It’s a fine thing that all veterans are remembered and honored for their service today, but I find myself focusing on World War I—a war most people know very little about. The place names where horrific battles took place—Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele, the Somme, Loos—resonate far less now than they once did. It’s impossible to encapsulate all that the First World War was and what it meant in one little blog post, but here are some facts, some quotes from the book Back To The Front by Stephen O’Shea, and some art of World War I.
“In Northern France, from October 25, 1914, to March 10, 1915, there were only eighteen days without rain. The misery of millions of men, standing in cold and muddy ditches on end, can only be imagined.” (page 62)
“In the summer and fall of 1914, France lost as many men on the battlefield as the American army would in all of the twentieth century.” (page 27)
“The [Ypres] Salient’s defining moment was the week of July 25 to July 31, 1917, when the British army fired off 4,283, 550 shells (or 107,000 tons of metal) along a front twelve miles wide, then had its infantry try to wade through—in the rain—the ensuing soupy morass in the face of sustained machine-gun fire.” (page 20-21)
The battlefield of Verdun had the highest density of dead per square yard. This ten month conflict had over a million casualties.
The Battle of the Somme: “It was the biggest fiasco in British military history….No fighting force on the Western Front would ever lose so many so quickly, and for so little….By noon, all along the narrow swathe of no-man’s-land from Gommecourt to Hébuterne to the River Somme, 60,000 young men lay wounded, dying or dead, a carpet of bloodied khaki that writhed and moaned in the sullen sunlight. Optimism began to drain from a culture that had conquered a world.” (page 87)
Messines Ridge: “…the operation was a British success, for the simple reason that the attackers blew the German lines to smithereens. The surprise lay in nineteen gigantic underground bombs.” “The blast was clearly heard in London… as the shock wave from Belgium buffeted the southern counties of Britain.” (page 49)
By the end of the war, 11% of France’s total population had died or been wounded. 230 soldiers died for every hour of the 4¼ years that the war was fought. One half of the 70,000,000 men and women in uniform were either killed, wounded, or prisoners of war. One half of those who died have no known grave.
One of the lasting legacies of World War I is known at the Iron Harvest. Tons of bombs and shells were dropped along the front, and it is estimated that at least one in four failed to explode. Many of these sank into the mud and are still being brought up when farmers plough their fields. After all this time, the French government still collects about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year.
“Never such innocence again.” – Philip Larkin, MCMXIV