Water and Mud Fill the Trenches.
Fighting is Merciless; Men on Both Sides Break and Run.
Special to The Great War Project
(6-7 November) On the Western Front a century ago, the battle for the Belgian town of Ypres continues, exhausting both sides. At the beginning of November, the Germans renew their attacks on British positions, reports historian Max Hastings.
The Germans break through to the Belgian village of Wytschaete (which the British pronounce White Sheet). But the battle there is costly to the Germans. According to Hastings, “from every cellar and house British fire swept the German ranks.”
One German soldier writes in his diary, “There were too few of us. There were no officers I sighted and we just had to pull back….It was a saddened platoon which turned its back on this place of death.”
Another German officer writes in his diary, “The enemy had everywhere been ejected from their positions, but at the cost of huge casualties on our side. There had been no breakthrough.”
The battle continues however, described by British soldier/diarists. “We could see the Germans very close now (there was a slight moon).
They were coming on very slowly and seemed to stagger back before our rifle fire, but always came on a few paces.
“With them was a drummer, who was beating his drum all the time and now, like the others, taking cover behind the trees. I never saw him fall and I believe our men didn’t shoot at him. The attack gradually died away before our fire, but they got too close to be pleasant.”
In early November midway through three days of relentless rifle and shell fire brings more than 17,500 German casualties. This leads some German officers to conclude it’s better to abandon this theater of war and send the troops to the Eastern Front where “a decisive victory over the Russians might be attainable.”
That is not what happened however.
Then the rains hit the battlefields of Flanders. “It came on to rain just about nightfall and poured in torrents,” writes one officer. “Our trenches are all in the wet clay and marshy ground, which makes things even more disagreeable than they might be.”
And then the German commander-in-chief, according to Hastings, “orchestrated…
…a new wave of almost suicidal onslaughts” on the Ypres Salient.
The German attacks last for a week. One German unit breaks, turns, and flees. It is “hell on earth” writes one German soldier, “under constant fire, with no medical support for the wounded.”
On November 6th a century ago, British and French soldiers break and try to flee the battlefield. Reports Hastings, hardly a single unit is fighting “at anything like full strength.”
Disgusted, the commanding British General Sir Douglas Haig writes in his diary, “I order [all] men to be tried by [court martial] who have funked in this way, and the [abandoned] trenches to be re-occupied at once.”
Many of the soldiers who flee have thrown away their rifles. “It makes one feel almost ill,” Haig writes unforgivingly, “to see so many Englishmen being such cowards. I had to threaten to shoot some of the men before I could get them to go on.”
About this battle, historian Hastings observes, “Haig’s remarks seem to modern generations cruelly unsympathetic about men driven to the limits of endurance by their experiences. But it is the business of generals to harden their hearts. If the allied line was to hold at Ypres, the casualties and suffering must somehow be borne.”