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Today (20th August) marks the 100th anniversary of the 1st British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and it's first battle of the First World War.|
The Battle was Mons, and it was the British Army that stopped the German advance. It was the start of over 4 years of hell on earth for many troops.
The 1st BEF was a professional army, and the best trained in Europe and the world. 100,000 men were involved, all were regulars, that is professional soldiers, or reservists who were ex-professional soldiers.
Back then the main infantry weapon was the Lee Enfield rifle, a bolt action rifle with one of two barrel lengths and a magazine that held 10 rounds fed in from two 5 round clips. It was fitted with a long and deadly bayonet which was feared by all who came across it as the British military were known for their love of the bayonet and the devastation that it caused in close quarters combat. All British regular soldiers and reservists were expected to be able to fire a minimum of 20 rounds a minute of aimed fire with 15 rounds hitting a target at roughly 300 meters. If you think this is easy to do, try it. Very few shooters today could achieve such a rate of fire with a 300 caliber weapon.
Soldiers going "over the top" Battle of the Somme 1916
By the end of November 1914 the 1st BEF had effectively been wiped out due to massive casualties. At the end of the war there were less than 10,000 survivors of the 1st BEF, and only 2000 or so who had not been injured in battle. They called themselves "The Old Contemptible" a reference to an alleged statement by the Kaiser (German King) about the contemptible little army from Britain, yet it was this small force that slowed down the German advance and inflicted terrible losses on the Germans. A couple of weeks later at the First Battle of the Marne it was the British with French aid who stopped the German advance and saved Paris from being over-run. The phase of the 1st BEF ended after the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914.
Looking back at the First World War no one today can really understand the pure hell it was. Men lived, fought and died in the most horrific circumstances. The British artillery barrage that started the Summer offfensive on the Somme in 1916 involved the use of over 1.5 million artillery shells, with one day seeing 250,000 shells fired, the bombardment was heard 300 miles away! Then there were the mines, the horrific fate that befell the Germans when the Messines mines were detonated resulting in over 10,000 Germans being killed, with the explosion being heard in London, almost 300km away. Even today several of the mines are "live" and intact underground.
One of the Messines Ridge mines, 1916
Of course there were other horrors, trench foot, where waterlogged muddy conditions caused the flesh of the foot to start to rot and fall off, dysentry, gas, "going over the top" which involved walking (or running) on foot in to the on coming defences and frequently being cut down by withering machine gun fire, to the terrors of days of artillery bombardment, and at Paschendale which was regarded by the many hardened troops as the worst battle of the war the prospect of drowning in mud if you slipped off the wooden walkways. To quote an Australian solider's diary comparing Gallipoli to the Somme, "We thought we knew something of the horrors of war, but we were mere recruits, and have had our full education in one day."
My great grandfather was one of The Old Contemptibles, he started out as a reservist and was called up in early 1914 as he was an ex NCO (non-commissioned officer). He had left the Army a couple of years earlier as my great grandmother had told him she'd not marry him unless he quit the army and went to university. He was studying to be a mechanical engineer at the time of his recall.
My Great Grandfather (far right) just before leaving for France
He was the only person in the photo to surive the war.
He fought for the entire duration of the war and participated in some of the worst battles in history. The First Battle of Mons, The First Battle of the Marne, The First battle of Ypres, Gallipoli - The landing at Suvala and Scimitar hill before being sent back to the Western Front and the battles of Loos, Somme, Ancre, Polygon Wood, Menin Road, and Paschendale to name a few.
He never talked about what he saw and never celebrated Armistice Day. He did keep a diary but it's with my uncle and I've never had a chance to read it all.
Paschendale (3rd Battle of Ypries), a living hell of mud
After the war he resumed his studies, qualified and went to work as an engineer at the same company that designed and built the world's first operational tank.
I never got to meet him, he was killed in an industrial accident when the lower section of a tank that was being moved by a gantry crane broke free from the crane and crashed to the ground, he was crushed to death as a result, the date Sept 3rd 1939 a few short hours after Britain declared war on Germany again.
One of hundreds of war cemetaries in France.