The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 159th installment in the series. Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.
December 20, 1914: First Battle of Champagne Begins
By December 1914 a series of bloody battles on the Western Front had clearly demonstrated the enormous defensive advantage conferred by modern firepower, chiefly machine guns and fast-repeating rifles, which turned infantry charges into massacres and rendered offensive operations more or less futile. However the lesson took some time to sink in for commanders thoroughly inculcated with the 19th century principle of the offensive, asserting that men with sufficient spirit could overcome any obstacle. The inevitable result was more meaningless death and destruction.
On December 20, 1914, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre launched the second big Allied offensive on the Western Front, subsequently known as the First Battle of Champagne. According to the plan, the French Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary would attack the German Third Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht in the Champagne region of northeastern France, while the French Tenth Army attacked from Artois in the west, threatening the Germans with encirclement and forcing them to retreat. At the same time the other French armies and the British Expeditionary Force would mount diversionary attacks all along the front, in order to pin German forces down and prevent them from sending reinforcements.
However this plan, like so many grand offensive conceptions in the First World War, proved wildly unrealistic. The French Fourth Army managed to make some small advances on the first day, but the offensive ran out of steam almost immediately, as the Germans hurried machine gun crews to cover the gaps opened in their barbed wire entanglements by French artillery. As December drew to a close de Cary responded by probing other spots in the German line, looking for weak links but with scant success, as local gains were immediately recaptured by German counteroffensives.
Meanwhile the diversionary attacks elsewhere on the Western Front made no progress, often at shockingly high cost, as recounted by Corporal Louis Barthas, a barrel maker from southern France who was none too impressed with his commanders or their management of the war:
… hardly had twenty men gotten out before one machine gun started clattering, then two, then three… In the squad that went ahead of us, one man was shot right through the shoulder, spurting so much blood that he was surely going to die without immediate attention. But no stretcher-bearers were in sight, and you couldn’t stop your forward march to take care of even your own brother. Passing in front of, over rather stepping over, this first moaning, wounded comrade, we had to splash through his blood, which made quite a nasty impression on us. Even the stupidest of us understood that we were going to our deaths, without the slightest hope of success, simply to serve as living targets for the German machine gunners.
Whatever French propaganda might have to say about the selfless patriotism of the poilus (grunts), Barthas noted that on this occasion they only advanced after mid-ranking officer, remaining safely behind in the trench, threatened to have their own machine gunners fire on them. A few days later, he witnessed another French officer threatening troops too terrified to leave the trench:
The captain of this company… protested against this attack organized against all common sense and doomed to certain failure, but, instructed to obey, he hurled himself forward and was struck down after a few steps. In the trench, the men trembled, wept, pleaded. “I have three children,” cried one. “Mama, mama,” said another, sobbing. “Have mercy, have pity,” one could hear. But the commandant, out of control, revolver in hand, cursed and threatened to send the laggards to the gallows… But suddenly he toppled over, his head pierced by a bullet.
As the offensive dragged on into the New Year, conditions were rendered even more miserable by prolonged downpours of freezing rain which flooded trenches (top, a British trench in January 1915), alternating with bitter cold that resulted in thousands of cases of frostbite. The rain also turned unpaved roads into quagmires, disrupting distribution of winter clothing, rations, and ammunition (although the roads were at least somewhat passable when they froze).
Henri de Lécluse, a French officer, recalled the situation on January 8, 1915: “It had been pouring for fourteen straight hours and the water, running down from the surrounding hills, rushed into the trench as if it were a canal… In a relatively short time the earth started to slide, the walls of the trench were giving way in places and the shelters were collapsing.” Barthas painted a similar picture in his own account:
What that month of January was like, what we suffered through, I won’t even try to describe. I would never have thought that the human body could withstand such trials. Almost every morning there was dry, white frost which formed icy stalactites hanging on our beards and mustaches and refrigerated our feet. Then during the day or the night the temperature would rise and the rain would fall, sometimes in a downpour, filling with mud and water our trenches which became rushing streams, irrigation canals.
Despite all this the fighting would continue, apparently due to sheer irrational inertia, and the First Battle of Champagne dragged on wretchedly into March 1915, yielding no strategic results but plenty of suffering.
Back home civilians on all sides worried about the soldiers enduring horrible privations at the front, and also fretted about their own ability to make it through the winter with limited resources, especially coal, already running short as army requisitions disrupted supply chains everywhere. For women especially it was a time of terribly anxiety and regret, according to Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small rural village east of Paris, who struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Frenchwoman on the train:
… she asked me if I had any children, and received a negative reply. She sighed, and volunteered that she was a widow with an only son who was “out there,” and added: “We are all of us French women of a certain class so stupid when we are young. I adore children. But I thought I could only afford to have one… Now if I lose that one, what have I to live for?... it was silly of me to have but this one.”
Indeed death was sweeping away an entire generation of young men across Europe. According to some estimates, by the end of December 1914 France had already suffered almost a million casualties, including 306,000 killed, 220,000 taken prisoner, and 490,000 wounded. In Germany the total casualty figure was also around a million, including 241,000 dead, 155,000 taken prisoner, and 540,000 wounded.
And the war had only just begun.
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