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World War Battlefields

There have been thousands of books written about the two World Wars, as well as movies, TV and radio documentaries and commentary by millions of people speaking, marching, commemorating, celebrating, laying wreaths and in so many other ways connecting to these two wars.

The First World War – often called the Great War began on the 4th of August 1914 with the German siege of Liège in Belgium with the war’s end on Armistice Day, November 11th, 2018, while the Second World War began on the 1st of September 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland and ended on May 8th 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Europe and on September 2nd, 1945 in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered.

On these pages we can’t possibly cover all the details of the battles, losses, triumphs and events that took place in the two wars, but we can provide a small snapshot of the two greatest wars to beset Europe and the world and also tell you a little about the Battlefields and what you can see here today in France.

Hopefully in reading these few pages, you will also gain some more insight into the background of what you see here in France, particularly on the ‘Western Front’.

THE START OF THE GREAT WAR – WORLD WAR 1 -  

 

If you go back to the 18th century and even 19th century in Europe, the continent was made up of Kingdoms, Principalities, Grand Duchies, Dukedoms and various Estates and Empires. There were the ruling elites – Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses, Royal Courts and families, Emperors, Tsars, Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Lords, Family dynasties, the nobles and aristocrats who had control over the vast majority of European lands and its wealth.

The wealth and power of these ruling elites goes back centuries but can still be seen in the Palaces, Châteaux and thousands of Castles, Forts, Citadels, Cathedrals and churches scattered throughout the whole of Europe and Great Britain.

In the 1700’s and 1800’s there were massive power struggles too within the ruling elites, between church and state and between the ruling aristocracies and the common people, with wars, skirmishes, Revolutions, uprisings and changes taking place across the continent. Industrialisation and expanded Colonial Empires, inventions, trade and changes in the wealth structures occurred as a merchants and industrialists in the 1800’s gained wealth and power too over landowners and the nobility, with cities, railways, shipping, roads and communications rapidly evolved, reshaping the lives and livelihoods of the Europeans.

Unification of the German Empire only took place in 1871, following the victory of Prussia over the Austrians in 1866 and the Prussian victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

Prussia was the most powerful of all the German states and their successful triumph over France led to the formation of other German states joining together to form a unified Germany with Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) becoming Germany’s first Chancellor and Wilhelm 1st the first Kaiser (King) of a united Germany. That year, 1871 also saw Italy become a united country too.

The Franco-Prussian War saw Emperor Napoleon III of France captured and in March 1st 1871, German Troops marched down the Champs-Elysées in Paris as a sign of their victory, with a Treaty signed in the famous Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace – symbolic of the Glory days of French opulence, sophistication and power. The Treaty of Versailles also saw Germany demand that France pay Reparations to Germany for the cost of the war, even though the French hadn’t started it, and also saw the two French Provinces of Alsace and Lorraine that straddle the Rhine and Moselle River becoming part of Germany. These two provinces would only return to France following World War 1.

When you look at a map of Europe, you see that Germany has a coastline on the North Sea and Baltic Sea, but is largely landlocked in central Europe with big countries to the east and west of it – including Russia to the east and France to the west.

Seeing France defeated so quickly in 1870 and humiliated in front of the World, and a unified Germany emerge, no doubt sent a message to all other Europeans powers, that Germany had far greater power than they had previously thought.

While peace reigned for number of years, events took a turn however when Kaiser Wilhelm I died, and then the newly appointed Kaiser Ferdinand III died shortly after being crowned, with Wilhelm II (1859-1941) becoming the new Kaiser. Chancellor Bismarck, “The Iron Chancellor” was dismissed in 1890 and the new Kaiser took a more aggressive stance in relation to Germany’s role in the world. Some historians believe that the push to war was more or as much to do with the views of Generals Erich Lidendorff (1865-1937) and General Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) as the Kaiser, but nonetheless the Kaiser became the head of the German Armed Forces.

While Britain and France both had their colonial Empires for over a century, Germany had only become a unified country in 1871, but it too sought to establish an Empire too.

An alliance in 1873 had been made by Kaiser Wilhelm I with Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria-Hungarian Empire, though the relationship between Russia and the Austrians was not strong, and then faltered with Germany too when Wilhelm II became the Kaiser.

In 1894, Russia signed a Treaty with France and then in 1904 signed a new treaty was signed by Britain, France and Russia – what became known as the Triple Entente Alliance. This then to some degree balanced out the power structures in Europe – but at the same time Germany was building up both its military strength and Navy.

In 1897 Count Alfred von Schieffen, (1833-1913) a General in the German Military forces had developed a Military plan in relation to conquering France in the advent of a war between the two countries, and this was further refined over the years up to 1905. The Schieffen Plan involved a rapid encirclement of France from north from Luxembourg and Belgium and east from Alsace to capture Paris and France, which the plan set down as taking about 6 weeks to achieve.

The success of the Schieffen Plan was based on the swiftness of the action in taking France, but also the belief that Russia would either not get involved, given they had been defeated in the Sino-Russian War of 1905 and the subsequent Russian Revolution, when the Tsar had been deposed, or that the Russians would be slow to react.

Given that Britain had also chosen not to be involved in the supporting the Russians in the Sino-Russian War, the possibility was that Britain too might not come to the support of France when or if  it came under attack.

On all three counts the Plan turned out to be wrong. Both Russia and Britain became immediately involved and the war that was to take 6 weeks, ended up taking years.

On June 28th, 1914 in the Balkans, Archduke Ferdinand (the Heir to the Throne in Austria-Hungary) and his duchess wife were assassinated in Sarajevo and with little response from Serbia, this was enough reason to the Austrian-Hungarians to declare war on Serbia on the 28th July 1914. Russia then came to the support of Serbia and then Germany came to support the Austrians and then Germany declared war on Russia and Russia on Germany too.

On the 4th August 1914, the German Imperial Army lay siege in Luxembourg and Liège in Belgium and World War I ensued with France, Belgium, Britain and its dominion Colonial forces from the British Empire countries (India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Canada) and Portugal all declaring war on Germany. Rather than becoming an isolated war in Serbia, it became a war between France and Germany, and then due to the Alliances it involved all parts of the world as countries either joined in or remained neutral.

One of the interesting, though sad facts is that British Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the grandmother of Wilhelm II of Germany and also the grandmother of Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) of Russia’s German born wife, Alexandra Feodorova (Alix) (1872-1918) and one of her other grandsons was George V (1865-1936) of Great Britain. One would have thought that as first cousins – Wilhelm, Nicholas’s wife, Alix of Hesse and George V would have been able to stop this war happening, given the closeness of their heritage and relationships. If you look at the above dates of their birth, you also see how close in age they were too

Wilhelm II grew up knowing all of his Russian and British Cousins even attending Queen Victoria’s deathbed, such was their closeness, and marching with his English relatives in her Funeral procession in London, as well as attending many other formal and holiday occasions with his English and European relatives and even sailing with his cousins too and also Tsar Nicolas II.

Ultimately, Wilhelm II was the last Kaiser (King) of Germany after 400 years of Hohenzollern Rule and the Tsar Nicholas was the last Tsar, being killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, along with his wife and children. While George V may have been able to secure their asylum in Britain, he declined to do so. He did so apparently on the basis of not wanting to incite or encourage any sort of Bolshevik type uprising in Britain. George V also changed the family name from Saxe-Coburg –Gotha to Windsor in 1917, anglicizing their name and distancing themselves from their German connections.

WORLD WAR I BEGINS -

The first ‘gun’ in the world is thought to be a ‘fire lance’ invented in the 10th century, with gun powder originating in China in the 9th century, spreading to Europe and the Middle East, with the first cannons dating back to around the year 1250. Cannons are essentially a large barrel shaped tube where explosive material could be loaded inside and then a tiny hole behind the explosive enabled a wick to light the explosive material that would be then be exploded outwards through the cannon tube at an enemy.

Warfare has always involved weapons – and World War I saw the arrival of new weapons including the infamous Zeppelin Airship, Machine guns, use of Grenades – some just a Jam tin or Bully Beef tin of explosive material and other times more sophisticated German Stick bombs and British Mills Bombs. There were also armoured tanks and aircraft too, including German Fokkers and British Sopwith Camels and use of German  U Boats (Unterseeboot – Underwater boats)  to attack Convoy ships in the Atlantic.

The Germans in the first year had more sophisticated weaponry – even inventing a way that a machine gun on a fighter plane could fire between the propeller blades at an enemy aircraft, and use of their Howitzer machine guns against the French and British with their single shot rifles, but as the war progressed both sides developed their weaponry too.

There was also a terrible new weapon too – Chlorine and Mustard Gas, used by both sides during the war.

Where in earlier wars, two sides would fight it out on a battlefield, this war was different too, with the battlefield across France becoming known as the Western Front – a line of offence/defence that was 700 kilometres (440 miles) long, stretching from the coastline in Belgium at Nieuwpoort, southwards into France to Arras , across France through Soissons, then just to the north of Reims on to Pfetterhouse (Pfetterhausen) in Alsace on the border with Switzerland.  The Germans also were fighting the Russians on what became known as the Eastern Front too.

The Western Front became the scene of fierce battles to break through enemy lines – the front line becoming a line of trenches, dugouts, barbed wire, with both sides digging deep down into the ground as a means of providing some defence from the enemy but also camouflage when they mounted an attack on the enemy. Some of the trenches were up to 5 metres deep, and then there were times when the walls collapsed and at other places tunnels would be dug under the enemy lines and bombs then planted to blow up under the trenches.

It was here in the trenches that the soldiers on both sides faced the winter cold, snow, rain and mud of the winters of 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and the start of winter in 1918.

Casualties on both sides from being shot, machine gunned, captured, gassed or bombed were massive with wounded, sick or shell-shocked taken away from the battle field often only to be returned when their physical injuries were sufficiently healed. Many would die from the cold, disease, physical fatigue and mental hardships. Many were blinded, lost legs, arms, received massive burns, or their hearing or lungs destroyed through gas attacks and would spend their lives recovering or never recovering from their mental or physical wounds.

As much as words and numbers may tell a story, and even photos and filming taken during the war add to the picture of the War in the trenches, only those who were there could really see, smell and hear the cries of the dying and death that was around them.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many soldiers and others died in the War on the Eastern and Western Front, but it is thought to be about 17 million died and a further 20 million injured. The pandemic Spanish Flu at the end of the war also killed millions of people too. These are huge numbers.

To give a breakdown of those killed – there were over 1 million French; 1.7 million Russians; 740,000 British; 60,000 Australians; 64,000 Indians; 460,000 Italians; over 1 million Austrians; 300,000 Turkish; 1.8 million Germans and around 100,000 Americans – who entered the War on the 6th April, 1917, along with many others from countries as far distant as Nepal, Africa and beyond.

An estimated 8 million horses, donkeys and mules also died along with guard dogs, sniffer dogs and carrier pigeons.

There are also those people not directly involved in the war that suffer too – the wives, girlfriends, parents, children, home communities that suffer the emotional effects of the war and the shattered lives of the returning soldiers, airmen and sailors.

World War I is called the ‘Great War’ largely due to the number and scale of the war – “the war to end all wars”, but as you know this did not eventuate.

The end of the Great War happened as a series of events. In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II in Russia abdicated in a Revolution and this was followed in October 1917 by another revolution when Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and his Red Guards staged the ‘Bolshevik’ (Russian Social Democratic Workers Party) Revolution. This led on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk – a peace agreement signed on the 3rd of March 1918 between the Bolshevik Government of Soviet Russia and Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

This was a significant event as the Germans also aided the Bolsheviks in overturning the existing order in Russia and in turn, with Russia out of the war (and paying billions in Gold and losing claims over the Ukraine and Baltic States) and also breaking out in Civil War, the Germans could then concentrate on fighting on the Western Front.

The alliance between Britain, France and Russia was also at an end too – and no doubt the French, British and their allies including the United States were even more worried that with the Germans no longer fighting on the East Front, that this would mean a renewed vigour to push harder with more men and armaments on the Western Front.

No doubt all forces fighting were “War Weary” and on October 29th 1918, sailors in the German High Fleet in Kiel on the Baltic Sea mutinied, refusing to go back to sea, and it became clear to the German command, that with the United States now involved and supporting the Allied forces, it was time to seek an end to the War. On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands – which had remained Neutral during the War. The Kaiser lived here in exile until his death in 1941.

In 1918 Germany then became a Republic with Kaiser Wilhelm II as its last King (Kaiser).

On the 11th hour on the 11th day of November 1918, an Armistice was declared and the fighting came to an end.  Over the months that followed negotiation led to the Treaty of Versailles being signed on the 28th June, 1919.

IN FRANCE TODAY

Today, what you see in France and Belgium are numbers of War Cemeteries – with gravestones marking the names, rank, serial number and age of those who lost their lives in the Great War. There are also gravestones of ‘unnamed soldiers’.

What confronts many people who come here to see these War Cemeteries and Memorials are the sheer number of war gravestones and when they read the inscriptions are the ages of those who died – from those in their teens, to those in their 20’s and 30’s.

In the Museums you will also see stories, pictures and items related to the Great War – and there is certainly a mix of both sadness and solemn contemplation of what you are seeing here.

The places to see are in or near these Villages

  • Passendale (Passchendaele) in Belgium – North East of Ypres
  • Pozières – about 6 kilometres  north east of Albert
  • Bullecourt
  • Fromelles
  • Beaumont-Hamel – also near Albert, north east of Amiens. See also the Newfoundland Memorial.
  • Villers-Bretonneux – 16 kilometres from Amiens. This is where Anzac (Australian and New Zealand ) Dawn Services are conducted each year on Anzac Day, 25th April each year at the Australian National Memorial – near the village of Villers-Bretonneux and Corbie and Fouilly.
  • Péronne – see the museum in the Château here.
  • Thiepval
  • Auchonvilliers
  • Vimy Ridge – near Arras
  • La Boisselle – where the Lochnagar Bomb Crater is located

These villages are still quite small, so if you are looking for accommodation probably the best places to stay are in the bigger towns and cities of Amiens or Albert, Arras or Lille.

The Western Front, as per above information was over 700 kilometres long, and one of the places that had some of the most heavily fought battles was in Verdun – which is east of Reims (In the Champagne region of France).  Verdun was heavily bombed during the wars, but has a history dating back to the 4th century. It is located on the Meuse River and in Verdun there is the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and the French National Cemetery, as well as the Douaumont Ossuary with the remains of 100,000 soldiers. There are some 13,000 crosses located here marking the graves of those who died in the Great War.



THE SECOND WORLD WAR -



When you see Armistice Day (The laying down of arms) was on the 11th November 1918 and also see that the Versailles Treaty was only signed on June 28th, 1919 – over 7 months later, you can understand that signing was by no means easy or uncomplicated.  It involved  a tortuous round of negotiations, but central to the Treaty was that Germany had to admit its guilt for starting the War and also pay substantial reparations to France and Britain. They also lost all of their Empire Territories including Alsace and Lorraine and there were also many other substantial conditions that they had to sign too, including allowing the French to occupy the Rhineland.

Wars don’t come cheap, and Britain and France had also borrowed substantially from the USA to fund some of its costs too. On the German side, it was obliged under the Treaty to pay substantial Reparations and also lose much of its Territories, including those that Russia had earlier given to Germany when it signed the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on the 3rd March 1918. Russia under the new Versailles Treaty gained most of these Territories back and the March Treaty was extinguished.

As you read above, the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the Bolsheviks gaining power under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) much of his thinking derived from the Marxist theories of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), both German, but living in London. Following the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) would come to power and rule over the Soviet Union until his death in 1953. Under Stalin’s control, it is estimated that around 20 million people died.

The rise of the Bolsheviks (Communists) and the turbulent and violent times in the Slavic speaking areas of Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Belorussian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian, Macedonian, Bulgaria), along with the deprivations imposed on the people in Germany, Austria and Hungary, created much instability within Europe. During the 1920’s there were also food shortages and high inflation and then the Great Depression started in 1929 with the New York Stock Exchange stock prices collapsing and adding to the misery, with this economic depression spreading to Europe and the world.

Germany had to pay reparations to France and Britain, and they both had to pay the USA for the loans they received.

In turn the USA lent money back to Germany, so that they could pay the Reparations and in 1931 Germany defaulted on its payments to the USA and in 1934 both Britain and France defaulted on their payments too. Great social unrest, unemployment and other deprivations created the opportunity for the rise of new thinking, leaders and parties – the rise of Communism, Socialism, Fascism and Nazi Germany. 

When people are starving and the economy is really bad with rampant inflation – they need someone to blame, someone or something to hate. In many cases this will be the ruling elite and the Government and anyone else who they believe has caused their hardship.

Any change is often seen as a good change and if there is someone or some group to blame – the rich, the nobles, the foreigners, a religion, or creed, other politicians and then a devious politician tells them that they have the answers to all their problems – they can become new leaders.

Such a politician emerged in Germany in the form of Adolf Hitler, and in Russia, Italy, Japan and Spain, these countries too would come under the spell of Dictators.

In the 1920’s in Germany, Adolf Hitler found people to hate – the Jews and he told the German people that the reason they were suffering was because of the Jews.  He also blamed them for the defeat of Germany in World War I and for the Versailles Treaty that was signed forcing the German people to admit that it started the War, lose much of its territories and pay reparations.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) had been wounded in World War I and also suffered from a poison gas attack during the War too, later spending time in prison when he tried to stage a coup. In prison he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and over the next few years around 12 million copies were printed. It is also said that Hitler spent time in a mental Asylum too. Through a whole series of events and his public speaking at huge rallies he rose to power. He may have held the rank of Corporal in the Army in World War I but by 1933 he had become the German Chancellor, resuming Army Conscription by 1935, annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then invading Poland in 1939. Britain and France only declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland on the 3rd of September, 1939.

Joseph Stalin – (1878-1953) was the Russian leader who came to power in 1924 following the death of Vladimir Lenin. He set out to establish a Communist ‘Command Economy’ and transform Russia’s agrarian economy into an industrial one. He became a dictator too, establishing the Gulag Labour Camps to imprison or execute any person or group that opposed him. Russia experienced a massive famine in 1932-33, and then this was followed by the ‘Great Purge’. He signed a Peace Pact with Germany in August 1939, but then Germany invaded Poland on the 1st of September, then the Russians too invaded Eastern Poland that same month on the 17th September. The Russians would however change sides in June 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia.

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) had also fought as an Officer for France in the First World War and was wounded a number of times, including suffering from a poison gas attack before being taken prisoner in Verdun in 1916 by the Germans and spending the rest of the War, almost 3 years in a German POW Camp. He became the Head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in 1944, as the Governor in Exile (leader of the French Resistance). 

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) during the First World War had been the First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Royal Navy. He became the British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 and again between 1951 and 1955.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) became the US President in 1933 and would remain President for 3 terms until his death in 1945. He had also served in World War One as the Assistant Secretary of the US Navy.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) also fought in World War One and was injured too. He became leader of the Italian Fascist Party in 1922 and led the Party until 1945, when he was executed by the Italian Resistance.

Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) became Emperor of Japan in 1926. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and in 1937 declared war with China, signing a Tripartite Treaty with Germany in 1940 and then bombed the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. This action immediately brought the USA into the war in the Pacific.

Francisco Franco (1892-1975) spent from 1912 to 1926 in the Spanish Foreign Legion in Morocco, becoming a General in Spain in 1926. He led his forces in the Spanish Civil War, with the support of both Germany and Italy in the lead up to World War Two, and he would remain as a dictator until his death in 1975.

Each of these new leaders had World War I experience which no doubt had an impact on each of their views of the world and the changing Economics, social and political world at the time.

THE MARCH TO WAR -

World War One in Western Europe involved ‘trench warfare’ as detailed above as a line of defence in France and in the 1930’s this same thinking prevailed when France at great cost decided to build what became known as the Maginot Line – a line of thousands of solid concrete bunkers, fortifications, machine gun and cannon placements, guard posts, lookouts, anti-tank barriers and tunnels that ran hundreds of kilometres along the French border with Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg. It was designed to stop attack by tanks, troops and aircraft, but did not extend to the coastline or past the rugged Ardennes forests which the French considered would be impregnable for an armoured attack should this occur.

The French thinking at the time was that if Germany attempted to invade France, they would most likely attack via Belgium in a narrow wave of attack, which the French could then more easily contain.

The Germans when they did attack France on May 1940 used the Ardennes Forest as cover circumventing the Maginot Line defences.

Between 1938 and 1940, the Germans built the Siegfried Line, a 390 mile (630km) line of defence with thousands of bunkers, tank traps, tunnels and other defences all along the German border with France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Up to 500,000 workers – many forced labourers, built the Siegfried German line of defence, along with building railways and extending the Autobahn system of highways.

When Adolf Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he gained by fair and foul means an all-powerful position where he could not only talk about his philosophies, but he could also implement them too, taking on his mission to restore the fortunes of Germany, and enact revenge on all who opposed him. He became the Führer (leader) in 1934 and in his party rallies, his symbols of power and authority – the Swastika, outstretched arm salute and his military uniform and Iron Cross became symbolic of the new Germany. “Heil Hitler” became the national greeting as Germany now under Hitler’s control established its military might.  

While Hitler talked Peace, in 1938 he annexed Austria and western Czechoslovakia and in August 1939 he signed a non-aggression Treaty with Russia, and within days Germany invaded Poland.  This action saw both Britain and France declare war on Germany on September 3rd 1939, and that same month, Russia invaded Poland too on September 17 and then Finland on November 30th.

1940 saw Germany invade Norway and Denmark in April and then in May Luxembourg, Belgium, France and the Netherlands in quick succession. The speed and success of the German ‘Blitz’ attack must have resulted in huge elation in Germany but massive panic in Britain.

In World War I the German attack on France had been contained, but now German forces had conquered a number of countries and invaded Belgium and France reaching the coastline – their sights set on next conquering Britain.

With the German army encircling their positions, the British and French forces had no option other than to retreat and the decision was made to evacuate via Dunkirk Beach. The British War Office and Admiralty called on all British people with a sea worthy craft to head to Dunkirk Beach in Belgium in a mass evacuation plan. Winston Churchill had only just been appointed as Prime Minister on May 10th.  

Between May 27th and June 4th, a Flotilla of British Navy and small fishing boats, lifeboats and yachts. Some 400 or so craft headed to Dunkirk and managed to evacuate some 225,000 British and 113,000 French and other Allied forces from the beach. With support from the RAF in the air, it was an amazing feat to achieve, with heavy bombardment from both German Artillery and Luftwaffe aircraft attack.

With the evacuation from Dunkirk, Britain faced an uncertain future, and the distinct possibility that it was only a matter of time before German forces would invade Britain.

Paris had fallen on June 14th 1940 into German control just a few days after the Dunkirk evacuation and France surrendered on June 22nd. To make things even worse, Benito Mussolini and Italy had also joined with Germany declaring war on Britain and France on June 10th and Japan on September 27th joined the Axis forces with Germany. The contagion of war had spread from Eastern and Western Europe to the Middle East, North Africa and to Asia.

If World War I was a characterised as a ‘war in the trenches’, World War II became a ‘war in the air’.

The British Royal Air Force was only established in 1918, while the German Luftwaffe was only formed in 1935. In World War I the Germans had used Zeppelins Airships to carry and drop bombs on Britain, but when the Hindenburg airship was destroyed by fire in 1937, this was the end of Zeppelin developments in Germany. Thereafter it would be the development of faster and more sophisticated aircraft that could fly longer distances, faster and at height to avoid anti-aircraft fire.

The battle in the skies began in earnest in August 1940 with the ‘Battle of Britain’ with the Luftwaffe bombing London and the British bombing Berlin.

In June 1941 Hitler also attacked his former Axis Ally, Russia and Russia in turn changed sides joining the British Allied side. The Luftwaffe bombed Moscow in July that year and now the Germans were fighting on two fronts.

Their concentration and extermination camps were first established in 1933 and they would continue in operation until the end of the war in 1945, with an estimated 15 to 20 million Jews, Romani (Gypsies), Communists and other people the Nazis classified as subversives or undesirables being used as forced labour, gassed, starved or simply shot – in what has become known as the Holocaust.

As the war continued, Hitler knew that at some point Britain and its allied forces would attempt a land invasion and he directed that a 2000 mile long series of battlements be built along the length of the French, Belgium, Netherlands coastline all the way north to Norway. This massive construction undertaking involving millions of tons of steel and concrete also involved the plantings of booby trap land mines and floating mines just off the coastline.

Hitler had also declared war on the United States too in December 1941 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on the 7th December that month. This brought the USA also into the war in Europe.

Hitler was right – the Allied attack on Europe would come, but just as the Maginot Line had not protected France from attack, so too it was that the British, French, Australian, Canadian and American and other allied forces would create deceptions and largely bi-pass the whole of the German defence line.

D-Day, the 6th of June 1944 saw a combined attack by air, sea and ground forces landing on the beaches of Normandy in France and paratroopers drop in from the air to attack the German positions. It would take almost another year for Germany to finally surrender and on May 8th, 1945 the war in Europe was ended. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide on the 30th April but it was not until the 14th of August that Japan surrendered following the Atomic Bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Today along the Normandy and Brittany coastline there are still the remnants of the Fortresses and gun emplacements that the Germans built, though most have long since been destroyed.

When the allied forces landed in Normandy, they had five sector code names for their landing positions – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The beaches have retained these names and there are a number of museums, memorials and War Cemeteries located here in or close to the small towns of Caen, Bayeux and Carentan and villages of Pointe du Hoc and Colleville sur Mer.

At Colleville sur Mer there is the Normandy American Cemetery while at Utah Beach there is the Utah Beach Museum and at Bayeux there is the Musée Mémorial Bataille de Normandie.

If you want to stay here in the Normandy region and see the Battlefields and Museums, the best places to stay would be in Caen – which also has the Château de Caen – built in 1060 by William the Conqueror or in Bayeux – which has a Medieval town centre with cobbled streets next to the Aure River. It is also home to the famous Tapestry that depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The tapestry is 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high.

There is so much more history that is told about the two world wars than we have outlined here.

Hopefully what we have written here however has given you an insight into the two wars and the massive numbers of soldiers, airmen, sailors and people who died or were injured in the two world wars.

The loss of life was immense as you will see from these numbers –

  • Russia and the Soviet forces lost over 13 million Military personnel, 6 million civilians and 1.7 million Jews,
  •  Germany lost 3.2 million Military personnel, 3.6 million civilians and 170,000 Jews.
  •  Poland 120,000 Military personnel but 2.5 million civilians and 2.8 million Jews
  • Britain 265,000 Military personnel and 60,000 civilians
  • French 250,000 Military personnel, 270,000 civilians and 90,000 Jews
  • The USA lost 170,000 Military personnel
  • Australia lost 30,000 and Canada 40,000 Military personnel and the list goes on…

When you look at the numbers, you can see the massive number of Russian deaths, but at the end of the war, Russia and Soviet forces would remain in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and in 1948 Czechoslovakia also became part of the Soviet Bloc. The Soviet Bloc under Stalin until his death in 1953 and continued under Communist control that would would last until 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev came into power.

In many ways ‘numbers’ are just numbers, but when you see a War Cemetery and a sea of white crosses marking the deaths of the men that fought here in France, you get a real sense of the tragedy of war.

 

May God rest their souls!

Geoff Stuart

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