100 years ago today we had been at war for just a few months. The summer declaration of 1914 took time to fully mobilise but by November fighting on all fronts was well underway:
- Western Front: Ypres: Some British trenches penetrated by the Prussian Guard, but recovered.
- Southern Front Serbia: The Serbians in retreat; their headquarters moved from Valyevo to Kraguyevats
- Asiatic and Egyptian Theatres: Mesopotamia: British outposts attacked at Saniya.
- Naval and Overseas Operations H.M.S. “Niger” sunk by German submarine.
- Political, etc. Great Britain: Parliament opened; the King’s Speech.
On a more personal front and much closer to home, my grandmother and her family were shocked by the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany for each summer they’d hosted German or Belgian youths as part of a student exchange scheme designed to foster relations. Now these very men would be enemy or ally fighting on the battlefield.
At the outbreak of WW1, she was just a girl of 16 and standing with her young admirer Billy, looking out over the fields of a semi-rural London suburb, had asked: “What would happen to us if the enemy invaded here now?” He replied of course that he would protect her – and so he did, in his way. Some time later, he was gassed on the Western front and came home blinded and blighted. Meanwhile, the recruiting officer had already been to her town, where she watched her brother sign up and join the Royal Flying Corps as an engineer. He survived.
With so many young men killed and war wounded, the ‘pool’ of husbands-to-be- was severely depleted. And so my grandmother would eventually go on to marry a man who, from a youth, was progressively disabled by otosclerotic deafness – a condition that had prevented his recruitment to the 14-8 war. His younger brother fought and survived the onslaughts. The message he wrote on the back of his photo, simply reads: “A bit of army life”:
Dated 13.11.16, his casual remark and youthful innocence belie what was happening on this day:
- Western Front: Battle of the Ancre: British capture St. Pierre Divion (south of Ancre) and Beaumont Hamel (north of Ancre) and nearly 4,000 prisoners. Fourth phase of Battle of the Somme begins.
- Eastern Front: German advance south of Torzburg, Roter Turm Passes continued: capture of Candeshti (south of Torzburg Pass) and Bumbeshti (Jiu Valley).
- Southern Front: Serbs advance on Monastir, masking Bulgar-German positions near Tapavci (15 miles east-south-east of Monastir).
- Asiatic and Egyptian Theatres: Cairo bombed; little damage done
- Political, etc.: Appeal of Cardinal Mercier to civilised world against Belgian deportations by Germans.
With hindsight we talk of peace and the wrongs of wars but it is not up to us to disparage these times nor rewrite the history that we inherit. We are required only to remember.