November 11, 1914/1918 - The Battle of First Ypres, and the Importance of WWI
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
November 11, 1914. On the fields of Flanders, the “Old Contemptibles” of the regular British Army and the young German volunteers of the Reserve Divisions are both blown to bits at Langemarck.
November 11, 1918. Four years later, the guns fall silent; the Great War ends. The day will be known in Europe and Canada as Armistice Day, and in the United States as Veterans’ Day. It has been 102 years since that day. This is my Veterans' Day post.
The United States has two days when it is traditional to honor military servicemembers – Memorial Day, for those that have passed on, and Veterans’ Day, which is typically considered to honor those still among us. For most other countries that participated in World War I, however, Veterans’ Day is instead held as Remembrance Day, basically functioning as THEIR day of remembrance and mourning, and is commonly associated with the end of World War I in particular. I’ve always quite liked this version, especially the tradition of the poppy.
The remembrance poppy is a small flower worn on one’s outfit as a means of commemoration for Armistice Day, mostly in Britain and the Commonwealth nations. The origin of the poppy as the symbol of the fallen dead comes from Canadian war-poet John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” written in May 1915 and published in December of that year. McCrae wrote the poem the day after his best friend was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, and McCrae himself was killed in northern France in 1918. His poem nevertheless struck a strong chord, and by the 1920s most of the English-speaking countries were wearing the Poppy on Memorial Day or Remembrance Day, though in America the tradition has largely faded. The American Legion still gives paper poppies in exchange for donations on Memorial and Veteran’s Day.
The fields of Flanders had been green in 1914, and their yearly bloom of red poppies inspired McCrae’s poem. Flanders is one of Europe’s most densely populated regions, a vast and mostly flat territory stretching across western Belgium and northern France. It is one of Europe’s bleakest regions, a huge wet plain of wide fields of pasture and farmland over a very high water table. There was no reason at first why Belgium should become a battlefield in World War I. As I have *extensively* covered in previous posts, the Germans launched their 1914 offensive through Belgium aimed at Paris, which more or less bypassed the quiet Flanders province. When the Germans were stopped from capturing Paris in the Battle of the Marne, however, events began to take a different course. With the British and French allies and the German invaders locked into a stalemate in central France, each army looked at each other for a few minutes, and then began pushing their forces west as fast possible to try and get around the other army’s flank. This “Race to the Sea” was what would eventually lead the frontlines to Flanders.
After a month of the Allied and German armies pushing each other west, like two men scrambling for some terrible prize, Ypres became the epicenter of the battle. The medieval city of Ypres is the westmost major urban center of Belgium. To its north, hugging the Atlantic, the Belgian Army had retreated and refused to concede this final corner of their country to the German invader. King Albert I commanded his countrymen to pull a Samson-in-the-temple move: break the dikes and flood the Belgian lands in front of the advancing Germans. This created an impassable zone of ten miles over which neither man nor horse could tread, creating a defensive barrier for the battered Belgian battalions.
The Germans, then, concentrated their attack on the Ypres region, and it was the British Expeditionary Force that arrived to defend the city. The BEF of Sir John French was the smallest army on the continent at the beginning of the First World War. The British Army was a long-service volunteer organization, the only European army with no draft law whatsoever. Unlike the citizens in uniform from France to Germany to Russia, the British Army was all-professional, with many senior sergeants who had fought in India, Sudan or the Boer War. Allegedly, Kaiser Wilhelm had ordered his German troops to “walk over General French’s contemptible little army,” so the British started calling themselves the “Old Contemptibles”…those that were left after 1914, anyway.
General Erich von Falkenhayn, the new German Commander-in-Chief, had taken hold of the war effort and was determined to achieve a breakthrough near Ypres. When Germany’s initial war plan to seize Paris in six weeks, known as the “Schlieffen Plan,” had failed, Falkenhayn had to make up a new plan on the fly. This new plan was to punch around the Allied flank farther north, in Flanders, and hopefully achieve the same result on a later timeframe. This would be Germany’s last great effort to win the war in 1914 before things settled into a stalemate.
The British had arrived at Ypres first and built a semicircle line east of the city, fronted by the Ypres canal as far as the small town of Langemarck to the north, near Passchendaele at the center, and to the Lys River canal to the south. Only six British infantry divisions held this line, but help was coming: more troops from England, as well as four Indian infantry divisions that had been sitting on boats for the last two months on their way to Europe. The Indian divisions, though they would fight bravely, were not built for modern war: they were far from used to cold weather and did not have enough artillery.
The First Battle of Ypres would also be the first major faceoff between the British and German armies. Though they had had their share of clashes in the past two months, this would be a test of will. The battle that ensued from early October until late November would only end when both sides collapsed from the exhaustion of three months of continuous fighting. It would signal a major development in the war for both sides. For the Germans, it brought the hope of a short war to a close, and for the British it meant the destruction of their old regular army.
But the Germans experienced the most acute tragedy in the First Battle of Ypres. The German Army had recruited a series of new reserve divisions, largely composed of enthusiastic war volunteers who had signed up just after the outbreak of the war only three months ago. Of these volunteers the most prominent were young college students who had been exempted from the draft, but showed their patriotism by signing up; high school students and boys as young as 15 or 16 concealed their age to fight for Germany. Among the new recruits were two future writers soon to be famous for different reasons: Ernst Junger, the German “war poet” who wrote the great memoir “Storm of Steel,” and Adolf Hitler, who…yeah. Either way, these recruits had received basically a month of training before being shoved in a boxcar and sent to the front. It was these reserve divisions that would lead the attack at Ypres, near the village of Langemarck.
On October 22, 1914, the German reservists went forward at Langemarck, and they ran facefirst into the wall of British machine gun and rifle fire. Desperate to take the town of Ypres before time ran out, General Falkenhayn ordered them in. Outnumbering the British greatly, the barely trained student volunteers swarmed forth en masse, full of patriotism and boyish enthusiasm, singing their schoolyard songs and national anthems.
The British “Old Contemptibles” poured a withering wind of lead and explosive shell into the boys, slashing them with steel at 600 rounds per minute. The student volunteers went down like grass before a mower. They climbed over heaps of their own dead in their doomed assault across the plain, only to be met by the veteran British Tommies and their hardened sergeants with bayonets and shovels. The old soldiers of thirty years’ service met the best young men of Germany, and both immolated each other in the mud and blasted soil of Ypres.
The Langemarck attack did succeed, but at the cost of horrific casualties, some units losing more than 70% of their number. The events of October 22 would pass into German myth as one of the many scarring events of the First World War, the “Kindermord” or the Massacre of the Innocents. The main instigator of this story was a telegraph of November 11, 1914, which reported that “To the west of Langemarck our young regiments attacked, singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles while advancing against the enemy lines and taking them.” The enduring image of the teenagers blasted away by modern firepower, in some cases with arms linked out of fear and friendship, burned deeply into the German mind and remains so to this day.
The myth of Langemarck was so powerful for years after the war that the body of literature and poetry surrounding it became called the “Matter of Langemarck,” after the “Matter of Arthur” – the body of mythic literature that makes up the Arthurian legend. It became a centerpiece of postwar propaganda, especially for the Nazis. Though Langemarck became overblown in postwar memory, the 25,000 student volunteers in the mass grave below the soil of Flanders did not get there through poetry. Others lie in three and fours below headstones reading only “anonymous.” Dominating the Langemarck tomb today are sculptures by war mother Kathe Kollwitz, one of the mothers of the sacrificed volunteers, of a mother and father bereft of their lost son. Of all events in 1914, the Kindermord shattered the belief that the war could be short, or easy, or full of glory and honor. The reality of attrition, of horror, of mass death and the stalemate and the futility and the arrogance and the sacrifice began to truly sink in.
But these dead were inflicted by another set of victims. The “Old Contemptibles” of the BEF had none of the enthusiastic patriotism of the young German volunteers. Their patriotism was in the regiment, their little “bands of brothers” that earned the King’s shilling and had fought for King and Empire across the known world. The BEF’s regulars were man-for-man the best soldiers in Europe, long-experienced regulars who had learned all the tricks of the trade, much like the modern U.S. Army today. It was these old soldiers, these “Old Contemptibles”, who died at First Ypres.
The British Expeditionary Force burnt itself to a crisp in Flanders in 1914. The medieval city of Ypres was soon shattered by artillery and rifle fire, a husk of a glorious historical past. The countryside had taken on the moonlike landscape that would become Flanders for years to come, broken apart by shelling. The little farmhouses and chateaus stood blasted apart and abandoned, the carcasses of cows stretched over the landscape, and trenches and dead men slowly began to build up across the ground. The British fought with incredible courage and fortitude, launching hopeless counterattacks that somehow succeeded, one after another. The old regiments of Yorktown, Waterloo and Balaclava shattered themselves in their effort to hold the Kaiser’s men back, with cooks and supply soldiers and clerks taking part in the desperate assaults. The battles came down to dark fights in the woods with bayonet and dagger, massive blasts of artillery that blew men into the sky, and desperate charges across open stretches of ground in the face of machine gun fire.
When the First Battle of Ypres ended on November 22, 1914, the BEF was ruined. It had saved the Allied lines in Europe, and kept the Germans out of Ypres, but by this date less than half of the 160,000 men who had come to France in August 1914 were left. Over 90,000 British boys, veteran sergeants, and aristocratic officers also lay in the mud of Flanders. The remnant was filled up by young volunteers, old reservists, and the first waves of draftees that would make up the future BEF. The Old Contemptibles had saved the Allied war effort, but had vanished in the attempt. The old British Army was gone. Facing each other across the lines near Ypres, both sides started moving again – not west, not east, and not even against each other, but down. They were digging trenches, and they meant to stay.
The First Battle of Ypres locked in the Western Front for almost the rest of the war. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Swiss Border, the Allies and the Germans began to dig the massive trench systems that would come to define the terrible struggle for the next four years. The lines in front of Ypres would not remain quiet. No less than four more cataclysmic struggles would take place in Flanders Fields throughout the Great War. The Second Battle in 1915, after which the poet John McCrae wrote his famous lyric, would see the first use of poison gas. The Third Battle – also known as Passchendaele – in 1917 would be the most miserable experience of the British War. The Fourth and Fifth Battles of 1918 would bring the end in sight – but by then almost a million men had died or been maimed in Flanders Fields, where the poppies grew. They grew on the broken vessels of German students and British Tommies, later on the French schoolboys, the English pals and the Irish and the Bavarians and so many others. Flanders had gone from a quiet farming region of Europe to one of the most terrible battlefields in human memory.
So why the First World War? Why do I write about this time in particular so much?
World War I was a hinge in time, a period that caused everything to shift around it. Four empires collapsed, some over six centuries old. Dynasties with an unbroken line for a millennium ceased to exist. Nations died and were born. The best men of a generation were consumed in fire. Soldiers from around the world came to die in the mud of France, from California to India, from South Africa to Siberia. For soldiers, the experience of war transformed in four years from armored cavalry with swords and helmets to infantry with submachine guns. Tanks, poison gas, air power, radio…more change happened in four years than in the hundred years before, or the hundred years since. Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism all came into their full flower in the years following – brought to life by the shattering of the Old World. Nothing would ever be the same, and everyone knew it. One Indian soldier, brought to Europe to fight his colonial master’s war, claimed that “This is not war. It is the end of the world.”
But more than that, attitudes changed. The way people looked at their fallen soldiers changed. The memory of human civilization when it came to war was totally transformed, brought about the massive losses and human tragedy of a war that started with high hopes and ended with desolation across the whole globe. The students of Langemarck, the Old Contemptibles of Ypres, would be joined by so many more – the French farm boys, the Russian peasants, the Austrian factory workers, and eventually the American city kids from New York and the country boys from Tennessee. The great war monuments of World War I are not of generals, or bravery, or heroism, but images of sorrow and grief. There are the grieving parents of Langemarck, or Mother Canada atop Vimy Ridge, or the stone obelisks in every British town counting the unfathomable numbers of Great War dead.
War was not a glorious adventure anymore – it was death, diesel engines, smoke, blood, and starvation. It shattered the Old World ideas of honorable, glorious struggle, ground to death forever in the misery and mud, the rain and filth, the poison gas and the trenches and the human struggle that brought empires and nations to their knees. It was an experience unlike anything the world had ever known before and left its permanent imprint on multiple generations of men and women, many of whom could not deal with what they’d seen. They drowned themselves in drink like Hemingway. They wrote bitter novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or spun fantasy universes like J.R.R. Tolkien. They became angry, like Adolf Hitler, or found their moment like Winston Churchill. They learned to fear the struggle, like Harry S. Truman, or delighted in it like George Patton. But no one left the fields of France, or Flanders, or Poland, or Russia, or countless other lands unchanged. They bore that imprint. They changed the world as it had changed them.
Remember the veterans today, and think about the poppy. Think about people who go into the fire and never come out, along with those that do. Remember that people don’t always change the war, but the war always changes them, and there’s no escaping it. Our World War I veterans are all dead now, and we don’t have their experience to rely on, but we are not so far away from them that we can’t understand. They fought “The War to End All Wars,” but even their enormous sacrifice couldn’t end it, and today we face a world less peaceful every minute. If they could speak to us, what would they say? What would they ask us to remember?
We cannot know, but we can remember. Their struggle is taught in history and remembered in the minds of Americans as World War I, but I think it deserves to be known by the name those who suffered it knew it by – The Great War. And today is the day I think we should remember all the veterans, living and dead, from the Great War on to our current, forgotten, still painful wars, and those that still serve. They have gone through Great Wars of their own, no matter what their service or what their war, Great Wars of the soul and body if nothing else.
Keep them in mind today, if only for a moment. And remember the Poppy.