This was total war: not just the soldiers, politicians and military leaders, but entire nations of people were considered to be at war. Those who directed the war declared that British and French citizens, for example, were at war with German and Austro-Hungarian citizens. This is how the British justified their blockade of Germany.
In fairness, the Germans attempted to force a similar blockade against Britain and France, but the consequences of these blockades should not be overlooked by any such justifications. The British blockade, for example, restricted not only war materials, but also foodstuffs as well. Desperate to win the war, the Germans had no choice but to prioritize their soldiers to receive food, and so the citizens back at home suffered more and more as the war went on. By 1917, young men recently drafted into the army looked horribly malnourished, and they told of rampant sickness and disease back at home.
Worst of all, in an effort to speed up peace negotiations, the British kept the blockade in place even after an armistice had been signed. More and more German and Austro-Hungarian citizens died of starvation . . . in Germany alone, it’s estimated that over 400,000 succumbed.
. . .
Aisne . . . Picardy . . . Albert . . . Arras . . . fierce and bloody battles fought by each army trying to get around the others’ northern flank. Each of them had the ultimate effect of extending the battle-lines farther and farther north. Each of them, however, were running out of room.
Already the Germans, Belgians and French had settled a contest directly upon the coast, as the Battle of Yser allowed the Belgians to maintain a sliver of the old Belgium. Directly south, however, lay two sections of a potential battle-line not yet stabilized: one named for the nearby city of La Basseé.
At La Basseé, the race North seemed to be favoring the Germans . . . they succeeded in seizing the cities of Lille, La Basseé and Neuve Chapelle.
In 1934, Berhard Newman and Harold Arpthorpe, British veterans of WWI, together wrote “The Road to La Basseé,” describing their return to that horrible battlefield:
I went across to France again, and walked about the line,
The trenches have been all filled in – the country’s looking fine.
The folks gave me a welcome, and lots to eat and drink,
Saying, ‘Allo, Tommee, back again? ‘Ow do you do? In ze pink?’
And then I walked about again, and mooched about the line;
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine.
But the one thing that amazed me most shocked me, I should say
– There’s buses running now from Bethune to La Bassée!
I sat at Shrapnel Corner and I tried to take it in,
It all seemed much too quiet, I missed the war-time din.
I felt inclined to bob down quick – Jerry sniper in that trench!
A minnie coming over! God, what a hellish stench!
Then I pulled myself together, and walked on to La Folette –
And the cows were calmly grazing on the front line parapet.
And the kids were playing marbles by the old Estaminet –
Fancy kiddies playing marbles on the road to La Bassée!
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
But down by Tunnel Trench I saw a sight that made me start,
For there, at Tourbieres crossroads – a gaudy ice-cream cart!
It was hot, and I was dusty, but somehow I couldn’t stay –
Ices didn’t seem quite decent on the road to La Bassée.
Some of the sights seemed more than strange as I kept marching on.
The Somme’s a blooming garden, and there are roses in Peronne.
The sight of dear old Arras almost made me give three cheers;
And there’s kiddies now in Plugstreet, and mamselles in Armentiers.
But nothing that I saw out there so seemed to beat the band
As those buses running smoothly over what was No Man’s Land.
You’d just as soon expect them from the Bank to Mandalay
As to see those buses running from Bethune to La Bassée.
Then I got into a bus myself, and rode for all the way,
Yes, I rode inside a bus from Bethune to La Bassée.
Through Beuvry and through Annequin, and then by Cambrin Tower –
The journey used to take four years, but now it’s half an hour.
Four years to half an hour – the best speedup I’ve met.
Four years? Aye, longer still for some – they haven’t got there yet.
Then up came the conductor chap, ‘Vos billets s’il vous plait.’
Fancy asking for your tickets on the road to La Bassée.
And I wondered what they’d think of it – those mates of mine who died –
They never got to La Bassée, though God knows how they tried.
I thought back to the moments when their number came around,
And now those buses rattling over sacred, holy ground,
Yes, I wondered what they’d think of it, those mates of mine who died.
Of those buses rattling over the old pave close beside.
‘Carry on! That’s why we died!’ I could almost hear them say,
To keep those buses always running from Bethune to La Bassée!’
Attacks and counterattacks by both armies . . . both were desperate to make a breakthrough before this sector became stagnant like all the others. Between October 10 and November 2 (when attacks by both sides had finally been called off), over 15,000 Allied and 6,000 Germans had lost their lives. By now, the tentative lines looked like this:
La Basseé had been just another inconclusive but expensive extension northward. There would be no breakthrough here. There remained but one more sector in which easy breakthrough might still be possible . . . one more hope for avoiding the endless drudgery, blood, and mud of Trench Warfare along the entire Western Front . . . one more place to concentrate all available troops in order to possibly avoid a nearly hopeless, immobile war.
In the Belgian region of Flanders, they called that place, that unfortunate city, Ypres (pronounced: EE-purs).