In this latest Blog Post, Dr. Spencer Jones, Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces & War Studies, at the University of Wolverhampton and Co-Investigator for the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Voices of War & Peace Engagement Centre, talks about Germany’s Spring Offensive, and why they undertook it in 1918.
Ross’ project was funded via Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre. The joy of this project was that it was locally focused. The Chichester News also featured the project in detail, remarking on technology, training and personal histories.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917 the need to expand their armed services was matched by a pressing issue of modernisation. Whilst the army and the navy could be developed, the nation had fallen behind Britain, France, Italy and Germany in one key area: aviation. Over the course of their engagement in the First World War, new aeroplane designs, engines and services were created that brought American aviation up to speed and sparked a new era of fascination for flight in the post-war era.
This wartime development of military aviation in the United States can be traced to the factories and flight schools that were developed after 1917. Workshops that had been making automobiles, were quick to produce the famous, powerful ‘Liberty’ engine that could outperform its European competitors. American universities and colleges also began training students as the US Government realised the enormous gulf between themselves and their new allies. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps, of the United States Army expanded rapidly with an extensive recruitment drive.
However, the site of these advances in aviation were also located in the American aerodromes that began to be constructed in Italy, France and Britain. These military bases enabled the United States to share knowledge, training and tactics with their allies in arrangements that set the basis of international military alliances during the twentieth century. Contracts were signed between the allies and manufacturers which provides materials and land.
It was the Handley Page Agreement of January 1918 that brought Americans to Sussex. This would offer access to a new development in aviation technology: the Handley Page Bomber. This huge machine, with a wing-span of over 20 metres, was designed to conduct raids into enemy territory. It was regarded as a key part of the development of the United States’s arsenal. The agreement enabled:
“…assembling Handley Page machines in the United Kingdom, of which all the component parts have been manufactured in the United States, and for providing thirty Handley Page Squadrons to be entirely at the disposal of the Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe.”
This was a highly ambitious plan. Construction and shipment of the parts were to commence immediately with the following targets:
- May 1918: 50 aeroplanes with 125 Liberty motors
- June 1918: 100 aeroplanes with 250 Liberty motors
- July 1918: 160 aeroplanes with 400 Liberty motors
The parts would be shipped to a factory in Oldham from the United States and then delivered to training bases in Sussex. Five sites were selected for aerodromes but only Ford, Rustington and Tangmere were constructed with hangars, classrooms and barracks in place by August 1918. Individuals were assigned duties at these locations but delays in manufacturing meant that none of the Handley Page Bombers ever arrived. Instead, pilots, navigators and ground crew trained on two smaller aircraft:
- Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2
- Airco DH.4 (De Havilland)
A strict regime of training was set out at these bases. Many of the pilots had been avid aviators before the war and the thrill of this new and precarious technology attracted the free-spirited and brave. Therefore, instruction focused on discouraging any techniques unsuitable for military purposes:
“All pilots are warned that “stunting” over hangars, diving over troops, transports, camps, villages or towns is expressly forbidden.”
The arrival of Americans in Sussex was warmly received by local residents and social events were arranged to welcome the newcomers whilst baseball games and music shows were used to develop good relationships with locals. An ‘American Club’ was founded in North Pallant, Chichester, in the summer of 1918 to make servicemen feel at home and romantic relationships saw a few local Sussex women go to the United States after the war.
This was a period of experimentation and aviation was a very dangerous area of military development. As such, a number of American aviators sadly lost their lives at the aerodromes in Sussex. For example, Second Lieutenant Carlton Merrill Bliss (1895-1918) from Massachusetts, died at Tangmere in November 1918, in a crash probably caused by a malfunctioning control. He was buried at Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey.
Whilst the aerodromes in Sussex were quickly decommissioned in November 1918, the legacy of the expansion of American aviation can be witnessed in the interwar development of the United States Air Force as the Signal Corps was found to be insufficient. This history highlights how the conflict can be measured in the physical construction of factories, aerodromes and military capabilities, but also the social relationships that were formed between people away from the front who would never have met save for the conditions of wartime.
In this guest blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discusses how the understanding of heroism during the First World War have changed over time and reveals how her work with the new Massive Open Online Course in partnership with the BBC has contributed to this topic.
In his memoir of his four years’ service as a Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) stretcher bearer, George Swindell recalled his unit’s trip out to France in the company of two infantry units: ‘Some talked of the times we had had, others of what was in store for us, others in a jocular vein, spoke about going into action with stretchers at the alert, and with three cornered bandages, and pads of cotton wool, as ammunition. … Others chipped us about getting out too late the war will be over before you get to the line, and sundry other pleasantries about a lot of base wallahs , (in reference to us being, the R.A.M.C.).’  By comparison, in 1917, Corporal W. H. Atkins published a poem in The ‘Southern’ Cross, the hospital journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham, which praised ‘The “stretcher-bearers” doing their bit,/ Of V.C.’s not many they score,/ Yet are earned every day in a quiet sort of way/ By the “Royal Army Medical Corps.”’  In the space of two years, the perspective on the courage of the stretcher bearer as a serviceman had dramatically shifted from unheroic ‘base wallahs’ to earners of the V.C.
This shifting perspective on the work of RAMC stretcher bearers reflects wider changes in understandings of heroism as a result of the First World War. The fact that men such as Atkins could present the non-combatant labour of stretcher bearers as heroic indicates that heroic ideals were reformed by the experience of industrialized warfare, rather than, as some have argued, simply destroyed by it. While the individual man of rank and action who had been so central to 19th century ideals of the soldier hero could not survive the war unscathed, the association of ordinary soldiers, which included all those in uniform whether they bore arms or not, with heroic qualities of physical courage, endurance and self-sacrifice, most certainly did.
This refashioning of heroism in war occurred in cultures and societies across Europe, not just within the British armed forces. The ideal the individual elan would save the French nation died somewhere between Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. Germany, as a defeated nation, struggled to define a coherent vision of heroic war service in a post-war political climate where right-wing ‘stab-in-the-back’ mythology vied with left-wing anti-war sentiment for dominance of the narrative of the war.
Understandings of First World War heroism have also continued to change over time. The on-going struggles of disabled and traumatised ex-servicemen in post-war society, the rise and subsequent defeat of National Socialism, the revival of memory around the fiftieth anniversary of the war years and the development of the European project as a preventative solution to major European wars have all helped shaped perceptions of the First World War as a heroic enterprise and participants in that conflict as heroes.
These shifting perceptions of the heroic in relation to the First World War, and their representations in European culture across the twentieth century, is the subject of a Massive Open Online Course, taught by myself and four colleagues at the University of Leeds, which initially ran on the FutureLearn platform between 27th October and 14th November. It is one of four MOOCs run in partnership with the BBC around aspects of the history of the First World War. This partnership has given us, as scholars, access to an extraordinary range of images and audio and video resources for use in our lectures, discussions and activities. These resources have helped me gain new perspective on the subject of First World War heroism. As learners start to engage with both the arguments that I and my colleagues put forward and the supporting source materials, I anticipate that I, too, will learn more about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject. Combined with the fascinating discussions generated by learner engagement with the course, I found that I, too, learned a great deal about this, to me, endlessly fascinating subject.
The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will be running again from 9th March, you can access details here.
 ‘Base wallahs’ was a derogatory term for men who served in roles behind the line which were perceived as being safer than front line combat. It was one of many terms introduced into the British armed forces by units which had served in India during the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
 George Swindell, In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ts. Memoir, Wellcome Library, RAMC Muniments, RAMC 421, pp.72-4.
 Cpl. W. H. Atkins, ‘The R.A.M.C.’, The ‘Southern’ Cross, Vol. 2, no. 18, June 1917.
These five letters, describing the experiences of Indian men in the army during the Great War, have been excerpted from Indian Voices of The Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Omissi’s research reminds us of the Indian Army’s involvement on the Western Front, and reveals how the experience was about more than front line combat for these men. (First edition published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1999. The new edition (2014) contains a foreword by Mark Tully.)
1. A Muslim officer to his brother (Central India)
What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us. The men of France are beyond measure good and honourable and kind. By God, my brother, they are gentlemen to the backbone! Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas. In war they are as one with us and with the English. Our noble King knows the quality and the worth of his subjects and his Rajas alike. I give you the truth of the matter. The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British Government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.
2. A Garrison Gunner (Sikh) to a relative (France)
3rd December 1914
The English have suffered severely. Nothing is put into the news, but we know a good deal from day to day. The German ship Emden has sunk forty English ships near this land, and is sinking all the seventy English ships of war. She has not been much damaged although she gets little help.1 The English have eight kings helping them, the Germans three. We hear that our king has been taken prisoner. Germany said that if she were paid a lakh of rupees by five o’clock on the first of the month, she would release the king. The money was paid, but Germany refuses to let him go. I have written only a little, but there is much more for you to think of.
3. An unknown writer to a Jemadar (34th Sikh Pioneers, France)
[early January 1915?]
I was distressed to hear that you had been wounded. But God will have pity. Keep your thoughts fixed on the Almighty and show your loyalty to the Government and to King George V. It is every man’s duty to fulfil his obligations towards God, by rendering the dues of loyalty to his King. If in rendering the dues of loyalty he must yield his life, let him be ready to make even that sacrifice. It is acceptable in the sight of God, that a man pay the due of loyalty to his King. God grant you life and happiness. Those heroes who have added lustre to the service of their country and King, let them offer this prayer before God, that victory may be the portion of their King, and let them show the whole world how brave the people of India can be. The final prayer of this humble one before God Almighty is this – that God may make bright the heroes of Hindustan in the eyes of the world and with his healing hand may soften the sufferings of the wounded and restore them to health, so that they may go back to the field of battle and render the dues of loyalty to their King of peace, the King of kings, George V, and secure the victory for him.
4. Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India)
[early January 1915?]
We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.
5. A Pathan to a friend in the 57th Rifles (France)
13th January 1915