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The Western Front

The Western Front


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On 3rd August, 1914, German troops crossed the Belgian border in the narrow gap between Holland and France. The German First and Second Armies swept aside the small Belgian Army and by 20th August had occupied Brussels.

The French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, ordered his Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to meet the German advance. The German defeated the French at the battles of Sambre (22nd August) and Mons (23rd August). By the end of August the Allied armies were in retreat and General Alexander von Kluck and the German First Army began to head for Paris. What was left of the French Army and the BEF crossed the River Marne on 2nd September.

Joffre ordered a counter-attack which resulted in the Battle of the Marne (4th to 10th September). Unable to break through to Paris, the German army was given orders to retreat to the River Aisne. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, decided that his troops must hold onto those parts of France and Belgium that Germany still occupied. Falkenhayn ordered his men to dig trenches that would provide them with protection from the advancing French and British troops.

The Allies soon realised that they could not break through this line and they also began to dig trenches. After a few months these trenches had spread from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier. For the next three years neither side advanced more than a few miles along this line that became known as the Western Front.

Monday 24th August: Retired further back and took up position at the edge of a cornfield and got heavily shelled, difficulty in getting out of the action. Big fight this day having to assist 5th Division who were in difficulties.

Tuesday 25th August: A very hot trying day. Germans seemed to be all around us. We came into action at 8.00 against Infantry and drove them back, my gun jammed.

Wednesday 26th August: Inhabitants fleeing from Germans. Marched early in the morning without orders but were en route to Ligny when we found we were on the flank of a big fight.

The Germans were advancing upon us so rapidly that the General Staff could see it was useless trying to stop the furious advance, so a general retirement was ordered and it was every man for himself. In our hurry to get away guns, wagons, horses, wounded men were left to the victorious Germans and even our British infantrymen were throwing away their rifles, ammunition, equipment and running like hell for their lives, mind you not one infantryman was doing this, but thousands, and not one Battery running away, but the whole of the British Expeditionary Force.

Wednesday 9th September: Advance again north. All the villages are broken and signs of the retreating enemy are met everywhere. Dead horses, graves, etc. Nasty sights. An occasional hole where a shell has dropped with perhaps some blood about it. Ugh!

Thursday 10th September: Get off at 8 a.m., raining, very nasty. Get news at 10.30 that the Germans, who are retiring from West to North East, are crossing our front. We push on. We are shelled at 1,000 yards. Several killed and wounded. General Findlay, hit on the head by shrapnel bullet. Push on and come nasty close to high explosive German shells at the village of Priez, where we halt. Just before turning in comes news of General Findlay's death.

I cannot describe the impression I have formed from what I have already seen - that such a machine has been going on in over 2 years and growing bigger everyday is past comprehension, it makes one look on human beings as a different breed than one had ever imagined them before, the nobility and self sacrifice are beyond understanding. The whole thing is fine noble and bold.

Of course there is the other side, today when I had finished work, I went over some country that was really terrible, it was fought over last about 3 weeks ago, everything is left practically as it was, they have now started to bury the dead in some parts of it Germans and English mixed, this consists of throwing some mud over the bodies as they lie, they don't even worry to cover them altogether arms and feet showing in lots of cases.

The whole country is obliterated. In miles and miles nothing left at all except shell holes full of water you pick your way between them or jump at times, miles and miles of shell holes bodies rifles steel helmets gas helmets and all kinds of battered clothes, German and English, dud shells and wire, all and everything white with mud, and one feels the horrors the water in the shell holes is covering - and not a living soul anywhere near, a truly terrible peace in the new and terribly modern desert - it was a relief to get back to the road and people.

The roads behind the line are wonderful one moving mass of men, horses, mules, ammunition, guns food, fodder, pontoons and every imaginable kind of war material all struggling in one steady stream up these battered thoroughfares, all white with mud halting and struggling on again at regular intervals it is a wonderful sight full of grim determination.


The Western Front

At the very first: more intimidating than actually scary, upon reflection. The Riverside area of Cambridge at Western Avenue and the River Charles was not always so friendly to skinny white boys back in the early seventies.

There was an oasis in that social tension, but you had to look for it. Walking in to the Western Front for the first time I remember just a spoonful of trepidation. It was nothin’ but a loving spoonful, as I came to know the minute we met the staff and the owner Marvin Gilmore. That was 45 years ago and it is still my honor to call Marvin my friend.

This storied performance venue with the famous dancing figures painted on the exterior walls had been open for only a few years at the time we got the gig. Always an inviting and multi-cultural venue the acts had been mostly jazz and reggae up to the time Duke and the Drivers came along with our young rock n’ roll fans. Over the years the “Front” is credited with launching the live careers of well-known acts like Cassandra Wilson, First Edition, Webster Lewis and the Kelvinators to name a few. Boston’s Legacy acts like James Montgomery and Peter Bell when he was solo, often played the room. The musical tastes at the Western Front continued to morph over the years reggaeton, Latin jazz, and gospel and always rock and roll. In its last decade the Front remained current and featured electronica Deep House and hip-hop on the roster. In the latter days the Front became training ground for Boston emcees including Akrobatik, Mr. Lif, and RipShop.

The physical set up was challenging with a stairway right up through the center of the club and a stage that could not be seen in its entirety from any single point in the room. But there was a bar on each floor and it was always lively. More than the other storied Boston club owners like George Papadopoulos and Freddy Taylor – The Western Front was about its owner, Marvin Gilmore.

“I always wanted a live music venue so I wanted to open at The Western Front location,” Marvin recently told us. Back in the early 70’s the racist profiles made it almost impossible for a black man to get a commercial loan from the “White Banks.” Marvin’s solution was to co-found the Unity Bank and Trust Company in Roxbury. He got the loan!

Unity was the first African-American owned and operated commercial bank in Boston and its existence is another testament to Marvin Gilmore and his amazing civil rights activism and leadership. Marvin redeveloped the southwest corridor in Boston, revamping the dilapidated Newmarket Industrial District as CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Boston. He received the legendary French Legion of Honor for his service during the Normandy Invasion in 1944 and he served with distinction in the 458th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion where he stormed the beaches at Normandy, Utah, and Omaha Beach on D-Day. He has honorary doctorates from several universities including from Boston’s Endicott College and the City of Boston has assigned him the Commonwealth Award for leadership. The grandson of slaves, Marvin is a true renaissance man – with a happening bar!

Despite it all Marvin’s first love was always the music and the club itself. As an aspiring musician Marvin would often join his acts on stage at the Front – I remember looking over one red-hot evening with a full house and there was Marvin grinning from ear to ear right next to me on stage with a pair of maracas. He never missed a beat.

For Duke and the Drivers the “Front” became a home. From there, and largely because of the time we had spent on our show under Marvin’s loving gaze, we launched a broad and successful performance and recording career that lasted for 20 years.

More importantly, for even longer than that act was around, Marvin Gilmore has remained a steadfast friend to us and many other bands and musicians in Boston and around the world. Some of the Duke boys have a lunch or a meet and greet with him to this day on a semi-regular basis.

The Duke never made a single gig with the Drivers in those 20 years and his identity has been shrouded in mystery these decades past. It’s time to tell the truth at last. Marvin Gilmore IS the Duke!

The Western Front closed its doors after 46 years of continuous operation in 2013. Unlike the club, Marvin is still rockin’ and at the time of this writing is a spry 93 years old.

(by Tom Swift, singer/keyboardist, Duke & the Drivers)


Will Germany learn from history?

The German government has withdrawn proposed legislation that would have banned immigrants in polygamous marriages from obtaining German citizenship. The proposed ban had been included in draft changes to Germany’s naturalization law, but was quietly removed from the final text, apparently in the interests of political correctness and multiculturalism.

Although German law clearly prohibits polygamy for German nationals, some have argued that the law is unclear as to whether the law applies to foreign nationals living in Germany. The interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states had unanimously called on the German government to clarify the issue by enshrining into law a blanket ban on German citizenship for polygamous migrants.

Critics say that the bill, as it currently stands, would not only create a legal backdoor for polygamous migrants to become German citizens, but would effectively legalize the practice for Muslim immigrants. The changes would, consequently, enshrine into German law two parallel legal systems, one based on German Civil Law and another based on Islamic Sharia law.

The German government has long been debating proposed changes to the country’s Nationality Act (Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz, StAG) that would strip German dual-citizens of their German citizenship if they join jihadi groups abroad. The proposed changes would not be retroactive and would not, for instance, apply to German jihadis who joined the Islamic State.

The original draft included language that would have prohibited immigrants in polygamous marriages, as well as immigrants who lack legal identification, from becoming German citizens. The language was removed from the bill after a Cabinet meeting in early April. The removal of the text, first reported by the newspaper Welt am Sonntag on May 5, has been greeted with outrage.

The parliamentary spokesman for the Christian Democrats, Mathias Middelberg, blamed Justice Minister Katarina Barley, of the Social Democrats, for removing the language. “This is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable,” said Middelberg. “It should be self-evident that naturalization of persons living in polygamous marriages is out of the question in the Basic Law.”

It is really too bad we hardly ever learn from the mistakes we made in the past. Diversity + proximity = war. If you let people in that do not share a common religion or ancestry, problems inevitably arise.

Take the Jews in Spain. The Church was, let’s say, just a touch angry when they learned what the Talmud, which they only recently discovered, said about Jesus Christ. Even so, they continued to push Sicut Judaeis non, making sure not to harm Jews, but also making sure they did not undermine or subvert society. They preferred to try conversion instead of violent reprisal. It took with some, but others abused it by converting to enjoy benefits, like the ability to take public office and move up, while not actually practicing Christianity. The consequences of reverting back to their old ways became somewhat watered down due to the controversy between voluntary and forced conversion. Here’s what E. Michael Jones had to say about the situation at this point in his excellent The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History.

After victory at Toro in 1476 over the party of “L’a Beltraneja,” Henry’s putative daughter whom the Portuguese backed as claimant to the throne, the Cortes of Madrigal restored royal prerogatives. Jews were even more beyond the law than the renegade nobles. They were tried in their own courts. They could be prosecuted in royal courts only for criminal offenses, but they could only be punished in accord with their own law. They could not be summoned to court on the Sabbath. Even polygamy was tolerated among the Jews, and so they became an ongoing incitement for contempt of the law and of the Christian faith. The conversos quickly exploited the situation. The Cura de los Palacios claimed the practice of Judaism was widespread among the conversos. Lea claims that when the royal couple took the throne, the Judaizers were so powerful that “the clerks were on the point of preaching the law of Moses.” In addition, the judaizing conversos “avoided baptizing their children, and, when they could not prevent it they washed off the baptism on returning from the church they ate meat on fast days and unleavened bread at Passover.” They also continued to benefit from usury, claiming “they were despoiling the Egyptians.” As a result, they became wealthy and powerful enough to block the enforcement of the laws that would have restored order. Anarchy thwarted the attempt to impose order.

Separate laws for separate people in the same country breeds contempt and derision. Eventually it will boil over. In Spain’s case, the situation became so tenuous the Jews were kicked out, a recurring theme, having happened over 100 times throughout history. Again from E. Michael Jones:

The Inquisition and the expulsion undid the work of St. Vincent Ferrer. Jews were convinced conversion was or would be a mistake. After the Edict of Expulsion was announced, the clergy launched a conversion campaign, but the incentives were gone. There were few conversions, and most Jews left. Most went to Portugal, from whence they were expelled a few years later. Many went to Turkey, which received them with open arms. It was out of the Ladino community in Ismir that the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi would arise 150 years later, buoyed by the writings of the Lurianic Cabala, whose school had been established in Gaza as a result of the expulsion.

On July 31, 1492, the last Jew left Spain. In 1494, Alexander VI granted Ferdinand and Isabella the title of Catholic Kings, listing the expulsion of the Jews as one of their accomplishments. Gian Pico della Mirandola praised them for it too. Guicciardini, the Florentine historian and statesman, praised them as well. The expulsion of the Jews along with the defeat of the Moors had united Spain and “raised it to the rank of a great power.” Guicciardini concluded “had the situation not been corrected, Spain would in a few years have forsaken the Catholic religion.”

Time will tell what Germany decides to do. Spain became a super power after the expulsion. Will Germany take the same course? Or will they continue to allow the globalists to run their country into the ground?


The Western Front: A History of the Great War, 1914-1918

A panoramic history of the savage combat on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 that came to define modern warfare.

The Western Front evokes images of mud-spattered men in waterlogged trenches, shielded from artillery blasts and machine-gun fire by a few feet of dirt. This iconic setting was the most critical arena of the Great War, a 400-mile combat zone stretching from Belgium to Switzerland where more than three million Allied and German soldiers struggled during four years of almost continuous combat. It has persisted in our collective memory as a tragic waste of human life and a symbol of the horrors of industrialized warfare.

In this epic narrative history, the first volume in a groundbreaking trilogy on the Great War, acclaimed military historian Nick Lloyd captures the horrific fighting on the Western Front beginning with the surprise German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 and taking us to the Armistice of November 1918. Drawing on French, British, German, and American sources, Lloyd weaves a kaleidoscopic chronicle of the Marne, Passchendaele, the Meuse-Argonne, and other critical battles, which reverberated across Europe and the wider war. From the trenches where men as young as 17 suffered and died, to the headquarters behind the lines where Generals Haig, Joffre, Hindenburg, and Pershing developed their plans for battle, Lloyd gives us a view of the war both intimate and strategic, putting us amid the mud and smoke while at the same time depicting the larger stakes of every encounter. He shows us a dejected Kaiser Wilhelm II—soon to be eclipsed in power by his own generals—lamenting the botched Schlieffen Plan French soldiers piling atop one another in the trenches of Verdun British infantryman wandering through the frozen wilderness in the days after the Battle of the Somme and General Erich Ludendorff pursuing a ruthless policy of total war, leading an eleventh-hour attack on Reims even as his men succumbed to the Spanish Flu.

As Lloyd reveals, far from a site of attrition and stalemate, the Western Front was a simmering, dynamic “cauldron of war” defined by extraordinary scientific and tactical innovation. It was on the Western Front that the modern technologies—machine guns, mortars, grenades, and howitzers—were refined and developed into effective killing machines. It was on the Western Front that chemical warfare, in the form of poison gas, was first unleashed. And it was on the Western Front that tanks and aircraft were introduced, causing a dramatic shift away from nineteenth-century bayonet tactics toward modern combined arms, reinforced by heavy artillery, that forever changed the face of war.

Brimming with vivid detail and insight, The Western Front is a work in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman and John Keegan, Rick Atkinson and Antony Beevor: an authoritative portrait of modern warfare and its far-reaching human and historical consequences.


The Western Front

The Western Front, a 400-plus mile stretch of land weaving through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea, was the decisive front during the First World War. Whichever side won there – either the Central Powers or the Entente – would be able to claim victory for their respective alliance. Despite the global nature of the conflict, much of the world remembers the First World War through the lens of the Western Front.

A typical tangle of barbed wire soldiers were expected to cross while under fire.

The war on the Western Front began on 3 August 1914 with Germany aggressively marching into Belgium and Luxembourg. The next day Britain declared war on Germany, setting the stage for the war on the Western Front. In Belgium, Liège and Namur both fell within a matter of days, opening the way for German armies to invade France [hoping] to sweep around the French left flank, take Paris from behind, and force France to capitulate in a matter of weeks.

Meanwhile, France made its own offensive further south into Alsace and Lorraine [which] met uniformly with disaster. Led by incapable officers, French formations blindly groped their way forward without sufficient reconnaissance…and were ultimately pushed back by more organized German forces. France lost over 300,000 dead in 1914, making it France’s second-most deadly year of the war. The Germans stretched themselves perilously thin chasing after French and British troops in headlong retreat after the initial encounter battles in August.

The German plan required a rapid, coordinated sweep that envisioned the First and Second German armies advancing rapidly along the French, British, and Belgian left flank. Covering such a vast area, however, proved to be very difficult logistically and the German armies began to drift apart. The time had come for the Entente forces, which had been rapidly falling back before a seemingly unstoppable German onslaught, to stop and fight. From 5 September 1914, French and British formations fought their way into a gap between the German First and Second Armies, part of a struggle called the Battle of the Marne. Entente and German forces fought over nearly the entire length of the front, making the Marne one of the largest engagements of the war, as well as one of the most important. The Germans had no choice but to retreat, stopping at a line behind Verdun, Soissons, and Reims. When renewed French attacks were halted by the once-more cohesive German forces, Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French army, ordered troops to move to the far left flank and try to outflank the Germans from the north. The effort was repulsed and countered by a German attempt to turn the French flank in turn. The so-called “Race to the Sea” saw both forces make ineffectual attempts to turn the northern flank until they found themselves at the North Sea. With no flanks left to turn, the Western Front as we think of it came into being: a solid front from the sea to the Alps, with only one way through: straight ahead.

Stabilization of Western Front in WWI

There were a few attempts to break through this line before the winter weather set in and exhausted, overstretched units became incapable of action. Trench networks could not be broken by hasty offensives, but rather had to be systematically neutralised by concentrated heavy artillery fire. The armies on the Western Front spent the next four years trying to coordinate ever-more complicated attacks to break trench networks of increasing depth and complexity. It was this rapid and constant innovation, rather than stodgy conservatism, that created the bloody stalemate on the Western Front.

1915 saw a staggering number of battles on the Western Front [which was also] constantly simmering with low-level violence, producing daily casualties that were lumped together with losses due to disease or the environment as mere “wastage”.

In February, The French launched The First Battle of Champagne in many ways [setting] the precedent (and a poor one) for the shape of offensives in 1915. The French managed an acceptable initial advance and then spent a month relentlessly hammering against a solidified German line to no avail. In all, upwards of 200,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded for a modest advance (no more than three kilometres in the most successful sectors) the Germans suffered only 80,000 casualties in defence.

Undaunted, the French continued to launch and maintain such attacks throughout the year, making 1915 the deadliest year for French forces (349,000 deaths). The British, for their part, did not remain idle, but could not commit nearly as many troops as their French ally. They made a series of largely abortive efforts to support larger French battles. The Battle of Neuve Chappelle (10-13 March 1915) stands out as the only truly independent effort. The small-scale battle, whilst initially successful, eventually petered out, with British troops unable to capitalize on their initial gains. This was a long-standing problem in trench warfare: the initial “break in” was not too complicated for well-supplied troops to achieve. Doing anything with that initial break in, however, proved exceedingly difficult. The Germans suffered a similar fate the next month in their attempt to test the trenches on the Western Front.

1916. British soldiers football team demonstrating gas masks.

The Germans instigated one battle on the Western Front in 1915. Rather than hoping that the battle would win some grand strategic victory, the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April–25 May 1915) was largely designed as a testing ground for a new weapon of war: poison gas. German forces had secretly installed a series of chemical tanks across their front line trenches, and on 22 April 1915 released their deadly chlorine gas to waft over to the French and British trenches opposite them. Where the gas fell thickest the Allied lines simply melted away. French African colonial troops fell back in disorganized panic. On their flank, Canadian troops held on doggedly for days, isolated and repeatedly attacked by German forces. Entente forces were able to recover from the momentary collapse due largely to the lack of German effort: unconvinced that the gas would be as effective as it proved, the Germans had no plan in place to exploit any possible breach in the Allied lines. The result after a few weeks was, again, a minor territorial gain of no strategic importance for tens of thousands of casualties.

The German commander, Falkenhayn, knew that he did not have enough forces to pummel the French into submission or to push the British back into the sea. Even if he had, the inherent strength of field fortifications meant that such an effort would be unduly costly for Germany, and perhaps lead to nothing more than a pyrrhic victory. The staggering losses the French suffered in 1915 were well understood by German strategists. It was here that Falkenhayn placed his hopes. If he could force the French to attack with the same ferocity and lack of success as they had in 1915, the French Republic could prove incapable of bearing the burden and be forced to sue for peace. Such a peace would rob Britain of its operating bases in France and likely compel them to sue for peace in their own time. The trick was to put German forces in a position where the French would have no choice but to attack and to continue to attack, whatever the cost. Falkenhayn deduced that the ancient fort of Verdun would be just the spot.[15]

The fort at Verdun had been France’s bulwark against the “Germans” for centuries before either nation existed in its modern form. It was supposedly a national symbol that the French could not let pass into German hands (although this interpretation has become increasingly contentious). Counting on this, Falkenhayn launched his attack on 21 February 1916. This was a strategic offensive that relied on the strength of the tactical defensive. The French and German armies grappled for the next ten months in the longest land battle in history.

From a German perspective the Battle of Verdun had but one purpose: to kill as many French soldiers as possible. This was attrition, conceived in its purest form. The casualties were enormous, although fewer than one might expect from such a battle. Ultimately some 300,000 soldiers from each army were killed or wounded. The battlefield conditions were barbaric. Troops were fed mechanistically into an ever-grinding machine of fire, steel, mud, and death. French troops felt that the battle was a futile waste of lives. They expressed what they felt was the obvious lack of value placed on their lives by bleating like sheep being led to the slaughter as they marched into the Verdun salient a bone-chilling foreshadowing of the widespread mutinies that would wrack the French army in 1917.

An attack on the western front

The situation for German forces was hardly better. Whereas French forces were rapidly and aggressively rotated in and out of the front, ensuring that troops did not have to endure more than a few days at the hellish front, German units were frequently left at the front for weeks on end. This horrific treatment severely sapped German morale and fighting power. Nevertheless, the Germans very nearly pushed the French to the breaking point and the French command demanded that a strong offensive be launched elsewhere in order to draw German forces away from their beleaguered troops. That battle became notorious in its own right: the Battle of the Somme.

Verdun was the longest battle on the Western Front in 1916, but the Somme was the bloodiest it sent nearly twice as many men to their graves in half the time and was in many ways the archetypal Western Front battle.

At 7:30 am on 1 July 1916, some 55,000 French and British troops went over the top in the initial wave of the assault across a sixteen-mile front. Their success was variable. In the southern sector French and British troops advanced rapidly, captured their objectives, and solidified their positions at minimal cost. To the north, British formations were mown down, capturing very little and sustaining heavy casualties. With concentrated machine gun fire, effective pre-sited artillery barrages, and barbed wire emplacements that were frequently still intact, the Germans in the northern part of the battlefield easily repulsed British attacks. The persistent cultural myth of British soldiers slowly walking across No Man’s Land in serried ranks only to be mown down by enemy fire are largely a faint memory of the sad reality some units faced on 1 July 1916 on the Somme. Attacking battalions in front of Serre suffered over 50 percent casualties, an absolute catastrophe. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment lost 91 percent of their forces that day attacking Beaumont Hamel. Secondary waves faced deadly fire before even reaching the British front line. Forced to march over open terrain due to the communication trenches already clogged with the dead and dying, they made easy targets for German artillery and machine guns, which sometimes engaged British infantry at ranges of over half a mile. It is easy to understand why the First World War is seen as futile when recounting incidents like these.

By the end of the day, British forces had suffered 56,882 casualties, including 19,240 dead. Despite gains in the southern sector, the overall result fell crushingly short of success. The French and British continued to attack vigorously through to December. All told the battle claimed around 1.2 million casualties, roughly 600,000 from the German army and a combined 600,000 from the Entente (roughly 400,000 British and 200,000 French). Through this great blood-letting, the British learned hard lessons in modern warfare.

The Somme set the stage for the string of impressive battlefield successes the army achieved in 1917 and 1918. Tanks were first used at Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916, forever changing the face of warfare. French troops twice broke through the German lines and for a brief moment found themselves with no immediate obstacles between their position in the fields of Picardy and Berlin. However, these local successes – the result of a relentless, methodical, operational hammering at the German lines – led to nought. If the Allies were to beat Imperial Germany, it was going to have to happen some other way.

1917 was in many ways a desperate year for both the Allies and the Germans. Faced with continued encirclement, a biting blockade and struggling allies, German war-leaders needed to knock at least one of the Great Powers out of the war as quickly as possible to stand any chance of even a conditional, negotiated victory. Hindenburg and Ludendorff chose to continue operations in the theater of war where they had earned their fame: the Eastern Front. To help free up men for the coming offensives, they withdrew forces to the so-called Hindenburg Line. This new line of fortifications both shortened the length of the frontage Germany had to man and was well protected by concrete bunkers and well-planned out defensive arrays. These further economised on manpower and were quite difficult for the Entente powers to break through.

For the Allies, 1917 needed to be better than 1916. The British commander, Haig, wanted more than ever to have a truly independent hand in operations, and he sought to pursue independent battles in the British sector. Before 1917 British battles had been part of broader French efforts and under some level of French strategic direction. Haig got his wish (although not in the way he had hoped. When further advances failed disastrously, French troops mutinied and while continuing to maintain the defensive, refused to attack. As a result the French commander was replaced by Marshal Petain who had an enormous task on his hands and immediately set to work trying to quell the mutiny. He made immediate efforts to organise better food and more frequent leave for the troops. He also cracked down on individuals believed to be “ring-leaders”. This did not, however, end the mutiny over night it took months before the French were ready for another offensive action. Fearing what would happen if the Germans learned of the French indiscipline, they became desperate for a British attack to ensure that the Germans were preoccupied elsewhere.

For the first time in the war, in 1917 Britain acted as the senior partner on the Western Front. The British launched a series of independent battles in 1917, starting with their attack on Vimy Ridge.


The Western Front

The war was fought on three different fronts: the Western Front (France), the Eastern Front (Russia, Poland and East Prussia) and the Southern Front (Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East). Germany’s battle plan—The Schleiffin Plan—called for a surprise strike against France from the north through Belgium and Luxembourg instead of a direct assault across the common Germany-France border—the Rhine River. (Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 21, et. seq.) Germany’s opening offensive that was meant to capture Paris and drive France out of the war was halted less than a 100 miles from the city, and the Western Front, generally in northern France between Paris and the Belgian border, settled into a battle of attrition. The trench line there changed little between 1914 and 1917.

Each side built a complex system of defensive trenches facing each other for 500 miles from the Switzerland-France border to the North Sea (Hakim, Freedom: A History of US, p.251), often with as little as a hundred yards separating the armies. The territory between the trenches was known as “no man’s land.” Trench warfare is best characterized as a defensive, static stalemate with the combatants fighting over the same narrow pieces of land that separated the opposing trenches. The combatants “spen[t] literally millions of lives at Verdun and The Somme for gains or losses measured in yards.” (Tuchman, The March of Folly, p. 26.)

The trench system consisted of a maze of interlocking fortified ditches that served to protect the soldiers from small arms fire and, to some extent, from artillery barrages. Secondary trench systems and supply trenches at the rear supported the front lines. At various places along the trench lines dugouts were built to house the front line troops. The dugouts were sizeable rooms reinforced with sandbags and timber where the soldiers theoretically could try to escape the elements and get some rest. But the reality of the trench system was dead bodies, bloody mud and vermin everywhere. The conditions were miserable, especially during the winters. (A dramatic first-hand description of the miserable life of soldiers who fought in the trenches can be found in Poilu, The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker 1914-1918, Yale University Press, London and New Haven, English translation from the French, 2014.)

One army would attack the other, after devastating artillery bombardments directed toward the enemy, by “going over the top climbing up the bank of the trench and running across “no man’s land,” trying to avoid the barbed wire strung in front of the other trenches, and, facing machine gun and rifle fire from the opposing side. For those who made it to the other trench line, if the enemy had not retreated to its secondary trenches, it was hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, sharpened spades and fists. Later in the war, chemical weapons, tanks and air raids were introduced into the battles.

Essentially, trench warfare on the Western Front was a stalemate. From the fall of 1914 to the spring of 1918, the line on the Western Front moved less than ten miles in either direction. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 61.) The same ground was fought over, month after month after month. After a while, due to the intensive and continuous bombardments, none of the landscape that had existed before the war remained. Trees were gone. Villages were blasted away. The land was as desolate as a moonscape, with the ever-present mud. It was only until the very last months of the war that the Allied troops were able to break through the German trenches.

One of the places on the Western Front where trench warfare was the most intense and the casualty count was greatest was Ypres, October-November 1914, where there were 155,000 British and French casualties and 134,000 German casualties.

Verdun, an old medieval town in eastern France, 137 miles from Paris, of no great strategic significance was another example of trench warfare at its worst. On February 21, 1916, German forces attacked the town. The French military command decided to take a stand there and assembled a very large force “to defend Gallic pride.” When the battle finally ended in December 1916, 700,000 plus soldiers from both sides lay dead (Jennings and Brewster, p.73).

Passchendaele, also called the Third Battle of Ypres, was another very deadly trench warfare encounter. It happened between July and November 1917, when approximately 244,000 English and 400,000 German soldiers were dead or wounded. (Stout, pp. 2-4.)

But, the worst of all was The Somme, an engagement initiated by the British that lasted from July-November 1916. The British expected to be able to overrun the German positions due to a massive, preparatory artillery barrage that was supposed to either kill the opposing forces or to force them to retreat. The British strategy was a complete failure. They lost more than 22,000 troops on the first day of the attack and another 40,000 were wounded. By the end of the battle, five months later, more than one million were killed or wounded from both sides. During the battle, the British and their allies never advanced more than seven miles from the initial line of combat. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 72.)

July 1,1916 was the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme. Two articles about the Battle from the persepctive of 100 years can be found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/51556a50-3d56-11e6-84e8-15… . and http://www.npr.org/…/a-century-after-the-battle-of-the-somm….I came across a poem the describes the physical conditions encountered by the troops at the Somme. The poem is The Song of the Mud by Mary Boland. The words are so vivid that the reader actually feels the mud on his skin and experiences the sensation of being buried in it. It is set to music and can be found on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6E5wHpe7MQ. Here are the words :

This is the song of the mud,
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys
The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the horses
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone.

This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu.
His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy
His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it.
This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud,
And his skin is of mud
And there is mud in his beard.
His head is crowned with a helmet of mud.
He wears it well.
He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him.
He has set a new style in clothing
He has introduced the chic of mud.

This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle.
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome,
The slimy inveterate nuisance,
That fills the trenches,
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers,
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts,
That spreads itself over the guns,
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips,
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells
And slowly, softly, easily,
Soaks up the fire, the noise soaks up the energy and the courage
Soaks up the power of armies
Soaks up the battle.
Just soaks it up and thus stops it.

This is the hymn of mud-the obscene, the filthy, the putrid,
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men.
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead.
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.
Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men
Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men.
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it,
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence.
Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down,
And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud.
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them!
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly.
There is not a trace of them.
There is no mark where they went down.
The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.

This is the song of the mud,
The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys.
Mud, the disguise of the war zone
Mud, the mantle of battles
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers:
This is the song of the mud.

Evocative musical descriptions of the conditions endured by the soldiers in the trenches can be found in the following songs. Many of these songs can be found on YouTube with slide shows that depict the realities of the war.

“The Bloody Road to the Somme” is sung by At First Light. This is a song about the formation of the Ulster (Northern Irish) Volunteer Force in 1912, the subsequent formation of the 36 th Ulster Division and their participation in the Battle of the Somme. (http://youtu.be/zn5hSptHUNI?list=RDzn5hSptHUNI)

Hear the measured beat of Ulstermen marching,
Through the green fields and streets of the towns,
Called up to arms by bold Edward Carson,
To stand for the Red Hand and Crown.

These were the seed of mighty CuChulainn,
These were the sons of Congal Claen,
Determined that Gaels and Rome should not rule them,
And England if need be withstand.

Those were the days of Ulster’s defiance,
Those were the days of passion and strife,
Those were the days when England denied us,
And Ulster stood for her life.

The call came for war and the volunteers answered,
The 36th was formed in 1914,
To fight the German Kaiser instead of faithless England,
And maintain their birthright and King.

They marched into hell nearly two years onward,
The first day of July on a bright summer morn,
Aloft against blue skies they bore the Ulster Standard,
Down the Bloody Road to the Somme.

These were the men of Tyrone, Londonderry,
Monaghan and Cavan, Down and Donegal,
The men of Armagh, of Antrim and Fermanagh,
Who walked the Bloody Road to the Somme.

They faced the deadly hail from canons and machine guns,
Through the bursting shells and hell of no-mans-land,
Triumphantly they yelled the cry of “No Surrender,”
And fought the Kaisers troops hand to hand.

Three miles they struck through enemy defenses,
In the greatest charge of that European war,
Like a mighty wave they swarmed the German trenches,
Over fallen dead and barbed wire.

Then they were cut off with no one to support them,
They were mowed down by fire from three sides,
Bravely they fell like leaves in the autumn,
Death reaped the bitter harvest of their lives.

When the battle ceased a young man was heard crying,
Bleeding from a wound were the bullet creased his head,
There amid the maimed the pleading and the dying,
He held the broken body of his friend.

As the red sun set, smoke drifted o’er the trenches,
These bewildered men trudged back along the way,
The carnage it was great, the slaughter it was senseless,
Five thousand Ulster Sons fell that day.

Here was a time of mourning and of sorrow,
All along the line they gathered up their dead,
Here was a time of yearning for the morrow,
Here was a time when Ulster bled.

The land was filled with grief when news broke of the slaughter,
Thick like black heavy clouds, it hung o’er Crough nays brow,
The telegrams they came to mothers, wives, and daughters,
And like warm falling rain the tears poured down.

We count the bloody cost they paid for Ulster’s freedom,
We cherish memories of those who died so young,
With passing of the years we will not forget them,
Who walked the Bloody Road to the Somme.

As long as earth revolves upon its axis turning,
And day sleeps in the dark and wakens with the dawn,
As long as sun goes down and rises in the morning,
We will remember the Somme.
We will remember the Somme.
Yes, we will remember the Somme.

“Hanging in the Old Barbed Wire” is sung by Chumbawamba, written by Nigel Hunter and Bruce Dunstan it is a cynical, satirical comment on the role of the common soldier who had to go “over the top.” (http://youtu.be/_K1BdDVvV9Q)

If you want to find the general
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the general
I know where he is
He’s pinning another medal on his chest
I saw him, I saw him
Pinning another medal on his chest
Pinning another medal on his chest
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
He’s sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
I saw him, I saw him
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
He’s drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him
Drinking all the company rum
Drinking all the company rum
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, I saw him
Hanging on the old barbed wire
Hanging on the old barbed wire

“Trench Blues” was written and sung by John (“Big Nig”) Bray. “Trench Blues” is an unusually detailed and coherent tale of overseas service by a Black man in World War I. It could well be semi-autobiographical, as John Bray served in France during the war. The Army was segregated then. Blacks were not permitted to serve in the front lines. They only provided support services. Bray said, “They didn’t give me a gun. All the weapons I ever had was my guitar, a shovel, and a mop.” https://youtu.be/D51-0d328fo

I went a sailin’, cross the deep blue sea
Lord I was worryin’ with those submarines
Worryin’ with those submarines
Hey, hey hey hey

My home in the trenches, livin’ in a big dugout
Lord my home in the trenches livin’ in a big dugout
Home in the trenches livin’ in a big dugout
Hey, hey hey hey

We went a hikin’, to the firin’ line
Lord I was standin’ hearin’ mens a cryin’
Standin’ hearin’ mens a cryin’
Hey, hey hey hey

We went a hikin’, to old [Montsac ?] Hill
Lord forty thousand soldiers called out to drill
Forty thousand soldiers called out to drill
Hey, hey hey hey

I went to Belgium, blowed my bugle horn
Lord, time I blowed, motherless Germans is gone
Time I blowed, motherless Germans is gone
Hey, hey hey hey

We went to Berlin, went with all our will
Lord if the whites don’t get him the niggers certainly will
White ‘uns don’t get him the niggers certainly will
Hey, hey hey hey

Last old word, heard old Kaiser say
Lord he was callin’ those Germans long way long away
Callin’ those Germans long way long away
Hey, hey hey hey

Here she come, with her hair let down
Lord here she come with her hair let down
Here she come with her hair let down
Hey, hey hey hey

The Belgian women: “No, I no comprend”
Lord women in France hollerin’ “No comprend”
Women in France hollerin’ “No comprend”
Hey, hey hey hey

Rainin’ here, stormin’ on the sea
Lord rainin’ here stormin’ on the sea
Rainin’ here stormin’ on the sea
Hey, hey hey hey

Whistle’s blowin’, big bell sadly tones
Lord many a soldier, Lord, is dead and gone
Many a soldier, Lord, is dead and gone
Hey, hey hey hey

Called him in the mornin’, chased him in the night
Lord hit ‘im in the head, make him treat the Americans right
Hit ‘im in the head make him treat the Americans right
Hey, hey hey hey

“Passchendaele, sung by Iron Maiden, written by Stephen Percy Harris and Adrian Frederick Smith (2003), graphically tells the story of the battle referenced above. (http://youtu.be/c20-fm_WNew)

In a foreign field he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words he prays
Tell the world of Passchendaele

Relive all that he’s been through
Last communion of his soul
Rust your bullets with his tears
Let me tell you ’bout his years

Laying low in a blood filled trench
Kill Tim ’til my very own death
On my face I can feel the falling rain
Never see my friends again

In the smoke, in the mud and lead
Smell the fear and the feeling of dread
Soon be time to go over the wall
Rapid fire and the end of us all

Whistles, shouts and more gun fire
Lifeless bodies hang on barbed wire
Battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb
Be reunited with my dead friends soon

Many soldiers eighteen years
Drown in mud, no more tears
Surely a war no one can win
Killing time about to begin

Home, far away
From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away
But the war, no chance to live again

The bodies of ours and our foes
The sea of death it overflows
In no man’s land, God only knows
Into jaws of death we go

Crucified as if on a cross
Allied troops they mourn their loss
German war propaganda machine
Such before has never been seen

Swear I heard the angels cry
Pray to god no more may die
So that people know the truth
Tell the tale of Passchendaele

Cruelty has a human heart
Every man does play his part
Terror of the men we kill
The human heart is hungry still

I stand my ground for the very last time
Gun is ready as I stand in line
Nervous wait for the whistle to blow
Rush of blood and over we go

Blood is falling like the rain
Its crimson cloak unveils again
The sound of guns can’t hide their shame
And so we die on Passchendaele

Dodging shrapnel and barbed wire
Running straight at the cannon fire
Running blind as I hold my breath
Say a prayer symphony of death

As we charge the enemy lines
A burst of fire and we go down
I choke a cry but no-one hears
Fell the blood go down my throat

Home, far away
From the war, a chance to live again
Home, far away
But the war, no chance to live again

See my spirit on the wind
Across the lines, beyond the hill
Friend and foe will meet again
Those who died at Passchendaele

“On The Road to Passchendaele, sung by Alan G. Brydon and Major RTD Gavin Stoddart MBE BEM, written by Alan G. Brydon, mourns the loss of life that occurred at Passchendaele. (http://youtu.be/HJdh1M5PGTg)

There’s a light that shines in Flanders
As a beacon for the brave
From the distant past it wanders
To recall the lives they gave
And it tells each generation
To be wise and never fail
On the road to Passchendaele

(Chorus)
On the road to Passchendaele
On the road to Passchendaele
Where the brave will live forever
On the road to Passchendaele
(repeat)

Come with me and I will show you
Why all wars should ever cease
Take a walk among the gravestones
And your tears will cry for peace
For their spirits walk in Flanders
You can hear the grieving wail
For the brave who laid their lives down
On the road to Passchendaele

(Chorus)
On the road to Passchendaele
On the road to Passchendaele
Where the brave will live forever
On the road to Passchendaele
(repeat)

“No Man’s Land (The Green Fields of France), was written and sung by Eric Bogle (1976). As reflected in the first verse, Bogle was motivated to write this song when he visited a World War I graveyard in Europe. The reference to red poppies comes from John McCrae’s famous World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields”, which is quoted below. The red poppy has become a national symbol in England representing the dead of the war. (http://youtu.be/h1VD84SLW8I)

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.

And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

(Chorus)

Did they beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o’er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you always 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

(Chorus)

The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

(Chorus)

And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

(Chorus)

“All Quiet on the Western Front, sung by Elton John written by Elton John/Bernie Taupin (1982). Note that All Quiet on the Western Front is also the title of a novel written about World War I by Erich Maria Remarque. “All Quiet on the Western Front” the book is a realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers who have been induced to go to war by patriotic propaganda. It is “one of the most widely read and well known novels to emerge from the First World War….” (http://youtu.be/7-fNx-4v7v4)

All quiet on the western front, nobody saw
A youth asleep in the foreign soil, planted by the war
Feel the pulse of human blood pouring forth
See the stems of Europe bend under force

All quiet
All quiet
All quiet on the western front

So tired of this garden’s grief, nobody cares
Old kin kiss the small white cross, their only souvenir
See the Prussian offense fly, weren’t we grand
To place the feel of cold sharp steel in their hands

It’s gone all quiet on the western front, male angels sigh
Ghosts float in a flooded trench as Germany dies
Fever reaps the flowers of France, fair-haired boys
String the harps to victory’s voice, joyous noise

The Butcher’s Tale – Western Front 1914,” sung by The Zombies written by Chris White (1968). This song contrasts the emotions of a soldier on the front with the patriotic enthusiasm of those at home who are not forced to experience the horrors of actual combat. (http://youtu.be/7KcIu3pIzWI)

A butcher, yes that was my trade
But a king’s schilling is now my fee
But a butcher I guess I should have stayed
For the slaughter that I see

And the preacher in his pulpit
Says “go and fight, do what is right”
But the preacher doesn’t hear these guns
So I guess he sleeps at night

And aye, my mind keeps on shaking
My eye keeps on shaking
My heart keeps on shaking
My hand keeps on shaking
My arms keep on shaking
I want to go home
Please let me go home
Go home

I have seen a friend of mine
hang on a wire like some rag doll
And in the heat the flies come down
and cover up the boy

And the heat comes down in Dunpresskeep
in Richburgdon and Governor’s Bluff
If the priest he could go and see the flies
Wouldn’t pray for the sound of guns

And aye, my mind can’t stop shaking
My hands can’t stop shaking
My eye can’t stop shaking
My heart can’t stop shaking
I want to go home
Please let me go home
Go home.


The Western Front: A History of the First World War

'This is a bold book. Nick Lloyd has written a tour de force of scholarship, analysis and narration . . . Lloyd is well on the way to writing a definitive history of the First World War' Lawrence James, The Times

In the annals of military history, the Western Front stands as an enduring symbol of the folly and futility of war.

However, The Western Front, by bestselling military historian Nick Lloyd, reveals that the story is not one of pointlessness and stupidity, of generals being unthinking "donkeys". Rather, it is an epic triumph against the odds. With a cast of hundreds and a huge canvas of places and events, Lloyd tells the whole tale, revealing what happened in France and Belgium between August 1914 and November 1918 from the perspective of all the main combatants - including French, British, Belgian, US and, most importantly, German forces.

Drawing upon the latest scholarship on the war, wrongly overlooked first-person accounts, and archival material from every angle, Lloyd examines the most decisive campaigns of the Great War and explains the achievements that have been too long obscured by legends of mud, blood and futility. Far from being an arena of static, stale attrition - and despite mistakes and wrong turns along the way - the Western Front was a 'cauldron of war' that saw unprecedented innovation, adaptation and tactical development.

Lloyd conveys the visceral assault of the battlefield, and skilfully moves the focus in and out, giving both the bigger picture and telling detail. He recreates the decision-making and experiences of the war as it was at the time as well as with hindsight, and in doing so redefines our understanding of this crucial theatre in this monumental tragedy.


Nightmare on the Western Front

U.S. soldiers advance toward a wooded area during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I. The doughboys in Private E. A. Pastelnick’s unit went “over the top” on the first day of the assault.

U.S. Marine Corps History Division

Allen Pastelnick
Spring 2021

In 1918 Arthur M. Schlesinger, a young history professor at the Ohio State University, was appointed the chairman of the Historical Commission of Ohio, which Governor James M. Cox had created to collect and preserve a wide variety of records relating to the state’s role in World War I. For much of the next two years, Schlesinger, with the help of a colleague on the Ohio State faculty, sent letters to former students serving overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces, asking them to relate their experiences in the war. One of Schlesinger’s correspondents in this effort was Private E. Allen Pastelnick, then in France with the 140th Ambulance Company of the 110th Sanitary Train.

Pastelnick, who was born in Russia in 1895, had grown up in St. Louis and attended the University of Missouri before making his way to Ohio State in 1914. He registered for the draft in St. Louis in 1917, noting that he had served three years in the Missouri National Guard but was currently a student. To help pay his way through college, every night at around 9 p.m. Pastelnick loaded two big baskets with homemade sandwiches, pies, and cakes and began making the rounds of the fraternities on campus. His average profit: about $12 a week—enough, he told a reporter, “to go through school comfortably.”

In a typewritten letter to Schlesinger, reprinted here in lightly edited form, Pastelnick describes the “nightmare” of being in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a major part of the final Allied offensive of the war and the second deadliest battle in U.S. history. “This is one dream,” he told Schlesinger, “that I will ever remember.” Pastelnick used underscores instead of place names in his letters, as U.S. Army censors would have cut them out had he not.

Pastelnick survived the war, was married in St. Louis in 1921, and embarked on a career as a real estate developer in the western suburb of Kirkwood. He changed his last name to Pastel sometime in the 1920s, and in 1950 he and his family moved to New York, where he later became active in Democratic Party politics. He died in 1970 at age 76.

Received your letter while I was going thru what you mention in your letter as a “bad dream.” Truly it has been a nightmare, and thank God I am thru with it and still able to write you. Today is the third day since we were relieved, but the incidents of the battle will be no less vivid on the third year than they are now or than they were three days ago. This is one dream that I will ever remember. The preparations for the battle were made in the week preceding Sept. 25, and on that night we poured a continuous stream of shells into the German lines. At that time we were still behind the lines awaiting orders. On the 26th of Sept. our “doughboys” (among whom were many of my former associates and friends) went over the top. What these boys did, I was able to see the next day when we were ordered forward to establish a dressing station. The infantry had pushed Jerry about six kilometers to the north of this town, where we were ordered to only that morning. We got on trucks about 9:00 A.M., although we were awakened at 4:00 A.M. that morning. The trip was most uneventful except that we were going over the battlefield of the previous day. The road had been filled up and put in good shape immediately after we pushed Jerry away, and the cars made good time until we reached _____, where a bridge had been blown up and a board road had been built around the bridge and over a shallow part of the water. Later we came across several such temporary roads which went around deep shell holes. All along the road there [was] plenty evidence of what had happened on the 26th of September. By the time we reached _____, we had quit shuddering at the ghastly sight of the dead and the wounded. Every American soldier seen dead on that road was in a position facing the enemy. This was not true of the German soldiers. At _____ there lay an American doughboy and a Jerry facing each other. They had found each other’s Achilles’ heel. The American lad had his hand over his heart. I did not take any particular notice of the dead Jerry.


U.S. Marines make their way through a cratered battlefield in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. (U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

Before reaching _____, we had to pass over a hill in plain view of the enemy. When we reached the top of that hill, the enemy guns started shelling us. Two fellows were sitting on the side of the truck on each side of me when the first shell exploded about twenty feet from us. We all fell to the bottom of the truck both because of the concussion and thru instinct. I saw the cloud of dirt uprooted by the explosion, and I saw three wounded men fall to the ground. Then on lifting my head I saw one of these men crawl to a shell hole. Just then another shell exploded and we all scrambled off the trucks and ran from the road to neighboring dugouts—all except the drivers, who drove the cars off the crest of the hill, then joined us. When the bombardment was over, we went back to the cars.

When we got to _____ it was crowded with artillery ammunition caissons, wounded, and Red Cross workers. We unloaded the trucks in a hurry, and in one instant a group of detail-dodging men were metamorphosed into the hardest, most uncomplaining, most self-sacrificing group of men I have ever seen.

I saw a wounded man who had gone to the officers training school with me. This man had been shot in the left hand. Somebody had put a first aid bandage over it and sent him back. He took a gassed man with him, looking after the gassed man better than he did for himself. After exchanging greetings, I asked him what I could do for him. He asked me for a new gas mask, as a bullet had ruined the [canister] of his own mask. After I gave him the new mask, he turned the gas patient over to me and refused further medical attention because of the large number of more serious cases that were congesting the dressing station. Then began the real work. We sent the litter men forward and started working on the patients who had walked in. We worked the rest of that day without resting a single minute for any purpose whatever. Altho we had eaten nothing all day, we took time to drink a cup of cocoa now and then—otherwise the wounded needed all our time and we gave it to them. On one occasion, one of the litter bearers brought me a cup of bouillon and two slices of bread and butter. I saw three patients who were able to eat. One slice went to each one of the patients and the soup to the third one. Then I went back to my grim work. About 10:00 P.M. the patients quit coming in, as it was too dark for the litter bearers to find them, and all those able to walk in had come in by that time. We then drank some cocoa and grabbed a few moments’ sleep under the most adverse conditions imaginable. Our dressing station consisted of two cellar rooms that had been covered with a thick layer of earth. The rooms were about 16 ft. square, and there was only the door thru which light could come in. These rooms were part of what used to be a home. About a hundred feet from us, two batteries of artillery spat fire all day and most of the night. Thru these two rooms, and thru two similar dressing stations on each side of us, passed all the wounded in our division. We worked incessantly that day until about 10:00 P.M. when we huddled together and tried to get some sleep. Before we called it quits for the day we fixed everything so that on the morrow we would be in good shape to resume our gory task. These two rooms presented a grim appearance that night. In one corner were all the bloodied bandages that we had removed during the day. In the opposite corner were a couple of medicine trunks with pile after pile of gauze and muslin bandages on them—ready to do their bit on the following day. In another corner was a pile of blankets over which three shell shock patients hovered. The rest of the floor space of the front room was covered with tired humanity.

All over the floors of both of the rooms—true democracy was in evidence. The same was true in doing our work. A Lieut would take orders from a private just as easily as he was wont to give them before. The one ruling desire was to dress the wounds to our best ability and to get them back as soon as possible. All other considerations were put away for the time being anyway. In talking about our work there we always give credit to the other boys, although everybody could easily claim the credit for themselves.

At the very first break of day we all got up, and the day’s activities began. I went out with a litter squad, not desiring to wait until the patients were brought in, when some of the boys had laid in some wet shell hole all night suffering untold agonies. The artillery was putting on a heavy barrage fire when we went on the field. Under this barrage fire we picked up our patients and returned to the dressing station. It was still that dark that we had to use lanterns in doing our work. Every time the battery in back fired a volley, our lights would go out, and the shock patients would wish that they were out of their misery altogether. Well, the same story of the day before was true on this day. A lot of work under a lot of difficulties performed in a most self-­sacrificing way by everybody. The day before presented a hard problem for the evacuation officers, but this day saw a solution of this problem and the speedy evacuation of the patients. During the previous day three patients had died while waiting for evacuation, and one man had died in the dressing station before we could work on him. This man had been given a lot of morphine to relieve his pain. Then we tried to warm him up so that we could work on him, but he expired on the “shock table,” his last words being “Hello Bill.” At least he was happy when he died. One of the features of the day’s activities was the verification of the stories that the Germans did not respect the Red Cross insignia. On one occasion our ambulances—on the field—were shot at by a German aviator, two mules being killed. Later a German aviator pumped a stream of machine gun bullets into a trench where the boys had gathered a lot of the wounded. “The unspeakable Hun” has to answer many a similar indictment.


ounded soldiers are treated in a church in Neuvilly-en-Argonne, France, being used as a field hospital. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

Now to resume the narration of the events of Sept. 29th. The division had suffered heavy losses and was pretty much played out—everybody was praying for relief—when the Dutchman let loose his counterattack. It came suddenly and was strong. For a time it seemed to succeed, but history will tell that we repulsed it and gained some additional territory doing it. The engineers had been brought up the night before to dig a line of trenches for the boys to hold onto until relieved. They dug these trenches under fire [and] then retired. About noon of the 29th, the story that our boys were retreating began to circulate. This was due to the fact that the infantry had retired to the line of trenches just dug for them. We kept on working unconcernedly, confident of the ability of our boys to hold the line. Then, about 3:00 A.M., the order came for us to evacuate the dressing station. The other ambulance companies left before we did, so that when we did leave, it seemed that we were too late.

The division had retired to a place close to where our dressing [station] was, and the enemy was pressing their strong attack. At this junction of the day’s events, many of us went thru a transformation of opinion on many subjects. Personally, here is what happened to my notions conceived thru previous pictures. In the first place I had come to the conclusion that the old time battle scene where the commanding officer stands with his arms folded, calmly ordering the men, was an impossibility in trench warfare. Major [Norman B.] Comfort, a St. Louis acquaintance of mine, changed this conclusion. As our company was going back, I saw him standing in that picturesque pose telling the infantry what to do, stopping anybody who had no orders to go back, commanding machine guns—in fact, he seemed to be directing the whole battle. All this was done very calmly and deliberately, altogether unmindly of the shrapnel that was bursting all around him. The battle scene itself was much like what I had imagined as taking place in 1862. In back of me the American artillery was spitting fire as fast as the men could feed the guns. On both sides there was “doughboys” operating their guns under their officers’ orders. Machine guns were put-put-putting their shells at Jerry on both sides. Then in front of me—I knew that Jerry was coming. We were given the orders to move back, and we packed hastily and started what we now laughingly term “our strategic retreat.” It was no laughing matter at that time, as shrapnel and gas shells were bursting all around us, as Jerry was putting over a barrage. I took my time at the beginning, harboring my strength for the top of the hill where I intended to make a dash until I was over the crest. I had thrown my pack away as excess baggage.

Just before I reached the top of the hill, the gas alarm was given. I put on my mask, but after stumbling over some wire and running into a mule I pulled the mask from my face, deciding to run thru the gassed area. I got a couple of whiffs of the gas—which was mustard gas, but it did not hurt me. When I reached the top of the hill, I started running but had run only a few yards when I heard a shell coming from one of Jerry’s guns. I jumped behind a tree and dropped to my stomach just as the shell exploded within a radius of thirty feet. This shell was gas, and all it did was to throw a lot of dirt on me and cause me to put the mask on and move. This time I got my breath under the tree before resuming the “strategic retreat.” Before I started again, the shelling had become pretty intense, so I hesitated a little longer than I had intended, hating to leave the seeming shelter of the tree. Finally I got up and ran over the longest crest I have ever been on—shrapnel falling all around. Two of our men were hit by shrapnel on this crest.

That night the division was relieved, and the new men coming in on both sides cut off a whole lot of Jerrys and captured them. It really had been a contemplated strategic retreat. We then pushed Jerry four kilos further back than he had been before his counter attack.

We camped in a field until the next morning. Tho it rained all night and I had no blankets, I slept soundly, not waking until 8:00 A.M. next morning.

We have received the news of our victories all along the line and of Bulgaria’s capitulation—you have rejoiced at the same news. Undoubtedly you have also rejoiced at the news [of the] victory of the American boys west of Verdun. What I have just written is about that victory. It was a “bad dream,” but those who wake up from it have come out far for the better for having gone thru the crucible [of] self-sacrifice, loss of all petty jealousies, a greater confidence in all people regardless of race, color or religion—all except the Hun. How we did pray for the colored boys to come to relieve us. How we smiled at them and encouraged them as they passed us on the road! How we decided that “Froggies” had pep when we saw them bringing their tanks and their “75’s” at the double time. How some of our boys took off their brassards and joined “a lower” branch of the service, deciding that the doughboys were the highest branch of service.

All that will never be told in press reports of the American victory west of Verdun. Many reports in the papers have been proven true in our experiences here. Yes, the doughboy smiles over his wounds and says, “I want to get well so that I can get another wallop of the [dirty] _____.” You can believe that now. After seeing what I have seen and hearing what I have heard, I believe with most of our brave doughboys that we should take no more prisoners and that we should devastate a German city for each French, Belgian, or Serbian city they have ruined. No, it is not the Kaiser that has brought this world to this great war. It is the Prussian people. The men opposed to us were Prussian Guards, and I am firmly convinced that they are altogether in sympathy with the Kaiser’s ambition. I absolve the smaller German states as I think they have really been forced into it.

The last part of this letter was written after I came back from the funeral ceremony of one of my comrades, who died on the field, hit by that awful stuff—shrapnel. Do not feel like writing dispassionately at the present so will close with my sincere regards. Luck to your work of preserving records of this war for Ohio. MHQ

This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Experience | Nightmare on the Western Front

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The Western front

The Allies’ bungling in Scandinavia lost Chamberlain the confidence of Parliament, and King George VI selected Winston Churchill to head the War Cabinet. In the first of many ringing speeches that would sustain the British spirit, Churchill told his nation: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

In eight months of warfare all the belligerents had vastly expanded their frontline strength. In May 1940 the German army concentrated 134 divisions on the Western front, including 12 panzer divisions, 3,500 tanks and 5,200 warplanes. The French army totalled 94 divisions, the British 10, and the neutral Belgians and Dutch 22 and eight respectively. The French army possessed some 2,800 tanks, but less than a third were concentrated in armoured units. The French air force, disrupted during the Popular Front, was in any case antiquated, and 90 percent of the artillery dated from World War I. More important, French morale was low, sapped by the memory of the first war’s carnage, by political decadence, and by over-reliance on the Maginot Line. Britain’s Royal Air Force had become a prodigious force thanks to 1,700 new planes, but commanders were loath to deflect them from home defense to the Continent. The German plan of attack in the west, meanwhile, had evolved since the previous autumn. Originally favouring a Schlieffen-type attack with the mass concentrated on the right wing in Belgium, the Führer had been won to General Erich von Manstein’s scheme for a panzer attack through the rugged Ardennes Forest of southern Belgium and Luxembourg. Either route bypassed the Maginot Line, but the latter plan took advantage of the panzer army’s ability to pierce French defenses, disrupt the enemy rear, and split Allied forces in two. The concomitant risk was that Allied counterattacks might pinch off and destroy the armoured spearheads at a blow.

The German offensive struck with devastating effect on May 10. Within days the Dutch surrendered. Göring’s Luftwaffe did not get the message and proceeded to devastate the central city of Rotterdam, killing numerous civilians and sending a signal to the city of London. Meanwhile, General Gerd von Rundstedt’s panzer army picked its way through the Ardennes and emerged in force at Sedan. By May 20, German tanks reached the coast at Abbeville and cut the Allied armies in two. On the 28th, King Leopold III instructed the Belgian army to surrender, while the British government ordered Lord Gort, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, to make for Dunkirk and prepare for evacuation by sea.

As the Blitzkrieg in Poland had shocked Stalin, so the German victory in France shocked Mussolini. For 17 years he had preached the necessity and beauty of war, believing that a neutral Italy would cease to be regarded as a Great Power and that he needed war in order to fulfill his expansionist fantasies and permit the full triumph of Fascism at home. Yet in August 1939 he demanded from Germany 6,000,000 tons of coal, 2,000,000 tons of steel, and 7,000,000 tons of oil before he could honour the Pact of Steel. In fact, war preparations under the corrupt and incompetent Fascists remained feeble, and during these months of nonbelligerence, Mussolini himself took sick and at times even considered joining the Allies. On March 18 he met Hitler at the Brenner Pass and was told that the Germans did not need him to win the war but that he would be allowed to participate and thus escape second-rate status in the Mediterranean. Still Mussolini tried to have it both ways, telling his military chiefs that Italy would not fight Hitler’s war, but a “parallel war” to forge “a new Roman Empire.” In reality, he would enter the war only when it seemed clear the Allies were finished and his regime would not be put to the test.

That moment seemed to arrive in June 1940. With French defeat assured, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain on the 10th. “The hand that held the dagger,” said President Roosevelt, “has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” As Mussolini put it to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, “All we need is a few thousand dead” to win a place at the peace conference. The Italian offensive on the Alpine front met contemptuous resistance from the French—Italy’s gains were measured literally in yards—but Mussolini was right about the proximity of victory. With German forces streaming east and south, the French government fled on the 11th to Bordeaux and debated three courses of action: request an armistice transfer the government to North Africa and fight on from the colonies ask Germany for its terms and temporize. The choice was complicated by a French promise to Britain not to exit the war without London’s consent. Churchill, concerned that the French fleet not fall into German hands, went so far as to offer Anglo-French political union on June 16. Reynaud wanted to continue the war but was outvoted. He resigned on the 16th, whereupon the ancient Marshal Pétain asked for an armistice. From London, General Charles de Gaulle broadcast a plea to the French people to fight on and set about organizing Free French forces in France’s sub-Saharan colonies. But the armistice was signed at Compiègne, in the same railway car used for the German armistice of 1918, on June 22. The Germans occupied all of northern France and the west coast—60 percent of the country—and the rest was administered by Pétain’s quasi-Fascist collaborationist regime at Vichy. The French navy and air force were neutralized. In another meeting of dictators on the 18th, Hitler disappointed Mussolini with his talk of a mild peace lest French forces be driven to defect to Britain. Instead, Pétain broke relations with London on July 4, following a British attack on the French fleet moored at Mers el-Kebir in Algeria. Hitler at once toyed with the notion of winning the Vichy French to an active alliance, thrusting Mussolini farther into the background.

Britain’s refusal to give up frustrated Hitler, especially since his ultimate goal—Lebensraum—lay in the east. The chief of the army general staff quoted Hitler on May 21 as saying that “we are seeking contact with Britain on the basis of partitioning the world.” But when the carrot failed, Hitler tried the stick, authorizing plans on July 2 for Operation Sea Lion, the cross-Channel invasion. Such an operation required complete air superiority, and Göring promised that the Luftwaffe could smash British air defenses in four days. The Battle of Britain that followed in August 1940 was a massive air duel between Germany’s 1,200 bombers and a thousand fighter escorts and the RAF’s 900 interceptors. But the British Hurricanes and Spitfires were technically superior to all the German fighters except the Me-109, which was restricted in its range to the zone south of London. The British radar screen and ground control network permitted British fighters to concentrate on each German attack. On September 7 Göring made the fatal error of shifting the attack from airfields to London itself (in retaliation for a September 4 raid on Berlin). For 10 days the blitz continued night and day over London, the climax coming on the 15th when nearly 60 German planes were shot down. Two days later Hitler granted that air superiority was not to be had and postponed Operation Sea Lion.

For a full year—June 1940 to June 1941—the British Empire fought on alone (though with growing U.S. aid) against Germany, Italy, and the threat of Japanese action in Asia. Frustrated on sea and in the air, Hitler pondered how his overwhelming land power might be used to persuade Britain to call it quits. A Mediterranean strategy based on the capture of Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal, did not seem likely to be decisive, nor did it satisfy the Nazis’ Blut und Boden (“blood and earth”) lust for Lebensraum. To be sure, the Germans raised the prospect of an occupation of Gibraltar numerous times with Franco, but the latter always found an excuse to remain neutral. In fact, Franco knew that the Spanish were exhausted after their civil war and that Spain’s Atlantic islands would be lost to the British if it joined the Axis. A Catholic authoritarian, he was also contemptuous of the neo-pagan Fascists. After their last meeting, Hitler confessed that he would rather have his teeth pulled than go through another bout with Franco. Hitler also negotiated with Pétain in July and October 1940 and May 1941, in hopes of enticing France into alliance. But Pétain, too, played a double game, pledging “genuine collaboration” with Germany but reassuring the British that he sought a “cautious balance” between the belligerents.

Hitler’s troublesome ally Italy, however, ensured that Germany would be involved in complications to the south. On July 7, 1940, Ciano visited Hitler seeking approval for an expansion of the war to Yugoslavia and Greece. The Führer instead encouraged the occupation of Crete and Cyprus, which would further the war against Britain. But three days later Italy’s inability to chase the British out of the Mediterranean became apparent when a British convoy off Calabria bumped into an Italian force that included two battleships and 16 cruisers. The Italian commander broke off the action after one hit on one of his battleships, whereupon the Fascist air force arrived to bomb indiscriminately friend and foe alike, doing little damage to either. Frustrated in the Balkans and at sea, Mussolini ordered his Libyan army to cross the Western desert and conquer Egypt. This adventure soon turned to disaster.


General Overviews

General histories of World War I abound despite the inherent difficulty in synthesizing truly monumental amounts of data into relatively concise accounts. Strachan 2001 is the only volume completed so far of the author’s planned three-volume study, which is set to become the most comprehensive account of the war. Beckett 2007 attempts to deal with the sheer weight of material by abandoning a chronological narrative for a thematic approach that allows the author to analyze key areas of the war such as the effects of economics, science and technology, and training, among many other important topics. Stevenson 2004 is impressive in its ability to review the entire war and accurately portray so many key events. Neiberg 2005 provides essays on a number of topics, including the Western Front, and Neiberg 2008 is especially helpful for its close focus on the Western Front. Boemeke, et al. 1999 (cited under Germany and the Central Powers) and Chickering and Förster 2000 focus on the experience of war and the question of the war’s unique nature by asking whether it was the first “total war,” and by examining the nature of “total war” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hirschfeld, et al. 2003 is a German-language encyclopedia of the war that is a useful starting point for anyone interested in overviews of the multitude of approaches historians have adopted in studying World War I. The work provides expert overviews of all relevant areas of research in major introductory essays on the main combatants, on society at war, the course of the war and major battles, the end of the war, and its historiography, as well as offering encyclopedic entries on events, people, and concepts. The Western Front is well covered in this impressive volume. More recently, Sondhaus 2011 is an exhaustive and informative account of the war, with documents and bibliographical information, which will be a useful starting point for those trying to familiarize themselves with the events of 1914–1918. For a more popular approach, Hew Strachan’s television series The First World War, produced in 2003 by the UK television station Channel 4, is an excellent starting point, based on his authoritative account of the war. A more popular book accompanied the series, Strachan 2003, which is aimed at a more general audience.

Beckett, Ian F. W. The Great War, 1914–1918. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson/Longman, 2007.

Beckett provides an excellent survey of the Great War. Detailed, knowledgeable, and very well referenced, with an excellent bibliography, maps, and chronology, it contains much on the Western Front.

Chickering, Roger, and Stig Förster, eds. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914–1918. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 2000.

The essays in this collection ask whether the Great War was a “total” war. The authors do not arrive at a consensus view, but the volume contains much of interest to historians of the Western Front. Twenty-five chapters cover, inter alia, logistics, technology, chemical weapons, military doctrine, strategy, noncombatants, and war aims.

Hirschfeld, Gerhard, Gerd Krumeich, and Irina Renz, eds. Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 2003.

Overviews of all relevant areas of research in essays on the main combatants, society at war, the course of the war and major battles, the end of the war, and its historiography, and encyclopedic entries on events, people, and concepts. Unfortunately not yet available in English.

Neiberg, Michael, ed. World War I. International Library of Essays in Military History. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

This collection brings together a number of essays by leading scholars, a number of which address the once dominant images of World War I as a futile contest fought by innocent soldiers and wasteful generals, which have given way to more sophisticated scholarly analyses. This volume presents some of the most innovative work of this new generation of research on the War to End All Wars. Taking a global and comparative perspective, these essays place the War in a wide context. Chapters focus, for example, on the French Army at Verdun, attrition, German atrocities, the Somme, and gas warfare.

Neiberg, Michael S. The Western Front, 1914–1916: From the Schlieffen Plan to Verdun and the Somme. London: Amber, 2008.

Part of a six-volume history of the battles and campaigns on land, at sea, and in the air, Neiberg’s account provides a detailed guide to the conflict on the Western Front, from the opening shots to the end of the Somme offensive in late 1916. Includes maps and photographs.

Sondhaus, Lawrence. World War I: The Global Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Aimed at general readers and students, Sondhaus provides an impressive array of sources to support his informed global history of the war, with up-to-date syntheses of the latest publications on the subject.

Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

A magisterial overview that examines the war’s outbreak, escalation, outcome, and legacy. Contains an extensive bibliography and a number of useful maps.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Vol. 1, To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

In the first of three planned volumes, Strachan examines the causes of the war and its opening battles on land and sea, and includes the economic history of the war, the war in Africa, and the expansion of the war outside Europe.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War: A New Illustrated History. London: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Written with a general audience in mind, to accompany the critically acclaimed television series The First World War. The book is richly illustrated and contains a lot of material on the Western Front, but also on all other aspects of the war.

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Watch the video: All Quiet On The Western Front 1979 Eng-Spain- Greek subs Με Ελληνικούς υπότιτλους (June 2022).


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