After reading Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom, I immediately picked up A Storm in Flanders also by Groom in which he recounts the terrible fighting around the Belgian village of Ypres between 1914 and 1918. I believe the fighting and the book is summed up quite early in the book where Groom writes: “Between 1914 and 1918, the area around Ypres became a corpse factory” (quote from memory).
If one believes that the Civil War brought war, bloodshed, death and destruction to a whole new level for humanity, than World War I in the trenches of France and Belgium brought it to a whole new unimaginable level. I do not hesitate to say that the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches in World War I had to be the worst experience of warfare in the history of the world, bar none.
So bad were the trenches and so psychological destructive to the troops, that the English quickly discovered they could only spend 48 hours in the front lines before being withdrawn, to spend another 48 hours in the reserve trenches, and then several days in the rear, before being sent back to the front again. Not only were the constant shelling and rain and mud factors, but it was at Ypres that the Germans first launched chlorine gas against the British (to brutal effect), then later, phosgene gas, and even later, mustard gas. It was at Ypres that the Germans introduced the flame thrower to modern warfare, and of course the worst of all, constant artillery barrages that literally drove men mad. Groom recounts a case of battlefield stress who was in an asylum 50 years later. The man had a perfect memory up until 1917 at Ypres, and could remember nothing after that, his mind permanently scarred by the war in the trenches.
What were the casualties like at Ypres? Mind-blowingly terrible, unimaginable even today. The regular, experienced British Army which was thrown into the war at the very start, which consisted of 250,000 men was essentially annihilated in the first few months of fighting, to be replaced by more Brits who were also annihilated. The Germans experienced much the same.
Rough estimates of casualties for the First Battle of Ypres are 130,000 killed, wounded, or missing for the British and French, and 134,000 for the Germans. This was roughly a month of serious fighting. A month! Casualties for the second great battle at Ypres in 1915 were approximately 69,000 for the British and French and 34,000 for the Germans (this is where Germany introduced poison gas in war).
The third great battle at Ypres has been named Passchendaele; it brought the killing to a whole new level. British casualties were 245,000 and German were 214,000. Stunning. A corpse factory indeed.
This doesn’t even include the “normal” casualties in the trenches every day when there wasn’t some great attack going on, which were 1,000 on the British side and a like number on the German side.
It’s hard to know what to think about this. One wonders in retrospect how General Haig managed to keep either the army, or the civilians in Britain from simply mutinying and demanding an end to the carnage no matter what the cost. The answer seems to be, as Groom points out, that both sides were marked by a certain stubbornness that precluded any backing down, or any willingness to consider other strategy, even though Lloyd-George, prime minister of England tried again and again to get the Army commanders to consider such a thing. He was caught up in the forces of war and never demanded a change of strategy, and so Ypres was a corpse factory.
They say that the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. By that definition the whole front from Belgium to France was a place of ultimate insanity between 1914 and 1918. Simply unimaginable.