Scotland in First World War Essay Sample

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Scotland played an important role in the British army right from the start of the war. Straight away there was a lot of support from Scotland as volunteer rates were bigger in proportion to the size of the population than in any other area of the UK. Scots were also highly involved in the battle of Loos which was one of the first main battles of the war. The next battle that involved a large amount of Scots was the battle of the Somme. Another main battle was Arras this also had a high percentage of Scots in it. Douglas Haig played an important role as he was a Scottish field Marshall and leader of the British army from 1916 onwards and was entrusted with making decision important to the outcome of the war. In 1914 the British army was entirely voluntary and only used to control the British Empire. The army was small and only numbered around 250,000 but they were highly trained in combat. The soldiers were mostly working class men and were led by middle or upper class officers. Britain also had a territorial army which by 1914 also numbered around 250,000.

The Territorial Army did not serve overseas but did drills and received basic military training. Scots were involved in both the British army and the Territorial Army in 1914. After the war had started Field Marshall Lord Kitchener the new secretary of state for war declared that Britain would need a million men to defeat Germany. He started recruiting immediately and started by asking for men aged between 19 and 30 to join the army but he soon increased the upper limit to 35. Lord Kitchener used propaganda to attract volunteers including posters that used slogans like “your country needs you”. There were more Scots volunteers in proportion to the size of the population than in any other area of the UK. By the end of august 20,000 people had signed up in Glasgow, this was a fifth of all the volunteers that had signed up at that time. By the middle of September the overall amount of volunteers was up to 500,000. By the end of 1914 nearly a quarter of the male labour force in western Scotland had joined up. The British government was forced to introduce conscription in 1916 because the amount of men volunteering had dramatically fallen.

In January 1916 the Military Service Act brought in conscription for single men aged 19 to 40 by May this included married men and by 1918 the upper limit was increased to 50. The only men that were exempt from conscription were men who were physically or mentally unfit, men with work of national importance, men who had business obligations and men who refused to fight on grounds of their conscience. The battle of loos was one of the first main battles of the First World War on the western front. The reason for the battle was that the French wanted British troops to attack the town of loos and divert the German forces away from themselves so they could attack Artois and Champagne. General Haig, who was in charge of the battle, was worried because he thought that Kitchener’s new army was not ready and the older more experienced BEF had nearly been wiped out. Even though Haig did not want to launch the attack he was forced to due to political pressure from the British government.

The attack on loos began on the 25th September 1915 with mines being deployed underground to disrupt the enemy defence lines, it also began with a poison gas attack which made no effective impact on the German lines. Scots soldiers were prominent in the battle with 35,000 of them taking to the battlefield, also half of the 72 infantry battalions involved had Scottish names. Some of the Scottish battalions involved included the Black Watch, the Highland Light Infantry and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. When the battle finished on the 15th October 1915 Britain had 65,000 casualties 21,000 had died, over one third (8,000) of the dead were Scottish. The losses at the battle of loos were so severe they were felt all over Scotland. The battle was classed by one historian as an “almost win” with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Due to the outcome of the battle it was seen as a meaningless and futile waste of life. One long term effect was that sir john French was replaced as commander by Douglas Haig.

The Battle of the Somme was probably the most infamous battle of the war. The attack took place to take the pressure off the French who were facing a constant onslaught at Verdun and were close to surrendering, the battle was meant to divert the German away form Verdun. General Haig who was now leader of the British army still thought the new army was not ready for a battle of that scale, but was yet again forced to attack due to political pressure. The battle started on the 1st July 1916 after a week long barrage on the German trenches. Over the week more than a million shells had been fired but many were duds and some others were shrapnel shells which had little or no effect. There were 3 Scottish divisions involved in the battle (the 9th and 15th Scottish and the 51st Highland) as well as many Scottish battalions in other units. On the first day there was almost 60,000 British dead, wounded or missing.

On the 14th of July the 51st Highland division suffered 3,500 deaths alone while attacking an objective called High Wood. The battle ended on the 18th November 1916 with over 400,000 British soldiers dead including many Scots. Even though the number of deaths was so high the battle could not be called a failure. Although Britain received large losses form battle so did the German who were left with a hole they could not fill. Britain were able to replace some of their losses with soldiers from its empire where as Germany had no fresh resources. Many class the battle as a success as it eased the pressure on the French at Verdun and kept them in the war while causing great damage to Germany. Others call the battle of the Somme a pointless waste of life as it got Britain nowhere as little ground was made. The battle of Arras was an allied operation to end the war within 48 hours.

The British were to attack and take the high ground the Germans held at Arras, this would help to draw the Germans away from the ground the French were to attack which was 80 km south of Arras. During the battle Britain used a tactic called a creeping barrage, this is where the enemy trenches would be bombarded while soldiers could advance without the threat of machine gun fire. The battle started on the 9th April 1917 and involved 44 Scottish battalions and the first day was the largest amount of Scots to take to a battlefield in one day. The 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish), 51st (Highland) Divisions were also involved as well as the battalions in other divisions. The creeping barrage led to early successes for Britain but stiffened resistance form the Germans and the use of reserves helped push Britain back. The bad weather and the failure of the French offensive also did not help. Overall Britain suffered 159,000 casualties over one third of these were Scottish. When the battle officially ended on 16 May, British troops had made significant advances but had been unable to achieve a breakthrough. The Battle of Arras is generally considered a British victory due to the capture of important areas and other territorial gains, however it did little to alter the strategic situation on the Western Front.

Following the battle, the Germans built new defensive positions and a stalemate resumed. The gains made by the British on the first day were astounding by Western Front standards, but an inability to swiftly follow up prevented a decisive breakthrough. Douglas Haig was seen differently by different people some saw him as a “bloody butcher” and some saw him as the “architect of victory”. Haig was born into a middle class family in Edinburgh in 1861, he joined the army in 1884 and was involved in the Sudan war (1898) and the Boer war (1899 to 1902). He then quickly started to rise up the ranks during the First World War becoming commander in chief in 1915 and leader of the British army in 1916, replacing John French after the catastrophic failure at Loos.

This quick change in fortunes was mainly due to his friendship with the king of Britain. He attracted a lot of controversy because of his insensitivity to ever increasing casualty numbers and his ignorance to the conditions his men fought in. on the other hand Haig was faced with the almost impossible task of defeating the Germans as well as facing pressure from politicians back in Britain. The high use of Scottish soldiers used by Haig in main and important battles was due to him being Scottish and knowing Scotland’s proud martial history. Overall Scotland played an important role in the British army during the First World War. Scotland showed their commitment to the war through their high volunteer numbers in every part of the country. Scotland were also highly involved in the battle if Loos and were involved in the main positives that came out of the battle of the Somme. The battle of Arras also helped Scotland to play an important role in the First World War and Douglas Haig had an important role because of the important decisions he had to make. All of these factors led to Scotland playing an important role in the First World War and no single one can be given the credit for the role Scotland played.

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