By Jack Grundy, Year 10 student
On Thursday 7th February Year 10, 11 and the Sixth Form had the honour of listening to Professor Gary Sheffield. Gary Sheffield is a Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University and has published many books on the First World War. Some of his publications include ‘Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory’ and 'Command and Control on the Western Front: The British Army’s Experience 1914-18’. As well as it being a great honour to listen to Professor Sheffield, it also proved to be very useful as the First World War forms a large part of the IGCSE syllabus for the Year 10 and 11 students.
Professor Sheffield talked about some very controversial topics such as ‘was Haig the butcher of the Somme?’ and shared his opinion about Haig with us. “Haig was neither the butcher nor the hero that people thought of him to be”. We learnt that Haig was a competent commander in many ways but that he also made some vital mistakes early on in his career. Haig was placed in command of the British army to get the job done no matter what, and Haig did that. On 18th November 1916 the battle of the Somme ended and the Allies emerged victorious. We also learnt that one of the main reasons Britain joined the war was to secure control over the seas as the German navy had become very strong in the build up to the war. Professor Sheffield also said that the First World War was unique as it was a “Total war” meaning that everyone was involved, not just the army. Civilians at home had to sign up, women had to do hard labour, and even members of Britain’s vast empire were pulled into the war. Men and resources from the colonies were taken to Europe to help the war effort.
America’s contribution to the war was vital. Not only did they join the fight in the final months but American banks funded a massive amount of the British and French efforts on the western front. Another fact which was surprising was that over 60,000 Americans pretended to be Canadian so that they could go to Europe and fight. What’s more is that it was the success at the Somme which led to America joining the war. The events at the Somme had dented the German army so badly that they believed that they could no longer win the war by fighting on land. They turned to their navy to try and bring them success and reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare (this meant that the submarines could fire upon any vessel which came into British waters, hostile or not). America then joined the war in April 1918.
Finally, Professor Sheffield talked about the effectiveness of the British blockade and the differences between the eastern and western fronts. The British knew that Germany had a very small coastline compared to the size of its country and set up a massive blockade stopping them from getting any resources, such as the food that was desperately needed. The blockade was so successful that in the winter between 1916-1917 the Germans had what was called the ‘turnip winter’. The staple diet for the majority of the population was the potato but in the 1916-1917 winter they were forced to eat turnips which was regarded as peasant food. The differences between the two fronts was astounding. On the western front there was deadlock with neither side able to move more than a few metres at a time. Whilst on the eastern front there was thousands of square miles of land that either side could use to try and execute flanking manoeuvres or try and break through gaps in the enemy line.
By 1918 Britain had adapted to modern warfare, unlike Germany. Britain used planes, artillery and infantry/calvary to attack the Germans to devastating effect at the Battle of Amiens in August of that year. They would all work in a team; the planes directing what was going on, artillery causing the damage and the infantry/calvary finishing the job.
Listening to Gary Sheffield was a privilege and very interesting.