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World War I Centennial: Turks Defeated at Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 41st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

October 22-25, 1912: Turks Defeated at Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo

Bulgarian gives water to dying Turk at Adrianople.

After Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire on October 8, 1912, the situation began to unravel rapidly for the beleaguered Turks.

On October 11 and 16 the Montenegrins occupied the towns of Bijele Polje and Berane, respectively (both located in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the narrow strip of territory separating Montenegro from Serbia). On October 18 the other members of the Balkan League – Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece – declared war on the Turks and mounted simultaneous invasions on multiple fronts. On October 20-21 the Montenegrins occupied the towns of Plav and Gusinje, also in the Sanjak, and the Greeks landed on the islands of Tenedos and Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, giving them a strategic position which threatened the Turkish Straits. Meanwhile Bulgarian armies poured over the border into Thrace and Serbian armies overran Macedonia, where they seized Priština, the capital of Kosovo, on October 22.

Faced with enemy forces advancing on all sides, the Turkish commander-in-chief, Nazim Pasha, rushed to destroy the main Bulgarian and Serbian forces with two simultaneous attacks in Thrace and Macedonia. These offensives pitted Turkish armies which were only partially mobilized against stronger enemy forces, resulting in two catastrophic defeats for the Turks at the battles of Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo.

Kirk Kilisse

In Thrace the local Ottoman commander, Ferik Abdullah Pasha, confronted Bulgarian armies attempting to bypass the fortified city of Adrianople (Edirne). The Bulgarians planned to leave enough forces to besiege Adrianople and keep moving southeast towards the big prize, the Turkish capital at Constantinople. To do this, the Bulgarians first had to pass between Adrianople and another Turkish strong point located 36 miles to the east, the fortified town of Kirk Kilisse (Bulgarian Lozengrad, today known as K?rklareli in Turkish). Abdullah Pasha planned to envelop and destroy the advancing Bulgarian armies with a pincer movement as they passed through the gap, with a small left wing coming from Adrianople and a large right wing coming from near Kirk Kilisse.

However, Abdullah Pasha underestimated the strength of the Bulgarian forces facing him. Like other Ottoman commanders, he assumed that the main Bulgarian attack would fall against Macedonia, not Thrace – a reasonable guess, since Macedonia was supposedly the main object of the war. But the Bulgarians were actually going all in on Thrace, hoping to deliver a knockout blow by defeating the Turks close to their heartland. Thus instead of three Bulgarian infantry divisions, Abdullah Pasha’s incomplete Turkish armies near Adrianople were actually facing six divisions, with two more on the way, pitting around 110,000 Turkish troops against roughly 176,000 Bulgarians (although not all these forces were engaged). The Turks were soon apprised of the enemy’s actual strength.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 22, the Turkish right wing got off to an unpromising start as it marched north from near Kirk Kilisse, with some units receiving their orders late, others departing without their artillery, and everything slowed even further by mist and rain, which turned primitive Balkan roads to mud (rain would be a recurring theme in the First Balkan War). After making contact with Bulgarian formations around 11:30 a.m., the Turkish advance units soon found themselves subjected to withering rifle fire and artillery bombardments, and by mid-afternoon most were either pinned down by Bulgarian fire or in retreat. By nightfall the commander of the Turkish right wing, Muhtar Pasha, realizing that the enemy forces were much larger than expected, ordered his army to fall back to defensive positions. Meanwhile the smaller left wing made more forward progress, but was ultimately forced to retreat by a Bulgarian night attack (one half of a pincer can’t achieve much on its own anyway).

In other words, Abdullah Pasha’s plan didn’t survive the first day; now the final outcome was just a matter of time. Early on the second day, October 23, the superior Bulgarian forces took the offensive, trickily including Turkish-speaking troops with their advance units to deceive the Turks into allowing them to approach within a few hundred meters. The Bulgarians quickly overwhelmed the hastily-constructed Turkish trenches, and Muhtar Pasha’s right wing was forced to fall back, giving up Kirk Kilisse. Meanwhile the Turkish left wing mounted another attack but was again forced back by massed Bulgarian artillery and rifle fire, and ended the day withdrawing into the Adrianople fortifications. The next day, Thursday, October 24, Abdullah Pasha, recognizing defeat, ordered a general retreat to the southeast, towards Constantinople. Luckily for the Turks, after three days of hard fighting the Bulgarians were too tired to pursue them right away; on the other hand, Adrianople was now cut off and besieged by the Bulgarians.

Turkish casualties at Kirk Kilisse came to 1,500 killed and 3,000 taken prisoner, versus a mere 887 killed and around 5,000 wounded and missing for the Bulgarians. These losses were light by the standards of the coming Great War, thanks to the Turks’ decision to withdraw in the face superior enemy forces – but it counts as a major defeat because they were forced to give up the best defensive position in Thrace outside Constantinople, and also lost contact with Adrianople, a key city of the Ottoman Empire.

Kumanovo

Ottoman troops.

Some 250 miles to the west, the Turks suffered another decisive defeat at the hands of the Serbians in the battle of Kumanovo in northern Macedonia. Here the 65,000-strong Turkish Vardar Army (named for the Vardar River valley where it was stationed) faced Three Serbian armies numbering 132,000 troops. Once again, Nazim Pasha’s intention to bring the fight to the invaders resulted in Turkish forces attacking before they were fully mobilized – although at least in this case the local commander, Zeki Pasha, had better intelligence about the enemy’s strength, which was also dispersed at first, as Serbian troops arrived in waves.

On October 23, amid heavy fog and rain (again), Zeki Pasha took advantage of a temporary numerical advantage and launched an attack on the Serbian right flank along a ten-mile front to the northwest of the town of Kumanovo, which initially succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on the Serbs. However, in the afternoon newly-arrived Serbian reinforcements rushed into battle with fierce, human wave-style attacks, eventually stabilizing the situation by evening.

On the morning of October 24 the Serbs, who now enjoyed numerical superiority, continued their attacks with crucial artillery support which helped break Turkish resistance. Now outnumbered by two to one, Zeki Pasha was forced to retreat southwards, effectively ceding northern Macedonia to Serbian control. Turkish casualties in the battle of Kumanovo included 12,000 dead and wounded and 300 POWs, compared to Serbian casualties of 687 dead and roughly 4,000 wounded and missing.

Less than two weeks into the First Balkan War, the Turks had suffered two major defeats which essentially spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Needless to say, this momentous change provoked immediate reactions from all the European Great Powers.

Austria-Hungary Reacts

The strongest reaction came in Vienna, the capital of Austria-Hungary, where diplomats and military men alike were seriously alarmed by the rise of Serbian power. With a good deal of justification, they feared that the Serbs aimed to unite the Slavic populations of the Balkan Peninsula under Serbian rule in a pan-Slav (“Yugoslav”) state. After liberating their ethnic kinsmen in Macedonia from Ottoman rule, the next logical step was freeing the millions of Slavs living in Austria-Hungary – dismembering the Dual Monarchy in the process.

These fears were expressed in criticism of Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold, who was reviled by other officials in Vienna for failing to nip Serbian aggression in the bud – for example, by preemptively occupying the Sanjak of Novi Bazar to prevent Serbia from joining forces with Montenegro. To rescue Austro-Hungarian prestige, not to mention his own reputation, Berchtold was now forced to take a more assertive approach.

On October 25, 1912, Berchtold told a meeting of top officials that Austria-Hungary was drawing a new line in the sand: although it was too late to prevent Serbia from conquering the Sanjak and Macedonia, he would enforce some limits on Serbian power by denying the Serbs their coveted outlet to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo. This would prevent Serbia (or its patron, Russia) from threatening Austria-Hungary’s own access to the Mediterranean. Berchtold also intended to prevent Montenegro from taking the ancient city of Scutari, which lay near the Adriatic.

But if Serbia didn’t get Durazzo, and Montenegro couldn’t have Scutari, who would? Berchtold proposed that both cities would be part of a new, independent Albania, which would include the Muslim-majority population of this region. Of course, denying the Serbs one of their main national aspirations would only worsen the antagonism between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. In 1914 this would result in disaster.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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15 Facts About Franz Marc's Yellow Cow
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To gaze upon German Expressionist Franz Marc's Yellow Cow is to take in a surreal and spirited painting, alive with color. But within its bold brush strokes and envelope-pushing aesthetic lies the unexpected story of a complicated love between two artists, and the path that led them together.

1. YELLOW COW IS WILDLY DIFFERENT FROM FRANZ MARC'S EARLY WORKS.

Philosophy student-turned-painter Franz Marc attended the Munich Academy of Art during the turn of the 20th century. There, he studied natural realism, striving to capture his subjects in portraits true to dimension, gesture, and color. In 1902, he created Portrait of the Artist's Mother, which immortalized homemaker and devout Calvinist Sophie Marc. Sitting in profile, she leans over a book, reading by the light of an unseen lantern. Though Marc would become known for his vibrant color choices, here he favored darker shades that gave the painting a flat appearance, and a somber mood.

2. YELLOW COW'S CREATION WAS INSPIRED BY GERMAN NUDISTS.

In the early 20th century, Germany was in the midst of a back-to-nature movement, which saw several new artist collectives and nudist colonies pop up around the country. This celebration of the glory of the land and its natural inhabitants spoke to Marc, who later explained, "People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me."

3. HE VIEWED ANIMALS AS GOD-LIKE CREATURES.

Like the naturalists, Marc came to value the rural wonders of the country. He abandoned the bustle and urban intellectualism of Munich, and sought the spirituality and peace he believed could be found in living simply, as animals do. He began to think of them as having a "god-like presence and power." In a 1908 letter, Marc attempted to detail how this belief was informing his work, writing, "I am trying to intensify my ability to sense the organic rhythm that beats in all things, to develop a pantheistic sympathy for the trembling flow of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in air—I am trying to make a picture of it … with colors which make a mockery of the old kind of studio picture."

4. ANIMALS BECAME A SIGNATURE MOTIF FOR MARC.

This is an image of Dog Lying in the Snow by Franz Marc
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By 1907, Marc was focusing his work on capturing the spiritualism found in animals. Other notable works in the vein include The Fox, Dog Lying In The Snow, The Little Blue Horses, The Red Bull, Little Monkey, Monkey Frieze, Wild Boars in the Water, and The Tiger.

5. YELLOW COW IS A VERY LARGE PAINTING.

Measuring 55 3/8 by 74 1/2 inches, it's nearly 5 by 6 feet wide.

6. MARC DEVELOPED HIS OWN COLOR SYMBOLISM.

This is an image of Self-portrait by August Macke.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Colors would recur in Marc's work and speak to different emotions or themes. In 1910, he explained his use of color in a letter to friend and colleague, artist August Macke. Marc wrote, "Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay, and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color to be opposed and overcome by the other two."

7. YELLOW COW MIGHT BE AN UNCONVENTIONAL WEDDING PORTRAIT.

Exploring the painter's works and statements on his use of color, art historian Mark Rosenthal declared that the frolicking cow is actually a veiled depiction of Marc's second wife Maria Franck, while the distant blue mountains are meant to represent the painter himself. Painted the same year the couple were married, it times out to potentially be representative of their nuptials. The blending of the blue into the cow's spots suggests the joining of masculine and feminine.

8. FRANCK WAS A RECURRING MUSE FOR HER LOVER.

In 1906, before they were married, Marc had sketched a more traditional portrait of his wife-to-be, titled simply Mädchenkopf, which translates—rather unsentimentally—to "girl's head." That same year, he captured Franck in the abstract painting Two Women on the Hillside. Later, he created Maria Franck in a White Cap.

9. MARC AND FRANCK HAD A COMPLICATED ROMANCE.

An artist in her own right, Franck met Marc at a costume ball in Schwabing, Germany. The pair hit it off, and also befriended illustrator Marie Schnür, resulting in a shared Bavarian summer of creativity (and rumored three-way trysts). Schnür was the other woman who modeled for Two Women on the Hillside, as well as the other woman captured in a NSFW photo from their formative season in the sun. Marc ended up marrying both women, starting with Schnür.

Theirs was a marriage of convenience, meant to aid her in securing custody of her bastard baby boy, whom she had with another man. Details on this marriage are scant beyond that it was brief, lasting from 1907 to 1908. However, because Schnür accused Marc of infidelity, he was barred from remarrying until a special dispensation was granted, which took years. So while Marc and Franck had tried to wed in 1911, their official "I do" didn't come until June 3, 1913, in Munich.

10. TWO WOMEN ON THE HILLSIDE WAS A SIGN OF MARC'S TRANSITION TO HIS SIGNATURE STYLE.

This is an image of Two Women on the Hillside by Franz Marc.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Looking back on 1906's Two Women on the Hillside, it seems to foretell Yellow Cow. Depicting the two women who, in their own ways, would inspire Yellow Cow, Marc moved away from the German realist art he studied in college. Instead, looser brush strokes speak to Post-Impressionist interests, and the willful abstractness of its subjects predicts the evolving German expressionism movement of which he would become a part. It also shows repetition in the lines—of the woman's hip to the hill beyond—that would be revisited in Yellow Cow, whose haunches mirror the rise and fall of the mountains behind her.

11. YELLOW COW WAS A PART OF THE DER BLAUE REITER ART MOVEMENT.

Named for a Wassily Kandinsky painting, this movement boasted members like Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, and Gabriele Münter. Der Blaue Reiter (translating to The Blue Rider) had no hard manifesto, but its members shared a common urge to express spiritualism through their work, and often specifically through color. Turned away from exhibitions, they toured with their own, and published an almanac that celebrated contemporary, primitive, and folk art, along with children's paintings.

12. DER BLAUE REITER WAS DEVASTATED BY WORLD WAR I.

The Blue Rider movement only lasted from 1911 to 1914, in large part because the tensions growing between nations chased Russian artists back to their homeland, while Germans, including Marc and Macke, were conscripted into military service. As these artistic colleagues scattered, their movement faded. But it proved fundamental to the evolving Expressionism, and its works would remain.

13. MARC DID NOT LIVE TO SEE HIS LEGACY SECURED.

Marc's animal paintings would go on to awe viewers for decades to come. They'd become coveted by collectors and museums. And a plaque would be placed on the Munich home where he was born, remembering him as a founder of Der Blaue Reiter. But Marc was killed on March 4, 1916, during the Battle of Verdun. He was 36 years old.

14. FRANCK SAW TO IT THAT HIS WORKS WOULD BE PRESERVED.

This is an image of art historian, Klaus Lankheit.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marc's widow gave records of his life and writing to German art historian Klaus Lankheit. She called on German writer/gallery owner Herwarth Walden to exhibit her late husband's works in a posthumous show in October of 1916. While continuing to create and exhibit her own work, she collected Marc's letters from the war's front, and in 1920 had them published in a two-volume book called Briefe, Aufzeichnungen und Aphorismen (translating to Letters, Records, and Aphorisms). According to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where a copy of each is preserved, "The first volume contains letters written from September 1914 to March 1916 as well as records alongside color plates, and the second presents the artist’s sketchbook." Franck preserved Marc's legacy in whatever way she could, and in doing so, gave him to the world.

15. YELLOW COW IS REMEMBERED AS A JOYFUL MASTERPIECE.

While it might not sound complimentary to compare your wife to a cow, the consensus on Yellow Cow is that it signifies the happiness and bliss Marc's bond with Franck brought to his life. The bovine's bright colors are jubilant and yet the colors of her body jibe with those in her environment. She belongs here. Her pose is enthusiastic and bold—almost dance-like. If you look closely, you can even see a small smile play across her lips. It's an unusual love letter, but one that's outlived its lovers, and now hangs on the walls of the Guggenheim in New York City, to inspire many more.

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WWI Centennial: Nightmare – Passchendaele
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 284th installment in the series.

July 31-August 2, 1917: Nightmare – Passchendaele

For all the terrors of the Western Front, exemplified by the First and Second Battles of Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, Arras, and Messines, many ordinary British soldiers seemed to agree that none compared to the florid horror of the Third Battle of Ypres, from July to November 1917 – now remembered for its final phase, the nightmare of Passchendaele (pronounced “passion-dale” or “passion-doll”).

This is a map of what the Western Front looked like on July 31, 1917.
Erik Sass

Named for the small Flemish village that became one of the main objectives of the battle, the Battle of Passchendaele was supposed to be the culmination of a larger campaign to clear the Germans from Flanders, depriving the German Imperial Navy of its U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but things didn’t go quite as planned.

The preparations began well enough with a British tactical victory at Messines in June 1917, giving the attackers an advantageous spot south of Ypres for artillery observation during the battle. However British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig waited a month and a half before launching the main attack northeast of Ypres, giving the Germans plenty of time to reorganize their defenses.

This is a map of what Ypress looked like during the Third Battle of Ypres on July 31, 1917.
Erik Sass

The British plan received another setback on July 10 with a “spoiling attack” by the German Marine Corps against the British XV Corps, consisting of the 1st and 32nd Divisions, at the mouth of the Yser River on the Belgian coast north of Nieuport, putting an end to “Operation Hush,” a planned amphibious landing on the coast behind German lines that was to have coincided with the later stages of the Ypres attack.

Nonetheless Haig was determined to proceed with the main attack at Ypres, in order to maintain pressure on the Germans while the French Army recovered from the mutinies of the spring and summer, and Russia was afflicted with chaos following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive. Haig and his advisors also knew they couldn’t expect the United States to make a major contribution anytime in 1917, despite some early signs of progress. Finally, still they held out hope for a major advance into Belgium (if not an outright breakthrough) through a series of rapid incremental gains, each reinforcing the others, known as the “bite and hold” strategy; on that note, they were also encouraged by the success of the “creeping barrage” technique, in which several waves of bombardment preceded the infantry across the battlefield, obliterating trenches and forcing defenders to take cover until the attackers were upon them.

“MONSTROUS AND OVERWHELMING TUMULT”

The British attack at Passchendaele was preceded by two weeks of the heaviest bombardment yet seen in the war, beginning on July 16 and continuing without a pause until the early morning hours of July 31, during which over 3,000 guns fired an incredible 4.5 million shells – or more than three shells per second for fifteen days (below, original footage of the battle):

The sound of the bombardment was audible many miles away, even across the English Channel, according to the British diarist Vera Brittain, who recalled hearing the guns in southern England while she was on leave between volunteer nursing stints:

At St. Monica’s, one July afternoon, I became aware of a periodic thumping, like a tremendous heart-beat, which made one parched corner of the games-field quiver; the sound might have been a reaping-machine two hundred yards away down the valley, but I knew it for the echo of the guns across the Channel, summoning me back to the War… There was no way of escaping that echo; I belonged to an accursed generation which had to listen and look whether it wanted to do so or not, and it was useless, at this late hour, to try to resist my fate.

The British bombardment included liberal use of poison gas, but as always this sword cut both ways, as the enemy replied in kind with their own counter-bombardment. In fact, during the summer of 1917 the Germans introduced a new chemical agent, mustard gas, actually an oil-based compound dispersed by shells in fine droplets which clung to clothing and skin for hours, making it even more long-lasting and dangerous. On July 25, 1917 Julia Stimson, a nurse with the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, noted its effects in her diary:

We have been receiving patients that have been gassed, and burned in a most mysterious way. Their clothing is not burned at all, but they have bad burns on their bodies, on parts that are covered by clothing… The Germans have been using a kind of oil in bombs, the men say it is oil of mustard. These bombs explode and the men’s eyes, noses, and throats are so irritated they do not detect the poison gas fumes that come from the bombs that follow these oil ones, and so they either inhale it and die like flies, or have a delayed action and are affected by it terribly several hours later… We had a very bad case the other night who had not slept one hour for four nights or days, and whose coughing paroxysms came every minute and a half by the clock.

Meanwhile the relentless bombardment with high explosives had some unexpected effects – most notably the destruction of the ancient, fragile drainage systems painstakingly built by Flemish peasants over the centuries to make the low-lying, waterlogged soil of Flanders arable. This would prove disastrous when unusually strong rains hit the battlefield on the first day of the attack.

Of course the prolonged bombardment also removed any element of surprise, alerting the German Fourth Army under General Sixt von Arnim to expect a major attack on the Ypres front and allowing them to move up reinforcements before the British assault began. Gerhard Gürtler, a theology student from Breslau, described the advance to the front just before the British attack in a letter home:

We spent the whole of the 30th of July moving up to the wagon-lines, and that night, at 2:30 a.m., we went straight on to the gun-line – in pouring rain and under continuous shell-fire; along stony roads, over fallen trees, shell-holes, dead horses; through the heavy clay of the sodden fields, over torn-up hills; through valleys furrowed with trenches and craters. Sometimes it was as light as day, sometimes pitch-dark. Thus we arrived at the line.

Finally, in the early morning of July 31 the shelling reached an insane crescendo, as described by the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs, who also noted the industrial scale of the effort needed to keep the guns supplied with ammunition:

Our gun-fire had never stopped for weeks in its steady slogging hammering, but shortly after half-past three this ordinary noise of artillery quickened and intensified to a monstrous and overwhelming tumult. It was so loud that twelve miles behind the lines big houses moved and were shaken with a great trembling… The red flashes were from our forward batteries and heavy guns, and over all this battlefield, where hundreds of thousands of men were at death-grips, the heavy, smoke-laden vapours of battle and of morning fog swirled and writhed between clumps of trees and across the familiar places of death around Ypres, hiding everything and great masses of men. The drum-fire of the guns never slackened for hours. At nine o’clock in the morning it beat over the countryside with the same rafale of terror as it had started before four o’clock. Strangely above this hammering and thundering of two thousand guns or more of ours, answered by the enemy’s barrage, railway whistles screamed from trains taking up more shells, and always more shells, to the very edge of the fighting-lines, and in between the massed batteries, using them as hard as they could be unloaded.

According to another observer, the French translator Paul Maze, the bombardment was so intense it sent terrified rats fleeing from no-man’s-land into the trenches:

When the barrage finally opened, its violence was such that we looked at one another aghast. I climbed up the stairs into the night. The wind caused by the displacement of air was terrific – I might have been standing on the bridge of a ship during a typhoon and held on to the side of the trench like to a weather rail. Gun-flashes were holing the sky as though thousands of signal-lamp shutters were flashing messages… At every report I felt as though my scalp were being removed. An uninterrupted succession of shells of every calibre was whirling through the air. This bombardment exceeded anything I had ever witnessed before… Suddenly I imagined I was seeing things when the top of our parapet seemed to move. But it was only the terrified rats fleeing in an army of their own.

FIRST PHASE: PILCKEM

The first British attack aimed to recapture much of the ground northeast of Ypres taken by the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres, with the main assault to be carried out by five divisions of the II Corps from General Herbert Gough’s Fifth Army, across the Gheluvelt Plateau in the direction of St. Julien. To the north the offensive would be supported by an attack by the French First Army, as well as attacks by the British 39th, 51st, 38th, and Guards Divisions in the direction of Langemarck, in order to pin down the defenders and prevent them from sending more reinforcements. Further south, the British Second Army including the ANZAC II Corps would attack German positions along the Lys River and around Warneton, where the Battle of Messines had previously concluded.

At 3:50 a.m. on July 31, as a heavy mist lay on the battlefield, the first wave of British infantry went over the top, soon followed by several more waves, all shrouded by the low-lying clouds. Thomas H. Floyd, a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled going over the top in one of the later waves at 8:30 a.m. on July 31, 1917:

Shells were bursting everywhere. It was useless to take any notice where they were falling, because they were falling all round; they could not be dodged; one had to take one’s chance: merely go forward and leave one’s fate to destiny. Thus we advanced, amidst shot and shell, over fields, trenches, wire, fortifications, roads, ditches and streams which were simply churned out of all recognition by shell-fire. The field was strewn with wreckage, with the mangled remains of men and horses lying all over in a most ghastly fashion… Many brave Scottish soldiers were to be seen dead in kneeling positions, killed just as they were firing on the enemy. Some German trenches were lined with German dead in that position. It was hell and slaughter.

The ferocious British bombardment and creeping barrage had done their work well, and German positions to the north were relatively lightly defended, allowing the attacking infantry to advance over a mile and a half, capturing the town of Boesinghe and the neighboring village of Pilckem, from which the first phase of Passchendaele took its name. In the center the attackers advanced over two miles in places, taking the town of St. Julien and advancing beyond the Steenbeck River – but the mist hid the advancing troops from their own artillery, making it much more difficult for the gunners to continue supporting the attack. Then in the afternoon the Germans counterattacked in strength, driving them back with heavy casualties equal to over half of the their total strength (below, British soldiers with wounded comrades). Then on the afternoon of July 31 nature made a surprise intervention.

This is an image of wounded British soldiers from the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"CONDITIONS ARE AS BAD AS I HAVE EVER KNOWN"

While Flanders is known for its bad weather, both sides were taken by surprise by torrential rains which coincided with the opening of Passchendaele, in the normally hot and relatively dry late summer, continuing for a week from July 31 to August 6. The unseasonable downpour turned the Flemish fields into a sea of mud, now without their delicate drainage systems, making it almost impossible to bring up rations and evacuate wounded, let along move heavy guns or ammunition (top, British stretcher bearers attempt to evacuate a wounded soldier). Many wounded soldiers drowned in flooded shell holes or due to exposure. Brigadier General Alexander Johnston wrote in his diary on August 1-2, 1917:

My poor fellows had an awful time, and many wounded sank in the mud and were drowned in it before assistance could reach them or before they were discovered – one officer who had practically sunk into the mud out of sight was found only half an hour after I had been speaking to him, such a good chap too. We had about 120 casualties in the day, and besides this there were men dropping from cold and exhaustion. The stretcher bearers could not compete with the number of casualties, and in any case it required about 6 men to carry a stretcher as each man sank into the mud at least up to his knees besides which most of the men were too done up to be able to carry the weight… the men had just to make the best of things and spent the night in mud often up to their waists… The rain still continues, and conditions are as bad as I have ever known.

Although it was cold comfort, the British could console themselves that the Germans had it just as bad. Gürtler, the theology student, described conditions at Ypres in early August:

The whole place is in the middle of arable fields reduced to a sea of mud, churned up to a depth of 15 feet or more by the daily barrage of the English 6- to 8- and 11-inch shells, one crater touching another. To this the never-ceasing rain adds a finishing touch! Nothing can be seen far and wide but water and mud… We can’t have a proper dug-out because the ground is so soft and wet, only a sort of rather superior wooden hut, covered with tarred felt, sand and leafy branches, so that when it rains, as it generally does, we simply have to lie in the water.

Gibbs, the war correspondent, spoke to German prisoners of war who had endured the British bombardment, infantry attacks, and then the rain and mud:

They had the look of men who have been through hell. They were drenched with rain, which poured down their big steel helmets. Their top-boots were full of water, which squelched out at every step, and their sunken eyes stared out of ash-grey faces with the look of sick and hunted animals. Many of them had cramp in the stomach through long exposure and hunger before being captures, and they groaned loudly and piteously. Many of them wept while being interrogated, protesting bitterly that they hated the war and wanted nothing but peace.

This is an image of soldiers traveling through Chateau Wood.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Among other effects, the mud helped cancel out any tactical advantage that might have been gained from the participation of over 100 British tanks in the attack. After contributing to the British advance around St. Julien and to the north, the tanks soon fell prey to the quagmire: although designed to cross trenches, deep ditches and other rough terrain, the tanks were not especially well-suited to operating in waist-high mud, and many of them became immobilized, as described by Gibbs (below, an abandoned tank):

… by that hour in the afternoon the rain had turned the ground to swamp, and the Tanks sank deep in it, with wet mud half-way up their flanks, and slipped and slithered back when they tried to struggle out. Many of the officers and crews had to get out of their steel forts, risking heavy shelling and machine-gun fire to dig out their way, and in the neighbourhood of St.-Julien they worked for two hours in the open to de-bog their Tank while German gunners tried to destroy them by direct hits.

This is an image of a Derelict Tank that's stuck in the mud.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By August 2, 1917 the rain forced Haig and Gough to temporarily put the rest of the offensive on hold, but with every intention of resuming the attack as soon as weather permitted. Meanwhile the pause in major infantry attacks didn’t mean that rank and file troops were left safe (if cold, wet, and miserable) in their hastily improvised trenches – far from it. Indeed both sides continued heavy shelling and gas attacks, according to Gürtler, who described the fighting at Ypres in his final letter home on August 10:

Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The earth trembles and shakes like a jelly. Flares illumine the darkness with their white, yellow, green and red lights and cause the tall stumps of the poplars to throw weird shadows. And we crouch between the mountains of ammunition (some of us up to our knees in water) and fire and fire, while all around us shells upon shells plunge into the mire, shatter our emplacement, root up trees, flatten the house behind us to the level of the ground, and scatter wet dirt all over so we look as if we had come out of a mud-bath. We sweat like stokers on a ship; the barrel is red-hot; the cases are still burning hot when we take them out of the breech; and still the one and only order is, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ – until one is quite dazed.

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