“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September 1939 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become World War 2, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.
The outbreak of “The Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was a different story. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you could have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation, of a continent. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.
The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons. In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.
The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. This would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres.
When governments make war, It’s the everyday John and the Nigel down the street, the Fritz, the Ivan and the Pierre next door, who must do the fighting, and the bleeding, and the dying.
The battle for the medieval textile town of Leper, most of the battle maps were drawn in French and so we know the place as “Ypres”, began on October 20 and lasted about three weeks, pitting a massive German force of some 600,000 against a quarter-million French, 100,000 British, and 65,000 Belgians.
A million men had been brought to this place, for the purpose of killing each other. The first Battle for Ypres, (there would be others), was the greatest clash in history, or one of them, bringing together more manpower and more firepower than entire wars of the previous century. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties, including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.
The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. Assuming the same percentage distribution of killed, wounded and missing, the three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece.
A story comes down from the fighting of October 22, destined to become German and later Nazi, mythology. French, British and Belgian troops were by this time, digging into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”. German Generals, desperate to break through the Allied line and capture Calais and the other French ports on the English Channel, attacked.
German reserve divisions comprised of student volunteers: inexperienced, untrained college students fired with patriotic zeal and singing songs of the Fatherland, marched to the attack against a puny British force, dug into shallow holes around the village of Langemarck. What the BEF lacked this day in numbers, were more than made up, in firepower. Let William Robinson, a volunteer dispatch driver with the British Army, describe what came to be known as the “Kindermord bei Ypern” The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.
“The enemy seemed to rise out of the ground and sweep towards us like a great tidal wave, but our machine guns poured steel into them at the rate of six hundred shots per minute, and they’d go down like grass before the scythe… The Germans were climbing over heaps of their own dead, only to meet the same fate themselves.”
Overwhelming German numbers succeeded in forcing the British back and capturing Langemarck on October 22, but the cost was appalling. Some regiments lost 70% of their strength.
Doubt has been cast on the “Myth of Langemarck”, and the tragic bravery of idealistic German boys, happily defending the Fatherland. The numbers of dead and maimed are real enough, but most reservists were in fact comprised of older working class men, not the fresh-faced youth, of the Kindermord. Be that as it may, a story must be told. Excuses must be made to the home team, for the crushing failure of the War of Movement, and the four-year war of attrition, to follow.
Two short months later, some of these same men would step out of their trenches and across the frozen fields of Flanders, to shake the hand of the man he’d been sent there, to kill. The unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 would last a day or two in some sectors and a week or two in others. And then it was back, to the business at hand. For Four. More. Years.