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Fighting in Flanders

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Fighting in Flanders
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Author(s): E. Alexander Powell
Date Published: 2013/01
Page Count: 180
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-021-5
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-020-8

The opening shots of a great conflict

The German plan of attack in 1914 involved a giant ‘hooking’ movement commencing within Germany itself and then advancing through Luxembourg and neutral Belgium towards the Continental channel ports before arcing south-east to embrace the French heartland. France would be taken from the rear of Verdun on the River Meuse to Orleans on the Loire. Paris—caught squarely in the middle of this giant sweep—would be literally enveloped. History shows that the plan did not go the way the Germans intended and their advance, stopped by the French and the B. E. F, meant the war became stalemate of trenches, wire and mud, a war of attrition that led to the eventual defeat of Germany. Initially, however, it seemed as though nothing could prevent the advance of the vast juggernaut of that was the German army. The first stages of the Great War went very much according to plan and the first nation casualty was Belgium. The war quite literally rolled over this small nation and students of the conflict have tended to overlook these important events as a tiny nation fought to defend itself against hopeless odds. The author of this book was an American journalist who was present in Europe at the time these events were taking place, he saw the campaign unfold with his own eyes and has recorded what he saw for posterity. This is an interesting book, about the outbreak of hostilities to the arrival on the field of battle of the British Army, told from an unusual perspective.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

After the German occupation of Brussels, the first engagement of sufficient magnitude to be termed a battle took place on August 25 and 26 in the Sempst-Elewyt-Eppeghem-Vilvorde region, midway between Brussels and Malines. The Belgians had in action four divisions, totalling about sixty thousand men, opposed to which was a considerably heavier force of Germans. To get a clear conception of the battle one must picture a fifty-foot-high railway embankment, its steeply sloping sides heavily wooded, stretching its length across a fertile, smiling country-side like a monstrous green snake. On this line, in time of peace, the bloc trains made the journey from Antwerp to Brussels in less than an hour. Malines, with its historic buildings and its famous cathedral, lies on one side of this line and the village of Vilvorde on the other, five miles separating them. On the 25th the Belgians, believing the Brussels garrison to have been seriously weakened and the German communications poorly guarded, moved out in force from the shelter of the Antwerp forts and assumed a vigorous offensive. It was like a terrier attacking a bulldog.<br>
They drove the Germans from Malines by the very impetus of their attack, but the Germans brought up heavy reinforcements, and by the morning of the 26th the Belgians were in a most perilous position. The battle hinged on the possession of the railway embankment had gradually extended, each army trying to outflank the other, until it was being fought along a front of twenty miles. At dawn on the second day an artillery duel began across the embankment, the German fire being corrected by observers in captive balloons. By noon the Germans had gotten the range and a rain of shrapnel was bursting about the Belgian batteries, which limbered up and retired at a trot in perfect order. After the guns were out of range I could see the dark blue masses of the supporting Belgian infantry slowly falling back, cool as a winter’s morning. Through an oversight, however, two battalions of carabineers did not receive the order to retire and were in imminent danger of being cut off and destroyed.<br>
Then occurred one of the bravest acts that I have ever seen. To reach them a messenger would have to traverse a mile of open road, swept by-shrieking shrapnel and raked by rifle-fire. There was about one chance in a thousand of a man getting to the end of that road alive. A colonel standing beside me under a railway-culvert summoned a gendarme, gave him the necessary orders, and added, “Bonne chance, mon brave.” The man, a fierce-moustached fellow who would have gladdened the heart of Napoleon, knew that he was being sent into the jaws of death, but he merely saluted, set spurs to his horse, and tore down the road, an archaic figure in his towering bearskin. He reached the troops uninjured and gave the order for them to retreat, but as they fell back the German gunners got the range and with marvellous accuracy dropped shell after shell into the running column. Soon road and fields were dotted with corpses in Belgian blue.<br>
Time after time the Germans attempted to carry the railway embankment with the bayonet, but the Belgians met them with blasts of lead which shrivelled the grey columns as leaves are shrivelled by an autumn wind. By mid-afternoon the Belgians and Germans were in places barely a hundred yards apart, and the rattle of musketry sounded like a boy drawing a stick along the palings of a picket-fence. During the height of the battle a Zeppelin slowly circled over the field like a great vulture awaiting a feast. So heavy was the fighting that the embankment of a branch railway from which I viewed the afternoon’s battle was literally carpeted with the corpses of Germans who had been killed during the morning.<br>
One of them had died clasping a woman’s picture. He was buried with it still clenched in his hand. I saw peasants throw twelve bodies into one grave. One peasant would grasp a corpse by the shoulders and another would take its feet and they would give it a swing as though it were a sack of meal. As I watched these inanimate forms being carelessly tossed into the trench it was hard to make myself believe that only a few hours before they had been sons or husbands or fathers and that somewhere across the Rhine women and children were waiting and watching and praying for them. At a hamlet near Sempst I helped to bury an aged farmer and his son, inoffensive peasants, who had been executed by the Germans because a retreating Belgian soldier had shot a Uhlan in front of their farmhouse. Not content with shooting them, they had disfigured them almost beyond recognition. There were twenty-two bayonet wounds in the old man’s face. I know, for I counted them.<br>
By four o’clock all the Belgian troops were withdrawn except a thin screen to cover the retreat. As I wished to see the German advance I remained on the railway embankment on the outskirts of Sempst after all the Belgians, save a picket of ten men, had been withdrawn from the village. I had my car waiting in the road below with the motor running. As the German infantry would have to advance across a mile of open fields it was obvious that I would have ample time in which to get away. The Germans prefaced their advance by a terrific cannonade. The air was filled with whining shrapnel. Farmhouses collapsed amid puffs of brown smoke. The sky was smeared in a dozen places with the smoke of burning hamlets.<br>
Suddenly a soldier crouching beside me cried, “Les Allemands! Les Allemands!” and from the woods which screened the railway-embankment burst a long line of grey figures, hoarsely cheering. At almost the same moment I heard a sudden splutter of shots in the village street behind me and my driver screamed, “Hurry for your life, monsieur! The Uhlans are upon us!” In my desire to see the main German advance it had never occurred to me that a force of the enemy’s cavalry might slip around and take us in the flank, which was exactly what had happened. It was three hundred yards to the car and a freshly ploughed field lay between, but I am confident that I broke the world’s record for the distance. As I leaped into the car and we shot down the road at fifty miles an hour, the Uhlans cantered into the village, the sunlight striking on their lance-tips. It was a close call.