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

Fri Jun 27, 2014 5:48am EDT
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By Alexandria Sage

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.   Continued...

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.  REUTERS/Benoit Tessier