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Podcast 8: Over By Christmas

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My mother was in the act of putting the porridge out for us onto the plates when the first shell cracked. Never dreamt it would be Germans…

One of the most popular sayings of 1914 was that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. In this podcast, some of those who experienced the first months of war explain just how wrong that prediction was. Bill Haine joined up early on. He remembered the mood in Britain when he did so.

Well, I thought the same as everybody else. Everybody said ‘It’ll be over by Christmas and you’ve got to get out soon, otherwise you won’t see anything’. But I don’t know if it was my opinion, or if everybody was saying it. One certainly changed one’s mind when we found how well-organised Jerry was compared with us for instance. And how thinly we were on the ground, of course.

Joe Armstrong, of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, witnessed first-hand how organised the Germans were.

We were in reserve trenches and an officer thought he’d give us a bit of exercise. To get to this here village where he was taking us, we had to go over a plateau. And we, my regiment, were right on the top of this plateau – which was probably about 200 yards across – when all hell let loose. The Germans had retired to positions that they’d held in 1870, and they had all their artillery on this position so they knew the range to an inch. Before we set off, the officer made us clean our buttons – actually, you know, brass buttons – we had to clean them. So in that sunshine we must have been a beautiful target, mustn’t we? They were laughing and singing and joking, all the lot of them. And in the twinkle of an eye, I was the only one left alive out of 400. I was the only one left alive out of 400. Dead and dying all round me.

Modern weapons caused huge losses. Private Maydwell, of the 2nd Battalion, Royal West Surrey Regiment, recalled a bayonet charge on German positions near Ypres in October 1914.

We manoeuvred to the wood on our bellies, crawling, and when we got there we stood in a line. Officer shouted along the line, ‘Is everybody ready?’ and I called out, ‘I can’t get my bayonet on my rifle, sir’ and he said, ‘Damn you, Maydwell, hurry up!’ And when I’d got it on and said everything was alright, a bugle sounded and we made the charge, shouting as we went. And we hadn’t gone many yards before machine-gun bullets peppered round us, and they came at us almost like hailstones dropping at the side of you. I can remember everybody was screaming that was in that charge, laying down and moaning and groaning and eventually there was silence.

Those on the home front soon became aware of the high number of casualties being sustained. Elspeth George was a schoolchild in Britain at the time.

And then the troop trains started coming back from Mons – trainload after trainload of them – with frightfully severely wounded people. Because they really were terribly badly severely wounded.  And of course all the women and children in the village gathered up all the comforts we could find, fruit and soup and everything we could think of to feed them, give them to eat, and we all dashed up to the station.

In Germany too, people were shaken by the scale of the violence – Heinrich Beutow among them.

After the enthusiasm and patriotism came a wave of quietness because then the first death lists were published in the papers. And my mother – she was English – suddenly was surrounded by women of the regiment, of the other officers of course. And most of them after Belgium, the regiment of my father was one of the first to march over the border to Belgium, were widows. And even as a child I must say it gave me a great shock to see that most of the officers were dead and killed during the first weeks; a lot of the younger soldiers were dead. And the whole patriotism, the feeling of enthusiasm, faded away very quickly in my opinion. The world became grey after that.

Another revelation was the impact the war would have on civilians. John Grover, who went on to serve on the Western Front, describes how no one foresaw a ‘total war’.

No one had any idea what were the implications of a nation at war. In fact there’d never been such a war to my knowledge. The idea that this would be a national war to the extent of the complete mobilisation of the country I don’t think it occurred to any of us. We thought it would be a quick clash as in 1870 when the Germans over-ran France so quickly. But of course at that time I think our excitement really was bred a little bit by the tremendous success and expansion of the British Empire.

One of the first strikes against the British population was the bombardment of several east coast towns in December by German warships. Sydney Smith was living in Scarborough at the time.

The bombardment morning was December 16th; I was seven years and five days old. It was a misty morning. We were up early before school. And my mother was in the act of putting the porridge out for us onto the plates when the first shell cracked. My mother said, ‘Oh, what’s that noise?’ My father said ‘It’s gunfire, it’ll be alright it’ll be some of our ships practising.’ Never dreamt it would be Germans. As soon as it was over I went out and went round the corner to see if school was still there – unfortunately it was!

French civilians also came under fire. Helena Reid remembers how Lille was affected.

So we started our life in a different mood. And very soon after, Lille being a very short distance from Germany, the Germans invaded neutral Belgium so very soon they were on our doorstep. And when they got to Lille there was a certain amount of resistance. And so this is where we started a really hard life, because we could hear the guns getting nearer and nearer and the bombs started in Lille. We were not bombed really that flat but there was quite a lot of destruction. And so, because we were heavy with wine, we had a very good cellar, which was a vaulted cellar and my mother thought of the neighbours who had ordinary houses and said if you’d like to come we’ll leave the door open and you’ll just come and find shelter in our cellar.

For those at home, it could be difficult to find out what was happening on the front line. Harry Smith, from Bradford, recalls the difficulty of getting reliable war news.

According to the papers we were doing marvellously. If you gained 100 yards you were very clever and doing very well. We never realised what it was really like. But on the whole the soldiers that returned never spoke about it. And people thought, if they said anything, people didn’t believe them. A lot of people couldn’t believe the conditions were like that.  The conditions were bad, especially in the cold winter months. Under deadly fire, both sides soon built basic trenches to protect themselves.

Percy Douglas served on the Western Front.

The first Battle of Ypres was just over. Of course we went into the trenches; they weren’t real trenches, they were just sort of deep ditches – they’d been dug out very roughly. There was no drainage, of course, they were half full of water most of the time; it seemed to rain every day. Being a Scots regiment of course we wore kilts. And it was very unpleasant to jump down into a trench with two feet of water in it wearing a kilt, because under the kilt we didn’t wear any undergarments and you can imagine how cold it was…

Things were no better for British troops stationed on the other side of the world. Khonoma Beaumont-Walker, an officer in the South Wales Borderers, took part in the capture of German-held Tsingtao in China in early November.

The Japanese were not having much opposition really because the Germans were withdrawing back into Tsingtao and the Japanese line was a little low line of hills, and we eventually took up a position about a mile or so behind their front line.  At this time, just then, after having lovely weather, the rains broke. We had a most terrible period. The nullahs were rushing rivers, the roads were little streams and the dugouts fell in. The cooks couldn’t light a fire, there was no tea, tea couldn’t be boxed up, the matches were wet, the bread was soggy and we lost our rations and walked about in mud up to our knees.

In an effort to keep them warm, British soldiers on the Western Front were often issued with a ration of rum. Signaller Williams, of the London Rifle Brigade, explains how this could have its drawbacks.

I was on guard at battalion HQ, it was right in the middle of the wood, beastly cold wet night and drizzling. There was a lance corporal and three of us on the guard you see, I was doing my turn up there, beastly cold night. The corporal came out with a mug, some rum, he said ‘Have a drop of this to warm you up.’ He said, ‘You haven’t drunk it all have you?!’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘That was for all of us, for four people!’ I wasn’t used to it – I wasn’t used to spirits at all – and I was patrolling up and down this path and found it wouldn’t keep still, it was going backwards and forwards like that.

Then I saw the adjutant coming along, I thought good heavens, drunk on guard in face of the enemy, I shall be shot at dawn or something. Anyway I stood myself up, propped myself against a tree and he came along, I said ‘Halt, who goes there’, he said, ‘The adjutant’ – he was just as tight as I was!

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes.

Listen out for Podcast 9: The Christmas Truce