“I had a grand dream. Loving friends were about me, a smiling valley held my home, and I stood regarding it, full of happiness. . . . I opened my eyes and saw earth, empty cartridge cases, a pair of worn heavy boots, and two mud-caked puttees.” (1)
John Lucy, a British infantryman, wrote these lines about the 25th of October 1914, but they could just as well have been written by all of Europe. The 20th century was supposed to be the century of human progress. Instead, 1914 abruptly awakened all of Europe from this pleasant dream and forced to it confront the grim realities of modern warfare.
After the German thrust at Paris was halted at the Marne, and after the Allied counter-attack was stonewalled along the Aisne river, both sides sent their armies north in search of an open flank to turn. This led to the “race to the sea,”—a misnomer, because no-one wanted to get to the sea, they wanted to get behind the enemy. Unfortunately, both sides moved at roughly the same speed, and it proved impossible to outmaneuver the other side definitively enough to force a breakthrough. The armies simply smashed into each other over and over as they moved north from France into Flanders.
In late October, the “race to the sea” set the stage for the last, bloody show-down of the year at a medieval Belgian town called Ypres. This was where John Lucy woke up on the morning of October 25th. It was to be, in his words, “the place of our destruction” and, given what was going to happen there, this was hardly an exaggeration.
Ypres, for centuries known for its grand cloth market, was strategically important. It was a Belgian railway hub, and a nearby ridge offered the highest ground in the entire region—a vital consideration for military planners. Both sides knew this, and both sides refused to allow the other to have it. Here, the German and British armies would fight almost to extermination for more than a month. During the bitter fighting, John Lucy came face to face with the pitiless horror of battle. To him, this horror was reflected in the faces of two men—Sergeant Kelly and Sergeant Benson:
“The miserable German section was lying fully exposed to us on level ground, where they had remained from the moment daylight had caught them, and they were trying to keep still, shamming dead like the masses around them, but small movements and their regular formation had given them away to the keen eyes of Sergeant Kelly.”
Sergeant Kelly ordered John Lucy and his section to fire on the trapped Germans. Lucy wrote, “I felt disgusted. We had slaughtered too many already. I was miserable until the German line was still and I prayed for them as I killed them.
“There was another bellow from the unwelcome sergeant behind me . . . A single German, a derelict of last night’s attack, rose slowly from under our eyes, where he had been lying against our very parapet, and without looking at us he began to limp away, just as the daily bombardment of our line began again. Then an enemy machine-gun whipped the parapet and we ducked. The sergeant, nonplussed by the sudden opening of fire, and enraged at the sight of the German, shouted: ‘I’ll get that bugger anyway,’ and he raked the already wounded German with a bullet through the hips. We could not look at Sergeant Kelly, nor at each other for the shame of it.” (2)
Sergeant Kelly’s remorseless and seemingly inhumane slaughter of a wounded and retreating man disgusted Lucy to his bones. But the alternative proved to be no better.
“Sergeant Benson’s attention was called to the wounded German, who, persistent in his efforts to escape, had now raised himself on his elbows, and was dragging his maimed body after him like a crocodile.
“The kind-hearted Benson rose up, exposed himself to the enemy, and shouted: ‘Come on in, Allemand, come on in. Don’t be afraid.’ The machine-gun gallantly ceased fire. I added my voice in French, knowing no German: ‘[Come here, you. Quickly. Come here.]’ The German turned at that and came crawling towards us with a smile on his pale face.
“Seeing this, Benson exposed himself still more and amused us by promising the German tea and bread and jam. The German came on, and in spite of our warnings the Sergeant stooped out over the trench to help him. Then there was a loud crack, some one said: ‘My God,’ and Benson slipped back into the trench on to his feet, staggered a pace or two, and sagged down dead, with a bullet through his pitying mouth.” (3)
Kill or be killed. That was the reality that men confronted on those bloody autumn days in Ypres. The two Sergeants in Lucy’s memoire personify this strict binary perfectly: Benson’s humanity contrasts with Kelly’s inhumanity, Benson’s death with Kelly’s life. These were the kinds of choices that those in the Great War faced every day. Kill or be killed. Ypres was a crucible where the civilized feelings of many were burned out of them. Franz Blumenfeld, a German student-become-soldier, recognized this danger. He wrote to his mother:
“Your wishing you could provide me with a bullet-proof net is very sweet of you, but strange to say I have no fear, none at all, of bullets and shells, but only of this great spiritual loneliness. I am afraid of losing my faith in human nature, in myself, in all that is good in the world!
“The sight of the slightly and dangerously wounded, the dead men and horses lying about, hurts, of course, but the pain of all that is not nearly so keen or lasting as one imagined it would be. Of course that is partly due to the fact that one knows one can’t do anything to prevent it. But may it not also at the same time be a beginning of a deplorable callousness, almost barbarity, or how is it possible that it gives me more pain to bear my own loneliness than to witness the sufferings of so many others. . . . What is the good of escaping all the bullets and shells, if my soul is injured?” (4)
It was (and remains) a poignant question, but one without the time for a good answer. The First Battle of Ypres was just starting. Europe had awoken from its long dream of peace, and for the next four years only one question could possibly be addressed: kill or be killed?
1. John F. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum (Uckfield, UK: The Naval & Military Press, 1993), 231.
2. Lucy, 232 – 234.
3. Lucy, 234 – 235.
4. Franz Blumenfeld, in German Students’ War Letters, Philipp Witkop, ed., A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 20 – 21.
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