The Great War


Trees, symbols of the war-disabled

The ruined landscapes of the battlefront between 1914 and 1918 soon became deeply anchored in our collective memory. But did the people at that time acknowledge the upheaval the environment went through? 

 

During the conflict itself, soldiers sent their families photographs and postcards depicting the ravages of war. As soon as 1917, Michelin published his first guide of the battlefield in the Marne. A complete collection published since 1919 became a best-seller. Many “war-tourist” visiting the places took pictures that would leave a lasting impression… gigantic bomb holes, muddy trenches, bodies torn apart: did those images, now part of our collective psyche, reflect the concerns of people of that time ?

A characteristic of the First World War has been the use of a wide variety of unusual weapons and ammunition. Artillery went through an unprecedented development. On April 22, 1915 in Ypres, German troops used for the first time a chlorine-based toxic gaz.

Doctor Béliard, surgeon general of the 66th infantry regiment describes the horrors of this surprise attack: “Men were convulsing on the ground, vomiting, and spitting blood. Panic was extreme. We were suffocating in a mist of chlorine. As far as we could see, the sky was dull, with a strange and gloomy greenish hue.” This first attack marked the beginning of the poison-gas warfare. During the whole conflict, chemical weapons will take many forms: cylinders, shells, grenades… Gases will vary too: chlorine, phosgene, “Mustard gas”, arsine or chloropicrin.

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Soldiers’ perspectives on nature

During WWI, battles on the western fronts so intensively devastated the soil that it turned it, in some places, into stone-like ground. According to researchers, notably geographers, volumes of earth moved by the fights are estimated to be as high as 80 to 2 000 cubic meters by hectare. 

Around Douaumont, 19/5/1916
Around Douaumont, 19/5/1916

Soldiers often described these ravaged sites in their stories, comparing the battlefields to lunar landscapes.


The surroundings [between Thiaumont and Fleury] are the setting of the worst battlefields of Verdun. At the forefront of ravines, still vaguely covered by scraggy woods, where trees were reduced to the state of poles, came the zone where grass still grew. Further along, no greenery was left, nothing but loose stones turned upside down and furrows of clay, ploughed two or three meters deep : a true lunar landscape…”, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, letter from August 23, 1916.

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Poppy and cornflower, flowers of remembrance  

Poppies and cornflowers have become the symbols of the 1914-1918 war. In the Commonwealth, poppies stand for soldiers who died at war. This association goes back a long time. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the link between poppies and battlefields had already been made…But how do the fields destroyed by the fighting get carpeted by those blood red flowers?


The poppy seed is not very demanding, it only needs a calcareous and ploughed soil. Long lasting, it can remain buried for years with no water and keep its germinating power, sprouting as soon as it is brought to the bare surface by tilling of the soil. No surprise it bloomed on the devastated battlefields of WW1…


Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.

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The hellish muds of the front

Mud was one of the many tortures suffered by soldiers on the front during the First World War. Max Deauville (pen name of Doctor Maurice Duwez) made it famous by giving one of his war-novels the title “The Mud of Flanders”. Many others described it as hell on earth.


Try to represent yourself with mud up to the waist. Some boys even sink into it, and only with the greatest efforts do we manage to get them out of it. Up to 6 km from the Yser canal, that’s still all right, the recaptured territories are organised and you can find roads made of stone or logs, or at least duckboard paths. But after that! Wading through the tree remaining kilometers is a nightmare”. 327E R.I., c.p. 1st army.


Here comes the mud, the true one, the one and only muck! Everywhere it comes up to our knees. War is not the soldier’s only foe. All those stories about mud, constant worry in those trenches dug into the silt of the plateaus, in a maze of narrow passages. Our only solace is the thought that not one single Hun would see Berlin again if they ever took the chance to attack by that side. Orders came to send runners through the trenches to install communication lines. We answered with a flat refusal: our runners cannot swim”. Lieutenant Etévé, 417 IR

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Modern warfare, new weapons

World War I has been for the Defence Industry a unique opportunity to innovate: new materials, new techniques, and new methods. Throughout the duration of the war, armed forces and related industries have developed considerably. The air force experienced an unprecedented boom, and so did chemical warfare.

 

The first instance of use of poison gas during the “Great war” was on August, 1914, when French troops fired tear gas grenades against the Germans. ‘Xylil bromide’, the agent used in that incident, had been developed by the Paris police department.

 


Later on, all warring parties ran, throughout the whole fight, a race for the most effective chemical weapon, despite the prohibition of chemical warfare enacted by the ‘The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1097’. The German empire decided to use chlorine, a by-product of their chemical industry that was available in large quantities. The German Army would present it as an irritating agent in order to avoid it’s infringement of the agreements of The Hague.

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A deeply shattered landscape, all along the 700 km frontline

13 French departments, as well as the south-west of Belgium, were literally devastated by the fighting.

 

The consequences of this upheaval are difficult to imagine. More than 40 million soldiers have suffered in the fighting. 20 million died and 21 million were wounded. The environment also paid a heavy toll.

 

On the front, soils were literally shorn of any vegetation, polluted by chemical warfare, and many species of animals and plants were severely harmed during the fighting.

The fighting remained concentrated along the 700 km of continuous frontline, reinforced in such a way that none of the armies at war managed a significant advance before 1918. This positional stalemate lasted 4 long years and caused a concentration of men and weapons previously unseen in History. 

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