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The Devil’s Anvil – Verdun

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 226th installment in the series.    

February 21, 1916: The Devil’s Anvil – Verdun

After a crucial week’s delay that allowed last-minute French reinforcements to assume positions behind hastily constructed defenses, on the morning of February 21 the German assault on Verdun – a titanic struggle fated to be the greatest battle in history to that point – opened with an equally record-setting artillery bombardment.

Starting gradually around 7 a.m. and reaching a crescendo around 3 p.m., over 1,400 carefully concealed guns of all sizes dumped high explosives, shrapnel, and gas on to a 10-kilometer stretch of the French frontline north of Verdun, saturating the enemy’s defenses with a mind-boggling million shells in the first day of battle alone. The bombardment would continue virtually uninterrupted for five days, consuming 2.5 million shells and converting the pristine snowy landscape into a nightmarish expanse of muddy craters, shattered trees, and leveled villages (below, footage of the bombardment, which appears to mix genuine footage with obvious reenactments). 

Witnesses struggled to describe what they saw. Henry Bordeaux, a French novelist who interviewed a number of officers and soldiers about the beginning of the battle and was present for the later phases, wrote: 

The observers on aeroplanes or balloons who saw the volcano burst into flame declared that they could not mark on their maps all the batteries that were in action… The commander of a company of light infantry who was wounded in the foot in Caures Wood, stated: “The intensity of the firing was such that when we came out into the open we no longer recognised the country which we had known for four months. There was scarcely a tree left standing. It was very difficult to walk about, because the ground was so broken up with the holes made by the shells… The communication trenches no longer existed.” 

On the other side Karl von Wiegand recorded a German officer’s eyewitness account: 

Hour after hour, day and night, the thunder of the big guns in what was perhaps the greatest artillery duel in the history of the world, rolled in from around Verdun like the ponderous roaring of gigantic waves continuously breaking on some rockbound shore. The roar of the battle was at times heard 200 kilometers or about 124 miles. Several stories high smoke, earth, and debris shot into the air where the biggest shells exploded. Each time it was as if an unusually gigantic wave had broken there on the cliff. It was impossible to conceive how human beings could live through that fire. 

But as the Germans were about to discover, some French soldiers of the beleaguered 72nd and 51st Reserve Divisions did in fact manage to survive, thanks to well-sited dugouts but also sheer luck. The survivors lived through sheer terror, as death rained down around them on all sides. One French staff officer recalled the routine bravery of one soldier, a communications officer responsible for repairing the telephone line to the French artillery batteries (eventually most communications had to go by messengers, who predictably suffered a very high mortality rate):

Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions, some whistling, others howling, others moaning low, and all uniting in one infernal roar. From time to time an aerial torpedo [trench mortar shell] passes, making a noise like a gigantic motor car. With a tremendous thud a giant shell bursts quite close to our observation post, breaking the telephone wire and interrupting all communication with our batteries. A man gets out at once for repairs, crawling along on his stomach through all this place of bursting mines and shells. It seems quite impossible that he should escape in the rain of shell, which exceeds anything imaginable; there has never been such a bombardment in war. Our man seems to be enveloped in explosions, and shelters himself from time to time in the shell craters which honeycomb the ground; finally he reaches a less stormy spot, mends his wires, and then, as it would be madness to try to return, settles down in a big crater and waits for the storm to pass. 

As the German guns lifted their elevations to lay down a “boxing fire” that would prevent French reinforcements from coming up, at 4 p.m. advance patrols of German infantry emerged from their concrete bunkers and advanced in small groups in irregular formations, probing French defenses according to plan in preparation for a much larger attack scheduled for the following day (below, a German howitzer at Verdun). 

Indeed the advance on February 21 was meant to be relatively modest – but one German commander, General von Zwehl of VII Reserve Corps, decided to take advantage of the greatly weakened French defenses with an immediate infantry attack, sending his main forces forward led by bands of elite stormtroopers wielding machine guns, light field guns, and the terrifying new weapon, flamethrowers. 

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However the French artillery crews who had survived the poison gas and high explosives put a fierce resistance. The same French staff officer described the incredible sight as the Germans advanced en masse:

Beyond, in the valley, dark masses are moving over the snow-covered ground. It is the German infantry advancing in packed formation along the valley of the attack. They look like a big gray carpet being unrolled over the country. We telephone through to the batteries and the ball begins. The sight is hellish. In the distance, in the valley and upon the slopes, regiments spread out, and as they deploy fresh troops come pouring in. There is a whistle over our heads. It is our first shell. It falls right in the middle of the enemy infantry. We telephone through, telling our batteries of their hit, and a deluge of heavy shells is poured on the enemy. Their position becomes critical. Through glasses we can see men maddened, men covered with earth and blood, falling one upon the other. When the first wave of the assault is decimated, the ground is dotted with heaps of corpses, but the second wave is already pressing on.

The advancing German infantry surged towards the Bois des Caures, a small forest now ripped apart by shelling, where two lone battalions of “chasseurs a pied” led by Colonel Emile Driant (who’d previously warned the government about the pitiable state of the defenses at Verdun) held a half a mile of front in the face of an overwhelming attack by the German 21st Division. His force of 1,300 men already reduced by half by artillery fire, Driant immediately realized there was no way they could defeat the onrushing hordes, but they could delay them (below, a German attack at Verdun). 

With rear communications severed and fighting without artillery support, Driant’s chasseurs a pied began a heroic last stand in the shattered woods, holding off the German infantry for over a day with machine guns, rifles, grenades, and eventually hand-to-hand combat. On February 22 the two much-diminished battalions faced an expanded attack by all three German corps, numbering six divisions, following another hurricane of artillery fire. A German officer described the advance on February 22 in his diary:

The whole area has been churned up by our artillery and has French barbed wire running through it. Death seemed close at hand when the French artillery fired their barrages. Shelter in a shell hole or other cover was desperately sought. More than a few comrades died out here… As soon as we started cutting the barbed wire French machine gun bullets whizzed overhead. As we advanced artillery fell in the tree line as well. I reached the objective with just one man, (Reservist Becker). One man had been shot in the head and lay on his face. 

Towards the end the French frontline dissolved, leaving small bands of French infantry fighting to hold isolated strongpoints surrounded by the rising German tide. Calm to the last, in the afternoon Driant conducted a fighting withdrawal as one stronghold after another fell to the Germans, and finally instructed his surviving troops to break out of the German encirclements and retreat south towards the village of Beaumont. Driant himself was killed by an enemy bullet when he stopped to tend to a wounded soldier in a shell hole. He died having succeeded in holding off the German Fifth Army’s advance for a day, a crucial delay during which reinforcements finally began arriving. He was the first of many heroic martyrs on both sides at Verdun. 

On February 23 the German attack ground on, with waves of infantry from six German divisions advancing behind unrelenting artillery bombardments, slowly forcing the French 72nd and 51st Reserve Divisions out of Brabant and the forest of Herbebois, back towards the villages of Beaumont and Samogneux. With both French divisions nearing their breaking point, on the evening of the 23rd the French 37th Division, consisting of Algerian and Moroccan colonial troops, was hurled into the fight while the 72nd Reserve fought tooth and nail to hold Samogneux.

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Tragically, miscommunication led the French overall commander at Verdun, General Herr, to believe Samogneux had already fallen to the enemy, and friendly fire from French guns wiped out scores of their own troops – an all-too-common occurrence in the First World War. The misdirected French bombardment cleared the way for the Germans to occupy Samogneux, while the ragged remnants of the 72nd Reserve Division were withdrawn from the frontline. Together with the 51st Reserve Division, it had lost an astonishing 16,224 men out of an original strength of 26,523 in just three days. 

Fort Douaumont 

The first German breakthrough at Verdun came on February 24, as the attackers penetrated to the hastily prepared, poorly constructed French second defensive line, already softened by the preceding days’ bombardments, and captured it in a matter of hours. The North African 37th Division, unused to the cold weather and shocked by the incredible intensity of the shelling like their European counterparts, broke and fled south towards safety, while the 51st Reserve Division fell back towards Fort Douaumont – the first objective of the German attack, now thrusting towards the heights of the Meuse above Verdun. 

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A quarter mile on a side, the roughly pentagon-shaped Fort Douaumont was covered by a concrete slab eight feet thick underneath thirty feet of soil, and surrounded by 24-foot-deep dry moats and fields of barbed wire 30 yards wide. Its approaches were guarded by machine guns, while artillery pieces in retractable iron turrets menaced attackers in the valleys below and neighboring hills. Thus Fort Douaumont was viewed as impregnable with good reason, and would have been – except for an incredible mistake by the French.

In the confusion of the first days of the battle, most of the fort’s garrison of 500 men had been moved north to join the fight against the German attackers there, leaving only the small gun crews to man the artillery pieces. The French were planning to withdraw the guns and their crews and demolish the fort if it couldn’t be manned – but this order was countermanded at the last moment by General Herr, who ordered the fort held at all costs. Unfortunately for the French, somewhere along the line this order got lost in the chaos, and the new garrison never occupied the fort. 

In short, the linchpin of French defenses north of Verdun was basically empty when the Germans reached it. Werner Beumelburg, a soldier with the 15th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, recalled the first approach to the daunting fortress on February 25, when German troops from Brandenburg were astonished to discover they faced almost no resistance (but serious danger from their own artillery fire): 

The German 210-millimetre shells were exploding on the fort with formidable crashes. The Brandenburgers, massed against the fort’s limits, kept on sending of their flares to have the artillery fire lengthened. Unfortunately, the battlefield was shrouded by the thick smoke of shell explosions, so that our artillery observers were unable to see anything. The terrific bombardment went on unabated. Seeing his men’s predicament, Captain Haupt, who had just reached the barbed-wire entanglements, shouted: “We’ll take the fort by assault!” In such perilous circumstances, his words sounded like a bad joke. Already, however, some men were busy cutting the wire with shears, and soon had opened a few gaps… Not a shot came from the fort, all was deathly quiet. What was going on inside? Had the fort been evacuated or were the French prevented by our artillery from firing on us?

Puzzled by the apparent total absence of French defenders, the small band of enterprising Brandenburgers cautiously pressed forward as shells from their own guns burst around them: 

A single heavy shell – and of those which kept falling on the fort – would have blown us all to bits… We tried to enter the fort through the counterscarp’s pillboxes, but they were closed. All we could do was to crawl out of the ditch and over the slope of the escarp, without paying too much attention to our heavy artillery fire. With some difficulty we reached the top of the fort. A fusilier stood up next to the main turret, and waved toward the rear the liaison flag with our artillery. It was of no avail. The bombardment continued unabated. From the village of Douaumont, the French had seen our grey silhouettes on the fort and presently opened a violent machine-gun fire. Our losses were increasing. It was really frustrating not to be able to have our artillery fire lengthened. 

With their own guns presenting a bigger threat than the enemy’s, the German troops found an open steel hatch in the moat and simply walked into the fort, followed by a comedic encounter with one of the few remaining garrison troops: 

Groups of assailants then began, without liaison, to enter the fort from different sides. They met inside, where, unbelievably, all was still. Suddenly a Frenchman carrying a flashlight and whistling a song came along. He was quite unaware of our presence and was practically riveted to the ground when he suddenly saw us. We made him a prisoner and used him as our guide. 

Ultimately a small number of German troops managed to surprise the French defenders, who were caught unawares inside the fort away from their weapons, never suspecting that the Germans would be reckless enough to come anywhere near the fort: 

As we advanced toward the center of the fort, French voices began to be heard. We shouted to the enemy to surrender, as the fort was in our hands, but there was no answer. We had no idea of the number of defenders, and there was hardly a dozen of us at the time. Petroleum lamps lit the corridors. Above us, the explosions of our shells thundered with a dull rumble. We began searching the fort’s rooms, one after the other. Sappers cut the electric wiring, to prevent the French from blowing up the fort once they realized it was in our hands. The prisoners kept coming, and before long numbered over a hundred… By nightfall the fort was firmly in the hands of our Brandenburgers, who in the meantime had been reinforced by other groups.

The loss of Fort Douaumont was the crowning French defeat of the early days of the Battle of Verdun, contributing to commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre’s decision to remove General Herr and replace him with a somewhat dour, taciturn but brilliant commander – Philippe Petain, who would long be celebrated as the savior of Verdun (but later disgraced himself as the leader of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War). 

Petain, arriving at the moment of crisis, organized the first truck conveys to supply Verdun along the only road connecting it to the outside world, “The Route,” later called the “Voie Sacree” or “Sacred Way.” Meanwhile Joffre was redeploying French divisions from all over the Western Front to Verdun, helped by the British Expeditionary Force taking over the stretch of front previously held by the French. In fact two whole armies, the French Second and Tenth, were now en route to Verdun. 

As these moves indicate, in the months to come the struggle at Verdun would unfold on a truly awesome scale. Already by February 26, when Petain assumed command at Verdun, France had lost an appalling 26,000 men on the devil’s anvil. And the battle was only beginning.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: America’s Fighting Debut
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 309th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 27-JUNE 6, 1918: AMERICA'S FIGHTING DEBUT

Following the failure of Germany’s first two offensives in March and April 1918, which conquered a large amount of territory but fell short of the hoped-for breakthrough, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff unleashed Blücher-Yorck on May 27, 1918—his third desperate bid to smash Allied forces using divisions freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. Once again, Ludendorff achieved almost total surprise with his choice of target, raising the terrifying possibility of an advance on Paris. But once again, this short-term success was undone by Ludendorff’s own opportunism, while the dreaded event had finally come to pass: the Americans were here (top, U.S. Marines resting near Belleau Wood).

Europe, May 1918 map
Erik Sass

Blücher-Yorck was originally planned as a diversionary attack, pitting the German First and Seventh Armies, later joined by the Eighteenth Army, against the French Sixth Army along the Aisne River near Soissons and Reims. The Germans hoped to force the French to move reserve forces back south of the Somme, setting the stage for a final crushing blow against the overstretched British armies in Flanders, now deprived of French support. However, after its stunning initial success, it was quickly upgraded to the main offensive, reflecting Ludendorff’s new ambition to exploit the two adjacent salients (the other held by the Second and Eighteenth Armies) as the launching point for a giant pincer offensive converging on Paris.

Map of the Western Front, May 27, 1918
Erik Sass

Like the first two German spring offensives, Blücher-Yorck began with a brief but incredibly ferocious bombardment, using the Pulkowski method, a new mathematical system which targeted enemy positions without having to “register” the guns first, preserving the element of surprise. That was followed by an infantry attack using cutting-edge infiltration tactics, spearheaded by stormtroopers armed with machine guns, grenades, mortars, and flamethrowers.

As luck would have it, the center of the line was held by five tired, understrength British divisions, ironically moved to the French Sixth Army for a rest after hard fighting in the first two German offensives. Ludendorff had another piece of good fortune courtesy of French Sixth Army commander general Denis Auguste Duchene, who kept most of his troops in frontline trenches, contrary to the new doctrine of “defense in depth,” which called for positioning most defenders further back in rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks after the initial enemy advance lost its momentum (below, French soldiers man a machine gun).

The German spring offensive, 1918, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, over 5600 German artillery pieces opened up a mind-bending barrage according to the new tactics pioneered by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller, hitting different zones of the Allied lines along the Chemin des Dames ridge, scene of the disastrous French offensive in spring 1917. The carefully planned sequence was meant to neutralize enemy artillery, cut off communications and reinforcements, and destroy enemy strongholds. German artillery fired 2 million shells in the first four hours alone, for an average of about 139 shells per second, pulverizing British and French positions.

At 4:20 a.m., 23 German divisions went over the top, following a double creeping barrage of high explosives and gas shells, forcing any remaining defenders to take shelter until the attackers were upon them. The German advance was led by battalions of stormtroopers who penetrated deep into Allied defenses all along the front, severing communications, isolating enemy units, and forcing the defenders into a chaotic retreat, leaving gaps that the following waves of German infantry widened even further.

By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced up to 12 miles, another huge advance by the standards of static trench warfare, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. This stunning progress immediately prompted Ludendorff to abandon his overall plan, calling for a second offensive against the British in Belgium and Picardy, and instead focus on the Aisne attack as the main thrust. But Ludendorff was falling into a now well-established pattern, committing precious reserves and artillery to a subsidiary attack without plausible plans for follow-through. Distracted by local success, he frittered away more of his dwindling manpower on an advance which, however impressive, failed to achieve strategic goals and instead simply added to the territory that the Germans had to defend (below, a British soldier takes aim). Lack of artillery also prevented the German from advancing on both flanks of the main attack.

British troops with rifle, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As in the first two offensives, the German advance triggered mass refugee movements by terrified peasants, stirring memories of the long columns of fleeing families in the first years of the wars (below, refugees). Mildred Aldrich, an American author who was living in retirement in a small village near the Marne, confided in a letter home, “I sit trembling for fear of a panic again. I cannot blame these poor people. They are as loyal as possible, but our roads are being crowded with refugees flying from the front. It is a horrid sight.”

Their problems were compounded by widespread looting by supposedly friendly soldiers, according to Avery Royce Wolf, an American ambulance driver in the French Army, who noted:

“Allied troops invariably pillage the homes of the French civilians through which they pass while retreating. I suppose that this action is condoned by the theory that nothing of value should be left behind for the enemy and perhaps that is as it should be … But it certainly is difficult to comprehend the extent of the depredations committed by the Allied troops in the houses of their own compatriots … Hundreds of refugees returned to their firesides to find them lying in an incredible mess, full of needless filth, contents of bureaus and chests dumped recklessly on the floor, dishes, pictures, mirrors, and furniture ruthlessly smashed to bits, mattresses disemboweled, odds and ends of clothing and linen strewn on the floor, heedlessly tramped on by the feet of their own brave defenders.”

Refugees in France, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The following days brought no respite for the Allies, as the Sixth Army fell back in disarray, and the Germans advanced with surprising speed across a series of parallel river valleys including the Marne—the scene of the dramatic Allied victory at the beginning of the war. Now detailed German planning paid off, as dozens of temporary bridges (built and brought forward before the attack in total secrecy) were rushed into the battlefield, enabling the rapid German advance across multiple river obstacles (below, French soldiers pass resting British soldiers).

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As decimated French and British divisions fell back, the new Allied supreme commander, French generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army as well as the neighboring French Tenth Army and Fifth Army, barely holding the line near Reims and Soissons (in fact the latter was briefly evacuated and occupied by German troops for less than a day). Now American troops made their first major contribution to the fight, as the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions hurried forward to help stem the German tide on the Marne River just 20 miles from Paris, aided by the Allied superiority in motor vehicles, in one of the first major uses of motorized infantry. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, accompanied some of the American reinforcements to the battlefront:

“At four o’clock on the morning of May 31st, the Marine brigade and regiments of United States infantry, the 9th and the 23rd Regulars, boarded camions, 20 to 30 men and their equipment in each vehicle. They were bound eastward to the valley of the Marne. The road took them through the string of pretty villages 15 miles to the north of Paris. The trucks loaded with United States troops soon became part of the endless traffic of war that was pouring northward and eastward toward the raging front. Our men soon became coated with the dust of the road. The French people in the villages through which they passed at top speed cheered them and threw flowers into the lorries.”

Gibbons also noted the continuous flow of wounded returning from the battlefield, as well as columns of smoke in the distance, the telltale signs of the German advance (below, wounded French and British soldiers):

“On the broad, paved highway from Paris to Meaux, my car passed miles and miles of loaded motor trucks bound frontward. Long lines of these carried thousands of Americans. Other long lines were loaded down with shell and cartridge boxes. On the right side of the road, bound for Paris and points back of the line, was an endless stream of ambulances and other motor trucks bringing back wounded. Dense clouds of dust hung like a pall over the length of the road. The day was hot, the dust was stifling … To the west and north another nameless cluster of farm dwellings was in flames. Huge clouds of smoke rolled up like a smudge against the background of blue sky.”

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By June 6 the momentum had dissipated, thanks in part to the growing American presence at the front. U.S. Marines were assigned the task of blocking the road to Reims at Belleau Wood, a name that would soon enter the American military pantheon of heroic battles, with particular significance in the mythos of the Marines. The Battle of Belleau Wood, lasting from June 1-26, 1918, was America’s first major engagement in the First World War, as doughboys and “devil dogs” (a popular nickname for the U.S. Marines) stemmed the German tide along the Marne River after the fall of Château-Thierry (below, Belleau Wood after the fighting).

Belleau Wood, 1918
USMC Archives, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Belleau Wood was the first encounter with the awful reality of trench warfare and open warfare for thousands of American soldiers. E.A. Wahl, a Marine private, recalled the progress to the front, followed by the beginning of incredibly fierce fighting at Belleau Wood, in a letter home:

“We sought shelter everywhere, falling flat on our faces as we heard shells come screeching down. That was our only protection. We just had to lie flat wondering if the next was going to get us. One shell landed about 15 feet from me and exploded. I heard a scream at the same time and looked up. It had landed in a hole where two chaps from another company were lying. Several of us rushed over to the spot and pulled them out. They were horribly cut up, but not dead … I can’t begin to describe my state of mind—you will just have to imagine it. We were getting our first real taste of the horrors of war. At dusk we fell into single file and started down a road toward the lines. Dead and wounded were liberally distributed along the road. Shell-shock victims acting like crazy men were being led to the rear by comrades. I will never forget that first trip through the pitch darkness of tangled woods down to our first positions. Bullets whistling around snipping off tree branches, big shells screaming and crashing in all directions, stumbling into shell holes and over fallen trees, taking about three hours to reach our positions—it tested one’s endurance to the limit … The whole 16 days was just a nightmare of this sort of business—attacks and counter-attacks. I cannot describe it.”

Like millions of European soldiers before them, the American soldiers were shocked by their own heavy losses but also horrified by the massive casualties they inflicted on the enemy, forcing them to acknowledge their foes’ bravery. Gibbons described American artillery exacting a bloody toll on the German attackers on June 2, as the French fell back and Americans manned the first line, with artillery directed by French aerial observers, along a 12-mile stretch of front:

“The Germans advanced in two solid columns across a field of golden wheat. More than half of the two columns had left the cover of the trees and were moving in perfect order across the field when the shrapnel fire from the American artillery in the rear got range on the target. Burst after burst of white smoke suddenly appeared in the air over the column, and under each burst the ground was marked with a circle of German dead.”

John Lewis Barkley, an American soldier who was later decorated with the Medal of Honor, recalled American machine guns felling rows of advancing Germans trying to capture bridges over the Marne near Château-Thierry:

“The columns weren’t stopped by the machine gun bullets. But everywhere, as they came on, men were left squirming on the ground. I could see the officers quite clearly. They allowed no break in that steady stream. Every gap was filled up at once. And the column moved on. Moved to certain death at the bridges. They were brave men, those German soldiers. I was learning that early.”

Barkley had his own very personal encounter with inflicting death as a sniper during the Battle of Belleau Wood, when he killed a German officer. “Perhaps he was young, and had a girl at home like mine. Or a mother who wrote him the kind of letters my mother wrote me. I tried to stop thinking about it,” Barkley wrote. “There wasn’t anything to do but to get over it … After a while I got so that it didn’t disturb my mind either.”

Fierce fighting cut a swathe through American ranks, with the Marines suffering especially steep losses. Gibbons, who was wounded shortly afterwards, described the events of June 6, when the U.S. Marines attacked German positions along the eastern edge of Belleau Wood:

“At five o’clock to the dot the Marines moved out from the woods in perfect order, and started across the wheat fields in four long waves. It was a beautiful sight, these men of ours going across the flat fields toward the tree clusters beyond from which the Germans poured a murderous machine gun fire. The woods were impregnated with nests of machine guns, but our advance proved irresistible. Many of our men fell, but those that survived pushed on through the woods, bayoneting right and left and firing as they charged … The fighting was terrific. In one battalion alone the casualties numbered 64 percent officers and 64 percent men … I was with the Marines at the opening of the battle. I never saw men charge to their death with finer spirit.”

On the other side, the first encounter with American fighting spirit was surprising and demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, who had been assured by government propaganda that the Americans were undisciplined rabble, and in any event, would never arrive in sufficient numbers to make a real contribution to Allied combat power. German soldiers also contended with hunger and miserable physical conditions, as the Allied “starvation blockade” strangled the Central Powers. Wartime dislocations disrupted agriculture and made food shortages even worse.

Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat then living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in June 1918:

“My nephew Norbert, who is 19 years of age, has just been staying with us. He is on leave, having been through the whole of the Western offensive. His descriptions of it are terrible. For six days and nights, he says, they lay in the front trenches, with nothing to eat but what they found in the English trenches on the first day … He told me … that the Americans are daily becoming a more serious asset to the enemy, as each day more troops are pouring in, all fresh and well equipped, a contrast to the tired-out troops opposing them.”

Back on the home front, the mounting death toll, combined with diminishing prospects of victory, was pushing German civilians to the breaking point. The demoralization was reinforced by letters from soldiers at the front as well as soldiers home on leave. Blücher recorded the impact of these reports amid the Blücher-Yorck offensive:

“Gebhard’s two nephews have just written home. They say that no words can describe the horrors of what they have been through. They write that they are almost dying of starvation. They say they advanced so rapidly that no provisions could reach them, and their division was five days and nights fighting incessantly without food or even sleep at all, and those of their companies who were not killed or wounded died of exhaustion, and it is only by a miracle that they themselves are left to tell the tale. Their letter ends with the significant words: ‘Send us some food somehow, as quickly as you can, or we shall also die.’ Here in Krieblowitz, the peasants and village people receive the news that sometimes one, sometimes even two, of their sons have been killed on the same day. It has been a wholesale slaughter of late.”

Princess Blücher also transcribed a letter from her maid’s husband, who wrote from the front at Laon, about 20 miles northeast of Soissons. “It is indescribably awful here in Laon. We live in the midst of an incessant hail of bullets. The men on each side of me were both killed yesterday, and I expect my turn to come any day,” she recorded. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, described the gruesome scenes along the road to Chaudun on June 3:

“Seasoned fighting men that we are, we can’t help being shaken at the sight of all these bodies which have been torn to pieces, and then cut up over and over again; friend and foe, white and black, all jumbled together. It is also very hot, and the stink of the corpses is more than one can bear, but we have no time to bury the dead now.”

Above all, the fighting in May-June 1918 led to the widespread realization that the Americans were now present in Europe in large numbers, intended to take part in combat, and were formidable fighters, at least in some cases (below, a map of the American Expeditionary Force’s logistics network in France). In May 1918 alone, 245,945 U.S. soldiers crossed the Atlantic to France, followed by another 278,664 in June, bringing the total number in France to around 1 million by mid-summer. Blücher noted the stark change in attitudes between the winter of 1917 to the summer of 1918:

“The offensive is taking on more and more the character of a race between Hindenburg and America, and people are beginning generally to perceive the terrific consequences of their fatal mistake in allowing America to come in. Every one is force admit that it is America now that is keeping on the war. How foolishly they laughed at the idea two years ago!”

U.S. supply routes, spring 1918, World War I
Erik Sass

Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, also recorded signs of plunging morale in June 1918, including a gloomy conversation with an officer:

“‘How are things at the front?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t think they are going very well,’ I replied. I told him that the English were greatly superior in terms of aircraft and artillery, and certainly also in terms of foodstuffs, and that in my opinion the Americans would tip the balance. ‘Yes,’ said the officer, ‘you have the same opinion as I do.’ This was the first time I had found an officer who was willing to say that Germany would lose the war.”

On the Allied side, America’s fighting debut was met with elation, especially among Americans themselves, as many expressed pride and relief at this vindication of American manhood (not to mention the bravery of thousands of women serving as nurses, ambulance drivers, and canteen workers, often exposed to enemy fire). Marian Baldwin, an American chief nurse volunteering at a British field hospital, noted in her diary on June 7, 1918, “The Sammies are right in the ‘thick of it’ now and doing better, especially the Marines, even than was expected of them. It’s all very wonderful and these days makes one prouder than ever of being an American.”

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

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National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
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WWI Centennial: The Spanish Flu Emerges
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 308th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

May 22, 1918: THE FIRST PHASE OF THE SPANISH FLU EPIDEMIC

Although doctors, epidemiologists, and medical historians still debate where the infamous 1918 flu pandemic originated, the most recent evidence seems to support the theory that it started in the United States—first emerging in rural Haskell County, Kansas before spreading to Camp Funston, now Fort Riley, a U.S. Army training camp in the northeastern part of the state that was home to more than 50,000 enlisted men.

Like other flu epidemics, the 1918 H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, was a zoonosis—a disease that spreads from animals to humans. Researchers studying the natural history of the 1918 flu believe it may have first spread from wildfowl, domestic poultry, or livestock to farmers in Haskell County, many of whom lived in sod houses in proximity to their animals. After a local epidemic there in January and February 1918, the flu appears to have traveled with conscripted men to Camp Funston, about 300 miles to the east.

On March 4, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at one of the Camp Funston kitchens, reported sick with a high fever, becoming the first documented case of this flu. The virus spread quickly over the next few weeks, surely facilitated by conditions including cold, drafty barracks, communal showers, latrines and canteens, and physically taxing training regimens. Additionally, in an age before widespread car and air travel, many new recruits had never traveled far from their homes in Kansas or elsewhere in the rural Midwest, meaning their immune systems were vulnerable to new diseases.

By the end of the month, the hospital at Camp Funston was overwhelmed with more than 1100 cases of the flu (below, the emergency ward at the camp). But the virus mutated over time and became stronger. Thus, this first phase of the pandemic, which spread around the world in spring and summer of 1918, was much milder than the second phase, which began in the fall of that year and killed far more people.

U.S. Army recruits at Camp Funston, 1918
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Wartime conditions provided ideal vectors for contagion, as hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved between army bases and then to port cities on America’s eastern and gulf coasts, where they awaited transport to Europe. In mid-March outbreaks were under way in Camp Forrest and Camp Greenleaf, both in Georgia; a month later the epidemic had spread to two dozen army bases and training camps, and also surfaced in the civilian populations of 30 of the country’s biggest cities.

U.S. Army training camps, 1918
Erik Sass

The virus made its first appearance on European soil in April 1918 at Brest and Bordeaux, two of the main ports of disembarkation for American troops arriving in France. Once again conditions on the continent helped speed the spread of the virus, including shortages of food and fuel, which left millions of soldiers and civilians cold and malnourished. Men in the trenches were jammed together in squalid conditions, and soldiers on leave as well as those working in supply and transport units could spread the disease to civilians or carry it with them back to the trenches. Meanwhile, many doctors had been conscripted into military service, leaving civilians with few options for medical care.

Also commonly known as the three-day fever or the grippe, the virus got the misleading nickname Spanish flu because it was first reported in the Spanish press on May 22, 1918 (as a neutral country, Spain hadn’t imposed wartime censorship like the combatant nations). Madrid’s ABC newspaper announced the arrival of the epidemic in Spain, probably carried by migrant laborers returning from France, with a headline noting the virulence but otherwise not expressing much alarm. Shortly afterwards King Alfonso XIII briefly fell ill, and the Spanish newswire service Agencia Fabra reported to its partner Reuters, “A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported.”

The mild form of the flu would continue spreading around the world through the later summer of 1918, when the far deadlier second phase took over beginning in September. It swept over both sides of the war with hardly a delay, skipping over No Man’s Land with captured prisoners as well as through people traveling to neutral countries. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, recalled that in July 1918 the relatively mild version of the flu was largely dismissed by German military authorities, who had much bigger problems on their hands:

"Some soldiers had started to feel unwell for several days without anyone knowing what was wrong with them. Then we read in the newspapers about a new illness called the Spanish flu, because it had started in Spain. Now we knew. More and more soldiers were infected and shuffled around looking half-dead. Although they reported sick, hardly any of them went to hospital, as it had been declared that no more people should be classified as having minor illnesses or being lightly wounded—there were only the seriously wounded and the dead."

Later Richert fell ill himself, and experienced firsthand the brusque and unsympathetic medical treatment that tended to prevail on both sides during the war:

"I went to report sick immediately as the flu had now got worse and I had become quite hoarse. There were about a hundred men standing outside the house where the doctor examined people. NCOs were examined first. You could hardly call it an examination. You were asked what was wrong. When I had answered, the medical NCO gave me a peppermint tablet about the size of a penny and the doctor said: ‘Make some tea for yourself. Next please!’"

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

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