April 2011


The experience on the Somme of being ejected from some of the strongest positions on the whole front by the British caused the Germans to reconsider their 'One line and a strong one' policy. They realised, for example, that holding a long continuous front line resulted in heavy casualties among the defenders from Allied preliminary bombardments. Their answer was defence in depth, that is, a deep zone of strong points rather than lines of trenches.

The British encountered (and partially overcame) this system in Flanders in 1917 following which they too re-cast their defence system. It was based on the German model although it has been stated that they never fully understood it. Apart from their Flanders experience, it seems that they were also prompted by the acute manpower situation and the expectation of remaining on the defensive throughout 1918 until the Americans arrived in force.

From the beginning of 1918 the British defensive system consisted of three zones:

Forward zone—about 300 yards deep. Designed to guard against surprise and to compel the enemy to use large forces and expend large amounts of ammunition to capture it. In fact an outpost lime, the backbone of which were the Vickers and Lewis guns. Roughly coincided with existing lines. This zone was originally called the outpost line but this title was changed as it was thought that the knowledge that the positions would not necessarily be held to the last might cause their garrisons to abandon them prematurely.

Battle zone—anything from 600 yards to three miles behind but usually one or two miles. About 3000 yards in depth, this was the main defence line.

Rear zone—about four miles farther back. Here in extremis the last stand would be made. In fact owing to shortage of labour, little, if any, work was done on the defences in this zone beyond marking them out.

The main defences consisted of mutually supporting company positions entrenched and wired for all round defence and organised in depth with the ground in between swept by flanking and cross fire from machine guns and Lewis guns. Even greater emphasis was placed on counter attacking and each commander had to have a reserve for that purpose. Thus a company commander would have one of his four platoons in reserve and a battalion commander one of his four companies.

Bob Butcher


̃ In 1914 the daily ration for a British soldier in the BEF consisted of 1 1/4 lb fresh meat, 1 1/4 lb bread, 4 oz bacon, 3 oz cheese, 5/8 oz tea, 4 oz jam, 3 oz sugar, 1/2 oz salt, 1/3 oz pepper, 1/20 oz mustard and 8 oz fresh vegetables. A general could authorise ½ gill rum and not more than 2oz tobacco per week. Preserved meat could be issued in lieu of fresh meat, biscuits instead of bread and dried instead of fresh vegetables.

̃ The Ministry of Munitions established its own Intelligence service in the UK.

̃ GHQ's most important Intelligence source was Le Dame Blanche an 800 strong secret organisation of Belgian train-watchers who reported on the movement of troop trains which enabled GHQ to build up an enemy ORBAT. The watchers could tell what sort of unit was being carried by the composition of the train.

̃ The Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow consisted of over 170 warships of various kinds. Throughout the war, 13,631 special trains carried an estimated total of 5,425,400 tons of steam coal from the Aberdare and Rhondda districts from Pontypool Road to Scotland in order to feed its voracious appetite. The coal trains were known as 'Jellico Specials' after the commander of the Grand Fleet.


At the end of the war there were the remains of literally thousands of British soldiers all over the battle zones of France and Belgium. Many were in small cemeteries near to where the men had fallen or close to the sites of casualty clearing stations.

The dead had been buried by their comrades or inhabitants near where they fell or in local cemeteries. Burial returns were rendered by unit chaplains or their units or by medical units when the men died in their charge. By the end of 1914 the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem had provided a War Graves Registration Commission which undertook the marking and registration of all British graves that it could locate.

In May 1919 it was decided to create those centralised British war cemeteries with which the present day visitor to Belgium or Northern France is familiar.

This obviously necessitated the exhumation of the remains of dead soldiers from their existing graves –a very big undertaking. To carry out this unpleasant task men were specially recruited into the Labour Corps. They could be ex-soldiers or otherwise and former NCOs could re-enlist in their old ranks, subject to approval by the Officer in Charge of the Labour Corps Records in Nottingham. Provided that they were fit for service men seventeen years and upwards had to be below medical category B(1) but those thirty-eight years and upwards could be in any category.

Enlistment was to be into a special section of the Labour Corps for as long as these special duties existed, but in any case not beyond 30 April 1930. (The Labour Corps had in fact been disbanded by then.)

The ordinary Labour Corps rates of pay applied but a special allowance was payable. This was three shillings a day for warrant officers and non commissioned officers and two shillings and sixpence for privates. However, in the true tradition of War Office parsimony, this was only payable for the days on which the men were actually engaged on exhumation duties. A war bonus was granted for so long as it was paid to the Armies of Occupation.

I don't know when this special duty was completed.



The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

Compiled by Bob Butcher

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