Soldier's Last Letter to His Sweetheart, The
DESCRIPTION: "Seven days and seven nights we retreated ... And if we don't overcome them They'll send us all down to the grave."
EARLIEST DATE: 1917 (GreigDuncan1)
KEYWORDS: soldier battle death
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (1 citation):
GreigDuncan1 107, "The Soldier's Last Letter to His Sweetheart" (1 fragment)
NOTES: The current description is all of the GreigDuncan1 fragment.
GreigDuncan1: "It refers to the disastrous campaign in Flanders against the French in 1793 under the Duke of York." - BS
Much depends on whether this is actually the same song as one listed in earlier chapbooks. I find it interesting that Grieg collected it in 1917, three years after the beginning of World War I, about the time the (surviving) soldiers of the original British Expeditionary Force would have come home.
The Germans of course opened the war by launching the "Schlieffen Plan," invading France via Belgium (Flanders). The British were on the left of the long French line which extended from Switzerland to Belgium (Keegan, p. 94). Their first major engagement was the Battle of Mons, August 23, 1914 (Keegan, p. 97). Although the British force was heavily outnumbered, they were all regulars, and most of the soldiers were trained marksmen. The Germans were draftees. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that there were claims that the entire British army was using machine guns -- though in fact they were deficient in this key weapon (Stokesbury, p. 44).
The British, because their troops were so good, were able to hold the Germans off their front, but they were so few (apart from the nearly-useless cavalry, only four divisions of infantry! -- Chandler/Beckett, p. 211) that they eventually were outflanked as the French retreated, and had to pull back themselves (Keegan, p. 97).
"The great retreat has begun, a retreat which would carry the French armies, and the BEF on their left, back to the outskirts of Paris during the next fourteen days" (Keegan, p. 100). "For the British, the Retreat from Mons passed into legend" (Stokesbury, p. 44) -- for it was a fighting retreat, with contact with the Germans possible at any moment. Many soldiers must have felt they were on the brink of being overwhelmed -- though in fact the British survived (well, other than the ones who were shot). There was, indeed, a very bad moment at Le Cateau, when one British corps, forgotten, was nearly wrecked (Stokesbury, p. 46). The French, with some British help, would finally stop the Germans at the Battle of the Marne.
Of course, the situation fits the 1793 Flanders campaign as well. Frederick Duke of York (1763-1827), the second son of George III, repeatedly proved to be a lousy field commander. (So much so that he is often said to be the officer who inspired "The Noble Duke of York"; Chandler/Beckett, p. 146.) Sinclair-Stevenson, p. 119, notes that he was groomed from an early age to be an officer, but quotes Lord Cornwallis's description of him: "The Royal Person whom I saw does not give much hope, further than a great deal of good nature and a very good heart. His military ideas are those of a wild boy of the Guards." (These were the days of commission by purchase, when officers didn't have to know anything except how to scrape up cash.)
Frederick fought in Flanders from 1793 to 1794, when he was defeated at Turcoing and recalled. He also had a bad experience in the Low Countries in 1799. Being a prince, however, he eventually was made a field marshal (Chandler/Beckett, p. 146). To give him his due, he was a good administrator, and enacted needed reforms in the army when commander-in-chief (Chandler/Beckett, p. 147). - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Chandler/Beckett: David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition)
- Keegan: John Keegan, The First World War, Knopf, 1999
- Sinclair-Stevenson: Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, Blood Royal: The Illustrious House of Hannover, Doubleday, 1979, 1980 Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, Morrow/Quill, 1981
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