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.