In Flanders Fields – The 1917 Campaign by Leon Wolff

In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff
In Flanders Fields.

World War I became synonymous with “mud and blood” – Flanders Fields, on the Western Front in the areas around Western and Eastern Flanders, Belgium, was notorious for this most gruesome situation. It led to the famous war poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in 1915.

Writer Leon Wolff also used the title for this excellent book detailing the horrors of 1917 along the notorious stretch of land. His work was published in 1958, with the American writer having served in the US air force during WWII. As such, this isn’t a biographical tale – think of it as a military history, an invocation of the events nearing the end of WWI that ultimately paved the way for the conflict the likes of Wolff found himself locked into.

In Flanders Fields

The opening chapters, asides from covering the third battle of Ypres (sometimes known as known as the battle of Passchendaele), detail the farcical nature of the British campaign and world politics (thank goodness it’s much better these days!). As with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Wolff is hugely cynical of the war effort and, in particular, of Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861-1928).

Is the jury still out on Haig? After a search around online, we found accusations such as “World War I’s worst general” and a vote on the Telegraph for whether Haig was a “hero or dunderhead?”. With the nickname “Butcher Haig” for the two million losses under his command, it’s clear how his troops viewed him. His critics state how Haig’s efforts at the Somme and Passchendaele epitomised the mayhem of the war, with mass slaughter for a minute stretch of muddy land highlighting the frequent stupidity of the conflict. Wolff makes his views more than clear:

"Inflexible, impassive, he stated his unchanged intention of fighting a war of attrition on the Western Front. There was no substitute for killing Germans: that principle seemed so obvious to him that any other one smacked of imbecility, at best, if not outright treason."

There was much negativity due to battles such as the Somme, where the British army suffered over 57,000 casualties in the opening carnage – the worst day in its history. Such demoralising statistics were coupled with, by 1917, a military stalemate where “the causes of the conflict were demonstrably trivial and implausible”:

"One is reminded of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four, in which the people no longer remembered why they were fighting but only knew that they had to continue. Certainly the war which had begun in 1914 had little enough to do with the welfare of the ordinary people of Europe, who could scarcely benefit through victory in riches, security, culture, pleasure, social advancement, or in any other way. Those called upon to fight and die, to work, to be maimed, to be made homeless and bereaved were instructed to do so (in effect) with no clear explanation of the need for such sacrifices."

Mindless nationalism from the elite, in other words, powered on above reasoning – the war dragged on until November 11th 1918. Wolff’s cynical, caustic overview of all this makes for fascinating reading. There’s no chest thumping sense of nationalistic pride here, instead there’s a thoroughly well researched account, from an outsider, offering an intelligent consideration on a tragic period in a horrific war.

It seems to be quite an obscure work – it’s one we found in a second hand bookshop next to the Arndale centre in Manchester city centre. As for its writer, Wolff, we can’t find any details about him other than he was born in Chicago in 1914, right at the point of the outbreak of the war. As with so many other soldiers lost to the war he chronicled in this excellent work, he appears to have slipped off unknown into the annals of history.

Blackadder Goes Forth

The fourth series of Blackadder, in endlessly sardonic fashion, ravishes WWI. Whilst we’ve covered books such as Storm of Steel and All Quiet on the Western Front (classics of war literature), which are harrowing, there’s something about Blackadder’s final series (1989) that perfectly sums up the lunacy of WWI. Perhaps it’s Edmund Blackadder’s seditious attitude to it all, as opposed to his troop’s delusional patriotism, that highlights how misguided some the war tactics were.

There’s also the show’s legendary closing segment. After the humour, slapstick, cynicism, and satire on the British war assault, it all concludes with the harsh realities of WWI. The men, who we spend six episodes growing to know and like, go over the top into pitched battle. It remains a remarkably poignant and fitting reminder of what was lost during four years of muddy, pitched, regularly utterly pointless battle.

4 comments

  1. I have the original hardback edition of Wolff’s book – an absolute classic. Framed, I guess, in the ‘war poet’ view (as was Blackadder Goes Forth), which the academy has rather moved on from (a bit, sort of). Well, they’ve added layers of certain complexity, anyway… I’ve written 2.5 books on that war myself (the one you have was my second, and then it went into a revised edition which was nearly as much work as the original). I figure there is a dimensionality and dynamic to the way history has seen WW1 over the century since that only time has really revealed. There was a quality and human truth in that earlier ‘war poet’ view, which Wolff reflects, which was rather lost when the specific details of the criticism in terms of tactics and the behaviour of the generals were discredited by the first blast of ‘revisionism’ about thirty years ago. (It didn’t disguise the fact that Haig actually re-wrote his diaries post-fact in a facile attempt to deflect the criticism). Actually the ‘war poet’ view remains the key and to my mind only way of understanding the human side of the whole terrible event, particularly as it hit those involved, and how they reacted afterwards. I always thought Blackadder Goes Forth brought the mind-set out rather well – classic Blackadder hyperbole, and yet the underlying thread of seriousness was always just beneath the surface, and to me that transition at the end of the final episode to the pathos and gravitas of the real war is one of the most sublime moments in TV comedy, ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haig makes a very brief appearance in Blackadder Goes Forth – it’s made clear what the writers thought of him!

      As for Wolff’s book, it certainly was excellent and bowled me over a bit. How a work like that can become an obscurity – a real shame. I couldn’t find anything out about him either, as I liked the perspective he took as a writer. Kind of like the Red Badge of Courage, which I read last year – the author had never fought in a war, but it was highly convincing. The hardback edition to this must be prized. Hang onto that one, sir.

      Like

  2. How sad! No one has ever satisfactorily explained to me the reasons for WWI, except that the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. Black Adder humour does exemplify the idiocy of it all.
    It seems you found a gem of a book! Congrats, on that and this fab review.
    PS: Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian! Of course I’m sure you know this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • From my understanding, it’s the assassination that triggered off imperialistic tensions between several nations. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia joined in to help the latter, then Germany piled on in declaring war on Russia. Everyone with their allegiances then took up arms.

      The good news is we’ve managed to go 70+ years since a world war, so let’s keep that going, humanity!

      Liked by 1 person

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