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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. 

Click to enlarge

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.

Click to enlarge

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. 

Click to enlarge

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

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

July 31-August 2, 1917: Nightmare – Passchendaele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MONSTROUS AND OVERWHELMING TUMULT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRST PHASE: PILCKEM

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

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

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

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

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

"CONDITIONS ARE AS BAD AS I HAVE EVER KNOWN"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Telegraph From the 'Lusitania' Has Been Recovered From the Ocean Floor

On May 7, 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was attacked by a German submarine on its way to Liverpool, UK from New York. The ship’s sinking and the 1198 deaths that resulted from it marked a pivotal moment in World War I. More than 100 years later, divers are still recovering artifacts from the wreckage.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the latest piece of the vessel to be brought to the surface is the telegraph used to send orders to the engine room. The first attempt to raise the object took place in July 2016 without an archaeologist present. Following a technical issue, the mission failed, and the telegraph sank back to the seabed off Ireland’s southern coast. This time around, an archaeologist from Ireland’s National Monuments Service supervised as divers recovered the item.

Telegraph recovered from Lusitania wreck.
Irish Ministry of Culture and Heritage

This is the second Lusitania telegraph to be brought ashore within the past year (the first was retrieved in October 2016). According to Ireland's Minister for Culture and Heritage Heather Humphreys, the artifact has fared well after a century on the seabed. "I am happy to confirm that this important piece of the Lusitania has now been recovered from the wreck off the west Cork coast. I understand that the telegraph is undamaged and in excellent condition," she said in a statement.

Telegraph recovered from Lusitania wreck.
Irish Ministry of Culture and Heritage

The wreck of the Lusitania was discovered in 1935, but recent salvaging efforts have been complicated by conflicts between American venture capitalist Gregg Bemis, who bought the wreck in 1982, and the Irish government. Bemis suspects the ship was delivering secret explosives from the U.S. to Britain when it was struck by a German torpedo and that's what led to its fiery demise. But to further investigate the theory he would need permission from the Irish government to cut open the ship's remains—something it has refused to grant thus far.

The newly recovered telegraph doesn't help solve the mystery, but it is an exciting find for archaeology buffs. Bemis plans to donate the telegraph along with other Lusitania artifacts to a local Irish museum.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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