Christmas Meditation by Peter Hitchens – 2013

For me, Christmas is always a journey, and a long train journey at that. The old strict-regime English boarding schools may have robbed their inmates of many small, warm, things, but mine gave me this gift – the annual delight of the return home, warm yellow lights at the end of a long slow progress through frosty hills and woods, full of anticipation, with the red sun  excitingly low in the cold, clear sky.

Scott Fitzgerald had much the same experience, as he described in ‘The Great Gatsby’, of ‘the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow’.

I think many people have some similar sensation. It is absolutely no good if the journey has been too easy or too comfortable. We cannot feel properly warm and safe unless we have at least felt the edge of the wind and feared being caught in the storm. Arcangelo Corelli, in his Concerto for the Night of Christmas, always seems to me to convey a searing, exhilarating cold, to emphasise the warmth and light that are coming.

John Masefield, in ‘The Box of Delights’ gave Kay Harker an enchanted, if worrying, homeward journey. It’s the low, clear light that does it. Kay looks up at the hills from the train window, and thinks ‘It was a grim winter morning, threatening a gale.  Something in the light, with its hard sinister clearness, gave mystery and dread to those hills.

“They look just the sort of hills,” Kay said to himself, “where you might come upon a Dark Tower, and blow a horn at the gate for something to happen.”’

A journey, and not necessarily an easy one, was no bad thing to associate with Christmas. The ancient story is full of journeys, the last-minute struggle to Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt, the coming of the Magi.

Lancelot Andrewes described the hard voyage of the Wise Men, as he preached before King James the First on Christmas Day 1622. T.S. Eliot later rather naughtily repeated much of the passage without mentioning Andrewes.

‘Last,  we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.’

The very dead of winter which, as it happens, I love.  Oh, that we were there. Voices ring more clearly and light shines more brightly in clean, cold air.  The celebration of a birth is made more joyous because it foreshadows a death.

The terrifying line from the carol, ‘sealed in a stone-cold tomb’ cuts like a blade through what would otherwise be cloying sweetness. Cold purifies and exhilarates. I have never understood how anyone could want to celebrate Christmas next to a hot beach. And, time and again, I’ve found myself hurrying homewards in the days before the feast, through somewhere cold and dark, reminded of the thrilling returning journeys of my youth.

From divided Berlin, slipping in seconds from the lighted circle of freedom into the black dark of oppression, and then mercifully out again; to Bucharest in the middle of a revolution, imagining gunfire on the horizon ( or was it real? I’ve never been certain) as the shabby train trundled past fleece-clad shepherds into gloomy mountains; carting a scrawny tree through the slush of Communist Moscow, so as to celebrate the birth of a subversive Saviour; hurrying home from Baghdad in a nervous convoy, swerving round the craters in the highway provided by the US Air Force, reading Dorothy L. Sayers to take my mind off the endless, menacing desert and the nasty rumours of armed robbers on the way.

As Lancelot Andrewes put it ‘This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. Nor secondly, easy neither; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias, specially Petra, their journey lay.  Yet if safe, but it was not, but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the black tents of Kedar, a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then, and infamous to this day.’

Now, if we still did Christmas properly, it would only just be starting tonight. Having celebrated the Nativity, we would  now be anticipating the Feast of Stephen, perhaps providing flesh, wine and pine-logs to nearby poor peasants. Then there would be St John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day (not an occasion for jollity), the Circumcision of Christ and finally the Epiphany itself.  For the last four weeks we would have been marking Advent, a severely penitential season,  not without fear:

‘I look from afar and lo, I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say “Tell us: art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?”

Mattins Responsory – CD: Advent from St Pauls. (St Pauls Cathedral Choir)

But these days Advent can only be dimly seen, a dark and shuttered old church beyond the superstore and behind the multi-storey car park, unlit amid the commercial riot of jingle, sparkle and glare. There’s some fun to be had in fighting a lonely battle against this, fasting through the gluttony, though only if you don’t try to feel superior to everyone else. But, just as hardly anyone observes Advent, nobody really gives Christmas its full twelve days.

So what actually lies beyond Christmas Day is flat disappointment, every sense stirred and tuned to expect something marvellous, and then just a lot to eat and drink, a few presents and a long, numb celebration of the miraculous birth of TV. By this point in the year I usually find myself staring out of a window at the suburban night, wondering where we shall all be a twelvemonth hence.

And yet, at some point, there’s always a brief moment of delight, the lighted doorway shining in the darkness, the warmth of return, the certain welcome – now as a father and a husband rather than as a child. I’ve usually managed to contrive a long journey first.  Like all such arrivals, it’s rapidly swallowed up in little duties, discoveries and squabbles, but for a few seconds it’s an anticipation of what really matters, the true homecoming that Christmas actually promises.

And yet that most important homecoming will require a grimmer and a colder journey than I have yet undertaken. Eliot describes the paradox: ‘I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.’

And again ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. So, I hope, anyway.


Coventry Carol – (The Swingle Singers)

Bullecourt April, May 1917

Hindenburg Line showing Bullecourt on right, trenches in centre and barbed wire entanglements on left.

Battle raged around Bullecourt, a strongpoint on the Hindenburg Line, or ‘Siegfried-Stellung’, in April and May 1917. German trenches were deep, thick belts of barbed wire protected them, and concrete fortifications strengthened the defence on ground chosen for its advantage and fields of fire. The British and Australian troops were deployed below them in open ground south and south-west of Bullecourt.

Gough’s Fifth Army was on the right of the line and Bullecourt was on its extreme right flank. The battle was in two parts; the first attack on 10th and 11th April, the second on the 3rd and 4th May 1917. The first was intended as a diversionary attack for the main effort further north but following reports of success at Arras, was brought forward starting the day after the northern attack, so leaving no time for preliminary bombardment. The first April attack can be seen more in the nature of a battalion level fighting patrol where several battalions of the West Yorkshire Regiment advanced towards the Hindenburg Line where they were to meet up with the Australian battalions.

Much had been expected of eleven tanks of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps which it was hoped would be able to breach the wire, clearing a way for the infantry. However, they arrived late, failed to appear on the start-line and contributed little. In heavy snow fall, without the support of their tanks, the Australians decided to abort their attack, but were seen leaving their jump-off points and engaged by artillery. Fortunately, there were few casualties. On the second day, on the right, the Australian 16th and 46th Battalions both breached the Hindenburg Line between Bullecourt and Riencourt to the east, before launching the 48th Battalion through their positions to exploit the breach to reach the German second line. Soon it became apparent that the Australians were running short of bombs and ammunition and were facing determined German counter-attacks. Withdrawal became necessary but it proved impossible to recover many of the wounded who, left behind, became prisoners, 1170 of them. Two thousand more were killed or wounded and recovered, together more than in any other single action of the war.

The West Yorks fared less well having reached the German defences but, unable to break into the them, withdrew suffering heavy losses from machine-gun fire as they left.

The Second Battle of Bullecourt started early on 3rd May. The Australian 6th Brigade found the wire well-cut following the bombardment and managed to break into the German line using a machine-gun barrage, though the 5th Brigade found the going harder and did not reach their objectives. Night fell after a day of attack and counter-attack. Resupply was achieved overnight but it was impossible to evacuate many of the wounded.

The 62nd (West Riding) Division on the left attacked with all three brigades, supported by tanks. The right-hand brigade fought into Bullecourt but the brigade in the centre (186th) came under heavy and sustained machine gun fire forcing it to retire. Some reached objectives beyond Bullecourt, but attacked on both unsupported flanks, were cut-off and killed or captured. One tank managed to enter the village where it was hit and set on fire. Other tanks had reached the German lines but without supporting infantry, were forced to withdraw. The Division also suffered over 3000 killed, wounded, and missing.

Positions were consolidated over the following few days with a foothold in Bullecourt held by 7th Division, who established contact with the Australian bridgehead. The Australians dug communications trenches forward to their captured stretch of the Hindenburg Line so that troops could be re-supplied and casualties evacuated. Over the following week, the British and Australian troops were subjected to continuous shelling and attack, in some cases by flame-throwers, but held their positions until fighting died down on the 15th May.

The battle confirmed some tactics, gave a glimpse of some new ones, and seriously eroded Australian confidence in British military leadership. Attacking a well defended, fortified line without sufficient artillery preparation almost guaranteed failure and high casualties. The continuing deficiencies in British Intelligence allowed mistaken optimism to guide strategic thinking. On the other hand, tanks achieved some significant small success although, unsupported by infantry, of a fleeting kind. Learning to move close behind advancing tanks would take time and increased confidence in these machines. That would come, in time.



Australians on the Western Front. Available at:  Accessed 22 September 2017.

LE Maner, Y., (2014) Nord Pas de Calais Remembrance Trails, Available at: Accessed 22 September 2017.

Reed, P., (2007) Walking Arras, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military, pp. 201 to 222.


Some thoughts on ‘pro patria mori’

In 1915, the French Marines were disbanded and formed into a 6000 strong Brigade of Marine Fusiliers (my translation of “fusiliers marins”) consisting of two regiments of three battalions and a machine-gun company. They retained naval rankings.

After three years of fighting together, in September, one of these battalions was deployed astride Route Nationale 2 to attack strong German positions at Moulin de Laffaux.

The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant de vaisseau Pierre Marrast, was to attack north-east on the south side of the RN2 towards the carrieres de Fruty; their Battalion HQ was in dead ground to their rear, 100 m south-east of the road. Marrast was recently back from 4 days of leave and in buoyant spirits. His close friend, Enseigne de vaisseau Jean Dubois, had postponed his leave so he did not miss the attack, writing to his mother, “Naturally, I will come only afterwards, for I will not leave my men.”

The attack reached the carrieres de Fruty and as Dubois asked his orderly to pass him his rifle, so he could shoot at some enemy, he was killed with a shot through the head. Marrast confirmed to his company that it was the objective and started to dictate his report. As he reached the point where he described the death of Dubois, Marrast was himself hit in the head by a bullet and killed.

Jean Dubois                  Pierre Marrast

They served together, they fought together, they died together, and after the war they were buried together at the place to which their bodies were brought during the night of 15th, 16th September 1918.

It is worth pondering what it was that made these men face the prospect of death with such equanimity. They had grown up in a France humiliated by Prussia and now invaded by Germany. Memories of France’s greatness under Napoleon were part of the public consciousness. Conscription was universal in peacetime and had not long before the war been extended to three years to make up for a slower growing population. Now they were fighting for France’s freedom, glory and sense of self-worth. And their lives were on the line, as had been the lives of numerous of their colleagues who had fought with them and fallen.

It is often observed that things that have no cost have no value. The freedoms that we experience daily came at great cost, but it was a cost not paid by us. As we have inherited freedoms of great value, we have come to take them for granted, as indeed they are. Love of one’s country, home and family are right and noble, and the foundations of society. We should be willing to defend them. Yet the very idea of loving one’s country, having become conflated with the horror of excessive nationalism, has resulted in generations for whom the idea of a country of one’s own is anathema. Every attempt is made to erode national pride and consciousness in the utterly vain expectation that that will remove the danger of war. Threats to our society come from new directions and in new guises that may require as much spirit and valour as of old, though the fields of battle may not be the countryside. I wonder if there are those still willing to fight the good fight or even to recognise the enemy?

Le soldat Fauquenot

I love this grave of the soldier Jean Nicholas Fauquenot who was killed near here on 25th September 1918. The grave is outside the village of Allemant beside a grassy track that leads up out of the valley.

To the memory of our dear son and his companions in arms.

49th Infantry.

Citation of Private Jean Nicholas      Fauquenot

Joined voluntarily the Class of 1920, courageous and committed. On 25 September 1918 at Allemant (Aisne) crewing a machine-gun stayed at his post, despite heavy bombardment and though wounded, would not desert his friends.

Gloriously fallen in the heat of battle.

Military Medal

Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaves

There are many such grave monuments across the Western Front, so why should I pick out this one? Apart from a desire to commemorate the soldier, I am fascinated by the condition of the grave and that within the last few years, another matching structure has been installed on the other side of the grassy path. It is not just a bench, it is a monument.

The parents of this soldier have long since gone to join him. He is not likely to have surviving siblings and I doubt that he had fathered any children of his own. Yet, someone has thought fit to invest in a lovely monument to complement his grave so that visitors may sit in some style to admire the man.

With such dedication to a ‘soldat simple’, why should I not make a small contribution to commemorating his valour and memory?


I salute you soldat Fauquenot!

Division Marchand’s assault 16 April 1917

The main attack of the Nivelle Offensive was mounted by the Reserve Group of Armies on the Chemin des Dames plateau north of the River Aisne on 16th April 1917. There were reasons to believe that a successful attack here could bring an early defeat of the German army.

First, after withdrawing to the Siegfried-Stellung, the western front loosely resembled an L shape running slightly east of south from Arras for 150 km before turning due east along the Chemin des Dames plateau. If the line could be breached on the Chemin des Dames, the break-out north would turn the flank of the German army forcing their withdrawal to unprepared positions and re-introduce mobile warfare.




Second, the nature of the plateau prevented the Germans developing their defence in depth, as they had done further north; at one point, the plateau is less than 300m wide. Probably, nowhere on the Western Front presented such a thin defence. On the other hand, the sides of the plateau are steep providing defenders with complete domination of the approaches and observation of the preparations. But as Uffindell asks, “if not [here], where could Nivelle attack?” (p.7). France had to repel the German invasion and had to erase the humiliation of defeat by Prussia and her allies in 1870.

The French 6th Army, commanded by General Charles Mangin, one of three armies in the Reserve Army Group, was given the sector from near Hurtebise Farm, west to Cerny, then south-west to between Vailly and Soissons before turning slightly west of north past Moulin de Laffaux, thus including the whole Vailly salient.

Their easternmost Division was the 10e division d’infanterie coloniale commanded by the complex, impossibly brave but highly strung, 54 year old, Jean-Baptiste Marchand. He identified so closely with his division over the two years he had commanded it that it had become known to all as Division Marchand and, remarkably, he continued to command it until the end of the war.

The Division consisted of four Regiments of Colonial Infantry; three of three battalions and one of four, with four more battalions in reserve. These were grouped into two Groups under their own Colonels. The right-hand Group consisted of 33e Regiment d’infanterie coloniale reinforced by one battalion of tirailleurs senegalais and two further battalions of tiralleurs senegalais, six battalions in total providing two waves of three battalions.

The intention was for the first wave to move swiftly up and over the ridge taking their first objective as the River Ailette, some 2.5 km north of their start positions. The second wave would then move through the first on to the second objective. Speed was of the essence; the advance was to move 100 m every three minutes close behind a rolling barrage. Strong points were to be bypassed and cleared by reserves.

Over flat ground this type of advance might have been possible but two unique characteristics of this ridge made it impossible.

Looking down towards the French front line 16 Apr 1917

First, it is very steep and the German first line was lightly held acting as forward observers. Second, this part is riddled with underground workings from centuries of mining. The French knew these were there but had no way of knowing what the Germans had made of them. The Germans had not been idle extending the network so that troops could move undetected and protected and appear unexpectedly on the southern slopes. The exits on the northern slopes provided points from which any breakthrough could be attacked.

Terrain over which assault was made seen from their right flank.

The preparatory French bombardment had almost destroyed the lightly-held German first line on the forward slope, and the ground over which the assault had to move, but had been much less successful with the main defensive line near the crest of the ridge, making little impact on the third defensive line on the rear edge of the plateau. Worse, German machine gunners appeared from the mine exits on the southern slopes after the barrage had passed to engage the assaulting troops, sometimes from the rear. The combination of un-destroyed defensive lines, including wire entanglements, very steep terrain, and unexpected machine gun fire from mine exits quickly stalled the assault. However, the artillery stuck to its rigid timetable, unaware of changing circumstances, without authority to adapt, rolling on leaving the assaulting troops to the mercy of German artillery and strong defences. Despite tremendous valour, the Division’s assault had stalled within four hours of the start. The next day Nivelle changed the axis, tasking 5e armee to attack north-east to bypass the Chemin des Dames, but with no more success.

French military doctrine, developed after defeat in 1870, placed great emphasis on offensive spirit and personal leadership. Both are essential military qualities, but in modern warfare could not overcome deficiencies in communication and command. The German army in 1916 could not overcome the gritty and heroic defenders of Verdun. The French were no more successful when roles were reversed.

Battle of the Aisne – April-May 1917

The offensives of 1916 had done much to strain the confidence of the French and British governments in their military leaders. Around Verdun, French forces had fought valiantly for ten months against the German offensive to hold the town and the high ground to its east and north-east. Only Petain’s extraordinary management of troops and logistics on an endless rotation through the front line had enabled them to continue fighting, but the loss of over 300,000 casualties was devastating, politically, psychologically and militarily.

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The unflappable French Commanding General, ‘Papa’ Joffre, (right) considered by many the saviour of France after turning the German advance at the Marne near Paris in 1914, was promoted Marshal of France and replaced by an artillery general, Robert Nivelle. NIvelle had been rapidly promoted as war progressed and in October and December 1916, as Commander of Second Army at Verdun, had won two spectacular counter-attacks to reclaim almost all of the lost ground at Verdun. He had accomplished this by co-ordinating massive artillery concentrated bombardments with timed infantry advances.

In Britain, the Prime Minister Lloyd George, revolted by the losses on the Somme in 1916, tried to win support for a combined-nations assault on the Italian Front against Austria-Hungary. Rebuffed at the conference in Rome in January 1917, he was attracted to Nivelle’s ambitious plan for a break-through in Champagne, in large part because the French would do most of the fighting and so take most of the casualties (Sheffield, The Chief, pp.200,201).

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Lloyd George recognised this as an opportunity to undermine Haig by agreeing to place the BEF under Nivelle’s command. But as April approached, confidence in Nivelle (right)  was waning. He had had to amend his plan to take account of the unexpected German withdrawal to the ‘Siegfied-Stellung’ (Hindenburg Line) and at a conference of senior politicians and generals at Compiegne on 4th April, Nivelle, though widely discredited, was left in command. Alexandre Ribot, who had been premier of France in 1914 then minister of finance in 1915 and 1916, in March 1917 was made premier again. He very much wanted an end to the war that the Nivelle plan appeared to offer, but was nervous that it would entail heavy casualties. He was unable to decide whether he still had confidence in his commander-in-chief, so refused to accept Nivelle’s offer of resignation. The political leadership was muddled and indecisive; they agreed not to cancel the offensive, but gave little guidance on what new limits should be imposed (Uffindell, 2015, p.7).

Two other geo-political changes called the whole offensive into question: on 15th March, the Bolsheviks forced the abdication of the Tsar and on 6th April, the USA declared war on Germany (Uffindell, 2015. Pp. 6-7). Russian support was now uncertain and, in the longer term, America offered reinforcement to France’s declining manpower.

There was one major difference between Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. At Verdun, the counter-attacks in October and December came after months of bitter fighting, at a stage that the German High Command had decided to abandon the offensive. Hindenburg had replaced Falkenhayn in August 1916 and ordered an immediate cessation of all attacks. The French, meanwhile, had worked tirelessly to improve trenches, position artillery and brief troops. When the attack began, using gas and explosive, German forces had to fight wearing respirators for long periods in battered defensive positions. Their artillery was largely worn and ammunition was in short supply. The attacks therefore were successful and forts were re-taken.

The Chemin des Dames was a very different prospect. Since the German withdrawal in September 1914, it had mostly been a quiet sector where units were brought to rest; the German 7. Armee which held this sector becoming known by some as the schlafende Heer, or ‘sleeping army’. In early 1917, when it became clear that a major French effort was being prepared, this lassitude was replaced by tremendous effort to reinforce the sector (Uffindell, 2015, p.3). The eponymous sector, named for the daughters of Louis XV in the 1780s, runs along the crest of a long plateau, north of the River Aisne with dominating views over the countryside to the north and south. French preparations could not fail to be seen by German defenders and aircraft.

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In March 1917, Hindenburg’s order to abandon the salient between Arras and Soissons, and withdraw to the recently completed defensive positions, the Siegfied-Stellung, shortened the front-line by some 40km, greatly increasing the reserves available.

New defensive doctrine was also emerging. The Germans had learnt that rigidly holding the front line increased casualties and vulnerability. A concept was developing of deeper defensive zones, 8 to 12 km deep, with layers of prepared machine-gun positions covering the ground over which an attack would have to move. Reserves of men and artillery could be held back, out of artillery range to be deployed when the attack had been stalled. Counter-attacks were not to recapture every bit of ground but to re-establish a strong, coherent defensive position with which to continue to resist. Not all of this could be applied to the Chemin des Dames ridge because of its narrow, steep nature, but the principles applied.

So, in early April, Nivelle’s plan was finalised. It would be a rolling attack over the course of a week, starting in the north with the British near Arras and the Groupe d’armees du Nord at St Quentin to fix the German reserves in the north. This would be followed by the main attack in the Chemin des Dames sector by Groupe d’armees des Reserve and a day later by an attack east of Reims by the Groupe d’armees du Centre. Along the 40km front of the Chemin des Dames sector 5e and 6e armees would attack north to achieve break-through before 10e armee would be pushed through to exploit the breach (Uffindell, 2015, p.6-8).

The breach never came. The attacking French armies had no element of surprise being continuously observed from the ridge and the air. There were some important strategic security leaks and Nivelle insisted that the artillery bombardment hit the whole depth of the defence. Only the most powerful guns could reach deep into the defences and bad weather, German air superiority and difficulties keeping the guns supplied made it impossible to keep up the intensity of the bombardment when the infantry attack was delayed by four days, to start on 16th April (p.8,9).

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Gains in the first phase of the battle were limited to 1000 to 2000 metres, apart from the line at Vailly, where the Germans withdrew 5 km on 18th April to remove their salient south of the ridge. The momentum of the offensive stalled and on 22nd April, Nivelle ordered a switch to limited attacks to secure the ridge and push the Germans back from Reims. But bad weather, ammunition shortages and the challenges of co-ordinating the armies, combined with political meddling and Nivelle’s indecision to limit the gains and ensure the losses. Troops were exhausted having suffered an estimated 134,000 killed, wounded and missing.

By mid-May Nivelle had been replaced, his reputation destroyed by the difference between his over-confident prediction of an early end to the conflict and the actual results. It is often easier to find scape-goats than address real, fundamental problems. Nivelle had inherited and encouraged the concept of huge, multi-army offensives. Hubris had combined with an indecisive nature and political pressure to foster a belief that break-through was possible. Reality hit both hard.

(Apologies for the absence of the acute accent. My US keyboard cannot create them. Apparently.)



Baldwin, F. (2017) The Nivelle Offensive: Second Battle of the Aisne (16th April – 9th May 1917) Available at: Accessed 29th August 2017.

Nicholls, J. (2015) Cheerful Sacrifice, The Battle of Arras 1917, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military.

Sheffield, G. (2003) The Somme, London, Cassell, pp. 155-160.

Sheffield, G. (2012) The Chief, Douglas Haig and the British Army, London, Aurum Press Ltd.

Uffindell, A. (2015) The Nivelle Offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military.

Battlefield Study – Aisne 1917

It is that time again!

I am shortly off to study a pivotal battle from 1917, the Nivelle Offensive and the Battle of the Aisne. This offensive has to be seen in the context of the battles of 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme, the latter described by Captain von Hentig of the German General Staff as “the muddy grave of the German field army”. General Ludendorf wrote, “we were completely exhausted on the Western Front… If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable…I cannot see as I look back how the German G.H.Q. could have mastered the situation if the Allies had continued their blows as they did in 1916.” (‘My War Memories, by General Ludendorff, vol.1, pp. 292-307). However, at home in France and England, political vision was clouded by the level of casualties and lack of strategic military intelligence; some personal prejudice and antipathy contributed to the sense of horror and indecision.

I shall introduce the battle in my next post, but first let me introduce the area. The central thrust of the battle was the attack by French 5th, 6th and 10th Armies north from the River Aisne, between Berry au Bac and Soissons, towards Laon to capture the Chemin des Dames, a road running east-west atop a narrow ridge rising 100m above the valleys of the Aisne to the south and Ailette to the north, that gave dominating views of the valleys. The hope was that this would lead to break-through of the German line forcing them back out of France and ending the war.

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The front line is shown on this map:

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Attacking well-prepared defensive positions up steep slopes when the defence can see one’s preparations and approach, is horrible. The pyrrhic nature of any success is captured in this French caption:

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The ancient village of Craonne was completely destroyed and never repopulated. A new village was built some few kilometres away, the site of the old becoming part of the memorial to the battle.

It would be lovely if you were able to follow me on this journey of homage and re-discovery. It is part of the fabric of our European cultural history and as we enjoy our freedoms, we should remember the sacrifice of those who fought to defend them.


A Different View

Almost a year after my great-uncle, Anson Silvester, died near Cuinchy, an officer from 1/7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was killed near Ploegsteert.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe is buried at Louvencourt Military Cemetery. His name was Lieutenant Roland Leighton. He was a poet as well as a soldier. He wrote a poem that is recorded on an interpretive plaque beside the cemetery. It is a remarkable poem. It is remarkable for two reasons. First, he understood that the step from playground to battlefield is progression that a man can make. He saw it as a step possible when the circumstances allowed and one that he was proud to have taken. Second, though very much involved in the carnage that was 1915, he considered the call of duty a noble one and the work a suitable business for a man.

These sentiments, though much more widespread in their generation, are almost incomprehensible to subsequent generations brought up on a diet of anti-war, anti-establishment, self-preservation principles. Maybe, for that reason alone, I reproduce it  here. It is good to be reminded that most people in the first two decades of the last century, the people that fought the war, did not think as we do. To them, service, loyalty, and self-sacrifice were noble ideals that, applied to the business of war, produced remarkable men and great achievements.

In their honour, I reproduce Leighton’s 1915 poem.


Love have I known, and dawn and gold of day time,

And wind and songs and all the joys that are,

And known once, and as a child that tires with playtime,

Leaped from them to the elemental dust of war.

I have seen blood and death, but all has ending,

And even horror is but made to cease.

I am sickened with love that lives only for lending,

And all the loathsome pettiness of peace.

Give me, God of battles, a field of death,

A hill of fire, a strong man’s agony.


Battle of Festubert 15 – 25 May 1915

The strategic background to the Battle of Festubert was similar to Aubers Ridge. The French Tenth Army was mounting a major offensive on the ridge near Vimy and Joffre did not want German troops reinforcing that front from quiet sectors further north. Either the British had to attack in force or they should relieve the French corps so that they could take part. The latter would have been humiliating; the British were there to fight, not to make up numbers. Yet their numbers were still small, by comparison, and their logistic supply, particularly of ammunition, fragile. However, there was still a general feeling that it might be possible to break through the enemy line which might restore some mobility to the war.

Battle of Festubert - map

Opening positions showing 7 and 2 Divisions deployment. Coutesy of

It was perhaps this optimism that caused the General Staff to doubt the intelligence they were receiving. It was also true that the German concept was to hold defensive positions on higher ground in strength and the Allies understood that they had to be ejected. There was no alternative to attacking. Having understood that they had to attack in force, it is less surprising that factors favouring the plan gained greater prominence.

The factors that should have caused greater concern were those they could not influence. The enemy had reinforced the sector following Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge. They accepted that the British were a force to be taken seriously and built strong defences. Because the land is crossed by substantial drainage ditches and the water table is high, these had to be built up,


German breastworks at Neuve Chapelle March 1915.

They had done so using sandbags forming major breastworks. Designated North and South, these breastworks dominated the right half of the ground between Festubert and the La Bassée road just south of La Quinque Rue, First Army’s objective. Second, they had greatly improved their communication trenches back to prepared depth positions and they had located their reserves out of range of direct artillery fire.

British artillery was in a poor way although the figures sound impressive. There were 433 guns firing on a 5000 yard front. There were 36 six-inch howitzers firing high explosive at the enemy breastworks to create gaps for the infantry assault.

4.5 inch howitzer

4.5 inch howitzer in action 1916.

The 54 four and a half inch guns would fire high explosive onto the enemy support lines, as would some of the field guns.

18 pdr Howitzer

18 pounder howitzer showing crew. Courtesy of

The majority of the 210 eighteen pounder field guns would fire on the wire entanglements. The problem was that there were no high explosive shells and shrapnel was useless in clearing wire. The fire was closely observed and it was obvious that many of the howitzer HE shells were duds. In total, on the first day over 100,000 shells were fired.

Each division was attacking 2 brigades up, each with 2 battalions leading. On the left, 6 Brigade advance and capture the enemy trenches with few casualties. However, of their left 5 Brigade have a more difficult assault against a more alert enemy. Some men reach the enemy lines and the reserve battalion is sent forward to support them. But by now the enemy is responding sending reinforcements up to the strongpoints and bringing artillery fire onto the British trenches. The supporting battalions of 6 Brigade are unable to move forward from their start trenches to the captured German trenches due to machine gun cross-fire from the unsuppressed strongpoints. On 7 Division’s front, six field guns have been brought up to the front line to fire over open sights at the breastworks which in some places are only 80 yards in front. The assaulting troops of 20 Brigade advance too fast and many casualties are caused as they catch up with their own barrage. They are then held up crossing a deep ditch and from cross-fire from the Quadrilateral, which has seen no artillery suppression. On their right, 22 Brigade have crossed to the enemy trenches and are bombing their way along the system towards the northern breastworks. They continue fighting in the trench system and secure La Quinque Rue, in their area. The men in the most advanced positions of the Orchard and northern breastworks are now under intense German artillery fire.

British breastworks

British breastworks at Richebourg 1917.

The next day, the 17th, was a day of low cloud and heavy rain. The Germans planned to withdraw 1200m to support positions. They provided additional support troops and artillery fire to allow this, but combined with the British barrage on the Quadrilateral and German front line, those troops were unable to do so. Many were killed in the attempt and 450 men surrendered. German artillery barrage continues all morning. 7 Division pushes 21 Brigade forward into the gap caused by withdrawing German troops and clears the Quadrilateral. As 6 Brigade moves south towards La Quinque Rue, it comes under heavy machine gun fire from their left. They call for artillery which unfortunately also hits British troops in the Quadrilateral.

Festubert 17 May

Position on 17 May showing the new German front line (Brown). Courtesy of

Around noon, Haig responds to reports of success and orders the 3rd Canadian Brigade to support I Corps and extends the Indian front in order to relieve 5 Brigade to continue their advance. He also swings the attack south-west toward the La Bassée canal and railway triangle. The first objectives is to be Violainnes and Chapelle St Roch. But further attempts to attack across La Quinque Rue towards the Orchard and that end of the northern breastworks are halted by artillery and machine gun fire. Movement of men and materiel across the open land behind the new British line is very difficult.

In the evening, 21 Brigade attacks eastwards against the southern breastworks facing Festubert. They are confronted by a deep ditch covered by fire that had not been visible. Some men drown in attempting to cross.

The next day saw no let-up in the rain. In the afternoon the Canadian and 51st Highland Divisions are ordered to relieve 2 and 7 Divisions and to continue the attack. Meanwhile, preparations are made and a new bombardment begins. When the attack is launched, it is immediately neutralised by machine gun and artillery fire. The Germans had completed their withdrawal establishing their new front line but it had not been noticed by the British and had not been affected by their artillery. Then during the evening Canadian and 51st Highland Divisions relieve 2 and 7 Divisions. Between 19th and 24th May the Canadians and Highlanders continue the assault and capture the Orchard, which became known as Canadian Orchard and the southern breastworks.

Joffre had been pressuring the British to relieve another French division south of the La Bassée canal so that it could take part in the continuing assault at Vimy. The 2nd Division was ordered to do so and it completed the relief by 31st May. In the meantime, Sir John French had ordered Haig to stop the attacks at Festubert as artillery ammunition was critically low and the Germans had reinforced their new line in considerable strength.

The pattern had been established that would last until 1918. But there were important lessons from the battle and there were far-reaching effects. On 15th May, there was an article in the Times reporting the shortage of shells and their poor quality. This directly led to the collapse of Asquith’s Liberal government and the appointment of Lloyd George as the first Minister of Munitions in a Coalition government. It was also understood that the British had insufficient heavy artillery with which to batter strongholds and the front line and the quality and supply of high explosive shells was hopelessly inadequate.

The Canadians were reporting serious problems with the standard-issue Ross rifle and British battalions had too few machine guns due to attrition in battle. There was also a serious shortage of trench weaponry with which to fight once trenches had been captured.

The casualty story was tragic. The French had lost over 102,000 men in their assaults on Vimy; the Germans had lost over 50,000 defending Vimy and Festubert. British and Empire losses at Festubert were just over 16,000 including the deaths of the commanding officers of 11 battalions and the Brigadier-General commanding 141st Brigade.

These were desperately hard lessons to learn but they had to be learnt as the British Army made the transition from colonial police force to continental army. It could not be done without the country moving onto a war production footing. Everything had to change. Over the next four years, everything did.

Lt John Kipling?

2Lt John Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was an ardent patriot who had come to see the war as a crusade against barbarism. He had to pull some strings to get his son into the Army. John had not been accepted by the Navy due to being very short-sighted. The Army took a similar view. Kipling then approached his friend Lord Roberts, who was commander of the Army, as well as being Colonel of the Irish Guards, to see if he could use his influence.

After completing his training, John was sent to France in August 1915. For the battle of Loos in September, the Guards Division were part of XI Corps, one of the three Corps that made up the Haig’s First Army. We know that he was killed by an artillery shell on 27th September 1915. His body was buried but the grid reference of the burial appears to have been wrong. From 1919 onwards, battlefield burials were exhumed and buried in the beautiful military cemeteries that grace this part of France.


Inscription at the base of the Cross of Sacrifice, beside the road.

In 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that the unidentified body of an Irish Guards Lieutenant buried in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station cemetery was that of the missing John Kipling. A gravestone was suitably inscribed and has been visited by many, your author included. However, in 2002 Major Tonie Holt and his wife Valmai, published a book, My Son Jack? which cast serious doubt on the identification. They showed convincingly that Kipling was a second lieutenant when he was killed. He was not gazetted Lieutenant until November, although back-dated to June 1915, and in letters written shortly before his death, he asked his father to have some ‘dog-tags’ made for him in the rank of second lieutenant. Rudyard Kipling did not know of his promotion, when he was killed.

Lt John Kipling IRISH GUARDS

The gravestone says, Lt John Kipling IRISH GUARDS.

So, maybe it is right that he is still recorded on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner along with more than 14,000 others who fell in that battle and have no known grave. And no doubt his grave in St Mary’s ADS Cemetery will continue to give pleasure to other battlefield pilgrims.