War history: Demolishing the persistent myths of The Great War
- Credit: PA
The truth? The First World War touched every household: from Buckingham Palace down to the red-brick slum. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at some of the incorrect beliefs that still abound today.
One of the most enjoyable things about being a professional battlefield guide and military historian is of course the people you meet, especially on a tour, and the discussions we have about their preconceived ideas of the war and the accepted view of the average soldier’s experiences of life on the Western Front. It still amazes me, after many years of touring, just how many myths are still perpetuated by the media and accepted as the truth by the public.
The most commonly held view that I come across is that almost everybody who went off to fight in the trenches was killed or wounded. Often the first surprise for the group is the fact that not all soldiers actually saw the trenches. Many who served in the support arms did not go that far forward; not that it was any less dangerous behind the frontline. Troops in the rear areas were frequently subjected to artillery fire, air raids or even drifting clouds of gas.
But I digress. There is no denying that the casualties suffered by all sides between 1914 and 1918 were high, especially when measured against the totals for the wars of the past 20 years. However, if we actually take a proper look at the facts, the UK mobilised around six million and of those just over 700,000 were killed. That works out at around 11.5%. The British soldier that marched off to fight in the Crimean War of 1853-56 was much more likely to die.
Of course, the losses incurred during the Great War had a significant impact on every aspect of society in Britain and across the Commonwealth, but the figures represent just 2% of the UK population. This can hardly be referred to, as it often is, as the loss of an entire generation.
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In comparison, it is worth noting that the death toll of the English Civil War was proportionately double that figure, representing 4% of the population of England and Wales.
Another firmly entrenched view (deliberate pun) is that soldiers never left the trenches, spending months and years in waterlogged misery, immersed up to their knees in mud.
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It is absolutely true that a frontline trench was an incredibly difficult and hostile environment to live in, and more difficult yet to be an effective soldier. The commanders of the day realised that continual exposure to such harsh conditions would wear men down physically and eventually erode their morale. As a result, the British army rotated men in and out of the front line continuously.
Between battles, a unit spent perhaps an average of 10 days a month in the trench system and, of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual for a unit to be out of the line for a month.
There were of course exceptions to this, especially during the build-up to a major offensive, or during extended periods of heavy artillery bombardment when movement was impossible.
The next hardy perennial perpetuated by the film and TV industry for decades is that of the “Chateau General” miles behind the lines, thoughtlessly sending thousands of officers and men to futile deaths. The reality could not be further from this populist view. The British and Commonwealth armies lost over 200 general officers during the war; most were caught too far forward, attempting to influence the battle and see for themselves what was happening.
Close behind the emotive subject of Lions led by Donkeys and Chateau Generals will often be the view that the toffs of Edwardian society did not fight. This is absolutely wrong. Many of the upper class and landed gentry rushed to the colours at the outbreak of war. Many would not return to their privileged pre-war lifestyle. Among them was the son of prime minister Herbert Asquith, who was killed on the Somme.
The Prince of Wales narrowly escaped death in the Ypres Salient in 1917; future prime minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two sons. In addition, Anthony Eden, who would also be prime minister, lost two brothers; another was terribly wounded and an uncle captured.
The figures make stark reading. Some 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils ? 20% of those who served. The war reached right into the drawing rooms of the upper echelons of society; they paid a price for their status.
The truth is that this was a war that touched every household in the UK, from Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street right down to the red-brick slums and tiny farms of the working class.
I hope this has given you food for thought and perhaps inspired you to visit the Western Front with us to see for yourself. I have just scratched the surface and I have used up all of our column space for this edition.