The Terrible Arithmetic of Death; A Sort of Peace.
Special to The Great War Project
(22-23 November) The fighting around Ypres in Belgium is officially over, and all the forces present there are digging in.
In the five weeks the fighting continues around Ypres, British casualties – killed and wounded – are more than half of the troops Britain initially sends to France.
French troops are fortifying their trench system. The Germans as well. The Germans have the advantage by holding onto the higher ground around Ypres, known as the Ypres Salient. But they leave 41,000 young soldiers fallen on the Ypres battlegrounds.
The losses from the beginning of the fighting in late July ‘til this moment in the war are staggering.
War historian John Keegan has attempted the grim task of counting the dead on the Western Front. In their order taking into account the Battles of the Frontiers, of the Great Retreat, of the Marne and the Aisne, and the Race to the Sea and this battle for Ypres…
the French army is the most devastated.
France mobilizes two million at the start of the war. “Its losses in September, killed, wounded, missing and prisoners,” Keegan writes, “exceeded 200,000, in October 80,000, and in November 70,000.”
“The August losses, never officially revealed, may have exceeded 160,000.
“Fatalities reached the extraordinary total of 306,000, representing a ten-fold increase in normal mortality among those aged between twenty and thirty; 45,000 of those under twenty had died, 92,000 of those between twenty-five and twenty-nine.
“Among those in their thirties, the death toll exceeded 80,000. All deaths had fallen on a male population of twenty million and more particularly on the ten million of military age.”
The death toll for Germany is equally horrifying.
“Germany had lost 241,000, including 99,000 in the 20-24 age group, out of a male population of thirty-two million.”
Belgium loses 30,00 killed.
As the freezing rain and frost arrive, the possibility of mounting an offensive on either side becomes impossible. The digging results in “a continuous line of trenches, 475 miles long,” reports Keegan, clear across Belgium and northern France, “from the North Sea to the mountain frontier of neutral Switzerland.”
Keegan calls it “four months of extravagant fighting.”
“The room for maneuver each had sought in order to deliver a decisive attack at the enemy’s vulnerable flank had disappeared, as flanks themselves had been eaten away by digging and inundation.”
And the vaunted artillery batteries that each side has put so much faith in? At this point in time, British guns are limited to firing only six rounds per gun per day, “scarcely enough to disturb the parapets of trenches opposite and wholly inadequate to support infantry in an advance against machine-guns.”
Concludes Keegan, “a sort of peace prevailed.”