A timely event at Marlborough LitFest 2018 was Peter Hart’s talk about his book book The Last Battle – Endgame on the Western Front, 1918. This tells the story of the First World War’s last ten months mainly through the words of those who fought through them.
Marlborough historian David Du Croz kindly wrote an introduction to Peter Hart’s talk for marlborough.news – emphasising the cost of 1918’s fighting to men from Marlborough College and from the Parish of St Peter.
By 1918 it was clear, even if it had not been so earlier, that the outcome of the First World War would be determined on the Western Front. The story of the fighting in France and Flanders during these 10 months contains some dramatic twists and turns. And despite the fact that it had become a war of movement again with troops on both sides no longer quite literally banging their heads against impenetrable entrenched defences, casualty figures continued to climb.
It was the year in which the British and French nearly managed to lose the war and then just managed to win it, both approximations reflecting the near-total exhaustion of all combating armies.
It is a year that lacks the high profile tragic stories of the Battles of the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), but its events were nevertheless of crucial importance in deciding the endgame.
In a sequence of five ferocious offensives between March and July the Germans desperately sought the key to crushing the British and French armies, but despite losing large numbers not least as prisoners of war, both armies managed to hold their ground in a series of fighting retreats.
Having exhausted themselves in the process, the Germans then became the object of four major counter-offensives by British, French and American forces in late July and August recovering all the land lost earlier in the year. This was followed in late September by a further four planned and integrated Allied attacks which broke the back of the German defensive lines and their morale.
It was at 6pm on September 28 that Ludendorff went to Hindenburg – the two were jointly running the German war effort – and told him that Germany must sue for peace.
The story of these dramatic months is reflected in the experiences of those from Marlborough who lost their lives in 1918. Out of the 112 former members of Marlborough College who died in that year, 80 lost their lives on the Western Front, twelve of those in a period of ten days during the opening phases of what the Germans called the Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser’s Battle), and an identical number during a similar period in late August as their own army went on the offensive.
The much smaller statistics of the parishioners from St Peter’s who died in 1918 likewise tell a similar story. All bar one of the twelve deaths of men from the Parish occurring on the Western Front, seven of them dying on those same battlefields of previous years, identified by the names of the rivers which defined the combat zones – Somme, Lys, and Aisne.
David Du Croz has co-authored Marlborough College and the Great War in 100 Stories – available online from shop.marlboroughcollege.org