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In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (1958)

by Leon Wolff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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582541,087 (4.11)23
Of all the grim, gallant and inglorious battles of the Western Front, this is the name uniquely evocative of the mud and blood that pervaded the First World War. The total gain - a few thousand yards of indefensible slough - cost about a million Allied lives.

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Interesting and horrible look at 1917 campaign on northern British front in World War One (100 years ago). Politicians should have held generals more accountable. Gen. Haig was suited for defense but not for offense where many lives were wasted in attacks that did not get much done. Rain and mud in Flanders made it a real hell for soldiers. To understand WW II it really helps to find out about WW I. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
A passionate well written and insightful account of this time in the Great War and of this era in general. ( )
  charlie68 | Apr 9, 2018 |
“Only among duller minds, by that January 1, was the war still a splendid canvas without warts.” It was 1917, and the war that had been dragging on for an eternity, had no end in sight. In was apparent that the Americans would soon be entering the war on the side of the allies, and General Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief was eager to end the war before the Americans arrived and stole his victory. He argued that a surprise attack would overwhelm the Germans and create the breakthrough that both armies had been trying to achieve for almost four years.

That he insisted on a massive two-week bombardment (nearly five tons of explosive for every yard of territory) goes to his stupidity or arrogance for it eliminated any hope of surprise. He picked Flanders for the attack, an area that has extraordinarily gummy soil when wet and the rainy season had already turned the area into a quagmire. The bombardment destroyed the drainage system that Flemish farmers had created over centuries. There was plenty of warning. The Tank Corp staff had warned headquarters about the mud and drainage problems, but typically the General Staff and Haig’s immediate operational advisors did not go near the front — a damning charge also made by Stephen Ambrose (Citizen Soldiers) and David Hackworth ( )about the American high command in WWII, Vietnam and Korea. This ignorance combined with his sense that God had picked him to lead the British to victory over the heathen Huns produced in Haig a sense of divine right. He assumed he had special powers. Unfortunately, those special powers did not translate into fewer casualties. On the first day, the British suffered 67,000 casualties for hardly any territorial gain. And this was just the beginning.

1917 was a perfect time to end the war. Both sides had virtually exhausted themselves, some 2,000,000 men having been killed. The Germans had made numerous peace overtures, and history has shown that negotiated peace agreements are more profitable for both sides. The Allies could also have blockaded the Central Powers into forcing an agreement. Once America entered the war all hope of a negotiated settlement was lost. The result was the Verdun surrender that created the conditions leading to WWII.

Geology played an important role in the battle for Flanders. The soil consisted of a pure fine-grained clay. This combined with water to create a gluey mud. Since it rained, on average, every other day, in this part of Belgium, moving troops and supplies was very difficult. Men were often suffocated in mini-landslides. They were almost always in liquid mud up to their knees. The smell was terrible. The dead could rarely be buried and usually just rotted where they fell. Ground water became polluted so fresh water had to be brought up to the trenches every day. It was a very difficult task.

In 1197 – curious transposition of numerals, Philip Augustus was trapped in the same area and the Romans had suffered similar difficulties around Ypres.

It was here that Haig consulted with geologists to see if they could tunnel under the German lines, which occupied the only raised ground – so slight they could really not be called hills – at Messines. Deep down the clay was different. Blue in color, it was much heavier and permitted mining. It was also between eighty and one hundred twenty feet deep so any charges planted would not be likely to be blown up by random shelling. They worked for two years, planting thousands of pounds of explosives under the German lines in preparation for a new offensive. The Germans did some mining of their own, and on a couple of occasions ran their own mines within inches of the British tunnels. They could even be heard talking through the walls.

When finally detonated, the explosion could be heard in London, and it completely demoralized the German troops. They were dazed. The British moved in quickly, but, following orders, failed to capitalize on the German anguish and went far forward enough only to straighten out the salient. So it began all over again.

Haig had to convince the civilians in London of the wisdom of his new offensive. They were lukewarm at best, especially in the light that Haig had difficulty articulating his objectives. How could one measure success if the objectives failed to be articulated was the reasonable question. The longer the offensive was delayed, the more likely the rains that would turn the region into a quagmire. Dredged out from the sea, farmers were heavily punished if they failed to maintain the drainage ditches that kept the area from returning to its original swampy condition. Haig intended to use – and was counting on – many of the new Mark IV tanks. The tank commanders, looking at the terrain, realized this was the worst terrain for them over the entire front. They produced maps showing the effect that shelling would have and the resulting lakes that would be formed. The response from headquarters was emblematic: “Send us no more of those ridiculous maps.”

He also overlooked the results of the abortive Russian offensive that collapsed releasing thousands of troops for the western German defense. The offensive superiority that should have been five to one was only 15% greater and dwindling quickly. A child could have foretold the result.

Other titles I have read over the years that I can personally recommend: [b:The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman|11366|The Guns of August|Barbara W. Tuchman|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1298414444s/11366.jpg|1884932] that describes how and why the war began; [b:The Price of Glory by Alastair Horne] that relives the horror of Verdun, and the one with the most expressive title [b:Donkeys by Alan Clark|1897272|The Donkeys|Alan Clark|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1189992826s/1897272.jpg|1898856], a scathing indictment of the British and French generalship.

( )
2 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
807. In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign by Leon Wolff (read 8 June 1965) (Book of the Year) I was absolutely floored by this book, which details the awfulness of the 1917 fighting in Flanders. It is the best book I read in 1965, in which year I read 42 books, 27 fiction and 15 nonfiction. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | May 31, 2013 |
The first chapter "The Deadlock" is a brief description of the causes and events of World War I leading up to the year 1917. It details the military plans of the year by the French, British and German High Commands with considerable references to the diaries and official histories of the commanders and countries involved, the press, journalists, historians and political figures. There are several maps and photographic plates of the battlefields in the book.

While Third Battle of Ypres is synonymous with mud, death, futility of battles and horrible conditions of warfare, the writings do not play on these experiences of the soldier in the field too much, but instead gives the reader a somewhat unbiased view of what was really occurring at the very top of the commands: the British Prime Minister of the day, Lloyd George, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir William Robertson, Robert Nivelle, Ferdinand Foch and others. There are short quotes from newspapers of the day and soldiers at the front, with brief but vivid sketches of the actual battlefield, while comparing this with the views at Headquarters (none of the commanders of the armies seems to have ever visited the front or even seen it through field glasses and could not relate to the conditions of the battlefield and the struggles of the men through the unrelenting mud, and thus assessed the situations incorrectly, especially Haig). Sir Douglas Haig is shown to make large assumptions without proper intelligence about the German defences, enemy resources of men and guns, or the conditions of the battlefield. Leon Wolff does not say these things specifically, but gives the readers the facts as presented in official minutes of meetings with Lloyd George and the War Cabinet and diaries of high officers and leaves the reader to unequivocally reach his own conclusion of the characters involved.

The book also details all the battles of 1917, from Nivelle's offensive and the French Army Mutinies (1917), Messines Ridge, Poelcapelle, Menin Road, the village of Passchendaele (fought by the Canadian Corps) and Ypres. It ends appropriately with a sequel of the end of the careers, and life after of Sir William Robertson, Sir Douglas Haig and David Lloyd George, quoting a line of Siegfried Sassoon's "On Passing the New Menin Gate" and ending finally with a passage of Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle which seems to truly explain the cause and reasoning of a war as horrible as the Great War, if not all wars:

…there dwell and toil, in the British village of Dumdrudge, usually some five hundred souls. From these…there are successively selected, during the French War, say thirty able-bodied men: Dumdrudge, at her own expense, has suckled and nursed them; she has not without difficulty and sorrow, fed them up to manhood, and trained them to crafts, so that once can weave, another build, another hammer, and the weakest can stand under thirty stone avoirdupois. Nevertheless, amid much weeping and swearing, they are selected; all dressed in red; and shipped away, at the public charges, some two thousand miles, or say only to the south of Spain; and fed there till wanted. And now to that same spot in the south of Spain, are thirty similar French artisans, from a French Dumdrudge, in like manner wending: Till at length, after infinite effort, the two parties come into actual juxtaposition; and Thirty stands fronting Thirty, each with a gun in his hand. Straightway the word “Fire!” is given: and they blow the souls out of one another and in the place of sixty brisk useful craftsmen, the world has sixty dead carcasses, which it must bury, and anew shed tears for. Had these men any quarrel? Busy as the Devil is, not the smallest!... their Governors had fallen out; and, instead of shooting one another, had the cunning to make these poor blockheads shoot. Alas, so it is in Deutschland, and hitherto in all other lands...
1 vote jan.fleming | Feb 3, 2010 |
Showing 5 of 5

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wolff, Leonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fuller, J. F. C.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Liddell Hart, B. H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, slill bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
To Lillian
First words
Author's Preface: In the beginning, Neolithic intertribal rivalries had gradually blended into coherent European history.
The face of history is, as usual, blank and impeturbable. This is war, it says; this is life as twentieth century man chose to conduct it. The third battle of Ypres was fought thus and so, and human judgment is inadequate to categorize its ultimate meaning, if, indeed, it has any meaning within the larger surge of life. Broad and turgid, the river of time flows toward an unnamed sea. On it the Flanders campaign survives for only a moment, an eddy of muddy water that convulsively twists and turns and then disappears.
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Of all the grim, gallant and inglorious battles of the Western Front, this is the name uniquely evocative of the mud and blood that pervaded the First World War. The total gain - a few thousand yards of indefensible slough - cost about a million Allied lives.

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