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FLANDERS FIELDS.

A PLACE TO REMEMBER.

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THAT A MURDER IN SARAJEVO WOULD TURN INTO A WORLDWIDE CONFLICT, INVOLVING DOZENS OF COUNTRIES! THE WAR TO END ALL WARS, WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OVER BY CHRISTMAS 1914. YET FOUR YEARS AND MILLIONS OF CASUALTIES LATER, THE WORLD LOOKED BACK IN HORROR.

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Home by Christmas

In hindsight it seems improbable but, at the actual onset of the war in August 1914, both allies and central states were convinced that they would fight a short battle - just a quick confrontation to straighten out matters, settle accounts and then go back home to celebrate Christmas. The men went to the front, whistling,  believed it and said to their wives, I'll be home by Christmas! They would soon find out how wrong they were.

 

Each party have its justifications for going to war at the start as the war went on, the initial reasons for being involved seem to become less clear. The great powers battle it out to see who would be left standing at the end. In his book "The War that will end War' ( 1914 ) H.G. Wells says this is already the vastest war in history. It is war not of nations but of mankind. It is the war to exercise a world madness and end an age."

 

So it did. 'The world has never been the same again since World War I was so horrific in numbers of casualties, shattered families and divided nations - that humanity resolves to never again allow global warfare to threaten civilization. This resolve would soon be challenged.

"This is already the vastest war in history. It is war not of nations but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age"

 

H.G. Wells (1914)

HOW DID IT ALL START

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The murder of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo by Serbian Nationalist Gavrilo Princip was the spark that triggered it all. In the month following the murder, tensions between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) rose and, although diplomatic steps were taken to cool the situation down, by end of July, the matter was out of control. Too many weapons have been piled up in the arsenals, Too many troops mobilized and too many hidden agendas emerged from the darkness. The big powers in Europe had passed the point of no return as the logic of the arms race came to its conclusion.

 

On 3rd August 1914 Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium the next day, leading Britain to intervene against Germany. Soon other nations followed, turning the conflict into a war that would eventually become the First World War.  The rest is history.

How did Belgium get involved?

Austria Hungary suspected that the Serbians had a hand in the murder of the Archduke and declared war on them. Big Brother Russia, in support of their Slavic brothers in Serbia, began to mobilise and so did Germany, which declared war on Russia.

 

Germany felt squeezed between the French and the Russians and knew that it couldn't beat both countries at the same time. Fearing a war on two fronts, Germany came up with the old Schlieffenplan. In order to cover their back and have their hands free against Russia, the Germans wanted to defeat France quickly entering via Belgium. However the Belgians wanted to remain neutral and refused to allow Germany to send its troops through Belgium into France. Germany invaded Belgium on the 4 August 1914 and immediately Great Britain declared war on Germany.

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How did the Belgium Army stop the German offensive?

The German troops swept through Belgium taking and destroying cities along the way. The Belgian Army and troops of the British Expeditionary Force, who had come to the rescue, began to withdraw towards the sea, pursued by the Germans. On 14 October 1914, the Belgian Army began to dig in along the river Yser. The Germans attacked Diksmuide, a small town on the Yser, on 16 October the Battle of the Yser had begun.

 

The Germans tried many times to cross the river and sometimes succeeded for a while but will always pushed back. The bombardments by British and French warships of the Flemish shore will also instrumental in keeping the Germans on the East bank of the river. On 23rd of October the last bridge over the Yser was blown up.

 

The Germans kept pushing and so the situation became critical for the Belgian Army. It was decided to inundate the entire Yser front, opening the sluices at  Nieuwpoort. During the nights of 26th to 30th October at high tide the water of the North Sea rushed into Flanders Fields flooding an area 1.6: kilometres (1mile) wide, reaching as far as Diksmuide. As a result the Germans began to withdraw. The war turned into a war of trenches.

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What was the importance of Ypres for WW1

Both sides considered Ypres to be of strategic importance. The British wanted to prevent the Germans from pushing on to Calais and threatening their channel ports. For the Germans Ypres was an obstacle on their way to the sea. The town would be attacked and heavily bombarded several times again during the war. By the end of the war, Ypres was completely in ruins including the mediaeval Gothic style Cloth Hall.

Where was the frontline in the West?

The German failure to capture Ypres in 1914 brought the war in the Flanders theatre to a complete standstill. For four years soldiers would man the trenches in harsh conditions, exchanging fire from rifles, machine guns and artillery. The landscape and villages in the region were reduced to rubble. The Belgian Army held is small strip of Belgian territory between the river Yser, The coast and the French border (approximately 5% of the total surface of Belgium). From Ypres onwards the British held the front line, beyond Armentieres in France. Then the French took command up to the Swiss border. Fierce battles were fought to capture points deemed of tactical or strategic importance, often a mere prominence in the otherwise utterly flat landscape.

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Why is mustard gas also known as Yperite?

On 22 April 2015, the Germans launched the first gas attack, using chlorine gas. Later that year the British used chlorine gas in the battle of Loos.

 

Throughout the rest of the war, both sides used ever more lethal gases, culminating in the use of the fearsome mustard gas, by the Germans in the third Battle of Ypres in 1917. As Ypres was the city in which mustard gas was used for the first time on such a large-scale, today people still refer to mustard gas as 'Yperite'.

How did the war evolve on the

Eastern front?

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Contrary to the trench war in the West, the war on the Eastern front was fought over vast territories and front lines. In the early stages of the war, the Russians were quite successful and won some battles against Austria-Hungary and even Germany. However, problems of coordination and communications proved fatal. In the battle of Tannenberg in Poland (26th to 30th August), General Von Hindenburg - the later president of Germany - gave the Russians a heavy blow in what is called one of the biggest victories in history but it wasn't decisive. Russia's defeat would come from within. In November 1917 Lenin took power and began peace talks with Germany, Which led to the Treaty Of Breast-Litovsk on 3rd of March, 1918.

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How did this war evolve into a world war?

"The Great War' as it was first called, soon turned out to be a true 'World War' when more countries got involved in the conflict.  The level of involvement differed of course; some actually went to battle, others only delivered some kind of support. Many countries got involved because of the relationship with a (European) nation; they were allies, dominions, colonies, etc.

 

Troops from all over the world China, Vietnam, India, Senegal, Morocco etc., - came over to fight or help. On 25 April 1915 for example, The men from 'down under' landed in Gallipoli on their way to Constantinople, The capital of the Ottoman empire (Turkey), an ally of the Germans. They met with fierce opposition by the Turkish army and the battle dragged along, making tens of thousands of casualties, until the end of 1915, when the Allies (also some French were involved) retreated their troops. Ever since then, on ANZAC Day 25th of April, Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the soldiers who fell in World War I and other wars. ANZAC means 'Australian and New Zealand Army corpse'.

 

With the arrival of the second Canadian Division in France, in 1915 the Canadian participation in the war effort was confirmed. Soon, other divisions were to arrive and the Canadian Corps was formed. Most of them were volunteers as Canada did not impose conscription until 1916.

 

The Congress of the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917 and drafted 2.8 million men. The first American troops arrived on the Western front in June but it was not until October that they were up to divisional strength. Nevertheless their participation in the war boosted morale among the allies.

Which are the best known battles on the Western Front?

World War I saw many immense battles but some of them really stood out. In 1916, two great battles raged on the Western Front. At Verdun, the Germans attacked the French. At the Somme, it was the Forces of the British Empire that stood against the Germans. This became one of the bloodiest engagements in history. On the first day, the British lost 60,000 men, 20,000 of them killed. By the end of the battle on 19th of November 1916 a million men were killed or injured.

 

A year later, a gigantic battle raged at Passchendaele, also called the third Battle of Ypres. The British pronounced it Passiondale, as it was a carnage of mud and suffering, in fact it was a series of battles with changing successes. It was a war of attrition which weakened the German army but to no avail in terms of gain and terrain. The cost was terrible -in total, some 450,000 soldiers from both sides were lost for a gain of 8 km (5 miles). That gain was soon to be lost again to the Germans in April 1918 during the fourth Battle of Ypres. The Battle of Passchendaele remains until today an example of pointless battle.

Page two, we look at how the Great War ended.

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