Ch 13: Belgium, 1917

With the French Armies staggering under successive blows above the Aisne, and the forces on the British front in France recuperating from heavy losses, consolidating their front along the Hindenburg line, and building permanent communications, the offensive again changed to Belgium.
   When Foch with his meagre Anglo-French divisions was holding up the German flood in Belgium, the Germans had gained the ridges below the Ypres salient which overlooked the entire area, and for thirty-two months their guns had been able to shell the rear of the British lines. From stubby Hill 60, where the Dorset Regiment was asphyxiated by gas in the night, and before which thousands of British dead were heaped in successive attacks to avenge the deed, and from Wytschaete and Messines ridges, the batteries had daily shattered hundreds of the dogged men exposed on the salient which gas alone had contracted but which had never broken.
   The Duke of Wurttemberg had gone to command the Franco-German frontier, and Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria now controlled the entire line from Laon to the coast. For a year, General Plumer and the Second Army had been waiting for the order to attack and avenge the Ypres shambles. For ten months the engineers had driven mine galleries under the ridges in the impervious clay stratum that underlies the sand in Flanders and makes the fen land rich for farming but difficult to entrench or to manoeuvre across after rains that can never dry in. The clay now proved a blessing. German counter mines found only sand that caved in, and so 450 tons of ammonal were packed and wired in secret, while the enemy batteries above the petards grew abundantly and men in concrete tunnels jeered at the growing gun power in the plain below.
   Through the night of June 6th a stupendous artillery duel raged as the troops moved up on a ten-mile front, below Ypres, before the ridges, and across Ploegstaert to the frontier. At 2:00 am. the Sapper General reported to Headquarters after final inspection, and for minutes that seemed hours officers peered at their luminous dials with hands that crept from 3:00 am. to 3:10. Then geysers of yellow flame tore skyward; a shock of air stunned hundreds of men; the roar rolled across to expectant England, and roused Holland from sleep. Over a wide expanse a torrent of rocks, concrete, dirt, trees, bits of metal, and human fragments rained back to the soil of tortured Belgium. Then one thousand guns opened across the smoking abyss.
   When the long lines of troops rushed forward, the waves that crossed the torn area were followed by a mass of bearer companies who mercifully bore out the enemy injured. "Do you call this war?" wailed an officer as he was carried to the dressing station. "Do you call that war?" answered the surgeon, pointing to Ypres ghastly in the fitful gun-glare.
   In one triumphant rush the Irish Division took Wytschaete, Nationalists and Ulster battalions fighting as brothers in the common cause. The Anzacs swept Messines clear. The Twenty-fourth Saxons and Twenty-third Bavarians were about to be relieved, and the One Hundred and Fourth Infantry and Third Bavarians were marching up when the explosion occurred. The uninjured men in the approach trenches went back passively as prisoners, and the assaulting lines were soon swarming over the ruins against the dazed reliefs. They had taken shelter in the woods and made a sporadic resistance, but were rounded up during the day.
   The tunnelled emplacements, forts of six-foot concrete, and the maze of trenches on the crests were torn up and thrown in a jumble in twelve yawning craters. Many guns were farther back, and escaped while the troops were storming the fortified towns beyond the mine area, though the dazed prisoners soon surrendered for effective artillery fire had followed the explosive shock.
   On the entire front the first lines were captured in ten minutes. The second line south of the ridges developed a strong resistance from concrete trenches screened in the woods. The English battalions on the right lost heavily, but would not be denied, and they finally pushed the front forward to less than a mile from Warneton.
   Reserve defences, east of the ridges, were soon strongly reinforced, and the British advance was checked until the field batteries came up at a gallop after thirty-two months in camouflage, the drivers cheering in the saddle, the horses sharing the excitement that only gun and fire teams know. By night the crucial five miles below Ypres were pushed forward three miles and the bloody salient had passed. As Allenby had won a victory at Greenland Hill on the previous day, the Germans had now been cleared from all the ridges to Rheims which at first had made their grip in the west comparatively easy to maintain. After vain counter attacks and a daily British advance, the enemy retreated to a straight front between Hollebeke and Warneton, on June 15th.
   Intermittent fighting of a brisk character has continued on the Hindenburg line during the summer and autumn, and various points have been taken, but the bulk of the fighting there raged around Lens. The Canadians took the electric light station on June 4th, but 500 guns drove them back. On the 28th, they took Avion, just as they heard that an American army had landed in France. Daily the fighting raged, with a steady progress measured in yards.
   After the Messines victory, however, Belgium remained the centre of British activity. Early in 1917, the Ministry of Munitions had provided for a lavish output of large-calibre shells of unusual potency. Woolwich had perfected a new type of heavy field howitzer, advantageous in range and mobility, and new artillery of extraordinary strength was ready in June to carry out a new policy of blasting a steady path forward to save the suicidal waste of men. The casualties incurred in carrying one defence system on the Somme were 40,000; an entire army corps. British losses in August, 1916, were 127,945 men; far too heavy for a war of endurance.
   The flat country of Flanders was eminently fitted for this war by artillery. There were more vital sectors in France, but most were thickly settled, and each one would entail the destruction of valuable towns about which German defence is centred. A methodical advance across Belgium might automatically free Lille and turn the western line, and it would force German reserves to face attrition in open country with less opportunity for ruthless destruction of property. The guns started in June. I have heard their thunder when at sea, 130 miles away.
   To forestall the threatened offensive from spreading along the coast to the submarine bases, Germany struck a brilliant blow. To enforce the withdrawal of vital squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps from the front, ruthless air raids were made on England. The busiest street of Folkestone, a seashore resort, was deliberately bombed by daylight one Saturday evening. Civilians on the Essex coast were blown to pieces the following week, and then London at midday, where two machines sought out the quarters of General Pershing's men who had gone to France on the previous evening. Thirteen machines, however, dropped torpedoes and incendiary bombs on the most crowded streets, and hundreds of non-combatants were killed or injured.
   On July 7th, London was again attacked. The machines flew at a low altitude. I have witnessed many air raids, but none where the destruction of civilians was so deliberately sought. In perfect phalanx the machines swept across the city and launched their bombs only in crowded thoroughfares like Holborn and St. Paul's. A few civilian lives are of less importance than the safety of the army that is enduring all the horrors or war. But popular opinion demanded more protection, and until new squadrons were formed, a strong flotilla was diverted to watch for raiders and on July 10th the army paid the price.
   The British had taken over the Belgian left from Dixmude to the coast. On a front of ten miles from the sea to Nieuport the trenches were built half a mile east of the Yser, with communications on pontoon bridges across the canalised river whose banks here are deep and reinforced to prevent floods at high tide. With the air service depleted, the British did not discover a concentration of naval guns before this sector. There are also stories of treacherous lights which disclosed the positions of the bridges. At daybreak, direct hits smashed the communications and a terrific bombardment tore to pieces the British trenches in the sand dunes. For an hour the first line was churned by shells, which then broke up the support trenches.
   The new thunder of guns toward Ostend rolled far seaward and cheered the hearts of the tireless naval auxiliaries. When we heard the firing we interpreted it as the tocsin of the first blow toward the submarine base at Zeebrugge which would help to free the seas. At night the truth was learned. A concentrated barrage had torn up the defences in the dunes. The showers of sand clogged rifles and buried machine guns, and a fire curtain on the river destroyed all efforts to restore bridges and get up reinforcements. I tried to get a comprehensive story from two of the few survivors, but no one had been able to see in the blasts of blinding sand.
   In the evening, from six until seven, the naval corps delivered a massed attack, moving through the shallow water to envelop the flank. The trapped troops fought to the last, but sand had made even the Lewis guns useless. Many wounded had been gathered in a shore tunnel. Marines went straight to its mouth and poured in liquid fire. There was only one survivor. At the headquarters of the Sixtieth Rifles, the officers used their revolvers to the last and all were killed; while a surrounded group of boy officers of the Northamptons on the right stood fighting back to back until a machine gun piled them in a heap. The troops, too, were magnificent. Even at the last, only twenty unwounded men retired across the river, where impotent British batteries could not fire into an area filled with friend and foe.
   The Nieuport approaches were reinforced and held, but the enemy advanced his lines to the Yser, adding to the difficulties of a British advance along the coast. Some minor trench howitzers were lost, significant from the fact that it was the first British artillery captured by Germany in two years and two months. Except at Verdun, France has lost no undamaged gun in the same period.
   From the sea, the region of the sand dunes and the dredged mouth of the Bruges canal, from which U-boats creep and fast destroyers dash out on foggy nights to bombard unfortified towns, looks simple enough. But twice I have seen that coast erupt in the dark. Long-range naval guns on concrete are packed closely among the dunes; the sea area is exactly plotted, and the naval cost of Zeebrugge would be a high one.
   The reverse, however, was local. On the strip of Belgium where the knightly King lives among his soldiers and the Queen works tirelessly among the wounded, the mass of British guns is growing, and on its slow potency the Belgians have now pinned their hopes. The cost of such artillery is staggering, but on July 31st its effects had their first test. A French Army had again moved north of Ypres to the lines where the first gas attack murdered their unsuspecting soldiers. They were massed on the curve from Dixmude to the "Big Shoot" road, with the British on the right before Langmarck and St. Julien, and on the long, but now straightened, front east of Ypres to Warneton in France. On this twenty-mile front the Allies swept forward in unison, and captured the first and second German lines.
   The third anniversary of the war was ushered in by a sixty-hour downpour of rain, caused by the heavy gunfire, the curse of great offensives. But the French were fighting in the ruins of Bixshoote, and the British were across the Steenbeck River, with Pilkem taken and the outworks of Langemarck and St. Julien. At night, the German reserves gained ground before both these towns, but the entire front had been advanced again, and east of Ypres the British line was pushed a mile along the Menin road, with Hooge and Hollebeke captured.
   But the reserve lines were a scattered mass of small forts against which the infantry floundered through deep mud, an easy mark for machine guns, and the attacks were recalled to consolidate the new line and allow the guns to pave the way. The front was mud-locked for ten days. Attacks and counter attacks were local, but the guns continued. On August 10th, the line again went forward. Many forts had survived the pitiless bombardment, but the British took Westhoek, and each day the line made progress.
   In a week, the French had pushed steadily forward northeast of Ypres and flanked the Yser line. The British cleared the rest of Langemarck and put their lines one thousand yards beyond. Boys of the 1918 class were captured in the fighting, and the Seventy-ninth Division broke and retired when the first attack was launched.
   By August 23rd, the British were breaking up the maze of minor forts east of St. Julien and clearing the fortified woods which make an almost impregnable defence. On the 27th, they finally cleared the third system on a mile front across the Poelcappelle Road. Section by section ground was gained. Hampered by intolerable weather the front has been pushed forward over four miles toward Roulers.

Massed German reserves ready to charge near Ypres

   After trusting to mud, and sacrificing misfits in thousands, Prince Ruprecht soon detrained some of his finest troops at Iseghem, and put them on the lines before the British, who were fighting mud rather than men. On October 12th, Passchendaele ridge was in their grip. But mud held the supports floundering until the machine guns wiped them out, and the line had to fall back, losing heavily. Nothing had dried fourteen days later when the troops again waded waist-deep in water across the morass and stormed Bellevue, and gradually closed over the end of the ridge. The position was dotted with small screened forts which had to be charged and subdued by hand, under the most difficult conditions that the war has produced. Many wounded sank under the slime, but in three days all objectives were gained. On November 6th the British took Passchendaele village five and one-half miles from Roulers, and obtained a definite grip on the ridge to base their operations on the plain below.
   France and Belgium have also been wading together, widening the base of the broad British wedge along the edge of Houthulst Forest. And Anthoine has thrown his guns across the swamp, near Merckem, enfilading and forcing the German batteries to retire. Thus the pressure is widening to the coast as the British front is approaching Roulers, cutting across communications with Ostend and gradually approaching the road to Bruges, from which the canal leads to Zeebrugge, the port which had been reconstructed just when war broke out, with German interests fostering the undertaking.
   Pressure is also growing toward Menin, where the British are approaching communications above Lille with the Ghent-Antwerp line their objective. Though the German system now keeps its reserves well back and relies on mud and the deep belt of scattered forts, the British artillery can place barrage miles behind the line, and the reserves lose heavily in getting up. Shell fire all night makes it difficult also to supply the scattered defences with food and ammunition.

Britis wounded on the Menin Road, October 1917

   The Flanders battle must prove slow and conservative. In the first two weeks the British loss was only 21,735. The August total was 59,811 and by the last week of October, 24,091 officers and men. This is about the number in the massive column that swept down Fifth Avenue for five hours on August 30th, a comparison which helps to visualise the cost of modern war.
   Germany has yet to be expelled from 29,000 square kilometres of Belgium and 19,000 square kilometres of France. But this is no hour for pessimism. No longer when in Holland shall we live on American canned products and watch 10,000 cattle go to Germany in a single May week. The new guns are patiently paving the way in Belgium. At Lens, the knell has been sounded to Germany's stolen coal industry, for which she expended lives like water. West and south in France the Allies are now on the enemy's main positions. Douai, Cambrai, St. Quentin, and Laon are within reach, if they cannot be saved automatically from the destruction that will attend forcible evacuation. The Verdun gate to France is now barred as strongly as ever.
   In Alsace, France still holds 1,000 square kilometres of ground within the German frontier. And on the peaceful pastures of French Lorraine a new army is growing daily and building road and rail for the great base of the legions yet to come. Its final destination, the Germans say, is the Aisne. The location of its base may presage that "Old Glory" will lead the way to German soil.

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