A century ago, Britain and her Allies began the final advance to victory in the First World War. Peter Rhodes explains how 10,000 heroic Yorkshiremen helped turn the tide of battle.
On the last day of October 1919 my grandfather, John William Smith, sat down in his joinery shop at Lothersdale near Skipton and began writing his diary of the Great War of 1914-18.
He finished it 23 days later. It runs to 27 sheets of yellowing notepaper.
The final pages tell a Tommy’s tale of a battle which is today barely remembered but changed the course of the war. Grandad had signed up aged 19 in the first rush of war fever in 1914 but was assigned to a second-line battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment which wasn’t even sent to France until 1917.
In July 1918, he was one of 50,000 Tommies suddenly snatched from the British Army’s front line in northern France and loaded on to trains heading south.
As he wrote in his diary: “We left at about 6pm and passed through some lovely country and rumours were spreading like lightning. Some said we were going to Italy and some said we were going to Messop (Mesopotamia) but we landed at Reims. We went through Paris ... we could see Eiffel Tower quite plain.”
Grandad was describing the build-up to the Second Battle of the Marne. The First Battle of Marne was fought in September 1914 and resulted in Allied victory against German armies. More than two million men were estimated to have taken part in that battle, with around 500,000 killed or wounded.
It represented a great strategic victory – preventing the Germans from enacting their plan capture Paris – as well as marking the start of the trench warfare that would come to characterise the war.
But the lesser-known Second Battle of Marne, which started on July 15, 2018 and lasted until August 6, 2018, was chiefly fought by French, American and Italian troops against the advancing Germans and as a result, is barely mentioned in British military history.
And yet thousands of Brits were there, rushed to the Champagne country around Reims where the Germans had made what would prove to be their last great attack of the war.
Private Smith’s regiment was part of the 62nd (West Riding) Division of about 10,000 men.
The aim of the Germans was to draw French troops away from the Flanders front by capturing Reims and splitting the French armies.
The Germans struck hard, on July 15. Within four days, the Italian Corps had lost 9,334 officers and men, nearly one-third of its strength.
The Yorkshire division, fighting alongside the Scots of the 51st (Highland) Division, was rushed straight into battle, passing through the shattered Italian ranks. The German attack was halted and reversed.
It came after the Germans began their advance following an initial artillery bombardment to find the French had set up a line of false trenches, manned by skeleton crews.
The real frontline had scarcely been touched by the bombardment and the advancing German troops were left trapped and surrounded.
On July 20, the French commander General Henri Berthelot ordered the counter-attack.
As Grandad put it in his diary: “For the first day we had a very stiff engagement with old Fritz and on the second day of the attack we managed to get Jerry on the run. It was terrible hot weather and we had a very trying time.”
Grandad, a signaller, described being attacked by German aircraft: “We had a lively night with Jerry bombing planes and he didn’t half make stuff fly.”
The Second Battle of the Marne was a turning point of the war. Grandad and his pals fought like lions around the River Marne. The Allies took 29,367 prisoners, 793 guns and 3,000 machine guns and inflicted 168,000 casualties on the Germans.
As a consequence of the disastrous result in the Marne, Germany’s planned Flanders offensive that was supposed to follow never happened.
But in the process of winning the vital battle, about a quarter of the soldiers of the 62nd Division were killed, wounded or missing.
The Allied counterattack which overwhelmed the German forces proved a pivotal moment in bringing an end to four long years of war. The defeat of the Germans marked the start of an Allied advance that culminated in the Armistice with Germany about 100 days later on November 11, 1918.
General Berthelot was impressed with his Yorkshire warriors. The Croix de Guerre for gallantry was awarded to the 8th West Yorkshire Regiment (Leeds Rifles) for their tenacious attack and the general ordered a ceremonial parade of the West Riding Division and their Highland comrades.
The Tommies were dog-tired and their equipment was filthy. It was time for a little Yorkshire thrift.
Realising the general would see only one side of the parade, the soldiers were ordered to clean only where necessary.
As a senior British officer recalled: “An amusing part of the show was that, as there was not time to clean everything thoroughly, the Brigadier had all the brass hubs on the side General Berthelot would stand polished up to the nines, the hubs on the other side remaining in the state that 10 days’ continuous fighting had made them.”
The fighting took place across vineyards.
As Grandad recalled the parade: “The commander stood on the left-hand side of the road and on the other side there was the massed band playing. As we marched past we passed by fields and fields of grapes and if they had been ripe we should have made ourselves badly.”
General Berthelot told the Tommies: “Your French comrades will always remember with devotion your splendid gallantry and your perfect fellowship in the fight”.
French general Charles Mangin also praised the actions of American soldiers following the conclusion of the battle for their role in the counter-offensive.
“You ran to it as if going to a feast,” he said. “Your magnificent dash upset and surprised the enemy, and your indomitable tenacity stopped counter-attacks by his fresh divisions.
“You have shown yourselves to be worthy sons of your great country and have gained the admiration of your brothers in arms.
“Besides this, you have acquired a feeling of your superiority over the barbarian enemy against whom the children of liberty are fighting. To attack him is to vanquish him.”
His words were to prove prophetic. Once it became clear the German offensive had not only failed but actually resulting in them losing ground, a number of their military commanders came to believe the war was going to be lost.
Four months later the British Army was at the gates of Germany. The “war to end wars” was over.
But Private John William Smith was not there to see it. He was gassed by a German shell at the end of September 1918 and spent Armistice Day, November 11, temporarily blinded and in hospital. He recovered enough to serve with the British Army of Occupation in Cologne but never regained good health. He died in 1955 aged 60.
His final entry in his diary, describing his demobilisation at Ripon in 1919, reads: “After being in the Army four years and five months, it felt a treat to be a free man once more.”
Peter Rhodes, a former Territorial Army officer, is the author of For a Shilling a Day (Bank House Books), a compilation of more than 200 memories of warfare. It is available from Amazon.