Mons to Mosul, a hundred years on

Mons to Mosul, a hundred years on

On 28 June, 100 years ago, a Bosnia-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip ‘triggered’, to use the Kalk Bay-based author Tim Butcher’s term, the First World War by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife in Sarajevo. On 28 June 2014, GREG MILLS drove through Mons and the Somme en route to Paris, stopping in at Delville Wood, the epicentre of the South African involvement on the Western Front.

Despite diplomatic attempts to avert conflict, by 4 August Germany was allied to Austro-Hungary and pitted against Russia, France and England among others. Family mattered less it seemed than pride and war plans; the Tsar, Kaiser and King of England all being first cousins. Indeed, if their grandmother Queen Victoria had still been alive, said the Kaiser, she would never have allowed them to go to war with each other.

The war was expected to be over in six months. But the German plan to first crush France and then Russia ran up against a combination of French resistance and the six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force. The German advance was contained around Ypres during October-November, the first of five bloody battles near the Belgian town. The war on the Western front ground to a stalemate, with three-and-a-half years following of trench fighting. It was only during the last seven months, from the time of the final German push in March 1918 and the subsequent Allied counter-attack, that the impasse was broken and peace, temporary as it turned out, could be concluded on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

The first shots fired by the BEF were at Mons in Belgium on 23 August 2014, a plinth today indicating the responsibility as that of Corporal E Thomas of the 4th Dragoon Guards under the command of Captain CB Hornby. Ironically, the British advance ended up four-and-a bit years later virtually exactly on the opposite side of the road, where a plaque on the Restaurant Le Medicis commemorates the last day of the war where the 116th Canadian Infantry Battalion stopped. The nearby St Symphorien Military Cemetery contains the first and last British casualties: the former, one Private John Parr of the 4th Middlesex; the latter Private George Price, a Canadian soldier of the 28th Saskatchewan Regiment, killed at 10h58 on 11 November 1918 by a German sniper. In between, over nine million soldiers on all sides lost their lives.

Ancre Cemetery

Photo: Ancre Cemetery

More than a million troops were killed on the Somme in France’s Picardie region, most falling within a 30km radius from the town of Albert. On the first day of the first battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, British casualties totalled nearly 58,000, with 19,240 killed, the most costly day in British military history.

On 28 June 2014 I drove through Mons and the Somme en route to Paris, stopping in at Delville Wood, the epicentre of the South African involvement on the Western Front.

Two weeks after the start of the Somme battle, the 9th Scottish Division was assigned the task of capturing the village of Longueval and its nearby wood. The SA Brigade of this division was ordered to take Delville Wood the next day. Under the command of Lt-Colonel William Tanner, three SA battalions advanced on a wet and misty morning. Under constant, intense enemy shelling and sniper fire, with little cover, food, water and no communications, and with their commander wounded and replaced, the South Africans were finally relieved five days later. The forest they had entered was no longer standing; and of their original number of 3,100 officers and men, they could barely muster 750.

Beaumont Hamel

Photo: Beaumont Hamel

After the war the wood was purchased by the SA government, with the involvement of the ‘Jock of the Bushveld’ author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who made a lasting impression in another, less obvious way. Sir Percy suggested to King George V that a moment of silence should be observed on the first anniversary of the Armistice at 11h00 on 11th November 1919.

Today the wood has recovered, and remains as a memorial to a staggering sacrifice. As one strolls down its ‘streets’ of Rotten Row, Buchanan, Princes and others, it’s a solemn if peaceful place, the dense tree-cover shading the thick, tangled undergrowth, the only noises the constant chatter of the birds above and the squeak of my takkies on the wet grass.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the Memorial’s arch bears an inscription either side in English and Afrikaans: “Their ideal is our legacy, their sacrifice our inspiration.” Atop it is a bronze sculpture of the mythological figures of Castor and Pollux, the twins who had one mother and two different fathers, symbolising, topically, English and Afrikaner South Africans.

Delville Wood Cemetery

Photo: Delville Wood Cemetery

More than 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen fell on the Western Front, 200,000 in Belgium and 500,000 in France. Commemorated in 1,000 war cemeteries and memorials, some 300,000 have no known resting place. The brooding Thiepval ‘Memorial to the Missing of the Somme’ bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and SA forces who died in the sector and have no known grave; the Menin Gate at Ypres another 55,000 of the 300,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in that Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

Each of the cemeteries, so sympathetically composed by the architectural team of Edwin Lutyens, Baker and Reginald Bloomfield, tells its own story: a casualty-clearing station, the site of a bitter attack or repulse – or of the local geography: Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Thistle Dump, London Cemetery and Extension, Waggon Road, Munich Trench, Ten Tree Alley, Peake Wood… and many more.

Lochnagar Crater at La Boiselle

Photo: Lochnagar Crater at La Boiselle, measuring 100m across, where a giant 26 tons of explosive was set off two minutes before Zero-hour (0730) on 1 July 1916, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme.

Signposts continuously remind of their frequency; the rows and rows of white headstones bring serenity and order to their terrible content and sacrifice. At Beaumont-Hamel, for example, the land still pitted with trench lines and shell bursts, the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out on the first day of the Somme. Of the 780 men who went forward at 08h45 on 1 July, just 68 answered the roll call the following day. The German cemetery at Fricourt, the final resting place of more than 17,000 men including Manfred von Richthofen (until his body was retrieved by his family), is equally memorable, its austere black crosses silhouetted against the green grass as I strolled its avenues seemingly alone.

The year 2014 is a year of notable anniversaries, at least for Western nations. It is also the 75th anniversary of the commencement of the Second World War, much more global and devastating than the first ‘Great War’, supposedly the ‘war to end all wars’. The year 2014 is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that saw the end of the Cold War, and settled, it seemed, the ideological differences that divided the world politically and economically in the second half of the 20th century. That occasion was deemed the ‘end of history’ and the start of ‘a new world order’, even though we now know these statements to have been less reflective of ideological and geostrategic reality than wishful thinking.

The German Fricourt Cemetery

Photo: The German Fricourt Cemetery

Less than a kilometre down to the road in Mons from the first and last shots of the First World War is SHAPE, a Blofeldesque acronym for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, NATO’s military wing.

This sharpens the focus about the anniversary and its meaning, if any, for current security issues. It seems that, as ever, the more things change the more they apparently stay the same, in spite of the obvious differences between the contemporary digital, globalised age and the pen, pencil and steam era of just a century ago.

In the First World War, despite the use of new technologies including aircraft, poison gas and, from 1917, tanks, it was the old ‘stuff’ – barbed wire, artillery and the machine-gun – which proved most devastating and apparently difficult to circumvent, resulting in the deadlock of trench warfare.

The last Tree

Photo: The last tree standing, Deiville Wood

With adaptation, however, and the evolution of doctrine, training and tactics, a new ‘war of manoeuvre’ integrating technological advances was possible. This affected all armies, of course, including the French which went to war in 1914 with blue tunics and red pants marching into battle behind a band (suffering appalling casualties in the process, including 27,000 dead on 22 August 1914 alone), but the impact of these changes can perhaps best be seen in the rapid transformation of the British army over the four years.

The army had arrived in France in 1914 with 84,000 infantry. By the end that year of the first Battle for Ypres, the BEF had suffered 86,237 casualties, mostly to the infantry. With a strength of just 400,000 troops in 1914 (half of which was busy policing the empire), by 1916 the Army had rapidly expanded into a citizen force ten times this number, though tactics and training had not quite caught up with the speed of new technological developments. By 1918 it had been completely transformed. Not only was it able to withstand the German offensive of March-April, but to turn the military situation around “and conduct a war of manoeuvre in October and November that would,” one contemporary British officer remarked, “have made [Heinz] Guderian proud.”

In short, armies, like any other entity, are all about having the right people, training and leadership.

A second lesson is about strategy, and the primacy of politics. Had the Germans waited, and not gone to war in 1914, it is likely they would have dominated the European economy within a generation, just as they do today. It was a gross strategic miscalculation.

Thiepval Memorial

Photo: Thiepval Memorial

Such strategic dilemmas don’t disappear with the passing of time or the roll call of governments. For example, America is currently caught between Iraq and a hard place – help the government of Nouri al-Maliki and you risk supporting his lack of an inclusive regime, one of the underlying problems behind the current violence. Leave Maliki without Western support, and that option risks boosting the regional ascendancy of Iran (and perhaps Russia, given its willingness to send arms), or the collapse of his government and the consequent installation of radical Sunni rule, at least in northern parts of the country. Either way rampant sectarianism has taken hold in Iraq when, by the time of the US withdrawal in 2011, the situation had largely calmed down.

Indeed, if the great strategic error of the Bush presidency was invading Iraq, current events suggest that the big subsequent one has been to pull out completely and too soon, and to no longer retain political (or any other) influence. If it’s too late for Iraq, perhaps this lesson will be learnt with Afghanistan. At the same time, of course, there is not much ultimately outsiders can do if the locals don’t want peace. Foreigners cannot want to fix a country more than the locals.

This, too, resonates with the past. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles failed dismally to win the peace, setting the stage for a re-run on a grander, even worse scale within twenty years. As ISIS advances in Iraq and thoughts turn to a post-NATO Afghanistan, the strategic lesson holds true: Think any political and military action through to the finish. DM

Dr Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation and is the author of the forthcoming ‘Why States Recover’.

All photos by Greg Mills. Main photo: Unknown SA Soldiers, Rocquigny-Equancourt Cemetery


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.