At Ypres in 1914, Germany botched its last chance to win the upper hand on the Western Front–and its last chance, perhaps, to win the Great War. From the middle of October to the middle of November, practically without letup, parts of two German armies, the Fourth and the Sixth, battered the British and French divisions clinging to a narrowing salient. Their immediate objective was Ypres, once the center of the medieval cloth trade in northern Europe; but beyond lay the last real strategic prizes of the fall, the Channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne, where the British buildup was centered.
Villages, even crossroad features, with hitherto forgettable names like Bixschoote, Zonnebeke, Kortekeer Caberet, and Langemarck, gained sudden notoriety. Time and again the Germans threatened to break through, only to lose momentum or to run up against a determined improvised defense at the last moment. The “last”: The repetition applies in every sense but one. Though nobody imagined it at the time, this would not be the “last” Ypres but the “First.”
The losses, hideous for all concerned, were worst for the Germans. They had nothing to show for them. There would be no more turning of flanks, no more opportunity to maneuver, no occupation of the Channel ports. The war in the West had hardened into a trench stalemate. How could Germany’s military and political leaders rationalize the disaster at home? How could they put the best heroic gloss–a favorable spin, as we might say–on the shambles of their hopes? Out of this public relations dilemma, apparently, grew one of the enduring legends of the Great War: the massacre of the singing innocents at Ypres.
Few caught the essence of the story better, if with less regard for the truth, than Adolf Hitler, then a private in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment. In Mein Kampf, he describes his baptism by fire–or, as he put it, the “iron salute” he received near Gheluvelt on October 29:
GET HISTORY’S GREATEST TALES—RIGHT IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our HistoryNet Now! newsletter for the best of the past, delivered every Wednesday.
With feverish eyes each one of us was drawn forward faster and faster over turnip fields and hedges till suddenly the fight began, the fight of man against man. But from the distance the sounds of a song met our ears, coming nearer and nearer, passing from company to company, and then, while Death busily plunged his hand into our rows, the song reached also us, and now we passed it on: “Deutschland, Deutschland liberalles, liberalles in der Welt!”
By the time Hitler wrote those lines in 1924, while incarcerated for his part in the failed Munich putsch, the invention of myth and not the establishment of fact was uppermost in his mind. In this in stance, Hitler was busy pushing what would become one of the most persistent semi-fictions of the interwar period and a cornerstone of the Nazi experience, a vision of manly young patriots sacrificing their lives for the greater good of the Fatherland. This was the story of Der Kindermord bei Ypern–the so-called massacre of the innocents at Ypres. The “innocents” were the student volunteers in the German reserve corps, who were slaughtered in droves but who went to their deaths singing. In German Bibles, the word kindermord was also applied to the children Herod killed after the visit of the Magi, and it had, in both cases, the connotation of “holy innocents.”
The story even has its own special locus, the village of Langemarck on the north face of the Salient, and date, November 10, 1914–in both location and day some distance from Hitler. According to the next day’s official army bulletin, which appeared on the front pages of many German newspapers, “West of Langemarck youthful regiments stormed the first lines of the enemy trenches and took them, singing ‘Deutsch land, Deutschland liberalles.'” They took approximately 2,000 prisoners, the dispatch concluded, French regulars all. The carefully crafted story, notably repeated in accounts published during the Third Reich, is basically this: The student volunteers, called the children’s corps “by mocking veterans,” advance silently in the fog, “a wide sea of white air,” as one memoirist puts it. There is no preliminary artillery barrage that might tip off the enemy. The volunteers are discovered anyway, and fire from a source they cannot see chops down their close packed rows. They lie in the open, unable to advance or retreat. “In this hour, they have become men.”
Recommended for you
Then the miracle happens. A voice rises in song, then another and another takes up “the holy words.” The young soldiers rise up as one and storm for ward; they sing as they run. Some are helmetless, their heads wrapped in bloody bandages. With their “burning eyes” they are like “unreal figures from an old saga.” In some versions, the volunteers sweep over the enemy trenches; in others, the song dies as they die, and silent grey heaps litter the damp fields in front of Langemarck.
There are all manner of things wrong with the story, beginning with that official dispatch. The singing volunteers took no Allied trenches at Langemarck on November 10. The one incident that comes close to matching the words of the dispatch took place a day earlier. It is recorded in the daily diary of the 206th Reserve Infantry Regiment, published as part of the history of the regiment in 1931. Regimental histories can be the meat and potatoes of military history, but 17 years had passed since the event, time enough for the author, one Werner Maywald, to buy into, and insert, some of the more improbable details of the story–including the singing of the most patriotic German song, a tune that is not easy to carry under normal circumstances. (Imagine American troops under fire trying to mouth the words of “The Star Spangled Banner.”)
At six in the morning on the 9th, the diary reports, soldiers with unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets leave their lines “almost noiselessly.” But French troops detect their advance and begin to fire. At that moment the singing starts. It “reaches heaven like a cry for help: first one man, then a small group, then more and more, until the entire advance sings, ” ‘Deutschland, Deutschland liberalles!’ Even the wounded sing. The words are on the last breaths of the dying.” The attack sweeps over the French lines, taking 14 officers and 1,154 men prisoner, mostly older soldiers from territorial regiments–the equivalent of our National Guard–but not regulars, whose capture by green German troops would have added luster to the exploit.
Unfortunately for the myth, the November 9th incident did not occur at Langemarck but three miles away at a village called Bixschoote. Bixschoote: that rough, turnip-eating name does not lend itself to myth in the same way that the vaguely Teutonic vibrations of Langemarck do. As one former student volunteer put it in 1933, the first year of Hitler’s reign, “the name sounds like a heroic legend.” That the actual village had, both in 1914 and in its postwar resurrection, a drably brickbound and distinctly unheroic look seemed beside the point.
But the single dispatch is only the beginning of the confusion that the myth makers wrought. When we look at contemporary accounts and regimental histories, we come up against an inconvenient fact. There seem to have been not just one Langemarck but several, both in this sector and in others miles away. They occurred on various dates, as early as October 21 and as late as November 16. During that three-week period, singing at tacks were reported everywhere from the Yser to the Langemarck sector to Neuve Chapelle, 25 miles to the south.
In his diary entry of October 27, for example, a junior staff officer named Rudolf Binding (who was several miles away from Langemarck, at the German-occupied village of Passchendaele) laments that against experienced defenders “these young fellows we have, only just trained, are too helpless, particularly when the officers have been killed.” Binding, later to become a prominent man of letters , goes on to note that a battalion of light infantry, or Jager, “almost all Marburg students. . . have suffered terribly from enemy shell-fire.” And then: “In the next division, just such young souls, the intellectual flower of Germany, went singing into an attack on Langemarck, just as vain and just as costly.” Binding gives no date, but since the Germans temporarily suspended their attacks in the Langemarck sector on October 24, the episode he refers to must have taken place earlier. But then, for all their curious similarity, accounts don’t always agree on chronology. This includes Hitler’s–if, indeed, he actually did hear singing. He was even farther from Langemarck than Binding.
Allied eyewitness reports only add to the confusion. The closest to Langemarck that a singing attack comes is in the village of Koekuit–no more than a narrowing of the road, actually, about a mile to the north. A battalion of the Gloucester Regiment reported it on the 21st, and the attack did force the British to retreat toward Langemarck. There are military historians who point to that episode. On the same day, at Zonnebeke, five miles away, one of the “old contemptibles” (as the British regulars called themselves) remembered how German volunteers spilled down the ridge from Passchendaele “singing and waving their rifles in the air.” It was, you might say, 1917 in reverse. “As fast as we shot them down, others took their place. Even when their own artillery barrage caught them by mistake, they kept on advancing. They were incredibly, ridiculously brave.”
The next day, October 22, at a place called Kortekeer Caberet (named after a crossroads estaminet ), about a mile west of Langemarck, Einjdhrige–volunteers of the 46th Reserve Division attacked other units of the perilously over stretched Gloucestershires. According to the regimental war narratives, it was “a particularly fine feat of arms….These lads…advanced with the utmost determination, singing patriotic songs, and though suffering appalling casualties, actually succeeded in driving back their seasoned opponents.” (The British would in turn drive the Einjdhrige back to their starting point.)
At least one British description–of an action in the same area on October 23–seems to buy into the script for the leg end, though it also raises questions. This time the attacking volunteers wear not the regulation spiked Pickelhauben but what appear to be student caps. (Did the British confuse them with Feldmützen, or field caps? It is not unlikely.) The defenders hear the distant sound of voices raised in song; the volunteers surge forward, arm-in-arm. (If that is true, how did they hold their rifles?) In the event, batteries firing over open sights, as well as the famously disciplined rifles of the British regulars, blow them away.
Word of the singing attacks got back to London. Sir Henry Wilson, the British deputy chief of staff, crowed in the October 24 entry of his diary about yet another killing extravaganza some miles from Langemarck: “The I Corps really took tea with the Germans. . . .These Germans attacked five times in close formations singing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ and the place became a shambles. They must have had 6,000 or 7,000 casualties” surely a vast overestimation.
Perhaps the final recorded instances of the singing attacks in Ypres occurred on two days very late in the battle, November 14 and 16. Both were against the French (the badly mauled British were by then being pulled out of the Salient), and both happened near Bixschoote; they are noted in the journal of the commander of the French 26th Infantry Regiment , Lt. Col. Henri Colin. November 14 began with hailstorms and German assaults; the fighting continued, practically without letup, until dark. Reports began to filter back to Colin in his command post of close, desperate struggles over farm buildings, bits of tattered woodland, and shallow impromptu trenches that were already filling with water. A noncom ran up, out of breath, and blurted out that his company had been almost annihilated. He told Colin that his company commander had been killed, but not before dispatching a German officer with his revolver. Later, Colin’s surviving company commanders would describe an even wilder sight in this “day of terrible distress.” With fanatic elan, masses of fresh young German troops had thrown themselves at the thin French line, “singing and shouting insults at us. They were finally driven off, leaving a great number of corpses on the ground.”
But how are we to take the odd, ghastly episode that Colin records two days later? There may be more to it than met the eye. The first snow had just fallen, and the weather, as much as the rapidly diminishing ardor of the combatants, was about to shut down serious fighting for the next few months.
November 16–Day of Belgian fog . . .
The Germans renewed their epic attacks in which, to make up for their inexperience, the young recruits advanced shoulder to shoulder in a column four men abreast, and singing “Deutschland liberalles.” It was crazy . . . the human cost meant nothing to them.
Could men have been sent into battle that way? It is a bit improbable. The four abreast column suggests another scenario. As the tactical historian Bruce I. Gudmundsson points out, this was the marching order German troops adopted when passing through towns or going up to the front. Had the volunteers, singing to keep up their spirits, become lost in the impenetrable murk and blundered into the waiting guns of the French who must have heard their invisible coming from a long way off? If so, it would be hard to find a better example of the “fog” of war.
The singing attacks happened. Though in a signal twist of the story, recent German historians deny that they did, there is plenty of evidence for them. But their reality is far less exalted and ennobling than the legend would have it.
Begin with the matter of place. Apparently, none of the singing attacks came closer than a mile from Langemarck–and in Western Front terms that might as well have been five or 50. The Germans did not take the village until the follow ing April, when the French abandoned it during the opening hours of the first poison gas attack. But, in fact, Langemarck did become a convenient generic description for the battles that raged along the whole northern sector of the Salient that fall, the area where most of the reserve divisions, to which the volunteers be longed, were thrown in. On that score but on that score alone–it would be wrong to fault the legend too harshly.
Why would men sing going into an attack? Except as the stuff of Nazi-era PR, mystical miracles played no part. Among poorly trained soldiers–as most of the volunteers were-singing must have helped to sustain morale and cohesion in the face of unexpected and disconcertingly heavy casualties, including the loss of most of their officers. Singing performed the function of the defunct battlefield drum, allowing units to keep in touch amid the confusion of noise, autumn fogs, unexpected ditches and hedgerows, contradictory orders, and unseen enemies. Singing familiar soldier songs may also have lessened the danger of friendly fire. Still, that the volunteers sang all that much seems unlikely. It is just that when they did, everyone noticed.
But the myth does not square with the most important fact of all. The majority of men in the reserve regiments were not even students. Recent research indicates that only 18 percent were, and that included teachers, hardly the youths of later legend. “The number of actual volunteers serving in the [reserve] regiments was considerable,” George L. Mosse writes, “but most of those who fell in battle were older conscripts or men who had been in the reserves, fathers of families, men settled in their trade or profession.” The volunteers, on the other hand, were mostly young men who had mobbed the recruiting depots in August: they had either been exempted from military service while they finished their studies or had escaped being called up because the peacetime army could only handle about half of those legally obligated to spend two years on active duty. The volunteers went into action two months later not just under–but improperly trained. Their instructors had been mainly older NCOs who taught the close-order tactics favored at the turn of the century, in which men charged in waves, shoulder-to-shoulder, or in squares that would have done justice to a Napoleonic battlefield. Regular officers, especially lieutenants, were in short supply, and the few the reservists did have often led them into battle without maps. It was hardly surprising that they occasionally blundered into enemy lines. As a rule, the better the reserve regiments were trained–which is to say, the smaller the proportion of raw volunteers–the less likely they were to move forward in vulnerable tight-packed skirmish lines or to rely on song under stress.
One thing is incontrovertible about those attacks. A massacre had taken place, a massacre of innocents in the military sense, and one that deprived Germany of the human potential that a nation wastes at its peril. The violent depletion of the six reserve divisions that fought from Gheluvelt to the Yser was particularly cruel. They lost an average of 6,800 men per division, or about half the infantrymen in each. In the month of fighting around Ypres, some 6,000 were killed in the reserve regiments alone. Their premature commitment to battle was, according to the military historian Dennis E. Showalter, “one of the great mistakes of the World War.”
A disturbing command pattern was taking shape: The willingness of Western Front general staffs to continue an offensive long after the prospect of a reasonable return on the investment of lives and materiel had ceased. At Ypres, Germany had suffered its fourth major defeat since September, and one that, coming on the heels of the Marne and the battles for Nancy and the Yser, not only ratified stalemate but ended Germany’s chances for a quick victory in the west.
Ypres was the only one of the four that assumed mythic proportions. With casualties somewhere above 100,000, of whom as many as 30,000 were dead, perhaps it had to. The famous army bulletin of November 11–prophetic date– about the youthful regiments at Langemarck must be seen, Mosse writes, “against the background of the rapidly declining enthusiasm of the troops themselves. The myth was necessary, and though it could not influence the soldiers in the trenches, it had an impact on the home front and especially. . . after the war was lost.” The bulletin no doubt originated as an attempted cover-up, but it succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of its designers. Der Kindermord bei Ypern would become the Kosovo of the Third Reich, and like the great and terminal defeat of the Serbs by the Turks in 1389, this debacle would be transformed into a holy memory, a moral victory. Would it be churlish to suggest, moreover, that the myth served another purpose? Langemarck was the sector where, the following April, the Germans first released poison gas on the Western Front–and finally took the village. (By this time singing attacks were already a curiosity of the past.) But as far as the home front was concerned, the guilt of a possible war crime would be forever overshadowed, and nullified, by the transfiguring image of a sacrifice raised in song.
In the years that followed, notes the German historian Bernd Hippauf, the November 11 press release would be glorified in “novels, poetry, dramas and stage performances, (pseudo-)philosophical reflections, public celebrations and monuments, in institutions such as the army, schools and universities, youth organizations and, finally, an NS [National Socialist] program of advanced studies.” On the first anniversary of the bulletin, a time when the affliction of stasis had long since begun to spread to the home front, newspapers all over Germany published editorial reflections on the “Day of Langemarck,” with the inevitable conclusion that November 10 be made a national day of remembrance. After the war, student and veteran organizations would regularly repeat the suggestions, although the Weimar Republic never acted on it. Not even literature was immune. The hero of Thomas Mann’s 1924 The Magic Mountain stumbles across a gunswept Flanders turnip field, his voice raised in a song of love and loneliness–a far more likely choice than “Deutschland liberalles.”
The Nazis in particular seized on the story and exploited it. Langemarck, writes Hippauf, served as a lure “for the educated youth longing for metaphysical shelter and meaning in history.” Once Hitler and the Nazis came to power, Langemarck was chosen as the day on which the party inducted students, and after 1938, every member of the Hitler Youth paid a compulsory fee, known as the Langemarck Pfennig. As a party publicist put it,” National Socialism and Langemarck are one and the same.”
There is a place that comes close to being a monument to the student myth–in fact it was specifically created with that in mind. It is the huge but eerily compact German military cemetery just north of Langemarck–in military mortuary parlance, a concentration cemetery. The phrase, in light of subsequent history, is not without irony. What remains of almost 45,000 men lies beneath its placid lawns, including those who were killed at the First Ypres
The designers of the Langemarck cemetery (which was consecrated in a July 1932 ceremony already heavy with Nazi oratory) tried hard to make the place seem user-friendly, a bit of Germany transplanted. Oaks rise to a modest height, muffling the lawns in shadow Germans consider the oak, with its symbolic strength, to be their tree. “Nature itself,” writes Mosse, “was to serve as a living memorial: The German wood was a fitting setting for the cull of the fallen.” Nature’s rejuvenating powers would reshape the memory of the war, removing the curse of defeat in the process.
But unnatural things intrude: The reason for this place can’t be denied. You feel it in the presence of a pair of blockhouses squatting side by side in the newer northern section of the cemetery, which is more related to the later years of the war than to that first autumn. Their concrete was probably mixed with high-grade sand imported from the Rhine–another bit of Germany transplanted–but the heavy weight of permanence has caused them to sink so deep into the alien Belgian clay that today only the top foot or so of their entrances show above ground.
You feel that reason, too, in a discreet low-walled rectangle, its inner surface covered with hemlock shrubs. You pace it out to be roughly 70 by 40 feet, a surprisingly small receptacle for the bones of 24,834 men, including no doubt some of the smgers in the mists, a calcareous jumble of premature termination dumped there in the 1930s.
Nine men per square foot: eternity at rush hour.
You pause for a moment inside the bunker-like redstone gatehouse. Behind artwork screens of iron lilybursts is a chapel memorializing the students slain here in 1914 and known to be buried in the Langemarck cemetery. The official register notes that there are 6,313 names on the oakwood panels of that somber room. The question is, how many of those were actually students? Given the percentage of the reserve regiments that Mosse cites–18, with teachers there is no way they could all be. Based on that, just over 1,000 would be more like it: bad enough for the future meritocracy of Germany, a fatal undertow, you might say, in the national gene pool. But if you extend that 6,000–plus figure to include most of the reservists killed at the First Ypres, you probably have a pretty fair estimate of their toll.
The Nazis may be gone, but the myth they promoted lives after them.