Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In Flanders Fields
Our book today is Leon Wolff's 1959 classic of military history, In Flanders Fields, which concentrates on the 1917 debacle known as Passchendaele, in which 140,000 men lost their lives for no reason whatsoever other than the feeding of war itself. Wolff's subject is really two subjects, as anybody familiar with World War I will recall: the first part in the spring, the second in the summer and fall - the whole of which comprises the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, in which a little over four miles of ground was gained by the Allies from the Imperial German army, only to be surrendered again in four month's time. A great military historian has referred to the First World War as one of the enduring "myths" of the 20th century, and in the sense that this is true, it's true largely because of such unbelievable epics of waste and frustration as Passchendaele.
Wolff is its great Bulfinch, and his book is a gruesomely readable masterpiece. All the usual characters of the drama - Haig, Foch, and the rest - are brought to gritty, immediate life by Wolff's narrative skill, but he really excels in painting on a larger canvas, as in this passage where he shows his readers the sickly after-phase of a major 'push':
As the fighting simmered down, the waste products of the battle, like the precipitate in a cloudy glass, moved rearward - the walking wounded and the stretcher-borne wounded ('very cheery indeed,' according to Haig's diary), soaked, bloody, haggard with pain; the shrouded dead; the vague and stumbling shell-shocked. One artillery lieutenant had been struck in the throat by a bit of shrapnel. As the blood gushed, he walked 100 yards to a dressing station near Zillebeke, gasped to a doctor, 'My God, I'm going to die!' and immediately did so. The stretcher-bearers worked all day and night, helped by German prisoners, who had also begun to filter back early in the day - surprisingly young boys and older, grimmer veterans - all with sunken eyes, sodden clothing, boots full of water that squished at every step.
Passchendaele was of course a colossal failure in its ostensible aim to punch a corridor through the German defenses in Flanders, and although Wolff devotes great care and attention to every aspect of his subject, his angry-yet-dispassionate post mortem in the chapter "War and Peace" is his sharpest sustained writing. Wolff himself was an American (and a veteran of the next world war), but the icily suppressed indignation in his summary would have heads nodding in London in 1919:
There has never been any argument about the worthlessness of the few miles of muddy ground captured. Nine thousand yards was the largest gain. The average was about four miles of terrain which was to have been occupied three or four days after the main attack started on 31 July. The Channel ports were out of sight and out of mind. Less than half the Ridge was in British hands - not even enough to make Passchendaele's heights defensible, and this by Haig's own admission. The northern end of the Messines-Passchendaele ridge, eastern wall of the Ypres bastion, was still in German hands. The line of the Yser, flooded from Ypres to Nieuport, had been captured, but by the enemy and if there had ever been any possibility of a turning movement, it had ended long ago.
Excluding the dubious achievement at Passchendaele, we find no gains of value on the flanks. To the south there had been small and meaningless advances around Gheluvelt. On the north, most divisions wound up crouching and drenched in or near the icy mud of Houthulst Forest, shelled night and day throughout 600 acres of broken tree stumps, wreckage and swamps - 'the acme of hideousness, a Calvary of misery.'
Of course, the added futility of disasters like Passchendaele arose from the fact that its principal lessons had been learned a full half-century earlier in the American Civil War, in which both sides were forced to realize one essential military truth: fixed and fortified artillery positions cannot be taken by ground assaults, no matter how large or determined those assaults are. As long as bullets outnumber bodies, trenches and barbed wire will win (at least until decisive air power is called in). Gettysburg should have been the final graveyard of battles like Third Ypres, but then, military lessons have a way of getting forgotten. How many invading armies throughout history, for instance, have assumed they'd be greeted as liberators by their victims, and yet how seldom has it actually happened that way?
But great military history always carries this dichotomy. On the one hand, it's often the most thrilling, best-written school of history available (readers seeking really good prose will have at least one shelf full of exemplary titles, starting with Arrian). But on the other hand, its subject is universally deplorable, the blowing up of peoples' houses, the flattening of fields, the slaughter of young men before they even have a chance to give themselves lung cancer. Reading about events like the 1917 Flanders campaign is indeed frustrating - but if you're going to do it (and you should), you can't do much better for an extended treatment than In Flanders Fields.