The Encyclopedia
Of World War I

A Political, Social,
and Military History

Spencer C. Tucker

The maps tell much of the story. At the "Ypres Salient," a dotted line represents 11 November 1914. A solid line represents 30 April 1918. The maximum distance between the two is perhaps nine miles. Three-and-a-half years, nine miles. In between, the once prosperous towns of Messinens, Passenchendaele, and Armentières. Besides "Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parlez-vous," the three battles of Ypres produced mud, wasted shells, ruins, holes filled with foul, muddied water, gas, and 1,100,000 casualties.

The subject "gas" does not have an entry in this Encyclopedia, there between the French aviator Roland Garros, and Gaza, First Battle of (26 - 27 March, 1917). Gas did appear in the salient, where the markets and animals and people, the simple country life of a farm folk, ceased to exist as the several battles of Ypres --- called by the English "Wipers" --- rolled through. The First one began on 15 October, 1914. It was the fourth official WWI battle, after Arras and Albert and Aisne, as if they wanted to test the first and near to last letters of the alphabet.

According to the Encyclopedia, Aisne was the battle in which the first trenches were laid out, which are featured here in Volume IV, between "Trench Fever," "Trench Foot," and "Trenchard, Hugh Montague, 1st Viscount, (1873 - 1956)," a Royal Air Force marshal.

Trenches were conjoined foxholes, first for protection against the machine guns and shrapnel and rifle fire, later to evolve into rustic, if not water-logged living rooms, bedrooms, card rooms, smoking rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, hideouts, and dying room for the millions who lived, ate, slept, wrote letters home ... millions who presumably loved and wept and definitely died to save the world from the designated enemies.

Trenches --- not one, but a twin, fully paired, ran the three hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Any near-by villages, farms, woodlands, streams, roads, and fields were soon replaced by what historian R. J. Bunker (Bunker!) describes as "torn-up trees, wire entanglements, the discarded materiél of war ... pools of mud." And, lending a burning sting to the airs, residues of gas, along with the corpses, animal and human, so many dead.

Between the trenches was "no-man's-land," so named for no man could survive there, running (or trying to run, as if one could run through such mud, or retreating, or wounded, falling, sometimes drowning in the shell-holes filled with the foul waters of war). As Leon Wolff wrote, "The problem of terrain has bedeviled military commanders in Flanders throughout history. In the early 1700s Marlborough told how 'our armies swore terribly in Flanders.' By a curious transposition of numerals, in 1197 Philip Augustus was trapped with his army in the morass southwest of Ypres, and similar frustrations occurred during the days of the Roman conquest. For clay plus water equals mud --- not the chalky mud of the Somme battlefield to the south, but gluey, intolerable mud. The British War Office Archives are full of reports in this vein:

    "Part of company bogged in communications trench south of St. Eloi; two men smothered."

    "Three men suffocated in mud near Voormezeele."

    "Men had to lie flat and distribute their weight evenly in order to prevent sinking into the mire."

    "The trenches are very wet, and the water is up to the men's knees in most places."

    "Trenches full of liquid mud 2 to 3 feet deep."

    "Men in pitiable condition coming out of trenches; wet through, caked with stinking mud from head to foot."

"When one officer was instructed to consolidate his advance position, he wrote back, 'It is impossible to consolidate porridge.'

"Trenches full of liquid mud. Smelt horribly. Full of dead Frenchmen too bad to touch. Men quite nauseated."

Woolf then wrote,

    During the lulls the wounded called and groaned in No Man's Land, lingered for as much as a week, and usually died there, and sometimes screamed in their incoherent agony; while above them sounded the joyous songs of birds. The thrushes, especially, twittered wildly each morning, for they were used to the guns.

No-man's-land is not to be found in the Encyclopedia, between the "No-Conscription Fellowship," a British antiwar organization, and "Northern Barrage," a minefield in the frigid Northern Sea.

The Encyclopedia is thus one that makes WWI history not the agony of bombs, gunfire, despair, and death. There are hundreds of black and white photographs which convey some of the reality, but the truth of ten million casualties is vitiated by pure fact (1,200 entries, 175 contributors). The last volume, from pages 1353 to 1661, is given over to documents from the war, ending with the Treaty of Sèvres and, surprisingly, the bitter poem, "Recalling War," by Robert Graves (1938), which begins,

    Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
    The track aches only when the rain reminds
    The one-legged man forgets his leg of wood
    The one-armed man his joined wooden arm.

I know, I know, I'm ignoring the entire Russian Front, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, the Russian Civil War, the war at sea, the disaster of Gallopoli (the largest "amphibious landing in history ... until World War II"). But I plead regional interest and affect. My father and many of his brothers, cousins, and friends left the farm, went to Europe, and saw another world. By their later words, I know that this was a revolutionary experience for them if not for most Americans. It changed our lives forever.

And Armentières was a familiar name to these same Americans. Joining the war in the last year, the missed the irony of a song that proclaimed a place --- not where so many Europeans had lost their young lives, but rather --- one that told of a young lady who washed underpants and never got kissed:

    Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parlez-vous,
    Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parlez-vous,
    Mademoiselle from Armentières,
    She hasn't been kissed for forty years.

    Hinky-dinky parlez-vous.

    Oh Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parlez-vous,
    Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parlez-vous,
    She got the palm and the croix de guerre,
    For washin' soldiers' underwear,

    Hinky-dinky parlez-vous.

Our favorite war song of all time, also not included, but part and parcel of the British dogsbodies, along with the rats, lice, fleas,  trench knife, trench foot and trench fever, was

--- Francis B. Ward, M.A.
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