7 FP WG Ex Flemish Jambiya 12
Aiming to understand the nature of expeditionary warfare across the battlefields of Northern Europe in 1914 and their transition to the sustained operations that became ‘The Great War’
1914-1918, No. 7 FP Wg embarked on a guided battle space study of the area of Belgium known as the Ypres Salient at the end of February 2012. The Ypres Salient experienced some of the most brutal war seen in 20th Century Europe, where in 1914 the British Expeditionary Force halted the advance of the German Army bent on enforcing the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ to take Paris with a speed that would allow Germany to concentrate on its Eastern Front and remove the need for a war on two fronts with Russia.
As attrition became the norm on the front line, the Salient witnessed some of the most horrific warfare seen throughout The Great War, and saw the development of battlefield innovations including the first use of chemical warfare, flame-throwers, and snipers, and it was to become the location of a multitude of heroic actions and personal sacrifice. Ably guided by Sqn Ldr Pete Hawtin, a part-time professional battlefield guide, the group toured several sites across the Salient over 3 days, including Hill 60, a renowned ‘Crucible of War’.
As well as surveying the battlefields of the Salient during the trip, the Wg also visited several Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) sites. The largest of these, Tyne Cot, located near Zonnebeke, is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces, and is the largest CWGC site in the world. It also houses a memorial to those with no known grave that acts as a continuation of the memorial in place at the Menin Gate, Ypres, on which are inscribed the names of some 54,871 men of the Commonwealth who died on the Salient with no known grave. The group also visited Langemarck German Cemetery, where over 44,000 German soldiers who lost their life in the area are buried, many in a central mass grave known as the ‘Kameraden Grab’ (Comrades Grave).
Individual participation is key in the success of any Battle Space Study, and our focus while in Ypres fell on the accounts of outstanding individual bravery and sacrifice carried out by those who fought in the area. Each participant was assigned an individual soldier or airman; the group was tasked with educating the Wg on their background, service history, and meritorious actions. Relating these people and events to modern day warfare was not an easy task. While the actions of the individual are no doubt brave and courageous in today’s fields of conflict, the sheer scale of conflict and the threat under which these men took action is beyond comparison with anything seen since in modern warfare.
Seven individuals were chosen for study. They were, Brigadier General Sir Charles FitzClarence VC, the highest ranking officer lost to an unknown grave on the Salient; Battlefield Surgeon Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC and Bar, MC; the first ‘flying ace’ of the Royal Flying Corps, Major Lanoe Hawker VC DSO; the accomplished marksman Pvt Thomas Barratt VC; Major John Macrae, the medical officer responsible for the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’; Private George Fredrick Dancox VC, responsible for the neutralisation of a German defensive position in a key location, and the capture of its machine gun, and Lt Col John Norton Griffiths DSO, mastermind of the underground mining operation which resulted in the destruction of a key part of the German line along the Messines Ridge in 1917. All seven that were studied were linked by their resolute nature, personal bravery, and utter disregard for danger in the discharge of their duties. Discussions over their actions, following a golden thread to today’s operations revealed that not much has changed in the human dimension of warfare and, technologically many of the things that we take for granted in today’s military have their origins in the turmoil of the Great War.
Through the lens of history it is sometimes easy to lose perspective within the massive number of casualties reported, and the grandiose ambition of massive strategic operations like the Schlieffen Plan that sought to define what became World War One. What was perhaps most revealing during Ex Flemish Jambiya was that on a number of occasions between 1914 and 1918, the strategic level of war was fought in areas no larger than a football pitch. While of no strategic significance in 1914, the small Flemish town of Ypres, and its Salient, became the focal point in the fight against the German advance into France, where a fracture of the line at any point would have perhaps resulted in a massive loss of ground to the Germans and a different outcome when 1918 came.