A century ago this week the Battle of the Marne was raging close to Paris as the outcome of the German invasion of French hung in the balance. The ‘miracle of the Marne’ saw an Allied force of British and French troops halt the German Army at the very gates of Paris and it was not only the largest battle of 1914 – with nearly 2.5 million troops involved – but arguably the most decisives of the campaign.
While the French Army had demonstrated in the Battles of the Frontier that it fought in an outdated way, resulting in heavy losses, battles like the Marne showed that the French often had an edge in technology and the ability to adapt. The famous French 75mm field gun seen here was one such example; certainly the best field gun that went to war in 1914 and arguably one of the best of the whole war. It’s rapid rate of fire and accuracy meant that it increasingly gave French gunners an edge on the battlefield, something they would carry through the entire conflict.
A century ago today the Old Contemptibles of the British Expeditionary Force were a week into the Retreat From Mons and it is easy to think there was some sort of pause in the war at this stage, but the fighting went on as the Belgian and French forces continued to face the German advance.
The town of Rethel in the French Ardennes had seen heavy fighting and more than 5100 townsfolk had fled the area. On this day in 1914 the town was set alight with more than 70% of its buildings being destroyed, as seen in this German field postcard. Rebuilt postwar, the town was once again very badly damaged in the Battle of France in 1940.
On this day in 1914 the German Army advanced through the Belgium village of Philippeville en-route to take part in the fighting around Charleroi and later in the Battle of Mons. Five days later the town was the scene of a massacre of more than 130 Belgian civilians, which will be commemorated in a centenary event.
This undated photograph seems to have been taken sometime during this period and shows a column of German soldiers on the march.
A century ago today Great Britain declared war on Germany. Units of the British Army immediately went onto War Stations and battalions like this one began to march out of camp or depot and towards pre-planned locations to gather in preparation for joining the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The BEF was Britain’s pre-planned response to a European War and units began to land in France as early as 5th August 1914 with the bulk of the first infantry and cavalry in the following week. Britain was now at war: the hour was go.
A century ago today the cities, towns and villages that would fall in the path of war and the destruction of the Western Front went about their business as usual. The 1st August 1914 was a Saturday and no doubt the market seen in Ypres above was its usual busy self. In the fields near Mont St Eloi, on what would become the battlefields of Arras, the crops were getting ready to be harvested.
In Albert the basilica (below), only two years old, would soon be ringing its bells to summon the ‘Ceux de 1914’ – the generation who went to war in France in 1914 – to uniform and the road to the front. Four years later all these places stood in ruins, now part of the ‘Zone Rouge’ – the Red Zone, that long swathe of Europe smashed to oblivion by the Great War.
In the summer of 1914 Britain’s armies were on the move. Not the regular forces but the men of the Territorial Force, Britain’s ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ who were departing all over the country for their annual summer camp.
This image from a century ago shows men of the the 15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) at their annual camp on Salisbury Plain. But this camp was not to last. As July moved into August the road to war now looked almost inevitable as the battalion returned to London and most convinced they would be moving to War Stations in only a matter of days; and they would indeed be proved right.
An article that some followers on Twitter posted a link to today, <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/the-gathering-storm-a-look-back-on-middleclass-europes-last-carefree-christmas-before-the-onset-of-world-war-one-9020184.html” target=”_blank”>in the Independent, described Christmas a century ago saying it was “Europe’s last carefree Christmas before the onset of World War One.” It is easy to look back on the Edwardian period as some sort of golden era, a view especially prominent with recent television programmes like Downton Abbey. The reality is poverty was still rife more than a decade after the death of the Old Queen and while the Middle and Upper classes were profiting, many others were not.
But it was, of course, the last ‘normal’ Christmas families in Britain, and indeed across Europe, would experience for many years to come. The author Henry Williamson called it the ‘Last Winter of the Old World’, a world in which he had grown from boy to man, and would soon take him in khaki to the front line of Flanders. A year later his Christmas would be on the battlefield; in No Man’s Land at Ploegsteert, face to face with the enemy during the so-called Christmas Truce.
So to mark this important passage in the story of the Great War Centenary, and thinking of old Henry a hundred years ago, the final image for this year is not one of war, but of peace: a winter’s scene in 1913 on Hilly Fields, the open parkland near Henry Williamson’s own home in Eastern Road, Ladywell, South-East London. The Middle Classes of London are out in force, and alongside them no doubt the boys from some of what Williamson called ‘the rougher streets’ who attended the school on the hill, which is still there and still a school; now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. The school has its own war memorial to the old boys who fell, some of whom may well be on this image; but whoever the young men seen here in 1913 are, a year later, like Williamson, they would be off to war and an unknown future; days like these would appear as if part of a different, unconnected past.