Is All Still Quiet on the Western Front?

A hundred years after the “war to end all wars” ended, a journey to the front lines of World War I reveals the poignant battles and their tragic legacies

Smithsonian Magazine
(Tomas van Houtryve)

One Sunday morning in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris, lured by hydrangeas, roses and pigeons, I strolled past a playground filled with children’s voices. The cool white Parisian sky made me want to sit on a bench and do nothing. Behind the playground a church bell tolled the hour, a crow told time in its own voice and a breeze suddenly hissed through the maples.

It was a hundred years since the First World War had come to an end. Earlier that morning, approaching Paris by taxi, I passed an exit sign for the Marne, reminding me that in one of the many emergencies of that war thousands of soldiers were rushed from Paris by taxi to fight the First Battle of the Marne. Now a couple sat down on the bench next to me and began kissing. Who is to say that what they were doing wasn’t a better use of their time than studying and carefully remembering war? And how then shall I recommend the Great War to you? Let me try: Its hideous set pieces retain their power to balefully dazzle us right through the earthen darkness of a hundred years! Let its symbol be the 198-pound German Minenwerfer, which a Canadian eyewitness described as follows: “At night it has a tail of fire like a rocket. It kills by concussion.”

This essay, my attempt at remembrance, is, like any of our efforts, peculiar, accidental and limited. I should have visited Berlin, London, Vienna, Flanders, the city formerly known as Brest-Litovsk, and the various territories of the warring colonial empires. (For instance, the 295,000 Australians who fought, and the 46,000 who died, will be barely mentioned here.) I would also have liked to see my own country as it was in 1918.

Instead, to see where the conclusive fighting was done, I went to France to find what battle graves I could: the Marne, the Somme, the Meuse-Argonne, Verdun, the St. Quentin Canal. The “fountains of mud and iron,” in Remarque’s phrase, had run dry; what about the hatreds and memories?

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BEGINNINGS, RAPTURES, ROBBERIES

You might think Europe and its 40 million finally dead or wounded were dragged into the muck by a series of insults and bumbling miscommunications, a whole continent at the mercy of foolhardy monarchs and military strategists who, “goaded by their relentless timetables,” as Barbara Tuchman relates in The Guns of August, “were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start.” Not so, according to many participants. “The struggle of the year 1914 was not forced on the masses—no, by the living God—it was desired by the whole people.” Thus the recollection of a young Austrian soldier named Adolf Hitler, who enlisted with a Bavarian infantry regiment as quickly as he could, and served almost to the end. “Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at such a time.” Could the war truly have been desired? That sounds as fatuous as the grinning death’s-head emblem on a German A7V tank. But a German historian who despised the Führer likewise remembered the “exaltation of spirit experienced during the August days of 1914.” For him, the war was one “of defense and self-protection.”

Like Hitler, the aspiring British poet Robert Graves joined the colors almost immediately. He enlisted to delay going to Oxford (“which I dreaded”), because Germany’s defiance of Belgian neutrality incensed him, and because he had a German middle name and German relatives, which caused him to be suspected. Other Britons were as enthusiastic as Hitler. “Anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety percent of the population,” observed Bertrand Russell, the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher. Trotsky, witnessing the jubilation in Vienna, remarked that for “the people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness,” the “alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise.”

One might equally well blame diplomatic incompetence, Austro-Hungarian hubris or the partially accidental multiplier effect of a certain assassination in Sarajevo. And then there was Kaiser Wilhelm, with his mercurial insecurities, military fetish and withered arm—to what extent was he the cause? In a photograph taken New Year’s Day, 1913, we see him on parade, beaming in outright exultation and taking clear kindred pleasure in wearing a British admiral’s uniform. (He was, after all, the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria.) Twelve years after the armistice, the British military theoretician Liddell Hart, who was shelled and gassed as a young infantry officer at the front, made the case against the kaiser bluntly: “By the distrust and alarm which his bellicose utterances and attitude created everywhere he filled Europe with gunpowder.”

The historian John Keegan, in his classic account The First World War, called it “a tragic, unnecessary conflict.” If that fails to satisfy you, let me quote Gary Sheffield, a revisionist: “A tragic conflict, but it was neither futile nor meaningless,” his idea being that liberal democracy in Europe depended on it. Meanwhile, in came the Russian autocracy and Turkish sultanate to complement the empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary; however necessary they thought the war, by entering it they utterly erased themselves.

Some war tourists may be disposed to amble along a more fatalistic line, so here it is: Three years before the slaughter, a certain Gen. Friedrich von Bernhardi explained the birds and the bees in Germany and the Next War: “Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy, budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.”

Reader, have you ever read more inspiring words to live by?

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THE STATIC

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The German invasion in August 1914 came so close to Paris the French government soon fled to Bordeaux, but later in September the Allies pushed the front back beyond the Marne. For nearly four years gains were more often measured in yards than in miles. | (Sources: The Hindenburg Line 1917 by Patrick Osborn & Marc Romanych; World War I: The Definitive Visual History; Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I by Nick Lloyd; United States Military Academy Department of History) (Map by Complex Stories, Haisam Hussein)

A certain influential treatise entitled Weapons and Tactics, published in 1943 by the British military historian and man-of-letters Tom Wintringham and updated 30 years later, divides military history into alternating armored and unarmored periods. The Great War was something in between. Those glorious unarmored days when a sufficiently frenetic cavalry or bayonet charge could break through enemy lines still dazzled the generals. Yet the “defensive power” of machine guns, of barbed wire, and of the spade (for digging) “had ended mobility in war.” Meanwhile, the future belonged to tanks: “a brood of slug-shaped monsters, purring, or roaring and panting, and even emitting flames as they slid or pivoted over the ground.”

Underestimating this armoring trend, German strategists prepared to follow the “Schlieffen Plan,” named for Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of Germany’s Imperial General Staff from 1891 to 1905, who conceived a rapid flank attack around French firepower. It had to be rapid, in order to defeat France and swing round against Russia before the latter completed mobilization. Well, why not?

To strike France according to timetable, one had to set aside the trifling matter of Belgium’s neutrality. But who dreaded their armor, their dog-pulled machine guns? So the Germans put on their knee-high, red-brown leather jackboots and, in the first days of August 1914, marched on Belgium.

The First Battle of the Marne began in early September. At this point the opposing armies still enjoyed some freedom of movement. The tale runs thus: An over-rapid advance (à la Schlieffen) of an already disequilibrated German Army beyond its line of supply was answered by French troops—some of whom, as you already know, were frantically delivered to the front by Parisian cabs—and a strong attack on the German right flank led finally to a so-called “failure of nerve,” which caused the Germans to retreat to the Aisne River. Here they settled into trenches until 1918.

As one Gen. Heinz Guderian put it: “The positions ultimately evolved into wired, dug-in machine-gun nests which were secured by outposts and communication trenches.” Take note of this German, if you would. He was young enough and flexible enough to learn from his defeats. We will meet him again and again.

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Upon his arrival at the front, Robert Graves’ commander explained that trenches were temporary inconveniences. “Now we work here all the time, not only for safety but for health,” Graves writes. How healthy do you suppose they were, for men sleeping in slime, fighting lice and rats, wearing their boots for a week straight? The parapet of one trench was “built up with ammunition-boxes and corpses.” Others, Graves wrote, “stank with a gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell.” From an Englishman at Gallipoli: “The flies entered the trenches at night and lined them with a density which was like moving cloth.”

Let the little village of Vauquois, 15 miles from Verdun, represent the trenches. The Germans took it on September 4, 1914. In March of the following year, the French regained the southern half, so the Germans dug in at the hill-crest and in the cemetery. In September 1918 the Americans finally cleared the place. During those three static years, a mere 25 feet separated the battle lines in Vauquois—surely close enough for the adversaries to hear each other.

Ascending a short steep path through thick forest, where strands of ivy ran up verdant trees approaching the white sky with its sprinkle of rain, I found on the summit near an unimpressive monument the ruins of Vauquois’ town hall, which were forbidden to the public by means of red and white striped tape. Twisted rusted relics of agricultural equipment lay on display in a kind of sandbox. Here one could look down over a checkerboard of forest and field to faraway Montfaucon, one of the enemy strongpoints that Gen. John J. Pershing’s “doughboys” would face in the great Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918. And just below me lay a great crater in the grass, its depth maybe 100 feet or more, where at one point the Germans had detonated 60 tons of subterranean explosives, killing 108 French infantrymen in an instant.

I descended into no man’s land, passing the hole where the church used to be, then up into the German positions where a steel-faced hole, almost filled in, grinned below the grass. Ahead rose more forest—none of it old-growth, of course, for by 1915 Vauquois and its trees had been improved into mucky craters. The fact that everything was now overgrown I had thought to be a blessing, but taking a step into the greenness I encountered waist-high tangles of barbed wire or dangerous bunker holes whose lips for all I knew might collapse beneath me.

To pulverize positions at so near a distance, a soldier was well served by the so-called trench mortar, which fired its projectile almost straight up, so that it would come down with great force upon one’s neighbors. And just here I found a trench mortar excavated from its concrete-and-steel-lined pit. Like most of the ordnance still remaining on the Western Front, it wore a black finish—the work, said the local historian Sylvestre Bresson, who was my battlefield guide for a part of my travels, of postwar preservationists, for during its working career it would have sported field-gray paint. The thing came up to my navel. Its barrel was more than large enough for me to put both arms in.

I proceeded farther into the German lines, whose lineaments were mostly disguised by dandelions, daisies, goldenrod, nettles and other weeds. The humid coolness was pleasant. How could I even hope to envision the reputed ten miles of burrows on this side? One of the trenches wound conveniently before me, between belly- and chest-high, its concrete softened by moss, and its next turning celebrated by a rusty bracket—maybe the rung of a ladder.

I clambered down into its clamminess. I followed a dandelion-crowned mossy, winding trench whose side tunnels went darkly down. Here gaped a square pit like a chimney with double-braided strands of rusty barbed wire at ankle height in the creepers just beyond. I drew prudently back. A collector might have liked that German barbed wire, which was thicker than the French version. (Bresson told me that French-issued cutters of the period could not break it.) With its long alternating spikes it looked more primitive and more vegetally “organic” than the barbed wire of today. How many French assaulters with twisted and bloody ankles had it held up long enough for the defenders to machine-gun them?

Returning to the path, I found more dark, filthy, stone-faced and metal-faced dugouts. Stooping down to peer into a mucky tunnel, I braced my hands upon a perimeter of sandbags whose canvas had rotted, the concrete remaining in the shape of each bag.

Every known World War I veteran has died; the very notion of “remembering” the war felt problematic. How could I even imagine the hellish noise? What about the smells? A Frenchman left this description: “Shells disinter the bodies, then reinter them, chop them to pieces, play with them as a cat does a mouse.”

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Vauquois’ trenches are notable for their authentic preservation. The stalemate there led to tunneling and “mine warfare,” forever altering the landscape. (Tomas van Houtryve)

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By the close of 1914, with the war less than half a year old, the Western Front stretched static, thick and deep for 450 miles. The Eastern Front took on a similar if less definitive character, finally hardening between Romania and the Baltic in 1915. In a photo from November 1915 we see a line of German soldiers in greatcoats and flat-topped caps shoveling muck out of a winding narrow trench, grave-deep, somewhere in the Argonne Forest. The surface is nothing but wire, rock, sticks and dirt.

The generals thought to break the stasis using massive concentrations of artillery. Somehow, surely, the enemy positions could be pulverized, allowing charges to succeed? Weapons and Tactics: “Most of the history of the War of 1914-18 is the history of the failure of this idea.”

You see, artillery barrages, to say the least, called attention to themselves. The enemy then thickened its defenses where needed. Furthermore, the shelling tore up no man’s land, so that assault parties, instead of rushing forward, floundered in shell holes, while the enemy shot them down. In one typical outcome, Graves’ comrades “were stopped by machine-gun fire before they had got through our own entanglements.”

However perilous it was to “go over the top,” the defensive positions were themselves hardly safe. Graves writes time and time again about witnessing the deaths of his comrades right there in the earthworks. He feared rifle bullets more than shells, because they “gave no warning.” On the opposite side of the front, Hitler emoted: “In these months I felt for the first time the whole malice of Destiny which kept me at the front in a position where every n------ might accidentally shoot me to bits.”

And so their various armored immobilities stalemated the belligerents. The British were losing as many as 5,000 soldiers a week in what they called “normal wastage.” Unable to go forward, unwilling to retreat, the adversaries tried to speed up normal wastage. That is why, as early as the fall of 1915, the French and British decided on a quota of 200,000 Germans killed or wounded per month.

“Thus it went on year after year; but the romance of battle had been replaced by horror.” That was Hitler again. He, of course, remained “calm and determined.”

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The German assault at Verdun announced itself on February 21, 1916, with the detonation of more than a thousand cannons. Something like 33 German munitions trains rolled in each day. In a photo of a second-line casualty station, we see a wounded Frenchman sitting crookedly on his crude stretcher, which rests in the dark mud. His boots are black with filth; likewise his coat up to his waist and beyond. A white bandage goes bonnet-like around his head, the top of it dark with blood. His slender, grubby hands are part-folded across his waist. His head is leaning, his eyes almost closed.

In a bunker near Verdun 100 years later I came upon a chamber whose rusty ladder ascended to a cone outlined with light, which silhouetted something like a giant mantis’ desiccated corpse: the under-chassis of a machine gun. Nearby ran another emplacement that Sylvestre Bresson thought must be part of the Maginot Line, thanks to its newer concrete. (I should remind the reader that this latter imposing bulwark was intended, decades later, to use all of World War I’s advantages of entrenched defense against that World War II aggressor, Hitler. For why wouldn’t war haunt this same ground over and over again?)

A Russian offensive against the Austrians in the east, followed by a French attack at the Somme in July, finally forced the Germans to disengage from Verdun. In October the French retook its most massive fort. The battle, the longest of World War I, finally ended on December 15. Then what? Mud, corpses, duckboards, trenches, broken trees. French and German casualties each exceeded 300,000 men.

But why disparage all this mutual effort? If its object was to kill multitudes of human beings, let’s call it a triumph, as evidenced by the French National Necropolis at Fleury-devant-Douaumont. Driving down the hill, we came upon 15,000 white crosses flashing in the sun. I went out to wander those tombstones on the down-slanting grass where crimson-petaled rosebeds ran along each row. Up at the chapel, French soldiers in uniform stood gazing down across the stones, the occasion being a change of commander. “For us this is the most sacred site,” Bresson remarked. “If France could keep only one memorial to World War I, it would be this one.”

These 15,000 dead men were all French, but nearly ten times the amount of remains, both French and German, broken and commingled, lay in the nearby ossuary. Looking in through the many ground-level windows, I saw heaps of bones and skulls in the darkness. Some yellow-brown fragments had been combined into almost decorative columns, as in the Paris catacombs.

In the edifice above them stood a Catholic chapel with stained glass windows, and in a glass case, relics from the churches of destroyed villages. This forest meadow bore stone markers to commemorate the former farm buildings, washhouses, grocery stores. Maples and cypresses had grown 102 years high. I saw dark water in the deeper shell holes, grass in the shallower ones. The grass was ingrown with daisies, dandelions and clover. Birds were singing.

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As for the First Battle of the Somme—which was, more accurately, a dozen smaller battles, playing out over 141 days in 1916, from July to November—that accomplished kindred wonders. Liddell Hart remembered the year as “the nadir of infantry attacks,” the assaulters being “almost shoulder to shoulder, in a symmetrical, well-dressed alignment, and taught to advance steadily upright at a slow walk.” How convenient for the artillerists!

In 2018, Bresson, who lived in the Somme, enlightened me about the residue: “The bomb disposal squad comes twice a week. Twice a week, even now! You know, if there was some live shell in Paris, it would be on the news. But in the country, nobody cares. The farmers, they just carry it into the road.”

The Battle of the Somme marked the war’s first deployment of tanks (on September 15, by the British), but they were introduced in dribs and drabs, their surprise effect mostly wasted, their potential nearly invisible. On October 7, Hitler, his potential equally unforeseeable, was wounded in the thigh, but he was not out of action long.

The Somme came to be referred to as “the muddy grave of the German field army,” for German casualties were up to 650,000 killed, wounded and missing. But the muddy grave was more international than that. Its local commemorators called it un espace mondial, a world-inclusive space. The British took 420,000 casualties; the battle’s first day has been called “the bloodiest day in British history.” The French lost 200,000 men. Although Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, claimed an attritional victory, David Lloyd George, Britain’s soon-to-be prime minister, called it “a bloody and disastrous failure.”

In 1918 this churned-up wasteland, well irrigated with trench-blood and fertilized with flesh, would be viciously contested all over again.

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The first Somme offensive opened when British tunnelers detonated 60,000 pounds of explosives beneath German positions, creating La Grande Mine, the war’s largest crater. (Tomas van Houtryve)

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You may recall that 1916 was the year when the Russians broke through the Austrian defenses on the Eastern Front, causing the Germans to halt their assault on Verdun. But the Russians could only get so far. The czar’s army had already lost half its strength in the previous year, and the new assault cost them more than a million casualties. According to Liddell Hart, this latest blood bath “completed the virtual ruin of Russia’s military power.” In July 1917, the Russian Army shot its last bolt.

That previous winter, bled weak by Verdun and the Somme, the Germans prepared a strategic withdrawal from a 20-mile salient between Arras and Soissons in northern France. A salient is in essence a bulge into enemy lines—a reified hope of breakthrough. Abandoning one may be a sad business, but also prudent, because any such position is vulnerable on two or three sides.

Hence Operation Alberich, whose first step would be the construction of the best-fortified redoubt in Europe: the Siegfried Line, or, as the British called it, the Hindenburg Line, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg being the new German commander in chief: grizzled, calm, soldierly-looking, maybe even statesmanlike. (In 1933, the same Hindenburg, now a grandly senile old figurehead—and president of the young, doomed Weimar Republic—would appoint Hitler as chancellor.)

Hindenburg’s First Quartermaster, and in many ways the guiding partner, was Gen. Erich von Ludendorff, humorless and irascible, who five years after the war would march beside Hitler in the sordid “Beer Hall Putsch.” (Hitler later proclaimed Ludendorff “leader, and chief with dictatorial power, of the German national army.”) Since it is to Ludendorff that accounts of this period generally assign agency, I shall do the same.

The Hindenburg Line has been called “the war’s greatest feat of engineering.” Its various belts, which bore such mythological names as “Kriemhild” and “Freya,” ran for 300 miles. Half a million laborers toiled for four months to make them, dispersing the cargoes of 1,250 trains. The line began with an antitank ditch, followed by “at least” five walls of barbed wire; “next came a line of defense anchored by forts and blockhouses bristling with machine guns, and the final major barrier boasted an intricate system of zigzag trenches designed to prevent enfilading fire”—and this ominous description, courtesy of The Oxford Companion to Military History, leaves out the St. Quentin Canal, a waterway that was up to 35 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet deep. Two artillery lines brooded in the rear.

The withdrawal took place in February 1917. The Germans left behind them what one officer called “a desolate, dead desert,” Ludendorff having determined to make it into “a totally barren land” in which Allied “maneuverability was to be critically impaired.” First they removed anything they could use. Then they razed every building, mined every street, poisoned every well, dammed every creek, burned everything that would burn. The vileness of this policy remains a matter of opinion. Bresson assured me: “You know, we did the same thing when we left Gallipoli, in 1915.” Hart described the withdrawal as “a consummate maneuver, if unnecessarily brutal in application.” But he was one of those ­realists who did not consider chlorine gas especially cruel.

And so the front was not merely frozen, but steel-frozen. Thus it went through most of 1917, the year when President Woodrow Wilson proposed, and the kaiser rejected, “peace without victory.”

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UNLOCKING THE FRONT

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A German offensive in spring 1918 gained unprecedented swaths of territory, but in July the Allies counterattacked. When they smashed through Germany’s fortified defensive positions along the Hindenburg Line, the war’s end was close at hand. | (Sources: The Hindenburg Line 1917 by Patrick Osborn & Marc Romanych; Our Greatest Battle (The Meuse-Argonne) by Frederick Palmer; The Historical Atlas of World War I by H.P. Willmott; www.themaparchive.com) (Map by Complex Stories, Haisam Hussein)

What finally destroyed the long primacy of immobile armored defense? First of all, a British naval blockade, which had been in effect since before the first battle of 1914, began to starve the two adjacent Central Powers of essential materials like rubber and brass. By 1916 the starvation was becoming literal. In a German photo from the late war years we see kerchiefed, long-skirted women bending over a rubbish heap, pickaxing its filth in search of anything nourishing to go in a grimy bucket. The protagonists of the German veteran Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, weakening on their “turnip jam,” count themselves lucky whenever they can snatch up butter and corned beef from the French positions they’ve assaulted.

Attack technologies now also began to render machine-gun nests and barbed-wired trenches, if not yet obsolete, at least penetrable. Planes had barely begun to prove themselves, but the prospect of a pack of high-flying bombing and strafing machines took on nerve-racking plausibility.

Tanks, after their first faltering foray at the Somme, had been improved. One innovator recognized that the fuel tanks should be less vulnerable to direct hits. The British and French commenced mass production. Still, Germany deployed no tanks of its own manufacture until the war’s last year, by which time its enemies possessed 5,000; it had just 45.

Here is how the German officer Guderian remembered the First Battle of Cambrai, from 1917: “In a few hours the strongest position on the Western Front had been broken,” he lamented. “The bells rang out in London for the first time in the war.”

One of the British monsters that so obsessed Guderian was named “Deborah,” designated female because “she” sported machine guns instead of six-pounders. I have seen her all alone at the Cambrai Tank 1917 Museum. The poor girl had been buried in muck until 1998. Her rounded-tipped quadrilateral shape challenges description: sort of like a riveted roach or crocodile, but not exactly.

The museum staff had tastefully enclosed her snout in genuine Great War barbed wire. Her bow and starboard side gaped jaggedly open, offering darkness and the smell of oil; her guts were partly shattered and twisted by the German fire that killed four of her crewmen, who lay in the adjacent cemetery. But in her port flank two service-holes remained, one rectangular, the other perfectly round, so that the gray light of that concrete room shone right through her. Her ripped, rusted yet surprisingly durable carapace made the horror of the war itself more durable. At her backside lay two wreaths.

Immediately adjacent to her public sepulcher I found the Flesquières Hill British Cemetery, whose ground had been captured in the Cambrai battle, lost soon after, then retaken in September 1918, at which point it came in handy for new deposits. After looking out from the stone pavilion across the green lawn to the great cross and past two lovely trees toward cloud-shaded fields with wind turbines on the horizon, I opened the heavy door that protected the visitors’ book. One inscription read: To those who gave their lives, and those who keep their memories so well. Another: Thank you all boys RIP. Four days before me, someone had come to visit his fallen grandfather. The most recent inscription was in French: We will never forget you.

The registry book told another story. This place once lay behind the German Flesquières Soldiers’ Cemetery No. 2. After the armistice, the German graves were moved to a “cemetery extension” (which would itself be relocated in 1924). In their place British plots were erected. Such disrespect must have increased the vanquished’s hatred for the victors, but that was hardly the fault of 28259 PRIVATE JOHN DAVEY CARTER ROYAL LANCASTER REGIMENT 8TH OCTOBER 1918 AGE 27, ON WHOSE SOUL SWEET JESUS HAVE MERCY. I copied these words from his tombstone. Then I stood and took in the red roses, black-eyed Susans and purple flowers.

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This 26-ton British Mark IV tank, nicknamed “Deborah,” took part in the Battle of Cambrai, history’s first mass armored assault. Deborah was struck on the battle’s first day, killing four of its eight-man crew. It was excavated from a Cambrai battlefield in 1998, and in 2017 became the centerpiece of a new museum.  (Tomas van Houtryve)

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In the judgment of All Quiet on the Western Front, “The summer of 1918 is the most bloody and the most terrible.” Not knowing the outcome as we do, Germany tried to see the sunny side of the barbed wire. “The whole army took fresh hope and fresh courage after the Russian collapse,” Hitler remembered. For after Russia’s soldiers declined to continue prosecuting the war, the weak-willed czar abdicated, and the newly empowered Bolsheviks sued for peace, which the Germans granted at a stringent price in resources and territory. (Thus the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.)

And so the kaiser could credit himself with the first great conquest of that War to End All Wars. “Out of the wreckage of the czar’s dominions,” as Gary Sheffield wrote in his history Forgotten Victory, grew “a network of client states and spheres of influences that added up to a new German colonial empire with enormous economic potential.”

Now, wasn’t that something worth invading Belgium for? With Russia imploding into civil war, Ludendorff and Hindenburg could now transfer multitudes of German troops to the Western Front, build new assault groups, strike the French and British at just the right spot, and at long last smash through the stasis of 1914-17.

As always, haste would be called for. The operation depended on quick success—before General Pershing got his American troops trained and mobilized.

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The United States, goaded into it by the repeated sea-murder (so we not unreasonably saw it) of our own nationals by U-boats, had declared war on Germany in 1917. American soldiers entered the trenches that October, but didn’t begin leading large-scale operations until 1918, the year when the actors Lawrence Grant starred in “To Hell With the Kaiser!” and Norman Kaiser changed his name to Norman Kerry. Meanwhile, thanks to Operation Alberich, the Germans had had a year to recuperate their energies and thicken the Hindenburg Line. Secure in defense, they prepared to strike.

On March 21, 1918, only 18 days after Brest-Litovsk, the Germans began a new campaign, code-named “Michael,” whose artillery barrage could be heard even in England. A German soldier called the noise “incessant and almost musical,” while a British rifleman thought it sounded like “sheer hell.”

Since massed attacks pre-announced by artillery barrages had accomplished so little throughout the war, Ludendorff essayed what had worked so well for T.E. Lawrence against the Turks: infiltration, seeking points of least resistance. The idea was to break the British Army, and thus Allied morale, and so bring about an end to the war.

Concentrating their forces secretly by night, then advancing through fog and their own fresh-laid poison gas in small groups of storm troopers over 60 miles of front, the Germans achieved full surprise. A desirable punch-through point was the town of Arras, birthplace of the French Revolution’s ruthlessly “incorruptible” Robespierre, who in obedience to some form of golden rule was himself finally guillotined.

The train from Amiens droned past an emerald field of white cows, which gave way to rippled ponds, gray clouds, mown grass, white churches, trees. Here came the town of Albert, with a golden figure on its high brickwork tower; then our tracks entered a cut between the trees, came out again, and we glided through that kind of landscape that cliché-mongers call idyllic.

Disembarking in Arras, I found myself in a cobbled square, walled in by four-story buildings, facing the ornate sweep of the town hall and the pale-yellow Hôtel de Ville, then a clock tower whose hands and Roman numerals were gold, and finally the famous belfry. Outside the Hôtel a monument memorialized Germany’s victims of 1940 and 1944, in this case Resistance fighters; on the square itself two plaques dryly explained that the original belfry dated from 1463 to 1914 and the Hôtel de Ville from 1502 to 1914.

“Michael” quickly gained a miraculous 37-odd miles, so that it began to seem that the stasis was broken at last. Guderian called the feat “the greatest success achieved on the Western Front since trench warfare had begun.” On March 23 the invaders set up shop in the Laon Salient, close upon Crépy, and began bombarding Paris. The artillerists fired payloads of 200 to 230 pounds every 20 minutes for 139 days. They killed a thousand people and more. Smelling total victory, the kaiser declared a holiday.

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A memorial at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, the site of Canada’s most consequential battle, is etched with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France. (Tomas van Houtryve)

4

Yet failing to reduce Arras on the 26th and again on the 28th, Ludendorff was compelled to release his straining grasp on the city. The date was March 30, two days after go-it-alone “Black Jack” Pershing had finally agreed to shore up the front with American troops.

On April 4, Ludendorff called on fresh reserves to resume the advance, this time turning toward Amiens, “the hinge of the Allies’ front,” where Jules Verne used to write his 19th-century science-fiction novels. The Germans had occupied this town for 11 days in August-September 1914, and with their customary humanitarianism took local officials hostage. At some point before or after, the locals fortified their cathedral’s ancient treasures with 2,200 sandbags. As for other prizes, Robert Graves remembers a “Blue Lamp” brothel for officers and a “Red Lamp” for enlisted men.

In this centennial year 2018, massive photo-enlargements of Great War soldiers, some in the beekeeper-esque gas masks of the period, most of them young, grim and handsome, stared down from the walls of the train station and the department stores and apartment buildings all around the cathedral square.

The first attempt to take Amiens began on March 27. (The reader is reminded that the dates of battles, offensives, et cetera vary extremely according to source. I have done my shallow best to rationalize these inconsistencies.) Ludendorff’s troops penetrated the Allied front southward of the Somme River, ten miles from the city. The Germans were driven back, but continued to shell Amiens until June. According to a Michelin Guide from that time, “ruins accumulated in the town and suburbs,” but a hundred years later, those ruins had been nicely smoothed over.

On April 9 the Germans won another local success at Armentières—at which point the French and British, as ever, began to dig in. General Haig was worried enough to warn, with uncharacteristic gloom, “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”

Finally the anxious Allies began to coordinate their efforts better, and appointed the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch Supreme Allied Commander over their joint forces.

5

By now the Kaiser’s troops had reached the town of Villers-Bretonneux, a “Franco-British junction” some ten miles from Amiens. Two Australian brigades stopped them, but 20 days later, employing tanks and gas, the Germans succeeded. As Sylvestre Bresson, my guide, tells the tale, “The Allies now found themselves in trouble, for Villers-Bretonneux was the last defensive bulwark on the Amiens road. The following night, the Australian battalions led a magnificent headlong attack,” which ultimately repelled the invaders. In a “2018 special edition” commemorative pamphlet published by the Communes of the Somme Valley, this organization’s president wrote: “Let’s never forget Australia.”

The memorial to the victors (1,200 of whom died on that night) lies not far from a little roadside sign marking the place where the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s ace fighter pilot, was shot dead on April 21, 1918. Beneath the sign I saw a styrofoam “100” and some fake flowers left by Australians; this I knew because my taxi driver, whose family hailed from the west, had chauffeured them out here just a few days before. He had never heard of this site until then. He had grandparents in the Resistance, in the Second World War, but as for the First World War, that was too long a time ago, he remarked, flashing one tanned skinny arm away from the steering wheel.

“People around here don’t even talk about it very much,” he said of the Great War. He thought that I and my sister, who had accompanied me on this trip and served, when needed, as my French translator, were Australians. “Every family from Australia has some question about the war,” he remarked.

At the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery and Memorial roses bloomed on a rolling hill-crest sowed with tombstones. The inscriptions were more personalized than many, DEARLY LOVED SON being in frequent evidence. This complex was inaugurated in 1938, just in time to be shot up in the next war—or, as a plaque explained, “on the firing line.” (The culprit was a Nazi tank.) There was a grand tower erected TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN MEMORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN IMPERIAL FORCE IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS 1916-1918 AND OF ELEVEN THOUSAND WHO FELL IN FRANCE AND HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE.

Had they all been properly cataloged, would it have been any better for them? For a fact, their survivors might have gained what we now call “closure,” although one question does arise: How much information about the fallen is too much?

“I do a lot of research for the families when they come,” Bresson told me. “Sometimes the stories told in the families are different from the truth, thanks to embellishment, exaggeration, and after one, two or three generations especially. But the archives tell the truth.

“A couple of years ago I had a tour with a couple from Australia. They wanted to visit the grave of a great-uncle. Before they came they gave us the name and I was able to find a lot of information about the great-uncle. But he wasn’t killed in action. He was killed in a stupid accident. He was at rest with his regiment and he was shooting ducks with one of his friends and his friend shot him by accident. It was literally written killed shooting ducks by accident.

“So on the day of the tour I met them and the story they knew was: He was killed on the battlefield, killed by German snipers when crawling under the barbed wire. Well, they were very moved to come. We went to the cemetery and left flowers there, and I told them they could get more information. I did not tell them directly. They were coming from the other side of the world.”

In one of ever so many rows in that cemetery, beneath the emblem of the Australian Imperial Forces, lay 6733 PRIVATE H. J. GIBB 14TH BN. AUSTRALIAN INF. 7TH JUNE 1918 AGE 45, and after a cross came the motto that someone had chosen for him: PEACE AFTER STRIFE. Whatever the circumstances of that untimely death, whether he had bravely held a position, saved a comrade, bayoneted three Germans or died while shooting ducks, untimely it was, and I felt sorry.

6

The Germans, having been frustrated at Amiens (but never mind: they would break through on a June day in 1940), swung toward Paris, eventually coming within 37 miles of the city. They had drilled a deep salient into French and British lines, but it wasn’t enough. The historian Gordon Craig writes that the German offensive “was bound to be disastrous after the enemy had recovered,” and that indeed it “degenerated by June into a series of separate thrusts, uncoordinated and unproductive.”

Declining to give up, Ludendorff’s troops commenced Operation Blücher, assisted by almost 4,000 Krupp guns, shelling and shattering the French Sixth Army. Unfortunately for the Germans, their newest enemy was now in the field. The day after Blücher began, the Americans counterattacked. The U.S. First Infantry captured 200 Germans and buried 199 Americans, and immediately won a victory in the village of Cantigny.

At observation post “Pennsylvania,” First Lt. Daniel Sargent of the 5th Field Artillery Regiment reported, “The ground was pounded to dust by our shells—all that was visible was the heavy smoke.” The division’s commander, Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, called this “the first serious fight made by American troops in France,” which was “greeted enthusiastically as a wonderful success.” Why not? There were lots of corpses. As a certain Captain Austin wrote home: “When the wind is right you can smell Cantigny two miles away.”

7

For Ludendorff this “wonderful success” must have been an incitement to hurry up. On the first day of Blücher his troops gained 13 miles, unheard of in the former static years. Having crossed the Vesle, they took Soissons—although they now kept facing more tank attacks. “Just think a moment!” cried Guderian, wisening up. “Five tanks with crews amounting to ten men had been able to reduce an entire division to disorder.”

By June 4, with 30 miles now to their credit, they had reached the Marne at Château-Thierry. What must they have felt upon finding themselves back where they had been in 1914? But that was the way of the Great War: Fight and die along static lines. Then do it all over. Thus July’s offering: the Second Battle of the Marne. The Oxford Companion to Military History remarks: “Just as the Marne had proved the high water mark of German success in 1914, so it did in 1918.”

Happily unaware of how their offensive would play out, the Germans still imagined themselves on course for the capital. To and fro in the trenches rushed that busy dispatch runner Adolf Hitler. But now the French rushed up tanks, accompanied by rapid mobile truckloads of infantry. As the American Battle Monuments Commission told it: “Responding to urgent pleas from the French, Pershing ordered the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions into the line in relief of the French Sixth Army.”

OCT018_E10_WWI.jpg
Allied troops twice held off a German advance on the Marne, in 1914 and 1918. Pictured: A French WWI re-enactor at an air show near the Marne battlefields. (Tomas van Houtryve)

8

“Nothing on earth,” wrote infantryman Percy Clare of Britain’s 7th East Surrey Regiment, “is as melancholy as a journey over a recently-fought battlefield, especially on the day of action....The lust of killing has burned out...Here is a young Second Lieutenant on his back....the jagged ends of his thigh bones protruding through his torn breeches. No, he felt no pain. Sticking from his pocket is a letter to a woman.” That diary entry dates back to the Battle of Arras, in April 1917. Comparable horrors filled Château-Thierry 13 months later.

A century after that, the melancholy kept everywhere green. Here at the bank of the gentle gray-green Marne, where white swans were floating and very occasionally ducking in their heads, I looked across the water to houses, apartments and industrial edifices, once more hardly able to feel that the war had come here. The river was barely swirling. It appeared an easy swim to the other side of town.

Beside me stood an inconspicuous waist-high granite marker erected in 1921: a tapering plinth with a helmet on top. One of many fashioned by the sculptor Paul Moreau-Vauthier, it marked the limit of the enemy advance. There had been a whole line of these memory stones. In 1940, when the Germans returned thanks to Hitler, certain German commanders chose to remove them entirely. Others, evidently proud of what the kaiser’s troops had accomplished in the Great War, left them but erased the inscriptions.

When I came upon the Château-Thierry American monument, a white stone colonnaded edifice honoring the American divisions that helped repel the German advance, it felt just like coming home, for here alone of all the Western Front sites I visited the entrant had to empty his pockets and pass through a metal detector. As they say, freedom isn’t free.

Myself, I preferred the simpler, sadder truth of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Summer green, summer clouds, so many birds. Driving up a long avenue lined with rosebushes, we met a blue-capped gardener who was breaking out a lawn mower. From the burial registry in the Visitors’ Room, I chose for remembrance Plot A Row 3 Grave 72, the grave where lay Edmond P Maes, Private, from Massachusetts. He served in the 101st Field Artillery Regiment, 26th Division, and fell on 23 July 1918.

Lines of marble crosses curved in parallels on the rich green grass, wrapping around a hill of dark green forest. The pigeons were calling, the lawn mower droning far away. Overlooking the graves was a chapel (slightly scarred by the following world war) whose walls were engraved with the names of the missing. Once in a great while there would be a rosette made to the left of the name of someone who was “found,” such as LUPO FRANCIS PVT 18th INF 1st DIV July 21 1918 Ohio.

In a poem from the month when the slaughter finally stopped, the decorated British soldier Siegfried Sassoon advised his British readers, “when you are standing at your hero’s grave,” to remember “the German soldiers who were loyal and brave.” I asked to see a cemetery of our former enemies. “The German cemeteries are different,” explained Bresson. “There was a strong animosity toward them, so in that time the German cemeteries were always set away, on a back road, whereas our cemeteries were set on the top of the hill so they can be seen from miles away. From the German perspective the First and Second World Wars are so linked, like one war. The Germans still feel ashamed of what they did to the Jews, so they don’t have any motivation to visit their soldiers.”

Indeed the nearby German cemetery was discrete, out of sight from the victors’ graves, and instead of white, the crosses, thicker-armed than ours, were gray (in some cemeteries they were black). I saw a very few oval-tipped slabs with the Jewish star, as for Fritz Stern, grenadier. (As a special reward for their service in the Great War, the Nazis would deport some Jewish veterans in passenger train carriages rather than freight cars, their destination of course being the same as for the others.)

Not far away stood a cross for Unteroffizier Peter Latour and Infanterist Ulrich Lederer and on the other side Ein unbekannter Deutscher Soldat (an unknown German soldier) and for Vizefeldwebel Franz Stiefvater—yes, four men buried under one cross. In this soil lay 8,630 bodies. In the sprawling American cemetery adjacent there were not quite 2,300.

Leafing through the visitors’ book, my sister discovered that an American with a military affiliation (I will not give his name) had made a fingerprint in what appeared to be real blood, and left a sneering English-language inscription.

9

A German attack of July 14 was hopefully named the Sieggesturm, or “Turn of Victory,” but Ludendorff was fresh out of victories. The next day he launched his final offensive, aiming at Reims. Three days after that, Generals Foch and Pétain counterattacked on the Marne, close by Villers-Cotterêts—by surprise, with tanks again, and to good effect.

July 18 marked the beginning of Marshal Foch’s counteroffensive. “Although the Germans fought stubbornly to the end, they were henceforth always on the defensive,” recalled Lt. John Clark, an American eyewitness to the battle for Soissons.

On August 8 came what Ludendorff would call “the black day of the German Army,” when he realized “the war must be ended.” By then a British tank brigade had helped reduce the German-held stronghold of Moreuil. One British major took a spin “in one of those huge armoured cars, and found it most disagreeably hot; but I felt a sense of delightful security when I heard the bullets rattling against the steel walls.”

Now began the Battle of Amiens: Australians, Canadians, French and British all fighting together. General Haig commenced with a tank attack 20 miles wide and 456 (or if you like 552) metal monsters thick; he achieved utter surprise. German casualties may have been three times the Allied ones. In his memoirs, Guderian wrote: “Even now old-timers like us relive that feeling of impending doom which overtook us on that day in August.”

On August 21 the British drove toward Bapaume and Albert, reducing both; on September 1 Péronne fell to the Australians. How would all this captured territory have appeared in early autumn 1918? “Deserted,” recalled Capt. C.N. Littleboy, a British commander of the Sherwood Foresters. “Bleak, devastated.” Continuing eastward, Littleboy saw “a derelict Tank, a dead horse, a rifle stuck upright in the ground.”

In 2018, driving over this same sad old Somme country, I thought the rolling hills and sky could almost have been somewhere in eastern Washington State, maybe around Pullman. We ascended what appeared to be the curvature of the earth itself, everything gently, evenly falling off; here came Morlancourt; we kept on Highway D42; then ahead stood three trees, to guard the edge of the world.

10

The shelling of Paris finally ended on August 9.

On September 14, after continued Allied gains, the Austrians sent a peace note. Five days later, the Turkish front collapsed in Palestine. On the 21st, the Croatians hung out their flag. On the 24th, the Hungarians rose up and called for independence from Austria. On the 28th, Bulgaria fell. A day after that, Ludendorff had a “fit”—perhaps a minor stroke.

Now at last Marshal Foch called for a coordinated series of assaults upon the creaking Hindenburg Line: on September 26 in the Meuse-Argonne Forest, the Americans with 411 tanks and the French with 654; on the 27th, the British, launching the Second Battle of Cambrai (they would take their objective on the 9th); on the 28th, the Belgians in Flanders, on the 29th, more French and British attacks.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, fought by Pershing’s First Army under Foch’s overall coordination, was intended to breach the Hindenburg Line westward of Verdun. One history calls it “the biggest logistical undertaking in the history of the U.S. Army, before or since.”

Six French divisions assisted 22 American infantry divisions, most of which had not yet proven themselves in battle. (By the end, more than 90 Allied divisions participated in the fight.) “The Germans,” the previous source continues, “had created four successive, mutually supporting defensive lines, linked by trenches and interlocking arcs of fire.”

The attack began at 5:30 in the morning on September 26. Its logical result was the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the most populated American necropolis in Europe, with 14,246 burials. Which should I single out? In one row of marbled crosses on a field walled in by trees, accompanied by another field of crosses and then more of the same, HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD—though never to his hoping, wondering, finally despairing family, who when I read this inscription in 2018 must have all gone underground themselves.

The U.S. 35th Division managed to take that ghastly old concretion of trench-line stasis, Vauquois, bombarding, machine-gunning and gassing the Germans while overrunning them from behind, and even continuing another 1.5 miles north-northwest, toward Varennes and Cheppy. Yes, they broke that horror and hurried on.

But now, when from a prominence of fossilized sandbags at Vauquois I gaze down into a steep narrow dugout connected to a tunnel, a beech tree outgrasping from the top and a cloud of midges expanding above my head, it seems the nightmare remains. In the grass around me, crowded by trees with singing birds, in dugouts with their side tunnels going who knows where, how much human craft, cunningly, maliciously employed to maim and murder still lies ready to harm? Yet I feel grateful that this is so. Here is one of the Great War’s most accurate monuments.

At Cheppy, where there is now a Missouri Memorial, the 35th Division, assisted by Col. George S. Patton’s 304th Tank Brigade (Patton was wounded here), smashed through the Hindenburg Line. Varennes, where in 1791 Louis XVI and his family were captured in their coach, fell to the Americans by about 2 p.m., with the help of infantry, Renault tanks and the 28th National Guard Division, known as the Pennsylvanians.

Hence the Pennsylvania Monument, a courtyardlike structure of white stone and concrete with a dark bell on an eagle-cornered plinth. Its motto runs: THE RIGHT IS MORE PRECIOUS THAN PEACE. It’s a very pretty monument. Had I fought in the 28th, or wished to show appreciation for its men, I would doubtless be pleased. As it is, my preference on war memorials is this: Give me an honest graveyard anytime. Or give me that foul, barbed-wire-toothed hole in the ground, Vauquois. I don’t want any sentiments.

A shell found near Belleau Wood at a memorial honoring the U.S. soldiers who captured the area in June 1918. More than 8,000 Marines were killed there. (Tomas van Houtryve)
An exit sign in a tunnel network built by British and New Zealander forces inside a quarry 65 feet beneath Arras, where they staged an offensive in April 1917 (Tomas van Houtryve)
Mortar shells at Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres, Belgium, given its name by British soldiers before the woods were devastated by German guns (Tomas van Houtryve)
A sketch of a woman drawn by a British soldier onto rock inside the quarry beneath Arras. Today the site houses an underground museum. (Tomas van Houtryve)

11

At the beginning of the war, taking and holding territory up to the Meuse River involved “the toughest fighting” faced by Germany’s northern armies. Now defending that ground against the advancing Allies, Ludendorff tried to return the favor. On September 27-28 he reinforced the sector with artillery and 20 new divisions. (Meanwhile he and Hindenburg informed the kaiser that it was most definitely time for an armistice.)

In 2018 a car carried me smoothly across the Meuse, which from the bridge appeared as flat and reflective as a pond. Time, work and capital had smoothed out this place—twice. Doubtless there were relics to find not far off the road. American losses here had been horrendous, inciting brutal adaptations. For example, it cost “several thousand casualties” for one division to reduce Côte Dame Marie, “a central strongpoint of the Kriemhilde Stellung.” And so we read of “squirrel squads” a hundred yards behind the first wave, to shoot snipers in the trees; of soldiers who bayoneted each German corpse to make sure it wasn’t faking death.

The historian Edward Lengel describes what happened when a certain Major General Morton sent the 116th Regiment against “the worst death trap east of the Meuse,” meeting German machine guns, artillery and the new Fokker strafing planes: The heavy casualties “seemed to indicate that a change of tactics was in order, but Morton could think of only three solutions—more artillery, more men, and greater drive.”

Pershing, his drive temporarily stalled, resumed the attack on October 4, fighting “hard.” On October 29, the enemy withdrew finally to the west bank of the Meuse—yet another victory for all time. (Hitler’s troops would return exactly there in 1940.)

All told, 1.2 million American soldiers suffered 122,000 casualties from the beginning of the offensive to the armistice. For me, at least, this detail casts a certain chill on the following sententious words from a book about the offensive: “Midwestern farm boys had become men. Men had become soldiers. And soldiers had become comrades.” Well, they were all comrades here, for a fact. Had their war actually ended all wars, their deaths would have felt less futile to me.

But let’s be cheerful: Back when the War would surely end all wars, the Allies broke through at Salonika, finally defeating the Bulgarians, and the Italians penetrated the Austrian lines.

On October 26, Ludendorff, who wished to fight on, discovered that his resignation had been accepted. On October 30 the kaiser, laying the groundwork for a narrative about a leftist-Jewish plot, said: “I would not dream of abandoning the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workers.” He now got an even nastier shock than Ludendorff, being forced to flee that crude, cramped old wooden crown with its ribs like the remnant of a dissected onion and the squat cross on top. He lived in the Netherlands until his death in 1941—just long enough to enjoy a German honor guard posted outside his moated residence.

12

On November 1, the Germans fell back to their final position on the Hindenburg Line. On November 6, the Allies finally reduced Sedan, and sometime that month the Americans liberated Verdun!

And so finally came the armistice: November 11, 1918.

The event certainly deserves a celebratory citation. Here it is, courtesy of Cpl. Harold Pierce, 28th Division, Second Army: “It seems so foolish to keep up the killing till the last minute. But the killing the artillery does is so impersonal and miles away. He [sic] cannot see the tortured, horrible looks of the slaughtered or feel the remorse the doughboy feels when he sees a man he has shot.”

* * *

THE HARVEST

1

What brought about the happy victory? Shall we be reductionist? We could thank General Haig for attrition, or say “hurrah” to the Americans, or praise Marshal Foch’s unifying command, or speak of technical developments, organizational learning, accidents. We all center the world around our own preoccupations. Lawrence of Arabia for his part asserted that “when Damascus fell, the Eastern War—probably the whole war—drew to an end.” My own taste is drawn to Weapons and Tactics’ particular simplification: “In 1918 tanks won a great war.”

What then did the Great War accomplish? At least 8.5 million belligerents died, not to mention a mere 12 million or 13 million civilians. Some optimist somewhere must have pointed out that it kept the population down. The survivors had their own difficulties. In the words of All Quiet on the Western Front, “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Am I too cynical about this war? In October 1918, a Croatian insurrectionist cried out: “The people rise in order to deliver freedom with their blood and over the whole world Wilson’s principles enjoy victory.” An independent Czechoslovakia came into being that same month; soon after, a free Poland. But in these nations, and likewise in the “new Romania swollen with ex-Hungarian territory,” one-third of the people were deemed ethnically “other.” (One result: continuing hatreds and atrocities.)

A hundred years later, Croatia had flickered through bygone Yugoslavia; Czechoslovakia had split; Poland, Hungary and Romania had gone in and out of bondage, altered shape and begun to swell with right-wing nationalisms. I see no guarantee of stability in their respective futures; in their pasts I cannot avoid seeing the Great War’s heirs, Hitler and Stalin.

2

The victors did everything possible to prevent German rearmament. They did not stop there. Churchill, acknowledging that “the mortal need was Security at all costs and by all methods,” still called certain terms of the Treaty of Versailles “malignant and silly....Nothing was reaped except ill-will.”

It is human nature to demand vengeance for the killings of one’s own, and the provocations of Germany’s ruthlessness approached intolerability. The British diplomat Harold Nicholson reminds us that shortly after commencing peace negotiations with President Wilson, the Germans torpedoed the Irish mail boat Leinster, drowning more than 450 civilians. “This eleventh hour atrocity was fresh in people’s minds,” writes Nicholson. A month after the armistice, prominent British newspapers were calling for the kaiser’s execution. Yet whatever its causes and excuses, the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, was not diplomacy’s finest hour. “The historian, with every justification, will come to the conclusion that we were very stupid men,” Nicholson remarks. “I think we were.”

Possibly worst of all was the treaty’s infamous Article 231, the so-called War Guilt Clause, which made Germany accept all the blame. As late as 2001, Gary Sheffield insisted, “The German leadership wanted hegemony in Europe, and was prepared to go to war to achieve it.” And so the War Guilt Clause “was, therefore, fundamentally correct.” Whether or not that was so (what about Austria-Hungary?), it was certainly impolitic. For his part, Hitler in his speeches hammered away at the treaty and the traitorous Germans who had agreed to it. “You felt like dashing your head against the wall in despair over such people! They did not want to understand that Versailles was a shame and a disgrace.” (Well, he sure straightened them out.)

Guderian, plausibly believing the Treaty of Versailles as being “conceived in a spirit of hate,” was one of those who illicitly defied it. Lacking the opportunity to peer inside a tank before 1928, he made do with ersatz, drilling for the next war with tractors. “With this machine we essayed our tank company tactics,” he wrote in his magnum opus, Achtung-Panzer!

He was on the spot in May 1940, urging Hitler to rush armored tank divisions back across the Meuse ahead of infantry and artillery. Over ground that had so recently sucked down the blood of General Pershing’s soldiers drove the new “lightning war”—the Blitzkrieg. As in Schlieffen’s day, the watchword was haste. There was so much to do: liquidate hostages and Jews in Poland, prepare to invade England, then turn against the gullible Russian ally.

The First World War would be done over. The French were stunned. The Parisian filmmaker Ludovic Cantais, who had three great-uncles die in the First World War and a grandfather who lost an eye fighting it but gained a lifelong alcohol problem, told me: “The Second World War, it was not even like a war for the French—it was so quick.” What he said next was particularly thought-provoking, because I had read so much about the allegedly self-deluded “appeasement” of Hitler by the Western democracies in 1938-39. Hindsight’s prophets loved to point out that resisting Hitler early could have saved lives and treasure.

Cantais said, “The First World War traumatized people so much. That was why they absolutely did not want to go to fight Hitler; they were so traumatized. The generation of 1914 was decimated, so they did not want to go. The conditions in the trenches were really sordid. There were rats, disease, fear. These young men, who had just started their own families, they came back crazy because of these crazy conditions they had lived in.”

On June 22, 1940, Hitler, having taken France in six weeks behind Guderian’s Panzer tank divisions and strafing aircraft, forced the French to sign a humiliating armistice in Marshal Foch’s old railroad carriage, the very same one in which the armistice of 1918 had been signed, right there in the bucolic Compiègne Forest.

It may well be that no war is ever over. My French interviewees expressed horror when I asked when the next war with Germany might occur. But our species’ abominable record suggests that sometime in the next 800 or even 200 years (if human beings persist on this earth so long) there will be another one, at which time the iron ghosts of the trenches will come shrieking back.

About The Author: Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer based in Paris. Read More articles from Tomas van Houtryve
About The Author: William Vollmann is an award-winning writer. His most recent book is No Immediate Danger. Read More articles from William Vollmann