Ch 7: A Time of Deadlock

Recall Bloch's forgotten prophecy that modern war must degenerate into siege operations, barren of decisive results and demanding campaigns that can be ended only by exhaustion of the resources of one or both sides. October crept out and November dawned in icy drizzle, fog and sleet that inaugurated a winter of unprecedented severity. Each side grew stronger, each side dug in, and offensives launched in either direction failed.
   But the Teuton armies refused to bow to predestined conditions. Their masses were "invincible," and must conquer. Their plan of breaking up the Allied left above Noyon had failed. The hope of swarming like a flood above Arras had also been chastened. Thwarted by the British rush to North France and ten days of failure in a series of desperate attacks at La Bassee, advance below Lille was stopped.
   But hills dominating the narrow straits of Dover and the port of Calais, which legend says was printed across the heart of one ambitious queen, could be reached from Belgium across a few miles of low land and sand dunes. A thin exposed line of defence alone barred the way to the point where siege guns and close submarine bases could still strike a blow at British security. In early November, therefore, battering rams of men were mobilised in Belgium to break through. Twelve army corps and four corps of cavalry gathered north of Lille to do the work.
   The French Ninth Corps, forming on the British left, took over the northern sector of the Ypres defences, consolidating with Grossetti's division and other units to form the Eighth French Army under General Dubail. The first blow of the November battle was given by three corps hurled against the British at Gheluvelt, apex of the salient, due east of Ypres. With more bravery than skill, companies of the highly educated volunteers supplementing the Ersatz regiments led the advance. The German patriots, famous in art, science and finance, led the first assault after a terrific howitzer fire had crumpled up parts of the British trenches. But with equal fortitude the shaken British were clinging to the debris, withholding their fire as the line moved forward singing the national hymn, until within battle-sight range. Then a burst of magazine fire shattered the German formation.
   Again a cascade of high explosives swept the British position; trenches caved in; survivors were buried alive in a mass of sand and human debris. But again as massed lines charged, the dogged British soldiers shattered the formation. These German volunteers fought with a sublime devotion to their cause and country, with a zeal that made the chivalrous British and French risk their lives to drag wounded survivors to safety and give them the place of honour in the field hospitals.
   Dazed and stunned by hours of renewed bombardment when the genius of Krupp, from a safe distance, dropped heavy shells of such size and in such profusion that their bursting alone made the actual reports of the Allies’ guns in reply sound like firecrackers versus thunder, the British continued to hold. They were pitifully supported by inadequate field guns soon masked and checked as the Germans increased their range and diverted their shower of projectiles from the trenches to the batteries in rear and covered the advance of four columns of Teuton soldiers from Hoelbeck, from the Belgian unusually named village, America, which few have discovered, and points on the Menin-Ypres road. These swept forward in successive waves of men in close order, following the Japanese idea. The first line was annihilated; the second was close to the parapets before it dissolved in bloody groups; the third was tearing through the shell-wrecked barbed barricade and closing with the bayonet before it received attention, and during this struggle the fourth line dashed in intact, overwhelming a big section of the line and capturing Gheluvelt, the apex of the defence. Through the breach in the British lines eager German reinforcements poured up the Ypres road. But the field artillery continued the battle alone, with case shot, many guns being run forward by hand, inflicting and receiving terrible losses as it smashed formations, until staff officers gathered mixed forces even from the hospitals and charged, retaking Gheluvelt with the bayonet. As the entire front was engaged by covering attacks, no help could be spared from other sectors.
   Next day these sorry, improvised forces were hard pressed in the broken trenches, without support under more extended assaults. With roads almost impassable on foot, British cavalry were ordered to go up mounted from their billets, tie their horses and move to the front to reinforce the line. But reviving the tradition of the Battle of the Spurs once fought in Flanders, the troopers rode right up into action in the Zillebeke woods, now swarming with the enemy. With a cheer they charged among the trees, many using spades which in trench work were often mightier than the sword. The French cavalry, following them, also broke into a gallop, and as the action of machine guns was retarded by the woods, they also rode the Germans down and cleared the section. During the action the German Fifteenth Corps, adequately supported by artillery, were thrice repulsed when storming a wide sector held only by a depleted brigade. And the line of the Allies was then so thin that there were no resting reserves merely supports always under shell fire.
   On November 10th airmen reported great activity at Menin. The presence of a protective air flotilla announced the arrival of the Kaiser. Daybreak on the 11th opened with a terrific bombardment of both the British and the French lines, southeast and northeast of Ypres. An overwhelming battering ram was prepared, backed by huge guns from Antwerp, and tipped by the First and Fourth Brigades of Prussian Guards brought over from Arras.
   At a given signal a bombardment engaged every sector along the north front, and then the huge bolt of men was launched at the British line, again toward Gheluvelt. Earlier days had depleted the stock of British shells, and ten days of desperate fighting had ruined several of the pitifully few machine guns, when the Guards charged in successive waves. The first mass was swept away; the second reached the shaken trenches with the bayonet; the third line swept over men fighting desperately for their lives, and went cheering madly across the wooded district toward the city.
   But their formation was broken in crossing the trenches; the ground was a quagmire from constant rain, and they were soon masking their own guns. Field guns, pushed through the mud, met them. Dismounted Horse Guards, Northampton reservists just four months from their cobbler’s benches, Gloucester farmers, cotton spinners of the Lancasters, and the Midget Rifles, pygmies against the six-foot Prussians, came up from different directions, and with scant formations went into the fray. For two hours fighting more like a desperate riot raged, a conflict fatal for troops trained in close-order formation. Without orders, many French soldiers also fought like lions as individuals until the bewildered Guards staggered back over the captured trenches filled chiefly with dead and wounded.
   Before the British could repair their trenches two fresh assaults were made by other brigades, but these also were both repulsed. At daybreak the Guards, reinforced, determined to retrieve their defeat by an attack against the French on the northeast. The result was the same, for though the last two masses broke through, the fire of the famous "75’s" broke the formation and morale of the invaders. Then the supports, including cooks and lightly wounded, were loosed, and expelled them with the bayonet.
   The battle losses of the Germans were appalling. But their superiority in heavy artillery and machine guns enabled them to maintain their defensive points with a minimum of exposure. On normal days their casualties were trivial, while the losses of the Allies maintained a heavy average, and continued until they could create and train adequate heavy field artillery, which was necessarily a tedious and difficult process after years of pacific army estimates. In October that small British army lost 3,013 officers and 69,017 men, in saving Flanders.
   During these days of stress Lord Roberts was in France visiting his East Indian comrades. Ask Tommy Atkins if exposure in the icy wind killed this veteran hero amid the roar of the guns and among the men he loved so well. He will tell you that "Bobs" died of a broken heart. The aged Field Marshal found remnants of battalions that he had once led to victory, depleted by losses of ninety per cent. What must his emotions have been when he saw the result of his neglected warnings? For years he prophesied that this war would come unless the British maintained a large reserve army with full equipment, which would be a guaranty of peace. His advice was derided by pacifists. The statesmen who were feverishly trying to create a huge army overnight had once been his most bitter opponents.
   Measures for modernising and doubling the British artillery establishment were voted down by a party tinged with socialism and theoretical ideals, when the changes in the Balkans, and Austria's jealousy of Serbian aspirations, had made the risk of war acute. With a prepared England in the background, who can believe that the Central Powers would have chosen war instead of arbitration? And now the enemy was practically in sight of the Channel ports, and living bodies formed the barrier which should have been held by potential guns and screens of shells. Military preparation may not avert war, but the lack of it will surely invite hostilities. Broadway audiences ridiculed the play "The Englishman's Home," but National Guard officers advised their men to see it, for its lessons were international, and the scenes might well have been laid in any New York suburb.
   Besides Lord Roberts, who died on November 14th, the fall campaign claimed other victims known in the United States. The Duke of Hesse was killed on the Mont des Chats; Julius Foehr, once popular manager of the North German Lloyd, fell when leading his platoon of the King Karl Grenadiers in the desperate Yser fighting. On the British side, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, cousin of King George and brother of the Queen of Spain, and as modest and brave as his father who lost his life in the Ashanti Expedition, was mortally wounded. Lieutenant St. George, grandson of G. F. Baker, the New York banker, was killed in the fight with the Prussian Guards before Ypres.
   In November a severe winter set in. Life along the opposing lines became a nightmare of horror, with every trench a ditch of half-frozen water which all ingenuity failed to overcome. Blocked in their advance to the sea across Belgium, the Germans made a final effort to smash through the British lines before Lille in December, the brunt of which first fell on the forces from India and the British brigades on the La Bassee roads. Misled by the transfer of certain forces to Ypres, the Bavarians concentrated suddenly and launched one of their human battering rams behind a curtain of shells. The advanced trenches were overwhelmed and the wounded survivors were stamped on and beaten to death in a frenzy of rage. The British recaptured most of their trenches, but at heavy cost, and the Germans had gained some ground.
   But it was the last flicker of Germany's desperate battle for the coast, and the offensives simmered down to a monotonous defensive, with artillery exchanges and merciless sniping on both sides to relieve trench tedium. Early in December the French made a surprise attack on Vermelles, which they captured after a terrific hand-to-hand fight, strengthening their junction with the British, and gaining the first step on the way to Lens.
   A succession of heavy snowstorms was punctuated by thaws which added greatly to the suffering of the soldiers. Protected by the morass before them, the Germans now reaped the benefit of their numerous machine guns, maintaining miles of advanced lines with light forces, and withdrawing the bulk of their troops to comparative comfort behind the firing line. Huge reinforcements were also sent to the east front, since costly experience had taught them how slender a line could maintain a defence against overwhelming odds.
   Christmas awoke the strongest whisper of international brotherhood heard in the war. By mutual consent firing stopped at midnight, and Christmas morning brought many heads above the opposing trenches, and a tacit truce was actuated by a common impulse. Along the British front officers and men of both armies were soon flocking across the danger zone, grasping hands and exchanging gifts. If the fate of nations could be decided by the rank and file, peace and a lasting friendship would have been struck up then. Boers and Britons have made a lasting peace because local conditions gave those who actually fought on both sides a great part in the final adjustment. In Germany a newspaper that printed a photograph of the rival soldiers fraternising was suppressed. But at midnight the truce ended, and the tiresome vigil in trenches knee-deep in icy water was resumed, with hundreds of victims of frostbite daily, and hospitals busy with amputations.
   The New Year started with the newspaper chatter of a great Allied offensive, which made those who knew conditions smile. While the Allies had checked Germany's amazing preparation with a defined boundary, their successes had been chiefly defensive, at an appalling cost. With enough ammunition an enemy, numerically vastly inferior, can maintain a fortified line. The British had agreed to land an expeditionary force of 150,000 men. In six months their losses were almost double that number, and they were maintaining an army of 350,000 on a line short, if estimated by miles, but difficult and costly when we considered the exposed position in Flanders, and the operations which virtually entailed the siege of Lille.
   Many were scoffing at the delay in equipping Kitchener's new army. The first million rifles ordered in the United States were promised for delivery in nine months to a year. Tools necessary to make parts of machine guns could only be supplied in six months. For some months nearly three million of the finest men in the British Isles were drilling with old rifles and sticks while government plants, working night and day, were just able to meet the wastage of rules at the front and supply enough weapons for effective target practice for the new army. Japanese rifles bridged one gap, but it needed a year to create factories to turn out an ample supply, and two years for adequate artillery and shells.
   On January 8th, after a rainstorm, the Aisne was in flood, temporary bridges were swept away, and the Germans rushed storm troops by rail to Laon for a surprise attack on the unsupported French. The first assault near Soissons was a great success. A huge gap was made in the French line, and trains rushed reinforcements to the scene, while the German press hinted at a new drive on Paris. But on the hills south of the river the French reserves checked the advance, though the enemy, until 1917, maintained a bridge head to the south bank, and some of the high ground, up which the British fought their way after the battle of the Marne, was lost.
   Farther west, across Champagne, as winter's grip relaxed, the French took the offensive, massing their artillery to maintain an iron curtain, section by section, along a five-mile front across Perthes to Beausejour Farm, and pushing the German trenches back by persistent infantry assaults to straighten the front.
   In March, General French decided upon a bold stroke in north France against the tangle of helmets and crossroads between La Bassee and Laventie, on the end of the Aubers Ridge, the key to many minor roads to Lille, and directly north of and flanking the strong German position at La Bassee which barred the "route nationale" from Lens north, and the main road from Bethune to Lille.
   The British cavalry had been relieving the worn French Ninth Corps in Belgium, which was rested and refitted. The Fifth Corps had reinforced the depleted Third Corps before Lille. The Canadian contingent had also landed and afforded fresh reserves. During the winter also a new British air fleet had been equipped and trained and new flotillas were formed, which assumed superiority over the aeroplanes of the enemy. Taube after Taube was shot down, and effective air patrols kept every hostile flier away while the new concentration was made. They also destroyed two important forts of Lille used by the enemy for ammunition stores.
   On a narrow front 600 guns were massed on the line opposite Neuve Chapelle, and picked brigades of General Haig's corps were brought down and concentrated for a surprise attack on March 10th. Neuve Chapelle was stormed and captured, the reserve line was breached, and in places the front was penetrated to the depth of a mile. But on some sections redoubts on the second line resisted stubbornly and the irregular front made effective artillery support difficult. Three hours were lost in readjusting the front, covering the flanks of the far advanced line, and rearranging the artillery schedule in a dense fog which prevented signalling; then heavy German reinforcements checked further progress. Two thousand prisoners were taken with machine guns and trench mortars, and the German losses were heavy, though at exposed points they had retreated skilfully in echelon, an effect of their discipline which restrained the suicidal scramble so frequent in evacuating trenches. The British losses were also heavy, 572 officers and 12,230 men, a large proportion of the strength actually on the firing line. But in this vigorous, though not extended, battle, the artillery had used more ammunition than the supply during the entire South African War.
   In one fight before Ypres a British battalion fired a million rounds. On the firing line during recent state manoeuvres the incessant cry of army officers attached to the National Guard was "Faster, faster." It must be remembered that, though fire superiority must be maintained, it is often difficult to keep advanced trenches supplied in action when communicating trenches are muddy and almost impassable for tired men with cases of ammunition. For modern conditions fire discipline is often more important than rigid accuracy, and the time in the National Guard once devoted to creating sharpshooters and experts, is now used in training only for trench sniping; while the imperative study of reserving fire, delivering effective bursts of aimed fire, catching moving targets in open order, and beating down an attack with sweeping fire was generally neglected until recently. In this period also the shooting of half trained units, brought up at a critical period, has proved more effective than the volleys of trained men, aiming more deliberately, but at wrong range. Practice in judging ranges quickly has been neglected in the National Guard. All over England shooting galleries have sprung up with targets of moving pictures. Many of the new soldiers had already learned to take quick sights at moving objects, and from them the best sharpshooters have been produced.
   In advancing, also, crouching, crawling or rolling to new positions is a part of the general training. But under modern conditions and flat trajectory, time is the great factor, and a rapid dash across an exposed zone is less fatal than to squirm laboriously over. Against shell fire the British reserves advance in squad and platoon columns, as in American tactics, with great success.
   The lesson of Neuve Chapelle woke the British Government up to the crying need of ammunition and heavy artillery if ascendancy was to be gained. Shells by the million, more potential than shrapnel, were needed, and it was obvious that there would be no drive forward until artillery had been created wholesale.
   On April 17th the British captured Hill 60, a low ridge south of Ypres. This success started a new and determined German drive at the salient. Reinforcements came from Lille and Arras, and after two days preliminary shelling, which drew strong forces to repel the expected assault, the Germans on the 22nd astonished the world by the first attack with asphyxiating gas. This first struck the French along the Pilkem road. The trench periscopes showed a yellow vapour floating toward the trenches. Heavier than air, propelled by a light wind, the deadly fumes choked the men in the first line, in terrible agony. The British saw the French in the second line rushing back in confusion while the Germans mowed down the gasping men as they retired, and then charged and seized the empty trenches. This exposed the flank of the Canadian division on the right to an assault before which a big section of the line sagged and crumbled, the Germans bayoneting the gunners of a heavy battery in support. But the Canadians rallied and retook the guns, and after a night of confusion and desperate fighting, the Allies formed a modified line across the captured gap and held it.
   But for several days the wind favoured the use of gas. The devilish cylinders were used on different sections with success, and the point of the salient was reduced for three miles in a battle of sixteen days, giving the enemy low but important ridges. But in three days British women had made a million respirators for the troops, sufficient for their entire battle front, and though in the strongest fumes men still died in agony or lingered for three days and nights of torture while their lungs dissolved, reserves behind the firing line were now able to rush through the thinning fumes so that Ypres was not captured after forty assaults.
   "What king going to make war . . . sitteth not down first and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?" Neither the French nor the British had correctly estimated the forces required to curb a German invasion. The anticipation of essential preparations which took six months to perfect would have checked the invaders in Belgium and divided their immense formation on the Meuse.
   But at the close of the winter campaign the Germans realised that their invasion on the west front had reached its limit, and, while the Allies gathered strength for a determined offensive, they devoted their ingenuity to make the occupied territory secure. With a special force of 250,000 pioneers and adequate machinery and material, the most vulnerable sections of the 588 entrenched miles of the western front, maintained chiefly in foreign territory, were turned into massive fortifications. Trenches were scientifically excavated by machinery, and miles of main trenches were laid out in concrete. Machine guns remained in deep vaults, secure from preparatory bombardment, to be rushed by ladder to the surface when the shell fire ceased, and the line of attack approached. The main lines were dry and well drained, and in many cases deep tunnels extended from fortified hills to advance trenches. While the Allies were developing heavy artillery, the Germans were securing their guns in steel casemates, screened and invisible in earthworks, and making reserve battery positions of concrete deeply padded with sand for their heavy guns and howitzers on branch lines to main railways by which artillery and shells could be rapidly gathered at any section of the front.
   Starfish defences, spacious chambers underground, electrically lighted, ventilated and heated, with tunnels radiating in all directions to the surface, to advance trenches, to the flanks and to reserve lines in rear, were a special feature and ensured adequate cover, warm quarters for the troops and secure approaches to any section, front, flank or rear.
   During the campaign of 1915, outlined in the following chapter, the French steadily reorganised their army and offset the handicaps imposed by the invasion which covered the homes of nine million people, seventy per cent, of both the coal and steel production of France and one-third of the horse power of her machinery. Two thousand three hundred and eleven French towns and villages were within the German lines, surely a concrete ideal for American troops to help restore them to a sister republic!
   Experience and time soon greatly improved conditions at the front. Joffre remoulded his army at the top. Ability was the only test. He summarily retired twenty-four generals in the first two phases, eleven of them divisional commanders. Obscure officers who had showed marked ability were jumped to important commands, and after its terrible vicissitudes in 1914 the spirit of the French army in 1915 proved the confidence all ranks retained in their leader. The forces also discarded their fatally brilliant uniforms, which were replaced by a cloth of invisible blue-gray shot with fine tricolor threads for tradition. This radically lightened the heavy casualty lists, which were soon further lessened by the adoption of the "casque," a light steel helmet which reduced the losses from shell fire in the trenches. France had only 300 heavy guns in 1914; she had 6,200 in 1917.
   The changes on the British front were soon amazing. As the original establishment of the regular army was seriously depleted, it was maintained by a magnificent type of recruits with a stratum of ex-soldiers. It was then augmented by volunteer Territorial regiments which were sent over to act in reserve. After a short training near the front, they were needed in the first line, where they soon equalled the regular troops. The London Scottish, the first volunteers in France and first in the firing line, went up at a critical period at Ypres just as a section south of the salient was broken. They fixed bayonets, dashed through the shell zone and definitely repulsed the massed line of Germans who had poured through the gap. The London Rifle Brigade, the Artists, the Honourable Artillery Company, the Inns of Court Lawyers, Queen's Westminsters and other crack London battalions were soon followed by Territorial volunteer regiments from all sections of the country, and all have covered themselves with glory. The percentage of older men in the ranks was large. The lesson answered those critics in the United States who doubted the value of the National Guard.
   If the British seemed slow in getting their stride, their progress was sure. The Tommy Atkins of history was soon replaced by average citizens. Through the voluntary system hundreds of thousands of the most promising men in the country joined the Colours. The picked men sent out to augment the first line of the army had attained an average of physical fitness and intelligence previously unsurpassed in history. By careful selection, Kitchener's first million had mobilised the cream of the man-power of the Empire, and by the incorporation of successive battalions in the old regiments they assumed the pride of old traditions, and by simple elasticity the original establishment absorbed its millions.
   In every branch of equipment, also, the wonderful German machine was outstripped. Every article had been selected to further the comfort, health and efficiency of the men at the front under the special requirements of the campaign. It was an impressive sight to see the first splendid regiments in France, men of every creed and class in the ranks, recruited under stringent physical standards, perfect in drill and equipment. History would indeed have been different if one quarter of those voluntary reserves had been organised to become available in the early open days when quality counted more. The army had now to sacrifice itself in the generally fruitless waste of trench warfare.
   The loss of officers among both French and British was appalling. The Germans adopted stringent measures to lessen the drain, and the days when some devoted leaders actually rode to certain death in attack at the head of the massed infantry were soon over. Prisoners soon complained that their officers were forced to remain in the rear in attacks. But in many battles twelve per cent of British losses have been officers, and a serious disproportion continues.
   The patriotism which has maintained state regiments of special efficiency with little Federal aid or encouragement has in three wars provided the United States with material for creating officers by a stroke of the pen. In the Civil War nearly 800 Seventh men were given commissions without a notorious failure, and despite cruel misunderstandings which kept the regiment at home unwillingly in the Spanish War, 300 of its members went out as officers, and four gained undying fame by rallying a shattered column and leading it to victory when at San Juan a small Spanish force on a narrow front was inflicting a devastating loss of 120 men a minute.
   With their available supply of officers sadly impaired, the British now followed this example. The famous volunteer regiment, the Artists' Rifles, under the Territorial System the Twenty-eighth London, went to the front 1,200 strong. The regular army, in peace, patronised the volunteers, but in the hour of need examination proved that most of the Artists were eligible for commissions, and they received wholesale promotion. The experiment proved successful. The Depot Battalion therefore sent its trained drafts out, and the organisation was made an Officers' Training Corps, with a special staff which was soon producing a hundred lieutenants a month for the regular army. Other first-class volunteer regiments followed suit and bridged the gap when a supply of trained officers was vital to maintain efficiency at the front. For the later battalions the officers are chiefly men who enlisted as privates and gained the nomination by sheer ability in the field, so the new troops are trained and led by men of actual experience.
   It is also interesting to note that depot battalions of many famous regiments recruited and trained thousands of men especially selected, of the calibre suitable to uphold regimental tradition. This has supplied high-class troops for special emergency and might well be copied in the United States now by encouraging the recruiting of men by special organisations to supplement the draft.

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