HIST 276: France Since 1871
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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 14 - Trench Warfare
Chapter 1. The Schlieffen Plan: German Hopes for an Early Victory [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: Okay, I want to talk about the war up through 1916 today, and then followed by 1917 and 1918 on Wednesday. On the last day of his life Jean Jaurès was troubled about what he was going to write inL’Humanité, the paper of the Socialist Party, about whether workers of France should go to war against workers of Germany, and his decision, which for that matter had been taken earlier anyway, not just that evening, reflects what is called the sacred union, union sacrée, that the political parties put aside their differences in the war effort, in the mobilization of the total war that World War One would become.
And, so, he did, he wrote an article with a headline called “En Avant,” “forward,” or “let’s go,” and he went out to eat in a café called Le Croissant, which is still there, it’s not called Le Croissant anymore, and he was having a meal and about to go back to his newspaper offices right near there — it’s near the Boulevard Montmartre, where a lot of the newspaper offices still are — and a right-wing nut put a pistol through from outside, through the curtain into the restaurant, and blew him away. There was this tremendous sort of turmoil in the street, and people who remembered it, including the writer Roger Martin du Gard, remembered this sort of swell of chaos but also of apprehension. In a sense it’s easy to read this backwards, nostalgia, but the sense that things would never be the same again, and Jaurès, Jaurès, Jaurès forever. And Jaurès died and the world went to war.
And the way the war started, it started as if the — in the way that the military planners had wanted it to start. I left you last time with the Schlieffen Plan; and Schlieffen literally on his deathbed said that the last German soldier, his sleeve should touch the Manche, the English Channel, and that in order to put France into a headlock, put Paris into a headlock like that, you should sweep this way, through Belgium — they’d eliminated the Netherlands as part of that invasion route, that would come in World War II, but they didn’t need the Netherlands in this case — that they would march into neutral Belgium, neutral since 1831, knowing that this would bring the British into the war because the British could never have Belgium occupied by a potentially very hostile power.
And, so, Germany is under pressure to win the war quickly. They, as I said at the end of the last time, last lecture, they anticipated about two weeks it’s going to take the big Russian bear to bring all of these forces, in many cases using that single track railroad that went all the way to Vladivostok, to prepare to invade Germany, or to defend against German incursions into Russia. And, so, it was if — someone once said, and I don’t remember who — as if Schlieffen’s dead hand automatically pulled the trigger when the Belgian government on the 2nd of August rejected German demands that its armies could march through Belgium. And the Belgium Army fought bravely, indeed very heroically, against overpowering military strength.
The big fortress of Liège — when I get so close here I can’t see — but Liège there falls, and falls to the young — not so young, but — commander, Ludendorff, after a huge bombardment on the 16th, followed by the fall of Namur. And once the Germans get through the hills of eastern Belgium then they move fairly quickly. But the German commander, Von Moltke, m-o-l-t-k-e, the younger Moltke, uses some divisions to try to pin down the Belgians, and he also is having doubts with a view toward the home front of wanting — of fearing how far the French in their inevitable penetration into Alsace-Lorraine would go. And, so, indeed France advances in Alsace, although they had been anticipated by Schlieffen as inevitable and not crucial to the winning of the war in a very timely fashion, now lead von Moltke to transfer troops, fearing that the home front might despair of French advances there.
And, so, what this means is that the Germans have basically fewer troops than had been anticipated in the original plan by von Schlieffen. And sure enough the British Expeditionary Force, which was not a large army, finally arrives on the 20th of August, Mons, in Belgium. But everybody is fairly sure that the war is going to be over fairly soon. But one of the things that happens immediately — one of the things that happens almost immediately is that the Germans are marching so quickly and so rapidly that they become fatigued by the pace of their march, and also problems with communications. And, indeed, the army — the army is commanded by a forgettable guy called Kluck — is spread too thinly across a wide front, and that thinness made more serious by the departure of troops to fight in Alsace, and also by troops still left in chasing down and rounding up the Belgian forces in Belgium. But he sends four divisions to Russia, also, because the Russians have advanced far more rapidly than he thought was ever possible.
Chapter 2. The Early War of Movement: The Battle of the Marne and the Salvation of France [00:07:16]
And, so, one of the things that the German High Command does is instead of going all the way this way, they turn down south and then southeast, quicker than had been originally planned. And despite huge losses, on both sides, the German side and the French side, and with the British also getting into the action, the German forces are within thirty-five miles of Paris, thirty-five miles, within Paris, so that you could hear the cannon in Paris, from the fighting just east and north of the capital. Now, if one wants an explanation for how the French home front was able to hold spectacularly, through the entire war, that is, one of two key factors, and it’s the most important, is that the Germans are so close to Paris that they can bombard Paris on Easter Sunday 1918 — more about that later — with this huge gun, Big Bertha as it was called by the English, firing way down from up here in the north, lobbying these huge shells all the way. So, the pressure is there and the response is heroic.
The second factor, which is often forgotten, is that the Sacred Union, this Union Sacrée, is extremely effective in mobilizing through propaganda but also through extremely intelligent action, bringing help, for example, to people trying to bring the harvest in, using troops, and when they have them fairly soon, capture German soldiers to help bring the harvest in, and they also begin to give allocations familiales, or sort of family allocations, family resources I guess is a way of putting that, to families who the departure of sons, brothers, and fathers was catastrophic; but, of course, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
But they’re very shrewd in this, and the home front, unlike Berlin — and that’s another story — but the home front in France holds throughout the entire war. There are some exceptions in that, and I’m going to talk about that next week, and it’s fairly — I mean on Wednesday — it’s fairly interesting. And, so, as the Germans are trying to drive to Paris in what became known as the Battle of the Marne, at the dawn of air warfare, planes — their first use was reconnaissance, they’re not used for — really as weapons, in the very beginning. There are attempts to drop small bombs and things like that, and the French do this fairly early on in Germany, in German cities, and the Germans do this as well. But there’s a guy flying around up there who, a reconnaissance pilot, who notices that Kluck’s army is changing directions, leaving its flank open as it moves to a point southeast of Paris.
And, so, at that point the French rush every conceivable soldier into the Battle of the Marne, which takes place basically between Lagny, which is a town you can’t see here, and Champagne, basically in Châlons-en-Champagne, the Battle of the Marne. And everybody knows this as a famous story, and there’s of course a metro stop named after him, inevitably, but the commander of the military defense of the Paris Region is a guy called Gallieni, g-a-l-l-i-e-n-i, and he conscripts the taxis of Paris. And, so, the Parisian taxis literally carry soldiers out to fight in the Battle of the Marne, which can be clearly heard, to repeat myself, in Paris; that there was a sense of impending doom, obviously. But the miracle occurs and the British pour through another gap in the German armies further up, along the Aisne River, a-i-s-n-e, and force them to retreat forty miles back. And that’s the largest exchange of real estate that would occur until 1918, because of what happens next.
And on September 14th along the Aisne River the Germans begin to fortify their position by digging trenches, and rather like the Battle of Valmy in the French Revolution, in 1792, the sans-culottes, that is the ordinary people who defended the revolution, the Battle of the Marne saves Paris and without any question saves France. So, then what you’ve got is — and you have to — again I always give ridiculous sports analogies since most of what I did over the weekend was watch football — it works anyway in this case. And what you have to do is imagine somebody trying to get outside in a football game, Mike Hart or somebody trying to get outside, and as the guards pull and as you move toward the outside, the defense, and above all the linebackers, and everybody kind of moves along. And what you have basically is you have a race to the sea.
They’re trying to outflank each other, where the Germans are going back to the strategy penned by Schlieffen in 1905, they’re trying to get around to go around, and then put this headlock. And of course what the French and the British are doing is they’re racing along also to try to hold their ports, the French ports, and also to keep them from being outflanked. And, so, then you have the famous Western Front — and that’s — we’re not talking about the Eastern Front. There’s a lot of good work done recently on the Eastern Front, but you have this Western Front that’s generated so much magnificent literature, some of which you’re reading in Barbusse, as well as the inevitable All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and Siegfried Sassoon, and the British war poets.
Chapter 3. From Movement to Attrition: The Development of Trench Warfare [00:13:47]
Now, there were a few journalists — I can’t remember if I mentioned this or not — who had followed the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and 1905, and they had noticed that in some of these very prolonged battles that trenches had been dug, and in the mud and just horribly bad weather, that two forces stared across no-man’s land against each other. And that’s exactly what happens in World War I; and that is, to make a very long story, complicated story, and sometimes overly-simplified story very short, that’s exactly what happens on the Western Front is that the spade and the shovel, along with the machinegun, which is a defensive weapon, along with ultimately gas and flamethrowers — there were new ways of dying too — become the weapons of the war, along with artillery, and artillery kills more people than any other weapon, followed by machineguns.
And, so, basically, as you can see from this map, that the trenches go all the way from Switzerland, literally, to the English Channel, and that is where la jeunesse of France and these other countries, where the youth, the young men, and some older men, too, of these countries, died. That was the end, where their short lives ended, in the vast majority of the cases. And attempts in the Fall of 1914 to break through simply don’t work, and it’s not too hard to figure out why they don’t work, you don’t have to be a specialist in military warfare to know that if you’re going to break through like this, and you’re going to — either side, you pick your side and you’re going to get across. The question is how are you going to do that? Because by — very quickly the Germans have lines behind.
Here’s from the point of view of the French, they’re building railroads, they can supply. And if you’re going to go across and break through these are sort of rubber band defenses, and in order to break through with the strategy that they adopt really throughout the war is what are called creeping barrages, is that with all of these tens of thousands of cannons you have to soften up your opposition by killing as many as people as possible. So, you’re shelling, you’re anticipating where you’re going to go, and this of course tips off your opponent and says, “ah-ha, that’s where they’re going to go this time; last time they went down there and this time they’re coming here.”
And, so, all this does — anybody can see this, and you’ll see it in awhile, got live here, or not so live, but we’ll see it on your screen — is that these creeping barrages, besides killing lots of — the Americans invented the term “friendly fire” — besides killing their own people, but what they do is they create these enormous craters, craters of death that are filled with just awful pestilent waters and make it impossible to really get to the other side. Because once you — once somebody goes up and blows the whistle, and says, “follow me,” and you jump out of the trenches, you’ve got to carry sixty pounds, sixty pounds worth of equipment — now that’s a lot of equipment — down into these things, come through these craters, and then what you do is you find these machine guns, layers of them, aimed right low, and they just take you out, one right after another.
I’ve been to the Imperial War Museum in London various times, and I just went about six weeks ago for the hell of it. They’ve made it — they’ve really — it’s not as good as it used to be. But there used to be this one clip where you could see these guys, these three guys, and one of them is an officer. The officer has his whistle and he blows the whistle, that is, en avant, here we go, let’s go, allez les gars, let’s go guys. And you see him, he gets one foot over there and he’s shot dead; so you see his body slumped down. You see the second guy, you can imagine the terror in his eyes; you can’t see him, his eyes, you don’t see him very long because then he’s killed to. And then you see the third guy get over; and you don’t know what happens to him, his odds weren’t very good. But this is a story of the war.
Now, there’s a vigorous historical debate always on did they know what they were doing? The image that you will see of course in the movie, The Paths of Glory, is that there they are drinking champagne in somebody’s confiscated chateau and sending runners, who were the people who carried messages to the trenches, and organizing these attacks. And thus the most famous — just killing fields, basically, of the war, and there’s some really famous ones like Paschendaele, which is in Belgium, and when you go through this idyllic sort of part of Belgium near Ypres you can’t imagine tens of thousands of people dying there, poisoned. That’s where the Germans first used poison gas. Or the Somme is the obvious example that everybody uses and I will use again in awhile. Or the Battle of Verdun where you’re fighting a hand-to-hand, hand-to-hand combat in the forts of Verdun that — and it goes, simply goes on, and on, and on.
And there’s now the revisionist interpretations of the Battle of Paschendaele — don’t write down Paschendaele, it’s impossible to spell anyway — that, say, well if they’d redefined the idea of the creeping barrage, and if they’d managed to just take one hundred yards, and hold that, and then the next one hundred yards, et cetera, et cetera. But increasingly — it was just clear, it was obvious to the soldiers and it was clear to most anybody that there wasn’t going to be a breakthrough, but the High Command, the German High Command, and the French High Command, and the British High Command keep insisting that the next one will be the time we will truly break through. But there isn’t any breakthrough until the Germans break through in the spring of 1918 and the bodies get higher and higher.
Now, on the Eastern Front, what you had, some trench situations but basically it’s a more wide-open kind of fighting. There were so many people killed that one of the Russian generals despaired, he said, “we don’t have any idea how many people were killed because the bodies just stack up so high we can’t see anything and it’s impossible to guess.” On the Italian front, on the Italian-Austrian front, Austro-Hungarian front, there are ten different battles named after the same river, the same small river. And, so, real estate is exchanged in terms of yards, not in terms of — it’s won or lost at the expense of all these lives in a matter of not kilometers but yards; and kilometers, gains of a couple of kilometers are celebrated by the hysterical press on both sides.
And these are very old stories, but it’s still true that things appeared, for example — and the French press had their counterparts elsewhere — that French bodies that are decomposing don’t smell the way that German bodies that are decomposing, that was one story. Or that the German shells are so badly made — the expression was Gerry-made, that is an expression that came out of World War II also, made by the Germans, because Gerries was a derogative term for Germans — that they’re just kind of like playthings, they just kind of blow up and go poof and that’s the end of it, that they don’t really kill. And reports put in the civilian press about the hardy, vigorous life of these soldiers, because they’re in such good shape, because they’re eating well — which was obviously not the case, they’re eating frozen potatoes, and when Pétain increases the rum ration so they could go over the top a little tipsy to get killed in Verdun in 1916.
Chapter 4. The Identity of the Citizen-Soldier: Society During and After the War [00:22:00]
So, there was this enormous — and this is one of the scenes in the literature of the war — there’s this huge discontinuity between the civilian life and the soldiers. And the soldiers can’t talk about it when they come back, and they say things like, “what do they imagine? That we jump up every morning and say, ‘long live France,’ ‘long live Germany,’ ‘long live Italy’?” — depending on your case — and jump over the top heroically in order to get to, you name the city, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Saint Quentin, wherever you want to talk about it. And, so, there’s discontinuity, the soldiers when they go on leave, when the soldiers go back to the whorehouses of Montmartre, or the bars of Montparnasse, or anywhere else, or back to Lyon, or Rennes, or anywhere you want, it’s impossible for them to even discuss what has happened.
And, indeed, one of the interesting things about this whole thing is lots of the really great literature after the war, about the war, does not come in the first two years. Barbusse does, that’s a fact, I think he starts in the war, but All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t really written until late in the 1920s, and then of course the Nazis try to keep it from being shown, because it’s obviously an anti-war film, in German theaters. So, in terms of — in 1914 you could — these statistics, you could just give all these statistics and you can read charts in any book, including mine, and it’s just — these are real people, which is very hard — it’s an obvious thing to say but it’s hard, the figures are so numbing. By the end of 1914, so you’re talking about half a year, the British, the German and French forces had combined casualties of 300,000 killed — that’s three times the number of people filling up the L.A. Coliseum, or the Rose Bowl, or Michigan Stadium; that’s a lot of people — 600,000 wounded.
And these are in many cases just devastating wounds, and so it’s not so hard to imagine why the Paris metro, and the subway in the 1920s was full of people begging with one arm, or one leg, or no legs, or coughing out their lungs because of gas attacked. The British 7th Division arrived in France in October 1914 with four hundred officers and 12,000 soldiers, after fighting around Ypres, which Ypres is right over the Belgium border, up by the English — not far away from the English Channel; a beautiful old textile town that was destroyed for obvious reasons during the war. They had four hundred officers and 12,000 soldiers, four hundred officers, 12,000 soldiers. At the end, after eighteen days, they had forty-four officers and 2,336 soldiers left. Figure out your odds, if you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, male, in 1914.
And there’s a recent movie which I can’t remember the name of, my wife has seen it, but it’s about in 1914 there was an attempt on Christmas Day for people to say “ça suffit largement”; this is just enough of this crap, let’s sing to each other. And the Welsh were singing their ballads, and the Germans were singing doleful Lutheran hymns, and the Catholic French were singing this and that. And then somebody said, “well, let’s play some football.” So, they got soccer players and they’re out playing and kicking the ball around. Then they went back to try to kill each other again. In 1915 a British soldier suggested, said, “hey, let’s do that again,” because he was lucky enough to be around when they were doing it in 1914; they put him up against the wall and shot him, for treason. And one of the things that happens during this, and because these people were — everybody knows all these stories.
You hear people dying, you hear them slowly expire, between — in the craters, between the trenches, and so there are all these rumors that there are all these people that had managed to survive with light wounds, and that there was this huge underground cavern where Germans, and French, and British were all hanging out, and they were going out and getting wine and champagne where they could find it, and they were coming and taking food rations, and they were the smart ones because they were down there. And it was the kind of rumor that just went on and on. But the proximity of death and the proximity of the war was always there. Again, another famous example — if you were an officer in the British Army you could have lunch in the Officer’s Club at Victoria Station, where many of you have been, and you could take the train to the front and you could be dead by — in the same front, you could be dead, fini, crevé, by the end of the day.
When Welsh miners tunneled under this big promontory in Belgium, the explosion could be heard across the English Channel in Kent. The war was so close. That’s what made it terrifying. But that’s what makes — also because the people lost people, lost family, everybody lost family — that war was the dominant experience of the twentieth century, at least the first half of the twentieth century. And again, you can look at the whole period, 1914 to 1945 as this long, horrible, thirty years war, because the soldiers just simply kept marching. But they weren’t doing much marching in the trenches because there wasn’t anywhere to go. Your marching was running out and hoping that you were somehow going to make it back, after yet another “let’s go over the top.”
And to repeat, machineguns had first been used — if I remember right they were called Gatling guns in the American Civil War; I think they were used at Gettysburg, if I’m correct. They were slowly perfected, at least to the level of World War One. And they, after shelling, after these big shells launching tens of thousands of shells — when they’re softening up the opponent as to where they’re going to go; these things go on for days. And that’s where — the whole syndrome of shellshock is a term that comes out of World War One, too, because a lot of people — there are all sorts of estimates about how many people really lost their mental capacity because of all of this. But not only new ways of dying, but new ways of just having your head exploding time, and time, and time again; living among dead bodies; comrades who have disappeared; rats, huge rats, huge aggressive rats; mice; lice and everything else.
And then there were flamethrowers, and there are tanks — more about tanks — tanks aren’t any good at all, basically, till 1917, because if you have a tank, no matter — no tank can go over these craters, they just get stuck in their whatever, not their wheels (I don’t know, you call them their treads), just sort of spin around and there they are. And so there was new misery. You could send packages, little care packages, to the soldiers with a little cheese from the Ardèche, or a little cheese from Savoie or maybe a bottle of wine from Burgundy or something like that, and hoped it didn’t get pilfered. One soldier wrote back, “before you can have a drink you have to chip away the ice. The meat is frozen and solid, the potatoes are bonded by ice, and even hand grenades are welded together in their cases.” That’s another weapon too that comes up in World War One. A French soldier remembered, “we all had on us the stench of dead bodies. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank, everything we touched had a rotten smell. Death simply numbed.”
An Austrian soldier — here’s some examples I took from the other front, too, but why not? A violinist wrote, “a certain fierceness arises in you, an absolute indifference to anything the world holds except your duty of fighting. You’re eating a crust of bread and a man is shot dead in the trench next to you. You look at him calmly for a moment and then you go on eating your bread. Why not? There’s nothing to be done, il n’y a rien à faire. In the end you talk of your own death with as little excitement as you would at a luncheon engagement.” A British — one of the war poets wrote — I can’t remember which one, but the line sticks with you — he wrote, “I didn’t want to die, at least anyway until I’d finished reading The Return of the Native.” And then he went on, and the dead filled up these craters.
Airplanes, just as an insertion, as I said, were first used for reconnaissance. Pilots carry pistols and fire at their opponents; and again there was this sort of esprit de corps that these were — so the brave fighting guys up there are providing amusements for the people in the trenches below, and when one of the aces would get shot down the other planes would fly over and drop flowers, and Baron von Richthofen and all these big ace guys, most of whom were killed in the end, they get the good idea of instead of putting a machinegun on a plane that fires, and then they found that the machinegun bullets are sent back killing the pilot by the propeller — someone says, “ah-ha, let’s time it to the propeller”; so they create ways, they create bigger bombs that you can drop and all of that. But air force planes are basically used for reconnaissance planes, and the war simply goes on and on.
One of the reasons why it goes on and on, by the way, is that atrocity stories on — that’s not one of the reasons it goes on and on, but it’s one of the things that sort of would — if you’re going over the top again would give you some reason to want to go over the top, besides simply trying to survive and not wanting to be shot as a deserter, is the atrocity stories. Of course for the Germans who had — in the Franco-Prussian War there were some cases, not very many, of them being gunned down by civilians who were called franc tireurs, just civilian sort of sharpshooters, and the Germans go into the war with a sense that they better watch it because the Belgians are going to shoot you down from buildings and so will the French. Most of the atrocities on the western front were committed by the Germans, not by the French.
There were five hundred Belgian civilians executed, most famously the nurse, Edith Cavell, who is executed with a couple of other people accused of treasons. There were cases of rape perpetuated by German troops, but rape had not yet become a weapon of war; that would wait until later in that very sad century. But these stories passed very quickly and were seized upon by propagandists on both sides, and that sort of keeps folks going. Okay, now what about Verdun? [Technical adjustments] Anyway, this is from Verdun. Now, Verdun, why do the Germans go after Verdun in 1916? They know they’re not going to break through, but again it has ultimately to do with that French birthrate, is that they know, because they have more children, they can afford to lose more German soldiers; that is, if you were German, you guys, then the French, that is you guys, or the British, you guys, if you were French or you were British. And by the way to say “guys,” it’s not at all to denigrate the role of women in the war, more about that next lecture, to a great extent, because that’s extremely important, because somebody had to step up in the factories and all of that.
Chapter 5. Conditions on the Front: The Nature of Machine Warfare [00:34:30]
But General Falkenhein, the commander, simply says, “we will bleed them so that they will be forced to negotiate and to sue for peace. They cannot afford to lose all of the hundred thousands of people that we can afford to lose.” So, the Battle of Verdun, the town of Verdun, in the Meuse, northeast, you know from maps, itself was virtually destroyed by shelling. And the forts of Verdun are off to the north and to the east, and there are two of them — the names don’t matter but they’re interesting, and someday you should go there; Vaux, v-a-u-x is one; and the other is called Douaumont, which may be the only French commune that no longer exists. Douaumont should be- d-u — I can’t remember, d-o-u-a-m-e-n-t; anyway, it doesn’t matter. But one of the things when you go there you’ll see these plaques that people put up after the war, and I think I mentioned this the very first day, and the hardest to take is one guy at Vaux he went up, made a — in ‘21 or ‘22, a plaque that says, “To my son, since his eyes closed mine have not ceased to weep.”
And, so, the fighting in the mists of these forests was some of the worst ever seen in any war and would take hundreds of thousands of lives, as you know. This is — remember the stuff about the craters, this is an aerial view of Fort Douaumont, the area around there, and those are all craters. It looks like it’s your classic lunar landscape. This is the south entrance to the Fort of Douaumont, which has just been destroyed by German shelling, as you can see. And here you have — these are the entrance. You can go, as a tourist you can go right into there. These are not where these plaques are all put up around here, like they’re inside a church. That’s what it looked like then. You can see the mont left from Douaumont, there, the Douau is ça n’en existe plus, it’s not there anymore.
And as a matter of fact when you go to where the commune was, the shelling is such that there are these huge hills; enormous hills have been created simply by this land being blown apart, and that you’re in — this, you lived in the fort as you lived in these trenches, and the trenches were, as the forts, are accommodated as best they can to make things livable for those who are about to die. And here is an infirmary where you have your instant amputations, there. And that’s what it looked like; and you’ve seen pictures of the Somme, which I’ll talk about maybe next time a little bit. They had to build these walkways to get you over all of the mud.
And the weather in northern France, whether you’re talking about Boulogne or anywhere else, anywhere in the Channel but all the way really into the northern part of Alsace, is pretty dreadful. And here again are these craters. You’ve going to carry sixty pounds through that stuff? Not very easy. And barbed wire, which I should have mentioned also, is one of those defensive weapons of war, along with your basic machinegun. And, of course, one of the things that adds to the weight carried by each soldier is you had to have barbed wire clippers that are going to succeed in cutting the barbed wire. And the war poets, one of them, I can’t remember, maybe it was Isaac Rosenberg or one of them said that, well, “where’s the finest of Devonshire? They’re hung up, they’re hung up, hung up on that old barbed wire” — because it was easy to get caught up on the barbed wire and simply perish there.
And there’s your basic real live trench, with the helmets. The French troops, by the way, who’d gone into the war wearing — this is true, I couldn’t invent this — bright red pants that could be seen through the mists by troops changed to more subtle colors by the end of the war, to give them a better chance. And, so, that was the trench, and when you were going to attack what you would do is climb up over the trench, and then face this machinegun fire, and get as far as you could. Many did not get very far at all. And there is — get your head down and hope it doesn’t land on you. That’s how most people died, the majority of people died through shelling, in these kinds of creeping barrages or just basic shelling.
Sharpshooters were also a problem. That’s how — many of you have read All Quiet on the Western Front, and that’s how he gets killed at the end, because he puts his head up and someone blows it away. But generally they used these kind of periscopes to look up and to survey the scene. And if you went out into the trenches it was — went out at night as reconnaissance patrols, and that was pretty dangerous. Or, if you were particularly heroic, and many of these people in the infirmary service were, you went out to try to bring back the wounded before they died. And that’s what — you have to imagine this as being everything from Switzerland to the English Channel. And there they are preparing grenades.
Again, a lot of people in France and in Germany are hunters and they’re used to shooting, but the idea of throwing a grenade, there’s not — there weren’t sports in France then — I mean, this is a lame, and I apologize for this lame analogy, but the idea of throwing a grenade; Americans throw baseballs and stuff like that, but it was — even that gesture of throwing something took a little of getting used to. But here they are getting ready to go again. An incoming. Going out at night. And the other thing, if you went out at night, you couldn’t see, that was part of it, because you couldn’t be seen. And, of course, that’s where you can get hung up on barbed wire that you don’t know or encounter another patrol from the other side. And they tried to fool each other to get people that grew up in Alsace to speak German and all of that.
And there’s of course a machinegun in placement, the second big way of getting killed. Go there sometime, go into Vaux and Douaumont and try to imagine what it’s like. It must have been just something. And also the weather is so — it’s heavy weather so they were dressed rather heavily. These are sort of binocular type things there. And, well, voilà. And that’s sleeping accommodations, such as you would find. If you look at that you could also imagine being in a submarine, because much of this is underground there. And then that’s where you slept, and you tried to figure out who didn’t come back, after the — when the night patrol came back.
The telephone systems, the Germans had a huge advantage in the east because the Russian telephone system, they’d managed to figure out how it worked so they could hear every single call, if they were within range. But the French system worked better. And also we’re dealing with telegraphs. This is modern warfare. What made it total warfare was the mobilization of an entire society, of its productive capacity, to fight this war on, and on, and on, and on. And, of course, how the war ends with the German troops way inside France will have enormous repercussions for the poisoning of the 1920s and 1930s, because it became easy for Hitler to say — and for other, he was just one, there were lots of rightwing leaders — to say, “we were winning the war. How did we lose it? We were inside France. We were stabbed in the back, by who? The Jews, the Communists, the Socialists, the weak ones, not part of the true national Volkish community,” et cetera, et cetera.
And bringing somebody back — I’m sorry to say the man looks a little peaked, hauling him back. And these are armed soldiers, so this is not your infirmary group. There was some respect of the Red Cross insignia and the white flag, people tended to respect that. And also across — there were these images. In a place called Albert, like Albert, a town in the Somme that was completely destroyed, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary, on top of a church, and it was hit by a shell, and it was hanging by a thread, and soldiers on both sides could see that, the Virgin Mary hanging by a thread, and every day people think it’s going to get hit again, and it’s going to fall down. And it became — that too became sort of a myth about if it falls it’s going to sign — show that France is going to lose and all of that.
And a lot of these towns like Arras and Reims — that’s how the Cathedral of Reims, which is one of the great cathedrals in Europe, or anywhere else, was destroyed because they’re right on the front, right on the front. And again infirmary, there’s infirmary guys there. And I don’t know what these people — oh, they’re distributing water, that’s what they’re doing they’re distributing water. Getting ready to go. Charge over that. The ones who didn’t make it. There’s still a whole trench with bayonets sticking up that they more or less left the way it was. You can see that too, they removed the bones. And that’s a night patrol going out, crawling over those craters. It gives you a pretty good idea. See the movie. The explosions, voilà. That last one, by the way, was simply called Verdun Hell, which is the way it was. So, we’re going to pass on to not necessarily more cheery subjects next time, but we’ll talk about why 1917 was the big year, and talk about the end of the war, and what all that meant. And, again, to discuss the impact of all of this on French society. See you Wednesday.
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