I start this October report by offering my own and all branch members’ sincere condolences to the family and friends of our recently deceased Armoury steward, Alan Kennedy. We are very grateful for the warmth and friendship given to us by Alan during the branch’s regular monthly meetings going back over many, many years. Alan’s funeral on 3rd October at Stockport Cemetery’s Rowan Chapel was attended, on our behalf, by senior representatives of the Branch namely our two past Chairmen Terry Jackson and John Richardson. The branch made a respectful donation. For this our October meeting we welcome, for the first time, renowned author and WW1 German history specialist and also WFA Hon Vice President, Jack Sheldon who, I’m sure, will give us an interesting evening’s analysis of a rarely discussed subject, the German collapse in the second half of 1918. For those interested in following up on this talk see a six-page article published in the new edition (116) of the WFA’s “Stand To!” just published. Skipping forward may I remind you that the 8 November meeting, Clive Harris speaking, includes our usual brief but meaningful remembrance ceremony at 7.45pm. The bugler is booked! Please arrive earlier than usual please. Please note that the main gates now open at 7pm giving a little more time to talk and socialise. PLEASE NOTE the last meeting before Christmas will be on the first Friday (6th) in December, not the usual second, so a note in your diary please. Last year various members were unable to attend due to office parties etc therefore a change seems to make sense. This our Xmas social night immediately after the speaker. For this we will provide a cold buffet supper with wine and soft drinks, and I hope, with Rob Thompson as our guest speaker, we will have a good turnout of members. Thanks to all for your ongoing interest. Ralph Lomas
The German defeat and the ‘Stab in the Back’ Myth
by Jack Sheldon
The German collapse in the second part of 1918 came with a rapidity that no senior figure on the Allied side had expected. Active planning to continue the war into 1919 was underway, American troops were flooding into Europe in unprecedented numbers and, in preparation for continuing hostilities, factories were churning out weapons, ammunition and equipment in huge quantities. Despite yielding the initiative to the Allies after the failure of Operation Marneschutz-Reims in mid-July and being forced back from one position to another all along the Western Front, the German army was still fighting hard, inflicting very heavy casualties yet, suddenly, on 1 October, the German government requested an armistice and within six weeks the war was over. Why had it happened so quickly? How did an apparently defeated army cause the Allies so many casualties that late summer and autumn? What was the origin of the ‘Stab in the Back’ myth and what were the long-term consequences of its general acceptance in post-war Germany? This presentation will explore these issues and provide answers.
Dr. Jack Sheldon retired from the British Army in 2003 after a thirty-five year career as a member of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. He is a graduate of the German Command and Staff College in Hamburg and he held numerous international appointments, including that of Military Attaché Berlin. For the past eight years he has been living in the Dauphiné Alps of southeast France, researching and writing his acclaimed German Army in The Great War series. These have already become the standard works on the subject for both the specialist and the general reader. Jack Sheldon, a member of the British Commission for Military History, the Douglas Haig Fellowship and the Western Front Association, is in demand for his expertise on all aspects of the German military during the First World War.
Last Month’s Talk
The Branch welcomed back Peter Hart who gave a graphic detail of the final months of the Great War.
Having seen the passing of the centenary of the end of the war populist reporting condensed the war into Mons, Gallipoli, The Somme, Third Ypres, The Spring Offensive, then suddenly the Armistice and it was all over. This was nonsense. Mons was a relatively small battle and in the early years the British Army was transitioning from a small colonial army to a major force. Of course, the initial expansion was with the early volunteers. Unlike the Germans and the French, Britain had to train volunteers basically without any military knowledge, temporarily increased by many TA units agreeing to fight overseas. The Commonwealth was also to contribute substantial numbers. Ultimately conscription was required and it was these men who would form the bulk of the British Army in 1918.
Nineteen eighteen was a year of substantial battles and unlike the previous years they occurred within relatively short gaps of time. These assaults concluded with huge battles in the last two months of the war.
The German Spring offensive was made possible by the collapse of Russia and necessary by the looming threat to the huge numbers available to the USA. It was effective tactically- the Bruchmuller bombardments wrought havoc. However, despite the successful tactics of the stormtroopers it was a strategic failure. Ludendorff constantly changed his goals and the failure to successfully split the British and French forces was the result. The ability of France and Britain to attack through the overseeing of Foch was to turn the war around. The Americans offered huge numbers. Whilst initially they were similar to the old BEF of 1914 and often repeated their tactical errors, it was early days and the Americans had the advantage that their huge manpower reserve was still intact, unlike the losses that had been imposed on Germany and her allies. The Americans were also to prove stern fighters.
After the German Spring Offensive had been stemmed, the Allies began to plan to take the fight to the enemy. It would not be easy but with a better chain of command overseen by Foch and the addition of the newly arriving Americans the prospect of eventual victory was enhanced. The enemy was loathe to relinquish the land they had taken at such high expense but their frontage that existed after their last gasp attack faltered was to leave several salients ideal for counter attack
For Britain there was also friction. The army had withstood the enemy attacks but men were tired and manpower was stretched. It did not help that Lloyd George backed by Sir John French and Henry Wilson tried to tie Haig’s hands to French strategy. It was anticipated that victory could be achieved in 1919.
Fortunately, the army had learnt from the past. Tactics were much improved. A series of assaults on the Germans meant the enemy could never be sure where the next push would occur. Surprise and overwhelming artillery fire pushed the enemy back.
The second battle of the Marne stemmed the German final assault and was quickly followed by the battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918. Ludendorff’s admission that this was the Black Day of the German army was an admission that the tables had turned. Nevertheless the German army would continue to fight. Foch oversaw four major battles on consecutive days in late September that were to prove the final sequence of the war would be controlled by the Allies. These were likened by Peter to an assault on a boxer, but by now the Allies ignored any Queensbury rules.
On 26 September the French and Americans attacked at the Meuse. Despite the latter’s inexperience, causing heavy casualties, it was equivalent to the opening of a fight by kicking the opponent in the shins. Next day the British and Canadians attacked the Canal Du Nord, equivalent to a punch in the heart. This was followed by an uppercut at Ypres. The final insult on 29 September saw the British, Australians and Americans cross the St Quentin canal, which was like a knee in the groin to the enemy. The enemy reaction had already been weakened by earlier battles and it was unable to move its limited reserves up and down the line.
It was that inevitable the Allies would suffer heavy casualties in this new period of open warfare. However, by now the Allies had begun to realise the need for firepower superiority. The 1914 infantry had held store in the ability to fire 15 rounds in a minute but this was little compensation against an enemy with more and better artillery and machine guns.
By 1918, the BEF infantry had 36 Lewis guns per battalion, mortars, rifle grenades and hand grenades as well as riflemen. Deployed in smaller units they were more flexible and provided a substantial advantage. ‘Best practice' was reflected in the SS pamphlets. Analysis of reports from the field, i.e. .learning from bottom up, aimed for continual improvement.
The Allied infantry was also more effective. The huge increase in guns meant that each assault could be assisted by the relevant Armies own unit offering massive fire power. Creeping barrages and surprise shelling destroyed the enemy’s moral.
Although Foch and Haigh believed they could win in 1918, they knew that despite their dire straits, the Germans would still offer a stiff resistance. The Allies had the advantage of being able to have sufficient artillery to move forward to the next starting point to unleash a storm of fire onto the enemy. The effect of the blockade not only denied essential supplies to Germany’s civilians, it ensured that the basic hard material needed to wage war was increasingly denied to their army.
The last major assault commenced on 4 November when the Sambre canal was crossed, and the Germans began to see that the end was near. Although the Allies could also see the end was near, they still had to take the fight to the enemy. Despite hearing of Turkish and Bulgarian capitulation, soldiers had to use inner resolve and their comradeship enabled sacrifices to continue to the end of hostilities. In particular on 11 November when the troops were aware of the forthcoming peace, the Americans suffered heavy casualties in a last assault on the enemy.
The ramifications of the War affected all sides. The Allies were in no mood to treat the enemy softly. However, the German High Command blew hot and cold. In October they had told the Kaiser they were beaten and must sue for peace. However, after Versailles they were to complain that they had been stabbed in the back by the politicians. Ultimately this was to feed the fervour of the Nazis for revenge. It was to bring about another global conflict and that time the victorious Allies ensured the peace would hold in Europe, even if political tensions remained.
Foch had said that Versailles was only an armistice for twenty years. Unfortunately his prediction was correct.
An absorbing account portrayed by Peter Hart in his unique way.
On 3 October, Ann and I attended the funeral of Alan Kennedy at Stockport Cemetery. John Richardson was also present.
Alan was escorted into the chapel by Standard Bearers and the service was conducted by one of his fellow comrades, Derek Sykes.
Alan had served overseas and had been Mentioned in Despatches. He had a well extended family, which is still represented in today’s Army. It was clear that he was loved by all of them. His popularity was apparent by the numbers who attended and the tributes that were made to him. He had also been involved in local football running Norris Albion F.C. in the Stockport and District Sunday Football league. This is where I first made his acquaintance as I officiated as a referee and was also on the League Committee for several years. Some of those involved in the League were there and I was able to rekindle my recollections with them.
After the service we were invited back to the TA, where refreshments were served.
I am sure that Branch members will, like me, remember him for all the assistance he gave us when we held our meetings at the TA.
Cheshire Villages Great War Society Wilmslow Remembers
The Cheshire Villages Great War Society will be holding a commemorative exhibition to remember the fallen of Wilmslow in the Great War 1914 – 1918, on Saturday 9 November 2019, at the Wilmslow United Reformed Church, Chapel Lane, Wilmslow, SK9 1PR. Researchers available to answer questions, additional information and photos are always welcome. The doors are open from 10.00 a.m. until 5.00 p.m. Admission is free and there will be light refreshment available.
Monday 11 November at 11am
The Cenotaph Committee of John Chester, Rich Hughes and Colin Wagstaff, are planning for the 2019 Ceremony and details will be confirmed on the WFA website and next Stand To! Members are asked to assemble by 10.15am at King Charles Street and will parade out at 10.40am to the Cenotaph. After the Cenotaph ceremony there will be the usual service 12.15pm at the historic Guards Chapel* at the Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, followed by an informal lunch at the Albert Pub, 52 Victoria Street, SW1H 0NP at 1.30pm. For lunch book via the office. Meet other Members. If you have a family member who died in or after the Great War this is a great opportunity to get close and personal to the Cenotaph where you can lay your own wreath. All members welcome!
*The Royal Military Chapel, St James Park, known as the Guards Chapel, is the religious home of the Household Division at the Wellington Barracks in London. Constructed between 1839–40 in the style of a Grecian temple and restored in the 1870s, the chapel was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz in 1940/1941. The Flanders Fields Memorial Garden is situated adjacent to the chapel.