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WWI Centennial: Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 288th installment in the series.

September 20-October 3, 1917: Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood

The horrifying Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele for its final phase in the late autumn of 1917, continued in September-October with two back-to-back British attacks on the German Fourth Army east of Ypres: the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, from September 20-25, and the Battle of Polygon Wood, from September 26-October 3. Although the British strategy of “bite and hold” continued to yield incremental gains, these came at a heavy cost, with over 41,000 British and Australian casualties over the course of the two battles (compared to around 39,000 German), while the prospect of a breakthrough remained elusive.

“One Cannot Help Becoming Fatalistic”

Following costly advances at Pilckem Ridge from July 31- August 2, 1917 and Langemarck from August 16-18, BEF commander Douglas Haig, Second Army commander Herbert Plumer, and Fifth Army commander Hubert Gough remained determined to complete the conquest of the strategic Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, which would end the German artillery threat to Ypres as well as jeopardize German control of key rail hubs in western Belgium.

Menin Road Bridge and Polygon Wood, September 20 - October 6, 1917
Erik Sass

For the next phase in September 1917 the British regrouped and shifted tactics, with the decision to focus artillery fire on the enemy’s concrete pillboxes and strongpoints, which had inflicted such a heavy toll on advancing infantry in the opening engagements. Haig entrusted 1,300 heavy and medium artillery pieces to the British Second and Fifth Armies – twice as many as the first attack at Pilckem Ridge – which raked the German Fourth Army with 3.5 million shells over the course of the battle.

The British infantry, including the British 9th and 10th Army Corps and the ANZAC 1st Corps, went over the top along a roughly 8-mile-long front at dawn on September 20, 1917, following an elaborate “creeping barrage” composed of up to five successive waves of fire, including heavy artillery, field artillery and machine guns. In many places the attackers advanced hundreds of yards, while British artillery continued to pound the German rear areas with high explosives and poison gas, turning communication and reserve trenches to dust (or mud) and making an enemy counterattack impossible.

However even this unprecedented bombardment missed some targets, and a substantial number of German strongpoints and pillboxes remained more or less intact, with machine guns exacting a heavy toll on the attackers. R.W. Iley, a British runner (battlefield messenger), remembered attacking a German pillbox at Tower Hamlets Ridge, in the southern half of the battlefield, at 5 a.m. on September 20, 1917:

Their machine guns swept us with bullets, and some of our new men wavered; this was their first experience in the War. The colonel rallied them and ordered the section I was in charge of to rush a pillbox that was holding us up. We rushed straight at it. The Huns threw a flare bomb in our midst and mowed us down with machine-gun bullets. Of my section of ten, five were killed and four wounded. I felt as if a stone had hit my leg and spun around. The bullets had gone through my thigh, but they were not dangerous. Other bullets passed through my clothes without touching me. As I lay I heard that the colonel was badly wounded, and another section had captured the pillbox while we drew the fire.

This experience was typical, as across the battlefield many of the initial frontal assaults failed, requiring the British attackers to switch to envelopment and siege tactics. Meanwhile tanks were of modest assistance during Menin Road Ridge, thanks to the unending sea of mud, which left bogged down vehicles easy targets for enemy gunners.

Following a British advance of 1,500 yards on September 20, the Battle of Menin Road Ridge was decided by the failure of multiple German counterattacks over the following days, signaling a British victory by September 25. However every foot had been paid for with blood, and many officers privately questioned the wisdom of Haig’s aggressive strategy.

By this stage of the Third Battle of Ypres, British and ANZAC troops were exhausted and morale was generally low, as reflected in the September 1917 mutiny of ANZAC troops angry at alleged mistreatment in Etaples, an unpleasant rear area camp. On the evening of September 20, 1917, John Martin, a sapper in the Royal Engineers, wrote: “It is now apparent that the attack has fallen considerably short of what was expected, but what can you expect from men who are tired and hungry and wet through?... I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.” Martin also noted the presence of Military Police, a sure sign that morale among rank-and-file troops was reaching a low ebb:

I was surprised to see some Military Police in these tunnels. They are the warriors who infest the rear areas and spend their time in ‘running’ poor unsuspecting Tommies who leave their cycles unattended for a few seconds. Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade!

On the morning of September 21, 1917 Martin recounted his own encounter with fellow soldier in the momentary thrall of abject terror as they were sent to find drums of wireless cable under fire:

Fritz was giving us a most terrific shelling. Every conceivable type of shell was bursting all around, whizzbangs, HEs, HVs [High Velocity shells], liquid fire, gas shells, and all manner of shrapnel, the latter bursting a dozen at a time. It was evident that Fritz was endeavouring to prevent any reinforcements coming up. When we got to the end of the little bit of trench I scrambled out, but Cochran lost his head and shouted out ‘Don’t go, don’t go, we shall all be killed!’ It was no time to be nice so I told him not to be a fool but to come along and I caught hold of him and pulled him up on to the parapet… Another burst on our right and Cochran threw himself behind a pile of duckboards – I fetched him out and he hung on to my coat and tried to pull me into a shell hole. I coaxed him and cursed him but he hadn’t a ha’porth [half-penny’s worth] of nerve and I literally had to drag him along. It was a thousand times worse than going by myself.

Later Martin mused: “While I was dipping into a shell hole a piece of shrapnel hissed viciously by my ear into the water. I wonder how many scores of times sudden death has missed me only by inches, and yet other fellows get done in by almost the first shell that comes their way. One cannot help becoming fatalistic.”

Polygon Wood

On September 25 a German counterattack recaptured a number of strongpoints in the southeast section of a small forest – or rather the shattered remains of one – called “Polygon Wood” for its unusual shape on the map. Already the scene of incredibly fierce fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, Polygon Wood now returned to center stage with another welter of blood, as the British counter-counterattacked from September 26 to October 3.

The counterattacks managed to retake most of the the ground lost to the Germans north of the Menin Road, and by September 27 the British had pushed the Germans almost completely out of Polygon Wood. However the British and ANZAC troops had suffered very heavy casualties, including the British 33rd Division, so decimated that it was withdrawn from the battle just days after joining.

The physical conditions on the battlefield east of Ypres also remained appalling, according to Edward Lynch, an Australian private who recounted the scenes he encountered heading to the front in late September 1917:

The track to Westhoek Ridge is hell, just a narrow strop of corduroy [log road] laid down across miles of unending mud, pockmarked by thousands of watery shell holes. The road is bordered by dead mules and mud-splattered horses, smashed wagons and limbers and freshly killed men who have been tossed off the track to leave the corduroy open for the never-ending stream of traffic… Every little while a shell lands on the corduroy and a traffic jam occurs whilst the dead or injured horses and mules are tossed off the road and the broken wagons tipped after them.

Martin Stewart, a British officer, described similar conditions as he moved his troops to the frontline on September 28, 1917:

For the first two miles they had to go over ground that was entirely shell pitted. By this I mean that the lip of one shell-hole was also the lip of the next one with no level ground anywhere. Over a portion of this ground duck boards had been laid; these not only served to make the going easier but also to indicate the right direction. There were of course a good many blank places where the duck boards had been blown away by shells. The shell-holes were full of water and the mud ankle deep.

Later that day Martin received a shrapnel wound to his neck during a German bombardment, but managed to more or less it walk it off, according to his memoir:

I then started to cough and brought up some blood and the bit of shell which must have stuck in my wind pipe. McLennan very kindly retrieved the bit of iron out of the mud and handing it to me remarked that I might like it to keep. This I did and my wife has it now… As a matter of fact there was very little the matter with me except that I was blowing bubbles through the hole in my neck and could only just talk in a very weak whisper.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Wilson’s “Four Principles,” Broadway Closes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 301st installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

In addition to the momentous events that finished the First World War, the year 1918 brought one of the most remarkable periods of diplomacy and international politics in American history, as President Woodrow Wilson sought to reshape the world based on the national ideals of democracy and self-determination. The effort reflected Wilson’s belief in American exceptionalism, meaning a special character derived from the United States’ democratic traditions, which gave the American people a historic mission to spread liberty, justice, and the rule of law to the rest of the world.

This sweeping attempt to remake the world based on political and philosophical ideals, though ultimately unsuccessful, wasn’t quite as impractical as it might seem. As Europe destroyed itself in a paroxysm of violence, the United States of America—already the world’s largest economy before the war even began—gathered unprecedented power over the affairs of other nations. U.S. lending to the Allies rose from $2.25 billion in 1917 to $7 billion by the end of 1918, giving Wilson the “whip hand” in negotiations with his European colleagues (in fact, a large portion of these loans were spent on American war supplies, spurring America’s wartime economic boom). France and Britain also imported huge amounts of American grain, meat, butter, and other foodstuffs to ward off starvation, and coal and oil for heat in the winter.

British what imports, World War I
Erik Sass

U.S. agricultural and oil exports, World War I
Erik Sass

Meanwhile British and French investors were forced by their governments to sell off foreign assets to raise dollars for war purchases, and American investors swooped in to buy up undervalued assets, giving the U.S. even more financial leverage globally: as the total stock of British foreign direct investment around the world fell from £4.26 billion in 1914 to £3.1 billion in 1918, and French FDI fell from 45 billion to 30 billion francs over the same period, American FDI soared from $3.5 billion to $13.7 billion.

Most important was America’s critical contribution in manpower and war production, which finally broke the stasis on the Western Front in the summer of 1918. By the end of the war there were 2 million American soldiers in Europe plus almost 2 million more back home ready for deployment. In the desperate days of June 1918, General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing joined the Allied prime ministers in requesting that the American Expeditionary Force be expanded to 100 divisions, with 80 to be in France by April 1919; the U.S. Army had grown to 62 divisions by the time the war ended in November 1918, including 43 in France.

In this context it was widely hoped that Wilson would use America’s newfound power to dictate a just peace in Europe, and the idealistic president felt summoned to this sacred duty, even if it meant conflict with Britain and France. (Wilson insisted that America was an “Associated,” not “Allied,” power, to highlight America’s freedom from any obligation to respect the Allies’ postwar plans for Europe and the world.)

On January 8, 1918 Wilson outlined a new world order in the “Fourteen Points,” calling for the immediate evacuation of Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro by the Central Powers; the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, liberating their oppressed nationalities; the creation of Poland; the return of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany to France; open diplomacy and an end to secret treaties; free trade; arms control agreements; and the formation of an international organization to enforce the rules, later called the League of Nations.

With these specific issues addressed, Wilson moved on to broad ideals in a speech to Congress on February 11, 1918, setting forth some steering ideals for his postwar vision in the “Four Principles.” First, all territorial adjustments to the map of Europe should be made solely “to bring a peace that will be permanent.” Second, the peacemakers had to respect the rights of small nations and regions: “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty.” Third, the interests of local populations trumped those of the Great Powers: “Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states.” Fourth, all smaller groups aspiring to nationhood should receive sanction, as long as their goals don’t stir “discord and antagonism” in conflict with other groups.

The Four Principles were broad enough to permit a range of interpretations. Once again officials on both sides of the European conflict were afraid to openly differ from Wilson’s vision, yet accused their enemies of paying Wilson lip service. In a speech on February 25, 1918, the German chancellor, Georg von Hertling, claimed to agree with Wilson’s proposals in the Fourteen Points and Four Principles, but added that Germany had to have security guarantees from Belgium before evacuating the country and also accused the Entente Powers of violating Wilson’s rules. In response British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour blasted German hypocrisy and reiterated the Allied demand that Germany evacuate Belgium before peace negotiations could begin, pointing out that this injustice was the cause of the whole war.

Both sides could agree to the Four Principles in part because they were so vague, but also because they hoped to use them for their own ends. For example, in Eastern Europe the Germans still calculated that supporting the cause of national self-determination would allow them to dominate newly independent states in the Baltic, Poland, and Ukraine, eventually forming a regional trade bloc under German leadership. For their part Britain and France were happy to cancel promises of territory around the Adriatic Sea to Italy on the grounds of self-determination for local Slavic populations. They also clearly intended to disregard Wilson’s ideals, for example with their division of the Ottoman Empire’s old territories in the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Finally, Wilson’s guidelines simply couldn’t reconcile conflicting claims between a jumble of old and new nations in Eastern Europe: On the heels of the First World War the region saw a new round of violence with wars between combinations of Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic.

BROADWAY CLOSES

As the president put forth his vision for a new world order, at home Americans faced growing wartime shortages as well rising prices due to inflation. In one coldly symbolic development, on February 12, 1918 the theaters of Broadway were temporarily closed to conserve coal for the war effort. Most of the theaters remained closed through cold winter months, shutting down the vital heart of New York City around Times Square, although they reopened in the spring.

The heating fuel shortage was real enough, compounding hunger among the urban poor. In January 1918 Philadelphia had suffered a “coal famine,” prompting one widow to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We’re almost starving, my babies and me. It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”

U.S. coal price, World War I
Erik Sass

Across the U.S. and Europe, shortages and rising prices triggered a wave of industrial unrest in the latter years of the war, as complaints about low wages and high prices flowed together with demands for political reform. In Britain the number of strikes per year rose from 532 incidents involving 276,000 workers in 1916, to 1165 incidents involving 1.1 million strikers in 1918. In Germany the number of strikes rose from 137 in 1915 to 772 in 1918, as the number of workers involved soared from 11,639 to 1.3 million. Amid growing privation and suffering on the home front, the sinews of the war economy were beginning to snap.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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