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Thursday, November 11, 2004
a satire of circumstance: 1917
on january 1, 1917, haig was elevated to the rank of field marshal, and on march 17, bapaume -- one of the main first-day objectives of the somme jump-off nine months before -- was finally captured. the germans had proclaimed their intention of practicing unrestricted submarine warfare in the atlantic on february 1, and by april 6 this had brought a declaration of war from the united states. henceforth the more subtle allied strategists knew that winning the war would be only a matter of time, but they also knew that, since the united states was not ready, the time would not be short.
meanwhile, something had to be done on the line. on april 9 the british again tried the old tactic of head-on assault, this time near arras in an area embracing the infamous vimy ridge, which for years had dominated the southern part of the ypres salient. the attack, pressed for five days, gained 7000 yards at a cost of 160,000 killed and wounded. the same old thing. but on june 7 there was something new, something finally exploiting the tactic of surprise. near messines, south of ypres, british miners had been tunneling for a year under the german front lines, and by early june they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive a hundred feet below crucial points in the german defense system. at 3:10 in the morning these mines were all set off at once. nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted lloyd george in downing street 130 miles away. two failed to explode. one of these went off in july 1955, injuring no one but forcibly reminding citizens of the nearby rebuilt town of ploegsteert of the appalling persistence of the great war. the other, somewhere deep underground near ploegsteert wood, has not gone off yet.
the attack at messines following these explosions had been brilliantly planned by general sir herbert plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual's hero of the british great war. in sad contrast to haig, he was unmilitary in appearance, being stout, chinless, white-haired and pot-bellied. but he had imagination. his mines totally surprised the germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately. seven thousand panicked and were taken prisoner. nine british divisions and seventy-two tanks attacked straightaway on a ten-mile front. at the relatively low cost of 16,000 casualties they occupied vimy ridge.
if messines showed what imagination and surprise could do, the attack toward passchendaele, on the northern side of the ypres salient, indicated once more the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting. sometimes dignified as the third battle of ypres, this assault, beginning on july 31, was aimed, it was said, at the german submarine bases on the belgian coast. this time the artillery was relied on prepare the ground for the attack, and with a vengeance: over ten days four million shells were fired. the result was highly ironic, even in this war where irony was a staple. the bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt into mud. in the mud the british assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. price: 370,000 british dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. thousands literally drowned in the mud. it was a reprise of the somme, but worse. twenty years later wyndham lewis looked back on passchendaele as an all-but-inevitable collision between two "contrasted but as it were complementary types of idee fixe": the german fondness for war, on the one hand, and the british muddle-headed "doggedness," on the other. these, he says, "found their perfect expression on the battlefield, or battle-bog, of passchendaele." onomatopoeic speculations bring him finally to a point where again we glimpse hardy as the presiding spirit:
the very name (passchendaele), with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion all at once, was subtly appropriate. this nonsense could not have come to its full flower at any other place but at passchendaele. it was pre-ordained. the moment i saw the name on the trench-map, intuitively i knew what was going to happen.
ever since the first use of tanks in the summer of 1916 it had been clear that, given sufficient numbers, here was a way of overcoming the gross superiority provided an entrenched enemy by the machine gun. but not until the attack at cambrai on november 20 were tanks used in sufficient quantity. now 381 of them coughed and crawled forward on a six-mile front, and this time with impressive success. but, as usual, there were insufficient reserves to exploit the breakthrough.