This year will bring the most significant and heartfelt of the commemorations of the first world war when Remembrance Day comes on the Armistice centenary. It will both contain and surpass the pity, horror, historical reappraisal, and deeply-rooted folk-memory aroused by the commemorations that retraced the way from the naiveté of 1914 to the grisly realities of the Somme and Passchendaele.
There are other names that mingle grief with pride and anger – not least for Scotland those of Gallipoli, Loos, and Arras. But there is a still more terrible and nameless battle – or continuous series of battles with forgotten names – that ought to be remembered from 21 March if we are properly to commemorate the Armistice that ended it.
It began with what seemed the most shattering defeat the British army ever suffered. It rolled on through the spring and summer of 1918 into the most costly and (once peace came) the most squandered of great victories. The army took 3,200 casualties a day on the Somme, 2,300 a day at Third Ypres (Passchendaele), but nearly 3,700 a day in the last decisive hundred days of the extended battle that began on 21 March.
On that day of 'shock and awe,' after the Bolshevik revolution allowed German concentration on the Western Front, began the desperate German attempt to win the war before the Americans made their belated presence felt. In these early stages of the continuous battles casualties were even higher, swollen by vast numbers of 'missing' from the shattered British Fifth Army, most of whom turned up as prisoners. But there is grim argument among statisticians about whether the British forces lost more dead in the 10 months of 1918 than in the fearful year of Passchendaele – it was certainly more than in the year of the Somme. They probably did if losses in the 10 'Dominion' divisions are added to the 189,000 recorded for UK soldiers, for this last battle was (more than any that preceded it, even Gallipoli) one in which the British Empire displayed a unity and coherence it never achieved again.
There are many historical arguments still being waged over these battles of long ago. Some are about the politics of war, notably the fraught relationship between a flamboyant Welshman and a taciturn Scot. The prime minister, Lloyd George, wanted rid of Douglas Haig as British commander in France but never managed it. He did manage to hold back in Britain substantial numbers of newly trained troops – he feared Haig would waste them – at a time when the British army's front was being extended and its ranks were depleted by the terrible losses of earlier years. Inevitably, the arguments about this policy have ever since been tangled with those about how far poor leadership, inadequate planning, and bad luck were mixed in responsibility for the successful German onslaught westward of St Quentin which began the long, last battle.
These arguments, begun by politicians and old soldiers but continued by professional historians, have sometimes taken precedence over more significant facts about the last phase of the war, some of them obscured by the dark shadows of the Somme and the Ypres salient. One is that after 21 March the 'siege warfare' of the trenches gradually gave way to a campaign of movement – even more costly because heavy fighting was more continuous. Another is that the British army was changing in both shape and character. War-weary as it was, it had the most prominent role in the last great battle because the even wearier French were still more depleted and the Americans were only beginning to make their impact.
But it was no longer Kitchener's army of enthusiastic volunteers – not just because enthusiasm had been replaced by endurance but because half the men were conscripts and half the infantry lads of 18 or 19 (my own father among them in the final stages). And the infantry, who bore the worst of the losses, were a smaller proportion of an army which had bulked up its artillery, developed new technical specialisations, and had discovered tank warfare and air support.
Yet this terrible phase of war and dramatic episode of our history is not etched in national consciousness in the way that has been done by earlier indecisive battles and even conspicuous failures like the Dardanelles and the first day on the Somme. At the time the British people, like their soldiers, were war-weary. They had perhaps heard too many tales of victories that came to nothing and lived with too much mourning to recognise the succession of successes that led to real victory as German morale gave way in the face of defeat, both in the high command and on the home front. Afterwards the memory of the Armistice, with its sighs of sorrow as well as relief, blotted out much that led up to it.
A century later, the military historians revel in both the detail and the controversies, often taking a much kinder view of Haig and of his armies' staff work than more popular writers. There are also rich archival collections of letters and of diaries, official and very unofficial. There are the dull divisional histories and livelier battalion ones. But the last great battle is overshadowed in the general literature of the war, as well as in the folk-memory which it helped to shape, by the long bloody stalemate which preceded it.
Some of those who contributed most to that literature were dead: Charles Sorley of Aberdeen, Julian Grenfell, and Edward Thomas among them. Isaac Rosenberg was killed a few days after 21 March. Even Wilfrid Owen, who survived till almost the eve of the Armistice, had written his poetry before he opted to go back to France in 1918. Of the 'war poets' who lived to see peace, the most famous were spared the final battles or were unfit for them. Robert Graves, sore wounded on the Somme, was in an Irish garrison, Edmund Blunden had been sent home to a training post after two years' front-line survival. Siegfried Sassoon returned from banishment in Palestine but was soon wounded by 'friendly fire.'
There are some memoirs of simpler souls who survived the final ordeal but the two most significant literary contributions which it inspired are, incongruously, from men whom wounds or sickness had relegated to home postings. Henry Williamson, best known for 'Tarka the Otter,' had been out in 1914 with the first Territorials and was gassed in 1917. If he was in France in 1918 it was only briefly, probably as escort for a draft. But he reconstructed the battle in 'A Test to Destruction,' part of his long semi-autobiographical series of novels. R C Sherriff set his drama of doomed trench endurance, 'Journey’s End,' on the eve of 21 March, but a severe wound at Third Ypres had ended his active service.
A Scot may be tempted to put the closing chapters of John Buchan's 'Mr Standfast' on the same plane but, though that neglected book is an important part of first world war literature, the closing chapters on the German offensive are its weakest part. Buchan had a good view of the 1918 campaign – as seen from headquarters – but his brother's death at Arras in 1917 had left him sick at heart. Perhaps the best Scottish literary contribution to the literature of the 1918 battles is the account by Stephen Graham, best known as a superb travel-writer, of his survival in the constantly thinning and refilling ranks of the Scots Guards.
Some vivid glimpses of the last great battle are visible in the memoirs of survivors who made a later mark on the world. The most notable is probably the politician Duff Cooper, who was culled from the Foreign Office into the Grenadier Guards and, who like Graham, conveys in simple narrative the cost of the final months of victory.
But the most telling summing up of the way an almost exhausted British army and war-worn people relegated the victorious 'test to destruction' of 1918 to the back of their minds is from an unexpected quarter. Anthony Eden is remembered as a rather aloof and eventually very fraught politician. In retirement he wrote a warm and moving book about his early years, rich in reflections of the Somme and of old and lost comrades of all ranks. He survived to be a brigade major through the ordeal of 1918 and gave it two paragraphs.
Something similar happened in the British people's collective memory of the first world war – a memory which has been immensely stimulated by the centenary commemorations so far. Before the last of them there should be a greater appreciation of the terrible price exacted in the months before the guns went quiet on 11 November. Those soldiers who survived them, and those who didn't, deserved well of their country.