Memorial Day 2013

More than any other modern war ’14-’18 lives in the memory as the ultimate example of a mismatch between what was at stake and the price that was paid. It is the war of the ‘lost generation’, sacrificed for a cause which, in hindsight, is difficult to pinpoint.”

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Belgian historian and Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, quoted on



Over there, over there

The WW1HA is going to the battlefields again in May.

Come with me.

The tour will begin May 25 in Brussels and go to the fortress city of Liege, where brave little Belgium’s army held up the German advance for 12 days at the beginning of the war.

The group will move on to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, to visit the Le Linge battlefield and museum, full of artifacts. More than 2 miles of trenches and fortifications are still in place. On to Hartmannswillerkopf and its incredible views — at nearly 1,000 meters above sea level — and memorials. The American Ambulance Services worked here.

Then to Verdun, the St. Mihiel Salient, Belleau Wood, Le Hamel — where American troops fought alongside Australians on July 4, 1918 — and a full day of exploring around Ypres, concluding with the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

To walk where they walked, to stand on the ground they fought so hard for is incredibly humbling.

To raise a glass to them while chomping frites — the best fries/chips you will ever eat — with the possibility of chocolate croissants for breakfast is incredibly fun.

Come on. I’ll meet you in Brussels and buy you a beer.



Here’s an awesome post from Jonathan Vernon, blogging as That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele. His grandfather was a machine gunner in World War I, and this post is based on his recollections of this particular battle in Third Ypres — what we know as Passchendaele.

Feet to Remember

Caroline Copland of London had a dream: She was walking from the  Passchendaele battlefield to Canary Wharf, one of London’s two financial districts — the Wall Street of London, perhaps.

After she woke up, she decided to make the 125-mile journey on foot in reverse: London to Ypres, from the Cenotaph to the Menin Gate.

Her walk is a fund-raiser for Combat Stress. According to its website, “Combat Stress is the leading UK charity specialising in the care of Veterans’ mental health. We are currently supporting just over 5,000 ex-Service men and women.”

The organization began in 1919 as the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society to rehabilitate veterans with shell shock.

Caroline expects to be in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, on Thursday in time for the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. She’s blogging — shin splints! — and collecting donations at

Fun fact: In 1927, the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society, to provide work for the men under its care, developed and manufactured one of the first electric blankets to be sold in the UK.

Here’s more about shell shock, which we now know as PTSD:






Passchendaele: The beginning

From our Facebook friend Wipers: A Soldier’s Tale From the Great War, written by Jeff Simmons:

If there were a battle that summarized the pain and suffering of the common foot soldier, it would be the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. Unlike the first two battles of Ypres, this time it was the Allies making the push; they jumped off this day, 1917.

Hell was truly on the horizon. In “A Short History of World War I,” historian James Stokesbury says “Even the soil was bad. Soil may not be thought to be of much importance in military operations, but it is one of the supreme conditions of a soldier’s life, as he has to spend a great deal of his time digging in it, putting it in sandbags, and moving it from this spot to that spot.” The soil at Ypres was gooey clay, which when wet, turns into a clingy ooze. The heavy fighting in that flat, low-lying stretch of front had destroyed all of the dikes and waterways that controlled flooding, so rain meant misery.

The objective of Gen. Douglas Haig’s brilliant offensive was to break the German line in the northwest side of the Ypres salient. Gen. Plumer’s successful mining campaign at Messines just down the line improved the possibility of pulling off this maneuver, although the right flank of the attack would still be up one of those little molehills they call ridges in Flanders. Once the troops achieved this breakthrough, they would hook up with an amphibious landing in Belgium, then cut off and surround Germany’s flank as well as its U-boat bases. Sounds like a pretty good plan…but like so many plans, there were problems, mainly rain and a 13-day artillery barrage that had churned the soil into muck. The soldiers were expected to advance through this. A good number of attacking soldiers actually drowned on the battlefield.

In the end, the British did end up taking some land. The distance of the drive, however, cost them one man for every inch gained.

The only good thing I see coming out of this is that it sped up the notion that the old way of fighting just didn’t work (wow, now THERE’S a news flash!) Somehow, someway, the era of siege warfare needed to end, and a strategy to get into a war of movement was essential.



Men of a Yorkshire regiment moving up the line. National Library of Scotland photo.

 Jeff is the author of  the novel “Wipers: A Soldier’s Tale from the Great War”

And there were still two years to go.

Great War Photos

Aerial imagery of the Great War gives a fascinating insight into the battlefields of WW1 and this week on the site we will feature three German images showing different locations on the Western Front. While it is likely they were originally taken for intelligence purposes these images had been transferred to postcard as souvenirs for soldiers at the front. Some of these were later re-sold to British soldiers during the occupation of the Rhineland from 1919.

This image dates from 1915 and shows the city of Ypres from above. By this stage of the war Ypres had seen two major battles – First and Second Ypres – and the buildings come under a terrible hail of shells of every calibre up to 420mm: one account of a commander based at nearby Potijze in early 1915 recalled watching 420mm shells descend on the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral and take…

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Week 9: “Hill 60”

“Hill 60,” by Nigel Cave, is one of the Battleground Europe books. Hill 60 — named because it was 60 meters above sea-level — is in the Ypres Salient, not far from Zillebeke. It was the scene of especially ferocious fighting during Second Ypres, in April 1915, where the British set off some of their earliest mines, and the Germans used some of their earliest gas. The Hill ended up in the hands of the Germans, who stayed until June 7, 1917, when the British set off the mines they had dug under the Messines ridge, including Hill 60.

Cave quotes an officer’s account of the explosion, which took place at about 3 o’clock in the morning: “First there was a double shock that shook the earth here 5,000 yards away” — he was at Zillebeke — “like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit up with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. … it makes one almost drunk with exhilaration.”

The explosion of the mines was said to be so loud, it was heard in London. Cave says 10,000 Germans were killed in the Battle of Messines.

Here’s another account of the big blast:

Here’s a description of the memorials in the area:

I predict we will all take a much greater interest in mining on the Western Front when “Birdsong” comes to PBS in April.

Battleground Europe books are not for readers focused on the whys and wherefores. But they are unmatched if what you want is the who, what, when, where and how — unity by unit, even hour by hour.

Lochnager mine crater