• Europe at the turn of the century

    At the turn of the century Europe underwent a period of extraordinary upsurge. Industries were spreading rapidly. Railways and steamboats were making transport easier. Towns and cities expanded dramatically. For the first time, people travelled in machines that were heavier than the air, and in horseless carriages. Thanks to sport, people were more healthy and felt in peak condition. All these new attainments and inventions gave rise to a euphoric faith in progress.
    Side by side with the confidence in progress, there was the fear that the forces of the machine age would be unleashed and turn against mankind. In the period just before the First World War, all the ingredients for an arms race were in place - new technologies and machinery for manufacturing heavier weapons, powerful industrial trusts, imperialist heads of government, and a growth in population that made possible many new recruits for the armies.
    In 1914, the emperors and kings of Europe were still influential and powerful. Within their own borders, they often held sway over a variety of ethnic groups. Outside Europe, they had colonized a whole gamut of foreign peoples. The English, French, Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese and Italians drew prosperity and power from these overseas kingdoms. But the position of the major European powers was under threat from a number of sides. Ethnic minorities were claiming their rights - the Irish in Britain and the Bosnians in Austria-Hungary, to name but a few. They were proud of their people, their language and their culture and were rebelling against these alien oppressors. Nationalist feelings were glorified in every possible way.

  • Alliances


    At the turn of the century, Europe was the arena for a complex interplay of forces. The great powers were juggling with coalitions, treaties and alliances like professional chess-players. An additional factor was that a number of ruling royal families were related. The king of England, for instance, was at one and the same time a relative both of the German emperor and the tsar of Russia.
    Two great power blocs - the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy) and the Triple Entente (United Kingdom, France, Russia) - were brought face to face. These were agreements for military cooperation. If two countries engaged in combat, the four others would automatically be drawn in. As early as 1907, through these alliances, a major war seemed inevitable.

    Over and above the two major alliances, the great powers had here and there signed treaties with smaller countries. Thus Serbia had the support of Russia - a dangerous situation, since Serbia was an enemy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A conflict between Serbia and the Dual Monarchy could draw in Russia, and with Russia, the rest of Europe. The time bomb was ticking away.
    The world outside Europe still played no role in 1914. Africa and Asia were almost entirely colonized by European states. For the time being, the United States stood aside from quarrels between neighbours on the old continent. They were not to enter the war until 1917.

  • The great powers

    The great powers

    Alliances did not come about by chance. Behind the paper of the treaties were hidden long-term conflicts and conflicting interests. For the balance of European powers, the greatest threat was the rise of the German Reich.
    In 1914, Germany was still very young. For centuries it had been parcelled out into duchies, palatinates and little principalities. It was only towards the end of the 19th century, under the leadership of Prussia, that unification had come into effect. In 1871, after a dazzling victory over France, the German Empire was proclaimed. From that point on, not only did Germany experience a population upsurge, but it was also becoming a great economic power. From a political, military and colonial standpoint, however, it remained a secondary power - at least in the minds of the Germans themselves. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was noted for his arrogance, this was bound to change. Germany had begun its fight for its 'place in the sun'.
    The other great powers felt themselves threatened by the rise of Germany. France was afraid of becoming eclipsed. It had fewer inhabitants - 39 million French citizens as against 65 million Germans - and its economic position was less favourable. But it had extensive colonies in Africa and in southeast Asia. Moreover, France still harboured the idea of revenge for 1870. Above all, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans was never accepted.
    At the turn of the century, the United Kingdom was at the pinnacle of its power. The British Empire covered vast swathes of the globe. The foundation of this world dominion lay in its sea power. The British calculated that their fleet must be at least as great as the second and third greatest fleets combined. Thus, when the Germans began to assemble a powerful fleet, the British felt themselves directly threatened.

  • Nationalisme

    This was the era of nationalism. Peoples wanted their own nationhood, and nations wanted to extend their power.
    Nationalism represented a danger, mainly in Austria-Hungary, Germany's ally in central Europe and in the Balkans. In fact, the Dual Monarchy included at least ten different ethnic groups. Furthermore, young neighbouring countries like Serbia and Romania had a jealous eye on pieces of the multiethnic state.

    Centres of conflict

    Even before 1914, the interplay of strength between the great powers had already brought Europe to the brink of war. In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus provoking the rage of Russia and Serbia. In 1911, Germany had entered into conflict with France and Britain over Morocco. In 1912 and 1913, there had been the First and Second Balkan Wars. Turkey had lost almost all its European possessions, but the great powers had not intervened.
    Finally, in 1914, world war broke out. The spark was struck in the Balkans, the 'powderkeg of Europe'. An incident in Sarajevo caused the fragile balance of power in Europe to collapse like a house of cards.

  • Centres of conflict

    Even before 1914, the interplay of strength between the great powers had already brought Europe to the brink of war. In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus provoking the rage of Russia and Serbia. In 1911, Germany had entered into conflict with France and Britain over Morocco. In 1912 and 1913, there had been the First and Second Balkan Wars. Turkey had lost almost all its European possessions, but the great powers had not intervened.
    Finally, in 1914, world war broke out. The spark was struck in the Balkans, the 'powderkeg of Europe'. An incident in Sarajevo caused the fragile balance of power in Europe to collapse like a house of cards.

  • Ieper: the mediaeval town

    The reputation and wealth of Ieper was at its height in the Middle Ages. Woollen cloth woven in Ieper (the Flemish name), Ypres (French) or Ypern (German), was traded as far away as Russia. Chaucer even refers to the skills of the weavers of 'Ipres and Gaunt' (Ghent) in the Canterbury Tales.
    The original of the rebuilt Cloth Hall, an astonishing construction for its time, was built between 1260 and 1304 as a market and warehouse for wool and cloth. The city was then a busy port and most of the wool arrived by boat. Barges entered town along the river Ieperlee (it now flows underground) and moored alongside the Cloth Hall. It was easier to move goods by water rather than by land because the plain of Flanders was reclaimed from the sea and tended to become waterlogged, as it still does.
    For a while Ieper, Ghent (Gent) and Bruges (Brugge) shared control of the region. But in 1383, during the Hundred Years' War, an English army supported by troops from Gent besieged Ieper for two months. The population of some 20,000 resisted the siege but the city was cut off from its all-important supplies of English wool. Trade suffered irreparable damage.
    Although Ieper still looks like the prosperous mediaeval trading centre it once was, not a single building in the city is more than 80 years old. Ieper was so devastated during the First World War a man on horseback could see from one side to the other. Yet within weeks of the Armistice, the people returned to try and make their city fit to live in again. The Cathedral was completed in 1930 and the belfry tower of the Cloth Hall was rebuilt to its original design in 1934. The last stone of the Hall itself wasn't put into place until 1967.

  • Ieper before the Great War

    Ieper before the Great War was a military centre, with an army riding school and a barracks for the infantry. Thanks to the presence of numerous officers, a significant minority of Ieper's citizens led a prosperous and rather worldly existence. The rest made their living by manufacturing ribbons, lace, cotton and soap. Visitors came to admire in particular the largest non-ecclesiastical Gothic building in the whole of Europe, the Cloth Hall, a structure which had survived centuries of intermittent siege and warfare.
    Life in early-twentieth-century Ieper was largely uneventful. The headline in the local newspaper 'Deadly Blow for Local Commerce' spoke of nothing more harrowing than the proposed loss of two Carnival days during the mid-Lent period. And as to the most pressing national issue of the day, the Army Reform Act of 1913 which proposed conscription, leading Catholic citizens seemed more concerned about the potentially damaging influences of life in barracks on their adolescent sons than they were about the needs of national defence.

  • The Ieper Salient

    Why did the name Ieper or 'Wipers' (the British soldier's version of the French 'Ypres') become so notorious during the First World War? And what was the Ieper Salient? A 'saillant' is a French military term. It means ground which protrudes so far into the enemy's lines that they can shoot right across it. Defenders thought of it as a place where you could get shot from behind as well as from the front. And from either side as well.
    The line around Ieper formed a salient to the east which contracted and expanded spasmodically as the more or less continuous fighting intensified into three all-out battles. It took this shape at the outset because of the Flemish Ridge which starts at Klerken in the north and forms a rough semi-circle around the city via Passendale, Geluveld and Wijtschate to Mesen in the south. Incidentally, the Ridge is distinct from the group of hills south-west of Ieper, known ironically as the West Flemish Mountains.
    From the city, the Ridge is indiscernible. From its 'heights' however (never more than 85 m), its importance is obvious on a clear day. There is Ieper in the centre of a hollow. A sitting target. So was the infantry defending it from the trenches on the Salient. So too was the artillery. At first there were trees and buildings to provide troops and artillery with cover. By the end of 1917 there were none left.

  • The armies

    United Kingdom

    The United Kingdom was the only great power to have a professional army. It was a fairly small one - not even 200,000 men. Alongside this strength there were reservists, and, of course, the navy. The land forces wore khaki uniforms.

    War had scarcely broken out when volunteers began to flood in. Furthermore, in 1916 military service became compulsory. At the end of the war, the British army was to have reached a strength of 5 million men.


    The growth of German power and nationalism endangered the balance between the European powers. The consequence was the arms race and the build-up of armed forces.

    The German army had large numbers of men in its ranks - no less than 3.8 million soldiers. They wore a new field-grey uniform. The German reserves were better trained and armed than the French reserves. Germany also possessed much heavier field-guns. Its fleet was the second largest in the world after the British navy. Furthermore, for their aerial reconnaissance and bombing raids, the Germans had zeppelins.


    Russia had the largest army of any country. But the majority of its soldiers were underequipped and badly trained. This did not prevent the Germans from fearing the 'Russian steamroller'.

    As early as August 1914, however, the Germans were victorious over the Russian bear on the eastern front. The threat was temporarily averted.


    Although the Austro-Hungarian army was large, it was an amalgam of too many nationalities. Three-quarters of the men were not of German-speaking origin. For this reason it was a difficult army to lead.


    France had an army as large as Germany - 3.8 million men. Compared with the Germans, the French used lighter field-guns. These were manoeuvrable and rapid, but considerably less powerful. The men were still dressed in their old uniforms which were hardly unobtrusive - a blue tunic and red trousers. These conspicuous colours would cost many soldiers their lives.

  • The Schlieffen Plan

    Germany was hemmed in between two enemy countries - France and Russia. In 1893, these two countries had entered into a military agreement. Germany was therefore faced with a major dilemma: if either of them attacked, Germany would immediately be confronted by two enemies, and on two fronts simultaneously. In order to forestall a war of this kind, the German high command had a plan - the Schlieffen plan, from the name of the then chief of staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen.

    The entire Schlieffen plan hinged upon the factors of speed and timing. The Germans had calculated that it would take six weeks for Russia to mobilize its army. Germany and France, however, would take no longer than two weeks. For this reason, the Germans were staking everything on a rapid victory over France - within six weeks. Once the French were defeated on the western front, the Germans could attack the Russians without hindrance on the eastern front. At least, that was the aim.

    The French would be expecting the attack through Alsace-Lorraine, Schlieffen thought. Since the Franco-Prussian war, France had placed a chain of forts along its new border in the east of the country. In order to avoid them, Schlieffen decided to invade France from the north. The Franco-Belgian border was hardly protected at all. The Germans would advance rapidly as far as Paris, would attack the French army from the rear, and destroy it.


    There remained one big problem with regard to the Schlieffen plan - Belgium was a neutral country. It went even further - Germany was one of its 'guarantors'; in 1830, along with the United Kingdom, France, Austria and Russia, it had solemnly promised to protect Belgian neutrality. And yet the Germans remained committed to the Schlieffen plan. The possibility of opposition on the part of Belgium scarcely bothered them. That little country would not dare to resist, they thought.


    There were almost no defensive installations along the Franco-Belgian border. This error in French strategy had several causes. The main one was the doctrine of the offensive à outrance, the all-out offensive. For French military strategists, to attack was noble and honourable, to defend was underhand and cowardly.
    The French did not imagine that the Germans would encroach upon Belgian neutrality, either, for in this way the British would be drawn into the conflict. Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, felt that a circular movement by the Germans would even be a good thing, as that would leave them vulnerable at the centre. A French general put it this way: 'So much the better if they get as far as Lille. All we have to do is cut the German army in half!'
    But the French were not reckoning with the call-up of the enemy reserves, which enabled the Germans to attack in the west, and simultaneously hold firm in the centre.

    When war finally broke out, the French acted just as the Germans had anticipated. They had concentrated all their troops in Alsace-Lorraine and ignored their border to the north. As a result, the German armies could cross Belgium and the north of France rapidly, and march on Paris. The French and British armies were pushed back. There was every reason to believe that Germany would overcome Allied opposition within six weeks, in keeping with their plan.


    Despite all the preparations, the Schlieffen plan was a fiasco. Just before Paris, General von Kluck, who commanded the westernmost German army, decided to depart from the plan. Instead of advancing in the direction of Paris, he went off at a tangent towards the south-east. In this way he gave his opponents the opportunity to regroup and attack him on the flank. This was the Battle of the Marne, in which two million soldiers took part.
    Why did the Germans deviate from their original plan? Was Kluck afraid of being cut off from his line of supplies? Were his men exhausted from a march of several days? We shall never know for certain.
    What we do know, is that the Schlieffen plan looked fine on paper, but unravelled dismally in the chaos and confusion of the opening days of the war. Like the French, the Germans had failed to reckon with one thing - no-one could remain in command of a war on this scale.

    After the Battle of the Marne, the Germans had to withdraw. A few weeks later, the Allied movements also came to grief in the mud of northern France and the plain of the IJzer. From the North Sea to the Swiss border, an uninterrupted line of fortified trenches was drawn. Mobile warfare had become bogged down in a bloody impasse which was to drag on for four years. In order to achieve this stalemate, hundreds of thousands of people had died.

  • Sarajevo

    'Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans' would set in motion a new war, Bismarck had predicted. The summer of 1914 proved him right. The incident in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the spark which would set all of Europe alight.

    In 1908, Austria-Hungary had annexed neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. From that moment on, Bosnian and Serb nationalists were harbouring plans of revenge.
    On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, visited Sarajevo with his wife. They were shot at point-blank range by a student, Gavrilo Princip, with a pistol made in the Belgian FN munitions factory. Princip was a member of the nationalist Young Bosnia movement, which in turn had connections with the Serb terrorist organization Black Hand. From this, Austria-Hungary came to the conclusion that Serbia was behind the assassination.
    On 23 July, Vienna attributed responsibility for the assassination to Serbia, and issued an ultimatum. Serbia accepted most of Austria's conditions, but Vienna remained unsatisfied. On 28 July, war was declared. The following day, the Austrian artillery shelled the Serbian capital Belgrade. Austria-Hungary could count on the support of the German Empire. As a result of mutual commitments and alliances entered into on either side, conflict on an international scale was now inevitable.

  • The war begins

    As France announced a general mobilization and armies were being made ready, tension mounted. On 2 August, the German army crossed the border with Luxembourg. Two days later, the Germans also invaded Belgium.
    For Britain, this was a reason for declaring war on Germany.
    The First World War had begun.

    Immediately after the start of the war, Germany lost one of its allies. Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, had withdrawn.
    The Italian view was that the two other allies had themselves launched the attack. Italy therefore felt that it was not required to come to their assistance.

  • The Battle of the IJzer

    Belgium was a neutral country, her neutrality guaranteed by France, the United Kingdom and the German Empire. The Germans tore up the guarantee on 4 August 1914. Thirty-eight divisions of the German 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies (some 850,000 men) crossed the Belgian border. The plan was to overwhelm the tiny Belgian army of 200,000 before sweeping south to surround and destroy the French.

    But the Belgians were not easily overwhelmed. While the British Expeditionary Force was busy crossing the Channel, the Belgians fought tenaciously, delaying the advance by a crucial day or two here and there, and harrying it at Antwerp. The Germans had expected to take Paris and overcome the French within 39 days; instead, they were forced to a standstill by the Allies in early September. So both the Germans and the Allies began to transfer forces northwards, towards the Channel ports, each one attempting to outflank the other as they pushed onwards.

    Meanwhile the remnants of the Belgian army, retreating from Antwerp, turned and stood their ground on the left bank of the IJzer River north of Ieper. The German Fourth Army attacked them on 20 October. Two days later part of a German division managed to cross the river, forcing the Belgians back to the Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide railway line. At Diksmuide itself, 6,500 French Fusiliers-marins, sent as reinforcements, suffered 50 per cent losses. The line held, but for how much longer?

    On 25 October, King Albert I, commander of the Belgian army, ordered the land behind the IJzer River to be flooded. On the coast at Nieuwpoort, the lock gates were opened before the next high tide and closed again before it began to ebb. With two high tides a day, it took several days to trap sufficient sea and block its various means of escape. But just as the Germans were about to make a final push on 29 and 30 October towards the Channel ports, the river and the flooded land became impassable. The Germans were compelled to retreat. Despite repeated attacks, the floodwaters secured the IJzer sector for the rest of the War.

  • The First Battle of Ieper

    By mid-October 1914 the line along the Flemish Ridge - 4 to 8 km from the centre of Ieper - was held by the French and British. On 18 October, the British 7th Infantry Division and 3rd Cavalry Division were ordered to march eastward and join the French cavalry in Roeselare. They never did. They had no idea of the scale of forces about to attack them.
    Two days later, it was the Germans who were on the high ground along the Flemish Ridge, including Passendale, which they held for the following three years. The next day, 21 October 1914, they launched their attack on the city and the First Battle of Ieper began. At Langemark, hardened professionals from the British 1st Division faced massed ranks of German reserves and volunteers, mostly army cadets and university students with only six weeks of military training. At least 3,000 died. A large number lie in the Studentenfriedhof, the German cemetery at Langemark.
    Despite their losses, the Germans pushed back the Allies relentlessly. By 31 October they had taken Geluveld and almost broke through the British line on the Menen Road. The next day they took the Mesen Ridge and Wijtschate while British troops recaptured Geluveld. The fate of Ieper hung in the balance. On 11 and 12 November the Germans took Sint-Elooi. By now the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as a professional army was virtually destroyed and cooks, batmen, signallers and other non-combatants were being ordered into action, with or without firearms.
    As the German attacks began to slacken, both sides subsided into exhaustion. It was the end of the First Battle of Ieper and the beginning of trench warfare - and winter. To prevent the Allies from using the city as winter quarters the Germans shelled it constantly and on 22 November set the Cloth Hall ablaze, together with the rest of the city centre. By now the Salient was less than half its original size and already some 100,000 men had lost their lives there. Another 400,000 or more would die there in the following three years.

  • The Christmas Truce

    There were signs of tacit agreements to 'live and let live' as soon as trench warfare began in November 1914. At various points, soldiers on both sides wrote about lulls in the fighting, especially at breakfast time, and also during the evening when the rations were brought up to the front line.
    Yet even though informal truces had occurred in almost every major campaign since the Peninsular War, the extent of the fraternization between British and German troops during Christmas 1914 was surprising. Contemporary accounts by officers and ordinary soldiers alike suggest at least two-thirds of the British-held sector was involved. The French and Belgians had similar experiences.
    Christmas Eve was a beautiful frosty moonlit night, made still more beautiful when the Germans lit candles on small Christmas trees and propped them on the parapet 'like the footlights of a theatre' as one British soldier described them. There was carol singing ('I don't think we were so harmonious as the Germans'). Then came cries of 'Hello, Tommy!', and 'Hello, Fritz!' 'Enemies' took tentative steps into No Man's Land, shook hands, lit each other's cigarettes, and exchanged gifts of German sausages and cigars, Maconnochie's tinned stew and Wills' tobacco, family photos and London newspapers.
    The truce lasted at least until the end of Boxing Day. At several points it continued until New Year and on into January. But in other sectors the war went on as usual. The situation could differ every 200 metres, depending on the attitude of the battalion commander. Wherever the truce happened, both sides took the opportunity to bury their dead and to improve their trench systems.


    During the Christmas Truce, men encountered 'enemies' who shared their longing to walk away from the horrors of the first four months of the War. Winston Churchill, Britain's 39-year-old First Lord of the Admiralty, had seen the Boer War at first hand as a correspondent and understood their dilemma. In November 1914 he wrote to his wife: 'What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute!'
    For many there was no such dilemma. Lt. Tyrell, the Medical Officer with 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, wrote in his diary: 'Thursday 24th, Christmas Eve. No peace here! Guns blowing off around Ploegsteert and Messines'. Others found themselves, at least temporarily, in a moral quandary. Brigadier Count Edward Gleichen, who was commander of the 15th Infantry Brigade at the time of the Christmas Truce, later wrote, 'When German soldiers came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks, what were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men.'
    There was no dilemma in the minds of those who led the Christian churches. They were all equally convinced that their side was fighting a just war. Yet to a man such as the Flemish artist, internationalist and pacifist Frans Masereel, the concept of 'a just war' was as absurd as it was grotesque. Masereel worked as an unpaid volunteer for the Red Cross in Geneva, sorting post for prisoners of war before using his artistic talent to make savage comments on the conduct of all the warring nations. His etchings appeared first in the pages of a monthly anti-war magazine called Les Tablettes and later in the daily newspaper La Feuille. Masereel used to arrive at 11pm, two hours before the paper went to press, pick his topic and etch his view of it then and there. It had to be right at the first attempt. There was no time for revisions.

    Frans Masereel, Flemings in Bucharest
    Cover page of La Feuille, 8 May 1918
    - What are you thinking about?
    - About being naturalised as a Romanian!
    - That's funny, I was thinking the same thing.
    Yet the war dragged on inexorably and officers who feared that the inertia of life in the trenches might lead to the very 'live and let live' philosophy of the Christmas Truce instructed subordinate commanders to encourage 'the offensive spirit of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power'.

  • At the front

    Life in the trenches

    Of all the military engagements of the Great War, the deadly battles of Verdun, the Somme and Passendale touch our imagination the most. And yet the word 'battle' features only rarely in memories and eye-witness accounts. What the men remember is the trenches: the boredom, the cold, the mud, the vermin and the rats, the wretchedness, and lastly, in the face of everything, adventure and friendship.


    Bad weather was the curse of the trenches. Just a shower was enough to transform everything into a sea of mud. Shell-holes several metres deep filled up immediately with mud in which men, field-guns and tanks became mired. The trenches, therefore, had to be constantly maintained. It was sometimes hard to find them, so unrecognizable had they become. For General Foch, the worst enemies were 'boue et boche' ('mud and the Boche').


    After the mud, the second curse was the cold. The winter of 1917 was extremely harsh: -20º at Ieper. The cold cut through everyone's clothes. It was scarcely possible to move in the trenches. As for making a fire, that was completely out of the question. Those who were on night watch suffered martyrdom. As a result of standing for long periods in the damp, cold trenches, men caught 'trench feet' - blue, lifeless feet, liable to develop gangrene.

    Rats and lice

    Rats swarmed in and around the trenches. Not only did they gnaw away at the soldiers' meagre provisions, but they also attacked the corpses which lay in no man's land. In his novel Im Westen nichts Neues ('All Quiet on the Western Front'), Erich Maria Remarque called them 'dead men's rats': 'They ate everyone's bread. Kropp rolled his bread up in his tent canvas and hid it under his head, but the rats ran over his face looking for the bread, stopping him from going to sleep.' Lice too were a dreadful curse. Hygiene in the trenches left something to be desired, and everyone suffered from lice. A louse can live for days on end without blood and can withstand the cold easily. With some men, they lived in their hundreds on every part of the body. Delousing constituted an excellent cure for boredom, and became a social activity.

    Mental suffering

    The suffering was not only physical, but mental, too. Life at the front was debilitating in several ways. First and foremost, there was boredom. In addition, there was the fear of death.
    Each day brought new victims of a grenade or some sniper. The soldiers were often face-to-face with death. The corpses in no man's land could not always be buried. Sometimes decomposing bodies stayed in front of the trenches.
    Lack of sleep, powerlessness and the daily confrontation with death and injury sapped the morale of the troops. According to the Echo des tranchées-ville (Trench-Town Echo) the soldiers were utterly miserable. 'One is plunged in a kind of despondency, worn down by the bleakness, with no more zest for life.'
    Some succumbed to madness. Although the army command made little of it, many underwent treatment for mental disorders, especially in the last years of the war.


    In the trenches, there were good moments, too. The men waited impatiently for the distribution of the rations, even if the cooking was poor and monotonous. If the rations came late or not at all, the soldiers were irritated to the point of mutiny.
    Another consolation was tobacco. Smoking had become very popular before the war at every level of society. Compared with now, tobacco and cigarettes cost nothing.
    Cats and other pets from derelict farms were coddled by the soldiers. The men had warm feelings, too, for the working animals - the mules, and above all the horses. Thousands of horses fell victim to grenades, bullets, sickness and exhaustion. Though apparently unmoved by the groans of fellow-soldiers, even the most battle-hardened veterans had difficulty in holding back the tears when a horse died.
    Although it might seem strange, many former combatants also had good memories of the war years. And not only those who idolized the heroism of the years spent at the front, such as the German Gefreiter, Adolf Hitler. A common purpose and shared dangers created links of friendship which made many old soldiers nostalgic about the past.

    The battles

    In almost every battle on the western front, thousands of soldiers met their deaths in order to win but a few hundred metres of land.
    Each battle began with an artillery barrage. The artillery, placed behind the front, attempted to destroy the enemy trenches. Continuous fire could last for hours and made an infernal din - so much so that when the wind came from the continent, artillery fire near to Ieper could be heard as far away as in London!
    After the barrage had stopped, the troops moved onto the attack. At an agreed signal, thousands of soldiers left their trenches in formation, followed by wave after wave of soldiers.
    Things seemed simple on paper. First, the artillery barrage would eliminate the enemy defence. After that, the attackers would cross no man's land, deal with whatever resistance they found, and occupy the enemy positions.
    In practice however, things were more complicated. The barrage might cause a lot of damage, but the defenders often managed to survive, safely hidden in underground shelters. When the barrage stopped, they hurried out into the open and started shooting the attacking forces.
    After a few metres, many soldiers were hit by a bullet or shrapnel. They would either die on the spot or be badly wounded. If they could not reach their own trenches, they would have to hang on for help. Failing that, death was waiting for them.
    The trenches were defended by huge rolls of barbed wire, often intact despite the artillery fire. Faced with an obstacle of that sort, the attackers were picked off with ease.
    Often, the soldiers who managed to cross no man's land did not know what they were to do afterwards. On the battlefield, every step out of the trenches or a shell-hole could be fatal. During the fighting, it was almost impossible to communicate or pass on orders. The telephone was of no help, as the lines ended where no man's land started. Only luminous signals turned out on occasion to be useful.
    When night fell, it was time to measure the metres of terrain gained, and to count how many men remained. On 31 July 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passendale, the British suffered 30,000 casualties, a quarter of whom died. Casualties always included the dead, the wounded and the missing. Some of the missing might have been taken prisoner, but others were left dead on the battlefield. In four years' time, over 200,000 men were reported missing on the Belgian front.

    On some battlefields, dozens of men died for each square metre of ground gained. With their machine-guns and howitzers, the defenders were always in a strong position. Aware of this advantage, the generals decided to send enough soldiers for there to be some left on arrival. Tens of thousands of soldiers paid for this tactic with their lives...

    No man's land

    What was no man's land? It was the strip of ground that lay between the front-line trenches of the opposing armies. No man's land ran like a ribbon all along the western front. The width varied. It could be as much as 1,000 m or as little as 50 m. It was fortified with barbed wire and jagged with tree-stumps blasted by shellfire. It was infested with rats that fed on the bodies of dead men and the putrefying carcasses of horses. It was pockmarked with shell-holes which filled with rainwater. Soldiers fell into them and drowned. And in Flanders they drowned in the mud, dragged under by the weight of their equipment.

    Sometimes, instead of 'going over the top', the infantry had to crawl into no man's land and lie waiting for the signal for a major attack. Every night, patrols crossed it on reconnaissance, or on raids to kill and capture the enemy. A patrol caught in the light of a flare would be destroyed by machine-gun bullets. Ernst Jünger, a German officer, said the noise of a sustained night-time artillery bombardment drove men to the point where they could neither recall their name nor count to three. Yet by day there might be little noise other than the occasional 'crack' of sniper fire.


    Until the early nineteenth century, weapons were made by artisans and battles were fought between small armies. War was a matter of traditional tactical formations, dashing improvisation and individual acts of heroism. By the end of the century, industry could churn out the machine gun in thousands, and as one account of the battle of Verdun put it, '...three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes'. The nature of war had changed fundamentally and for ever. Weapons had become more important than men. And simpler. Machine-gunnery required none of the skill of rapid rifle fire.
    No-one fully understood this in August 1914. It became apparent, at least to astute men in the front line, only after the Germans dug in to defend their territorial gains at the end of the year. However hard the Allies tried to break through the German line, they were stopped by automatic fire and pulverized by artillery: the 'new' weaponry and the 'old'. The defender held all the cards.
    Artillery in World War I fired further than it had in any previous major war (well over 20 km in the case of the biggest howitzers) so guns could be kept literally out of sight behind the lines. Increasingly sophisticated shells and the new and better mastery of recoil action also allowed guns to be fired rapidly without losing accuracy - as long as they were on firm ground. And by 1917, the firing pattern was far more sophisticated, with five or six successive lines of shells creeping steadily forward in front of the infantry as it advanced.
    Even so, neither side had a clear advantage in weaponry, not even the machine gun. So both sides turned to new inventions to try to break the deadlock. They defended themselves with vast quantities of barbed wire which was almost impossible to destroy until tanks were developed, and with concrete shelters. They attacked with gas, flame-throwers, bombs, tanks and grenades. (Grenades were to World War I what the bayonet had been to the battle of Waterloo). They dug mines under enemy lines and packed them with high explosives.


    22 April 1915 was an ill-omened date, as that was the very first occasion when toxic gases were used. A yellowish-green cloud of chlorine gas crept towards the Allied trenches at Steenstrate. Canadian and French soldiers were the first victims.
    During the entire war, the Germans were to retain supremacy in chemical weapons. Major companies such as Bayer and BASF manufactured gases, each more effective and more deadly than the last.
    Initially the gas was emitted from large cylinders simply by opening a tap. Later, gas grenades were more successful.
    Gas was extremely dangerous, but fortunately difficult to use. The wind had to be coming from the right direction. Otherwise the gas would hang in a cloud or might return. Where the wind was concerned, the Germans found themselves on the wrong side of the front, on the east, in an area where the wind generally blows from the west.
    At Steenstrate, the Germans used chlorine gas. In December 1915, they attacked with the distinctly more toxic phosgene. Mustard gas (or yperite, from the name Ypres) was used for the first time at the front in July 1917. The purpose of this gas was not to kill but to render soldiers unfit for combat.
    The only protection from gas was to wear a gas mask. A few weeks after the first attack, the British received their first primitive masks. But it was not until 1917 that a mask was developed which was truly effective against all gases except mustard gas, which also penetrated through the skin.
    More than 90 percent of victims returned to the front after a gas attack. Even so, many of them were to suffer all their lives from respiratory disorders and anxiety.

    Medical care

    War on an industrial scale produced casualties to match. In theory the Allies were well-prepared, in practice they were not. Two-thirds of the Belgian soldiers who lost their lives because of The Battle of the IJzer died at the railheads of Dunkirk and Calais, lying in rows for days on end waiting for treatment that never came. Without the help of the volunteer ambulance units, even more Belgians and French marines would have lost their lives.
    In the first months of the War, medical staff on both sides were overwhelmed as much by the nature of the injuries as by the numbers. On the Western Front, the War was being fought on richly manured farmland. Soil filled with bacteria got into the wounds which putrefied and ballooned up, full of gas. This was gas gangrene, a condition that had nothing to do with gas warfare but which killed men - even with relatively minor wounds - in far greater numbers. There were no antibiotics and none of the antiseptics developed during the War were effective. The best treatment was to remove damaged tissue as quickly as possible.
    When a soldier was wounded in the line, he was taken to the nearest regimental aid-post, poste de secours, hulppost or Verbandplatz, which was usually close by. Once the wound was dressed, he either walked or was carried back to an advanced dressing station for an anti-tetanus shot and a bone-shaking ride by motor ambulance or horse-drawn vehicle to the nearest mobile hospital, known as a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), hôpital mobile, veldhospitaal or Feldlazarett.
    Some of these mobile hospitals were in commandeered buildings but many were under canvas, springing up like small towns beside the railheads so that the wounded could be evacuated easily. But the trains that took away the wounded - the conveyor-belts of this industrialized war - also brought back fresh stocks of ammunition, as well as fresh troops. The ammunition was stockpiled beside the railheads, a sitting target for the enemy artillery shells which inevitably crashed into the flimsy hospital structures nearby
    Large numbers of wounded died before they got to the mobile hospitals. Others died lying on stretchers outside, waiting for a bed. Of the British soldiers, those who could be saved were taken slowly and circuitously by rail to the safety of one of the base hospitals near the Channel coast, stopping from time to time at other aid-posts and mobile hospitals. If you were unlucky, you were treated in a base hospital and sent back to the line. But every British soldier prayed that his wound would be a 'Blighty one', something bad enough to justify a trip in a hospital ship back to England (nicknamed 'Blighty' by soldiers serving in India, from the Hindustani bilayati meaning 'a place some distance away'), but not so bad as to handicap them for the rest of their lives.

  • Behind the front

    A mixed population

    Apart from the soldiers in billets, there were many other military behind the front such as transport troops and labour corpses. They had to bring material and ammunition up to the front or they had to repair roads. One of them was the Chinese Labour Corps, consisting of labourers from the territory of Wei-hai-Wei. Also many large Casualty Clearing Stations (Field Hospitals) were to be found behind the front. Nowadays some large military cemeteries remind us of this function.
    There were countless women behind the front. Mainly they were young Belgian refugees: nurses, laundry-workers, women who deloused uniforms, or who earned a living in cafés, restaurants or brothels. Many women worked indirectly for the army, for instance in the armaments factories. There they replaced men who had gone to the front.
    The prisoners of war formed a separate group behind the lines - men who had been taken prisoner or who had surrendered. Surrender was dangerous, as any wrong move might get you killed. Those who were accepted were generally well treated. They were transferred to camps behind the front where they were given fatigue-duties. Propaganda from either side at the front aimed at encouraging soldiers to surrender.

    Propaganda and censorship

    In the view of the authorities, bad news could only demoralize the people. The press was censored so that everyone remained in ignorance. Braving the censor, Le Canard enchaîné was launched in Paris. As its founder, Maurice Maréchal pointed out, 'Everyone knows that without exception the French press passes on to its readers only news of impeccable truth. Well then, the public has had enough. The public wants untrue news for a change. That's what they will get.'
    On both sides the most fantastic rumours were told about the enemy. In the early months of the war, the allied press accused the 'Huns', as the Germans were called, of cutting of the hands of Belgian children. On the other hand, the Germans believed that all Belgian civilians were armed and had the intention to shoot at them from behind.
    Apart from leave, parcels and letters constituted the only link with home. But letters were censored. In this way the army command wanted to ensure that no valuable information was passed on to the enemy, and that life at the front was not depicted in too negative a way. By reading the letters, at the same time the army command knew the morale of the troops.

    Poperinge and Roeselare

    The luckiest soldiers were quartered near to a town. There, they found food, drink, cigarettes, women and souvenirs. The Allies went to Poperinge, Bailleul and Saint-Omer, and the Germans to Roeselare, Ghent or Ostend. The soldiers tried to make the most of their meagre pay - a British infantryman earned a shilling a day, and a Belgian private had only a fraction of what a working man earned.
    In some towns, such as Poperinge or Roeselare, there were prostitutes everywhere. As hygiene in the brothels left something to be desired, there was a real risk of venereal disease. Any infected soldier was out of circulation for at least a month. The army tackled the problem in several ways - with punishment, contraceptive sheaths, medical inspections of the 'short arm', even setting up official brothels, called 'houses of tolerance', which were easier to keep a check on.
    Care was taken of the souls of the soldiers, most of whom were believers. Each army had its chaplains, and private organizations were also active. One of the best known was Talbot House in Poperinge. It was a club for soldiers with one unusual difference - officers and men were treated on an equal footing. Services were held in the attic chapel, often for men who were to leave for battle the following day

    The homefront

    During the Great War, not only armies, but entire nations clashed. They needed so many weapons and men that the home front, too, had to fight in its own way. In order to provide the huge quantities of weapons and ammunition, the armaments industry swallowed up the entire workforce. In 1914, 50,000 Frenchmen worked in weapons manufacture, as against 1.7 million in 1918! The economy had become a war economy.
    The absence of hundreds of thousands of young men had major social repercussions. Their place in the fields and factories was often taken by women. As a result, the social position of women underwent a radical change during the war. Well-to-do women made themselves useful in charity work. In the early years of the war, a large number of committees took care of refugees, the wounded and the homeless.
    Women who had a husband, a son or a brother at the front lived in perpetual anxiety. The longer the conflict lasted, the greater the number of dead in each village, neighbourhood or street. The British Pals' Battalions - all volunteers from the same factory, the same neighbourhood or association - were stationed together at the front, and sometimes lost over half of their manpower in one swoop. Their families and loved ones suffered a dreadful ordeal.
    The people had a hard life. Usury was rife - anything which was scarce became extremely expensive. In nations at war, the main foodstuffs were rationed; coupons were needed to obtain them.

    Occupied Belgium

    The situation in occupied Belgium was dire. Agriculture, industry and imports had come to a standstill. The Comité National d'Aide et d'Alimentation had received permission from the German authorities to organize food supplies. American food aid came from the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, which was overseen by the future President Hoover. Throughout the world, aid campaigns were organized for 'brave little Belgium'.
    In occupied Belgium, civilians had to have a permit in order to travel (since then, every Belgian has had an identity card). The economy was harnessed to the German war machine. Even so, hundreds of thousands of people were without a job. In 1916, the occupiers introduced compulsory work for all men between the ages of 14 and 60 - later it was the women's turn. Some 120,000 Belgian civilians were occupied behind the front or deported to Germany, some willingly.
    In Belgium, armed resistance was almost nonexistent, but military information was passed on, and the railway line to Aachen was sabotaged more than once. Young people tried to flee the country in order to join up with the army behind the IJzer. To stop them, the Germans had closed the Dutch border with high-voltage electrified barbed wire. Many youngsters were killed by it.

    On guard, in billets and on leave

    No soldier spent all the war years at the front. A spell in the front-line trenches generally did not last more than four days, except when relief was late coming. After that, the men spent two or three days on guard in the second line, where they did light duties and could, if needed, send reinforcements to the front lines. After guard duty, the men had the right to two to four days' rest in their quarters.
    Generally the men stayed in huge camps, consisting of huts or tents. Some were billeted with local people. Each soldier waited impatiently for the moment of the relief. 'It is marvellous to be out of the trenches. It is like being born again. We are free to say 'in an hour's time'. When freedom to anticipate is being permanently challenged, one understands as never before how much a man lives by hope.' (C.E. Montague)
    The men returning from the front were exhausted. The first thing they did was sleep. After that, they went off in search of hot water, clean clothes and a good meal, things which they had sometimes gone without for several weeks. The camps were tedious. Apart from pottering about, playing cards or even gardening, there was nothing to do. Resting, too, was relative - there were generally plenty of fatigue-duties.
    The British, the Germans, most of the French and a few of the Belgians occasionally went away on leave, but it happened only rarely. The men waited eagerly for their papers. But they came back ill-at-ease. Their families did not understand what was happening at the front. Some soldiers hardly had time to get any benefit from their leave. Scottish soldiers received exactly one week, just like the English, but they had much further to travel.

  • Second battle of Ieper

    On 22 April 1915, at 5 pm, a greenish-yellow cloud rose slowly into the air from the German lines at Steenstrate. This was chlorine gas. The French and Algerian soldiers in the front line fled to the rear, yet many of them would never reach safety. In a few hours' time, the Germans had moved forward four kilometres towards the Ieper-IJzer Canal. The speed of their advance surprised even them. The German troops were given the order to dig themselves in.
    Following the gas attack, the Allied commanders realized that Ieper was now in danger. The Canadians therefore launched a counterattack to cover the flanks of the retreating French. They were joined the next day by the British, Indians and Belgians. This marked the start of the Second Battle of Ieper. The fighting would last five weeks.
    The threat was greatest to the north of Ieper, where German units had crossed the Ieperlee Canal in two places. Inch by inch, French and Belgian troops managed to drive them back. However, heavy German shelling and renewed gas attacks claimed many lives. The positions at Passendale, Zonnebeke and Polygon Wood were all cleared.
    To the east of Ieper, the Germans were confronted by British troops. At Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood and Hoge, there was fierce fighting for every inch of ground.
    The civilians who hadn't already fled from Ieper were now ordered to evacuate. Even Camille Delaere, the enterprising priest of St Peter's, and Geoffrey Winthrop Young, the head of the voluntary Friends' Ambulance Unit, were told to leave the city. Only the military remained. Although Ieper was still in British hands, it was by now little more than a deserted ruin.

    The Second Battle of Ieper drew to a close at the end of May, due to lack of ammunition and manpower. The Germans had succeeded in pushing forward several kilometres across a large part of the Ieper Salient, thereby advancing ever closer to the city. Five weeks of fighting had taken a heavy toll. The Germans had lost 35,000 dead and wounded, the British 60,000, the French 10,000 and the Belgians 1,500.

  • Artois and Champagne

    In May 1915, French and British troops launched an attack in Artois. The fighting lasted several weeks and cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. Apparently, the heavily-defended German positions were extremely difficult to take. It was a hard lesson, yet neither side took it seriously enough at this stage.

    In autumn 1915, the Allies again tried to mount an offensive. This time they were to attack on two fronts: the French in Champagne and the British in Artois.
    In Champagne, the artillery bombardment lasted three days. The Germans were therefore hardly surprised when the French infantry emerged from their trenches, and they were able to repulse the attack. Eighteen days later, the French were forced to withdraw. They had lost almost 150,000 men.

  • Verdun

    Early in 1916, the Germans felt that the time had come to launch an attack on the western front. The place they chose was Verdun. Like Ieper, Verdun was located in a salient, which meant that the defenders were being attacked on three flanks. However, the Germans didn't want to take the city. They hoped instead that the French army would defend Verdun - a city with immense symbolic value - to the last man. Their aim was to cause the French such heavy losses that they would beg for peace.
    On 21 February 1916, the shelling began. Verdun was not well enough defended and the French were overrun. After four days, the 'impregnable' fort at Douaumont fell with hardly a struggle. The Kaiser, who went to visit the battlefield, was wildly enthusiastic. On the very same day, the defence of the city was entrusted to General Pétain, who mapped out a Voie sacrée between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. Each week, this road was used to transport 90,000 men and 50,000 tonnes of equipment to the front.
    After a few weeks, the German advance on Verdun was brought to a standstill. Despite the use of flame-throwers and phosgene, a new and deadly gas, the Germans were no longer able to force a breakthrough.
    At Verdun, hundreds of thousands of men on each side engaged in a life-and-death battle for every hill, bunker and scrap of land. Soldiers and officers were cut off from their units and literally fought to the death. This bloody stalemate would drag on for nine months.
    'On les aura,' Pétain had said, and he was proved correct. In autumn 1916, the French were finally able to push back the Germans - but at an unspeakable cost. The French lost 160,000 dead and missing and over 200,000 wounded. The German losses were almost as high.
    After Verdun, both commanders-in-chief were forced to resign. In August, the German General Falkenhayn made way for the joint commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff. On the French side, Joffre was replaced by Nivelle in December.

  • The Somme

    The long-drawn-out fighting at Verdun was progressively exhausting the French army. At the request of the French, the British therefore launched a huge diversionary attack further west. This would become known as the Battle of the Somme.
    The United Kingdom was the last of the major protagonists to introduce mandatory conscription, which it did in early 1916. As the Battle of the Somme claimed more lives, conscripts were drafted in to take the place of the professional soldiers and volunteers.
    1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, was a disaster. For an entire week, the British artillery had fired off more than 1.5 million shells. The British firmly believed that nothing would be left of the enemy. But the Germans were so deep underground that most had survived the bombardment. Moreover, the British shells were of very uneven quality. The result when the British emerged from their trenches was sheer slaughter. In one single day alone, they lost more than 57,000 dead and wounded.

    On 15 September, at Flers, the British unveiled a new weapon the tank. However, 31 of the 49 tanks used during the attack succumbed to mechanical difficulties.
    The Battle of the Somme did not end until mid-November, with the approach of winter. By this time, the British had lost 400,000 (dead, missing, wounded or prisoners-of-war). The Germans had lost an equal number, the French half that figure. These enormous sacrifices had won the Allies barely 12 kilometres of ground.
    The Somme was to the British what Verdun was to the French. The losses of 1 July were especially traumatic, and helped to dispel forever any remaining illusions about the invincibility of the Empire. After the disasters of Verdun and the Somme, no-one knew how to go on. The German Prince Max von Baden wrote: '1916 ended in bitter disappointment for both sides.

    The Hindenburg Line

    1917 began with a major surprise when the Germans pulled back across a large section of the front in northern France, sometimes by as much as 40 kilometres. The new front line - the Siegfriedstellung or Hindenburg Line - was far better defended than its predecessor. German Pioniere had worked on these defences for several months.
    On their way, the Germans destroyed villages, laid mines, poisoned wells and blocked roads to make it impossible for the Allies to pursue them.

    Arras and the Chemin des Dames

    The German withdrawal was no coincidence. At the time, the Allies were planning a major offensive and the Germans had found out about it. In April 1917, the offensive in question was finally launched: the British and Canadians attacked towards Arras and the French attacked at the Chemin des Dames.
    The French attack was a fiasco; the attackers stood little chance against the powerful German defences. After five days, the French had sustained 130,000 losses, including 35,000 dead.
    For many French soldiers, the attack at the Chemin des Dames was the last straw. They accepted the war but not the way it was conducted. Mutinies broke out among several French units and entire units refused to go to the front.
    In the meantime, the newly appointed French commander-in-chief, General Nivelle, had himself been replaced. His successor, General Pétain, showed a greater understanding of the soldiers and their needs and was therefore able to restore order.


    In June 1917, the British again decided to launch a major offensive. This time their goal was to break through the Ieper Salient and move towards the North Sea ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge where the dreaded German U-boats were berthed.
    On 7 June, the British dealt their first blow. From Hill 60 to Ploegsteert Wood across Mesen Ridge, they exploded a total of 19 underground mines. Entire battalions were buried alive and the reverberations were felt as far away as London and Paris.
    Unfortunately, the Allies failed to exploit the breach they had made in the German lines. Rather than pushing through their advantage immediately, they stuck to their original plan of not attacking until July, thereby losing precious time

    The Battle of Passendale

    On 16 July 1917, the British artillery began shelling the German defences in the Ieper Salient. However, after two weeks the German positions were far from obliterated. The terrain also proved a problem for the British. Because the Germans held the higher ground on the Salient, they could see everything across a very wide front. On 31 July, the infantry emerged from the trenches. The Third Battle of Ieper had begun. It would enter the history books as the Battle of Passendale.
    Over 14 weeks, the British would try at least 10 times to break through to Passendale. Sometimes they managed to gain a few hundred metres of ground, but usually the attack became bogged down in the mud. The summer of 1917 was the wettest in living memory. The battlefield was nearly impassable for the soldiers, let alone the heavy artillery. But the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, insisted on sticking to his plan. The British prime minister Lloyd George failed to intervene.
    On 10 November, the weather forced the pointless struggle to a conclusion. A few days earlier, Canadian troops had finally taken the ruins of Passendale. The Allies had moved barely 10 kilometres closer to their goal. In 1918, they would again lose all these gains in just three days.
    In the 100 days of the Battle of Passendale, the British lost 300,000 men (dead, missing or wounded). Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passendale contains the graves of 12,000 men and commemorates a further 35,000 missing.

  • Spring 1918 - The Germans attack !

    In spring, the Germans staked everything on one bold move. In Russia, the tsar had abdicated and the country had withdrawn from the conflict. The Germans no longer had to worry about the Russian front. On the other hand, fresh American troops were to arrive. Hence the Germans' haste to finish once and for all. In March 1918, they launched a major offensive against Paris.
    The signal for the attack was given on 21 March 1918. Victorious at first, the Germans advanced 60 km and took 80,000 prisoners of war. For the first time since 1914, there was fighting in fields, woods and villages which had until then escaped the ravages of war. The Germans closed in on Paris. With their powerful field-gun Langer Gustav they could shell Paris from a distance of 120 km. For six months the city was shelled regularly.
    The Allies were aware that they needed to cooperate in order to halt the German advance. Foch was appointed generalissimo of the Allied armies, and subsequently promoted to the rank of marshal of France.
    After a few days, the Allies, having regained their presence of mind, organized the defence. At the beginning of April, they stopped the German advance. But the fact remained that since 1914 the Germans had never captured so much territory.
    In May 1918, the Germans attacked close to the Aisne. They took the Chemin des Dames, crossed the river and occupied Soissons. Paris was no more than 50 km away.
    Initially, it was Ludendorff's intention to strike in Flanders simultaneously, but he did not have enough fresh troops to do this successfully. Sickness, hunger and desertion were undermining an exhausted and already decimated German army. It became clear that the Germans were at the end of their strength.

  • The Americans

    And then, finally, the Americans came. From the beginning of 1918 onward, the US sent a large fighting force to Europe. In July, August and September, some 10,000 American soldiers a day came ashore in the French ports. Increasingly, the Germans found themselves in a position of inferiority.
    The fresh troops arriving direct from America restored French and British morale. But at the same time, the encounter with the Sammies was a culture shock. 'The Americans love sardines, jam and biscuits,' a French soldier observed. 'It's really disgusting to watch them eat, because they make a revolting mixture of everything and wash it down with several mugs of plonk.'

  • The tide is turning...

    On 8 August 1918, luck finally turned. British, Canadian, Australian, and French troops gathered outside Amiens to attack. In a single day, 15,000 Germans surrendered.
    Victory was close. From 8 August to 25 September, the Allies attacked uninterruptedly with planes and tanks. All told, 140,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner and half a million deserted. Defeat of Germany was now just a matter of time.
    Allied superiority had become incontrovertible - they had more troops, more field-guns, more tanks and more planes. Unlike the Germans in the previous spring, they decided to advance slowly, to allow the infantry to follow the artillery. The Germans were therefore forced further and further back.
    In September, the Allies finally took the Hindenburg line, thought of as impregnable. Although some Germans defended like lions, others surrendered like sheep.

    The eastern front

    Just as on the western front, the situation on the eastern front became untenable for the Germans and their allies. The Turks and the Bulgarians were hemmed in on all sides. At the end of September, Bulgaria surrendered, followed a month later by Turkey.
    In order to save the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and his own reign, Karl I promised great autonomy to the various peoples. But it was already too late: Budapest was in open rebellion, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia declared their independence. Vienna was in turmoil. At the end of October, the Austrian army was annihilated by the Italians.
    The country was to surrender on 3 November.

  • November 1918

    On 9 November, the German Republic was proclaimed in Berlin. On learning that he was no longer emperor, Wilhelm II left his headquarters in Spa, and took refuge in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war.

    On 11 November 1918, the German capitulation was signed at Compiègne, in a railway carriage. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at 11 am, arms were finally laid down.

  • The Reckoning

    Of course, there were celebrations in all the Allied countries. The city of Brussels emptied to welcome King Albert I on his triumphal return. Salutes re-echoed in Paris and London, where hundreds of thousands of people were reunited. But the festivities masked a sad truth: four years' war had devastated their countries.
    During the course of the Great War, 68 million men were mobilized. Among them, there were 9 million deaths - in other words, almost as many as the current population of Belgium.
    Russia lost 2 million men, Germany 1.8 million, France 1.3 million, the United Kingdom 1.1 million, and Austria-Hungary 1 million. All told, Belgium was mourning for about 40,000 soldiers and over 5,000 civilians.
    The dead were commemorated everywhere. Military cemeteries were created along the front. In each capital, a monument was erected to the unknown soldier. Generally, this was an unnamed soldier picked out by a blind victim of the war. Each village put up its own monument to the dead.

    Heavy economic consequences

    The war had also devastated the economies of the combatant nations. In the region of the front, entire villages, roads, bridges and factories had to be reconstructed. In Belgium, one fifth of the prewar infrastructure was destroyed. In the twenties, hundreds of hectares of arable land were littered with explosives and war debris and criss-crossed with trenches. Even today, munitions stores and unexploded shells are regularly found.
    The combatant nations were on the point of bankruptcy. Although it is true that the United Kingdom and France had won the war, the two countries were heavily indebted to the USA, the new superpower. Neither France nor Britain was ever to regain its prewar influence.
    Germany was completely ruined, partly on account of crippling war reparations. The outcome was rapidly felt - inflation reached an absolutely dazzling level. Anyone who had money spent it immediately, as in a few hours it would no longer be worth the paper it was printed on. Zeroes piled up at an incredible rate - ten marks became a hundred marks, a thousand marks, a million marks, ten million marks.

  • The Versailles Treaty

    The Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, five years to the day after the Sarajevo incident.


    The Treaty of Versailles was very harsh for Germany, which had to forego one seventh of its territory. Alsace-Lorraine reverted to France. To the east, the new Poland acquired part of Prussia. Other regions were given to Denmark, and later to Lithuania. Danzig (Gdansk) became a 'free city'. As for Belgium, it was awarded the eastern towns of Eupen and Malmedy.
    Germany had to renounce its colonies, which now were held under mandate. Ruanda-Urundi was placed under Belgian mandate.
    The German army and economy underwent a harsh shock. The army was reduced to 100,000 men. In June 1919, the Germans had to sink their own fleet near to Scapa Flow, off Scotland. The heavy industry of the Saar valley came under French control, and, lastly, the Rhineland became an occupied region.
    Germany was also ordered to pay huge war compensation: 20 million gold marks for the first two years alone!

    The map of Europe is redrawn

    President Wilson of the USA felt that every people had a right to its own nationhood. It was therefore decided to dismantle the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    Austria suddenly became a small country, as did Hungary. The rest of the territory was shared out between Poland, Italy, Romania and two new nations, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
    Of the great Ottoman Empire, only Turkey remained. The Near East was subjected to British and French rule.
    The victors authorized the creation of four new nations which formerly were part of Russia: Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Poland and Romania were also to be given Russian territories

    The league of nations

    The Treaty of Versailles also led to the League of Nations, within which conflicts were henceforth to be negotiated. Neither the defeated nations, however, nor the Soviet Union, were accepted as members. Furthermore, the American Senate refused to ratify the treaty, despite the insistence of President Wilson. The United States was never part of the League of Nations. The ambitious project became a colossus with feet of clay.

    The balance of power is transformed

    After Versailles, Europe was completely reshaped. New states emerged: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Romania doubled its size. Germany, Russia, Turkey, Austria and Hungary all lost extensive territories. The armistice also sounded the death-knell for several great dynasties: the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria, the Romanovs in Russia and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
    The balance of powers between the various nations had been transformed. France and the United Kingdom had lost influence. It gradually became clear that the United States was the new superpower. The Soviet Union would soon follow.
    In Germany, Adolf Hitler was to override the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles one by one. Twenty years later, the country was ready to start a new world war.

  • 1919 - Social changes


    For many people, the end of the war was the start of a new era. There was a prevalent impression that the time was ripe, that the moment had come for sweeping change. Events in Russia gave rise to a new hope - the tyrannical tsar had been ousted and a new society was born, even though a bloody civil war was still tearing the country apart.
    Changes occurred at every level. All at once it seemed perfectly normal to introduce an eight-hour day, to increase wages and have socialist ministers. These measures, which would have been unthinkable four years earlier, encountered hardly any resistance. The middle classes realized that if they didn't make a few concessions the workers would become infected with revolutionary ideas.


    For four long years, workers and peasants had defended their homeland. After the war, they were rewarded with single universal suffrage: everyone had the right to one single vote. But in France and Belgium, it was not until the end of the Second World War that universal suffrage was also granted to women.
    During the war, women had replaced men in the factories and in the fields. But life resumed its course after the war. For most men, a woman's place was in the home. Once again, it was only after the Second World War that things would change.