The First World War (2003) s01e06 Episode Script

Part 6

(Gunfire) NARRATOR: Think of the First World War, and you think of trenches.
There was mobility elsewhere, in the East and Africa, but the war on the Western Front was bogged down .
The challenge on both sides was to find new ideas, new weapons, new spirit among the men .
Only then could they break out and win .
ln September 1914, the Allies had stopped the German drive into France at the Marne.
The Germans pulled back to high ground and dug in.
The Allies followed suit.
The result: 500 miles of trench and fortification, stretching from the Channel to Switzerland, allowing ground to be held with fewer men, freeing troops for other fronts.
Breaking the deadlock meant taking the offensive.
But it was much easier to defend trenches than attack them.
For all their blood and mud and horror, trenches saved lives.
They were places of fear and bad smells, where walls might be shored up with limbs and corpses, but they were the safest places to be in a battlefield swept by machine-gun fire, devastated by shelling.
(Men shouting war cries) The greater danger came when you left them.
(Artillery fire) The popular image of First World War soldiers is lions led by donkeys.
But the generals knew that battles couldn't be won from behind a trench wall.
Sooner or later, the men would have to go over the top, and that meant heavy casualties.
The generals weren't so much callous as realistic.
And there were more good generals than bad.
Rather than sitting out the war in chateaux miles behind the lines, 71 German generals were killed in action , 55 French, 78 British.
The generals' response to the deadlock was to challenge it .
.
to find dynamic ways to beat it.
ln 1916, both sides looked for a place to break through, where an attack could be concentrated and supplied.
The Germans thought they had found it at Verdun .
A town and mighty fortress on a salient.
A tongue of France sticking out into the German lines.
Verdun looked secure, with its huge walls, its giant circle of 19 forts, with their outer ring of defences.
But the French had now downgraded Verdun's status, removing many of its guns to needier sites.
For the French garrison, it was becoming known as a "cushy" sector.
FRENCH SOLDlER: We have almost nothing to worry about We often play cards and sometimes we have to drop them and pick up our rifles But it's usually a false alarm so we go back to our seats and our cards our minds completely on the game again But parliamentary deputy Émile Driant, now a frontline Colonel, realised how vulnerable Verdun really was.
He warned the French Government.
We are doing everything day and night to make our front line inviolable But there is one thing about which we can do nothing the shortage of hands If our front line is broken by a massive attack our second line won't hold Lack of workers and also barbed wire But Driant was ignored.
On Monday 21st February 1916, a clear, still winter's day, over 100,000 German soldiers drew breath and prepared to go over the top.
They had surprise on their side.
Above them, they had air superiority.
No Allied planes had spotted their preparations.
Behind them, their own German artillery opened fire.
And in front of them in the French lines, Corporal Marc Stéphane could hardly believe what was happening.
We were swept by a storm a hurricane a tempest growing ever stronger with hail like cobblestones with the destructive force of an express train And we're underneath it do you follow? Underneath it The Germans fired a million shells that day.
When a shell bursts a few metres away there 's a terrible jolt and then an indescribable chaos of smoke of earth of stones of branches and too often alas of limbs flesh and rain of blood By three o'clock in the afternoon the section of the wood which we occupied and which had been completely covered in bushes looked like the timberyard of a sawmill A little later, l had lost most of my men The Germans were evolving new solutions to the problems of attack.
They delegated command forward to the men at the sharp end, training them to advance in small groups, zigzagging and crouching, equipped with fearsome new weapons: light mortars, grenades and flamethrowers.
They called these units ''storm troopers''.
We moved forward from our position That's where l saw the most refined weapon of modern technology or human bestiality There was a spurt of flame which flooded the attacking enemy with burning oil Verdun was one of the defining battles of the 20th century.
Among the attacking Germans was a young Lieutenant Paulus who, as a general in the Second World War, would command the siege of Stalingrad.
25-year-old Charles de Gaulle was also there, France's future leader, wounded and captured defending Verdun .
On the second day of the attack, at his headquarters, Colonel Driant received absolution from his chaplain and wrote a note to his wife.
The hour is near, l feel very calm In our wood the front trenches will be taken in a few minutes my poor battalions spared until now (Shell blast) He sent a message to his divisional commander.
We shall hold out against the Boche alhough their bombardment is infernal Driant ordered a retreat out of the woods.
Then one of his men was hit.
As Driant started to dress the wound, he too was shot.
l clearly saw the Colonel throw up his arms and shout "Oh My God!" Then he half -turned and collapsed When l got over to him there was no sign of life Blood was flowing from a head wound and from his mouth He had the colour of a dead man Three days later, the Germans captured Douaumont, Verdun's key fort.
Germany was Jubilant.
Church bells rang out.
A national holiday was declared.
ln France, Driant's heroic sacrifice helped spark the flame of national defiance.
Verdun was to be held at any cost.
The survival of France herself was at stake.
"They shall not pass," declared General Philippe Pétain , Verdun's new commander.
He rotated his troops.
Three quarters of the French Army at one time or another defended Verdun, a national effort that ensured whole units were not totally destroyed in the battle.
Pétain was genuinely concerned for the lives of his men.
A quarter of a century later, he led his country into surrender and collaboration with Hitler rather than repeat the bloodbath of Verdun.
Route Nationale 93.
An ordinary French road, but it saved its country's life.
Night and day, supplies for Verdun rolled along the Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Way, as well as by rail.
Events on another front also helped the French at Verdun .
At the end of 1915, the Allies - Britain , France, ltaly and Russia - had agreed a plan for 1916 to pull Germany in different directions.
Now the deal paid off.
A successful Russian offensive forced Germany to switch troops from France to the Eastern Front.
From June, the initiative at Verdun passed to the French.
And Germany's technical advantages were short-lived.
Throughout the war, new ideas were quickly picked up by the other side.
All our inventions seem to turn like evil spirits against us like a monster destroying itself Amid these terrible scenes of destruction the idea of ever returning home seems indescribably glorious Please look after yourself and our home your soul and your body and all that is mine Franz Marc was killed later that day.
Finally, on 24 October 1916, the French recaptured Fort Douaumont.
Verdun was saved.
At last, the time has come, and we set off to conquer the enemy positions They don't offer any resistance and the few men who are still alive come out of their holes crying "Kamerad!" The battlefield of Verdun has a different atmosphere from any other I was ever on Its horrors are also greater But there 's a feeling of intense satisfaction It was at Verdun that the French people found themselves again and emerged from the clouds which have hung over them since their defeat by the Germans in 1870 France had learned a string of lessons at Verdun : about artillery, new weapons, logistics, and manpower.
But at a cost of over a third of a million casualties.
German casualties were nearly as high, but Germany, fighting alone in the West and with weak allies on other fronts, could not endure losses on this scale.
She would not launch another major offensive on the Western Front until 1918.
One can look for miles and see no human beings But in those miles of country lurk it seems thousands of men planning against each other perpetually some new device of death Never showing themselves they launch at each other bullet bomb aerial torpedo and shell Unlike previous wars, the fighting on the Western Front was unceasing.
Somewhere down the line, there was always a gun firing, a man falling.
But for the troops of both sides, life was not always unrelenting warfare.
During 1916, the average British soldier spent 100 days at the front.
For the remainder, he was in reserve, on work detail, resting or on leave.
And over the 500-mile front, some sectors were easier than others.
Even busy ones had their lulls.
One day, British General Lord Edward Gleichen visited the front line.
When going round the trenches I asked a man whether he had had any shots at the Germans He responded that there was an elderly gentleman with a bald head and long beard who often showed himself over the parapet "Well why didn't you shoot him?" "shoot him?" said the man "Why Lord bless you sir he's never done me no harm" A shocking example of "live and let live" "Live and let live" was a pervasive phenomenon on both sides, of accommodation with the enemy.
It arose because, in quiet times and in quiet lines, men were learning to adapt to war, and to adapt war to them.
We sometimes got out of the trench into the tall grass behind which the sun had dried and enjoyed a warm indolence with a book Not Infantry Training I think The war seemed to have forgotten us in that placid sector Im with officers and sergeants who are great fun There 's lots of schnapps and wine And every day we get so drunk we forget whether we're at war or in civvy street In my unit there was a piano actually in the trench in the front line and we had many a good singsong (Cheering) l feel great I have never lived so well and probably never will again I have just joined our sports club This evening someone got a football Now we can play football racing long jump Chocolate is the prize donated by our platoon commander Life in this sector is gloriously lazy Weather is perfect the enemy most peaceful And there's little to do but lie on one's back and smoke or write imaginative letters back home It would be child's play to shell the road behind the enemy's trenches crowded as it was with ration wagons and water carts into a bloodstained wilderness But on the whole there is silence After all if you prevent your enemy from getting his rations his remedy is simple he will prevent you from drawing yours We often see the smoke of the Germans' mealime fires ascending in blue-grey spirals It is only common courtesy not to interrupt each other's meals with intermittent missiles of hate One day while our infantry was cooking there was a shout from the enemy trench Could he come and eat too? He was invited over The Frenchman came and ate and made himself comfortable And from then on whenever the Frenchman noticed that food was ready in the German trenches he came and joined in Sometimes an officer tried to stir his men into a little action.
How about posting a sniper? Or lobbing over a grenade? We received the following message tied to a stone from the German trenches opposite "We're going to send a 40-pounder.
" We've been ordered to do this but we don't want to It'll come this evening and we'll blow a whistle first to warn you so that you have time to take cover.
" (Whistle) All happened as they said it would (Explosion) The sniper is a very necessary person He serves to remind us that we are at war Wherever a head or anything resembling a head shows itself he fires (Gunshot) Were it not for his enthusiasm both sides would be sitting upon their respective parapets regarding each other with frank curiosity and that would never do British Directive March 1916 With trench warfare there is an insidious tendency to lapse into a passive and lethargic attitude against which officers of all ranks have to be on their guard and the fostering of the offensive spirit calls for incessant attention "Live and let live" was dependent on the sector and the troops manning it.
The Germans didn't like facing the Highland Regiments.
The British couldn't get along with the Prussians.
But some of the other Germans were fine.
The soldier Mike gave us some useful hints "It's the saxons that's across the road" he said pointing to the enemy lines which were silent "They're quiet fellows the saxons They don't want to fight any more than we do so there's a kind of understanding between us Don't fire at us and we'll not fire at you" "Live and let live" did not occur where elite regiments were operating.
They had their own ideas about getting at the enemy.
Rare footage of a daylight raid by South African troops.
The idea was to dominate no-man's-land, to say to the enemy, "It's not no-man's-land, it's ours.
" Raids broke up trench routines, brought intelligence from prisoners, encouraged aggression.
This, British High Command thought, was the cure for "live and let live".
Training sessions were organised using elaborate models of the target area.
Raiding became compulsory for all regiments and laggards were rooted out.
Higher ranks appeared in our midst chief of all the Brigadier General followed by an almost equally-menacing staff Captain What was my name? I had not been round the company's wire? Why not? I was to go Reports of daring raids were duly submitted.
But some at HQ, like Brigadier General Crozier, smelt a rat.
It became increasingly difficult as time went on to obtain correct reports from officers patrols It was my habit to order samples of German wire to be cut and brought back Thus one would know that the German line had been visited At least one squad of reluctant raiders had an answer to that.
They found a large coil of German barbed wire in no-man's-land, and Just snipped bits off, sending them in with bogus reports.
That went on every night and the old man never knew we had a coil of Jerry wire on our side Many, though, entered the spirit, proudly displaying their trophies.
Raiding and shelling helped put the war back into the gaps between battles.
One night in May 1916, Siegfried Sassoon Joined a raiding party into no-man's-land.
The raiders vanished into the darkness on all fours I crawled out after them shells started to fire News came back "O'Brien says it's a washout They can't get through the wire" A bomb burst then a concentration of angry flashes Wounded men were crawling back among them a grey-haired lance corporal who had one of his feet almost blown off "Thank God for this I've been waiting 18 months for it and now l can go home" Sassoon's raid was launched from these trenches.
The obJective this ridge.
But it all went badly wrong.
I went to look for O'Brien groping my way along the edge of a crater Bullets hit the water near me (Explosion) There I discovered him He moaned he'd been hit several times The stretcher-bearer bent over him then straightened In a surprising gesture he took off his helmet O'Brien had been one of the best men in our company Shelling was the biggest killer of the war.
"Live and let live" continued on and off, but the loss of comrades made it increasingly difficult to sustain .
speaking for my companions and myself I can categorically state that we were in no mood for any joviality with Jerry We hated his guts We were bent on his destruction at each and every opportunity Our greatest wish was to be granted an enemy target worthy of our Vickers machine gun (Explosions and gunfire) We were under shellfire for eight hours It was like a dream some of the men looked quite insane after the charge As we entered the German trenches a great number came out asking for mercy Needless to say they were shot right off The Royal scots took about 300 prisoners and immediately shot the whole lot There were many cases on both sides of prisoners being killed after surrender.
Such atrocities fuelled hatred further.
But many prisoners were captured.
They provided excellent opportunities for propaganda.
British newsreel film of German POWs was used to convince audiences back home that Britain was gaining the upper hand.
By the end of the war, there were nearly nine million prisoners in total and captivity was not their only hardship.
It's already been two years since you were here last and Mother Nature needs to fulfil her urges again As you can't come and see me I'm forced to go looking elsewhere Don't think I'm joking I'm serious l don't care what you think of me but you can't expect me to waste my youth like this After all I'm not made of wood And what a person needs a person must get Please don't be cross with me will you? Your ever-loving Thelma Your sweet children send you lots of love Another German wife was careful to reassure her absent husband.
We've got a real slut in our house who's always got someone new with her That bitch isn't good enough for such a decent man The poor thing fights at the front while she swans off to the cinema and the pub with the other fellows back home Dearest man please don't think evil thoughts because there are also good women who are faithful to their men Letters from home were the soldiers' lifeline.
German troops were offered these beguiling colour postcards to reassure loved ones that they were comfortable, happy and safe.
But news from the front was rarely so cosy.
A German factory worker, learning that her husband had been killed, wrote to her boss to resign .
My beloved husband worked here for years and I did the same work with his tools And I was proud that while he was fighting at the front I could represent him here It was not always pleasant in the factory but my husband's letters gave me courage And so until his death the job was sacrosanct to me That's why l can't do it any more More and more women in Germany, France and Britain were making munitions.
Many men were contemptuous of women 's abilities to do their Jobs, and fearful that if they managed it, the women might not clear off after the war.
Jeannie Riley wrote to her husband at the front about her new Job.
We were told that the amount of work we do in three weeks would have taken the men three years And Jamie the men are getting quite mad at us One woman I work with well she lost her finger in a machine in the works But she's a tough one When she came back from the Western Infirmary she carried on like nothing had happened (sighs) l have to get up at half past four every morning so I'll have you up at the same time when you come home if God spares you Jeannie's husband Jamie did come safely home.
The most important battle Jeannie Riley and her colleagues were working towards in 1916 was the Somme.
It's now a byword for wholesale suffering and slaughter, but its architect, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, conceived it as an offensive with limited obJectives, more dependent on guns than manpower.
With plenty of guns and ammunition we ought to be able to avoid the heavy losses which the infantry have always suffered on previous occasions The French were due to play the lead role, but with Verdun dragging on, the British bore the brunt.
And there was intense political pressure to deliver a victory.
General Sir Douglas Haig was the British Army's Commander in Chief.
He turned Rawlinson's plan into a maJor offensive.
When the British guns opened up on the Somme on 24 June 1916, the windows rattled in London 160 miles away.
But after seven days of bombardment, the British artillery had neither silenced the German guns nor destroyed their defences.
A sergeant of the Tyneside lrish went over the top on the 1st of July, with lines of men on either side of him.
I heard the patter-patter of machine guns in the distance By the time I'd gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me By the time I'd gone another 20 yards I seemed to be on my own Then I was hit myself Farmers around the Somme still gather a harvest of iron for the French army to collect and defuse.
In this war, what happened in the factory directly affected the outcome on the battlefield.
30% of British shells fired on the Somme were duds, a drastic failure of quality control.
But the key factor was there weren't enough heavy guns, and British artillery wasn't much good.
On that terrible first day, it became clear that the French knew what they were doing, and the British did not.
The French artillery in their attacks did not shoot the ground to bits before they moved over it A short intense bombardment followed by a rush of men gave them the position clean and intact We would shoot our ground into a quagmire and then send troops slowly forward over it and expect them to provide their own cover from the enemy's retaliation On the 1st of July, the French gained all their objectives at a cost of a few thousand men.
Britain achieved virtually nothing, with casualties of 57,470.
It was the heaviest loss suffered in a single day by the British Army in its entire history.
There had been a host of lessons for both sides since 1914, and the British became avid learners.
How to lay down shellfire over the heads of advancing men .
How to locate enemy guns using flash-spotting, sound ranging and trigonometry, and how to knock them out.
Better shells, better fuses, better guns and better gunners.
While the Germans came to rely more on skilled infantrymen often acting on their own initiative, the British concentrated on fighting a technical war.
It was all too late for the Somme.
Haig bears the responsibility for not stopping the slaughter when the breakthrough failed.
The battle petered out in November 1916 with around half a million casualties on each side.
Cambrai, in Northern France.
On the 20th November 1917, the site of the first major use of tanks in the world.
Here, the British army would put what they had learnt into practice.
Britain's invention of the tank cracked a key First World War problem: how to combine firepower and movement.
Tanks needed dry, hard ground.
They got it at Cambrai.
The attack was led by a general, from the front.
A lithe figure strode up pipe aglow ash stick under his arm Unexpected it was General Elles "I'm going over in this tank" he announced tapping Hilda l swung the door open and he squeezed through inside The artillery now knew not to chew up the ground ahead.
A short, sharp bombardment, and then over 300 tanks rolled into the first light.
Just before 6 30am the barrage commenced and we started off Our first bump came fairly soon We climbed a bank crashed through a hedge and came down heavily on the other side We were thrown about like so many peanuts and we had to clutch on to whatever we could The tanks looking like giant toads became visible against the skyline some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly bound brushwood which they dropped into the wide German trenches then crossed over them It was broad daylight as we crossed no-man's-land and the German front line I saw very few wounded coming back and a few German prisoners The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains The tanks appeared to have busted through The tanks, still experimental, were part of one of the most sophisticated, innovative plans of the war.
The aim was to break through the German lines with minimal loss of life.
The artillery would use their new skills and technology to locate and target the German batteries before the battle.
The tanks would punch a hole in the German lines, with the infantry tucked up close for mutual protection , while the cavalry pushed through.
Secrecy was crucial.
Screens were erected to hide movements.
Telltale tracks were covered with mud.
The question ever uppermost in all our minds was "Does the Hun suspect anything?" It was most exciting About 9am retreating infantrymen gave us an account of swarms of tanks so many that it was absolutely impossible to stop them A little later, the tank monsters came creeping to the ridge south of the village Not one of us had seen such a beast before Then a dramatic indication that real progress had been made.
For the first time we saw the magnificent spectacle of our field artillery limbering up and going forward First at a trot then at a gallop battery after battery to take up new positions on the captured German front line The Germans were caught on the hop, then pushed back five miles, a greater Allied advance than anything achieved on the Somme or in Flanders.
It was a long hard day but the sight of all the ground that had been taken with so little bloodshed was a real tonic The troops seemed very pleased with our tanks so pleased we had many drinks with them It is astonishing how much whisky the British Army carries into battle (Cheering and whistling) On 21 November, church bells rang out across Britain , Just as they had done in Germany for Verdun.
And again, the celebrations were a little hasty.
The British had not achieved all their objectives.
Some villages near Cambrai remained in German hands, including Flesquieres.
The Highlanders in this sector had been ordered to keep well away from the newfangled tanks, so they couldn't help them by knocking out machine gun nests and artillery.
And lurking near Flesquieres was one of the few German batteries trained against tanks.
A tank emerged from the village "Distance 275 metres! Fire! Damn too far Fire! Very close Aim a little to the right Fire! Hit! A hit! Oh Lord! A column of fire was bursting out of the monster Two of our men ran to the tank and when they returned they described the half-burned bodies of the crew lnside the tanks, the crews wrestled with the world's latest technologyunder fire.
Just at this critical moment the "auto-vac" supplying petrol to the engine failed The engine spluttered and stopped We were now a stationary target In the sudden silence we could hear the thud thud of falling shells and metal and earth striking the sides of the tank The atmosphere in the tank was foul with tense faces the crew watched the imperturbable second-driver as he cooly and methodically put the "auto-vac" right ignoring all the proffered advice to give it a good hard knock The Germans knocked out 32 tanks at Flesquieres.
More were crippled by storm troopers in the narrow streets of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
There was horrible slaughter in Fontaine I who had spent three weeks before the battle in thinking out its possibilities had never tackled the subject of village fighting I could have kicked myself again and again for this lack of foresight but it never occurred to me that our infantry commanders would thrust tanks into such places The Germans also had the bright idea of mounting anti-aircraft guns on lorries and attacking the tanks with armour-piercing shells.
Nine tanks roll towards us The Captain orders "steady men wait for it" When the enemy is less than 100 metres away the command rings out "Rapid fire!" The first tank rears upwards Those following halt One direct hit after another.
Within a week, the Germans launched a massive counterattack, with storm troopers supported by aircraft.
Within ten days, they had recovered all their lost ground.
Yet Cambrai was crucial for the British.
They had gained valuable experience with the tanks and cracked their artillery problems.
Vital lessons were learnt about teamwork on the battlefield.
The big challenge for both sides now was how to consolidate the successful breakthrough.
The master of that would win the war.
ln the next episode of The First World War: British and German navies clash at Jutland.
The dark world of spies and saboteurs.
And America is pushed into the war.