Hitler and his fellow recruits did not have to worry that the war would end before they had a chance to do battle. And, professor Freud did not have to worry that the Germans would become haughty if they won the war too quickly on their own. Because of the help of a marvelous new invention called the aeroplane, the French were able to determine the basic, overall German battle plan.
In hopes of encircling and annihilating the French forces, the Germans, after advancing across Belgium and into northern France, had unexpectedly turned south just before reaching Paris. The German right flank, therefore, was exposed and within easy striking distance just east of Paris.
After being informed of the situation by their flying scouts, the French high command quickly directed their armies in the field to new positions while French reinforcements were called out directly from Paris and delivered in taxi cabs to positions off the German exposed right flank. The French, by concentrating their troops where needed, were able to strike back in force and upset the whole German battle plan.
By Sept 5, the German advance was nearly checked and the French, supported by the British, began an all-out attack. The first "great" battle of W.W.I began in the vicinity of the river Marne. Three days later the Germans grudgingly began a limited withdraw. When the First Battle of the Marne ended a few days later, an additional 140,000 German and 160,000 French and other allied soldiers lay dead or wounded. Their loss was only a prelude of what was to come.
As the opposing armies fought their way north in an attempt to get around one another, Hitler continued with his basic training. As with many scrawny young men, the disciplined regular hours, good food, exercise and outdoor life brought about a new vitality to his appearance. The five-foot- nine-inch Hitler appeared fit and healthy.
At the beginning of October Hitler made a visit to his landlords and told Mr. and Mrs. Popp that his regiment would soon be leaving Munich and he would be sent to the front shortly after. Since his room was his official address, he asked the Popps to notify his sister if a message came that he been killed. He told the Popps that if no one wanted his few possessions, they could keep them. Hitler bid them farewell and as he hugged the Popp's two children in a farewell gesture, Mrs. Popp, aware of the heavy casualties at the front, burst into tears. Hitler, undoubtedly touched by such concern, turned tail and hurriedly took off down the street.*
On Oct 8, Hitler, along with the other recruits of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, called the List Regiment after its first commander, swore allegiance to Ludwig III, head of the state of Bavaria, and Kaiser William of Germany. Hitler and a few other Austrians were also required to swear allegiance to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Hitler would later state in Mein Kampf that he hated the Austrian state at the time and had "left Austria first and foremost for political reasons." It is ironic, however, that he didn't remember anything about swearing allegiance to Franz Josef when questioned about this day years later. But, he distinctly remembered that his company has served an extra good meal that day consisting of "roast pork and potato salad."*
On Germany's Eastern Front, the Russian Army, after some initial advances in the direction of Berlin, was soundly beaten by the Germans north of Warsaw within the first month of the war. Further south, however, the Austrian army was pushed back in some places over a hundred miles with especially heavy losses among "Germanic, as opposed to Slavic units."* "Czechs in the Austrian army deserted in great numbers to the Russians, and the South Slavs fought with great reluctance"* German reinforcements were sent south and the tide began to turn. With the Eastern Front stabilized, most of the new German recruits were destined for the Western Front.
On Saturday, October 10, Hitler and his regiment completed their preliminary training and left the vicinity of Munich for training in large maneuvers. After marching around in a cold pouring rain from dawn to dusk, Hitler spent his first night on the road soaking wet in a stable. The following morning his regiment was on the march again. At six o'clock that evening they made camp in the open. "The night was freezing cold," Hitler would later write the Popps, "none of us got any sleep."* By the third day Hitler would write that he and his fellow recruits were "dog tired" and "ready to drop."
Hitler's regiment now headed west and after a seven hour march entered Lechfeld where they were to be given additional training in large maneuvers before being sent to the front. "At 1 p.m.," Hitler would later write, "we marched through the French [prison] camp in the Lech valley. They all gaped at us...most of them were strapping lads. They were French shock-troops captured at the beginning of the campaign. Dead-tired though we were, we marched past them smartly. They were the first French I ever saw."*
Hitler would describe the next five days of "strenuous exercises and night marches up to 42 kilometers followed by brigade maneuvers," as the "most tiring of my whole life "* Although he considered Lechfeld a "dull garrison" town, he was delighted with his lodging and the hospitality of the German people and would write: "We are quartered in the village of Graben, privately and with board. The latter is excellent. The people are almost stuffing us with food."*
On October 17, Hitler's regiment completed its training and the brigade received its colors. It would be only a few days before they were sent off to the front. Like two-million other German volunteers, Hitler was elated at the prospect of facing the enemy. "I am terribly excited," he wrote the Popps, "I hope we shall get to England."*
While Hitler was taking his advanced training, the battle lines in France slowly began developing into static trench warfare as the opposing forces dug in. Although the German army had been driven back forty miles from Paris, they had an unbroken front extending 450 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea not far from Dunkirk. Except for a small area in the NW corner of Belgium, centered around the city of Ypres, under German control or within range of their guns was over one tenth of the richest territory of France.
Since the original German battle plan was shattered, the German Generals decided to launch a massive assault against Ypres, push on to the English Channel, seize the port cities and cut the connection between France and Britain. Since the French had lost all of their iron fields, most of their coal mines, and much of their heavy industry, the German general staff hoped the maneuver would bring an end to the war in the west. But, with new large guns able to deliver shells that kept the area above ground alive with shrapnel, and with the addition of new machine guns which were capable of firing up to 600 rounds a minute, anyone caught out in the open was torn to pieces. A whole new kind of warfare was developing, yet, generals on either side carried on as though these new inventions did not exist. On Oct 20th the German Generals launched the first Battle of Ypres. It would be the first of the many stagnant, bloody battles of W.W.I where nothing was achieved except tremendous losses in life.
On the same day, Hitler and his Regiment were loaded onto trains and headed for the Western Front. Rumor had it that their destination was Ypres. The recruits were full of enthusiasm, and like Hitler, believed they were going to do battle to protect the Fatherland from "the greed of the old enemy."* As they crossed the Rhine, "the German river of all rivers," as Hitler called it, the recruits sporadically began singing German patriotic songs. Hitler was overcome with emotion and felt his "heart would burst."*
While the troop train traveled through the Rhineland, it made occasional stops. Hitler was overwhelmed by "the kindness and spontaneity of the Rhinelanders ... [who] received us and feted us in a most touching manner."* Hitler undoubtedly felt like some heroic knight on a holy mission out of one of Wagner's operas. The memory of the event stayed with him for the rest of his life.
A few days later Hitler and his regiment arrived near Ypres. They were unloaded miles behind the front line. As their regiment linked up with hundreds of others and proceeded west, the long column of men, horse drawn and motorized vehicles reminded Hitler of a giant snake inching forward. Hitler was amazed by the industriousness of the Belgium farmers in gathering fertilizer. After a horse column had passed, he observed, children would gather up any manure that had fallen.* Such peaceful thoughts were soon drowned out, for as Hitler would write his lawyer friend: "From the distance we could hear the monotonous roar of our heavy guns." He also added: " ... we encountered more and more horrors--graves."* As Hitler got closer to the front, his letter, describing the events, continued:
The next morning, Hitler and his regiment marched off in the direction of the enemy.
In the previous week of fighting nothing had been gained at Ypres except heavy loses on either side. Nevertheless, on the 29th of October, Hitler and his unit were thrown into the battle as storm (front line attack) troops.
In the morning fog they took up positions near the edge of a woods. Their objective was to attack across an open field and dislodge the British soldiers who were dug in on the other side in the trees and beyond. Hitler and his fellow recruits stood eagerly by ready to advance. The area was under heavy bombardment. "Enemy shells splintered trees as if they were straws," Hitler's letter to his friend continued. "We had no real idea of the danger. None of us is afraid. Everyone is waiting impatiently for the command: 'Forward'" At last the command rang out and Hitler writes about his first experience under fire:
Hitler then relates the confusion of battle and the horrible toll on life: "Four times we advance and have to retreat.. From my whole group only one remains besides myself and finally he falls. A shot tears off my right coat sleeve, but like a miracle I remain safe and alive. Finally ... we advance a fifth time and occupied the farm."*
On November 3, what remained of Hitler's regiment was pulled out of the line for three days of rest and reorganization. Once refitted and reinforced they were thrown back into the fray four miles south of Ypres, at Messines and Wytschaete, where they, along with other regiments, launched another two assaults.*
The battle continued until Nov 22, and one of the fiercest, most wasteful, and most tragic battles of the war saw no gain on either side. The toll in dead and maimed was staggering. The British regular army alone, which had been boosted to a 175,000, had 40,000 wounded and 10,000 killed. Frontal attacks against machine guns and artillery brought the German casualties to twice that number. Hitler's regiment of 3600 suffered 722 dead* (including Colonel Von List for whom the regiment was named) and two thousand wounded. Whereas these losses would horrify a soldier of today, Hitler, like most of the soldiers during the early stages of the war, saw it as their duty. To the Popps he wrote: "I can proudly say that our regiment fought like heroes."*
Hitler, however, acted more heroically than most and was a good deal more conscientious. He carried out any and all assignments given him without question. He never abandoned a wounded comrade and never wavered in his bravery. Hitler was cautious, sensible, resolute, and quite fearless. As one of his officers would state, he was "an exceedingly brave, effective, and conscientious soldier."* On one occasion when the commander of Hitler's regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt, stepped out of a woods to survey the situation, he was detected and enemy machine gunners opened up. Hitler and another soldier leaped in front of the officer and pushed him into a ditch and shielded him with their bodies.*
Hitler's superiors quickly recognized his ability. After fighting at Ypres he was promoted to lance-corporal. After the first two assaults against Messines and Wytschaete, he was attached to the staff as regimental dispatch carrier. While carrying dispatches near the front shortly after, Hitler found a seriously wounded officer and summoned a friend, a fellow dispatch runner named Schmidt. The two dragged the officer out of danger while under heavy fire.* For his actions three officers recommended Hitler,* along with four others in his regiment, for one of Germany's highest military decorations: the Iron Cross, 1st class for "gallant conduct during the fighting."* However, since Hitler was attached to the staff by the time the request came through, his name was moved to the bottom of the list. For that reason alone,* he received (December 2, 1914) the much less coveted Iron Cross 2nd Class. Hitler, nevertheless, was delighted and wrote the Popps: "It was the happiest day of my life," but he added that his fellow recruits who also deserved a medal, "are mostly all dead."* Lt. Col. Engelhardt, whose life Hitler had previously saved,* was also seriously wounded and Hitler would write his lawyer friend: "It was the worst moment of my life. All of us worshipped Lt-Col Engelhardt."*
The unsuccessful attempt to take Ypres ended the German offensive. Any thought of a quick victory faded away. Hitler would later state that his "first impression of Ypres was--towers, so near that I could all but touch them."* He, like many of the young soldiers, thought that they would quickly overrun the place. He soon came to realize that "the little infantryman in his hole in the ground has a very small field of vision."*
The elan that Hitler felt during his first battles quickly began to fade. Hitler, like the millions of other young men on both sides, began to accustom himself to life in the trenches which would be his home for the next four years.
Trench warfare, many intellectuals noted at the time, was a prime example of Darwin's survival of species. If proof of the adaptive quality of the "human animal" were needed, it was born out in the manner in which soldiers burrowed into vermin infested earth and lived under conditions on a par with the lowest of animals. The soldiers frequently endured long deprivations of food, fuel, medical supplies and suitable clothing while under constant bombardments from the ground and air. During the early stages of the war, thousands died from enemy fire but thousands more died as a result of disease and exposure. Thousands of others were incapacitated for life by hideous wounds and "trench foot," a result of exposure to cold and the water which readily flowed through the trenches. Yet in spite of these and other discomforts, in spite of the large rats that fed on the dead, in spite of the constant bombardments, in spite of the filth, lice, disease and aversion, men learned to survive.
At first the trenches were comparatively straight, shallow affairs. As artillery searched them out, as machine gunners learned the art of looping their fire so that bullets would drop into hiding places, as sharpshooters zeroed in on anything moving, as night raiding became more sophisticated, it was seen that straight trenches exposed whole companies to enfilading fire and the trenches gradually became more involved. Well protected and fortified positions were constructed and new defenses were presented by zigzagging deep front-line trenches which were equipped with firing steps, sand-bag parapets, concerted pill-boxes, and other pitfalls. Communicating trenches were dug, leading back to second line trenches, artillery stations, third line trenches, supplies, company kitchens, more trenches, field hospitals, and finally the open road and rest billets beyond.
Hitler described the life in the trenches to the Popps:
In earlier letters:
In a letter to his lawyer friend:
Of the artillery fire the men in the trenches were exposed to, one of the smallest calibers was on a par with a defensive grenade used by both sides. It was about the size of an orange, made of nearly two pounds of cast iron and designed to burst into a hundred jagged pieces. They wounded or killed within a radius of one-hundred and fifty yards. Bigger shells could not only kill anything in an open area four or five times that area, but also obliterate an area 25 yards across at the point of impact. It was not only the destructive element of the larger shells which caused such fear in men that their nerves shattered, but also the terrifying noises which accompanied their firing. First, there is the explosion when the shell leaves the gun which can be heard for miles; second, is the peculiar rattling noise, like the passing of a freight train, when the shell passes overhead; third, is the explosion at the point of impact which produces a shattering concussion. The combination of all three had a profound effect on many men. The constant exposure to fear and terror resulted in a derangement of body and brain, paralyzing nerve and muscle centers, which frequently produced "shell-shock" (insanity) from which many men never fully recovered.
Besides artillery fire, the soldiers also had to contend with the airplane. In an early letter to his lawyer friend, Hitler related that while moving up to the front in daylight for his first engagement with the enemy: "We no longer moved as a regiment, but split up into companies, each man taking cover against enemy airplanes."* As the deadlock dragged on, bombing and machine gunning by air improved and ultimately changed the whole character of the war. Pilots learned to run parallel with the trenches, bombing and strafing anything that moved. The plane also helped extend the fighting far behind the front lines and brought the horrors of the fighting to supply troops as well as civilians.
The constant terror brought on by the continuous fighting took its toll on nearly ever one. Hitler was no exception. There was one period during a heavy barrage, when fellow recruits remembered him pacing back and forth with his rifle in hand and his helmet pulled low over his eyes. Hitler had no illusions about war once the initial bravado and valor faded away and, like any solider, had his bad days. As another of Hitler's friends remarked: "As soon as serious firing would begin on the front, Hitler acted like a racehorse before it has to start. He had the habit of walking around restlessly, buckling on his equipment."* Unlike thousands of others, however, Hitler never cracked. He performed his duties with distinction.
The constant artillery bombardments often caused communications lines, to command posts, to be put out of commission. The need for dispatch runners increased. During attacks their job was one of the most dangerous in the war for it was imperative that communications with front-line attacking storm troops be kept open. Only the best and bravest men were chosen for the job since it often required them to cross open areas. Even during quiet times they had constantly to be aware of lone planes, sniper fire or stray shells. The small group of "runners" were chosen from the more educated,* because "it was a job that required a high degree of resourcefulness and devotion to duty."*
Because of their high death rate, messengers had certain privileges and were left to do much as they wanted till they were needed. However once given a message, much depended on their getting through because the orders were often critical. They were obligated to deliver their messages no matter what the situation or the obstacles in their way. The heavier the fire the heavier their burden. Shortly after Hitler became a messenger, of the eight dispatch runners on duty in his regiment, three were killed and one seriously wounded during one day of battle at Wytschaete. Hitler and the remaining three, were recommended for a citation (which was another reason why Hitler received his Iron Cross 2nd class).
Hitler and his fellow recruits still hoped for a quick victory, but unlike many of the others, the twenty-five year old Hitler had no grand ideas of what the war would accomplish. Since Yugoslavians, Russians, French, Japanese, and British (with Canadians, Indians, Australians, etc.) had already declared war on Germany, and (as Hitler stated), "American-manufactured shrapnel [was] bursting above the heads of [our] marching columns, as a symbol of international comradeship,"* Hitler saw his country in a nationalistic struggle against foreign enemies, foreign influences, and international visions which were intent on destroying Germany. His closing sentences in a Feb. 1915, letter to his lawyer friend give a good insight to his beliefs at the time:
Considering that "most statesmen and people saw in the war primarily the fulfillment of their national aspirations,"* Hitler's statements are moderate indeed. There were those who had much broader visions. They looked upon the conflict as a means to greatly extend their domains at the expense of other races. "Elements of the extreme right in France cherished the myth of a pure Gallic race, and La Croix [the publication of the French clericals], in its issue for August 15th, 1914, found that the heroic exertions of war are the
The coming of Spring saw the continuation of the trench deadlock. Although there were countless efforts to effect a breakthrough on either side, all resulted in insignificant gains of land and tremendous losses of life.
The British (in their quest to expand their empire) were shipping many of their troops
to other parts of the world; so they wanted to reassure the mistrusting French that they
were "pulling their weight." On March 10, therefore, they launched an attack
south of Ypres near the village of Neuve Chapelle where they pitted four divisions, 48,000
troops, against a weak point in the German line. Because it was believed at this time that
the only method of fighting was to attack the enemy at her strongest point so as to
destroy the bulk of her fighting forces, this was an unconventional attack. German troops
had recently been drawn away from Neuve Chapelle due to heavy French pressure further
south. Only one division, consisting of about 12,000 "Saxons and Bavarians,"*
defended the area. One of the Bavarian regiments making up the division at Neuve Chapelle
On the German side a curtain of fire, dust, debris and body parts filled the air. Thousands of shells plunged screaming amid the pillars of smoke and flying fragments while "bombing airplanes" added their high explosives to the fray.* The earth shook and shuttered. The sickening smell of exploded powder filled the air.
Suddenly, at 8:05, the shells "lifted" off the German trenches and began to fall upon the village of Neuve Chapelle beyond. In perfect unison the British soldiers leaped out of their trenches and stormed the German front line. The German machine-gunners left alive had not recovered from the shock and the British crossed No Man's Land in almost complete immunity. The German trenches had been blown to unrecognizable pits littered with dead and parts of dead. Most of the Germans left alive were in a state of trauma and there was little resistance.
The British advance occurred so quickly that the artillery firing on the village had not completed its work and the British soldiers were held up momentarily. "One saw them standing out in the open, laughing and cracking jokes amid the terrible dim made by the huge howitzer shells screaming overhead and bursting in the village."* The barrage soon moved off the village and beyond to roads leading into the area so as to hinder any German reinforcements from entering the battle zone. The line of roads and streets was all but obliterated. The British soldiers stormed the shattered village and began "working with the bayonet." As one British observer would later comment: "The capture of a place at the bayonet point is generally a grim business, in which instant, unconditional surrender is the only means by which bloodshed, a deal of bloodshed, can be prevented. If there is individual resistance here and there the attacking troops cannot discriminate. They must go through, slaying as they go...."*
The British drove forward for over half a mile and for the first and only time during the war broke the German lines.* But, the British were too slow in sending their second wave into the hole and before the day was over the Germans quickly adjusted their line and brought up reinforcements at a terrible cost who plugged the gap. Hoping that there might be a weak point in the new German line the British commanders ordered their soldiers to press on "regardless of loss." For two more days they went on battering against a wall they could no longer breach. With 13,000 dead and seriously wounded British soldiers littering the battle zone, the assault was finally called off.
Rupert, the crown prince of Bavaria and commander of the sixth army in the Neuve Chapelle sector, made a desperate attempt to counterattack and recapture the village. The Bavarian regiments sent into the battle were met by British artillery and machine guns already moved up in position. The Germans were cut to pieces. Before Rupert finally called off his fruitless counterattack the German losses exceeded that of the British. Hitler took part in all phases of the five-day battle and came through it without a scratch.
Because the German line had been broken, the British commanders considered Neuve Chapelle a success and took confidence that, with a little better coordination and refinement, they might break through the next time. For whatever reason they drew the wrong conclusion that "mere volume" of shell fire was the key to success. The Germans also came to the same conclusions. For the next two years W.W.I would become primarily an artillery duel. The true lesson, surprise attained by a short intense bombardment followed by numerically superior troops against a weak point, never occurred to them. Considering, however, the "sudden and surprising" tactics Hitler would employ in another time and in another war, it is extremely likely the lesson was not lost on him.
A month after the battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Germans made another attempt to break the British and French line. The spot chosen was fifteen miles to the north where a British and French "bulge," five miles deep and four wide, penetrated the German line. It would become know as the Second Battle of Ypres and would have a profound affect on every soldier who served in W.W.I.
To prepare the way for the attack, the Germans decided to make use of a new technology; asphyxiating chlorine gas. The gas was prepared and stored in large cylinders weighing ninety pounds each far behind the lines. After being shipped to the front, the gas cylinders were carried to the front line by the infantry.* The cylinders were then buried at the bottom of the front line trench with only a small "dome," which protected the discharge valve, protruding out of the ground. To protect against any leakage, a large flat bag, stuffed with a substance like peat moss and heavily socked with a potash solution, was placed on top. To protect against shells or shell fragments, three layers of sandbags were built up around and over it. "Batteries" of twenty cylinders were strategically located so that once released the small gas clouds would combine to form a large cloud.* After waiting until air currents were moving steadily west, the protective coverings and domes were removed and lead pipes were connected to the cylinders, directed over the parapet and pointed to a sector defended by the French. At 5 p.m. on April 22 (two days after Hitler's 26th birthday). the Germans opened the valves.
Being heavier then air, the gas swept slowly forward in a yellow-green cloud about six feet high and flowed into the enemy trenches. Germans troops wearing special masks came with the gas-cloud.
Never before had any solider been intentionally exposed to a killing gas. In the French front lines, unprecedented confusion resulted as the chlorine gas attacked the troops lungs and respiratory systems. Some soldiers attempted to hold their breath. Others tried burying their mouths and nostrils in dirt.* Many began coughing and vomiting blood. Others felt pains in their chests and began suffocating. The faces of the dead men "turned a sort of saffron-yellow which after a time changed to purplish blue."* In some sections the gas killed 25% of the men exposed to it.** Panic soon spread among the French forces and the infantry in the line fled, opening up a four mile gap.
The Germans advanced about a half mile and captured fifty big guns. They soon left the wall of gas behind them, which had begun to break up into patches, and it seemed that nothing was in the way to stop them. But, just as with the British at Neuve Chapelle, by the time the Germans sent their second wave through the breach, the French brought up reinforcement and plugged the gap. The advancing Germans were cut to pieces.
Two days later the Germans turned their gas on an adjoining section of the line defended by British troops. Though death seemed certain, the British (mostly Canadians) attempted to protect themselves with makeshift "respirators" of handkerchiefs and rags moistened with salt water or experimental neutralizing chemicals. They were able to hold their sector till the gas passed over but suffered appalling causalities. The German drive was stopped.
With all hopes lost of obtaining a break-through by using gas as the primary weapon, the Germans launched an all out conventional attack supported by gas. They began creeping forward, but by now, nearly every gas mask to be found in France and Britain had found its way to the front. After four weeks the Germans finally called off the attack. They had failed to take Ypres. To advance roughly two miles along a four mile front, the Germans paid with over 34,900 men killed or seriously wounded. The British, who launched a series of counterattacks and gained nothing, had 10,500 dead and nearly 49,000 wounded.
Even though the use of gas did not bring the desired results, out of desperation both sides began using it in hopes of breaking the deadlock. The French and British soon gained the ascendancy and the cumbersome cylinder and gas-pipe system, which depended on air currents, was abandoned in favor of the gas-shell.
Besides the first asphyxiating gas, both sides soon developed others more deadly. Soldiers were instructed that the first breath produced a spasm in the throat, the second brought about mental confusion, the third produced unconsciousness and the fourth, death.* There were also "mustard" gases which were designed to blister and burn "moist" parts of the body and produce blindness as an alternative if death didn't occur.** Thirty percent of all causalities during the early stages of the war would be a result of one gas or another.
Gas masks, covering the whole face, were speedily perfected and every command had a gong or siren which warned of approaching gas. Masks were worn not only by troops, but by horses, pack mules, company dogs and civilians behind the lines. Because of the mustard gases, soldiers were also forced to wear heavy clothes that covered the whole body even in the hottest weather. When gas was present soldiers not only found it almost impossible to eat or drink but also had to relieve themselves in their pants because "getting caught with ones pants down" brought about excruciating pain and sometimes death.
During the war, front line soldiers on either side of No Man's Land looked like dreamlike figures. Their heads were protected with a steel helmet covered with cloth so the glint of steel would not advertise their whereabouts. Beneath the helmet they wore a close fitting woolen cap pulled down tightly over the ears and sometimes tied beneath the chin. Attached to a dull-colored uniform were the soldiers' belt, brace straps, bayonet, ammunition pouches, grenades, trench knife, and gas mask (which was normally carried on the chest). A cloak, made of rubber without sleeves, was usually worn to keep off the rain. High rubber boots, strapped at the ankle and upper thigh, covered the legs. During attacks each soldier proceeded forward with his rifle, bayonet fixed, thrust out in front of him. Just a few months before, the thought of a man so dressed appearing out of a greenish gas-cloud while peering through an insect-like mask, would have been the stuff of nightmares.
Because the British and French succeeded in stopping the nightmarish attack of the Germans at Ypres, their confidence was up. The Germans, they believed, had exhausted themselves and were ready to crack. All that was needed, they believed, was one great combined thrust which would drive the Germans back into Germany. Though the British had consumed large amounts of men and material at Ypres, their plan was to penetrate the German line in a two-pronged attack, one to the north and one to the south of Neuve Chapelle. Each prong was to be a mile wide. The main thrust however, was to be delivered further south by the French army.
The French massed nearly a quarter-million men for their assault along a ten mile front north of Arras. They had over 1100 heavy guns to "soften up" the German lines and were predicting victory within weeks.
The Germans, having learned from what had occurred earlier at Neuve Chapelle, had prepared a much more elaborate network of well protected shelters, dugouts, and machine-gun emplacements opposite the British and French lines. The Germans manning the lines were nearly all hardened soldiers and knew what to expect. One of the German regiments still defending the area between Neuve Chapelle and Arras was Hitler's.*
On May, 8th the British opened up with the same type of preliminary bombardment that had been so effective at Neuve Chapelle. The French opened up the following day with a bombardment that consumed more than 300,000 shells the first day. The German front line trenches from Neuve Chapelle to Arras were reduce to rubble intermixed with human debris. Where aerial photographs the day before had shown perfect geometric patterns of zigzag trenches and an occasional village, there now existed a moonscape.
Beneath the carnage however, many of the German strong points were still intact. As the combined Franco-British offensive got under way, the causality count soared as the surviving Germans in their well protected and camouflaged machine gun emplacements sprayed the unprotected attackers. On the first day the British lost 8000 men in the first few hours and their offensive quickly stalled. Although the French were able to advance two miles at one point, the anticipated breakthrough never materialized.
Although the British attacks continued sporadically until the end of May, the determined French threw themselves continually at the German lines for another month until 60,000 German and 120,000 French soldiers had fallen.* During the battle, Hitler's regiment was shifted back and forth where needed and fought against the British south of Neuve Chapelle at La Bassee and against the French at Arras.* Hitler was learning quickly that leaders (fuhrers), whether autocratic or democratic, were willing to sacrifice much to pursue their dreams.
Footnotes: (One asterisk is for a footnote, two asterisks are for additional information.)