Europe had been at war for less than three
months, but already hundreds of thousands of young men had died horribly. In the interests
of morale and patriotism, the media in each warring nation had portrayed its side as good
and the enemy as evil, and what we begin to see is that there was a gap created between
what people believed about the war at home and what was actually happening on the front.
I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. At the beginning of the week, the Russians
were crossing the Vistula to try and stop the Germans, who were intent on capturing
Warsaw. The Austrians had broken out of the siege at Przemsyl but were badly beaten by
the Russians on the River San, and the British had just arrived at a sleepy little Belgian
town called Ypres. German army chief of staff Falkenhayn had
assembled a new army under the Duke of Wurttemberg to take over the right flank of the German
forces in Flanders, which is this part of Belgium and Northern France. A lot of the
new units were reservists, though- middle-aged men past campaigning or young recruits that
hadn’t really been trained, and in their first few days of battle they would make catastrophic
Now, the only gap on the Western Front through which either side might possibly make some
sort of decisive maneuver was a narrow corridor right here, and that’s where the action
was happening. On Sunday October 18th, the British headed eastward from Ypres toward
Menin, nearly 20 km away and in German hands, and there were a few skirmishes, but nothing
The next day, as the advance progressed, British pilots reported huge columns of advancing
Germans who would be upon them in hours so the British withdrew to a low ridge overlooking
Ypres. This area would be known as the Ypres salient. A salient, in battle, is a projection
of the line like a bulge, which means that the enemy can attack it on three sides. The
Ypres salient would be the scene over the next four years of some of the bloodiest and
harshest battles in all of human history.
On the 20th, the Germans attacked along the whole front, 24 divisions against 19, but
the main contest this day was around Ypres, where 14 German divisions attacked 7 British,
though most of the German forces were Wurttemberg’s reservists. The British were outnumbered in
men and artillery, but they were equal to the enemy in machine guns, and they managed
to hold their line because of their superiority in rapid rifle fire.
Here we find, as we did at the Battle of the Mons in August, the stories of the “mad
minute”. A mad minute was, according to the British soldiers of the Great War, the
art of hitting 15 targets in one minute with a bolt-action rifle, which the British professionals
were trained to, and legend has it that at both Mons and the first action at Ypres, German
soldiers thought they were facing machine gun fire when in fact it was intense rifle
The German forces made the novice’s mistake of advancing in large masses and presented
huge targets to the British rifles, suffering terrible casualties, and for the next three
days they continued banging their heads against the British lines, attacking by both day and
night on a widening front. Looking at it objectively after the fact- these attacks were exercises
in futility along the lines of the French attacks we saw at the battle of the Frontiers
in August, with devastating losses for the Germans, and the salient held.
At the cemetery of the German volunteer corps today in nearby Langemarck, the bodies of
25,000 student soldiers lie in a mass grave. There are gravestones that read such names
as Musketeer Braun and Volunteer Schmidt over graves that contain several bodies each, a
testament to the “kindermord bei Ypern” the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres, which
it was, when in a desperate attempt to break through, the Germans sent untrained men who
had no business being on a battlefield against the best trained soldiers in Europe, the British
Those Germans were volunteers, doing their part for the fatherland, and they had heard
for three months that the British troops were a joke and would be easily overcome, so they
rushed off to die.
On the British side, we also see the public failing to understand what was actually happening.
British General Smith-Dorrien wrote “I was struck by the fact that people in England
didn’t in the least realize the strenuous nature of the fighting at the front, or that
we were a long thin line without reserves which might be broken through at any time.
Their minds seemed set on what appeared to me a ridiculous fear of an invasion of England.”
There was no danger of that at the moment, for it was true stalemate in Belgium and would
be for four more years.
Further north along the line, the remnants of the Belgian army, now down to around 60,000
men, were holding the cost at Nieuport, at the mouth of the Yser River. The Yser is a
narrow river, but it has embankments and it was a major military obstacle for the Germans,
and the Belgians fought valiantly, earning the praise of even their enemy, who were unable
to break through.
There were, however, breakthroughs on the Eastern Front, where the war had become a
war of perpetual motion for the time being.
The Russians had been sending troops across their bridgehead on the Vistula River for
over a week now, fighting off the Germans who had been trying to take Warsaw. Early
on, the Germans had the advantage, but Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had completely underestimated
the size of the enemy, as Russian reinforcements never stopped coming in, being cleverly and
secretly well deployed by the Russians. From October 18th-23rd, the Russian army, after
weeks of preparations, began its own attack, even threatening to surround the Germans,
who began to retreat on the 20th realizing that with the mud and the sheer number of
opponents, they would not be able to take Warsaw.
Further south, the Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad tried again to take on the Russians
with his army, this time at Ivangorod. This was not as prudent as the German retreat.
On the 22nd, the Austrians attacked, and four days later they were forced to retreat, with
40,000 Austrian casualties. Once again, the Russians would surround Przemsyl fortress-
garrisoned by 150,000 men- and it would once again be an Austrian island in an ocean of
Russian territory. And since I mention oceans, we should turn
out attention to the (Yellow Sea) South China Sea, where the Japanese had the German port
of Tsingtao under total blockade.
This week the German torpedo boat S-90 slipped out of the harbor and sank the Japanese cruiser
Takachiho with a single torpedo. 271 sailors were drowned. The S-90 was, however, unable
to run the blockade and return to Tsingtao afterward and was scuttled by the Germans
when she ran low on fuel.
There was one very important non-battlefield even that happened this week that really shows
the divide between the reality of the battlefield and what the public thought at home.
This week saw the signing of the Manifesto of the 93. What this was was a proclamation
by 93 famous German, artists, scholars, and scientists giving their total support to the
German cause in the war. In the comments section you can find a link to read the whole thing
yourself, but basically it says that the signers are responding to the lies of their enemies.
They say that it is not true that Germany caused the war and it is not true that Germany
trespassed in neutral Belgium or carried out the reported atrocities there, such as the
destruction of Louvain - everything was done in self-defense.
A counter manifesto- the “manifesto to Europeans”- was drafted by the pacifist Professor Nicolai
but gathered only three signatures, and one of them had actually also signed the other
manifesto. The other two who signed were both scientists, Otto Buek from Heidelberg and
a scientist from Switzerland named Albert Einstein.
So at the end of the week the Austrians are defeated once again, the Germans are retreating
from the Russians, the war is heating up in the far east, and on the Western front huge
German offensives are being stopped, with devastating losses in men, many of them too
young or too untrained to belong in battle.
Lloyd George, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister made one
of the most legendary speeches of the war on September 19th to address the costs of
the war. He said that this war- a war to end all wars- was being fought to free Europe
from the rule of a military caste, and that the people of the allied nations would in
the end gain more than they could comprehend, in a new moral regeneration and a political
rejuvenation and realignment. This was a bill of false goods, because when none of this
happened in 1918 the anger and disillusionment of the people was enormous.
He could have simply chosen to tell the truth: that the British, French, and Russians had
to pay a terrible price in blood, to lose the cream of a generation to win a victory
that really gave no new advantages, but that this sacrifice must be borne simply to avoid
worse things if Germany won the war.
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