If you go to Ypres today, you will find a picturesque little Belgian town nestled comfortably in the quiet Flanders countryside. If you were to go to the same place 100 years ago, you would be lucky to escape with your life. Ypres, for a time, was a small patch of hell in which a generation of British, German, and French soldiers suffered and died.
From mid-October and extending until around the 22nd of November, Ypres was the site of the last large-scale battle on the Western Front in 1914. It was simultaneously the culmination and the death of the dynamic movement that had characterized the early part of the war. Following this massive battle, an unbreakable stalemate would form and the Great War would devolve into the static war of attrition we are so familiar with.
I have to confess, I am at a loss as to how to tell this story with any semblance of coherence. The battle itself was enormously complex. I can hardly understand the regimental histories which offer only the simplest narration of which battalion moved where and for what reason, and reading the various diaries and memoires has done little to increase my understanding of the course of the battle. By all accounts, soldiers experienced the battle as a living nightmare; exhausted and uncomprehending they fought ceaselessly day after day—being driven out of their trenches, only to counter-attack hours later and retake the same scrap of earth, only to be driven out again. Rinse and repeat. Up close, the battle seems an exercise in futility and slaughter.
Perhaps the best evidence for this lies in the nicknames that the battle has come to be known by. The British call Ypres “the Graveyard of the Professional Army” while the Germans look back on the battle as “The Massacre of the Innocents.” British infantryman, John Lucy called it something else:
“’STAND TO, STAND TO, EVERY ONE,’ and our rifles lined our broken parapets. The man of my section on my immediate left kept his head down. I grasped his arm and shook him savagely: ‘For Christ’s sake, get up, you bloody fool. The Germans are coming.’
“He fell over sideways and on to his face when I released him, and exposed a pack covered with blood. He was dead, and my eyes came off him to my shoulder, which was spattered with his brains and tiny slivers of iridescent bone.
“’A butcher’s shop,’ I said to myself. ‘A butcher’s shop. A bloody butcher’s shop.’” (1)
Grave yard, massacre, butcher shop: simple, evocative words that paint a picture of a reality that can hardly be imagined. Paul Hub, a young German student-soldier, explained the First Battle of Ypres in the same stark terms. He wrote to his fiancée:
“I have lived through such horror recently, no words can describe it, the tragedy all around me. Every day the fighting gets fiercer and there is still no end in sight. Our blood is flowing in torrents. When I think of our 247th Regiment my eyes swim with tears. The first and second battalions only have 250 to 300 men left, so more than half are gone. Today only a few of my comrades will still be standing… That’s how it is. All around me, the most gruesome devastation. Dead and wounded soldiers, dead and dying animals, horse cadavers, burnt out houses, dug up fields, cars, clothes, weaponry—all this is scattered around me, a real mess. I didn’t think war would be like this.” (2)
If there is one common theme throughout early Great War memoirs, it is the shock and horror people felt when they came face to face with the first modern war. Shock because precious few knew what they were marching towards when they answered the call to arms in August 1914. Horror because no-one had imagined the nightmare images—the intense and concentrated butchery that modern warfare made possible. At Ypres, an entire generation’s youth and idealism was murdered. It was there to be seen, hanging on barbed wire obstacles, or lying face-towards the enemy in the water-logged fields of Flanders.
However, what is perhaps most incredible to me is that even in this atmosphere, one of man’s most noble instincts thrived. In a letter home, a young German explained:
“It is obvious that many of one’s impressions of the war must be painful, but perhaps I have written too much of that kind. It is just as obvious that, on the other hand, there is much that is glorious and wonderful. The finest thing of all is the marvelous comradeship at the Front, fresh instances of which are always gladdening one’s heart… The other night in Amersfel I was on guard in wonderfully beautiful, bright moonlight, in the road outside our quarters and was amusing myself by smoking and singing. Columns kept passing, sometimes Artillery, sometimes Army Service Corps. ‘Good evening Comrade!’ they all called out to me as they went by. Once a door on the other side of the road opened and a Pioneer or somebody called out, ‘Hi, Sentry!’ and almost at the same moment I found a glass of beer in my hand… the war forces us to draw nearer to one another as each one sees how much he depends on the others. The test of comradeship enables one… to look into the very depths of each one’s soul…” (3)
Camaraderie was often the only bright spot in all the darkness—a lone positive aspect in the ruin of war. It might have inspired something as simple and mundane as handing someone a beer, or sharing any gifts you received with those around you, but the true power of camaraderie can be seen in the story of Sergeant J.F. Bell who lay wounded at Ypres, after having his right leg blown off. He wrote:
“No one had seen me being wounded, but one of the men, ‘Pipe’ Adams, on missing me, returned to look for me. On seeing me lying quite helpless, he prepared to lift and carry me out of the trench. I told him I was too heavy, that it was too dangerous, and that in time our regiment would retake all the ground lost, when I would be safe. When I think of the War comradeship of unaffected and unknown bravery, I think of ‘Pipe’ Adams (killed later) telling me, ‘Christ Jerry [my nickname], I could not leave you here.’” (4)
All throughout the war—all throughout history, the bond between those who fight together has driven men to extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness. Battle forges a special connection, an unspoken trust born of common experience. The intensity of war imprints itself indelibly on the soul of a person, and when they look on someone with the same marks, they see in that person’s eyes a reflection of themselves. Not for nothing do we use the expression “brothers in arms”.
On the 19th of November, as the Battle of Ypres was winding down into a bloody stalemate—a microcosm of the course of the entire war—John Lucy’s regiment was finally being relieved from its position on the front lines. As Lucy turned his back on the devastated countryside, even now riddled with trenches and barbed-wire, he reflected on his experience. He listlessly calculated the comrades he had lost since the battle began. By his own calculation, approximately 96 out of every 100 men in his regiment had been killed or seriously wounded. Lucy was one of the very few from his regiment to walk away from Ypres unscathed. Trudging towards the rear lines in a daze, his eyes fell upon a field of his comrades. He wrote:
“My eyes weakened, wandered, and rested on the half-hidden corpses of men and youths. Near and far they looked calm, and even handsome, in death. Their strong young bodies thickly garlanded the edge of a wood in rear, a wood called Sanctuary. A dead sentry, at his post, leaned back in a standing position, against a blasted tree, keeping watch over them.
Proudly and sorrowfully I looked at them, the Macs and the O’s, and the hardy Ulster boys joined together in death on a foreign field. My dead chums.” (5)
John Lucy’s proud and sorrowful kinship with these men transcended birth, class, religion, and finally death. Through battle, they had become his family. This is one aspect of war that has not changed since men took up arms against each other. War has always made brothers out of strangers.
1. John F. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum (Uckfield, UK: The Naval & Military Press, 1993), 281 – 282.
2. Paul Hub, in Intimate Voices from the First World War, Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, eds. (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 33 – 34.
3. Kurt Schlenner, in German Students’ War Letters, Philipp Witkop, ed., A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 26 – 27.
4. J.F. Bell, in The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness World War I, Jon E. Lewis, ed. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 59 – 60.
5. Lucy, 285.
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