“As British historian Paul Johnson wrote, ‘The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which have been to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.’
Despite local successes such as the Battle of Messines and the Canadian victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917 was a disastrous year for the Allies. The Provisional Russian govt was in chaos, and the Russian Army was worse: most units were in the hands of all-powerful “soldiers’ committees” who refused to fight. In July, Russia’s last gasp in the First World War, the Kerensky Offensive, collapsed and the Russians retreated so far and fast that the Germans and Austrians couldn’t logistically advance any further to catch them. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive directly led to widespread mutinies among French units, with entire divisions refusing to attack. Furthermore, although Unrestricted Submarine Warfare brought America into the war, it had also brought Britain to its knees. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George informed Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, that unless something changed, Great Britain could not continue the war in 1918.
Haig wanted to conduct further offensives in Flanders in 1916 and early 1917, but the battles of the Somme and Arras (in support of Verdun and the French Nivelle Offensive respectively) always took priority. However, in June of 1917, he could do so. First, he could ostensibly claim clearing the U-boat pens in the Belgian ports on the North Sea as an objective. Also, he could capitalize on the capture of the Messines Ridge the previous month. There would be no time to dig further mines, but Haig felt that the German Army was at the breaking point, and one more big push was all that was needed. Haig could not have been more wrong. German morale was as high in July of 1917 as it ever would be in the First World War. The Germans broke the Russian Army, or at least they thought so. (Bolshevism did actually and the Germans capitalized on it, but in the end it doesn’t matter because that’s what they believed.) They thrashed the Romanians, were on their way south to do the same to the Italians, and had given better than they got despite everything the British and French had thrown at them. They suffered massive casualties, but the Allies more so. America’s entry in the war was problematic, but even the densest and most myopic feldwebel in the German Army understood that the victorious troops on the Eastern Front would reinforce the Western Front and defeat the British and French before America doughboys could arrive in force.
Haig’s thoughts on the state of the German Army were rooted in the belief that he won every battle so far in the war. He did this by “moving the goal posts” during each battle, i.e. changing the conditions by which he could claim victory. Each offensive’s final objective started out as a breakthrough and destruction of the German Army. When that didn’t happen, he narrowed the focus for victory, almost always to a tactically important piece of terrain, that only had strategic significance because he said so. Then he threw more and more troops into battle to achieve what eventually amounted to a face saving “victory” for the newspapers. He would continue an offensive despite the casualties until he felt he could claim victory. For example, his latest claim to a meaningless victory was the Nivelle Offensive, where he claimed victory after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge despite the lack of a breakthrough and complete and bloody failure everywhere else. In essence he sacrificed long term success for short term headlines, even though the millions of British and Commonwealth casualties and near static trench lines since 1914 would have had anyone else fired long before.
At the end of July 1917, Haig was going to do it again.
On 31 July 1917, twelve British, Australian, Kiwi, and French divisions, nearly 150,000 men, went over the top in the already tortured, blood soaked, and pock marked moonscape of Flanders around the Ypres (pronounced “E-priss”) Salient.
The hard learned reforms by the Canadians proven on Vimy Ridge had not reached the rest of the force, and the Third bloody Battle of Ypres began after a massive week long area artillery barrage. Surprise was lost, and the barrage just enlightened the prepared Germans as to where to place their reserves. The Allies made almost no gains (they captured only a small portion of the hard fought Plickim Ridge) and incurred massive casualties on themselves.
True to form, Haig reinforced the offensive and ordered it continued. But even Haig had no control over the weather, and unseasonal rains flooded the area. The heaviest rainfall in August in Flanders in 30 years turned the battlefield into a swampy morass. That the bombardment ruined what was left of the any drainage systems didn’t help. Tanks were stuck, supply lories immobilized, and men lived and fought in a sea of mud, which was a ghastly stew of earth, the abandoned or discarded accoutrements of war, and the remains of tens of thousands unburied casualties from the previous two Battles of Ypres. Nonetheless, Haig continued the battle into August and September to little gain.
In mid-September, Haig replaced the local British commander, and the new commander, Gen. Herbert Plumer, understood his superior. He pushed for small, local, intermittent gains; just enough for Haig to signify progress. But by October, Plumer’s gains were not enough and his men were worn out. Plumer stalled in the face of Passchendaele (pronounced “Pa-shin-dolly”) Ridge.
Haig brought up his only troops proven to be able crack a strong German position: the Canadian Corps. LieutGen Currie, the brains and drive behind the success at Vimy Ridge and now the commander of the Canadian Corps, demanded time to prepare the assault. With Plumer’s backing, (Plumer was one of only a few British commanders Currie trusted), Haig relented.
Currie didn’t have the time to dig saps and assault bunkers, but he was permitted to employ his other reforms, namely the planning and preparation down to platoon level and the creeping barrage. With Plumer’s encouragement, Currie began a series of “bite and hold” operations that slowly but consitently devoured Passchendaele Ridge.
However, time was working against Currie and the Canadians. Haig was forced to send badly needed men and material to Italy after the Italian Army’s collapse at the Battle of Camporetto, aka the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Moreover, German troops were released from the Eastern Front after the October Bolshevik Revolution and they went directly into the line opposite the Canadians. The German counterattacks grew more fierce and several employed mustard gas, whose burns were much more efficient than the chlorine gas used previously. Still, the Canadians held their hard won gains.
But Haig needed a victory before the onset of winter and ordered the Canadians to attack and seize the ridge. There was no time for any further extensive life saving preparations. The Canadian Corps went over the top and into the teeth of the German machine guns and artillery fire. After three bloody direct assaults, British and Canadian troops seized Passchendaele Ridge on 6 November 1917. Haig ended the battle shortly thereafter, and claimed victory.
The Allies gained just nine miles at the cost of 450,000 casualties.
The Canadians, whose soldiers’ exploits months before brought together a country, suffered their first national disaster. The cream of the Canadian youth lay dead on “The Passchendaele”. Because of the their sacrifice and face saving limited victory, the Third Battle of Ypres is more commonly known today as The Battle of Passchendaele, despite Passchendaele Ridge comprising only a small part of the fighting from July to November. But all of the propaganda couldn’t cover up the loss of so many for so little gain. The Battle of Passchendaele was the last and most iconic of the great attrition battles of the First World War. Even more than the Somme, “Passchendaele” became a watchword for a great expenditure of men and material in the name of pride.
For the next thirty years “Passchendaele” would be invoked to stop the senseless slaughter of an entire generation of men in a vain attempt at victory.
The first combat troops of the U.S. First Expeditionary Division arrived at the port of St. Nazaire, France on 26 June 1917. They were destined for transport to a training area at Gondrecourt in Lorraine, about 120 miles southwest of Paris.
Rumors of the widespread mutinies in the French Army were beginning to spread, and French civilian morale was low. The French government requested that a regiment of American soldiers march through Paris as a show of American support and a visible reminder that more Americans were on their way.
General Pershing initially balked at the idea. The American regiments in France were not the same as the ones initially chosen from the Southern Department months before. In the interim they were stripped of most of their experienced officers, NCOs, and soldiers, who would form dozens of cadres for the rapidly expanding U.S. Army, and were backfilled with raw recruits. Pershing was worried they would not be able march correctly and would disgrace the United States in the eyes of her Allies. Moreover, Pershing was concerned that if they looked unprofessional, it would give ammunition to the British and French generals who were pushing to have American troops serve directly in their armies as replacements, or at the very least have American regiments serve in their divisions, with no larger American formations. However, Pershing relented in the face of the desperate need for a demonstration of American resolve. In any case, he had nothing to worry about.
With the regimental colors and band in the lead, the U.S. 16th Infantry Regiment paraded through the streets of Paris on 4 July 1917. If they marched out of step, no one noticed because the people of Paris mobbed the American soldiers as they wound their way through the streets. The joyous Parisians cheered, wept, and threw flowers at the mostly green American troops parading through their city. But the tall, young, well fed, and eager American soldiers were a stark contrast to the weary and exhausted French soldiers, drained by three years in the trenches, that the Parisians were used to seeing. The men of the 16th Infantry marched on a five mile route through the city to the Picpus Cemetery, the burial place of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. At 19, Lafayette was the youngest general ever in the American army and so beloved by George Washington’s that he referred to the young Frenchman as his son. Lafayette arrived to fight for the American Cause almost exactly 140 years prior.
Pershing was asked to address the crowd at tomb of the hero of the American Revolution, but since he didn’t speak French, the task fell to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton, a quartermaster officer on his staff who spoke the language. At the end of his speech, Stanton said, “Lafayette, We are here”. Though often misattributed to Pershing, Stanton’s message expressed the sentiment common among many Americans and Frenchmen at the time – that America was coming to the aid of France in a time of her direst need, just as France did for America in 1777.
After the ceremony, the 16th Infantry Regiment marched back through Paris to their staging area on the other side of the city. There they were billeted in civilian houses and barns as they awaited transportation to Gondrecourt where they began their much needed training to fight the Germans.
The failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the widespread mutinies in the French army forced the hand of the British Army. Sir Douglas Haig ordered his commanders to launch attacks along its front to draw away the German reserves, lest they exploit the French situation. The first operation was to reduce a small German salient on Messines Ridge opposite the British Second Army. The British and Canadians of the Second Army had been preparing for an offensive since the trenches stabilized after the Second Battle of Ypres nearly two years before. Recently reinforced by the Australians and New Zealanders, the Second Army had more than twenty mines painstakingly dug underneath Messines Ridge. Because of the geological conditions of the area, the mines took nearly a year to complete.
Due to the high water table of Flanders, each mine had to be dug straight down about 150 feet through the waterlogged “sandy clay”, to the “Bastard” clay mix, or “Paniselien Clay” which was impermeable to water. Then the mines had to be dug horizontally underneath No Man’s Land to the German lines. The issue was the great force the sandy clay placed on mine shafts. The tunnel companies of the Second Army lost more than a few men before they figured out that the vertical shafts had to be lined with specially made steel walls to prevent “flooding”. If one ruptured, then it would fill the entirety of the shaft and mine with thick oozing sandy clay, killing everyone inside, and requiring the tunnelers to start over in a different spot.
Throughout 1916 and 1917, the British mined underneath the Messines Ridge, and the Germans countermined, though the Germans did not realize how the extensive the British mining operation was. As the British dug horizontally, the Germans in several places dug vertically. Where they intersected involved vicious hand to hand combat with shovels, knives, and pick axes that would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The biggest danger was flooding by the Germans, inadvertently at first but deliberate later on: the Germans used timber for their shafts through the sandy clay, which ruptured regularly. If a German shaft connected with a British mine, the timber virtually guaranteed the entire British effort would be eventually flooded with the sandy clay “ooze”. By June 1917, the British had 25 mines underneath the Messines Ridge which the Germans were unaware of. They packed them with nearly 600 tons of explosives.
The British planned to detonate them on 7 June 1917 to seize the ridge as part of the reduction of the Messines Salient. This assault was a prelude to a general offensive in July. The night before, the chief of staff of the Second Army told the press, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography”.
Due to the heavy preparatory bombardment, the Germans were expecting the attack. However, they weren’t prepared for what came next. At 3:10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 of the mines were detonated. The other six were packed with explosives, but “lost” in the tunnel warfare, couldn’t be detonated, or were underneath positions that were evacuated (These would pose significant problems after the war, and several still haven’t been found). The resulting explosion was heard by the British Prime Minister as he toiled away at his desk in London, and as far away as Dublin, Ireland. It was the loudest recorded event in history until the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima 28 years later. The explosions knocked over just about every soldier and officer in the Second Army. They opened great craters in the Messines Ridge, and instantly killed nearly ten thousand German troops.
The remaining stunned Germans were in no shape to resist the subsequent assault. The British, Canadians and Australians all incorporated the lessons learned from the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. The Allied troops at the Battle of Messines seized all of their initial and subsequent objectives within hours. The Germans counterattacked but were unsuccessful.
The Messines Salient was in Allied hands, but there was no plan to exploit the success. Nonetheless, the Battle of Messines was the first Allied victory in the Great War where defensive casualties outnumbered offensive casualties and was a much needed boost to Allied morale.
Of the remaining mines, a thunderstorm detonated one in 1955, luckily killing just a cow. The remainder are still being located.
Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.
Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.
The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.
On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.
The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.
The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.
After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.
In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.
After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.
The transatlantic telegraph and steam powered ocean transit made the world quite a bit smaller, and brought about the first period of true globalization. For the first time the events across the globe could be read at the breakfast table by ordinary Americans in great detail and relatively soon after they happened. The Zimmerman Telegram and Unrestricted Submarine Warfare by Germany meant that actions by other nations directly affected ordinary Americans. In 1914, the majority of Americans wanted to stay neutral in the latest iteration of the four hundred years long Franco-German struggle for dominance of continental Europe. Less than three years later, the majority of Americans were for intervention.
On 2 April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign promise to “Keep us out of the war” and asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany in order to go to “war to end war” and, “The world must be safe for democracy”. On 4 April the Senate voted to declare war and at 3 am on 6 April 1917, the House of Representatives followed suit. That day, President Wilson announced that America had entered the Great War.
The United States was woefully unprepared. The US Army, to include the entire National Guard, was only 208,000 strong. They had just 10,265 men in the US Marine Corps. More Frenchmen and British had been killed (much less wounded) at Verdun and the Somme just the year before than existed in the entire US military. The American army had little experience with units over the size of a regiment since the US Civil War, fifty years before. The War Department had no experience, infrastructure, staff, or plans for the millions of Americans that would need to be drafted in order to stabilize the Western Front.
Nonetheless, the first Americans headed “Over there” in less two months.
The Spanish American War might have introduced us to the World Stage, but now we were starring on it, and would continue to so for the next century. But at the time, we didn’t even know our lines.