The First World War was a century ago, which is as far in the past as the American Civil War was when I was at school. Nobody who fought in it is still alive and it is harder for the modern generation to understand than the Second World War. Countless films, books and TV series have underlined how monstrous the Nazis were, but looking further back we can’t now cast Kaiser Wilhelm II as the same degree of villain as Hitler. Words such as ‘futile’ and ‘waste’ are often used in descriptions of First World War battles, which are reduced to statistics of so many thousands of men killed and so many tons of shells fired.
This doom and futility has been imposed by hindsight. It was not of course ‘The First World War’ in 1917; it was initially known as the European War, later as the Great War. People were not then embarrassed to be patriotic, and many loved King and Country without irony. The British Empire was a source of pride and for a century the Royal Navy had been the unchallenged master of the world’s oceans. Imperial Germany was the upstart new power with ambition to dominate Europe by force, and there was popular enthusiasm in Britain and the islands to teach the Kaiser a lesson. Not even the politicians and the generals expected the horrific casualties to come.
By 1917 hundreds of Guernseymen were already in British Army or Royal Navy, or were serving with the armies of France, Australia or Canada. By ancient tradition Guernsey’s men were not to be conscripted or pressed into the Navy, instead being liable to serve in the Militia. All that ended with a vote of the States in August 1916 under the encouragement of the then Lt. Governor. In December, the Militia was suspended for the duration of the war and the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry formed as a regiment of the British Army. Men began to receive their call-up papers just before Christmas. In 1916 the folly of creating ‘Pals battalions’ of close friends and neighbors had been exposed on the Somme, where a single costly attack could rob whole streets of their menfolk. Would Guernsey have to learn that lesson anew?
1917 began with hope – America had joined the Allied side but was slow in making its might felt. At home the quarries were at a standstill, tourists stayed away, men were in short supply for local businesses and women filled their places. Prices were climbing and the sale of essential foods was controlled.
This is the world in which Artie, George and Edith have to survive in Glint of Light on Broken Glass. When the RGLI was finally sent to France the British and German armies were engaged in a slogging match that turned the low-laying land of Flanders into a quagmire; a treeless shellscape where villages were reduced to smears of bricks. In September the RGLI suffered its first losses working close to the lines in Flanders, but the trenches were not to be the scene of its greatest challenge.
The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 saw the first mass attack by tanks in the history of warfare. It was also the first time a regiment badged with Guernsey’s name fought overseas. The Guernseys did not go ‘over the top’ into the trench fighting typical of that war, but fought in open fields, woods and villages in combat more like 1940 than 1916. After the tanks broke through, the RGLI followed, and bells rang out for victory for the first time in the war,
News came back slowly in 1917, and all that the soldier’s families could do was wait.