Eager but doomed: the British "Tommies" who hoped to be home by Christmas

MEAUX France Fri Jun 27, 2014 5:48am EDT

1 of 7. A Union Jack is presented in the exhibition 'Join Now! The British Empire's Entry into The War' at the Museum of the Great War in Meaux, near Paris, June 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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MEAUX France (Reuters) - They arrived in France young, eager and hopeful, confident that the new war in Europe would be over by the time the snow began to fall back home in England.

An exhibition opening near Paris on Saturday commemorates the British "Tommies" who marched to battle against Germany with no inkling that the Great War would drag on for four relentless years. Some 27,000 of them were to die before year's end, when the stalemate of trench warfare set in.

The first heady months of World War One form the poignant backdrop to 'Join Now! The British Empire's Entry into War', which opens 100 years to the day after Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, sending Europe's belligerent powers careening towards conflict.

"We wanted to emphasize this sense of uncertainty about ... when everyone would come back home," said Michel Rouger, director of the Museum of the Great War in Meaux.

Britain - a massive colonial power with a presence on five continents and a formidable Navy - was convinced its boys would be home by Christmas, yet in August was unprepared for the heavy casualties suffered in its first campaign, the Battle of Mons.

But within a month came a strategic victory for French and British forces at the Battle of the Marne, dashing the Germans' hopes of a swift advance on the Western front to Paris, and providing a major psychological boost for the Allies.

"The sense of victory in September 1914 and impetus that gives the Alliance thereafter should not be underestimated," said Hew Strachan, a University of Oxford World War One scholar who curated the exhibit.

Meaux, about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Paris, marked the western edge of the Battle of the Marne.

On display are a wall of recruitment posters aimed at boosting the professional army of 80,000 men that made up the British Expeditionary Force. Before conscription in 1916, some 2 million volunteers had swelled the army's ranks, with London alone supplying 1,600 to 4,000 recruits per day.

The call by the Parliament Recruiting Committee went out in August 1914 with messages like "There is Still a Place in the Line for You - Will You Fill it?" or "Young Women of London - Is Your Best Boy Wearing Khaki? If Not, Don't You Think he Should?"

A December 2014 letter by the committee, noting the insufficient number of new recruits, is chilling: "We need all the best the nation can give us of its youth and strength."

LETTERS TO MOTHER

The exhibit highlights both the traditions and innovations of the British Army. Whereas the lances used by the cavalry during the Battle of Mons hark back to 19th century warfare, their 13-pounder field guns embraced modernity, being lighter, more mobile and quicker to fire than earlier artillery.

The Tommies' khaki uniforms, which replaced leather with tough canvas webbing on their kit straps, look cutting-edge next to the cumbersome French uniforms, with their heavy red pantaloons, long navy coats and "kepi" flat caps.

Official letters cite the need to inform local French communities of the arrival on French soil, usually through the port of Le Havre, of thousands of British soldiers in "their unfamiliar uniforms".

"We have a lot of fun here trying to talk French to the inhabitants," writes Captain David Jones of Wales to his mother in an undated letter, adding the locals don't speak a word of English. Jones, who is "somewhere in France," asks her to send cakes.

A tour of the museum's permanent collections reminds the visitor of the misery to come on both sides.

Trench warfare - with its mud, rats, disease and boredom, not to mention the constant peril of death by shelling, sniper or poison gas - was to mark the remainder of the war before resumption of the "war of movement" in the spring of 1918.

"This is not about who were the good guys, and who were the bad guys," said Meaux Mayor Jean-Francois Cope of the museum that opened in 2011 and receives a tenth of its visitors from abroad, notably Britain, the United States and Belgium.

"It's about trying to allow the 21st century public ... to understand a bit better the horrors of the war."

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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