Monthly Archives: January 2012

Breaking the Stalemate at the Front

During World War I, two equally-matched armies sat deadlocked on the Western Front, each ensconced in elaborate entrenchments.  While night patrols and trench raids took place, they did not amount to much, and lobbing grenades at each other only went so far.  Creative thinking was needed to end this bloody war of attrition.

Through the combined use of new weaponry and tactics, the stalemate was finally broken in 1918, beginning with the German Spring Offensive.

Frontal infantry assaults on heavily fortified trenches led to devastating losses and little ground gained.  Shelling the trenches beforehand had proved ineffective (such as in the Battle of the Somme).  The following new tactics were developed in hopes of ending the stalemate:

  • Pre-battle training: Model trenches (see picture here) were designed to help soldiers visualize what they would be running into, so that they could avoid dangerous spots and target the weaker sections of an enemy’s trench system.  Sharing this knowledge with a number of soldiers, rather than just the senior officers, meant the men would know what to do in the event their officers were shot down during battle.  Junior officers were also given a larger role, as the armies realized that it was unrealistic to carry out a large orchestrated military maneuver from afar.  Junior officers would need to think on the spot and show initiative.
  • Artillery coverage: The new plan was to have the artillery suppress the strongest portions of the enemy entrenchments, while the infantry went around them to the weaker points.  Artillery also used new intelligence-gathering techniques in order to find enemy guns and destroy them, so that they would not be in the way of the infantry.
  • Pushing forward: The army was to constantly push into enemy territory without letting up, so that the enemy did not have time to reinforce their trenches and deploy their reserve troops.
  • Combining forces: The main key to success was to combine artillery, infantry, and new weapons and to throw everything at the enemy at once.

So what happened when these tactics were put into action?

Spring Offensive

German Stormtrooper, spring 1918

In March, 1918, the Germans launched a full-scale offensive in an attempt to end the war.  Seeing that the war of attrition was tipping in the Allies’ favor with the United States entering the fight on their side (with fresh troops and supplies), the Germans knew they needed to launch an attack before the United States had a chance to become a formidably trained fighting force.

The plan was to attack the weakly defended Somme area, outflank British troops there and defeat the British army, thus causing the French to call for an armistice.  The German army had developed specialized units known as “stormtroopers” to move through the weakened sections of enemy lines, disrupting artillery, enemy headquarters, and supply depots, and rapidly seizing enemy territory.

At first the Germans found success with this tactic, surprising the British troops, who suffered heavy casualties.  However, the German army began to lose momentum as they were unable to keep the stormtroopers supplied.  These delays gave the Allies enough time to regroup and slow the German advance.  By April the German offensive was no longer a great danger to Allied forces.

During the Spring Offensive the Allies lost 255,000 men, numbers that could be replenished by American troops.  The Germans lost 239,000 men, most of whom were the best soldiers Germany had to offer, the “stormtroopers” that had been sent in during their final big push to win the war.  The lack of decisive victory lowered the remaining German troops’ morale.

Amiens and the last 100 days

Canadian troops at Amiens

In August the Allies launched a surprise offensive against the weakened German army.  The “combined arms” approach was used for this successful attack, with the infantry advancing behind a curtain of artillery fire, and with the support of tanks, armored cars, cavalry, and close air support.  The Allies almost broke through the German lines, but reinforcements were rushed in, preventing the Allies from moving farther.

However, the battle of Amiens had shaken the German army’s confidence, while bolstering the Allies’.  Before Amiens, the Allied army saw the war stretching on for another two years at least, but the battle had proven just how weakened the German army was.

In the hundred days that followed, the Allied troops continued to forge ahead, pushing past German trenches using the same techniques (tanks, artillery, and air power).  Outnumbered and outgunned, the German army was forced to retreat, and it was soon obvious that the war was drawing to its conclusion.

Sources: Canada and the First World War, First World, Wikipedia


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Downton Abbey Season 2, ep. 4 recap

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Last night Downton Abbey did not end with a cheery song and the return of an unscathed missing man.  Instead viewers were hit with one piece of depressing news after another.  This was the darkest episode yet (except for a few light spots with the Dowager Countess, such as when she calls the telephone an instrument of torture.  Oh Granny).

Two of my Downton Predictions proved accurate in this episode.  During the battle of Amiens (which was the beginning of the end of the war and was a major success for the Allied forces), Matthew and William are wounded by a nearby shell explosion.  William sustains a serious lung injury that will slowly kill him, while Matthew’s injury leads the doctor to suggest that he will never walk again, and will never have a “proper marriage.”  Now the future of the entail is called into question again, as well as Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia.  He tells her to leave, refusing to tie her down to a cripple who won’t be able to give her any children.

Lavinia pours her heart out to Lady Mary, then promptly departs for London, leaving Mary to care for Matthew.  Given Lavinia’s meek and mild nature, someone with Mary’s strong resolve is probably what Matthew needs (and of course I’m rooting for them to reunite).  Mary devotes herself to Matthew’s care, and seems to finally have found her place among all the change occurring around her from the war.

But Mary has other problems to tend to.  Vera Bates returns (thanks to O’Brien) and has every intention of revealing Mary’s secret, and plans to bring Anna down along with the Crawley name.  Anna tells Mary, who goes to see Sir Richard about the matter.  You know you’ve made a mistake in your choice of fiancee when he says he’s happy to help, but it also pleases him to know that he’ll have something on you and you’ll be in his debt.  As we can see from next week’s preview, it looks like Sir Richard plans to play the “Pamuk card” to get what he wants.

Mrs. Bates is paid off by Sir Richard, who then promptly announces his engagement to Mary (again, not a good sign, given that Mary had no knowledge that he would do so).  This news infuriates Vera, and she swears that she will get Bates back another way.  This woman is on an entirely different level than O’Brien and Thomas in her one-dimensional vendetta against Bates and Anna.  O’Brien and Thomas can be nasty, but who knows to what lengths Vera will go to get back at Bates.

Meanwhile William is dying at Downton (after a few strings are pulled by Lady Violet to get him there) in the largest bedroom he’s ever slept in.  Daisy is basically peer-pressured into marrying William in order to receive a widow’s pension.  You can’t help but feel badly for her, and I know the guilt is going to eat away at her as that pension starts coming in.  The marriage, quickly followed by the death of William, left us reaching for the tissues (if Lady Violet is allowed to shed a tear, so are we!).

There were a few odds and ends tucked in throughout the episode.  Lady Edith quietly nurses William, keeping him comfortable during the final days of his life.  A  few short scenes between Lady Sybil and Branson show that he seems to be chipping away at the barrier she’s put between them (really, this relationship grows creepier each week, like Sybil is some sort of trophy that Branson’s trying to win).

Lord Grantham is being ignored by Lady Grantham, who is busy running the convalescent home, and like some sort of spoiled child he pouts with his newspaper, and then takes an all-too keen interest in the new maid (did anyone else notice that lingering look he gave after she left the room?).  Mrs. Hughes has been looking out for Ethel and her illegitimate child, who the father wants nothing to do with (is it just me or does this thread fall somewhat flat–I didn’t have enough time with Ethel to become emotionally invested in her).  And Isobel Crawley returns at last, and the look Matthew gives her before breaking down when he sees her was enough to make me bring out the tissues again.

So what next?  Nothing was resolved in this episode, and it looks like several story arcs are getting ready to hit their critical peaks.

What did you think of this week’s episode?

Miss any of the other episodes?  See my episode 1, episode 2, and episode 3 recaps.


Filed under Downton Abbey, Period Pieces

Why does World War I still resonate?

Machine Gunner from the NC 30th Division

I wrote earlier about why World War I has captured and held my interest for so many years.  I just read a New York Times editorial piece by British novelist William Boyd about how World War I is more popular than ever, with films like War Horse and TV programs like Downton Abbey.  He describes the war as “a conflict between 19th century armies equipped with 20th century weapons,” which led to devastating casualty rates.

It’s a very good read and I recommend it: Why World War I Resonates

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Music during World War I

1916 program cover

In episode 3 of the second season of Downton Abbey, Mary Crawley sings “If You Were the Only Girl (in the world)” to the piano accompaniment of her sister Edith.  Mary laments that there are no available men to sing with her, as the song was meant as a duet.  Written in 1916 for The Bing Boys Are Here revue in London, the song became a huge hit, and was originally performed by George Robey and Violet Lorraine (go here to listen to the original singers and to read the lyrics).  The Bing Boys Are Here was considered one of the most influential musicals on the London Stage during World War I, its songs becoming forever linked to the period.

Soldiers often sang during the first world war as a way of boosting morale and to escape the misery of the front.  Men might sing renditions of “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary” as they marched, or “Keep the Home Fires Burning” while at base camp or in the trenches.  The former was written in 1912 and was first sung by an Irish Regiment (the Connaught Rangers), and was soon adopted by many other British troops.  The latter was written in 1914 specifically for the war.

Soldiers also amused themselves by taking popular tunes and creating new lyrics that often had an anti-war message.  Tune names were changed to titles like We’re All Waiting for a Shell and Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire.

You can go to First World for more songs (listed by year) with vintage audio.

Source: Canada and the First World War, Wikipedia.


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Downton Abbey Season 2, ep. 3 recap

Bates is back, and all is right with the world.

Or at least, downstairs at Downton Abbey.  There’s something about Bates’s presence that makes the other staff feel that they’ve got someone looking out for them (which perturbs O’Brien and Thomas to no end, and refreshes their need to scheme).  Even the Earl of Grantham needs Bates, prompting a surprise visit to the pub where Bates works to ask for forgiveness and for him to come back to help the Earl “through the veil of shadow.”

Bates turns to find a surprise visitor

That shadow, of course, is the news that Matthew (as well as William) has gone missing.  As the news slowly spreads upstairs, it somehow makes the war a little more real, a little “closer to home.”  Sure, there are convalescents all over the place and Sybil is in her nurse’s garb, and yes, Matthew’s been to the front (always returning home without a scratch), but so far the house has seemed one step removed from it all.  The war’s been used as an abstract backdrop for the series, but now the Crawleys (and the viewers) are face to face with its sober realities.

This to me was the best episode of season 2 so far, for that very reason.  The family is putting on a performance for the convalescents, trying to keep things bright and cheery, while internally they are all concerned about Matthew.  Downstairs, everyone keeps on with their work, but William is never far from their minds.  The two missing men reappear during Mary and Edith’s performance, when the family and staff (along with the viewers) are temporarily distracted.   Real joy replaces the fake smiles the inhabitants of Downton Abbey have been wearing, knowing that their men are safe, for now.

Matthew and William return

There are several other mini-plots going on throughout the episode.  Scandal erupts when Mrs. Hughes finds one of the convalescents in bed with Ethel, who is immediately dismissed and later shows up pregnant.  Another potential scandal is brewing between Lady Sybil and Branson the chauffeur.  Sybil’s always been one to shirk tradition, but her rebellious nature revs up in this episode, no doubt stoked by Branson’s prodding.  It’s just a matter of time before she is willing to acknowledge what she already knows.  I can only imagine what the ramifications would be of such a match (and what Lady Violet will have to say about it!).

Sybil contemplating the choice she has to make

Mary decides to accept Richard Carlisle’s proposal (a decision she’ll regret, no doubt), and writes Matthew to let him know (he then promptly goes out on patrol, but takes Mary’s good luck charm, so he’s okay!).

Isobel Crawley, feeling she is no longer wanted at Downton (and rightfully so) leaves for France to work for the wounded and missing inquiry department detachment set up by the Red Cross (can’t say I was sorry to see her go, she’s been a real pain this season).  Her maid and Mr. Mosley decide to set up a soup kitchen of sorts for the wounded veterans of the village, and Mrs. Patmore steps in to help.  O’Brien catches wind of it and promptly informs “her ladyship,” who goes to investigate.  Fortunately Cora does not disapprove and actually pitches in to help.

This episode took place in 1918, so the war will be drawing to a close soon.  Looks like next week Matthew and William will be put in more danger, and Mary’s past comes back to haunt her.

Miss either of the other two episodes?  Read my episode 1 and episode 2 recaps.


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Life in the Trenches

Due to the attrition tactics of both armies during World War I, life in the trenches was usually a boring but dangerous existence punctuated by small attacks and only the occasional full scale battle.

What was a typical day like in the trenches on the Western Front?

Note: You may also want to read my post on trench construction, to better understand terms used in this post.

Men taking a break from trench repair.

The Daily Routine

An hour before sunrise companies were ordered to “stand to,” as this was the time an attack would most likely occur.  Soldiers in the front-line trenches would stand on the fire-step with their rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed. An hour after sun-up, when it was clear an attack was not likely to happen, “stand down” orders were given, and only the sentries remained at their posts.

The rest of the soldiers would receive their breakfast and daily rum ration (more on that later), as well as their chores for the day.  These could range from repairing duckboards, filling sandbags, and any other trench repair that could be done below ground level so that men were not at risk of being picked off by snipers.

British soldier George Coppard described these chores:

Breakfast over, there was not long to wait before an officer appeared with details of the duties and fatigues to be performed. Weapon cleaning and inspection, always a prime task, would soon be followed by pick and shovel work. Trench maintenance was constant, a job without end. Owing to the weather or enemy action, trenches required repairing, deepening, widening and strengthening, while new support trenches always seemed to be wanted.

When chores were completed, men had some leisure time to write letters, play cards, or perhaps read one of the trench newspapers that were printed.

An hour before nightfall another “stand to” would be ordered, which lasted until an hour after the sun went down.  Then the more dangerous work began.

As a side note: even though the Germans were well aware of the “stand to” orders at dawn and dusk, they still planned most of their attacks to take place during those times of day.  It was even more likely if German intelligence learned that an inexperienced company was in charge of a particular part of the front-line.

Night-time Routine

When darkness fell, soldiers crawled out of the trenches in order to make outside repairs to barbed wire, replace sandbags on the parapet, or perhaps dig a new trench.

Small patrols would sometimes be sent out into No Man’s Land in order to gather information from the enemy.  Soldiers would crawl until they were within earshot of the enemy lines (sometimes this was not very far at all, as the stretch of land between the front-line trenches could range from 50 yards to 500).  Raiding parties would also be organized in which men would cross No Man’s Land in hopes of infiltrating the enemy trench to capture German soldiers to interrogate.

To try to stop night patrols, Germans sent up light-shell rockets, which would burst into flame in the air, giving approximately one minute of light in which the Germans could spot and shoot British soldiers caught out in No Man’s Land.

Adrenaline ran high during these nighttime excursions.  British soldier Anthony Eden wrote about his first night patrol, in which he and two other soldiers made it to the German trenches and were cutting through the enemy barbed wire when they were spotted.

The job was just about done when all hell seemed to break loose right in our faces. The German trench leapt into life, rifles and machine-guns blazed. Incredibly none of the bombardment touched us, presumably because we were much closer to the German trench, within their wire and only a foot or two from the parapet, than the enemy imagined possible. As a result the firing was all aimed above and beyond us, into no-man’s-land or at our own front line.

Rum Rations

Several things helped soldiers maintain their morale while in the trenches.  Letters and care packages arrived almost daily from home, providing a crucial link to life before the war.  Camaraderie developed among fellow soldiers, strengthened through shared experiences on the front.

Rum was another important morale booster.   As mentioned earlier, rum was typically given to each soldier after the morning “stand to”.  They also received another “dose” at night.  According to the Canadian War Museum rum served as “a reward, a medicine, and a combat motivator. Soldiers who had committed offences received no rum; those who had volunteered for trench raids or other dangerous missions received an extra share.”  Rum was brought to the trenches in clay or ceramic jugs marked S.R.D. (Supply Reserve Depot, though some soldiers joked that the initials stood for “Soon Run Dry”).

Stockpile of French shells


Even if the men were not actively engaged in battle, there was still a risk of being killed while in the trenches.  Enemy snipers were constantly on the lookout to pick off any unsuspecting soldier who happened to be seen.  Enemy shells were also a daily occurrence, shrapnel from which could do deadly damage (helmets were eventually made part of a soldier’s attire to help protect against shell explosions).

Casualties that were not a result of battle but of the day-to-day sniping and shelling was known as “wastage.”  According to the Canadian War Museum: “In the 800-strong infantry units, ‘wastage’ rates were as high as ten per cent per month, or 80 soldiers killed or incapacitated.”  This led to the constant need of reinforcements to the front.

US Pvt. Leo R. Hahn, sniper, 32nd division

The screaming of shells and the random shots of snipers could quickly wear on one’s nerves.  Some men broke down, suffering from what was was known as “shell shock” (a condition not very well understood at the time, it is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  In order to reduce the stress associated with life in the trenches and to prevent “shell shock,” companies were rotated in and out of the trenches.  A company would spend approximately 4 to 6 days in the front-line trench, then another 4 to 6 in the support trench, and lastly, 4 to 6 days in the reserve trench.

Soldiers had more free time in the rear areas, where they could perhaps visit the YMCA huts for leisure activities.  Men would also be given occasional leave that allowed them to get away from the front all together for periods of time.  They would return rested, and would be called on to relieve other companies in the trenches once more.

Sources: Spartacus Educational, Canadian War Museum


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Highclere Castle: Convalescent Home

Highclere Castle, the grand house used as Downton Abbey, actually served as a convalescent home during the first world war.  Due to the extraordinary number of injured soldiers that were streaming in from the Western Front, many country estates in England opened their doors when the hospitals soon became overrun.  While some volunteered their home, such as Highclere Castle, others were pressed into service.  It was thought that the fresh country air was the best for recuperation, plus these sprawling estates had the room to spare.

You can learn more about Highclere’s castle’s turn as a convalescent home here, and see a video about it here.  There’s also a really an interesting article about the current Countess of Carnavon, who has written a book about the real Downton Abbey here.

Source: Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

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