‘If war was once a chivalrous duel, it is now adastardly slaughter.’
Artur von Bolfrás, Austrian general, September 1914
For the first time, soldiers were exposed to the deadly power of modern weapons in a war that reached across Europe. The armies of 1914 counted on a quick and glorious campaign. Some still had colourful uniforms, lances and swords.
But rifle and machine gun bullets and shrapnel balls from massed, modern artillery tore into advancing troops.
Did no-one know how deadly modern war could be? Generals understood the power of modern weapons. Yet nobody had used them on this scale before. When they studied recent, smaller wars, military leaders drew the lesson that if troops were fast-moving and brave enough, they would triumph. Now they had to think again.
Soldiers feared shrapnel shells bursting over their heads. These examples come from the French 75mm field gun and the British 4.5-inch howitzer. French 75s were grouped in batteries of four guns. In a single minute, one battery could rain down 10,000 shrapnel balls over an area one and a half times the size of a football pitch.
When a bullet like the one from this French Model 1886 Cartridge entered a human body, it tore through flesh and shattered bone. So horrible were the wounds that each side mistakenly believed the other was using explosive bullets forbidden by international law.
Bullets also carried with them debris and dirt from uniforms, causing potentially lethal infections such as tetanus and gas gangrene.
The shell that shattered this trumpet horn in 1914 also killed the French soldier carrying it.
A British officer found the bugle on the battlefield and kept it as a souvenir.
German lancer cap and French cavalry helmet
The chief role of cavalry was to spot enemy movements, but they preferred to attack each other. Many of these mounted troops wore uniforms dating from past eras of military glory, as this German lancer cap and French heavy cavalry helmet show.
Aircraft quickly replaced cavalry as the eyes of the battlefield. This Warren Safety Helmet was worn by British airmen in 1914.
The French 75 mm quick firing field gun was a technological wonder. This particular gun was used by the French 61st Field Artillery Regiment on the Marne and around Ypres. The ‘75’ could fire up to 20 shrapnel shells each minute with devastating accuracy. It caused enormous numbers of casualties. By 1914 all the major armies had similarly destructive weapons. But none had the reputation of the 75, which even had a cocktail named after it.
British and French cavalry pass each other on the road, Belgium, 1914
German postcard showing a bullet wound to a man’s arm
A French Henri Farman F.20 reconnaissance plane in British service, 1914
For the men of the British Expeditionary Force, the battles of 1914 were a shocking introduction to modern warfare. By the year’s end, the BEF had suffered nearly 90,000 casualties.
Many were experienced professional soldiers who could not easily be replaced.
All available reserves were sent into action, along with some Territorials - part-time soldiers intended for home defence. From the Empire, Indian troops came to take part in the crucial battles around Ypres.
At Ypres, the British, French, Belgians and Germans were fighting at the limit of their endurance. Lance Sergeant Thomas Cubbon describes in his diary scenes of panic and the desperate need for reinforcements.
The letter, hastily written on a piece of card by Lieutenant Neville Woodroffe of the 1st Irish Guards, records the death of most of the officers in his unit. Woodroffe himself was killed three days later.
This flag was flown from the car of Sir Douglas Haig while commanding British troops at Ypres in 1914. Haig later described the intensity of the fighting to King George V, saying that some soldiers had ‘thrown everything they could, including their rifles and packs, in order to escape, with a look of absolute terror on their faces, such as I have never before seen on any human being’s face’.
This British jacket belonged to Company Sergeant Major William Williams of the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment. CSM Williams, from Bolton, was 37. He had served in the British Army for 18 years.
He suffered fatal wounds on 31 October 1914 at Gheluvelt, near Ypres.
The Army could not afford to lose experienced soldiers like him.
Britain’s war minister, Lord Kitchener, issued these orders to Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. They put him in a difficult position. Sir John was ordered to support the French Army. At the same time he was told to act independently if he thought the safety of the BEF was threatened.
Indian troops of 57th Wilde’s Rifles at Wytschaete, Belgium,1914
Lieutenant Geoffrey Loyd, Scots Guards, 3 November 1914
A small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought alongside the much larger French Army. The BEF was soon thrown into retreat by the Germans, but by September 1914 had recovered to fight in the Battle of the Marne.
In October British soldiers bore the brunt of desperate German attacks around the Belgian town of Ypres. They prevented a German breakthrough. But the core of Britain’s army was almost destroyed.
Why did Britain have such a small army? As an island, Britain relied upon its huge navy for protection. Its army was traditionally a small, professional force.
During 1914 France had 20 times more soldiers on the battlefield than the BEF. Yet Britain could call upon
its empire for reinforcements. Indian troops were already fighting. Many more Empire troops would come.
By the end of 1914 the exhausted armies had sought safety in trenches. In opposing front lines, men endured the same wretched conditions, often within earshot of one another.
At Christmas, German and British soldiers emerged to meet in the frozen strip of mud between the trenches. They sang carols and exchanged presents, from cigarettes and cigars to buttons and badges.
But this seasonal goodwill could not last. Soon the fighting started again.
German soldier Werner Keil scribbled his name and gave this uniform button to 19-year-old Corporal Eric Rowden of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles on Christmas Day 1914. In his diary Rowden wrote, ‘I went out and found a German who spoke English a little and we exchanged buttons and cigarettes and I had 2 or 3 cigars given me and we laughed and joked together, having forgotten war altogether’.
Wooden greetings card
At Christmas 1914, not every soldier felt peace and goodwill. British soldier Henry Hulse sent this wooden greetings card to his family in Faversham, Kent.
On it he drew a cartoon of a German being lassoed by a British soldier.
Notification and photo
For many, fighting continued over Christmas. Sergeant Frank Collins was killed on Christmas Day. His family received this notification. In it his commanding officer wrote to his widow, ‘He was shot through the chest and died without suffering any pain whatever’.
Sergeant Collins, shown on the right of the photograph, was a Territorial and had been a postman in peacetime. He left a wife and three children.
Lent by T.F. McGill
Frederick Chandler was a surgeon attached to the British Expeditionary Force. He took these photographs of 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Christmas Day 1914.
In a letter home he wrote, ‘an extraordinary thing occurred. Our men and the Germans got out of the trenches and met each other and chatted in great groups. The Germans in fact brought a barrel of beer over’.
Men of the London Rifle Brigade fraternise with German soldiers, Christmas Day 1914
Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with German soldiers, Christmas Day 1914
Officers of the Northumberland Hussars mingle with German officers, Christmas Day 1914