Category Archives: World War I

In Flanders Fields

Given that 100 years ago men were fighting and dying in the opening months of what they would come to call the Great War and we call WWI, I decided to post one of the most famous and memorable poems to come out of that war.  This poem is one of the reasons that the VFW sells Poppies today in their fundraisers.  It really is true that the fields of Flanders are covered with Poppies in spring and summer.  Every time I visit Flanders the poppies serve as a reminder of the slaughter that took place there.

In Flanders Fields
By John McRae

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.

Some backstory on the Poem and Remembrance Poppies can be found on the In Flanders Fields page of GreatWar.co.uk

Messines 5

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army.  It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914.  Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.

The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of  Ypres or Passchendaele.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient.  It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.

The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast.  I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq.  In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.

Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.

The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder.  Plumer reputation among the troops however was different.  He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive.  The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines.  These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.

A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded.  The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.

A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked.  (NOTE:  preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)

The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders.  The overall plan failed.

At approximately  3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded.  The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.

The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.

On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from.  The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.

German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.

Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.

The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.

Messines 4

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Book Review: Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is one of the flood of new works coming out about World War I this year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the world’s first truly mechanized war.  This book explores the ten month (or eleven, depending on how you count it) battle of Verdun between the Germans and French from February to November 1916.

It consists of eleven chapters arranged thematically that examine different aspects of the battle from the operational movements of the forces involved to the way the battle was described in the contemporary press to the role of the battle in modern memory.  There is an extensive appendix on sources, a 29 page list of endnotes and a 20 page bibliography.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is not a battle history in the traditional sense of the word.  here is no bow by blow account of the opening days of the battle and the fall of the french forts at Vaux and Duouamont and the subsequent French recapture of much of the contested ground over the course of the battle.  The book is both more and less than battle history at the same time.  it examines the battle and the role it played in the course of the war from many angles both military and civilian.

I found the chapters discussing the views of the battle by the French and German commands especially revealing.  The standard account is that the Germans intended all along for Verdun to be a battle of attrition and that the French chose to fight so hard there as a matter of honor.  That myth is exploded in these two chapters and the way in which the battle became a matter of prestige and developed a logic of it’s own is explored in detail.  Given the level of casualties on both sides that the battle evolved into one of prestige makes sense.

Even more revealing is the discussion of the various ways in which the battle was portrayed by the media.  A good picture of the way in which the media can sway public opinion and force policy decisions is described in the media portrayals of the Battle at Verdun.  The last part of the book that examines the way the memory of the battle has been shaped and its amazing transformation from a symbol of french determination to a landmark of multiculturalism  and a monument to the futility of war is revealing in the extreme.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is well-written and logically presented and while it is not traditional battle history it is rewarding to read nonetheless.  Verdun was one of the greatest blood-lettings of World War I, though not the greatest as it has been said, that was the opening months of the war.  It is time for an objective re-examination of this supposedly pivotal battle that in the end achieved nothing of strategic significance, unless you think killing off a large cohort of enemy troops is strategic results.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I and even more to people who want to understand how the perceptions of wars and battles are shaped more by those who were not there than than by those who were.

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Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the first book I have read about WWI that does not treat Austro-Hungary as an afterthought after the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914.  In fact, Austria-Hungary and the course of the fighting in Serbia and Galicia in the first year of the war is the central theme of the book.  Dr. Wawro applies his usual exhaustive research methods to exploring the course and cause of the Austro-Hungarian demarche to war in 1914.  Given that World War I is also one of my areas of specialty in historical study I won’t say that I agree with him 100%, I rarely do.  However, he provides an insightful look into the reasons why the Austro-Hungarian army failed so miserably in 1914 despite being considered one of the more powerful armies in Europe.

The book itself consists of 385 pages of text with illustrations and maps scattered throughout.  There are 40 pages of notes, a four page bibliography and an extensive index.  The body of the text is divided into 14 chronological chapters that run from the pre-war years to the end of the war.

The main focus of the book is the months leading up to the outbreak of war, the pre-war  diplomatic maneuvering, and the disastrous performance of the Austro-Hungarian army against both the Serbs in Serbia and Russians in Galicia.  He describes the tactical and structural reasons for Austrian failure quite well.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Austrians or Germans were at fault for the outbreak of the war.  That is quibbling however, as an argument can certainly be made that the Central Powers bear the lion’s share of the blame.  I just happen to disagree with that interpretation.  Dr. Wawro however, makes a powerful case that Austria is to blame for the war  by the way they frittered away the opportunity for a localized war with Serbia because of internal and external political considerations.

I found it odd that he excoriates the Austrian Army for clinging to outmoded notions of the utility of the bayonet charge in the face of machine guns and quick-firing artillery.  He almost makes out as though the Austrians were the only army to have this idea, which is false.  No European army had anticipated the destructive and defensive potential of these developments prior to 1914.  The Austrians were not the only ones.  The French in particular are notable for their “cult of the offensive” in 1914 which caused the French to suffer massive casualties in the opening months of the war as they launched fruitless mass infantry attacks into the teeth of German machine guns only to be mown down like hay for the harvest.

French Tirailleurs of 1914
French Tirailleurs of 1914

He criticizes the Austrian Army for their choice of a blue-gray uniform that did not provide much in the way of camouflage in the forests of Serbia or the Galician plain.  Blue-gray is actually much better than the sky blue greatcoat and bright red pantaloons that French troops wore without even mentioning the bright fez and baggy pants of the French Tirailleurs Sénégalais of 1914.  The Austrians were not alone in doing stupid things.

Perhaps the biggest failure the Austrian’s can be accused of is their lack of equipment, especially artillery given the way the rest of Europe was armed and their poor efforts at making their multi-ethnic army effective.  Dr. Wawro is absolutely correct that Austrian Army had apparently learned nothing from their drubbing at the hands of Prussian in 1866.  The Austrians had done little to improve integration of ethnicities in the army.  The efforts at integration were also hamstrung by the internal politics of the empire and Franz Joseph’s continual capitulations to the Hungarians after the founding of the dual monarchy.

All in all this is an excellent book that belongs on the shelf of every World War I scholar.  It provides a look at the major belligerent that is largely ignored in most English language scholarship and that played the central role in how, why, and when the war began.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire is a long overdue look at an important facet of World War I.  Dr. Wawro is the scholar to give that facet the treatment it deserve and he does so outstandingly.  I highly recommend this book.  If you only buy one of the flood of World War I books that appear in this year of the Centenary Commemoration of the outbreak of war, this should be it.