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I am writing a book on the Battle of Passchendaele, from the German perspective, and I could use some pointers for help


Ersatz Made

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I am writing an anti-war novel based on the Third Battle of Ypres, or Battle Passchendaele, from the German perspective. I have plenty of knowledge of the battle itself, but I plan to make this as historically accurate as possible, while still being able to show the hopelessness of the battle, and the war in general. I was wondering if I could get some pointers on the tactics, weaponry, soldiers, dates, and landscape of the battle, to help me as much as possible. 

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Have you read Jack Sheldon's book on the German Army at Passchendaele? Loads of first hand accounts from throughout the campaign.

Robert

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Thank you for this information! I will definitely check that out!

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Robert beat me to it !

It has to be Jack Sheldon’s book.

 

The German High Command made some statements about the ordeal of the troops, with Hindenburg chipping in with a very evocative passage in his memoirs : the lonely German soldiers in the shell holes who struggled against an overwhelming preponderance of men and material. All too often the mass prevailed, he wrote.

 

Isn’t there a harrowing painting by Otto Dix titled Flanders  ? A picture that speaks volumes about terror, death and squalour . A perfect illustration for the cover of your book.

 Best wishes for your endeavour. Hoping it goes well for you.

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade
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There is another very important book to read. A theme of the hopelessness of the battle, and of war in general, is one way to explore Third Ypres. My next recommendation offers up important insights that are more nuanced and more challenging:

'War experiences in rural Germany 1914-1923' by Benjamin Ziemann.

It is particularly powerful, drawing on letters, censor reviews, parish records, newspapers, etc to provide a detailed understanding of how soldiers and families from rural Bavaria experienced the Great War. The collective sense of hopelessness was slow to evolve, and is not to be mistaken for the mind-numbing effects of prolonged shelling for example. The latter, combined with fatigue and other factors, produces the 'thousand yard stare', which can seem like a fatalistic hopelessness.

Robert

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The strange thing about  Third Ypres is how its awful reputation is not borne out by the casualty figures.  The same thing goes for Verdun.  Both these battles stand as prime symbols of the horrors of the Great War. Yet neither of them approached extremes in terms of the numbers of men who were killed,  when compared with the toll of the Somme, or some of the battles of 1915. The Germans lost more men fighting the British in sixteen days in late March and early April 1918 than they lost in one hundred or more days in the Third Ypres battles of 1917.  

What was it about Passchendaele that induced von Kuhl to describe it as “ the greatest martyrdom of the war “ ?

Was it the sense of loss, rather than the actual loss, that impinged on its reputation ?

The conditions, horrifying though they were, were rivalled elsewhere.  
 

To what might we attribute this ghastly notoriety ?

 

Phil

 


 

 

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13 hours ago, phil andrade said:

The strange thing about  Third Ypres is how its awful reputation is not borne out by the casualty figures.  The same thing goes for Verdun.  Both these battles stand as prime symbols of the horrors of the Great War. Yet neither of them approached extremes in terms of the numbers of men who were killed,  when compared with the toll of the Somme, or some of the battles of 1915. The Germans lost more men fighting the British in sixteen days in late March and early April 1918 than they lost in one hundred or more days in the Third Ypres battles of 1917.  

What was it about Passchendaele that induced von Kuhl to describe it as “ the greatest martyrdom of the war “ ?

Was it the sense of loss, rather than the actual loss, that impinged on its reputation ?

The conditions, horrifying though they were, were rivalled elsewhere.  
 

To what might we attribute this ghastly notoriety ?

 

Phil

 


 

 

I sometimes wonder if has something to do with the name. It is rather chilling somehow.

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The chronology has something do with it, too, I reckon.

 

The culminating effort after three years of horrific static warfare, initial hopes raised, and a dismal outcome.

 

Disappointment lent an extra edge as prospects of imminent German resurgence weighed heavily on morale.

 

editing : apologies , I’m not dealing with the original question about how the German experience of the battle can be interpreted. I must redress that. My suggestion is that , in the summer and autumn 1917 battles on the Western Front , the German soldiers became more than ever aware that the Entente armies were getting more skilful and enjoying a greater preponderance in ordnance and munitions than ever. I must refer to the Entente because the French were attacking at Verdun and Malmaison with spectacular success while the British were bludgeoning at Third Ypres. And -even there- there was the French First Army assisting the British and giving a good account of itself.  The sense of isolation,  and feeling that they were up against an overwhelmingly powerful foe,  must’ve made the experience of those forlorn defenders absolutely nightmarish. They felt themselves to be doomed, and with good reason.  I remember reading the account of a Canadian, who was in the final fight for the village of Passchendaele, and, while he lamented the loss of so many of his comrades, he commented that it must’ve been even worse for the Germans. He remembered their desperate counter attacks and the way that the Canadian firepower dealt with them.

 


 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade
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  "The culminating effort after three years of horrific static warfare, initial hopes raised, and a dismal outcome." 

Exactly what I was going to say about this battle. No, it wasn't the worst battle to find oneself in but it WAS the fourth year of the War and things weren't exactly going swimmingly - on either side of the fence! 

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If I may recommend a book.

Passchendaele in Perspective The Third Battle of Ypres: Edited by Peter Liddle.

This covers a wide ranging set of chapters by an equally wide ranging group of writers, some well known others perhaps not so.

I find it the sort of book to dip into and out of as required without having to read the book cover to cover; though nothing wrong with that when time allows.

Regards

Peter

 

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I recommend reading German books. If you want to understand the German thinking, you need to read German memoirs and autobiographical novels.

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Writing his popular ( and populist) history of The First World War sixty years ago, AJP Taylor wrote of Passchendaele :

“ After the war…Ludendorff made out that the prolonged battle had broken the spirit of the German army.  This was not serious evidence ; it was said only to conceal the fact that he himself had broken his army’s spirit by the offensives of 1918. “


Phil

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8 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Writing his popular ( and populist) history of The First World War sixty years ago, AJP Taylor wrote of Passchendaele :

“ After the war…Ludendorff made out that the prolonged battle had broken the spirit of the German army.  This was not serious evidence ; it was said only to conceal the fact that he himself had broken his army’s spirit by the offensives of 1918. “


Phil

I think Ludendorff may have been better at understanding the spirit of the German army than a British author.

Having read plenty of German first hand accounts of the Flandernschlacht as it was officially named, the fighting does seem to have had a profound psychological impact on the German army. There are several aspects to this: the duration of the battle, the conditions in which the soldiers had to live, the fact that a huge amount of German units rotated in and out of the battle, the fact that it really showed the allied "abundance" versus the German "shortages", ...

Jan

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I surpose the main well known sources, like Eric R and is book turn movie and or I like the other famous writer from the 73rd Hanoverian Regt who's name escapes me at present.

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15 minutes ago, stevenbecker said:

I surpose the main well known sources, like Eric R and is book turn movie and or I like the other famous writer from the 73rd Hanoverian Regt who's name escapes me at present.

Ernst Jünger

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Bearing in mind that Ziemann's book is focused on Bavarians from the rural districts, not Germany as a whole, he writes:

Quote

The troops deployed in the [Verdun and Somme] battles of matériel were soon depressed and exhausted; their desire for peace became yet more urgent. Soldiers' letters from 1916 mention for the first time the notion that the war might be followed by 'revolution'. The Supreme Command and higher-ranking officers were also aware that the men's mood had taken a turn for the worse as a result of the battles of Verdun and the Somme; it worried them. The tremendous demands on the divisions which took part were reflected in isolated mutinies but, above all, in an increase in individual forms of disobedience. For the first time, a significant number of soldiers who had lost contact with their units was noted. These men absented themselves during the advance to the front and then went into hiding for a few days until the unit returned.

The highly mechanised battles of 1916 saw tens of thousands of men in a single location used as objectified 'material' which, now damaged to a greater or lesser extent, had to be rapidly replaced. This laid bare the absurdity of the war of position. A war which continued to be waged in the absence of significant changes or consequences - other than destructive ones - year in and year out was not a war in the traditional sense of a limited engagement leading to a definite outcome. Soldiers came to see it as mere 'killing'. From [1916] onwards, soldiers often expressed their feelings about the conflict in stereotypical fashion by referring to it as 'killing' or a 'slaughterhouse'.

The peace initiative of 12 December 1916 put forward by the Central Powers, soon rejected by the Allies, awoke new hopes - as did all such initiatives. Disappointed that the initiative had failed, the longing for peace among war-weary soldiers again increased as a result of the official offer. For soldiers with patriotic leanings determined to stay the course, meanwhile, this rejection strengthened their resolve.

Over the course of 1917, the soldiers' mood initially darkened further. The tone in which they expressed their war-weariness in letters became generally more aggressive. In June the Majority Social Democrat Paul Löbe detected a widespread 'rage towards one's own country', up to and including the 'wish' that 'Germany is defeated', even among frontline soldiers such as farmers and businessmen not close to the SPD. Yet in 1917, as happened at the Somme, the German troops' resolve to stay the course was bolstered by the fact that they were fighting from a defensive position. This applied particularly to the French attempt to break through in April 1917 in Artois and Champagne. This poorly prepared offensive, in which many lives were lost, led to a massive crisis of discipline in the French army, reflected in the large number of mutinies. Among the troops defending themselves on the German side, no such serious crisis occurred. In fact, some of the soldiers, imbued with a sense of duty, found their will to repulse the enemy fortified.

During 1917, soldiers' war-weariness not only intensified but became more clearly fleshed out. This was due to the heating up of domestic political debates on the question of peace. As opposing positions hardened, these debates became more clearly defined in the perception of the troops in the field. Soldiers had no time for the advocates of annexationist views who had formed the Fatherland Party in the autumn of the year. In general, troops were sharply critical of the ruling elites and influential interest groups, who were suspected of having an interest in extending the war.

 

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13 minutes ago, Robert Dunlop said:

Bearing in mind that Ziemann's book is focused on Bavarians from the rural districts, not Germany as a whole, he writes:

 

I don't fully agree with these general conclusions (having reading a lot of first hand sources and post war novels). Bear in mind as well that German historiography is strongly anti-war, which has a strong influence on their conclusions and writings. Also: hardly any German historian has a more than basic knowledge of the German army (and even that knowledge is often not correct).

Jan

Edited by AOK4
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Another important source is Laurence Moyer's book: 'Victory must be ours: Germany in the Great War 1914-1918'. He focuses on what was happening in Germany itself, rather than the soldiers. With regards to the relevant period in 1917, Moyer wrote:

Quote

...on the home front a spirit of sacrifice deteriorated as the summer [of 1917] wore on. No longer did one hear the lusty and jubilant songs which floated through the streets in the war's first year. Gone was the profusion of flags which once hung from balconies and homes. Librarians noted that their readers were no longer interested in books on the war, only books on gardening. A military officer who traveled widely through many cities and towns of Germany reported in July that people were loosing faith in the war effort, that they seldom talked approvingly of the Kaiser and were even beginning to doubt what they read in the newspapers, noting that even "when the news is good and the outlook is promising, one hears at all levels 'that's not really true'." General Ludendorff, whose operatives kept a close ear to sentiment on the home front, acknowledged the home front had become infected with defeatism, pessimism, a longing for pleasure and a slackening sense of obligation. So many civilians wrote of their everyday problems to soldiers in the trenches that the High Command pleaded, Kein Jammerbriefe an die Front, stop sending complaining letters to the front.

The letters from home to soldiers had a significant impact, as Ziemann notes in his book.

Robert

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1 hour ago, AOK4 said:

Bear in mind as well that German historiography is strongly anti-war, which has a strong influence on their conclusions and writings. Also: hardly any German historian has a more than basic knowledge of the German army (and even that knowledge is often not correct).

Thanks, Jan.

Ziemann's work had a very significant impact on my understanding of the war. Like you, I have read many German primary sources and post war novels by German authors. The approach that Ziemann took was very different. He studied contemporaneous sources from soldiers themselves:

  • War diaries kept by rural soldiers;
  • Series of letters from archival or private collections, which "cover extended periods of up to a year, in rare cases much longer than that; they often include the other side of the story, letters from friends and relatives"; and
  • Excerpts of letters that were transcribed into reports by postal surveillance officers.

In addition, Ziemann drew on:

  • "...holdings of Section IV of the Bavarian Hauptsarchiv in Munich";
  • Court-martial files which "...often include highly informative war letters (Feldpostbriefe) which can be be linked with the soldier's biography and the event which led to their being put on record"; and
  • Accounts by military chaplains.

Robert

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Quote

What was it about Passchendaele that induced von Kuhl to describe it as “ the greatest martyrdom of the war “ ?

Von Kuhl was a senior general from the German Great General Staff. He served with General von Kluck in the German First Army during the invasion of Belgium and northern France. Von Kuhl was a prolific author after the war. I cannot speak to his rationale underpinning the quote but he was a 'higher-ranking officer'. As such, von Kuhl would also have been 'aware that the men's mood had taken a turn for the worse as a result of the battles of Verdun and the Somme', as noted by Ziemann above. 

Of more significance, IMHO, was the operational impact of Third Ypres. This has been discussed in more detail in other threads. Third Ypres caused major problems for the German High Command. The logistic demands were so great that the rail system was almost completely devoted to supplying this sector. This caused problems with resupply of other sectors, such as Verdun for example. This contributed significantly to the successes of the French army, such as the Battle of Malmaison in late 1917.

The German High Command was deeply concerned about the British and Dominion forces pushing inexorably into the German deep defences. Von Loßberg, who masterminded the German defensive plans during 1917, became exhausted by the British successes. The problem became so bad that Ludendorff intervened personally to go back to defending the frontline in force, with disastrous losses. Kronprinz Rupprecht wrote in his diary about how close his army came to abandoning much of the Belgian coast during the British advances.

Underpinning all of this was the knowledge that America was building up to enter the war in force. This, combined with the terrible impact of Third Ypres, which reinforced that defence could be overcome, led to the decision to launch Operation Michael and subsequent offensives as early as possible in 1918.

It is possible that von Kuhl recalled these considerations when he wrote about 'the greatest martyrdom of the war'...

Robert

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Jan is absolutely right: The knowledge of war history of many German historians is less than basic. - Regarding Ernst Jünger: His "Storm of Steel" is wellknown but does not fully reflect the spirit of German soldiers. This is because Jünger's way of thinking and feeling was not reprresentative for the majority of men, and to some extend the book is styled literature, not a report. Much better to read Jünger's war diary ("Kriegstagebuch") wherein he wrote down the occurrances and his thoughts immediately.

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To get a flavour of the difference between British and German views of a battle, it may be useful to look at Peter Barton's TV series, The Somme 1916: From Both Side of the Wire.

It is of course not directly relevant to Passchendaele being a year earlier, but his sources, the views expressed and his approach would be a useful guide to differnt perceptions.

It is rebroadcast on various channels from time to time but is also available on subscription channels. Quite an eye-opener.

Howard

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