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Reading up on the First World War


Although Kindle suggests otherwise I have read most of these. I have read Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers. How europe went to war in 1914’ twice and am now reducing copious notes down to a cribsheet or revision notes. In due course I want to generate a series of multiple-choice questions on the QStream patform and a SimpleMind mindmap. By then the info may have stuck. According to Kindle 70% read takes me to the reference section of this 600+ page book. A third complete read is likely as I feel I can trust this Cambridge professor of history to be accurate and up to date.

‘Boy Soldiers’ I have read as a paperback. I find the eBook version more versatile – not least having it in my pocket at all times to cross reference. If there is a way to interest teenage boys in the history of World War One this is it. ‘Meeting the Enemy’ I have just downloaded as Richard van Emden is an easy and authoritative voice. It’ll add colour and insight to my own grandfather’s recollections of how a ‘Jerry’ wandered into their pillbox one foggy October or November morning in 1917.

I have several books on women and the First World War – anthologies and diaries. Often revealing for the common experience rather than anything that is startlingly different.

Others I have read to hear the same narrative with a different voice.

Sean McMeekin on the July Crisis is thorough and more tightly chronological than Clark who spends more time with each country. Another way to do this might be as a kind of bibliography – each of the sixteen or so key players profiled in detail relating to decisions taken in 1914. By the time I have read Allan Mallinson the chronology and landscape of the events leading to conflict in 1914 ought to be clear in my mind. This is how I learn – multiple voices on the same material expressed in a slightly different way – what resonates are the moments and conclusions that they have in common, or something finally makes sense when I hear it expressed in a certain way, or a new insight or nugget of information is offered.

Max Hastings, understandably given his journalism background, composes his narrative like a journalist dipping into anecdotes and gossip. Whilst adding colour and noise some of the history is wrong (the dates of and significance of Russia’s preparatory and pre-mobilization plans) and very little is referenced, which I find odd as he had to get his information from somewhere. Already I am hearing a phrase or fact here and there that I recognise from documenaries and the basic and sometimes dated texts – all should be properly cited but is not. This feels like an opportunity to cash in on 1914-1918 interest. However it does offer something new – largelly what the papers were reporting, with all the selection for sensationalism or curiosity, bias, hyperbole or fog that this means.

Richard Holmes I’ve read in print. Like Lyn Macdonald I find he offers an excellent perspective from the soldier’s point of view.

Paddy Griffith comes recommended courtesy of comments in an Amazon Review. Not this book in particular, but the author and the many books he has written.

Meanwhile I colour this with the Hew Strachan inspired documentary series on the First World War (on YouTube) and others, along with the film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and visits to battlefields (Ypres) and museums.

Read on a period in history until you hear the people speak? I can listen to several hours of interviews with my grandfather – or those done with hundreds of veterans over the decades. I like my grandfather’s perspective – it was a job to be done and he wanted to get on with it until the job was done.

A couple of things I feel convinced of from the above reading:

Germany was hemmed in and ultimately left with no choice but to attack on all fronts – Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia and even France started this war.
Once in play the brutal behaviour of Austria in Serbia, and especially of Germany in Bulgaria, revealed a a national character, whether fed from the top or inculcated in the soldiers, that had to be stopped.

And the most trammeled and set upon?


So much for neutrality. Did this make Germany (and potentially France) think of Begium as neutered?

As we approach the centenerary of the First World War what will each nation have to say?

Has Germany gone quiet?
What can Serbia say?
And the Turks?
Let alone Commonwealth and Colonial peoples and nations?

What does it say about humankind and nationhood?

It’s not as if we don’t still live with the consequences of that war and the second world war.


The men from Lewes who died in the First World War


Fig. 1. The War Memorial, Lewes High Street, Lewes 

An extraordinary way to impress upon those living today, the terrible price and undoubted anguish and trauma caused by the death of one or more member of a family during World War One.

Steve George took the names of those featured on the Lewes War Memorial from the First World War. His research gave him an address which he pinned on a Google Map.

And where the war dead lived:

The men from Lewes who died in the First World War

Fig. 2. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial.

Some grabs using Google Maps and Google World:

Fig. 3. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial. (Satellite view)

  • Lots of the pins represent addresses with multiple fatalities
  • Approximately a third aren’t represented by individual pins.

Fig. 4. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial.

One corner of the town. Every 3rd or 4th house marking a soldier missing or known to be dead never to return.

“The more you zoom in “, says Steve, ”  the more clusters open out and the more shocking it gets”.

Fig. 5. The War Memorial, Lewes High Street, Lewes 

On the War Memorial there are two, sometimes three names from the same family: brothers, husbands, fathers and sons. The loss in some families was higher still.


  • Other towns, cities, associations and corporations to do something similar.
  • Do the same in all nations that suffered losses during the War.
  • Feature photographs of those named.
  • Link their home to where they fell (or where they lie).

Fig.6 The Tynecot Cemetry near Passchendaele.

Fig 7. International Corner, Belgium.  The 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele

Jack Wilson with Lyn Macdonald in 1992, marking the spot near International Corner, north west of Ypres where on 22nd October 1917 Jack burried Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld in shallow graves (their bodies were never recovered)

Fig. 8 John Arthur Wilson in 1916. A studio photograph taken in Consett, Co. Durham the week before he was transferred to the ‘suicide squad’ and sent for training on the Vicker’s Machine Gun in Grantham

Jack was from Benfieldside, Shotley Bridge. Those who died from his commmunity are featured in the Church. Where did the Lewes men fall? Where are else are they remembered? Do their relations or ancestors know their story? What do we tell future generations?

Fig. 9. Lyn Macdoland, author of ‘They called it Passchendaele’ at the Tynecot Memorial with veteran
Jack Wilson MM in front of the names of fallen comrades Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld June 1992

Fig. 10. The Ypres Salient, Passchendaele : The Western Front autumn 1917

Fig. 11. The dead around Tyne Cot as a result of the October-November push known as Third Ypres, 1917

Fig. 12. What they fought for and where many of them  died. A set of concrete  German pill-boxes in the mud of Passchendaele, late 1917

Fig. 13. How it ended for tens of thousands in the cratered morass of the Ypres Salient in 1917

Fig. 14. Third Ypres. August – November 1917

Fig. 15. They Called it Passchendale. Vivid narrative from Lyn Macdonald supported by the voices of many veterans in their own words.

Augmented reality if memorials

I’d like to see augmented reality used to reveal a photograph of everyone named on memorials such as these – putting a face to a name, a life lost.


Augmented Reality


I’d like to see the numbers in such exhibits complemented so that using augmented reality on a Smartphone or Tablet you get to see the exhibit in situ, with commentary, even drama reconstruction.

Tommy shared. Notes shared on Twitter from ‘Tommy’ by Richard Holmes


As I read Tommy as an eBook both on a Kindle and iPad I shared notes to Twitter.

Note: The idea of poor leadership amongst senior officers in WW1 is based on evidence.

The want of preparation, the vague orders, the ignorance of the objective & geography, the absurd haste, and in general the horrid bungling were scandalous.

Note: The stalemate that cost millions of lives. Imagine reporting that today – like a weather forecast.

The logic that encouraged the Allies to attack on the Western Front, to recover friendly territory, worked in reverse for the Germans, and persuaded them to remain on the defensive, holding gains which would prove useful bargaining counters if there was a compromise peace.

Note: Reduced to the ‘daily grind’ of surviving.

We just live for the day and think of little else but our job, the next show, and our billets and rations.

Note: True or apocryphal?

‘A bridge, composed of a compact mass of human bodies over which I stepped gingerly. I was not at all squeamish; the sight of dead men having long lost its terror for me, but making use of corpses, even enemy corpses, for bridge-building purposes seemed about the limit of callousness’.

Note: The first use of computing techniques in 1917.

Gun positions were precisely surveyed, and the development of flash-spotting and sound-ranging meant that German batteries could also be plotted with accuracy.

Note: Kill and be killed.

In York Cemetery near Haspres, between Cambrai and Valenciennes, lie a company’s worth of the York and Lancaster regiment, with, up by the back wall, most of the machine-gunners that killed them.

Note: Just like a British public school boy to believe that his code of conduct should be everyone’s.

Captain Robert Graves recalled his CSM, a Birmingham man, giving a stern talking-to to a German prisoner caught with pornographic postcards in his pack.

Note: Death was all around them even before they were sent to the trenches.

Thomas Atkins was no stranger to death. His siblings died in infancy from illnesses which would now be prevented by vaccination or cured by antibiotics. His workmates perished from a variety of accidents and diseases, and the prevalence of infection meant that even a simple cut could prove fatal.

Note: ‘Tommy’ knew how to misbehave and hate. Send a soccer hooligan to the Western Front?

Drunkenness and its frequent concomitant wife-beating were common, and there was frequent violence, often on a small scale but sometimes, especially in Glasgow, where Catholic versus Protestant riots occurred, on a much larger scale.

Note: It was this technical transition from horse to motor, from rifle to machine-gun and to the air.

The overwhelming majority pulled guns or wagons, just as they did in the French, German and United States armies at that time. In December 1918 the BEF fed a total of 394,443 animals. Of these just 25,414, riding and draught horses were in the Cavalry Corps, and 48,822 served on the lines of communication. The number of motor vehicles on the Western Front grew enormously: in August 1914 the Army Service Corps had just 507 motor vehicles at its disposal, and in January 1918 it had almost 22,000 trucks in France alone.

Note: Haig and everyone who promoted him reflect an era where connections overcome stupidity

Haig (how we hated him and all his lot) had certain disastrous failings. An optimist of optimists he refused to acknowledge failure. In a daft way he was an inspired man, with the dire conviction he was never wrong. ‘The well-loved horse,’ he said, years after the cataclysm of the Kaiser’s war, ‘will always be important in war.’ … Stupid sod, he should have been up to his navel in mud and water, with nothing but chlorinated tea to drink and dog biscuits and bully beef to eat, and have to piss in the place where he slept. He might then have noticed that the men under his sad command…

Note: Personality clashes then, as now, depending on where the power lies can have a marked impact.

In fact French’s dislike of Smith-Dorrien went back before the war. French was a flamboyant cavalryman and Lothario, and Smith-Dorrien a strait-laced, happily married infantryman.

Note: Haig was devious, a trait gained at Clifton, developed at Brasenose and exploited at Sandhurst.

French himself was replaced in December 1915, and Haig’s leaking of papers on the handling of the reserves at Loos played its part in bringing him down.

Note: There’s one aspect of WW1 life they never try to recreate: the smell or rotting bodies.

‘My worst memory was the stench of putrefying bodies, for I could smell them still, and though death may be sublime on a battlefield, it is certainly not beautiful.’81

Note: Such was life and death during WW1

Life in the world of earth and wire was generally uncomfortable and dangerous, but it was made more tolerable by the pattern of rotation that kept soldiers on the move between front and rear. And although men were killed in their trenches, by shells, mortar bombs or sniper-fire, as well as by the myriad accidents that assail folk working outdoors with heavy equipment in all weathers, severe casualties came, not in the drudgery of line-holding, but in the inferno of battle. Walter Nicholson believed that: ‘Trench fighting goes on throughout the war; but a battle comes like a hailstorm, mows down…

Note: Four distinct elements that made the WW1 Army

There were three distinct elements to the challenge, and theorists would now term them the components of fighting power. The first was physical, involving the weapons and equipment used; the second, so closely related, was conceptual, and concerned the evolution of military doctrine; and the third was human, and centred on the myriad of complex factors that made men fight. Finally, the army’s medical services had to contend with problems of their own, as new weapons and tactics proved their terrible capacity to damage body and mind.

Note: The awfulness of high explosives on WW1 troops.

When Ernest Shephard’s company was hit by heavy howitzers in July 1915 the effects were appalling. We found two machine gunners belonging to our company who had been blown from the trench over the railway bank into a deep pool of water, a distance of 70 yards. One man, Pte Woods, was found in 8 pieces, while others were ghastly sights, stomachs blown open, some headless, limbs off, etc. Up to the present we have found 17 and buried them.76

Note: Do the horrors of war make a horror story impossible? This was the context not the storyline?

An Irish medical officer fainted when the wounded man on his stretcher had his face sliced neatly off and hurled, like a rubber mask, against the side of the trench.

Note: The noise of WW1 we can recreate but what about the smell?

Think of the loudest clap of thunder you have ever heard, then imagine what it would be like if it continued without stopping. That was the noise which woke us at 4.40 am on Thursday, 21 March. I have never before or since heard anything like it.83

Note: Surely as soon as rules are introduced to War it becomes a game? Ban it!

Gas was first used on the Western Front by the Germans at Second Ypres in April 1915.

Note: Death was rarely the fear, but the manner of dying.

If a tank began to burn, as it so often did, men faced an urgent scramble to escape. The sight of terribly burned tank crew persuaded even infantrymen out in the mud that theirs was likely to be an easier death.

Note: The Lord of the Rings should be used when teaching about WW1

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, served on the Western Front with 11/Lancashire Fusiliers, and wrote that Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s sturdy and long-suffering companion on his journey to Mount Doom, was a portrait ‘of the English soldier, of the private and batman I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself’.

Note: Was The First War ‘great’ as in heroic or big?

It was regarded as degrading, primitive and wholly out of place in a citizen army fighting a great war. Lieutenant F. P. Roe was amongst the many young officers shocked by their first encounter with it.

Note: We used this to refer to editing poor video footage into a programme.

‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; you can make a good leather one.’

Note: Here’s a story, WW1 from the perspective of Lice.

Front-line soldiers were almost invariably infested with the body louse, pediculus vestimentii. The fully grown female of the species was about 4mm long, and the male slightly smaller: they were generally grey, sometimes with a bluish streak in the middle, though sharp colour variations caused great interest to their victims.

How to mark the centenary of ‘War One’

Fig. 1. Mind Map on factors to consider regarding marking the centenary of the First World War

I put this together after visits to the Imperial War Museum and the WW1 display at Newhaven Thought, by way of a lecture at the IWM on Observers taking photographs over the Western Front and several books and part-works, the ‘World War’ series from the 1930s for example and ‘Tommy’ by Richard Holmes.

This is a tough call. Someone remembered the 50th anniversary last night and how people harked backed to Waterloo a hundred years before that, something I caught in the first paragraphs of World War with a caption for soldiers embarking trains for the continent at Waterloo Station.

Are we capable of repeating such folly on such a grand scale?

Of course we are, from the small beginnings of the mess that is Syria, to the rumblings of 9/11 and our relations with Russia, China, Iran and others.

A shame all nations couldn’t simultaneously have leaders with the attitude of Gandhi or Mandela.

Least we forget. War is a horrible business.

Fig. 2. The editor of World War published in 1936/37 said he would not hold back from showing horrendous pictures; this from part one published on 8th November 1936

He didn’t care once he was dead, but he crawled into this thicket with a wound and may have taken days to die and then weeks to rot.

It isn’t hard to find shocking images from our own era.

Reconstructions of a trench give only a tiny sense of it.

Fig 3. Trench reconstruction, Imperial War Museum

Where is the mud?

Where the smell of rotting flesh, of gas and urine?

Where is the black hand sticking out of the trench wall? The torso in No Man’s Land?

Where the fear, something that might be best recreated in a horror film.

My grandfather spoke to me about his experiences at length and I pass these on to my children. A blog, a podcast and photos go towards this memory of one of my ancestors. Not all of us do this, but some of us do, as if we have a need to reflect on the experiences and exploits of our forebares.

Shooting the Front. Terry Finnegan on the role of observers over the Western Front during ‘War One’ (sic)

Fig. 1.  Shooting the Front.

Terry Finnegan gave a presentation based on his book ‘Shooting the Front’ to an audience, largely of Friends of the Imperial War Museum at the IWM on Wednesday 20th June.

He wondered how the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Flying Corps could have been missed, yet we got behind the 100th of Titantic.

Fig. 2. The author taking us through the standard set of cameras used.

The presentation was revealing on a number of counts.

I’d never heard it called ‘War One’ yet this is clearly how American’s refer to the First World War.

I wasn’t aware that the techniques used to record the flash and roar of enemy artillery fire used the earliest form of computing to ‘spot’ the gun and retaliate.

I’ve heard before how war ‘progresses’ technology. Terry put it like this, ‘it takes a military event to put you in the  21st century’.

He described trench warfar as  he ‘positional’ war or stationary war.

Every inch of the Western Front was scrutinised every day we are told (not enough to prevent the folly of attempting an attack though(, but rather to plot a way through for tanks and troops.

The role or observers in planes was:

  • air space management
  • division to corps
  • protecting the air above you about 20 miles forward

The Germans had better lenses, the Zeiss.

With the automation of photography the Observer became a fighter defending the plane.

Fig 3. An RAF Observer 1918

Because of the nature of the single-winged emblem on their tunics Observers became known as ‘Flying Arse-Holes’. The response was to retitle them ‘Navigators’.

Apologies to this individual whose name I don’t have. My grandfather, a flight cadet at the time, provided a length memoir which I am yet to transcribe from the interviews I conducted in his 97th year.

Nicholas Watkis, author ‘The Western Front from the Air’.

Suggested that for much of the time the front was dry and dusty and not a great deal happened.

IWM Forward Communications. Western Front. Trenches


At what point does a walk through exhibit become a science-fiction flight through time to expeience the moment as it was. Distinctly lacking in this trench: flies, rats, the smell of death, urine, unwashed bodies, gas, explosions and burning wood and flesh. Distinctly absent the mud underfoot, of course, as a museum exhibit children and tourists in flip-flops and high heels have to be catered for.

The war to end war? So H G Wells thought in 1914 and 1936

Fig. 1 World War (Parts 1-6)

I’m reading ‘World War’ to understand better how people thought if the events at the time.

The first issue of 52 came out on 8th November 1934.

It is described as a ‘pictured history’ so there are, for its time, loads of orignal black and white pictures, but this is no comic, there is ample text, one million words in total across the series, with contributions from the likes of H.G.Wells.

Fig 2. H.G.Wells (Author and commentator)

The goal of the series was to provide:

‘A vivid mental impression of what the War signified in its destruction of old and beautiful things, the production of human misery and unparalleled suffering, and the setting back of the clock of civilization’. pii Sir John Hammerton

Hammerton the Editor, during the war, of ‘The War Illustrated’ had a demonstrable skill gained from producing encyclopedias and multiple volumes.

Fig 3. Killed taking a German Pill Box. Passchendaele late 1917. From ‘World War: a pictured history’

Hammerton justifies publishing the ‘horrors’ of the war; the exact images that are kept from our TV screens today.

If we saw more often the graphic consequences of shelling and shooting there might be the kind if outcry and action that is currently given to famine.

He was against propaganda.

By the time ‘World War’ was published Hitler had come to power in Germany so it isn’t surprising that the editor senses trouble ahead; writing of Germany he says:

‘A nation that … dreams even now of sacrificing its new generation of youth at the altar which still reeks pf the blood of its slaughtered millions’. Hammerton (1934:1)

While he asks:

‘No earnest striving after peace would demand too much if it could prevent the coming again of any comparable calamity’ Hammerton (1934:1)

For a pithy statement of why Britain went to war we turn to H G Wells who coined the phrase ‘the war to end war’ at the end of August 1914 when the conflict had only been running for a fortnight.

H G Wells, was viewed as a prophet of social change and progress.

Why Britain went to War

Reprint from ‘The War Illustrated’ August 22, 1914.

The cause of war?

  • The invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg to whom Britain was bound by treaty to protect.

Our Aim.

  • To put the Germans back over the Belgian border and tell them not to do it again.

German expansion since 1871.

Now no choice but destroy or be destroyed.

A war not of soldiers, but of whole peoples (Sidney Low).

We have to avoid a ‘vindictive triumph’ Wells, (1914, 1936:7). Perceptive as this ‘vindictiveness’ is what fuelled Hitler and his cronies.

‘It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age’.

H G Wells brings in the industrial giant Krupp and the armament trust, and describes their actions as ‘organized scoundrelism’ which ‘mined all the security of civilization, brought up and dominated the Press, ruled a national literature, and corrupted universities’. Wells, (1914, 1936:8).

So, a hundred years ago the power of the Press to influence and persuade was criticised.

‘We know we face unprecedented slaughter and agonies; we know that for neither side will there be waxy triumphs or prancing victories’. Wells (1914 1936:9)

The war to end war

‘This is now a war of peace. It is a crusade against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war – it is the last war!’ Wells (1914, 1936:9)

The answer, retrospectively, as he had considered in 1904:

  • arbitration
  • mutual security pacts
  • international organization

H G Wells had a poor opinion of Allied military direction and upper–class English education.

It isn’t a social myth that a generation thought their leaders were poor.

H G Wells was an opinion maker, with the confidence to have a point of view.

A hundred years on do we not turn still for commentary from successful authors and influential broadcasters, who, if not writing for a paper or part work will appear on ‘Any Questions’ or be invited for an opinion as news breaks?

Who might be the voices we turn to today, the grandchildren (and great grandchildren) of the WW1 generation:

  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Hugo Dixon
  • Bronwen Maddox
  • Wil Self
  • Niall Ferguson

‘The scale and range and power of human activities have been altered by a complicated development of inventions and discoveries, and this has made it imperative to adjust the methods of human association and government to new requirements’. Wells (1936:4)

‘The drive to a ‘federal world state, a World Ax, which will absorb, flatten put and replace the present sovereign governments of the world altogether’. Wells (1936:5)

  • tariff
  • dumping
  • financial strategy

The Great War … the opening phase of a process of convulsive adjustment which will ultimately abolish war. Wells (1936:5)


Hammerton, J (1936) World War (Part 1)

Wells, H.G. (1914 & 1936) War Illustrated & World War (Part 1)

All Quiet on the Western Front

This is the must read at the top of any list of TEN.

See the film produced in 1930 too.

Can anything beat it? Let’s see how Daniel Radcliffe performs in this role when the latest remake comes up for release in 2014 and some of the myths of the First World War are given another boast.

The reality?

Junior Officer’s who did their best and their utmost
Generals who could have done no differently and did look for different ways to end the war (innovations, new fronts)

Before you get swamped by the new titles that will inevitably feature over the next couple of years, what would you considered to be the must reads?

I’ve just started ‘Tommy’ by the late Richard Holmes and recently completed the diary of the lady nurse, Lady Dorothy (Doddles) Denbigh which, despite the proximity to death, was somewhat alleviated by frequent rides, and fine dining with royalty and generals.

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