Say the 11th of November and you automatically think of Armistice Day, or Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day. There is another event associated with that particular day and in fact that particular war (the First World War of 1914-1918) which I would like to introduce should you not be aware of it.
Langemarck Day commemorates the "Battle of Langemarck" or the more extensive First Battle of Ypres or the battle of Bixchote, all which took place during October and November of 1914. This was part of the so-called "race to the sea" when both the German and Allied armies attempted to outflank each other after the German defeat at the Marne.
This First World War battle or series of battles developed a mythic quality for both the British and Germans during that war. For the British it was the death of the "old Contemptibles", the end of Britain's post-Boer War Army and the Army of the Haldane reforms.
C.S. Forester is his great war novel, The General, describes the battle in this way:
And as he stooped, he heard all the rifles in the line redouble their fire. Borthwick's two machine-guns began to stammer away on his left. The Germans were renewing their advance; once more there were solid masses of grey-clad figures pouring over the fields towards them. But one man with a rifle can stop two hundred advancing in a crowd - more still if he is helped by machine-guns. Curzon saw the columns reel under the fire, and marveled at their bravery as they strove to struggle on. They bore terrible losses before they fell back again over the crest.
The British Expeditionary Force landed in France with 85,000 infantry and by the end of the campaign had suffered 86,000 casualties, most of them from the infantry. From who had not fallen in Flanders or Mons, along with the British Army of India, and the mass of volunteers who came forward during 1914-15, Britain built a new army which in turn would be bled white at the Somme and Passendaele.
The German myth, however, was to be much more eventful.
First, let's consider General Erich Falkenhayn's comments written after the war. He wrote in his memoirs:
The enemy's offensive was completely broken. He was thrown back almost everywhere either to, or across, the Yser, and a firm connection was established between the coast at Nieuport and the previous German right wing near Lille, thus forming a front from the Swiss border to the sea. That which had to be attained under any circumstances, if the war was to be carried on with any hopeful prospects, was attained. Several times it seemed as though it only needed perseverance in the offensive to obtain a complete success - how near we actually were to it has since been made sufficiently plain. At the time, however, our movement came to a standstill.
Inundations, skillfully managed by the Belgians, put an end to the attack of the German right wing, which was making good progress and bore the main pressure. The young army corps further south fought with incomparable enthusiasm and unexcelled heroism. The disadvantages of their urgent and hasty formation and training, and the fact that they were led by older and for the most part retired officers, as others were not to be had, naturally made themselves felt. In particular there were deficiencies in the new field artillery formation, a fact that was emphasized all the more strongly by the shortage of ammunition. Nor was the leadership entirely satisfactory. At the beginning of November, GHQ could not conceal from itself that a further thorough going success was no longer to be obtained here, particularly in the inundated area, in the face of an opponent who was continually growing stronger.
General Headquarters 1914-16, pp 33-34
The last German attack was on 11 November and was repulsed by the British and French with heavy losses on both sides.
Perhaps there had been a chance to turn the Allied flank and seize the French ports, the British had no reserves left . . . But the French did, and the Germans were exhausted. Getting the infantry through was not the same as keeping them supplied, and artillery and shells were short. The Germans were far from their railheads and the British and French falling back towards theirs.
However, The German High Command (OHL) issued the following press release on 11 November 1914:
We made good progress yesterday in the Yser sector. West of Langemarck, young regiments charged forward singing "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles" against the front line of enemy positions and took them. Approximately 2000 men of the French infantry and six machine guns were captured.
We now know this report was entirely fictitious. Most of the German troops engaged from mid October on were not student volunteers, there had been no mass singing (running across a sodden field with full equipment circa 1914 did not allow for one to sing), and the attacks in question had been poorly planned and coordinated. There were reports of the German infantry being shelled by their own artillery as they advanced. In all it was not so much a lost battle as a debacle and massacre, but the mental image of those young German students singing to their deaths had great resonance at the time, they came to symbolize all the losses of those first bloody months of war. And as time went on and the losses piled up, the heroes of Langemarck came to symbolize all those who had sacrificed themselves for Germany during the war.
Taping into this sentiment, a member of the Bavarian List regiment wrote:
. . . And then followed a damp, cold night in Flanders. We marched in silence throughout the night and as the morning sun came through the mist an iron greeting suddenly burst above our heads. Shrapnel exploded in our midst and spluttered in the damp ground. But before the smoke of the explosion disappeared a wild ‘Hurrah’ was shouted from two hundred throats, in response to this first greeting of Death. Then began the whistling of bullets and the booming of cannons, the shouting and singing of the combatants. With eyes straining feverishly, we pressed forward, quicker and quicker, until we finally came to close-quarter fighting, there beyond the beet-fields and the meadows. Soon the strains of a song reached us from afar. Nearer and nearer, from company to company, it came. And while Death began to make havoc in our ranks we passed the song on to those beside us: Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, über Alles in der Welt.
After four days in the trenches we came back. Even our step was no longer what it had been. Boys of seventeen looked now like grown men. The rank and file of the List Regiment had not been properly trained in the art of warfare, but they knew how to die like old soldiers.
The author was Adolf Hitler and the book was Mein Kampf. He obviously understood the importance of myth, since this is the closest thing to a description of battle he provides in this chapter, which is mainly about attacking "politicians", "Social Democrats" and "Jews".
The legend of Langemarck brought together various German ideals: youth, nation and sacrifice, but also the notion that the old order had wasted the sacrifice of their own youth, had been even unworthy of it and that the next time this situation presented itself the national leadership would/could not falter, as the Kaiser, Falkenhayn and the OHL had done. Thus the dead lived on in the aspirations of the German nationalists to reverse the verdict of Versailles.
Already on the first anniversary of the OHL press release, November 11, 1915, there were numerous calls in the German press for a "Langemarck Day" to commemorate the students' sacrifice. Although no official recognition of the day was ever granted by the Kaiser, it became something of a nationalist day of patriotic celebration even before 1918. With the end of the war, the collapse of the monarchy and the founding of the first German Republic on 9 November 1918, Langemarck Day took on ever more importance. It became the counter-national holiday to the Republic's 9 November.
As Hitler's quote above indicates, the National Socialist movement was quick to recognize and adopt all the ideals and symbols associated with Langemarck to their own ends, this contrary to the actual fact that the German student volunteers had probably included a significant number of German Jewish volunteers. As with the original OHL press release, the intent was not to remember or honor the dead, but to cynically exploit them and/or cover up unwanted facts.
I remember seeing a high quality film of a speech Hitler gave before coming to power. He was in a suit and in a round room flanked by raised rows of wooden benches, as in university lecture hall. He was almost crying by the end, addressing the women especially, the mothers of those dead children most likely, essentially "here I am, I've returned to lead . . . "
If one looks a bit closer at all the various ideals and propaganda themes associated with what Langemarck had become by 1939, we see the original ideals of youth, nationalism and sacrifice combined with revengeful bloodlust, political/ideological fanaticism (which had never existed under the Kaiser) and a belief in modernity as a technological means to achieve extensive power political goals. It is interesting in this context to recall that the stated Nazi goal for the new Germany was to return to a mostly agrarian community, discarding the urban society which had risen in Germany after the 1870s. The conquest of the Soviet Union was to provide this land for the new generations of German farmers in the east . . .
The German war cemetery at Langemarck has an interesting history of its own. It is interesting to compare it to the near-by British war cemetery in terms of layout and architecture.
What does Langemarck tells us today? I think there are several lasting lessons we can learn from its history.
First, no matter how noble national ideals are they can be subverted and transformed into something unrecognizable by politics especially politics associated with wars and violence.
Second, it is always appealing for a military high command, or even the political leadership to dress up a military disaster in patriotic/heroic garb and try to pass off it off as something else.
Third, Langemarck is an example of thoughtless waste. If a country or political community is faced with a long war, then resources, including especially human resources have to be used to their most efficient purpose. Was it in the best interests of either Germany or Britain to man their volunteer formations with the cream of their youth, instead of using those educated and dedicated young men to serve as officers in the new armies? What happens when most of the next generation of leaders are killed or maimed in war, allowing the Hitlers to rise to the top?
Finally there is a great distinction between sacrifice and waste, and it is the people for whom the sacrifice is offered or the waste suffered to decide based on an unemotional weighing of the facts what indeed has taken place. With the resort to war comes naturally sacrifice, but also responsibility to endeavor that the sacrifices called upon are both necessary for the achievement of the shared rational goal and that any waste is exposed as what it is. Power, responsibility and accountability should all go together.
The victims deserve at least that.
I've enjoyed reading the comments on this thread. I think a reevaluation, beyond the propaganda versions generated during the war, is finally possible. It could do much to make for a better Europe and perhaps, with some luck and a lot of effort, also for a better world.
I'll leave the last word to C. S. Forester, from The General:
(His main character Curzon has just found out that he is in command of the cavalry brigade, the Brigadier having been killed by a direct hit on his HQ. This conversion of thought process takes about "ten seconds" since Curzon is well versed in the characteristics of his institution. This takes place during 1st Ypres.)
"Any report from the Dragoons?" he demanded.
That was the beginning of eleven days of anxiety and danger and responsibility and desperate hard work. Even if Curzon had the necessary literary ability, he could never write an account of the First Battle of Ypres in which he took so prominent a part, for his later recollections of it could never be sorted out from the tangle into which they lapsed. He could never remember which day it was that the commander of the First Corps, beautifully groomed, superbly mounted, came riding up the lane to see for himself what were the chances of the Cavalry Brigade maintaining its precarious hold upon its seemingly untenable position, nor which day it was that he had spent in the trenches of the Surreys, leading the counter-attack which caused the Germans to give back at the moment when here were only a hundred or two exhausted Englishmen to oppose the advance of an army corps. pp 49-50
Douglaus Haig was the commander of 1st Corps in 1914 and the battle mentioned was Nonne Boschen.