08 November 2013

Contrasting Colors of War in 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3659-3676:
Throughout the first fortnight of August, under brilliant skies the armies of France, Germany, Belgium and Britain marched from their detrainment points towards collisions with the enemy amid golden cornfields and wondering peasant spectators. Millions of men traversed many miles each day, some on foot, others on horses or carts, a few in primitive motor vehicles. ‘The dust clung to our hair, eyebrows and beards,’ wrote Paul Lintier on the 14th, ‘and by the time a column of Paris motor buses had gone by us, we were as white as the road itself,’ for relatively few of France’s highways were metalled. Each German corps, accompanied by 2,400 wagons and 14,000 horses, filled twelve miles of road.

While the German and British armies had adopted uniforms of grey-green and khaki respectively, the French and Belgians retained the brilliant hues of the nineteenth century. Fantastically, the soldiers of France advanced towards the enemy’s fire beneath regimental colours, to the music of drums and trumpets. More than a few French headstones of 1914 bear the succinct inscription after a man’s name, ‘clarion’ – ‘trumpeter’. Many units deployed in action full bands, and some officers affected white gloves. All the belligerents were led into action by commanders armed with swords and mounted on chargers.

From September onwards, the armies burrowed deep into the earth, but the dominant characteristic of the August battles in France and Belgium was that the motions of infantry, cavalry and artillery were alike readily visible. Masses of men advanced against devastatingly powerful modern armaments in the same fashion as warriors since ancient times. The consequences were unsurprising, save to some generals. On 22 August 1914 the French army suffered casualties on a scale never thereafter in the war surpassed by any nation in a single day. Its commander-in-chief, Gen. Joseph Joffre, orchestrated a series of battles which, to a spectator, resembled those of the nineteenth century in all respects save the dearth of military genius. The conviction of French senior soldiers that spirit alone – ‘cran’ – could overcome firepower was responsible for rendering more than a quarter of a million of their young countrymen casualties inside three weeks. The Germans lost almost one-third as many – their own dying time came later.

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