The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
World War I
'It must come to a fight'.
The reputed dying words, in 1913, of Count von Schlieffen, former chief of the German General Staff and architect of Germany's war plans, reflected the certainty of one of the most brilliant soldiers of his time. For at least a decade before 1914, the European powers had been arming for war. No leader or government actually wanted war, none consciously plotted it, but almost everyone had come to share von Schlieffen's convictions. Governments were locked into an elaborate game based alliances and mobilisation plans, which were fatally undermined by pride and nationalism that irrevocably propelled the world to war.
Britain started the war with a foreign and defence policy that was based on the Regular Army mounting expeditionary operations to defend the Empire, safe in the knowledge that the Royal Navy would defend the sea crossings to the UK and the country itself defended by the Territorial Army and home based regulars. The failure of the Triple Alliance to deter war and prevent the violation of Belgium's neutrality, swept aside this policy and as a result, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was dispatched to France and ultimately into Belgium where they clashed with the Germans at Mons.
In 1914 the BEF, initially numbering little more than 100,000 professional soldiers was very much a minor partner in the Allied war effort. The Regiments' mobilisation and expansion exemplifies the way Kitchener's foresight that an Army of a million men in the field would be required, was to be turned from a vision into reality.
While the regiments' Regular Army fought principally on the Western Front, the Territorial Army were deployed to India, the Middle East and Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, the war raised units or service battalions were being equipped and trained. The first in action, against the Turks, were 5th Dorsets who landed on the Gallipoli Peninsular and followed by the Queen's Own Dorset Yeomanry, who the following year was operating in the Western Desert delivering a cavalry charge at Agagir. Units of all our regiments went on to fight in Palestine.
In 1915 The regiments' service battalions joined their regular counterparts on the Western Front and fought at the Battle of Loos in September and went on, in 1916, to take part in the seminal Battle of the Somme between July and November of that year. In this battle, the unskilled New Army units learned their trade as soldiers, and, at a terrible cost, laid the foundation for future success.
With France exhausted by her heroic efforts and her army, sinking into mutinous reluctance in 1917, Britain and her empire were only in the middle period of the war, able to play a full and ultimately leading part in the struggle. With the victories of Vimy, Arras and Messines the British seemed to have found a winning formula but the attritional Battle of Passchendaele left few with doubts about the cost of winning on the Western Front.
The collapse of Russia into revolution in the autumn of 1917 released a million men to fight in the west in a series of offensives, starting in the spring of 1918. They were designed to break the British and French armies in the field before American soldiers and material resources could arrive in war winning strength. During the spring, 2nd Devons fought to the finish at Bois des Buttes. With, however, the German offensives broken, a British citizen army forged in the fire of war; possibly the best ever to leave these shores, turned the tables on the Germans. In August they were thrown back and only saved from total defeat in the field by a collapse in morale at home.