Bandon War Memorial Committee

History of WWI

On June 28th 1914 Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the monarchy of the Habsburgs, visited the Bosnian Town of Sarajevo to inspect Austrian troops there, Bosnia and its sister province Herzegovina, were former Turkish possessions, which had been annexed by Austria – Hungary in 1908. Many of its Serb inhabitants were bitterly resentful at not being allowed to join Serbia, their native state, on of them a grammar school student named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke and his wife as they rode through the streets of Sarajevo in a an open car.  

On July 28th Austria – Hungary retaliated by declaring war on Serbia, A diplomatic rather than a military move as it would take several weeks for Austrians to mobilise. The Russians then stepped in on the side of the Serbs, their fellow Slavs. The Russians could not allow the Serbs to be humiliated, nor permit the Austrians and their Germany ally to dominate the Balkans and by extension Russia’s access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles Straits. Russia mobilised on 29th July 1914.

On August 1st Germany declared war on Russia and mobilised. Russia ally France also mobilised on that date. On August 3rd Germany declared war on France. The next day Germany invaded Belgium, which had been declared a neutral country by the Treaty of London in 1839, now the British were drawn in. They sent Germany an ultimatum asking her to withdraw from Belgium. There was no reply and by midnight on 4th August, Britain and Germany were at war. They had been the only nation to declare war on Germany rather than the other way round. As the British Foreign Secretary waited for the midnight deadline, he remarked, “the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in out time”.

The staff of each army had prepared detailed war plains in advance. Those of Germany and France involved the use of precise railway timetables for the mass movement of men and material. The Germans were in control and not the politicians. In the first two weeks of August some 20 million men donned uniforms and took trains of war, all believed that they would be back home “before the leaves fell”

On the eve of war the German army drawing on a reserve of 4.3 million trained men, was organised in 25 army corps comprising of 87 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions. The great strength of the German artillery lay in 125 heavy guns for use in the field, particularly the 5.9-inch howitzer. Its Austrian – Hungarian ally with 49 infantry divisions and 11 cavalry was more a liability than an ally. Over half of it troops were Slavs, Czechs and Italians – men whose natural sympathies lay with Austria’s enemies rather than the dual monarchy. This was a factor behind some of the more spectacular Austrian collapses of the war.

When mobilised the Russians would field 114 infantry and 36 cavalry divisions, the legendary “steamroller”. The French army were able to field 75 infantry and 10 cavalry divisions. For their small regular army the British supplied 6 infantry divisions and 1.5 cavalry for the expeditionary force to France. Compared with its European counterparts the BEF was lavishly motorized, its 75000 men supported by 1,485 motor vehicles of all kinds. The cavalry had useful mounted infantry training. The artillery’s lack of heavy guns was balanced by the excellent 18-pounder field gun.

The First Days

The opening days the August 1914 saw the Germans drive through Belgium with the French launching their own attack with a headlong offensive in Alsace-Lorraine where German machine-guns mowed down thousands of men advancing in open order. However with the German army swinging around into France its army on the extreme right turned south – eastward exposing its flank as it marched across the face of the defences of Paris, this action left a gap in the line, with the French endeavouring to meet head-on, and this was taken by the BEF with the French fifth army on its right. This resulted in the Germans retreating to the Noyon-Werdum Line.

The allies attacked then for five days before they were halted on the Aisne by a hastily improvised line of German Trenches.

After this battle both sides extended operations northwards, each trying to work around the others flank, at this sorties of leapfrogging manoeuvres reached its conclusion, the BEF sought to deny the Channel ports to the Germans at Ypres on October 20th, the British line held supported by the French on their right, on their left the Belgians opened  sluice gates to halt the German advance. Bitter fighting on a narrow front continued until 11th November when torrential rain and snow halted the final German offensive. The first battle of Ypres was the last chapter in the history of the Old British Regular Army of which 80% had been lost in fighting. From the Channel to the Swiss frontier both sides now began to dig in. Trench warfare had arrived.


The opening weeks of fighting had given the false impression of a war of movement, but by September 1914 as each side tried to outflank the other side in the “Race to the Sea”. The first trenches, initially mere scrapes in the ground, began to make their appearance. Within weeks the stalemate they had produced on the Aisne spread down the 500-mile battle line from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier, the British system set the basic pattern, which troops endured for the next four years, from the mud of Flanders to the chalk lands of the Somme and Champagne to the wooded terrain of Vosges. The British dug a three-line system of front, support and reserve trenches and lined by zigzag communications trenches. Beyond the trenches, at a grenade throws distance, lay the barred wire entanglements and beyond that the narrow strip which divided the opposing trenches – “no man’s land”. Its width varied from sector to sector, from as much as 500 yards to as little as 50. Near Zonnebecke in 1915 the British and Germans were only 10 yards apart.

          As the war progressed, trench engineering became ever more elaborate. The German Hindenburg line, built in the winter 1916-17, consisted of three lines of double trenches to a depth of two miles, the first of which was protected by six belts of barred wire, the densest of them 100 yards thick. Dozens of communication trenches linked the lines and to the rear where sited hundreds of guns zeroed to plaster “no man’s land” with shrapnel and high explosives or gas shells, further forward, machine guns with interlocking fields of mines were positioned to strafe “no man’s land” the moment the enemy went “over the top”. Railways were built right up to the rear areas to speed reinforcements and supply.

Living conditions in the Trenches were often grim. During the wet season, they became morasses, particularly in the British sector on the Western Front. Men and mules could drown in the glutinous mud. Wounded men were particularly vulnerable. Sanitary conditions in the trenches were appalling. Rats gorged themselves on corpses lying in “no man’s land” or embedded in the walls of trenches themselves. Trench foot and frostbite claimed about 75000 British casualties during the war.

Use of Gas

On April 22nd 1915 two sinister greenish-yellow clouds crept across “no man’s land” towards allied lines at Ypres. They where pressurized chlorine gas released from over 500 cylinders in the German trenches as the preliminary to a major offensive. German prisoners and a deserter had warned of this new tactic, but no countermeasures had been taken. The two French colonial divisions on the North of the Ypres salient were engulfed by the cloud and died or fled in panic, leaving a 4 mile gap in the front peopled only by the dead and those who lay suffocating in agony from chlorine gas poisoning. Having achieved total surprise the Germans failed to exploit the breakthrough. Nevertheless the gas has caused at least 15000 casualties, 5000 of them fatal. Chlorine gas poisoning led to a slow and agonizing death by asphyxiation, in September 1915 the British released chlorine gas on the German lines at Loos but little of it reached the enemy trenches, thereafter increasing use was made of gas shells, some 63 types of gas had been developed by 1918 with the most familiar been mustard. At first counter measures against gas were primitive, among them pads of cotton waste soaked in urine. The famous box respirator did not appear until the winter of 1917 and soon became standard issue for troops on the front. Gas caused nearly a million casualties during the war.

The Dardanelles

In October 1914 Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. In Britain operations against the Turks were considered necessary both to safeguard the Suez Canal and to relieve  the Russians by opening up a supply and communications route to them through the Dardanelles Straits, a passage from the Aegean to the Black Sea, a lodgement on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the Northern side of the straits, would also provide springboard for a drive to Istanbul, forcing the Germans to withdraw troops from the Western Front.

A Franco-British naval attempt to force the Dardenelles in March 1915 came to grief on Turkish minefields. A hastily assembled expeditionary force of 80,000 men landed on the rocky coastline of the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25th.  The Turks were taken by surprise but the timid leadership of the commander allowed them to rush up reinforcements and trap his men in their landing areas. The British, Australian and New Zealand army corps (ANZAC) was to be pinned down for almost a year. Trench warfare ensued in conditions far worse than in France. The allies held no secure rear, only beaches exposed to Turkish shellfire. Everything – even water – had to be landed at night. Disease particularly dysentery, took a terrible toll.

Two more landings at the beginnings of August offered a fleeting chance breakout from the beachheads but the chance was frittered away. The Troops were eventually evacuated in December without a man been lost, the Dardanelles fiasco led to Churchill’s Resignation and the end of the Liberal government in Britain.

War at Sea

When war broke out, Admiral Beatty, Commander of the Royal Navy’s battlecruiser squadron exulted “ for thirty years I’ve waited for this day”. The German High Seas Fleet did not oblige the flamboyant Beatty. Most of it withdrew to port. The losses the Germans sustained in the action off the Heligoland Bight on 28th August when Beatty’s battlecruisers sank three light cruisers and a destroyer reinforced the German High Command’s reluctance to risk its battle fleet in the North Sea. The German navy hit back on 1st November off the coast of Chile, where its China squadron destroyer a squadron of obsolete British cruisers. The Germans success was short-lived. Its two battlecruisers were hunted down and sunk off the Falklands Islands by a British task force led by the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible.

Meanwhile the Germans continued to play tip and run in the North Sea. Its battlecruisers bombarded the coastal towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. Five weeks later on the January 24th 1915 on another sweep into the North Sea a German force of three destroyers was intercepted by Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron. In the ensuing Battle of the Dogger Bank the British sank the elderly cruiser Blucher and badly mauled the rest of the German force before it slipped away.

In the battle for the Atlantic the German and British admirals saw the submarine as an auxiliary to their main fleets, acting as scouts and harrying battleships. At the beginning of 1915 the German navy stepped up its u-boat operations after the declaration of a blockade of the British Isles. On May 7th a u-boat sank the liner Lusitania, among whose 2000 passengers were 124 Americans. Fear of drawing the United States into the war prompted the Germans to bring a halt to “unrestricted” submarine warfare in September 1915. Deadlock on the Western Front led to renewed demands for the reinstatement of unrestricted submarine warfare, in January 1917 the Germans announced that all shipping, including neutral vessels, would be sunk in the war zone of the Eastern Atlantic, the measure which brought the Americans into the war. This did not unduly trouble the German High Command, which had calculated that Britain would be starved into submission in five months, before American intervention could be effective.

The u-boats nearly succeeded. In April 1917 the month America entered the war, they sank over a million tons of shipping. The answer to this was the convey system, in the vastness of the Atlantic 100 ships sailing in convey were as difficult for a u-boat to locate as a ship sailing alone and unprotected.

The Somme

In December 1915 both the British and French began to lay plans for a big offensive on the Somme, where their lines met. For most of the war this had been a quiet sector where battalions had, on occasion, drilled undisturbed on open fields in full view of the enemy. Their extensive preparations were noted by the Germans who strengthened their front-line defences to meet the attack announced by a massive bombardment, which began on 24th June 1916. The British High Command expected that the bombardment, which expended over 1.5 million shells, would break-up the German barbed wire, bludgeon their batteries into silence and entomb the defenders in their dug-outs they were wrong on all accounts. At 7.30 am on a boiling hot morning of 1st July the bombardment moved on the German second line, the German machine gunners emerged from their dug-outs, shaken but unscathed, to pour a withering fire into the 13 British divisions advancing at a walking pace across “no man’s land”. Here the 36th Ulster division was to suffer horrendous losses. By nightfall the British had lost 60,000 men, 19,000 of them dead. The offensive ground on, making only minor gains. On 15th September British tanks were used to pierce the German line south of Bapaune, but there was no breakthrough, only autumn rain and seas of mud. The Battle of the Somme ended on 18th November, by which time the British had suffered some 420,000 casualties and the Germans, a similar number. All idealism about the conduct of the war on the Somme.


In the spring of 1917 after the French failure at Champagne its army was rapidly reaching the end of its tether. For many units leave had all but ceased and desertion had more than doubled. In May 1917 isolated acts of protest and indiscipline flared into open mutiny. By the end of the month it was estimated that only two of the 12 divisions in Champagne could be relied upon and none of those between Paris and Soissons. As the Germans remained unaware of the crisis gripping the French Army, the task of restoring order was given to Pétain, who employed a mixture of brute force and concessions. He restricted the death penalty to the worst offenders, of whom 55 faced the death squad, although many more were summarily executed. He also forced disciplinary companies for those found guilty of mutiny, assigning them the post hazardous of justices.

He also improved communications between headquarters and the men at the front. As well as increasing pay and enhancing conditions for his troops. Above all he put into practice his theory of wearing down the enemy with limited inexpensive attacks. This package of measures hauled the Army back from the brink of disintegration and repaired it for the German offensive of 1918.

With the Americans entering the war in April 1917 it brought almost unbounded manpower and material resources to the allies, but it would take time for them to be mobilised. In France the American build-up was painfully slow, by May 1918 there were scarcely 8 United States divisions in France, the bulk of them unprepared for action. Their commander wanted to form them in a separate army group rather than set his small force dissipated by detachments to help the British and French forces staggering under the impact of the offensive launched in the previous March.

This war was a global conflict spilling far beyond the Eastern and Western fronts of Europe. Even within Europe there was the war between Austria-Hungary and Italy after the latter joined the allies in May 1915, in an attempt to help the Serbs, an Anglo-French force nearly 600,000 allied troops were tied down in the dead-end theatre, which the Germans sardonically dubbed the “Greatest Allied interment camp of the War”. The Allied war against Turkey embraced the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, the Russian campaign in the Caucasus and the British campaigns in Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Campaigns were also waged in the German colonies of the Cameroon’s, Togo land and German South West and East Africa. In the latter the Germans with strength of only 4000 men tied down a British Force of 140,000 in a four-year guerrilla war. A succession of frustrated British generals failed to get the better of the German force who only surrendered 12 days after the November 1918 Armistice.