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Thursday, November 11, 2004


a satire of circumstance: 1915

the new year, 1915, brought the repeated failure of british attempts to break through the german line and to unleash the cavalry in pursuit. they failed, first, because of insufficient artillery preparation -- for years no one had any idea how much artillery fire would be needed to destroy the german barbed wire and to reach the solid german deep dugouts; second, because of insufficient reserves for exploiting a suddenly apparent weakness; and third, because the british attacked on excessively narrow frontages, enabling every part of the ground gained to be brought under retaliatory artillery fire.

however, the first failed attack of 1915 was not british but german. the area selected was near ypres, and the fracas has been named the second battle of ypres, or simply second ypres. on april 22, after discharging chlorine gas from cylinders, the germans attacked and advanced three miles. but then they faltered for a lack of reserves. gas had first been used by the germans on october 27, 1914, when they fired a prototype of modern tear gas from artillery near ypres. the german use of gas -- soon to be imitated by the british -- was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as liddell hart points out, gas is "the least inhumane of modern weapons." its bad press was the result of its novelty: "it was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations." in the late april attack at ypres the british were virtually unprotected against gas -- the "box respirator" was to come later -- and even though the line was substantially held, the cost was 60,000 british casualties.

a few weeks later it was the british turn. on march 10 the first of the aborted british offensives was mounted at neuve chapelle. the attach was only 2000 yards wide, and, although it was successful at first, it died for lack of reserves and because the narrow frontage invited too much retributive german artillery. again the british tried, on may 15 at festubert, and with similar results: initial success turned to disaster. going through the line was beginning to look impossible. it was thus essential to entertain hopes of going around it, even if going around took one as far away as gallipoli, 2200 miles southeast of the western front, where troops had begun landing on april 25.

imagining themselves instructed by these occasions of abridged hope at neuve chapelle and festubert, the british mounted a larger attack near loos on september 15. six divisions went forward at once, and this time the attack was preceded not only by the customary artillery barrage but by the discharge of what robert graves tells us was euphemized as "the accessory" -- cylinders of chlorine gas. most of it blew back into the british trenches, and the attach was another failure which even the Official History later stigmatized as a "useless slaughter of infantry". the proceedings at loos were called off eleven days after they had started, but not before 60,000 more british casualties had been added to the total.

now volunteers were no longer sufficient to fill the ranks. in october, lord derby's "scheme" -- a genteel form of conscription -- was promulgated, and at the beginning of 1916 with the passing of the military service act, england began training her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world. clearly the conscripts were needed, for things were going badly everywhere. the assault at gallipoli was proving as unsuccessful as the assaults everywhere, and at the end of 1915 the forces there were withdrawn with nothing gained.

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