Archive for First World War

Manchester Hill – “Here we fight, and here we die”

Posted in History with tags , , , , on March 21, 2018 by telescoper

Today is the centenary of the start of a major offensive of the Western Front by the German forces against the British and French armies during the First World War. One particular action that took place on the first day of that offensive took place at a location now known as Manchester Hill, a region of high ground forming a salient overlooking the town of St Quentin, on this day 100 years ago i.e. on 21st March 1918. I read about this some time ago, but thought I would do a brief post about it to mark this grim anniversary.

Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, Commanding Officer, 16th Battalion Manchester Rifles.

Manchester Hill had been captured by the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment in April 1917 and in March 2018 it was held by the 16th Battalion of the same Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, a schoolteacher before the War who had joined the army in 1914 as a private soldier and was promoted through the ranks. His gallantry on that day earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross with the citation:

For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during operations at Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, on the 21st March, 1918. During the preliminary bombardment he encouraged his men in the posts in the Redoubt by frequent visits, and when repeated attacks developed controlled the defence at the points threatened, giving personal support with revolver, rifle and bombs. Single-handed he repulsed one bombing assault driving back the enemy and inflicting severe casualties. Later, when ammunition was required, he made several journeys under severe fire in order to replenish the supply. Throughout the day Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, although twice wounded, showed the most fearless disregard of his own safety, and by his encouragement and noble example inspired his command to the fullest degree. The Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the enemy attack, but by means of the buried cable Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob was able to assure his Brigade Commander that “The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last.” Sometime after this post was overcome by vastly superior forces, and this very gallant officer was killed in the final assault, having maintained to the end the duty which he had impressed on his men – namely, “Here we fight, and here we die.” He set throughout the highest example of valour, determination, endurance and fine soldierly bearing.

His last action, after the Germans had broken through the last line of defences, was to use the field telephone to call down an artillery barrage onto his own position. His body was never found and he has no known grave.

You can read the stories of other soldiers who fought and died that day here.

Manchester Hill jutted out into the German lines so, although it was heavily fortified, it was very vulnerable and difficult to defend. Enemy troops were in position on three sides of the hill, and in the event of an attack was difficult to prevent it being surrounded, isolated and destroyed. In the days and hours preceding March 21st the troops on Manchester Hill could see the Germans moving into position and knew a major offensive was imminent. Elstob repeatedly asked his superior offices for permission to withdraw, but it was repeatedly refused. When specific intelligence was received that the attack would take place in the morning of 21st March he once more contacted his HQ to request position to withdraw. After having his request refused once more, he returned to his men and made the famous statement “This is our position. He we fight and here we die.”

There was thick fog the following morning, hiding the inevitable German advance which began at 6.30am with an artillery bombardment until it was too late to prevent them encircling the British garrison. By 11.30 the British were completely encircled. Nevertheless the defenders of Manchester Hill fought off repeated attacks and managed to hold their position until late afternoon against an overwhelmingly larger force. Elstob was in the thick of the action throughout, once holding a position alone using his service revolver and hand grenades. By 4pm however, the battle was lost and virtually all the defenders were dead. Of the 168 men (8 officers and 160 other ranks) who participated in the defence of the Manchester Hill redoubt, just 17 survived (two officers and 15 other ranks).

The German advance broke through Allied lines and stormed on, even at one point threatening Paris, but the pace of the advance led to supply difficulties and it eventually stuttered, was stopped and then flung back into a full retreat. Although German forces had been reinforced by troops no longer needed in the East after the Russian Revolution of 1917, American forces had been arriving in huge numbers – 300,000 a month – at the time of the Spring offensive and it this influx of troops across the Atlantic that proved decisive in the end.

We should celebrate the bravery of the defenders of Manchester Hill, especially Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, but one can’t help asking why he was not given permission to withdraw. It is true that they delayed and disrupted the German advance, but at a terrible cost. It does seem to me that for all the courage and gallantry displayed by Elstob and his men, their sacrifice was unnecessary.

The Flowers in the Field: The Somme Remembered

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on July 1, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve posted this at 7.20am on 1st July 2016. Precisely one hundred years ago, following a heavy artillery bombardment that had been going on for a week, an enormous mine was exploded  under a fortified position at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel on the River Somme in France. Here is footage of the actual explosion:

Ten minutes later, the first French and British troops went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

Here is an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago about this battle and its aftermath.

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Twelve summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan light comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror set to unsettling atonal music.

When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.

On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British. It had also been believed that the artillery shells would have cut the barbed wire protecting German positions. It didn’t. British and French troops who got entangled were sitting ducks. Carnage ensued.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the horrific slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle (in November that year) the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

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I decided to end this piece with the following video featuring music by George Butterworth (A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by the poetry of A.E. Housman, and one of the few surviving complete works of this composer). Images of present-day Shropshire are interspersed with photographs taken on the Somme in 1916. I chose this because George Butterworth too lost his life in the Battle of the Somme (on 5th August 1916). Lest we forget.

The Statistics of the “Great War”

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by telescoper

Since today, 4th August 2014, is the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First War I thought I’d repost an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago which says very clear what I feel about the War that some people insist on calling “Great”…

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Ten summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror.

When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.

On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote a great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine or Gaza as Flanders (1917).

Last night I listened to a broadcast of the Mozart Requiem on BBC Radio 3. Mozart  left this piece unfinished at his death. The performance was preceded by an interesting discussion about the subsequent completion by his student, Süssmayr, and the various alternatives including the one by Robert Levin we heard last night. Of course nobody will know exactly how Mozart intended this work to be completed because Mozart died before he was able to finish it. We’ll never know what the millions that died before their time during World War 1 would have achieved either. Among the lists of the dead and maimed  were great poets, artists, musicians, scientists and engineers but we’ll never know what they might have created because death had the last word.

I thought I’d end with a poem by, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.