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Hell on Earth

Tuesday, 19 November 2002 12:00 AM

This poem has endured for 87 years, written in 20 minutes by a Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, who served 17 days at an aid station in Ypres Salient. While the poem is widely known, military historians have seldom depicted the entire four-year battle for Flanders Field.

After performing exhaustive research, author Winston Groom has produced one of the definitive narratives about World War I. While filled with statistics, it is highly readable, flowing smoothly from events and decisions at the highest level of government down to the troops slogging along year after year.

Mr. Groom is best known for his book "Forrest Gump," which was published in 12 languages and made into an Academy Award-winning motion picture. Winston Groom is no one-trick pony. He has produced 11 books, including a highly acclaimed and award-winning Civil War history, "Shrouds of Glory." One of his books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He served in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division.

World War I ended 84 years ago this November. "A Storm in Flanders" covers the Four-year battle on the western front in the Ypres (pronounced "Ee-pra") Salient.

Masses of infantry attacked from trenches similar to Civil War tactics. The average distance between trenches was only 100 yards, with some trenches as close as l0 yards.

Casualties ran into the hundreds of thousands. Gains were measured in yards. The same terrain was won and lost by infantry troops crawling and plodding through muddy fields while subjected to heavy artillery fire. The entry of American divisions in the last phase of the battle helped the Allies regain the momentum and led to victory. Two American divisions fought valiantly, the 30th Division (Tennessee) and the 27th Division (New York).

Britain's so-called professional army suffered unbelievable casualties during the first phase of the battle. Sixty thousand British soldiers were killed during 1914-15. Infantry battalions entered the fray with 1,100 men. Within a few months only a handful of officers and 200 to 300 troops remained. Casualties on both sides averaged 8,000 per day during the first month of the conflict.

The author captures the tangled flow of battle with ease and clarity. Both forces moved infantry and divisions around like fire teams. Tactics changed abruptly. Initially, troops would leave the trenches, attacking enemy trenches standing up, in a "no guts, no glory effort." These tactics did not work. Troops were slowed down by newly developed barbed wire as well as heavy artillery fire.

Fighting was so intense and living conditions so deplorable that the British put a rotation system in place. A battalion would spend two days in frontline trenches, then move to support trenches for two days, then two days in reserve trenches and, finally, a few days farther back.

The author moves from the highest level of government (Prime Minister Lloyd George) down to the British "tommy," living a most miserable and perilous existence in the trenches. There were reports by the media of British generals rarely touring frontlines. They were accused of being "chateaux" generals who seldom got their boots muddied. In actual fact, Britain had many general officers killed in battle.

The British decided early in the war that troops killed in action would not he returned to England. This led to the bizarre experience of troops moving to the front, passing British troops nailing together wooden caskets. As British casualties increased, the qualifications to serve were lowered. Height requirements were reduced front 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 3 inches. The age requirement was increased to 50 years. By the end of the war the height requirement was lowered to 5 feet.

Mr. Groom provides intriguing details about the introduction of new weapons and techniques in the battles. Prior to World War I artillery was, for the most part, limited to line of sight firing. The use of enhanced mathematics coupled with larger artillery pieces enabled artillery to fire from positions well behind the front lines, This led to the use of massed artillery. Later in the campaign the British placed 1,200 artillery pieces hub to hub to support infantry attacks.

Another improvement was the machine gun. Andrew Fokker of Holland was able to synchronize machine guns on airplanes with the propeller, leading to aerial combat. The number of airplanes went from almost none in the beginning of the war to 20,000 British aircraft by 1918.

Mr. Groom introduces prominent participants in the battle smoothly and seamlessly. Winston Churchill commands a battalion of Royal Scot Fusiliers with great skill. Adolf Hitler appears as a private who was awarded the Iron Cross and promoted to corporal. He is shown in a remarkable photograph, already appearing frenzied and wild-eyed.

"A Storm in Flanders" is a fascinating study of a key battle of World War I. The reader can follow each phase of the war with ease using the numerous illustrations that clearly mark the ever-changing order of battle. The author works his skill on a broad canvas but also provides captivating details of the grinding, appalling human suffering and drama down in the trenches. Tales of tremendous leadership, horrendous casualties, arid great sacrifices will hold your interest throughout this excellent presentation of a historic battle.

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This poem has endured for 87 years, written in 20 minutes by a Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, who served 17 days at an aid station in Ypres Salient. While the poem is widely known, military historians have seldom depicted the entire four-year battle for Flanders...
Tuesday, 19 November 2002 12:00 AM
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