English Poetry of the Great War

War has always produced poetry, traditionally paeans to courage, honor and self-sacrifice and celebrations of the warrior fighting and perhaps dying nobly and the soldier giving his life for his country.  The Great War initially produced such sentiments, and perhaps the best remembered English language poem of the war is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian physician, who composed the verse on 3 May 1915 in memory of a friend who had died at the Second Battle of Ypres.  (McCrae himself died of influenza in 1918.)  The poem succinctly captures two traditional aspects of war poetry: the honored dead and the sense of mission, now to be carried on by others, that brought them to the grave.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 

John McCrae

John McCrae 1914

But the Great War was unlike any previous conflict in history.  Firearms and cannon, the weapons of industry, had been present for centuries, but this was the first truly industrialized war.  Traditionally, the hideous face of war – the disemboweled men, the stinking bodies, the maimed survivors – had generally been ignored in favor of those noble qualities associated with men facing death.  Twentieth century weaponry blew away this romantic mantle.

It was now extremely difficult to ignore the utter horror and to see anything at all heroic in the mega-death of the trench lines. You no longer died on a field of green, exhorting your comrades with your last breath and confident you would be celebrated by them.  Now you died in the mud, choking on the gas or shredded by shrapnel.  Now you were incinerated or blown into nothing or buried alive by the artillery.  Now your comrades might never find you and were in any case likely to soon be casualties themselves.

And by 1916 the seeming pointlessness of it all, the sacrifice of thousands for a few yards of ground in a struggle that appeared to have no end, was wearing away old notions of glory and patriotism. Even Rudyard Kipling, whose son John was killed at Loos in September 1915, had doubts, writing the epitaph “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Rudyard Kipling 1916

Rudyard Kipling 1915

At the beginning of the conflict the age-old sentiment of Horace (Odes 3.2.13) was paramount: Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori – Sweet and proper is it to die for the fatherland.  But the ghastly conditions of the trenches soon made a mockery of dulce et decorum, and it became less and less clear how one’s death benefited one’s country, especially when the generals, comfortable in their chateaux, did not seem to be given many opportunities pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est...

Dulce et decorum est…

...pro patria mori

…pro patria mori

 

Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week before the war ended, reflected this disillusionment in what is perhaps my favorite poem from the whole bloody affair: Dulce et Decorum est.

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

 

Such images could hardly be more distant from the maudlin call of In Flanders Fields.  The environment of war may produce noble actions – and great literature – but it is after all impersonal slaughter, and the Great War demonstrated that in a way unmatched before or since.

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Report from the Fronts #12: March 1916

(I have said next to nothing about life in the trenches, and rather than spend time detailing the unimaginable environment of the Western Front, I recommend two books. Richard Holmes, Tommy (2004) is an exhaustive but delightful study of every aspect of trench life, and Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) (many editions) is the sometimes surreal memoir of a German soldier who lived through the entire war.  I have discovered that my major chronological source for the war was in error regarding the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, which began in March and not February.)

 

When we left Verdun at the end of February, the German offensive had stalled because of mud, and von Falkenhayn began considering whether to cancel the operation.  The expectation had been that artillery could suppress the enemy guns on the west side of the Meuse, but this did not prove to be the case, and the French artillery, well-positioned on heights and behind hills, wreaked havoc among the German troops advancing along and to the east bank of the river.  But the front crossed the Meuse north of Verdun, and von Falkenhayn was convinced by subordinates that a southward advance on the west side of the river could silence the French guns.  General Heinrich von Gossler’s plan involved assaulting the village of Mort-Homme and Hill 265 (sounds like Vietnam) near the Meuse on 6 March and then Avocourt and Hill 305 to the west on 9 March.

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Like so many offensives on the Western Front, it did not work out that way.  Despite a heavy bombardment – Hill 304 was lowered by seventeen feet – the French artillery and counterattacks slowed the advance and inflicted great casualties.  Only after a week did the Germans achieve the objectives for the first day, capturing Hill 265 on 14 March.  On 22 March two German divisions attacked a position near Hill 304 and were slaughtered by a rain of shells, and the offensive came to an end.  By the end of the month the Germans had suffered 81,607 casualties for minimal gains, and Verdun was still French.  There would be nine more months of this.  The commander on the French side at this time, incidentally, was General Philippe Pétain, who would later become the head of state of the Germany puppet Vichy France (1940-44). 

 

Elsewhere in the war, the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo began on 9 March.  The Italian army in the north had been rested and refurbished, and the French were pressuring Rome for an offensive.  After four failed attempts one must suspect that there was little expectation of any breakthrough, and the point of the operation was in fact to relieve the pressure on the Russians and on Verdun, though how that would happen is not at all clear, especially in the case the French at Verdun.  Even General Cadorna termed the offensive a “demonstration,” which label of course made no difference to the troops, who would be just as dead when shot.

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Though some fighting continued to the end of the month, the battle essentially ended after only six days because of the horrible weather conditions, demonstrating once again the futility of these assaults. Despite an almost three to one advantage in men and guns the Italians could make no headway, and each side suffered just under 2000 casualties.  How fine to die for your country in a pointless “demonstration.”  Incidentally, the stony ground and cliffs made this front even more dangerous, since every shell impact would produce a deadly cloud of stone splinters.

Under the same pressure to take some of the heat off the Western Front on 18 March the Russians launched the Lake Naroch offensive in White Russia (Belarus). The Russians had more guns and three times as many troops as the Germans and came up with a somewhat less than novel plan: (inaccurately) shell the German positions for two days and then send bunched formations of infantry charging across the muddy ground.  By the end of the operation on 30 March General Alexei Evert had gained six miles and lost 110,000 men to the Germans’ 20,000 (German estimates).  The Germans promptly retook the territory.

German troops at Naroch

German troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

General Alexei Evert

General Alexei Evert

Meanwhile, the British troops besieged in Kut on the Tigris River had enough food to last until the middle of April, and in any case the spring rains would soon make the whole area a disease-ridden quagmire. On 8 March a relief force of some 20,000 under General Fenton Aylmer reached Dujaila, downriver from Kut, and assaulted a Turkish force half their size.  But the Turks, under the command of Golz Pasha and Halil Pasha (Halil Kut, a major actor in the Armenian genocide), had fortified Dulaila well, having learned a lot about entrenchment from Gallipoli. Aylmer lost about 4000 men to Golz’s 1200 and retreated down the river.  He was sacked on 12 March.

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Halil Pasha - mass murderer

Halil Pasha – mass murderer

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

Golz Pasha

Golz Pasha

In Africa General Jan Smuts, who had fought against the British in the Second Boer War, invaded German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) on 5 March.  With an army of over 70,000 South Africans, Indians and Africans he struck southwest from British East Africa (Kenya), while Belgian forces attacked from the west.  On 10 March Smuts took back Taveta, just east of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and three days later Moshi, south of the peak.  The capture of Kahe, south of Moshi, on 21 March brought an end to the operations around Kilimanjaro; the Germans had left.  Lettow-Vorbeck had only 13,800 troops, mostly Askaris, and had no choice but to withdraw when faced with overwhelming numbers, something easily done given his superior mobility.  The Allies would steadily capture real estate, but never Lettow-Vorbeck, and meanwhile their troops were dying of disease.

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Jan Smuts (right)

General Jan Smuts (right)

hard to see map

hard to see map

The remainder of the events of March 1916 were of a political or strategic nature.  True to its word, on 1 March Germany expanded its submarine warfare, ultimately bringing the United States closer to involvement in the war.  On 9 March Germany declared war on Portugal, which had refused to return German steamers captured on the Tagus River in February; with even less reason Austria-Hungary also declared war six days later.  Actually, inasmuch as Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) bordered on German East Africa there was indeed a point of contact between the two countries, and Lettow-Vorbeck would happily use that territory in his Great Chase with the British.

Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck

Allied interference in Persia continued, with Russian operations in the northwest and British forces – the south Persian Rifles under Sir Percy Sykes – in the south.  On 25 December 1915 the Allies had “persuaded” the Shah to appoint a more pro-Entente Prime Minister, Prince Farman Farma, and now on 5 March he and his cabinet were compelled to resign for refusing to support Russian-British control of the Persian military and finances.  Anglo-American meddling in Iranian affairs was just beginning.

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

            More “resignations.” On 15 (?) March Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the father of the German navy, resigned as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office, having lost the support of the Kaiser and naval establishment because, ironically, of his support for unrestricted submarine warfare.  More emblematic, on 29 March Alexei Polivanov, who had been struggling to reform the Russian army, resigned as the Minister of War.  In August 1915 he had argued against Nicholas’ assumption of supreme command and thus alienated Alexandra, who persuaded her husband to sack him.  One can hardly get choked up about the impending execution of this couple.

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Alexei Polivanov

Alexei Polivanov

Finally, on 12 March the Allies held a conference in Chantilly to discuss the summer offensive; the outcome would be the nightmare of the Somme.  And there was another conference at Paris from 26 to 28 March, the result of which was a declaration of unity among the Allied powers: Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Serbia (which technically did not exist at the moment), Russia and Japan.  The Czar must have been delighted to have as an ally the power that had annihilated his Baltic and Far Eastern fleets a decade earlier.  (Yes, Japan; I have been ignoring the relatively trivial events of the Far East and Pacific.)

Paris in 1916

*Paris in 1916

(Delayed) Reports from the Front #11: February 1916

The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.)  Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.

On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi.  But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years.  On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century.  The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.

The Hedwig von Wissman

The Hedwig von Wissman

To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum.  Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000.  The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.

Yudenich

Nikolai Yudenich

Russians in Erzurum

Russians in Erzurum

The Caucasus campaign

The Caucasus campaign

And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians.  Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.

Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts.  On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme.  The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins.  The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:

 

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

 

On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated.  Life there was not good.

While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut.  On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food.  This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.

The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States.  On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.

And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.

Finally, the big one.  On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River.  Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace.  Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance.  The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder.  (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)

Poilus

Poilus

The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war.  The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack.  Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons.  A more linear trench and wire line had been begun.  Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.

Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont

Marquis de Vauban

Marquis de Vauban

The meat grinder

The meat grinder

But the Germans were indeed serious.  They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer.  The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day.  One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.

French heavy mortar

French heavy mortar

German railway gun

German railway gun

Verdun battlefield a century later

Verdun battlefield a century later

By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire.  They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.

German flame throwers

German flame throwers

French regiment at Verdun

French regiment at Verdun

The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry.  Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.

The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.