Blue View - All Quiet on the Western Front

Most small cemeteries in the part of France we walked through had a section for the WWI soldiers

Most small cemeteries in the part of France we walked through had a section for the WWI soldiers

In our walk through France, we've passed through dozens, if not a few hundred villages and towns, and virtually all have monuments honoring the fallen in WWI, most with the inscription "For our children who have died for their country". A large part of the 'war to end all wars' was fought on French soil, and when it was finally over, much of the country lay in ruins and more than a million French soldiers had perished. At first we saw town cemeteries that had a few dozen white crosses for the graves of the war dead, then the local cemeteries included the graves of fifty or sometimes a hundred or more, and now in the north where some of the heaviest fighting took place, we see a great many military graveyards with the crosses for hundreds and even thousands of fallen soldiers. We've seen graveyards for British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, and American soldiers, as well as for the French and German. Many times, the same cemeteries have Allied soldiers buried in one section and German in another.

A French WWI memorial - almost every village and town had at least one

A French WWI memorial - almost every village and town had at least one

A Commonwealth military cemetery

A Commonwealth military cemetery

New technology made WWI a different war than any before. The mounted cavalry attacks that proved so effective for centuries were no match for the new machine guns. More accurate, longer range artillery, especially when directed by spotter planes became highly effective at demoralizing and killing the enemy.

Tanks were introduced, first as a sort of armored bulldozer, good at clearing barbed wire before an infantry charge, then as a war machine with machine guns and cannon. Likewise, WWI saw the first military biplanes. They first proved invaluable as reconnaissance and spotter aids, then, as a fighter when the Germans figured out how to mount a machine gun that could fire forward without shooting off the propeller. Until the Brits and French caught up, the Germans owned the skies, shooting down any enemy aircraft in sight.

Chemical weapons were also used for the first time in WWI. The Germans set off canisters of chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres, and the wafting gas totally routed or decimated the troops in a four mile section of the Allied line. The Germans were as surprised as the Allies at the effectiveness of the gas and failed to capitalize on the breach in the lines. When gas masks were developed and distributed, more effective gases were developed and used by both sides. Mustard gas, introduced by the Germans in 1917, caused blindness, blistered the skin and destroyed the lungs, so protective clothing was distributed. By the end of the war, approximately 100,000 tons of poison gas was used, 500,000 troops were injured and close to 30,000 soldiers died from it.

America stayed neutral for much of the war. The French and British Commonwealth countries had fought to a stalemate with the German and Austrian forces on the western front and it was becoming a war of attrition. The Germans took umbrage at the fact that we were selling arms, munitions and supplies to the Allies, however, and began sinking our merchant ships. When the American cruise liner, Housitania, and four American flagged merchant ships were sunk by German U-boats, Congress declared war. The first U.S. troops began arriving in June of 1917.

A host at one of the B&Bs at which we stayed related a story his grandfather had told him about the newly arriving American troops. By his description, they were all tall, strapping young men, wearing new uniforms and the best and latest gear. Unfortunately, they were totally untrained. The American soldiers were kept behind the lines in support roles until they were trained enough to move to the front. Within a few months, however, they began to have an impact on the war. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of fresh, well supplied troops turned the tide and by late 1918, the Germans were ready to negotiate the terms of their surrender.

The cathedral at Reims burning

The cathedral at Reims burning

Some facts and statistics:

  • The cathedral in Reims was hit by more than 300 artillery shells and, while heavily damaged by the shelling and resulatnt fires, managed to remain standing. It was rebuilt after the war and is beautiful today. Dozens of other towns and villages we passed through, however, were totally reduced to rubble. Some were never returned to, but most were rebuilt during the 1920's and 1930's... just in time for WWII.

  • While the Germans soon owned the skies when they first developed a biplane fighter, the Allied forces didn't take long to develop their own. Once American factories started building and shipping the new planes, the tide changed. By the end of the war, there were twenty Allied planes for every German plane.

  • When the armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, more than 4.7 million American troops had served in the war, of which more than 116,000 died. More than half died of disease (63,000), primarily from the influenza epidemic of 1918, while more than 53,000 died in combat.

  • It's estimated that 8.5 million soldiers died in the war. The countries with the heaviest losses were:

    • Russia - 1,700,000

    • Germany - 1,774,000

    • Austria - 1,200,000

    • France - 1,358,000

    • British Empire - 908,000

    • Italy - 650,000

    • Romania - 336,000

    • Turkey - 325,000

    • U.S. - 116,516

  • An estimated 8,000,000 horses died in the war. Many were killed in the initial ill fated cavalry charges, but most were killed by artillery fire while being used as draft animals.

  • After the 'war to end all wars' ended, it was twenty years before the next great war, during which an estimated 22-30 million solders died and much of France was again destroyed... but that's another story.

A memorial to the 8 million horses that died in WWI

A memorial to the 8 million horses that died in WWI

I remember reading the book All Quiet On The Western Front when I was in high school. The book, which is arguably the best novel written about WWI, tells the story of the young German, Paul Baumer, who, after listening to the patriotic rhetoric by his teacher, marches down to the local recruiter along with most of his classmates to enlist in the army shortly after the start of WWI. After basic training, he is sent to the Western Front where, for the next four years, he endures the appalling conditions of trench warfare: the near starvation rations; the loss of so many of his friends; the nonstop terror during days of artillery fire; the unspeakable carnage and casualties as each side attacked or counterattacked trying to take an acre or two of land. As rumors start about a likely armistice and Paul begins to think he might actually survive the war, he watches his last and best friend Kat die. Later, as he sits alone in his trench, he realizes two things: he is no longer afraid to die; and that he will never fit into civilian life again... he has no trade or skills, most of his generation is gone, maimed, or broken. The older generation, while they fought in the same war, will return to their old occupations and homes, and the next generation will find him superfluous. No longer caring, he stands up.

The following is the most memorable sentence of the book:

"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front."

Next week’s Blue View talks about route planning for the Via Francigena. Come join us…