and its development between 1914 and 1919 saw us at a new venue, the Waterfront Building of University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, which the university had generously offered us free of charge. It turned out to be not only a very convenient location with ample parking, but a very spacious and comfortable environment. When I arrived with the speakers after a pleasant walk along the waterfront from their hotel, it was to find the first floor foyer already buzzing, with attendees chatting in groups over cups of coffee and buying raffle tickets – and – as ever – Peter Hart’s books! The turn-out was roughly the same as last year – about a hundred people – and although the event was mostly (and heavily) supported by our own branch, there were visitors from our neighbouring branches, Norfolk and Essex and from all over the country, including many long-standing WFA members, among them the WFA deputy-chairman, Colin Wagstaff.
Our first speaker was Professor Peter Simkins, the President of the WFA, who spoke about the raising of Kitchener’s Army, its composition and the variety of motivations amongst those who enlisted (in many cases their employers offering them no choice in the matter!), the fluctuations in enlistments and the regional variations. 2,466,719 men enlisted between August 1914 and December 1915. As he does so often, Peter ‘busted’ several myths, for example the impact of the famous poster (it didn’t appear until the end of September 1914), the esprit de corps of the Pals Battalions and the fighting spirit of the Bantams. His talk was also enlivened, as always, with the individual human stories that showed us how deceptive it is to make generalisations about the huge and diverse volunteer army which first took to the field in 1915.
The freelance historian and former museum curator, Simon Jones, was our second speaker, addressing the topic of the British development of poison gas and also the development of respirators to fend off the effects of its use by the enemy. Britain was already developing chemical weapons at the time of the first German use of chlorine gas at Ypres in April 1915. Simon described the work of two professors at Imperial College London, using themselves and other ‘volunteers’ as guinea pigs! At the Battle of Loos gas was used to compensate for artillery shortages; its failure to make the attack more effective ensured that the British Army never again combined its use of chemical weapons with an infantry attack.
Our final speaker was Dr. Nick Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at Kings College London. Nick’s subject was the Battle of Loos, at the time the biggest land battle Britain had ever fought. He argued that the worsening relationship between Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig, combined with Haig’s endemic over-optimism, his belief in the decisive battle and his support for new technology (in this case, gas warfare), which often went beyond what could reasonably be expected of it, were all factors in the failure of the battle.
We welcomed to the panel debate that concluded the day not only Peter, Simon and Nick, but also Peter Hart, the I.W.M. oral historian and regular guest at Suffolk WFA events. The panel was chaired by our branch chairman, Taff Gillingham. The result was a lively debate that both reinforced and expanded upon the talks that preceded it.
Our thanks go to Drs. Ed Packard and John Greenacre of UCS for offering us the wonderful venue and for their help and support. We are also grateful to all those of our branch members who volunteered on the day to help make the event run so smoothly.
The quality of the discussion and the relaxed atmosphere of our 2015 seminar will, I am sure, bring many of you back to join us in February next year. The 2016 seminar (‘Taking the Initiative’) will take place at UCS again, on Saturday 13 February. On-line booking is already open and tickets are selling fast. Our speakers will include Jack Sheldon, foremost authority on the German Army in the First World War; Jack will be continuing the examination of the effectiveness of the German Army which he began at our 2014 seminar. Professor Bill Philpott of Kings College will give us a strategic overview in a talk entitled ‘Winning the Initiative: Joffre, and the Allied Offensive of 1916’, while Taff Gillingham will speak on ‘British Infantry on the Somme: Learning How to Fight a Modern War’.