On this day in history….4th August 1865

On this day in history : 4th August 1865 – The birth of Edith Cavell, the English nurse who helped hundreds of British, French and Belgian soldiers escape occupied Belgium during World War I….

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Edith Cavell – Public domain

Edith Louisa Cavell, the daughter of a rector and the eldest of four children was born in Swardeston, Norfolk…. She worked as a governess in Belgium before training as a nurse in London…. She was employed in hospitals in Shoreditch, King’s Cross and Manchester and then took the position of Matron in Brussels – in what was Belgium’s first training hospital and school for nurses…. Her work involved training nurses during Belgium’s modernisation if its medical care system….

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Edith (seated centre) with a group of the student nurses whom she trained in Brussels – Public domain

Edith was back in Norfolk visiting her family when WWI broke out…. On hearing that German troops were advancing on Belgium she returned to Brussels immediately…. By the 20th of August 1914 Brussels was occupied and the nursing school became a Red Cross Hospital – treating casualties on both sides, as well as continuing to treat civilians….

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Edith with her two dogs in a garden in Brussels before the outbreak of WW1 – Public domain

On September the 14th Edith was asked to help two wounded British soldiers, who after the Battle of Mons had become trapped behind enemy lines…. She treated them at the hospital and then arranged to have them smuggled out of Belgium into neutral Holland….

Becoming part of the network who helped Allied troops, over the next 11 months Edith helped over 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers escape…. She would first treat them at the hospital and then arrange for guides to take them across the border….

On the 5th of August 1915 Edith was arrested and placed in solitary confinement at St. Gilles Prison, Brussels…. She was one of 34 members of the network to be arrested….

Edith’s court martial took place on the 7th of October 1915…. She was found guilty….and sentenced to death…. Before her execution she was granted one final communion with an Anglican Priest…. She wished her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country….“I have no fear nor shrinking, I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me’….

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Portrait of Edith Cavell before WW1 – from the Collections of the Imperial War Museums

Edith was shot by firing squad at the Tir National, the Brussels firing range, on the 12th of October 1915 – she was executed along with 4 Belgian men…. Her death caused outrage in Britain and many neutral countries – including the United States…. It prompted the US First Secretary, Hugh Gibson, to put intense diplomatic pressure on Germany….

Edith had been betrayed by a Frenchman, Gaston Quien….who after the war was put on trial by the French for his collaboration with the Germans…. He was sentenced to death for his treasonous acts, including Edith’s death – but this was commuted to twenty years imprisonment and he was released in 1936….

After the war had ended Edith’s body was exhumed and repatriated – she was buried at Norwich Cathedral and a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey….img_3673

On this day in history….1st July 1916

On this day in history : 1st July 1916 – 19,240 British and Allied soldiers are killed and a further 40,000 are injured on the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War One….

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First day of the Battle of the Somme – Cassowary Colorizations via Flickr

100,000 Allied troops took part in the Battle of Albert – the name given by the British to the first two weeks of the planned joint operation between Britain and France…. Also included were men from South Africa, India, Newfoundland and many from Ireland….all brought together to try and break the deadlock on the Western Front…. The German and Allied troops faced each other from trenches separated only by a strip of ‘no man’s land’….

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From the collections of the Imperial War Museums

There had been a week’s long artillery bombardment before the main offensive, with the aim of destroying the German defences…. However, the decision was taken to extend the attack to a bigger area which meant the artillery fire had to cover a larger range….making it less effective….

On Saturday the 1st of July at 7.30am the first offensive began….for most of the infantry who went over the top it was their first taste of battle…. Many were volunteers of the ‘Pals’ battalions, formed after Lord Kitchener had called for volunteers…. At the beginning of the war the British Army consisted of 750,000 men….whereas the Germans had six times this number…. Kitchener appealed to Britain’s patriotism – calling friends, relations and neighbours to join-up together….the idea being men would have more desire to fight alongside those they knew….

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Sending untrained, inexperienced men over the top was to be a recipe for disaster…. As they entered no man’s land they were met with a hail of machine gun fire…. The Germans, in their deep trenches, had ridden out the bombardment…. With German barbed wire defences still intact the Allies were unable to reach their objective; those that did were either killed or forced back…. On this, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, the losses were catastrophic…. The 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment were virtually wiped out – and out of the 720 Accrington Pals – the 11th East Lancashire Battalion – 584 were casualties….

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From the collections of the Imperial War Museums

The Battle of the Somme continued for 4 months…. After that first day the Allied had captured 3 square miles….over the next two weeks a series of smaller attacks on the German lines were made, in preparation for another large assault…. On the 4th of July the two sides were engaged in another bloody battle….a further 25,000 were killed or injured…. By the second week in July the casualty numbers began to appear in the British newspapers….and people back home began to realise the hell that their loved ones had been sent to….

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Thiepval Memorial to the British Missing of the Somme – Photo credit : Amanda Slater from Coventry (England) CC BY-SA 2.0
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German prisoners captured by the British – From the collections of the Imperial War Museums

On this day in history….29th January 1916

On this day in history : 29th January 1916 – Britain’s Mark I prototype tank is trialled for the first time at Hatfield Park, Hertfordshire….

The prototype was commonly known as ‘Mother’ or ‘Big Willie’ – a pun directed at the German Kaiser – but its official name was ‘His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede’…. ‘Tank’ was initially a code name….

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HMSO – Public domain

Developed in 1915, as a means to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the MKI prototype was built by Fosters of Lincoln in the December of 1915 – and was the World’s first tank…. Initial driving, firing and obstacle-crossing trials took place in Lincoln before ‘Mother’ was taken by rail to Hatfield Station on the 28th of January 1916…. The last part of the journey was made under the cover of darkness, when she was driven to Hatfield Park….

Three days of demonstration then followed – for civilian, military and naval personnel – and started on Saturday the 29th of January…. Over the course of the following week she was shown to various dignitaries including King George V, David Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener – who made the remark that she was a “pretty mechanical toy”…. A rather large toy – ‘Mother’ was 31ft 3ins long (complete with her rear steering wheels) and weighed 28 tons 8cwt….

Following the successful trials an order was placed for 150 tanks….and the first saw action on the 15th of September 1916, when used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme Offensive….

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Mark I tank – image: Ernest Brooks. Public domain

With a crew of 8, the tank had a range of 24 miles and could travel at a speed of 4mph…. It could negotiate rough terrain, go through barbed wire, cross trenches and survive machine gun and small-arms fire…. The MKI had a mounted 6-pounder cannon and a Hotchkiss machine gun on each side – and became referred to as ‘male’ – as a later version with no cannon, only machine guns, became known as ‘female’…. The one weakness that blighted the tank throughout its service being the Daimler 6-cylinder 105 horsepower engine – which proved to be far from reliable….

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Captured British tank in German hands destroying tree…. Unknown author CC BY SA 3.0

The original ‘Mother’ prototype, which had been used at the Hatfield trials, had her guns removed and was used for driver training…. Around December 1916 she was modified to a petrol-electric drive, using Daimler (of Coventry) parts…. This was intended to make the drive easier but was unsuccessful…. Eventually all of her equipment was stripped out and her tracks removed….leaving just an empty shell…. Finally, she was scrapped…. Her predecessor, ‘Little Willie’, fared better and can be seen in the Bovington Tank Museum….

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‘Little Willie’ – Photo credit: Andrew Skudder via Flickr
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‘Little Willie’ showing rear steering wheels – Public domain

On this day in history….27th January 1916

On this day in history : 27th January 1916 – The British government passes a legislation which introduces conscription in the United Kingdom….

Known as the Military Service Act the Bill had been introduced by Prime Minister H.H.Asquith and came into force on the 2nd of March 1916…. It was only ever enforced in England, Scotland and Wales due to the political situation in Ireland….

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Before conscription the government had relied on volunteers….now all single men between the ages of 18-40 years old were liable to be called up for military service…. There were exclusions – widowed men with dependent children and ministers of religion…. However, there was also a system of Military Service Tribunals which examined claims of exemption…. Claims such as performing civilian work of national importance, domestic hardship, health issues and conscientious objection were all taken into consideration – although the latter with very little sympathy….

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By the end of June 1916 748,587 men had applied to tribunals – whereas some 770,000 had joined up…. In the beginning married men had been exempt but this changed in June 1916…. The age limit was raised to 51 in 1918 – and there were changes made to laws in recognition of work of national importance. Towards the end there was even support to call up clergy…. Conscription ended in 1919….

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WW1 – British soldiers marching to the Somme. Photo credit: Anders via Flickr