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With Our Backs to the Wall: The Centenary of the 1918 German Spring Offensive and the Legacy of World War One in Yorkshire


17 Blossom Street, York, North Yorkshire, YO24 1AQ

Tel: 01904 876654

With Our Backs to the Wall: The Centenary of the 1918 German Spring Offensive and the Legacy of World War One in Yorkshire

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About us

This symposium marks the centenary of the end of WWI in Britain's greatest crisis, The Spring Offensive, and the legacy of the war in 1920s and 1930s using archived film footage made in Yorkshire during this period. 'With Our Backs to The Wall' is a symposium that showcases the research of World War One academics and archive films made in Yorkshire during and after WWI. The films come from the Yorkshire Film Archive and show how the events affected Yorkshire in Interwar Britain and how the resonance of the Great War is still shaping society today.

13.00 - Welcome address
13.15 - Keynote Speaker Professor Edward Spiers on the Spring Offensive, and Guest note speakers (Dr Chris Price, Martin Watts, Dr Alice Brumby)
14.30 - Afternoon refreshments
14.45 - Interwar archive films and audience discussion
15.45 - Refreshments
16.00 - Event closes

Date: Saturday 30 June 2018
Venue: Bar Convent, 17 Blossom Street, York. YO24 1AQ

Keynote speaker Professor Edward Spiers, University of Leeds:


The German Spring Offensive, 1918.

Launched on 21 March 1916, the German Spring Offensive, involving four successive operations, Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorke, represented a desperate attempt by General Ludendorff to win the war before the material and human resources of the United States could be brought to bear on the western front. Although it achieved the largest territorial gains on this front since 1914, and inflicted heavy casualties on the British Fifth Army, the offensive was ultimately unsuccessful.

The spectacle of British forces in retreat after two days aroused bitter debate both at the time and thereafter. The removal of General Sir Hubert Gough as commander of the Fifth Army (28 March) testified to the immediate panic and in a book written Repington, a leading war correspondent, described the battle as 'the worst defeat in the history of the British Army' (1920). A reaction set in with Churchill's emphasis on the unprecedented scale of the initial offensive (1927), Gough's defence of the Fifth Army (1931) and the Official History's claim that the Fifth Army 'bent, but it never broke' (1937). Subsequent writing has focussed more on the German assault; the manpower shortages of the BEF; the lack of manuals and training in defensive fighting; the structural and communication problems of the Fifth Army; and the reasons for the German failure.

Martin Watts, Researcher for Yorkshire Film Archives:

Filmed and not Forgotten

The Yorkshire Film Archive has an extraordinary collection of films made in Yorkshire just before during and after the First World War. The presentation will share some of the discoveries we made, how we presented them and explore the way this research into the content of the films developed and changed our response to them.

Dr Chris Price, Lecturer at York St John University:


The Public Impact of Operation Michael in Britain

The German spring offensive of 1918 came as shock in Britain. It was aimed squarely at the BEF in France and its objective was to drive the British army into the sea as a prelude to overwhelming the depleted French and unprepared US armies. The Germans believed that following their 1917 victory over Russia, only immediate and decisive defeat of Britain in the west could bring final victory in the war.

After dramatic early gains the German offensive was halted and reversed. However, by 1918 Britain and other combatants had embraced many aspects of 'total war' familiar after 1939. This included the concept of the 'peoples' war', in which battlefield success had to be accompanied by the defeat of the enemy's national morale. Ultimately the German home front collapsed, but the aim of this paper is to present ongoing research exploring the impact of the German offensive on British public opinion and on the will of the British people to continue the war. It will thus consider the presentation of Operation Michael to the British public at national and local levels, and the effectiveness of this mediation of critical events from the battlefront.

Dr Alice Brumby:


"The war was over…but our work was not:" The Aftermath of the Great War and its Legacy on Ex-servicemen and the Community of Yorkshire.

As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, we further propagate the belief that the Great War was a four year conflict, clearly demarcated by the dates 4th August 1914 to the 11th November 1918. Yet this neat history was not a reality for many men who served in the war. For some men demobilisation was a lengthy process, for others the realities of war would continue for years through nightmares, or else coming to terms with permanent physical and psychological injuries. Some men were permanently disfigured. Those who were comparatively lucky were faced with the realities of having to return home to compete in a desperately competitive labour market, in which their military service stood for little. For some contemporaries the silencing of the guns in November 1918 merely signalled the beginning of a more personal struggle. This talk looks at the legacies of the First World War on servicemen in Yorkshire. By analysing some of the individual and personal stories of men, families and the wider community, this talk will show how these groups tried to come to terms with the cataclysmic upheaval of the First World War.

Dr Alice Brumby Biography:

Dr Alice Brumby is a member of the Centre for Health Histories at the University of Huddersfield. Her recent research has focused upon civilian and military mental health care and patient welfare in nineteenth and twentieth century England. She has published work on the experiences of shell-shocked soldiers in the interwar years and the genre of First World War hospital magazines. She has curated exhibitions about the First World War at the York Army Museum, the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds and the George Marshall Medical Museum in Worcester.

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