Thursday, May 25, 2017

THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS

THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS

Thousands of Germany’s Student Soldiers Die;

Corporal Hitler Under Fire

Special to The Great War Project

(30-31 October) The British and Germans square off at the Belgian village of Gueluvelt. It’s part of a much larger German offensive, designed to drive the British back from Ypres.

British troops defend Gueluvelt, October 1914

British troops defend Gueluvelt, October 1914

One German regiment is hit by big losses, but it is significant for another reason. “I can proudly say,” writes one young soldier, “that our regiment fought like heroes. I was made lance-corporal and was saved by a near miracle.”

That soldier is Adolph Hitler.

The German plan is to smash the British at this little village, according to the German top commander. The German war aims take on a racist tone.

“The breakthrough will be of decisive importance,” writes General Erich von Falkenhayn. “We must and therefore will conquer, settle forever the centuries-long struggle, end the war, and strike the decisive blow against our most detested enemy.

“We will finish the British, Indians, Canadians, Moroccans, and other trash, feeble adversaries, who surrender in great numbers if they are attacked with vigor.”

The fight for Gheluvelt is savage, reports historian Martin Gilbert, but the village remains in British hands.

The two sides are so close that on the night of October 30, “British patrols could see the German troops in their spiked helmets silhouetted against the glare of a burning farmhouse, moving to their positions for the next morning’s attack.”

That morning the Germans do force the British out of the village, in savage clashes. “To add to the horrors of the day,” writes one military historian, “one British battalion learned that their German opponents had clubbed to death and bayoneted some of the wounded and stripped all the prisoners of clothing, watches, wallets and trinkets.”

Later that afternoon, the British retake the village. As a result they hold the strategic Ypres Salient, with great losses, on both sides. Among the dead that day is the German grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

By the end of October, writes war historian John Keegan, “The wider German offensive had failed, at enormous cost.” There is a German cemetery at Langemarck where “the bodies of 25,000 student soldiers lie in a mass grave.” Sculptures by the artist Kathe Kollwitz dominate the scene, depicting a mother and father mourning their lost son, herself suffering the loss of a child.

German cemetery at Langemark

German cemetery at Langemarck

It is the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres that disabused many, writes Keegan, “of the belief that the war would be short or cheap or glorious,” and introduced “the reality of attrition, of mass death, and of receding hope of victory.”

Meanwhile tension continues to rise in Constantinople as the world waits to see how Russia retaliates for the Turkish shelling of several coastal Russian cities, including Sevastopol, Odessa, and Novorossisk. Two German warships stationed off Constantinople take part in the Turkish bombardment. Turkish minelayers are also at work mining Russia’s shipping lanes. A Russian minelayer is sunk, reports historian Gilbert. The German admiral commanding the operation concludes, “I have thrown the Turks into the powder keg.”

It seems like only a matter of hours before the Ottomans, ruling an empire with much to lose, that extends from North Africa, through the Middle East, to the border with Persia, will declare war.

One more significant development this day a century ago. Half a world away, the Japanese, now an ally of the British, French, and Russians, shell the German port of Tsingtao, in China.

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