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Belgian Meat Grinder

Groom's superb narrative of World War I at its most horrific


A Storm In Flanders is narrative history as it was meant to be written. In the introduction, Winston Groom -- author of a wide range of books, including the novel Forrest Gump -- states that this book is for Americans. He correctly notes that we have little knowledge of or interest in the First World War. If we think about 1914-1918 at all, we probably content ourselves with the old grade school history class conclusion: America rescued the Allied cause through the timely arrival of Black Jack Pershing and his brave doughboys. And our so-called allies, the French especially, never expressed a word of gratitude.

In A Storm In Flanders, Groom has given us narrative history without simplifying the complexities of his subject. We encounter ordinary soldiers, generals, politicians and civilians whose personal experiences provide vivid, often horribly graphic evidence of the war's impact upon the average human being. These personal accounts, gathered from interviews, regimental histories, and other sources, can only be fully appreciated in light of Groom's adroit presentation of the enormous collision of historical and cultural forces that constitute the First World War.

Groom focuses the book upon the small Belgian city of Ypres and its surrounding area, which is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan. From October 1914 until November 1918 the Allies, almost exclusively British and Commonwealth forces, and the armies of the last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, were engaged in more or less continuous combat. Ypres may be the longest battle in military history, but Groom examines the larger engagements as individual actions. Thus, "First Ypres" began in October 1914 and ended in December 1914. During this two-month period, the Germans, under General Von Falkenhayn, attempted unsuccessfully to smash their way through the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force in order to the seize the French ports on the English Channel. "The Race for the Channel" as it was called, developed out of the German failure to capture Paris in the first weeks of hostilities. Despite Von Falkenhayn's inability to finish off a battered and smaller opponent, much less reach the channel, his troops held the "high ground" (a low ridge seems quite impressive on the Flanders Plain) around the British position, which created a salient, or bulge in the trench lines. The Germans carefully placed their artillery so that almost every inch of the Allied positions could be bombarded.

For the average British soldier, Ypres became a terrifying word. One Englishman, his battalion having been badly shot up on the Somme River in France, described the sense of doom that infected his unit when they were posted to Ypres. They arrived in a once-neat, somewhat dull Belgian town that had been reduced to rubble. On their way into the trenches, 40 to 50 men were killed or wounded.

Through the battles of 1915 and 1916 the Germans, despite employing chlorine gas, were unable to achieve a breakthrough. Gradually they went on the defensive, turning the high ground into near-impregnable positions. The British launched numerous assaults, most of which were bloody failures. Only at Messines in early1917 did they achieve a clear-cut victory. There, engineers set off 20 underground mines beneath a key German position. Besides obliterating several thousand hapless Bavarians, the British were able to push forward far enough to force the Germans back to a new defensive line. Unfortunately, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, one of the war's most controversial commanders, began his new offensive during heavy rains, which had transformed the shell-cratered, clay-bottomed earth of Flanders into a series of bogs and lakes. Under intense German fire, the infantry floundered forward. Men drowned in shell holes, whole companies were annihilated in minutes. Haig's lead battalions suffered losses as high as 70 percent. Haig maintained this strategy from October to December, when Canadian troops finally secured the remains of the village of Paschendale, which was Haig's original objective.

As Groom notes, Paschendale is the bleakest, most infamous phase of the war around Ypres. The testimony of the men who fought there is marked by a sense of numbed incredulity, as if their own experiences happened to other persons. Paschendale, which cost the British Empire about 300,000 men, is commonly viewed as a monstrous example of military stupidity, this time embodied in the stiff upper-lipped person of Douglas Haig. Groom agrees with those critics who claim Haig lacked imagination, but then, with few exceptions, so did most other general officers in the First World War. They, like their men, were unprepared for the killing power which technology had made available to nation-states. Gas, machine guns, high explosive artillery shells and barbed wire, were employed against thousands of troops crowded into a relatively small area. Slaughter was inevitable, and slaughter on a scale that is still beyond comprehension. Ypres was transformed into the classic deathscape of the war.

Groom claims that Flanders became "in effect, a corpse factory," and he certainly proves his point. It is from a variety of images that our conception of the 1914-1918 war is derived: the flooded, stinking trenches, snaking along from the North Sea to the Vosges Mountains on the French-Swiss border; mounds of dead soldiers, or often mounds of body parts: the permanently maimed, legless, jawless, faceless; the smug ignorance of the generals and politicians; and finally the rage against "those responsible," the post-war disillusionment, the fantasy of pacifism.

It is easy to say that the First World War had no winners, but Groom reminds us that this is never the case with any war. At Ypres, and most especially during Paschendale, the German losses were nearly equal to the British, and more serious in terms of winning and losing the war. By the summer of 1918, with the failure of Field Marshall Ludendorff's massive German offensives, it was the British under the cold, unfeeling Sir Douglas Haig, who led the way in breaking the back of the German army, and forcing peace. War, like all human endeavor, is full of more surprises than we expect. *

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