Friday, November 18, 2011

Langemarck Day, The Other Event Associated with 11 November

Nonne Boschen, 11 November 1914

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.
page 41

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.


  1. Well, if you look at the REALLY "big picture" the whole war was pretty much an exercise in "how can we throw away three generations of peace and prosperity for a big fat nothing". But the Kindermord" of autumn 1914 is a fine example of the worst of the breed.

    It must say something about how I see myself that for me the uniquely terrible part of that autumn was the destruction of the Victorian/Edwardian British Army.

    That was a truly unique organization, and one that never really reconstituted itself. The old rankers, the twenty-year privates of the Ortheris and Mulvaney stripe, who died in the lowlands of Flanders were a pretty unusual bunch, and with them and their sergeants and officers perished a whole way of life that the post-WW1 British Army never really regained.

    Personally I'd vote for Verdun as the nadir of human-stupidity-as-expressed-in-battle (and it's interesting to note that its architect was your man Falkenhayn. I wonder if his reaction to the Kindermord influenced his plan to bleed the French Army white at Verdun?) but Langemarck comes pretty damn close.

  2. One of the first things to go in hard budget times in the schools is music and art in the lower grades.

    Anything frivolous and unnecessary in the seeking of a trade or profitable work in life.


  3. BTW, I've discovered the seed of my trouble signing in here.

    I upgraded from IE 8 to 9 and quickly discovered that 9 doesn't play videos like youtube.

    So I uninstalled 9 and now 8 doesn't accept cookies at some places, like Google and here.

    So here I am thanks to Google Chrome.

    I might have added up above that such "frivolities" and useless endeavours like art and music don't often lead to armed conflict.




  5. Chief-

    With the 1914 Centennial coming in a few years time, maybe we'll get that long overdue re-look at the Great War, when perhaps we can get beyond the myths of August/September 1914 . . . which seems to be very difficult, especially for the former Allies (although not necessarily the former associated powers) . . .

    Have you read Forester's book? It's described as being anti-military, but I think that a superficial view. The author describes both the positive and negative traits of the officers who served in the Edwardian Army following the Boer War to the outbreak of the war. Highly recommended.

  6. Good article Seydlitz. It's been a while since I've thought about that battle and WW1 in particular. I'm hoping with the centential that there is more written/broadcast about it.

    I've always felt that that in the UK the cultural impact of WW1 was far more significant than WW2. The numbing shock afterwards of the sheer scale of casualties and horror wasn't predicted before the war; whereas prior to WW2, there seems to be more a resigned acceptance.

    I remember studying revisionist histories of WW1, contrasting with the 'lions led by donkeys' histories produced prior to this. John Terraine's work which suggested that the generals weren't neccesarily incompetent but were operating primitive command, control & communications was controversial in the 1960's, almost 50 years later. And though he was probably right in much of what he wrote, the sheer scale of the waste makes it hard to take in.

    My personal thought is that each side planned new offensives much in the manner of a gambler at cards - I've lost so much already that I may as well throw in a bit more to get some back. It's the ultimate historical demonstration for pessimists of the hollowness of progress - the most technologically advanced, 'civilized' societies of their day self destructing.

    I haven't read Foresters book though I can thoroughly recommend Robert Grave's Goodbye to All That, his account of being a junior officer in 1915. What surprised me most was that depsite the horror and the casualties, the combatants remained fiercly patriotic and determined to win until the end. Even when invalided out by a nasty wound, Graves was desperate to get back into the fighting. The popular revulision with the war seemed to have happened later.

  7. I tend to agree that our latter-day condemnation of the "chateau generalship" of WW1 owes a lot to our misappreciation of the military culture of 1914; we look at the results and assume that only a fool would have produced them, hence French and Haig and the rest were donkeys and fools.

    But it's difficult at this remove to understand how deeply conservative the European militaries of the war had become from three generations of colonial wars. The lessons of the American Civil War had never been learned, and the lack of technical competence (especially in Britain but general across Europe) meant that the effects of the magazine rifle, the machinegun and the quick-firing, rifled, breech-loading field artillery piece were completely overlooked.

    The commanders of 1914 still thought that they would refight the battles of 1866 and 1870. In particular the British, who had spent lifetimes fighting in regimental strength against Fuzzy-Wuzzies and Zulus had no clue what modern weaponry would do to infantry in open order.

    Now I can and do condemn them for not LEARNING. By the Somme Haig and Foch SHOULD have learned the lessons that Hindenburg and Ludendorff learned that produced the stosstruppen" tactics of 1917. But I would agree that given their limitations they weren't the disasters that they have been vilified in retrospect; they can't be blamed for not anticipating the value of the tank, a weapon barely understood even by its creators in 1916.

    And I'm not sure that they viewed their offensives as "gambles". I think that they, like officers since Alexander and even today, realized that a purely defensive strategy (as opposed to defensive TACTICS) couldn't win. IT might not lose, but it wouldn't win. They believed that it was important to keep attacking to preserve the "offensive spirit".

    And the Allies DID improve their tactical coordination over time. In particular their employment of artillery and tanks got better - they learned, just not fast enough to prevent the appalling losses.

    And there are always people who never give up. The fact that the Allies kept on fighting is proof that the sort of "All Quiet On The Western Front/Dulce Et Decorum" despair wasn't the majority sentiment even by 1918.

    But I think what happened is that 1) AFTER the shooting stopped the pointlessness of a hell of a lot of the butchery became obvious - especially as people watched the cynicism and politics-as-usual of Versailles, and 2) the experience of the private soldiers began to be heard (and let's face it, it always sucks worse the lower in rank you are, and the later you go in the 20th Century the more the the voices of the rankers get heard). So it WAS in retrospect that the war took on the aspect of "popular revulsion" it has when we think of it today. The patriotism and "sacrifice" looked ever more false the more obvious it became that the War to End All Wars had, in fact, ended nothing other than the lives of millions of man and women.

  8. Don Francisco-

    Have read "Goodbye to All That". Graves being a von Ranke on his mother's side only seems to have gotten over/out of his fog of wartime patriotism after the war.

    Forester describes the mentality between Loos and the Somme well I think. The feeling among the senior British commanders, that Loos had simply not been done properly, but with more artillery, a longer bombardment, better coordination and staff work feeding in the reserves, and of course a lot more men, that all it required was one big push. The idea of simply sticking it out in the trenches was somehow sloven and unmilitary . . . so a big offensive was seen as unquestioningly necessary.

  9. Chief-

    France (the reconquest of Alsace/Lorraine, achievement of great power status, overthrow of the German government), Britain (removal of its main commercial rival, end to the German High Seas Fleet) and Serbia (the creation of a Greater Serbia, elimination of Austria-Hungary) all attained their wartime goals of 1914 with a "victorious" end to the war.

    The disillusion came later. Of course the victors could not proclaim their victories too openly, since the war had been sold as something quite different to the masses.

    Since these actual political goals were all quite radical, it's logical from a strategic theory perspective that the costs involved would be extensive, even to the point of making the goals themselves questionable. But no one was willing to actually openly question them, so the propaganda initiated during the war was continued and actually was written into the following peace, not to mention the history which has followed.

    Acceptance of guilt for the war became a requirement for the new German Republic with its unforeseen consequences . . .

  10. I don't think it was a question of "guilt", but rather that the pre-war propaganda had prepped the British and French publics for a short and glorious war and that after the bloodletting the "victories" seemed less than worthwhile.

    As for Serbia, I don't think they enjoyed their new "Jugoslavia" as much as they thought they would; the poisonous politics of that sad little state played a pretty big part in the mess that is the Balkans today.

    But in general I'd agree that the Allies got what they had intended out of Versailles. IT was just that the costs were so much more punitive than they had planned for, and the resultant war-aversion that those casualties produced in both their populations and political classes came as a disagreeable surprise to them.

  11. And you point out that the other mistake was to put the "blame" for the war on the post-Imperial German government. The aftereffects of that blunder were particularly lingering...

  12. In re: the PS; I think one of the factors that added to the mess that was WW1 tactics was the degree to which none of the combatants anticipated the rapid pace and relentlessness of industrial war. This combined with the poor communications that hadn't caught up with the other technical advances ensured that many officers commanded nothing more than the individuals within their physical reach and knew no more than what they could see and hear themselves.

    In retrospect it's pretty amazing that they did as well as they did! But the poor intel, poor commo, overwork, and stress combined to ensure things like throwing battalion after battalion at unbroken wire and unsuppressed machineguns would happen all the way into 1918...

  13. Chief-

    -"that many officers commanded nothing more than the individuals within their physical reach and knew no more than what they could see and hear themselves."-

    Agree, this was one of the biggest problems throughout the entire war. One could train, equip, and transport million man armies, but command and control them? In August through November 1914, it was difficult to know where your own troops were - at say the Corps level - let alone where the enemy was and at what strength. Countless opportunities were lost on both sides to strike decisive blows simply due to the thick "fog" commanders were operating in . . .

  14. Upon further review, one last thought.

    Several of the comments mentioned the idea that the view of the Great War as the "great waste" was an afterthought, a concept that accumulated only after the war was over. And I agree; the works of fiction, poetry, and film that we tend to now associate with WW1; the Sassoon and Graves poems, the Remarque novel and the film version of it appeared largely in the Twenties and Thirties.

    But I would argue that this view - war as meaningless death and wastage - isn't exactly that new. As far back as Henry Fielding and Voltaire a small part of educated society had some dim understanding that the guys in the pretty formations had pretty miserable lives and deaths in wartime. The stories written about the Crimea are easily as nasty as the Western Front minus the better artillery.

    I think that the difference was that WW1 was the first European War where a sizeable portion of the private soldiers - and, let's face it, the lower in rank you are the more pointless and miserable war is - were literate, and not just literate but enough of them could write well that they got published afterwards.

    So for the first time those miserable bastards in the ranks got to tell their stories first-hand. And it horrified the average middle-class Englishman and Frenchman, who had some dim notion that "war sucked" but were shockingly confronted with the immensity of the suckage.

    Interestingly, I think that the massive quantity of war-stories is now having the opposite effects. Because we're back to having our wars fought by small groups of "other" people, people most of us don't know...and we've seen so MUCH of the "bloody mess that was my buddy's face" and the "blackened corpses of napalmed women and children" that we've passed through the horror and shock into boredom and disinterest. Most of us no longer even consider those horrors horrible anymore, just business as usual.

    But in 1922, they still had the value of novelty...

  15. For a while I've pondered if one reason for the postcolonial reluctance of European nations to launch large-scale military interventions, including troops on the ground staying long-term is the fact that they can still see the scars in their cities and there are still some alive on the continent who remember what it is like to live under foreign occupation. In one town in Germany I lived in, you could reconstruct the flight paths of allied bombers by walking through the streets - one block still had early 20th or even late 19th century architecture, then there was a large stretch with blocks from the 50ths, raised more with concern to provide living room quickly than with any aesthetical considerations. And as far as the feeling of occupation goes, one only needs to go as far as the bombing campaign against Belgrade where the US insistance on German participation was happily taken up by Milosevic's propaganda headlining "The Nazis are bombing Belgrade again"

    Chief, I think that the issue is not just "having wars fought by small groups of 'other' people", but also an issue of war being something that's shown on TV as happening far away. I certainly didn't feel very comfortable with a civil war raging in an area where lots of my neighbors previously spent their holidays, such as Dubrovnik, and I'm sure that the Italians were not too happy about a war on their doorsteps either - not to mention those Yugoslavian neighbors who had the occasional stray missile impact on their soil.

    But with war for a lot of people in the US happening largely on TV or, as is more and more common, in a computer game, why should people be particularly disturbed by it? Especially when such games all too often present a rather whitewashed form of war. There is no feeling of war presenting a clear and present danger for oneself but a danger existing chiefly in narratives, be they in the evening news or in a book or game.

  16. Clause-

    You bring up lots of issues here . . .

    Allied bombing in WWII? Not exactly "precision" was it? Hey, you could almost predict the level of damage to Berlin by looking at the S-bahn line map. And the issue of the bombardment of German cities and towns as the Western Allies advanced . . . ? A combination of Nazi bs and allied reluctance to take losses, but who could blame the allies?

    Then there's Wurzburg which was meticulously planned by the RAF, yet to what effect? Yet another issue . . .

    Fast forward to the 1990s. We should have sunk the Yugoslav navy when Dubrovnik was bombarded by the Serbs imo, but they were the buddies of the French and Brits, not to mention fat Larry . . . from Belgrade days gone by . . . or at least Milo and his friends played that up ever sooooo well . . . If you bring up the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s everyone loses, which is why nobody talks about it today, imo.

  17. FDChief-

    Communication. That's what and why those writers could achieve what they did back then, was essentially mass communication and then go on from there . . . Consider then what some, even we, are able to "potentially" achieve today.

    One could argue from a Clausewitzian perspective that communication is in fact the essential element to achieving strategic effect . . .