War history: Is war history hijacked? The truth versus a good story...

The German cemetery at Langemarck

The German cemetery at Langemarck - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at another popular First World War myth – one seized upon by Hitler’s propaganda machine.

German commander-in-chief Erich von Falkenhayn gambled that the patriotic enthusiasm of reservists w

German commander-in-chief Erich von Falkenhayn gambled that the patriotic enthusiasm of reservists would compensate for their inexperience on the battlefield. - Credit: Archant

One of the most heavily-visited sites in the Ypres Salient is the German cemetery outside the West Flanders village of Langemarck. The rural Belgian village has few claims to fame other than the moments during the war when circumstance made it a notable flashpoint of battle in both 1914 and 1917.

Each of these battles was significant but it is the earlier clash that has captured the imagination of historians, journalists, and even Nazi propagandists during the inter-war years. Such is the pull of the Langemarck legend. But despite the best efforts of reputable guides and historians, the truth has been almost eradicated from mainstream understanding of 1914 battle.

Last week I wrote about the autumn of 1914 and the “race to the sea”, the dramatic final spasms of mobile warfare before the combatants on the Western Front were bogged down in the stalemate of static warfare.

Just before this deadlock the German High Command had ordered a concerted and, what it hoped, decisive thrust through Belgium and northern France with the objective of seizing the channel ports.

If successful, this drive to the English Channel would isolate the British Expeditionary Force and secure ports from which German warships could threaten Britain and her vital sea-lanes.

This all seems very simple in outline but the war had been raging since the beginning of August. Both sides were logistically stretched and many of the leading formations were badly depleted or at best exhausted.

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The bulk of Germany’s best formations were locked in battle with the French army. They could not be easily disengaged, moved and thrown into this bold new attack. Instead, the German High Command had to use some of its less-battle-hardened formations to spearhead the new offensive.

The Sixth Army was at the heart of the German plan; it was comprised of four corps, of which three were made up mainly of older men, inexperienced reservists known as Landwehr and young students.

The newly appointed German commander-in-chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, gambled that the patriotic enthusiasm of these reservists would compensate for their inexperience on the battlefield. He believed the British, French and Belgian defences were thinly stretched and would quickly be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers and momentum.

What followed is known today as the First Battle of Ypres. The BEF and their allies stood firm against a determined German onslaught on the small Belgian town.

The German attacks were uncharacteristically poorly planned and executed. Though extremely brave and highly motivated, the inexperienced, ill-equipped and hastily-trained German regiments were no match for the regular soldiers and well-trained reservists of the BEF and the large French formations.

The British and French were able to combine barbed wire, machine guns and the protection of trenches to create strong defensive positions.

The fighting would last from October 20 to November 18, 1914. The cost in German lives was horrendous. During the last two weeks of the battle there were over 25,000 German casualties alone.

The Kaiser had assured Germans that their armies would be home before the autumn leaves fell. His prediction was hopelessly optimistic. The failure of General von Falkenhayn’s gamble and the terrible losses among the ranks of the Reserve Corps set the scene for a grim winter.

The myth that now surrounds the Battle of Langemarck is centred on the striking German War Cemetery just outside the village. Over decades, the students of the Reserve Corps have assumed prominence over the other men who marched with them.

The legend too often recited to tourists tells of massed ranks of young students marching across turnip fields towards steely-eyed British Tommies. The massed ranks of students, arms interlocked, advanced while singing patriotic songs. The innocent youths are then cut down in their thousands by the merciless fire of the ruthless Tommies.

As with most legends and myths there are some snippets of truth in the story.

Evidence of German soldiers singing while advancing is rare. However, there are accounts of regiments singing to identify themselves to friendly formations when visibility was obscured by mist, rain or fog.

This was a practical requirement particularly for the German reservists in 1914 as they wore cloth caps that at a distance could appear very similar to the forage caps worn by the BEF.

The Langemarck myth gained the most traction when it was hijacked and recycled by the National Socialist propaganda machine in post-war Germany.

Hitler included the story when he wrote Mein Kampf. He even claimed to have heard the singing himself. The story of the slaughtered student volunteers was ideal fuel for the “stab in the back” myth that was a major component of his propaganda campaign. The story suited his needs; it was so important that he made sure he was filmed visiting Langemarck in 1940.

There is so much more to this story. If you would like to see the battlefields for yourself and learn more about Langemarck, our next Galloway Day Excursion goes out to Ypres on November 15. Christmas Truce Tours are scheduled for December 4 (Stowmarket) and December 16 (Norwich). See www.travel-galloway.com or visit one of our Galloway shops for information.

For more on Suffolk’s war history, visit our First World War page here

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