WWI Centennial: Nightmare – Passchendaele

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Laura Yeager Is Making History as the First Woman to Lead a U.S. Army Infantry Division

iStock/MivPiv
iStock/MivPiv

For over 100 years, the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division has been led by a male officer. That’s set to change at the end of this month as Brigadier General Laura Yeager becomes the first woman to oversee a U.S. Army infantry division.

A career military officer, Yeager entered active duty in 1986 and saw combat as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq. According to CNN, she’s the recipient of the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, among other accolades. Her appointment to the National Guard’s 40th Infantry comes as Major General Mark Malanka retires.

Yeager’s father, Major General Robert Brandt, served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Yeager is also a member of Whirly-Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the roles for women in helicopter aviation.

The 40th Infantry has served in virtually every major conflict of the past century, including the two World Wars and the Korean War. They’ve most recently been dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yeager is expected to assume her post on June 29.

[h/t CNN]

10 Surprising Facts About Band of Brothers

HBO
HBO

In 1998, HBO—then a still-fledgling cable network that had not yet completely broken through with hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the City—decided to take on its biggest project ever: a massive 10-hour World War II miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Three years, more than $100 million, and thousands of work hours later, Band of Brothers was brought to the world. The true story of a single paratrooper company making their way through the last year of the war in Europe, Band of Brothers dwarfed other TV dramas of its era with its budget, its cast, its effects, and its extraordinary attention to period detail. The result was one of the most acclaimed World War II dramas ever filmed.

So, from the sheer scale of the production to the cast’s boot camp to some actors you may have forgotten about, here are 10 things you might not have known about Band of Brothers.

1. Band of Brothers's budget was unheard of at the time.

When Band of Brothers began its journey to the screen in the late 1990s, one of HBO’s chief concerns in agreeing to produce the series was its budget. Today, in the wake of Game of Thrones, it seems natural for the network to foot the bill for such an epic undertaking, but at the time the amount of money called for was almost unheard of. When discussions first began, it became clear that the miniseries would cost at least $125 million to produce, which meant $12 million per episode. That’s a figure that dwarfed even the most prestigious and popular TV dramas at the time, and it didn’t even factor in the massive marketing budget (at least $15 million) the network was considering to promote the event. So, what convinced HBO to put up the money? A number of factors, but having Hanks and Spielberg on board certainly helped.

''I'm not saying they didn't bat an eye,'' Hanks told The New York Times in 2001. ''Oh, they did bat an eye. But the reality is this was expensive. You had to have deep pockets. And HBO has deep pockets."

2. Jeep helped promote Band of Brothers.

The promotional campaign for Band of Brothers was almost as massive as its budget, with HBO attempting to draw the curiosity of as many non-subscribers as possible. One of the ways they achieved this was by forming the network's first ever partnership with another company to launch a series of commercials. That company was Jeep, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its signature vehicle at the time. The classic military Jeep figures prominently in Band of Brothers—it appears more than 1000 times throughout the series—so it was a natural fit.

Together, HBO and Jeep shot a series of six commercials tying into the series, filmed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France (not a place commercials are usually allowed to shoot). The spots aired on broadcast television, allowing HBO a rare chance (at the time) to get its products before an audience that large.

3. The miniseries caused some controversy in the United Kingdom.

Though Band of Brothers was largely well-received by audiences both in the United States and abroad, it did cause some controversy in the United Kingdom before it even aired there. According to The Guardian, the furor was stirred up by The Daily Mail, which published a condemnation of the miniseries for its lack of British soldiers. The series, of course, is meant to follow a single company of American troops as they navigate the last year of the war in Europe, but that didn’t stop The Daily Mail from decrying the show’s narrow focus. The publication called forward various British veterans who declared Band of Brothers "an absolute disgrace and an insult to the millions of brave Britons who helped win the war,” the implication being that the series essentially depicted only Americans as winning the war in Europe. The controversy, while noteworthy, was short-lived.

4. The miniseries's production was massive.

Band of Brothers, a 10-hour miniseries set entirely during World War II, would be a massive undertaking even now, but it was particularly gargantuan when it was produced. Some figures that prove just how big it was: According to the documentary The Making of Band of Brothers, the production required 2000 American and German military uniforms; 1200 vintage costumes (that’s not counting the newly made ones); more than 10,000 extras; more than 14,000 rounds of ammunition a day; and 500 speaking roles. The special effects alone were so massive that, by the time the third episode was completed, the production had already used more pyrotechnics than Saving Private Ryan, which is particularly impressive given that much of the first episode is taken up by boot camp sequences.

5. Band of Brothers was largely filmed in one location.

A still from 'Band of Brothers' (2001)
HBO

The story of Band of Brothers takes the men of Easy Company across half the European continent, through several different countries and even seasons. Despite the vivid depiction of all of these varied places on the journey, the miniseries (aside from certain location shoots) was largely filmed in one place. Thanks to a large tax break from the UK government, the production was headquartered at the Hatfield Aerodrome, an old British aerospace factory that had been converted into a massive, 1100-acre backlot. The various hangars from the factory were used to house the costumes, props, weapons, tanks, and other equipment used to shoot the series, and some hangars even housed various sets.

6. A single village set played nearly a dozen different towns.

Because Band of Brothers was mostly shot on the Hatfield backlot, the crew had to make certain accommodations to portray much of Europe in a small space. One key factor was the 12-acre village set constructed on the lot. A set that size is a massive undertaking anyway, but to depict the various places Easy Company visits, the village had to be constantly redressed to show England, Holland, Belgium and other locations. In all, the village ended up playing 11 different towns throughout the miniseries. 

7. The Bastogne sequences were actually films indoors.

One of the most harrowing segments of Band of Brothers takes place in the sixth episode, “Bastogne.” Caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge and low on supplies, Easy Company faces its toughest challenge yet as they try to hold off a massive German force even as they’re starving and freezing to death. It’s a powerful episode, but most of the time the actors were faking the hardship. The sequences in which the company is huddled down in foxholes, scrounging for whatever food and medicine they can get, were largely filmed on a massive indoor set constructed in one of the hangars at Hatfield. The production used real trees and numerous fiberglass trees (which could be broken apart to simulate German shells) to create the forest, and paper mixed with various polymers to create artificial snow. It’s estimated that more than a third of a million pounds of paper were used to make snow throughout the sequence, and it took four weeks to completely cover the set.

“It’s the biggest amount ever used on one set, for anything,” snow effects supervisor David Crownshaw said. “It should be in the Guinness Book of Records.”

8. The guns in Band of Brothers were the real thing.

Every major character in Band of Brothers wields at least one firearm throughout the entire production, and many of the men of Easy Company are never without their trusty M1 Garand rifles. The World War II-era weapons were key to the production, and Hanks and Spielberg insisted on authenticity, so they went to an arms dealer and picked up 700 authentic period weapons for the production. Numerous other guns (including pistols largely kept in holsters) were made of rubber, but very often when you see the men of Easy Company firing their rifles at the enemy, they were firing the real thing.

9. The Band of Brothers cast featured several up-and-coming actors who went on to become major stars.

Because Band of Brothers includes hundreds of speaking roles, including dozens of American soldiers, the production had to recruit a virtual army of young actors, many of whom were relatively unknown at the time. If you go back and watch the series now, you’ll see several young faces that are now recognizable as major movie stars. Among the now-big names: James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender, Colin Hanks, Dominic Cooper, Jimmy Fallon, and Andrew Scott.

10. The cast trained together, and bonded, during a 10-day boot camp.

To develop a better understanding of the military culture their characters were involved in, and to get them in the right physical and mental shape for the miniseries, the cast portraying Easy Company embarked on an intensive 10-day boot camp before shooting, training 18 hours a day under the watchful eye of Captain Dale Dye.

Dye, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who came to Hollywood after he left the military to become a technical advisor, served as the senior military advisor on the production and also portrayed Colonel Robert Sink in the series. Dye led the boot camp and even helped direct key battle sequences in an effort to get the cast as close to real soldiers as possible. According to the men who portrayed Easy Company, the experience brought them closer together, and made them more like a real unit.

“You hit walls in boot camp," Scott Grimes, who played Sergeant Malarkey, said. "You hit these personal mental, physical walls that you have to go over, basically. There were guys the first night at boot camp that cried themselves to sleep that I was there for, and they were there for me.”

In addition to boot camp, the Easy Company cast also undertook a version of paratrooper training to ensure authenticity. Among the challenges: jumping out of a mock-up plane fuselage, while strapped to a harness simulating a parachute, from a height of 40 feet.

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