In August, 1914, when the Germans invaded Belgium, Britain and France declared war. The reasons for the war were too tenuous to describe. The Germans intended to pass through tiny Belgium, capture the French ports on the English channel, and hook south to occupy Paris.
It didn't work. The Germans were stopped by mostly British forces near the French/Belgian border. The front line wasn't straight. There was a bulge, a "salient", pushing into the German lines. The French city of Ypres, which soldiers pronounced "Eeper", was in the center. This bulge was fought over for more or less the rest of the war. Frontal attacks against the enemy proved futile and both sides dug in during the Fall. At Christmas, in the snow, the Germans and British troops called a momentary truce and met each other at the front to celebrate together. This was quickly put a stop to.
When the battles picked up again in the Spring of 1914, Germany introduced chlorine gas shells, crude and unpredictable. It worked because no one was prepared for it and there were no gas masks. (If you want to know what chlorine smells like, open an old bottle of aspirin.) Afterwards there was little chivalry. Artillery barrages on both sides were devastating and the killing was relentless. The program details the miseries of trench warfare, much of which in 1917 took place in a sea of craters and deep mud. Record rainfall filled the area with interlocking water-filled ponds in which soldiers sometimes drowned.
Among the German troops was Adolf Hitler, wounded, gassed, twice decorated, promoted to corporal, and a survivor while all those around him seemed to be falling.
British General Haig planned a massive breakout from the salient but before it could be undertaken the high ground occupied by Paschendaele had to be captured. So it began.
The British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and Irish troops (no sectarian difficulties here) slogged forward and took appalling casualties, leaving behind them copses of unprepossessing cemeteries. Both sides were exhausted. Captured German soldiers were often happy to be out of it.
Atop the heights, the village of Paschendaele had been flattened. The advancing Canadians encountered no resistance. The advance could be measures in miles and the casualties in millions.
The first world war doesn't figure largely in American mythology. The US entered for the final year. Europe underwent this desperate agony for four years and Germany, saddled with reparations, paid even more dearly.
Robert E. Lee, probably the best general of the Civil War, remarked that it was good that war was so terrible, otherwise we might grow fond of it. Yet, irregularly but reliably, Homo sapiens seems to indulge that fondness.
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