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.

Advertisements

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

Reports from the Front #1: the West – August 1914 to May 1915

(OK, it took me a long time to get around to this.  In any case, this is the first of a series of pieces following the course of the Great War as it happened a century ago – assuming I live another four years.  I should have begun this last July, but the idea only now occurred to me, and consequently this first two articles carry the war up through May 1915.  Note: “Casualties” includes dead, wounded, missing and captured, and “dead” typically includes accidental and disease related deaths.  Military deaths through disease may have been a third of the total, but that is partly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, and in earlier European warfare disease inevitably accounted for the vast majority of deaths.  The ratio of dead to wounded would have varied dramatically from one theater to another but it appears 1-2 to 1-3 was the average for the war.  The official figures are not always accurate, and accounting varied; e.g., British figures did not include colonial troops.)

 

One hundred years and 296 days ago the Great War began when on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia because the Czar, who had pledged to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, refused to cease mobilizing his army.  On 2 August the Germans invaded Luxemburg and the next day declared war on France, which had refused to declare neutrality and was also mobilizing.  On 4 August the Germans also declared war on Belgium, which had denied them passage through its territory, and in response Great Britain joined the Entente and entered the war against the Central Powers.  Train schedules, lust for glory and willful stupidity had brought the European great powers to the brink of the abyss, into which they all leaped with no little enthusiasm.

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

The greatest cataclysm in European history since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had begun, all because a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took it upon himself to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne and provide the Austrians with an excuse to make impossible demands of Serbia.  Certainly the fate of Serbia was of some importance to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but the partition of the Balkans was a peripheral concern for Britain, France and Germany.  Yet all these powers, little understanding how industry and technology had changed the nature of warfare, jumped eagerly into a conflict that would slaughter millions upon millions of young men, destroy three dynasties and exhaust the economies of even the victors.  To what end?  A peace that would lead in two decades to an even greater catastrophe.

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

“Paris/Berlin by Christmas” was the cry, as both sides expected a short war.  The German plan was to seek a decisive victory in the west while much smaller forces in the east were on the defensive before the notoriously cumbersome Russian army and the Austrians were crushing tiny Serbia.  Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, intended to employ a variation of the so-called Schlieffen Plan, which in fact was a thought exercise for a single-front war with France.  Weak German forces in the south would remain on the defensive and even retreat, while the immensely powerful right wing in the north would sweep through Belgium and the Netherlands and then turn southwards west of Paris, trapping the French armies.  Whether the Schlieffen Plan could have worked is certainly debatable (the problem was not so much German transport capabilities as the state of Europe’s roads), but inasmuch as this was a two-front war and sufficient forces had to be sent east, the western army was simply not strong enough to carry out the aggressive strategy.

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

The Germans swept through Belgium and northeastern France, generally overwhelming the opposing forces, but in September the exhausted troops were stopped some 40 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne.  Repulsed by the French under Joseph “Papa” Joffre and the British (BEF) under Sir John French, the Germans withdrew north of the Aisne River, and both sides then stretched their lines northwards, establishing a fortified line that ran 460 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.  The essentially static Western Front was now in place.

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

Meanwhile, the offensive-minded French, whose basic war aim was to avenge their defeat in 1871 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, promptly invaded those provinces, but the advance was soon thrown back with immense casualties, as generals learned – not very well, it seems – what happened when masses of infantry assaulted fortified positions.  In just two months the French had suffered 360,000 casualties, the Germans 241,000; by way of comparison the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (early second century) was secured by perhaps 250,000 troops.

1914 ended with complete stalemate in the west.  Unwilling to change their tactics, both the Allies and the Germans would continue to throw men into the meat grinder of fruitless assaults, looking for the elusive breakthrough that would end the war.  But at Christmas a startling event had taken place.  During the unofficial truce soldiers on both sides began entering no-man’s land and fraternizing with one another, singing carols, swapping souvenirs and drink and playing football.  There could be no greater evidence that the men actually fighting the war bore one another no particular grudge, at least at this early stage of the war.  This was of course anathema to the generals and politicians of both sides, who quickly put an end to such unpatriotic behavior.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

Joffre’s strategic plan for 1915 was to pinch off the Noyon (near Compiègne) salient, a huge westward bulge marking the limit of the German advance, by attacking its flanks.  As part of this on 10 March the British, who occupied the far northern section of the trench line, launched an attack on Neuve Chapelle.  They achieved a tactical breakthrough, but the Germans counterattacked the next day, and though fighting continued, the offensive was abandoned on 15 March with no significant changes in the line. General French blamed the failure on insufficient supplies of shells, which led to the Shell Crisis of May and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions that could feed the growing mania of all the belligerents for artillery barrages.  Although this was a very minor operation, the British (including Indians) and Germans lost over 20,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured.

On 22 April the Germans took their shot, initiating a series of battles that would be known as the Second Battle of Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British troops called it).  The First Battle of Ypres had taken place from 19 October to 22 November of the previous year and while indecisive had resulted in more than 300,000 combined casualties, leading Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff, to conclude the war could not be won.  Unfortunately, when on 18 November he proposed seeking a negotiated settlement, he was opposed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, condemning millions to die in the next five years.

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

This time around the Germans began their offensive – after the inevitable artillery barrage – with poison gas (chlorine), the first use of this new technology on the Western Front.  The surprise and shock opened a gap in the British line, which the Germans, themselves surprised, were unable to exploit, and soon the development of gas masks rendered the new weapon far less effective.  The main struggle for the Ypres salient would go on until 25 May, by which time the Germans had pushed less than three miles westward.  It cost them 35,000 casualties, but the Allies suffered twice as much.  And Ypres was destroyed.

Ypres

Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Meanwhile, on 9 May some 30 miles to the south in the Arras sector the French 10th Army launched an offensive against the Vimy salient, attacking Vimy ridge, while the BEF attacked a dozen miles to the north at Aubers.  This was the Second Battle of Artois and would last until 18 June.  Joffre’s strategic goal was to cut a number of vital German rail lines, which would require an advance of ten or more miles beyond Vimy Ridge, something that might have struck a competent general as highly unlikely, given the experience of the last nine months.  And sure enough, the initial attack took Vimy Ridge, but lost it to a German counterattack, and a month later when the battle ended, the French line had moved less than two miles eastward.  The initial British assault was a disaster, allowing the Germans to send troops south, and in the end the Tommies had gained almost two miles.  The cost?  Officially, 32,000 British casualties, 73,000 German and 102,500 French.  During the offensive the French alone had fired 2,155,862 artillery shells.

See a trend in these battles?  If the generals did, their response was simply more of the same, producing even more casualties as defensive measures became more elaborate.  A continuous line from the sea to Switzerland, the western front offered no possibility of outflanking the enemy, and the weaponry of the time – machine guns, rapid fire artillery, mortars – made frontal infantry assaults very costly, if not suicidal.  Inasmuch as the breakthrough weaponry – tanks, motorized infantry and artillery and ground support aircraft – did not yet exist, remaining on the defense and negotiating or at least awaiting developments on other fronts seemed the reasonable course of action.  But with Germany holding almost all of Belgium and a huge and economically important chunk of France the Allies were not about to bargain from a position of weakness, and the reasonable expectation that the Central Powers would sooner or later crush the Russians and ship more troops west goaded the Entente, especially the French, into offensives.

Already in the spring of 1915 defensive systems and tactics were rapidly improving.  A more elastic defense was being adopted: rather than a single heavily fortified line, there would be a series of trench lines (three was a standard number), separated by strong points and barbwire entanglements.  This meant the attacker had to cross multiple killing grounds just to get to grips with the enemy, often out of the range of their own guns.  The clever response to this by the “chateau generals” was longer periods of artillery bombardment and sending larger numbers of men over the top, approaches that were both ineffective and extremely costly.  The storm of shells, besides alerting the enemy to an attack, hardly damaged the wire, and defenders simply took cover in their dugouts, ready to pop out and kill when the shelling stopped.  A rolling barrage with the troops following was more effective but very difficult to manage without blowing up your own men.  And gas was extremely hard to control and use effectively, which is why it has been so rarely used, even by the seriously nasty creeps who have appeared in the last hundred years.

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines

 

Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks

 

One final noteworthy event in the west during this period.  On 1 April French aviator Roland Garros shot down a German plane.  Both sides had been using aircraft for reconnaissance, and in September 1914 a Russian pilot had taken out an Austrian plane by ramming it.  Soon pilots and observers were using pistols and rifles, but it was clear that only a machine gun could be at all effective in bringing down another plane.  The problem was the propeller.  “Pusher” aircraft (the propeller mounted in the rear) were too slow, and placing the gun on the upper wing of a biplane made it very difficult to deal with the frequent jams, as well as producing too much vibration for accurate fire.  Garros’ approach was to attach metal plates to the prop in order to deflect rounds that actually hit it, and he shot down three aircraft before the strain placed on the engine by the prop being pummeled by bullets brought his own plane down behind German lines.  This crude solution would not work with steel-jacketed German ammunition, and the engineers at Anthony Fokker’s aircraft plant produced a synchronization device that allowed a Maxim machine gun to be mounted directly in front of the pilot and shoot through the prop.  On 1 July Kurt Wintgens, flying a Fokker E.I., became the first pilot to score a kill with a synchronized gun.  Suddenly the Germans had the first air superiority in history.

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker