Northumberland Branch


25 November 2013


At the Western Front Association’s last meeting of the year, Derek Gladding deviated slightly from his advertised talk, to share with his audience a wide-ranging insight to the causes of the First World War.

Each principal protagonist was put ‘in the dock’ – Serbia; Russia; Austria-Hungary; Germany; France; and Britain – to examine their responsibility for causing and starting the war.

While Britain remained ‘in splendid isolation’ and dominated the oceans for most of the nineteenth century during which time her early industrialisation underpinned enormous growth in both her wealth and Empire, the rest of Europe underwent great changes driven by nationalism, colonialism and industrialisation.

New nations were created, most notably a Prussian-dominated Germany, also Italy.

After defeat under Napoleon, the French Army thought it had regained its ascendancy in Europe until its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Immediately afterwards the North German Confederation of states proclaimed their union as the German Empire under the Prussian king, Wilhelm 1, uniting Germany as a nation-state. The final Treaty of Frankfurt gave Germany most of Alsace and some parts of Lorraine, which cessation caused of much lingering resentment.

Five years earlier, the Prussians had delivered an equally humiliating defeat upon the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which resulted in a power shift among the German states away from Austrian and towards Prussia and gave impetus towards German statehood to the exclusion of Austria.

Her central geographical position and significant natural resources led to rapid industrialisation of Germany, so that by the end of the century her economy was becoming, or at least threaten to become, dominant in world terms which posed an increasing threat to Britain and her Empire, equally to the French Empire.

Starting from the earliest of times, Derek explored the reasons for war being endemic in civilisation.  He went on to discuss the policies, warnings and prophesies of Otto Von Bismarck (German Chancellor, 1862-1890), and how rivalries and points of friction inevitably led to the build-up of a network of alliances between nation-states.

Having taken his audience through the events of early twentieth century – the Boer War; Russo-Japanese War; 1904 Entente Cordiale between Britain and France; and the 1912-13 Balkans Wars – Derek concluded with his assessment of variable guilt to be shared amongst all belligerents.  None emerged guilt-free!…

December 2013

28 October 2013

Last month’s, David Easton gave a light-hearted review of large siege artillery used in the First World War with his talk ‘I’m Big Bertha – Beware of Imitations’.

An enormous 420mm siege howitzer, ‘Big Bertha’ was developed by the Krupp factory specifically to destroy the Belgian fortresses at Liege and Namur as part of the Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s spectacular plan devised to invade and defeat France quickly.

Their sheer size presented all sorts of logistical problems but 2 such guns were ready and in place before Liege on 12 August 1914 supported by some ‘Skinny Emma’ howitzers on loan from Austria-Hungary.

The ‘Big Bertha’ pieces were bigger than any gun previously fired.  Each had a crew of 1,000 men and 10 rounds an hour could be fired delivering a 930kg shell to a range of about 15 kilometres.

The supporting ‘Skinny Emma’ howitzers were no mean pieces being 305mm howitzers which fired shells weighing about 380kg to a distance of approximately 12km (7.5 miles).  They, too, were capable of firing up to 10 each hour.

The designers of the Belgian fortresses had never envisaged their supposedly indestructible forts being faced with such huge ordnance.  The forts simply could not withstand the onslaught and succumbed in a matter of days.

David turned his attention to the famous ‘Paris Gun’, a German railway gun adapted by the Krupp factory to bombard the French capital from extreme distance.  It was first used in March 1918 to strike Paris from the, then, unprecedented range of 130km.

Highly inaccurate in delivering a 120kg shell, it caused an international sensation and some initial panic in Paris.  Over 300 shots were fired at the French capital which killed 250 people and wounded 620, and caused considerable damage to property.  The worst incident, on 29 March 1918, saw a single shell hit the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church, collapsing the entire roof on to the congregation then hearing the Good Friday service.  88 people were killed and 68 wounded.

The British and their Allies had no need of quite such large artillery siege pieces but David covered the development of howitzers with lengthy gun barrels, usually of 155mm calibre and often referred to as ‘Long Toms’… 

November 2013

23 September:     Rob Thompson        Regretably, no report this month

22 July 2013

In a change to the advertised programme, the Western Front Association’s ‘Members’ Night’  started with John Dixon showing his wonderful collection of model WW1 aircraft, all of which were hand-crafted and beautifully painted.

Derek Gladding followed comparing casualties sustained at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo with those of the 1916 Battles of the Somme, to illustrate that, arguably, the earlier conflict was more deadly.

Returning to the aviation theme, Peter Trionfi described what aircraft were built in the North East of England during WW1 and what training facilities and flying units were based in the area, before Dave Barras illustrated how his deactivated SMLE rifle, which he’d brought along, would have bee used and what its capabilities were.

Brian Teasdale turned to the eccentricities of one Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson who led Royal Navy operations to wrest control of the strategically important Lake Tanganyika which had been dominated by German naval units since the beginning of the war.

Bill Budworth told the story of John Condon who was a member of the Royal Irish Regiment when he was killed aged 14.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission claims that his is the most visited grave on the Western Front, evidence for which is the frequency with which the surrounding area needs to be re-turfed.

Neil Brison illustrated the detailed instructions local Chief Constables received from the Home Office about preparing inventories of supplies, provisions and livestock, etc in their areas, and the precise instructions for routes to be taken to move everything and everyone inland in the event of invasion.

Bill Foote ‘stole the show’ on the night with recollections of his first operation as a WW2 Halifax bomber pilot.  Bill flew 37 missions, which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, before ending the war as a Flying Instructor.

David Thompson described the research necessary to write an as yet unpublished manuscript relating the war records of all 37 battalions raised by the Durham Light Infantry Regiment in the First World War.

Craig Weir shared the fascinating and detailed recollections of one Harry Small, head of the household Craig lodged with in his early Royal Navy career, who had related his own recollections of service with the Pioneer battalion of the Hampshire Regiment.

Finally, Jane Glass rounded proceedings off talking about 5 of her ancestors – Jane’s talk title, ‘Rheumatic Soldiers’, probably says it all!…

July 2013

24 June 2013

Peter Hart, Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum, made a welcome return to Alnmouth to deliver his talk ‘Jutland, 1916’ to members and visitors at last month’s meeting of the Western Front Association.

Overcoming, with some aplomb, the technical hardware problems which precluded his use of slides and illustrations, Peter proceeded to describe, in his own inimitable style, the action of the only major First World War sea battle between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet.

The battle took place on 31 May 1916.  Despite the German’s being the first to claim a victory, strategic control of the North Sea remained unbroken and, afterwards, the Grand Fleet was ready to put to sea within 3 days whereas the High Seas Fleet was crippled for several months.

The performance of the Royal Navy was riddled with missed opportunities and operational deficiencies, and the loss of three battle-cruisers highlighted deficiencies in the design of this type of ship, which was only reinforced by several German capital ships making it back to port despite serious and heavy battle damage.   

Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle-cruiser Squadron evaded a U-boat patrol line off the Firth of Forth to be guided by scouting cruisers into what each side believed was to be a trap for the other.

Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, the German Commander in Chief, and his Commander of Battle-cruisers, Admiral Franz Von Hipper, were unaware that the whole of the Grand Fleet was also at sea. 

Beatty’s squadron was augmented by four new Queen Elizabeth Class battleships but poor signalling temporarily left them some distance from his battle-cruisers when Hipper’s ships were engaged.  The British battle-cruisers suffered badly until the battleships joined the fray but Beatty emerged with some credit for his aggression and ability to lead the German fleet towards the main part of the Grand Fleet. 

Peter’s overall assessment of the performance of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Grand Fleet Commander-in-Chief, and the handling of his fleet, was generally positive however the German fleet, including its pre-dreadnoughts and crippled battle-cruisers managed to escape round the rear of the British line and reach the comparative safety of Horn’s Reef…

June 2013

27 May 2013

Last month, Craig Weir set aside his heavy commitments to and involvement with Amble’s successful Puffin Festival, to deliver his talk ‘Nasmith’s E11’ to the Western Front Association.

To support Allied landings on the Gallipoli peninsular, Turkey, 32 years old Lieutenant-Commander Martin Eric Nasmith was tasked to take his submarine E11 and ‘go and run amuck in Marmara’. 

It may be difficult, now, for people to understand that, in 1915, submarines and submarine warfare were still in their infancy – the very first Royal Navy submarines, 3 Holland-class boats, dated only from 1901-1903.  E11 could make 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots underwater; dive, safely, to 200 feet and stay under for up to 20 hours; but navigation was by compass and chart; there was no radar or sonar; and only a weak transmitter to send Morse code messages back to base.  There were 3 officers and 27 ratings.

Nasmith was a veteran submariner, innovative and resourceful.  DOyly Hughes was an equally adventurous spirit.  Craig described how Nasmith successfully worked out how to suspend the submarine between layers of fresh and salt water enabling him to hide the boat for long periods under water without having to keep moving, his crew could rest and his batteries did not get exhausted.  On the first patrol he hid the submarine for several hours behind a captured dhow, and he had personally dived into the water to retrieve and disarm an unspent torpedo.

Craig gave his talk almost one hundred years ago to the day after E11 set off to dive under the deadly Turkish minefields.  After a difficult and eventful journey she spent 3 weeks scouring the Sea of Marmara torpedoing and scuttling craft large and small.  Nasmith managed to take E11 into Constantinople harbour and sink a large troop transport at her moorings.  Apart from the practical value of disrupting supplies to the Turkish battle front, the daring attack had great propaganda value.

E11 returned to Marmara for two more highly successful patrols.  Over the course of the three patrols, May to December 1915, E11 destroyed 86 ships.  For E11s historic attack on Constantinople harbour Nasmith received the Victoria Cross; his officers were each awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; and the entire crew the Distinguished Service Medal…

June 2013

22 April 2013

Last month’s talk for the Western Front Association took to the air with Peter Trionfi’s ‘Hurrah for the next man to die! relating the development of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which later amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The RFC went to war with less than 1,000 officers and men and only 63 aeroplanes in fighting units.  By November 1918, the RAF had about 30,000 officers and over 263,000 other ranks on strength and about 23,000 aircraft.

The First World War started less than 11 years after the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight by the Wright brothers, so it was not surprising for the audience to learn that the early aircraft were very primitive affairs, flimsy and unreliable.

In August 1914, four of the six squadrons which made up the RFC flew to France to join the British Expeditionary Force.  All were intended only for reconnaissance but important additional roles soon developed.  There was a mixture of aircraft models – BE2s; Blériot monoplanes; Farhams; Avros; and BE8s.  None was powered by an engine that developed more than about 100hp, consequently no aircraft had a top speed of more than 100mph or so, 60-70mph may have been more typical.

Peter’s illustrated talk focused on the rapid development of new aircraft, their roles and the development of formation flying and co-ordinated air tactics

Without parachutes and flying aircraft often armed with difficult to reach guns, pilots sometimes had to release their harness to stand & stretch to re-load their Lewis Gun magazines, occasionally with disastrous or near disastrous results.  Peter told stories of aeroplanes flipping over with their pilots thrown out and helplessly falling to their end while others somehow managed to cling on with grim determination until their plane could be righted and they thankfully scrambled back into their seats.

Britain lost almost 36,000 aircraft during the war, the majority in training accidents.  Aircrew casualties numbered 16,620 killed, wounded, missing or prisoners of war, of which 6,170 were killed.

Peter’s his own experiences from when he held a private pilot’s licence allowed him to relate more fully to what pilots of the day had to contend with, and his tremendous knowledge of the subject along with an easy style of delivery thoroughly enthralled an attentive audience…

April 2013

25 March 2013

Professor Emeritus John Derry made a welcome return to the Northumberland Branch of the Western Front Association, to deliver his talk ‘The Unknown General (Horne)’.

Born in 1861, Henry Sinclair Horne was educated at Harrow before being commissioned into the Royal Regiment of Artillery from the Royal Military Academy in May 1880.

Horne proved himself to be a highly professional and competent officer with a keen interest in innovations and new technologies to do with artillery.  During service in India and South Africa, he came into contact with and to the attention of (later) Field Marshals Lord Kitchener, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig.

As the British Army expanded rapidly during the First World War those relationships led to Horne being selected to command, first, a Division, then a Corps and, finally, 1st Army.  He was the only British artillery officer to command an Army during the war.

Perhaps, the steady decline of Horne’s reputation afterwards can be attributed to an apparent absence of surviving personal letters, diaries and memoirs.  It was believed that, after his sudden death in 1929, his wife destroyed them however, in 1997, his family deposited several boxes of documents with the Imperial War Museum.  Military historians have since begun to reassess Horne’s career and performance as an Army Commander from late 1916 until the end of the war.

After his death, in the 1930s some historians, such as Basil Liddell Hart, dismissed Horne and 1st Army’s efforts and achievements in 1917 and 1918 claiming incompetence and Horne’s survival to his relationship with Haig but John Derry illustrated, so well, why such claims are ill-founded.

Horne led an Army of almost 500,000 officers and men, which achieved major successes and suffered few setbacks during the over 2 years of his command.  Not afraid to rid himself of poorly performing subordinates, excellent relationships were established with those he then appointed and also with his French allies.

Throughout his life General Lord Horne was an ardent horseman and a devout Christian.  After the war, he devoted much of his time to charitable initiatives involving the likes of the Church Lads’ Brigade; the Soldiers’ Friend Society; the Royal Army Temperance Society; the Old Contemptibles Association; the British Legion; the NAFFI; and many others.

Without notes or props, John’s style of delivery and treatment of a most unusual career absolutely captivated and entranced his entire audience

April 2013

25 February 2013

Last month’s talk to members of and visitors to the Western Front Association, ‘British Tactical Experiments in 1915’, saw author and military historian John Sadler reflect on what went well, what were the lessons to be learnt, and how the British and German High Commands interpreted and developed them during the battles of 1915.

The British attack at Neuve Chapelle, on 10 March 1915, was intended as a demonstration to her French allies of British commitment and offensive capabilities.  Well-coordinated attacks followed a short intensive bombardment and quickly secured objectives in the first German defensive line but, then, the British experienced the coordination and supply problems that plagued attackers on both sides of the Western Front until 1918.  The offensive petered out and though the ground gained by the first attack was held, attempts at further advance towards Aubers Ridge were soon abandoned.

The Allied offensive on the Artois sector of the Western Front stretching north from Arras towards Lille was launched in May 1915 while the Second Battles of Ypres were still raging further north.

Whereas the accompanying French attacks were preceded by a bombardment lasting 5 days, chronic shell shortages restricted the British preliminary bombardment to 40 minutes.  Poorly coordinated infantry attacks towards the Aubers Ridge, on 9 May, achieved only the loss of 11,000 men before the offensive was called off later in the day.

The British First Army attack towards Loos, on 25 September, enjoyed immediate success on the northern flank.  Massive numerical superiority more than compensated for difficult terrain and continuing shortage of artillery shells although the first British use of poison gas was disrupted by adverse weather conditions.   By the end of the first day British troops were beyond Loos and in the outskirts of Lens, but supply, communication and control problems were compounded by the BEF commander, Sir John French, withholding release of reserves, which forced Haig to halt.  German reserves were rushed to mount strong counter attacks the following day, which forced the British back.  On 13 October, a second British advance was thrown back with heavy losses.

John reflected on how both sides interpreted the lessons of these battles.  For the British, the need for effective preliminary bombardments was well-understood but they opted for longer rather than short, hurricane bombardments to exploit the element of surprise.  While 1915 tactics were often successful at achieving break-ins to first line German positions they were unable to exploit that initial success and break-outs or clear breakthroughs eluded them….

March 2013

28 January 2013

The WFA’s first 2013 meeting heard David Thompson’s talk ‘Dutiful: British Junior Officers on the Western Front, 1914-1918’.

When, in the 1960s, Alan Clark coined the phrase ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ he had in mind red-tabbed generals but, perhaps, the sentiment has come to apply generally to all Officers.

David’s talk focused on junior officers – the Second Lieutenants, Lieutenants and Captains, who led  the men in the trenches – and he set out to demonstrate why the Officer Corps fully deserves the respect of today’s generations for managing a six-fold expansion and conducting the war much more skilfully than has generally been acknowledged.

At the outset, War Office policy for selection of new officers was based on a long-standing belief in the importance of placing troops under the command of ‘Gentlemen’.

‘Gentlemen’ were a social elite identified by precise codes of deportment and conduct.  Their supposed moral standing and innate authority meant ‘Gentlemen’ were seen as naturally suited to assume leadership roles.

The ethos of Victorian and Edwardian public schools may be anathema to modern sensibilities but Britain’s ability to create a waiting, willing reserve of young military leaders through that system was the ultimate in self-preservation.

David also dealt with such things as attributes of good Officers; their training; trench routine; the enormous changes brought about by industrialisation with a vast array of new weapons – specialised small arms; aerial warfare; gas; new artillery fuses; tanks; new types of mortars and machine-guns; and more – the necessary evolution of tactics as a direct result; Officer casualties – two -thirds  higher than for ‘Other Ranks’; – and the crucial relationship and bond between Officers and their men necessary to formation of efficient fighting units.

Notwithstanding a plethora of errors and mistakes in the war’s conduct, Britain’s ability to source and train an Officer Corps to manage the Army’s massive expansion, the morale of which never imploded, and to produce, in 1918, an Army by far the most capable, efficient and effective of all combatant armies in the field, undoubtedly was a major factor in the eventual victory of the Allies.

David closed by posing the question ‘Was there a lost generation of golden youth felled by war, never to be replaced?’  Maybe so but statistically the answer is ‘No’ – although 722,785 British service men died, including 42,215 Officers, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 was deadlier still, and the population of Britain actually grew between 1911 and 1921…

February 2013