From the first to the last days of war, men will die. But those who so nearly finish the course and fall at the last fence – these are the ones we most feel sorry for…
After four, long years, fighting on the Western Front finally came to an end in the autumn of 1918. During the Hundred Days Offensive, Allied forces pushed the war-weary Germans into retreat, as British officer Martin Greener explained.
Well, directly the beginning of the advance was the big attack right down in the south and that was fairly successful. And after that, it was attack after attack and each time, the Germans really had had it. I mean, they hadn’t got the ammunition, they hadn’t got the food – in fact, they were just going. They were supposed to fall back on the Hindenburg Line and they did but we went straight through it.
After they had breached the Hindenburg Line, Allied forces continued to advance. Open warfare now replaced the static, trench-based deadlock of the past few years. French NCO René Contassot remembered this time.
On the 4th of October 1918, we were in a position along the lines on the eastern part of Reims close to the Fort of Pompelle. It was at the time a very quiet front but we could hear the bombardment – very heavy bombardment – miles away on the west and on the east. We heard rumours during the day that the Germans had gone away altogether, they couldn’t stand it, you see, they had to get back. So our next company on our left in front of Pompelle Fort, sent a raid in order to make sure of that. But unfortunately, German machine guns started firing and there were lots of our fellows killed and wounded and there were about 30% losses.
The Allies pressed on, but they had to fight hard for their gains. Donald Price of the Royal Fusiliers was in action on 8 October, during the Second Battle of Le Cateau.
We got to a place called Caudry, it were in a sunken road, it was. I’d got a section, about eight men, who were still alive. And we were going over, I said, ‘Now you fellows, look,’ I said, ‘you are going to be spread out on this field where we’re going.’ So over we go and it wasn’t bad. There were bullets flying all over the bloody place and somebody said, ‘That farm’s got to be taken.’ It was called Hurtebise Farm. Anyhow, we were going on, me and me pal, and a tank came along – a British tank – came along, you see, to help with the attack. And we went behind this tank, you see, it was easy – we were walking, hardly anything was happening. And anyhow, there was a great big valley, really, and on the other side of the valley we could see three Germans, and they’d just come out of this trench. And, anyhow, we’d gone on a bit and just before I got to the top of this, I got one, you see. Got me in the leg, you see, but the bullet went straight through my leg and blew a great big hole in the back of my leg, you see. It didn’t hurt! But I was really thankful that I’d got it, I really was! And anyhow, I stopped and I turned round and off I went. And five or six German prisoners came along and they helped me down.
On 17 October, Lille was liberated after four years of German occupation. RAF officer Howard Andrews witnessed scenes of jubilation as he flew over the city.
You see, we weren’t allowed to fly over Lille because it was an open town. But we got near it one day, rather low down, and we noticed crowds of people running down the roads, waving flags. We’d probably got down to five or six hundred feet, by then, looking round. So I pointed towards the middle of Lille and the pilot went like that, waved his arm, so then we went right over Lille and chanced it, you see. We could always say we made a mistake. And everybody, thousands of people were out in the streets – all we could see were the white faces looking up. And everybody waving flags and banners – it was wonderful. We rushed back, landed and reported. And of course then the troops could rush right round Lille and go through it.
From 17 to 25 October, Allied troops – including British private Horace Calvert – attacked German positions to the east of the River Selle.
We laid the white line and got back and the attack started. And we got down into the bottom, across road, the other side of the village, early morning, and started digging in. There was a small wood about 300 yards away, and judged to be a farmhouse or something there, the other side of that, and that’s where the Germans were. And as we started digging in, they were sending over small shells – whizz-bang type of thing. Anyway, they kept sending these over and one landed just in front of where I was and I got a right bash on’t side of head. I got a black eye and I couldn’t see, it were full of dirt and one thing and another. The young fellow who was with me, I was telling him how to dig a bit of a fox hole to get himself down for daylight proper. Sergeant said to me, he was not far off, he says ‘It’s no good you stopping here, you’d better go out and have that attended to.’ I set off and the young fellow I left behind he’d only just come out the day before and joined us previous to the attack. Do you know, I never had time to get his name or… he were a right nice young chap, about 19. And he was killed. Few hours after I left they dropped one straight in the place and that was the end of it. Funny thing is that, how these people join you and before you know them, they’ve gone. Can’t get to even know their full name.
The Battle of the Selle was a major Allied victory. Arthur Allwood of the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry went into action on 24 October.
After midday, the 7th Battalion formed up outside the village, waiting for zero hour. Then came the barrage. Over we went at walking pace. I had complaints from the men that our own barrage was dropping on them. This, of course, was their imagination – it was the enemy’s shells. Then a runner came from 3 Platoon to tell me that young Owen had been hit, so now I had to command both 3 and 4 Platoons. We reached the ‘Brown Line’ without further casualties, but oh what a terrible sight the battlefield was now. We were outnumbered by Germans giving themselves up by about twenty to one. We sent them back to be gathered up by the support troops. We had received instructions that we were not to advance beyond the ‘Brown Line’. Guns were left behind and a transport column was galloping in retreat not far in front. My Lewis gunners were potting away. I got so excited that I had to have a go myself. What damage we had done, I shall never know.
The Germans fell back to the Sambre-Oise Canal. Early on 4 November, Allied forces launched another huge attack against their exhausted enemy. Walter Grover of the Sussex Regiment described the chaos of the battle.
Zero was at 5.15 or something like that, 5.30 – dawn was just breaking when zero. When the dawn broke, we could see the canal and we knew what we were up against then. Because the Germans had got a machine gun in the lock house and before we got onto the canal itself, we had to get across a dyke. And they’d got duckboard bridges for the dyke which we were supposed to cross on, but they were too short. The first chaps that got up to it couldn’t get across; they were supposed to be over the canal before we got there, we were the second line. So they were waiting there for the next lot of duckboards to come up to get across. And they were all piled up on the bank, and over came a salvo of shells amongst us. And that’s where we lost a lot of men. And then at last the engineers, they managed to get these longer boards which we got across. And then they threw the bigger ones across the lock itself. And then we got across. And once we’d got across and captured the strongpoint, well, then the war was finished as far as we were concerned.
Harold Moore of the Essex Regiment also went into action that day, attacking German positions in the Mormal Forest.
The area was Mormal Forest, a large forest which had been under German occupation for a long time. The task of the 10th Battalion was to capture some saw mills which the Germans had established and they used to use the timber from the forest. ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies of the 10th Battlion’s job was to capture those saw mills – which they did – with many casualties. ‘D’ company’s task was to capture four enemy field guns which were situated on the fringe of the forest. I was in command of two platoons and it was my job to see we captured those field guns. As we advanced, the Germans opened up two salvos of shells, which whizzed just over our heads and nearly blew our heads off. After that, the Germans retreated into the forest – the German gunners – and we captured those guns. Both these guns were pointed towards Le Cateau, which no doubt they caused a lot of trouble.
The Sambre was the last major battle on the Western Front. The Germans fell back, no longer able to resist the relentless Allied advance to victory. British private Arthur Smith enjoyed the positive morale of the last weeks of the war.
So morale was good in our battalion, it was very good because we were not in the fighting and we were being fed regularly. We were seeing entirely new country and roads and it was quite good, the morale was good. Officers were arriving, we’d lost so many, but they were gradually filling up. And you just carried on until the next day and the next day and the next day. And you were under orders all the time, so you didn’t have to worry about what you were going to do, that was being arranged for you. And so you just carried on chatting – the joy of the whole thing is you’d chat to anyone you met. If you were wandering along a bit of trench or in this forest, you chatted to whoever you met. It was a wonderful time, really. I mean, everyone just chatted along – it was a very good experience, really, the fact that wherever you were, you’d talk to whoever you met and they’d talk to you and so on.
But one down side to this war of movement was the scope for confusion as the front line constantly changed. Joseph Yarwood of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered an example of this.
I can recall one occasion, we were… the Germans were on the retreat now and we were stuck somewhere in the Armentieres area, we’d got to. And that night, having arrived at the place, four of us were put into a dugout which had been a machine-gun post on former occasions and was now empty. We had no contact, we were just told to stop there, with the idea that if any wounded came along, we’d – but there was no organisation about this! – we were supposed to take them down. But we weren’t even too sure where we’d got to take them to! That was the chaos of the thing. Anyway, we spent a night there and that was somewhere in the Armentieres area. And we spent the night there and the next morning they sent a message up to say that we were supposed to move on. And from then on, of course, it was a period of moving so far forward and then on.
Even though victory was in sight, four years of war had taken their toll on many of the British troops. William Holbrook of the Royal Fusiliers had served on the Western Front since August 1914. He found he began to worry more as time wore on.
A little bit, a little bit. I did towards the last year, I think, I did then. Not so much on the Somme front I didn’t, because it seemed like there was too many of you there, you sort of more or less comforted one another! But, fellows would moan and grumbling and all that sort of thing and I was beginning to worry then about it, a bit. You couldn’t get much sleep and you got tired and that sort of thing, weary, and in fact sometimes you didn’t care one way or the other, that sort of thing. You used to think to yourself, we’ve lost so many men now, you see. You didn’t take risks so much as you did… it seemed to be going on forever and that sort of thing. So, weariness towards the end, the last year. There wasn’t so much heavy fighting and attack and that sort of thing in the last few months as what there was earlier, and you got a bit weary of it and you thought to yourself, well, this is going on forever…that sort of feeling.
Collapsing German morale was a crucial factor in the ending of hostilities. Heinrich Beutow was a trooper with a cavalry unit in the Frankfurt area during the last months of the war.
I think discipline was getting rather slack. You could see it on the streets of the garrison town when soldiers coming from the front didn’t take the pains of saluting officers any more. They thought the officers running around in the garrison had a very good time so why should they, the front people, salute them? That was, considering the discipline in the Prussian Army, a very great change, and it showed that something was breaking, something was crumbling, in this land. You could see from little signs like that. For instance, my commanding officer was so afraid of the coming revolution – which was not imminent, then, but somewhere to be seen, behind the scenes – was so afraid of it that he made me sleep with a gun in his arm or in front of his rooms in the night. I had to do that; it was rather uncomfortable, what could I do?
Clifford Lane of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment witnessed a change in the fighting resolve of German troops.
We went over the top – it must have been in October, early October probably. And we came to the German position and it was pathetic. We’d got some lads, some young Lincolnshire lads, you know, the 18 year olds and they went on to them. And these poor old Germans, they were ordinary troops. There wasn’t much machine-gun fire, not as the early stages. And they went on to this front-line trench, the Germans were putting their hands up. And one German came running out of his trench, he’d got a sort of white shirt on, I remember him. Ran right and nearly knocked me over, down towards our, where… our side of it – screaming, screaming his head off. It was pathetic. But you’d never have seen that in the old days. You’d never have seen the Germans doing that in the old days. They put up no resistance at all, really. We advanced and advanced.
Thousands of German prisoners were captured in the final months of the war. Many British soldiers commented on the poor condition they seemed to be in. Joseph Biglin of the Durham Light Infantry described the POWs he saw.
They just dug machine-gun emplacements and left a few men manning the machine gun. What happened to them, well, some were taken prisoners. But they were all, mostly they were just boys as we were, what we saw, yes they were just boys. And they seemed – well I know they were – glad to be captured; they were out of it. Yes they were quite happy, really, but underfed and oh, yes, they were in very poor shape.
Despite lowered morale and continual retreat, many German soldiers put up strong resistance in the closing stages of the war, as British private Jim Fox found out.
Reconnaissance sources had reported that there were no Germans within five miles of our then positions, static positions. So we set off, following the Germans up, you know. And of course we were in full pack and, well, we were advancing; it was like a bit of a slope or a ridge, if you like. And there’d been a village there at one time, and it would have been battered to ruins you know, only bricks about two foot high left. And we were marching abreast, of course, you were passing over shell holes so you couldn’t march in line very well, there were so many shell-holes in front of you. And anyhow, we were advancing in that fashion. And we got to about 80 yards from this village and there were three machine guns left by the Germans and they fired at us, 80 yards, fired. We lost quite a lot of men on the first burst and the rest dashed for cover in shell-holes.
This determined resistance resulted in high Allied casualties during the closing months of the war. William Hunt of the Devonshire Regiment was one of the thousands of British soldiers who were wounded at this time.
We went up there one morning – it was dark at the time – and the barrage started and we had to go across to this German trench, which was about a couple of hundred yards away. I got about 100 yards and a machine gun opened out, straight in front of me. And there were sparks flying in all directions. I turned sideways to one of my machine gunners and said for him to run forward and enfilade this trench with his machine gun. And then I felt a crack, so I knew I’d got it, as I was straight in front of this blessed gun. So I had to run back. I ran back into a bit of a road that we’d left and got down in this little hole there, tore my trousers legs open and bandaged both my thighs which were bleeding profusely.
Many who survived this period of fierce fighting remarked on the injustice of men killed just before the end of the war. British NCO Harold Bashford took part in an attack in November.
This bombardment started and we advanced behind it. As orders, we were told to keep as close as possible to the barrage. It was just like walking behind a wall of fire. What effect it had on the enemy, you could only guess. But it was the nearest I ever came to losing my nerve, you know, it was. I was pretty shattered by that. It was here in our last engagement that one of our men received a terrible stomach wound. I don’t think I’ll perhaps say what I saw, but I do remember this poor wretch rolling over and over and the steam from his blood rising up. It was as bad as that. It was obvious he was not going to live. From the first to the last days of war, men will die. But those who so nearly finish the course and fall at the last fence – these are the ones we most feel sorry for. You know, to think, ‘Another day and I should’ve been safe.’ But it wasn’t to be.
At the same time that fighting was drawing to a close on the Western Front, Allied forces were also achieving victory in other theatres of war. Bulgaria signed a peace agreement on 29 September, ending the Salonika Campaign. A month later, the Ottoman Empire capitulated in the Middle East. And in Italy, a final battle was fought in late October. William Parry-Morris described the end of the war on the Italian Front.
There was a battle fought there on the River Piave at the end October, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. We attacked in the middle of the night and crossed over the River Piave in boats. Well, we had Italian boatmen, 11 men in a boat and the River Piave flows down from the Alps very, very swiftly. And you couldn’t row over, you had to push your boat, pole your boat over. And we advanced, got across to the other side, advanced up the bank the other side and took the Austrian trenches and drove them back oh, miles. And they retreated right back to the borders of Italy and Yugoslavia. And their armistice, the armistice between Austria-Hungary and Italy, was a week before the other armistice. They’d had enough war, they were fed up; they were glad it was over.
The defeat of its allies, combined with a number of other factors, led Germany to sue for peace in early November. Faltering morale; an exhausted army in continual retreat; starvation and political upheaval at home and an inability to keep the front line supplied meant it was impossible for Germany to stay in the war. Frederick Plimmer of the Machine Gun Corps knew the end was near.
We used to get mail from home, we used to get newspapers; we knew quite well what was going on. We were advancing day by day, we weren’t retiring, we weren’t stopping still. The Germans were going back faster than we could catch them and we knew quite well that the time had come when we would win the war. We was aware that the Turks and the Bulgarians and the Rumanians had sued for peace and they’d got an armistice and we knew before the armistice came along that it was in the offing. We didn’t know for certain, but there’s a fellow in the war called ‘rumour’; he knows everything, you see. And we knew that, generally speaking, that the war was going to end shortly. But it wasn’t until the 11th that we were officially told.
Although he reached the Western Front before the war ended, British private Thomas Hooker never saw any military action. He later reflected on this.
Afterwards, when we found definitely we had lost the chance of being under fire, my personal feeling was that I’d missed something. Mind you, it was a good miss when we… Everybody else thought it was a good miss, anyway. Someone said, ‘A man thinks meanly of himself if he’s never been a soldier.’ Well, I was a soldier alright, but I hadn’t been under fire. And I thought that meanly of myself. Oh, the horrors of war… we were youngsters, 19… all of us.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Armistice came into effect. Keith Officer of the Australian Corps remembered this historic moment.
At 11 o’clock on the 11th of November, I was sitting in a room in, I think it was the Brewer’s House in Le Cateau. It was rather interesting to be there, because it had been Sir John French’s headquarters at the time of the Battle of Mons. And I was sitting at a table with an English staff officer. I think he was a major in the Scots Greys. And he had a large old-fashioned hunting watch which he put on the table, and he watched the minutes going round. Anyway, 11 o’clock came and I remember he shut his watch up and said ‘I wonder what we are all going to do next?’ And that was very much the feeling of everyone. What was one going to do next..?
Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there.