Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leo Lessman's War Diary: The Great War Turns Into a Trench War

In our last post, we presented Leo Lessmann, the son of a Jewish publisher from Hamburg who joined the Imperial German Army at the beginning of the First World War. We showed the first photos from his diary, which captured his enlistment to the army during that time.

Lessmann's unit, Field Artillery Regiment no. 103 (FAR 103), was part of the main German effort in the west, and according to Lessmann's diary, his unit moved through Belgium and northern France. The regiment took part in the Battle of Le Cateau, the second large battle between the German army and the British expeditionary force (BEF) to France. The BEF--the first substantial British army sent to fight in Europe since the Napoleonic wars--landed in France on August 10, 1914, and encountered the advancing German army by the town of Mons, Belgium on August 23. The British army was a small force, and made up of long-serving professional soldiers who specialized in accurate marksmanship, unlike the conscripts in the German and French armies. The British 'Tommies' inflicted heavy losses on the German army, but ultimately retreated before the overwhelming German artillery fire. Two days later, the British commander Sir Horace Smith-Dorien (whose son was killed in the King David hotel bombing on July 1946, as we recounted previously) chose to strike back at the German army and prevented the Germans from chasing the retreating BEF.

The German army continued its advance into northern France, aiming to encircle the French army and the BEF, but the commander of the northern German Army, General von Kluck, changed the direction of his army's movement and turned to aid the army to his south. With that move, he exposed his flank to a French counterattack. The French and the British then struck on September 5 in the Battle of the Marne (famed for the use of Parisian taxis to transport thousands of soldiers to the front) and pushed the German army back. The Germans retreated towards the river Aisne, east of Paris, took the high ground in the area and began digging trenches. At the same time, the "race to the sea" began – a series of attacks aimed to outflank the opposing armies that went from north of Paris to the northern districts of France (Picardy and Nord-Pas de Calais), and Flanders in Belgium. The attacks were repulsed and a line of trenches set up, extending from the North Sea to the border with Switzerland.
Map of the "Race to the Sea" (Wikipedia)
Leo Lessmann's unit participated in the battles on the river Aisne and later in battles in Picardy, especially by the town of Arras. After the failure of their initial maneuvers, and as hope for a quick victory faded, both sides began to entrench themselves. It was a natural reaction to the massive firepower displayed in the war – a combination of fast shooting, long range artillery in combination with machine guns with a rate of fire of 400-500 rounds per minute, and rifles with an effective range of 400 meters at least (here's an excellent short clip by historian Dan Snow, produced by the BBC, on the trenches in WWI). . This wasn't a new phenomenon. Over the years, as firepower intensified and effective rifle ranges grew, soldiers dug into the ground in search of shelter and as a means of defense. Trenches were also for offensive purposes, being a relatively safe place for staging the troops before the assault, as gathering in the open was inconceivable. As the war carried on, the trench systems became more complex and more fortified – especially from the German side, which was on the defensive most of the war on the western front. The trenches were the definitive symbol of the war and drew the lines of the battlefield (literally!) for years.

Here are some of the photos in Leo Lessmann's diary:

Leo Lessmann (in the center) with infantry soldiers in a trench by Beaurains, a village south of Arras.
German soldiers digging a trench

An artillery piece, part of Lessmann's regiment (Lessmann is sitting on the right side, wearing an officers hat with a visor), stationed by the village of Beaurains

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.