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101 years ago girl power broke out on the streets of St Petersburg, the Russian Imperial capital! It was International Women's Day – 8 March*. 90,000 female workers walked out of their factories and marched through the streets, shouting "Bread!", "Down with the autocracy!" and "Stop the War!" What on earth had lit such a fire in their hearts?
Three years of all out warfare is what. The men had all left the fields to go to the front so there was famine! Vast sums of money had gone into arms and equipment, so there was poverty! And husbands and fathers were being killed or horrifically injured, so there was rage! The war to end all wars was about to claim its biggest casualty, Imperial Russia itself.
Over the past few years Czar Nicholas II had tried to reform the country to meet the growing demand for change, but it was too little, too late. He had assumed control of the Russian war effort and now was held to blame for the carnage. Under the pressure of war the country was breaking up and spinning out of his control. On 15 March* the Czar abdicated.
The new Republic decided to continue the war. But blood was in the water and already the sharks were gathering. On 16 April* Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, having been allowed freedom of travel across Germany, entered Russia and campaigned for his revolutionary ideology. On 7 November* the Bolsheviks overthrew the government. Lenin began to impose that totalitarian control that would hold Russia in its iron grip for over 70 years.
While Russia was descending into mayhem a high-ranking officer of the Czar's Imperial Guard returned from a diplomatic tour of the Far East. Although his name – Mannerheim – was German and his first language was Swedish, he was a proud Finn. He had been deeply influenced by the Finnish nationalist revival inspired by Sibelius' Finlandia and publication of the ancient Finnish epic Kalevala. When he saw anarchy on the streets of Russia Mannerheim at once grasped that if the freedom of Finland was ever to be more than a daydream he must act now! He hurried home to Finland, which under his leadership boldly declared independence on 6 December 1917. Out of the fire of war a new nation was born. And I'm glad it was, because if it hadn't happened I would never have met my lovely wife Elisa who is from Finland.
So the Russian war effort faltered. Eventually peace was sought in negotiations that began on 22 December. A great hope arose for the Germans! No longer did they need to fight on two fronts. With Russia out of the way they transferred huge volumes of troops and resources from East to West, against Britain and France. Surely victory was in their grasp?
*all dates follow western rather than Russian calendar – hence the October Revolution takes place in November.
Back on the Western front, stalemate in the trenches had gone on for three blood-soaked years. In 1917 many attempts were made to break out and get the war moving once again using new or improving technologies and tactics.
• Tanks – first introduced by the British in 1916 but important developments were to come in 1917 as we shall see…
• Aerial war: Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first powered flight in 1903 and strategists were not slow to develop the military potential! Initially balloons and aeroplanes were used for battlefield observation. Pilots soon started carrying pistols to loose off at enemy aircraft. Then they were equipped with machine guns either for shooting down enemy flyers or for strafing troops on the ground. Bombs were dropped into trenches.
• The iconic aircraft of the First World War came on stream in 1917. There was the allied Sopwith Camel, the Red Baron's Fokker Triplane, the workmanlike Allied SE5 and the elegant German Fokker Albatross… It was murder up there with squadrons of fighters roving the skies seeking to machine gun you to pieces. The average life expectancy of a Royal Flying Corps pilot in the spring of 1917 was a mere 6 weeks.
• from 1915 German Zeppelins had been dropping bombs on the UK. For the first time in warfare civilians, not soldiers, were directly in the firing line. On 13 June 1917 came the first raid by gigantic Gotha bombers on London (two earlier attacks had been diverted to other targets). In a horrible foretaste of the Blitz, 162 people were killed in that single raid, including 18 children at a primary school in Poplar.
In spite of these new technologies, 1917 brought the battle that perhaps more than any other has come to symbolise the absolute futility, the sickening waste of young lives and the heedless destruction meted out for the sake of a few yards of mud that epitomises the First World War. I refer to the Battle of Passchendaele.
The other name for the Passchendaele campaign is the third battle of Ypres. Yes we have indeed been here before. In spite of two previous massive battles in the same area in which both sides slaughtered each other to a standstill, no lessons appear to have been learned.
It all began spectacularly at the Messines Ridge. Around a million pounds of high explosive had been buried deep beneath the Ridge. At 10 past 3 on the morning of 7 June it was detonated in an explosion that was felt on this side of the English Channel. It was the largest man-made explosion before the coming of nuclear weapons. Major–General Charles Hartington commented, "Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography." They certainly did! About 10,000 German troops were killed outright, buried or blown to scraps. There was a relatively easy victory as the Allied armies surged forward into this new moonscape.
But the impetus slowed down. The worst rains in 40 years, combined with the constant churning of shell fire, turned the soil to the consistency of soup. Both armies floundered hopelessly through attacks and counter attacks, losing casualties as much to drowning in mud as to the relentless pounding of shot and shell. Advances bogged down, supplies could not be delivered, morale plummeted. It was the same endless inconclusive wrestling for a few yards of swamp that had been going on since 1914.
British casualties were thought to be between quarter of a million and four hundred thousand, German about the same. True, the British broke through one of the German defensive lines – but two more remained beyond it. They never got to the strategic rail junction that was one of their prime objectives, nor did they break through to the Belgian coast, which was the other.
The German armies now began to be reinforced by troops withdrawn from the Russian front, while the Allies had to send troops away to Italy. The Italians (who were on our side at the time) had been decisively defeated at the battle of Caparetto on 24 October. In the Spring of 2018 German armies were to surge forward and the meagre Allied gains of Passchendaele were swept away like straws in a gale. In his memoirs Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote: "Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war ... No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign…"
Now for some glamour among the gloom of the Western Front: Lawrence of Arabia! By 1917 the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (which had sided with Germany) was in full swing. In a dashing campaign involving much sudden appearing out of the desert and rapid melting away again, Lawrence blew up bridges, roads and trains and conquered Aqaba. His daring campaign led ultimately to a complete re-drawing of the map of the Middle East, incidentally creating many of the tensions that still plague the area today… But there just isn't time. Watch the film! Back to Flanders and the Battle of Cambrai.
Cambrai displayed one of the first uses of tanks in a mass attack. On 20 November at 6.30am 437 tanks from the Tank Corps lumbered forward from the British lines. It must have been a terrifying sight! Yet maximum speed was 4mph and conditions were truly awful. Shells hitting their armour were deafening, field of view was extremely limited and there was no outlet for exhaust fumes, so the crews got groggier and groggier from carbon monoxide poisoning. On the first day 65 tanks were destroyed by artillery fire, 71 broke down and 43 were ditched. Nonetheless the attack broke through towards their objective, the Hindenberg line. Church bells were rung in England in celebration!
But there followed a massive German counter-attack in which virtually all British gains were lost. And now we come to the reason why I especially want to cover this battle. My grandfather Albert Taylor took part. He joined up at 16, lying as so many did about his age – but nobody cared enough to check. As German counter attacks broke through small bodies of British troops were hurled forward, sacrifice parties aimed at slowing down the enemy so others could escape. My grandad Albert, 16 years old, was in one of those sacrifice parties. Of the one hundred plus who were thrown forward in his group, only he and one other survived. He was taken prisoner and transported to Germany where he was given the number 181, or "ein hundred ein and ockshish" as he recalled it.
Conditions were terrible. The German population was starving owing to the British blockade. There wasn't much left over to feed PoWs. Fortunately for grandad Albert, they were desperate for farm workers, so he was sent out to the fields. Here his upbringing in rural Norfolk came to the rescue. His family were desperately poor farm labourers and he had learned how to scrounge and scavenge his way to survival – the odd turnip here and cabbage leaf there… Eventually he escaped. Hiding by day, moving by night, he made his way towards Holland, where he was interned for the rest of the war. Holland being neutral refused to repatriate combatants. His parents did not even know he was alive until 100 years ago today when the war ended.
On 1 March 1917 an extraordinary telegram was published in the American press. The telegram had been intercepted by the British and decoded in the greatest triumph of espionage in the entire war. It had been sent by a German Diplomat called Zimmerman. It addressed to their embassy in Mexico. It treacherously incited the Mexicans to join in with Germany and promised them the US states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if they did!
The American public went livid! On 6 April 1917 America declared war on Germany. By 26 June the first US troops landed on mainland Europe to take part in the war. From that day more and more soldiers, weapons and resources flowed in a steady tide across the Atlantic. German gains from the Eastern front and in Italy proved too little to counter this massive reinforcement. It was undoubtedly the vast industrial, financial and human resources of the USA that would bring ultimate victory on 11 November 1918. In an industrial-age war the side that had the most factories would win.