Australian officers, blown into the air by an accidental explosion, fall in the river amid the splinters of their wrecked boat; ca. 1942
From LIFE (June 15th, 1942):
During night maneuvers in New South Wales a few weeks ago, Australian soldiers were landing at the edge of a dam when a charge of gelignite, employed to lend realism to their operation, unexpectedly exploded beneath their boat. Amid splinters and spray the Aussies were hurled into the night. As they fell, a photographer 20 feet away snapped his shutter and caught the remarkable picture opposite. The soldiers suffered only bruises and shock.
Men of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment going up to the line near Frezenberg during the Third Battle of Ypres; ca. 1917
“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation…This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love…”
-Dick Diver (Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The Battle of Broodseinde was fought on 4 October 1917 near Ypres in Flanders, at the east end of the Gheluvelt plateau, by the British Second and Fifth armies and the German Fourth Army. The battle was the most successful Allied attack of the Battle of Passchendaele. Using “bite-and-hold” tactics, with objectives limited to what could be held against German counter-attacks, the British devastated the German defence, which prompted a crisis among the German commanders and caused a severe loss of morale in the German Fourth Army. Preparations were made by the Germans for local withdrawals and planning began for a greater withdrawal, which would entail the loss to the Germans of the Belgian coast, one of the strategic aims of the British offensive. After the period of unsettled but drier weather in September, heavy rain began again on 4 October and affected the remainder of the campaign, working more to the advantage of the German defenders, who were being pushed back on to far less damaged ground. The British had to move their artillery forward into the area devastated by shellfire and soaked by the return of heavy rain, restricting the routes on which guns and ammunition could be moved, which presented German artillery with easier targets. In the next British attack on 9 October after several days of rain, the German defence achieved a costly defensive success, holding the approaches to Passchendaele village, which was the most tactically vital ground.
Confederate and Union soldiers shake hands across the wall at the 1938 reunion for the Veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg.
What grabs me most about this image is that it is a testament to the incredible ability we, as Americans, have to put our differences behind us and move beyond hatred and malice. Absolutely incredible that these men who fought in the bloodiest conflict on American soil were willing to shake each others hands and embrace each other as fellow citizens. If I could pick one thing that I wish the rest of the world could learn from America, this is it.
Here’s one description, from German officer Ernst Jünger’s 1920 memoir Storm of Steel:
“It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit. I think I have found a comparison that captures the situation in which I and all the other soldiers who took part in this war so often found ourselves: you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post, and the splinters are flying — that’s what it’s like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position.”
And several more, collected in Arnold D. Harvey’s A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War(1998):
Here is some descriptions of the sound:
“For the civilians herded into the ranks the sounds of shell and bullet were strange and unexpected as well as frightening and called out for description. At close quarters an artillery barrage sounded ‘as though the earth were cracking up like an egg of super-gigantic proportions tapped by a gargantuan spoon’: it created, according to the same witness, ‘A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold: only the rattle of the machine-gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rises above it’. At a greater distance it was ‘like someone kicking footballs — a soft bumping, miles away’, or a noise, felt rather than heard ‘like the beating of one’s heart after running’. A German infantry officer recalled, ‘If you put your hands over your ears and then drum your fingers vigorously on the back of your head, then you get some idea of what the drumfire sounded like to us’.”
“The sound of an approaching shell, it was claimed, ‘can be imitated by a suitable rendering of the sentences, “Who are you? I am (these words being drawn out to full length) — (a slight pause) — Krupp (very short and sharp!).”‘”
The British lost 1.53% of their population in military service during the Great War, the Germans lost 3.23% and the French 3.7%1.
Fatalities in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were on average 1 in 7 for officers and 1 in 8 for other ranks, and on the Western Front 10% of these fatalities were caused by something other than enemy action (in East Africa over 70% were non-battle fatalities). In the last month of the war alone, over 2,500 british soldiers died from Spanish Flu.
Furthermore, the British suffered over 6 million non-fatal casualties, some 65% of which were classified as non-battle injuries across all theatres, but the British only reported injuries which prevented a soldier from reporting for duty, regardless of how they were caused. Thus if you were going to die then it was likely to be the enemy who were responsible, but injury was more likely to come from a different source. Also many soldiers would suffer multiple wounds so it is very difficult to estimate the chances of a British soldier being wounded during a particular period of time.
The issue is further clouded by the definition of a front line soldier. Before the war it was easy to categorise the infantry, artillery and cavalry as front line (a habit which persists in the Army to this day), but come the middle of the war an artilleryman could find himself posted from the field artillery, a front line unit, to garrison artillery, which sat much further back. Also infantry units were rotated in and out of the front line on a regular basis and so, by sheer caprice, some found themselves in contact with the enemy more often than others. The reach of artillery also brought soldiers in traditionally safer occupations (e.g. drivers or medics) in to the midst of battle.
The census data from 1911 to 1921 shows that 14% of men who would have been of fighting age at some point during the war died during that period. The vast majority of these are for non-war related reasons and for soldiers from the most impoverished sectors of society, life on the Western front was healthier and less dangerous than civilian life at home.
*This gives you some idea why the French did everything they could to avoid war in 1939/40, including their failure to go on the offensive in any meaningful way.