It wasn’t over by Christmas... and now the world would experience war of a new and terrible magnitude

Sir John French in France in the summer of 1915

Sir John French in France in the summer of 1915 - Credit: Archant

Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, Mike Peters, explains why the war was not over by Christmas 1914 and why the character of the conflict was to change dramatically in 1915.

Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig

Field Marshall Earl Douglas Haig - Credit: Archant

It is human nature at the start of a new year to reflect on the past 12 months – to speculate and look forward to the coming year. Many of us will have done exactly that this week.

One hundred years ago, the men of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and those that walked the corridors of power were doing exactly the same thing.

At the beginning of 1914, war had seemed a remote possibility; domestic issues dominated the press. Newspaper headlines focussed on the complex issues of Irish home rule, Scottish independence, emerging trade unionism and, of course, the suffragettes and their campaign for votes for women.

The outbreak of war in August changed everything; newspapers and their readers would now focus almost entirely on the war. After all, it would all be over by Christmas...

General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien

General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien - Credit: Archant

In January, 1915, the men of the BEF and the women that supported them were very aware the war was far from over. They had endured a series of hard-fought and costly battles at Mons, at the River Marne and then ? as winter closed in ? under immense pressure they had held on against strong German forces at Armentieres and outside the small Belgian town of Ypres.

The first battle of Ypres, as it became known, was a desperate fight that almost shattered the BEF, but the depleted British force, reinforced by the Indian Army Corps, held onto the salient by its fingernails.

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The last throes of the fighting in 1914 took place over hard, frozen, snow-covered fields. These battles were again costly and did little to loosen the German grip on the newly-formed Ypres Salient.

In modern terms it is staggering to consider that after just four months of fighting the BEF had suffered over 86,000 casualties. Only 10 of the original 86 battalions that crossed the English Channel in August could still muster over half their original complement. Perhaps it was this unprecedented toll of casualties, coupled with exhaustion and the severe winter weather, that led to the remarkable Christmas truce: a brief interlude in the fighting that was only a temporary respite. The war was not over. It would go on for the foreseeable future.

Britain was now facing the prospect of war on a scale it had done everything in its power to avoid for almost a century. War on a vast continental scale would require a huge expansion in the size of the BEF.

On Boxing Day 1914, the BEF’s commander, Sir John French, issued orders to his corps commanders: General Sir Douglas Haig (1st Corps) and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (2nd Corps). Each of their commands would be expanded into an army.

Britain was committing itself to participation in renewed large-scale offensives in 1915. In spite of the arrival of the new divisions from Britain, India and Canada, and the formation of new armies, the BEF was very much smaller than its French and German counterparts.

The BEF was the junior partner to the huge French Army. British commanders were aware they were duty bound to co-operate with the French and that they must play a supporting role in the French strategic plan to defeat the German invader.

The formation, training and equipment of the new British armies would not happen overnight. It would be many weeks before the BEF was ready to set about launching new offensives. That said, there was optimism among the allies. Had they not stopped the seemingly invincible German steamroller from crushing Belgium and reaching Paris?

The Germans had been halted and both sides were now locked in muddy stalemate, enduring winter in opposing trench lines. The New Year would bring fresh hope; in the coming spring, reinforced allied armies would finally seize the initiative and break through the Germans lines.

Well, that was the plan. Time would tell.

One thing certain was that 1915 would be a very different year to its predecessor. There was a grim acceptance that the coming year would require a huge effort on land, at sea and, crucially, on the home front. Few people at the time could foresee just how different 1915 would be to what had gone before. The world was about to experience war of a new and terrible magnitude.

• Galloway have two guided four-day tours of the Western Front, travelling on April 17 and May 1. Details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information. You can also follow Galloway’s battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on its Facebook page.