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Campaigns of World War One:
The Western Front  1914  pt2


1914


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The failure of Moltke’s campaign led to him being replaced by General von Falkenhayn who resumed the offensive. While most of the German army had withdrawn to good defensive positions, von Falkenhayen saw that it could be made even stronger by seizing some key positions. The French salient at Verdun also remained problematic. Its fortifications made it impossible to use the Meuse Valley as a route into France, and it was feared that the French could still use the position to launch attacks into Germany. Early attempts to pinch it off had nearly succeeded, and now in mid-September the Germans launched a number of new limited offensives on its flanks to threaten Verdun further. To accomplish this task the Germans began a steady advance through the Argonne Forest that slowly pushed the French back one strongpoint at a time. By December the Germans captured the Butte at Vauquois, cutting one of Verdun’s supply lines.

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Belief that the difficult terrain of Woevre Plain on Verdun’s eastern flank was too unsuitable for an attack, the French failed to position their troops to defend it properly. This allowed the Germans to swarm over it and by end September they had annihilated the French defenders and seized the dominating height at St. Mihiel. This was a major victory that cut off the main supply route to Verdun rendering it useless as a base from which to attack Germany. With both flanks now threatened, the French hold on Verdun itself became tenuous.

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With no natural barriers, Brussels proved indefensible and so the Belgian army retired to Antwerp, which functioned as the kingdom’s wartime capital. As a major port that could be easily supplied from the sea, it posed a threat to the right wing of the German army as it advanced southward into France. Though Belgium had turned Antwerp into its most heavily fortified city, the Germans did not send their best troops to take it as they were concentrating on defeating France. Although a siege began in late August, the Germans lacked the manpower to completely surround the city, which allowed the Belgian army to launched a number of sorties through September.

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The Belgian government managed to flee Brussels with ease because they already knew it was indefensible in wartime and were prepared to move their capital to Antwerp. Nevertheless its loss was still a huge psychological blow to the morale of the Belgian people. Likewise the fall of Brussels was a prize of little strategic value to the German military, but its capture served as a great propaganda coup. Many German publishers produced postcards depicting their army triumphantly marching through the city’s streets.

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After the Germans pulled back to higher ground behind the Aisne River they began to entrench. The French aided by the British Expeditionary Force secured a bridgehead and attacked these defenses head on in mid-September but were thrown back in counterattacks. The First Battle of Artois concluded at the end of the month when the Allies realized that a breakthrough here was impossible. When the German armies initially attacked across Belgium they did not have enough men to secure their right flank but this did not matter as their opponents were to weak to exploit this. Now with their front secure the Allies would turn their eyes to the German flank.

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Cavalry was widely employed on the Western Front at this time due to the fluid nature of the battlefront. There was a great romance surrounding the use of cavalry that dated back over a century. Cavalry was the arm of the noble class, and all cavalrymen still held a certain distinction. Postcard publishers of all nations exploited this appeal as best they could, providing the public with images of horsemen and combat that were depicted in numbers well out of proportion to their actual use in battle. This trend would continue to the end of the year when the cavalry lost most of its relevance.

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With no breakthrough possible on the Aisne, General Joffre ordered Castelnau’s army to attack the exposed German flank at Noyon. He met up with German reinforcements at the Battle of Albert and was thrown back in late September. After the French were reinforced they then attempted to turn the German flank further to the north at Arras. After some initial success they wound up on the defensive when more German troops arrived in early October. The Allies were hard pressed and thought they might have to withdraw, but after taking Lens the Germans unexpectedly turned their attention to Flanders.

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At the beginning of the Great War there was no perspective to which events could be judged and so nearly every meeting with the enemy found its way onto a postcard. It did not take long for the large battles to be sorted out from the small; and while the large were generously covered, the small encounters grew so fast in number that postcard publishers found themselves having to make choices on what to depict. While all large battles of the Great War were pictured on postcards, there were so many more small encounters that it was impossible to capture them all and they are unevenly represented. For a small battle or skirmish to make its way onto a postcard there had to be an extraordinary reason for putting it there. This reason could be its proximity to a populated area from which to draw costumers, it might have particular military significance that will generate much news, or it just might have some odd facet that makes it stand out. The relatively unknown battle for Armentières was one of these. Here the British Expeditionary Force held off repeated German attacks at the village during October 1914, but it was the use of double decker busses to bring in desperately needed reinforcements that gave this battle its unique flavor.

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While the German advance was blunted at Arras, they did manage to push on into one very important region by late September. After causing much destruction through a tremendous bombardment they captured the French city of Lille. It proved an easy victory because the British had still not adequately deployed their troops to defend this Front. Satisfied with their position the Germans began to entrench. Though this was a small battle it is widely reproduced on German postcards because of Lille’s strategic importance. Not only did the capture of this industrial center disrupt arms production, it cut important rail connections between the British and French sectors.

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Even though many government sanctioned postcards were produced depicting the Battle for Lille, it seems that many photographers chose this location to do unofficial work. There are not only photos of ruins but of dead civilians and horses in the streets killed by the bombardment. Probably in fear of reprisals, many of these real photo postcards are totally unlabeled, which often makes them difficult to impossible to verify location unless a known local landmark can be spotted.

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By the end of September the slow moving Germans besieging Antwerp finally began to bombard the city in earnest, which caused a fair amount of damage to its antiquated forts and Belgian morale. The British attempted to reinforce its defenses but too little came too late and Antwerp fell to a German assault in early October. Many of the Belgian defenders managed to escape, with refugees fleeing to Britain and the Netherlands. The German army then turned south, capturing Belgium’s coastal towns that were left undefended.

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The fall of Antwerp was a major German victory that was widely celebrated on postcards. While the city’s capture had true strategic value as a base to threaten the German flank, its portrayal on so many cards is an indication of its propaganda value as well. It did not matter that the siege was not carried out well and took far too long; it was still a success that not only showed the German public of what their army was capable of accomplishing, it was another important marker on the road to victory and the end of the War.

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There are quite a number of postcards that picture sailors from both sides of the conflict fighting in Belgium. At the outbreak of the War the Germans had more sailors than ships to deploy them on so they were formed into a division of Marine Fusiliers to fight along side of the Infantry. Similar units of Marine infantry were made up of sailors that were trained for amphibious assault. The French Troupes de marine have a very long history as an arm of the navy, but by 1914 they had already been serving with of the Army for many years as the Troupes Coloniales. They were traditionally deployed overseas but found their way onto the Western Front when generals needed more manpower.

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As the Germans continued to sweep southward from Antwerp, they caught up with the Belgian army preparing to make a stand along the Yser River in end October. When the Germans managed to establish a bridgehead, the Belgians in an act of desperation opened the sluice gates to the Yser Basin. Specially trained sappers were assigned to this task to make sure that the lowlands were flooded deep enough to become an effectual barrier to infantry while not too deep to allow for the passage of boats. While this move was drastic it halted the German drive by sealing off the entire front between Nieuport ad Dixmude. Through this action the Belgian army managed to retain a small corner of their country while protecting the important port of Calais to the south.

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Once the Germans captured Lille, it left the British holding a salient around The Belgian City of Ypres. From mid-October to mid-November the Germans launched a major offensive in Flanders centered on this position. This lowland was not especially good ground to hold but with nearly all of Belgium in German hands it became politically impossible to give up. The fighting here was desperate with both sides using their best troops but the defense held. After realizing the futility in continuing to attack entrenched positions, the Germans broke off the offensive. The Germans had suffered very high casualties but the British Expeditionary Force was devastated. This was Britain’s professional standing army, and considered the best in Europe. After this campaign this army would be replenished with inexperienced volunteers.

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The kings of Prussia had a personal guard made up of taller than average foot soldiers dating back to Frederick William. These Potsdam Giants became a personal amusement and were never risked being lost in battle. Due to the importance in taking Ypres, the Kaiser took the unprecedented step and personally ordered his Imperial Guards into the attack. Many were taken prisoner by the British, from where they found their way onto many Allied postcards. While it was probably the uniqueness of these men that caused them to be singled out for display, their capture also presented the narrative that if the Kaisers most elite troops could be bested by ordinary British troops, then the War was going to be won.

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During the First Battle of Ypres, the town had been nearly leveled by artillery fire. Most of what was left standing was destroyed as the War progressed. Somehow Cloth Hall, a medieval covered marketplace dating from the late 13th century was torn apart by high explosive shells but still left partially standing. It had always been a landmark placed on view-cards because of its architectural magnificence, but now it gained new landmark status on military cards by towering over the surrounding rubble. The building was painstakingly restored as best as possible in the postwar years.

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The intense fighting in Flanders, especially around the contest for the Ypres salient caught the attention of many artists and writers; so much so that it has skewed our view of the war. It is not that these narratives did not take place, it is just that we largely picture the Great War today from the visuals created on these muddy flat fields. This is not just a contemporary view for there was once honor derived from claiming that one took part in the fighting here. Just the mention of Flanders was enough to garner respect for it implied the participation in an epic struggle. These notions were fostered by postcards that not only represented actual events, but the great number of cards that were issued as generics.

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Allied postcards tend to depict all these events after the Battle of the Marne as the Race to the Sea, which would end maneuvering and lead to the establishment of entrenched front lines and more static warfare. In actuality there was little that could be called a race except maybe for the capture of Lille. The coastal region was already held by Belgian and British troops who were just pushed out from most of their strongholds by the German advance. As trenches began to be built it took less men to hold them, which freed up troops to fight on the more fluid flanks. In this way the trench line was extended until it formed a continuous line stretching from the fortified French city of Belfort at the Swiss border to the Belgian town of Nieuport on the English Channel. At this time most thought these defenses nothing more than a temporary halt to mobile warfare.

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Flanders was such low terrain that it not only allowed the Belgians to create formidable obstacles by flooding the countryside around the Yser, it posed a potential problem for any army trying to dig a trench. High water tables meant that any trench dug too deep would be flooded while any defense built upward in this flat terrain became an easy target for enemy artillery. There were no good solutions to these problems, and they were only made worse as bombardments continued to destroy the areas delicate drainage system. The constant mud this created made life here worse than in most other places for the average soldier. While mud is difficult to visually depict, scenes of these flooded lowlands were a popular theme on postcards.

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Upon reaching the English Channel at Nieuport, the German flank wasn’t as secure as it might have seemed. This area was constantly harassed by bombardment from the British Navy. Heavy guns were then brought in to meet the challenge. Many postcards were produced to capture this long range duel despite its relative insignificance. This is a good example of how public interest in certain subjects will determine the output of postcards above their actual importance. Publishers were generally not interested in recording history but in making sales. The building of heavy gun batteries at nearby Ostend were far more important but they mostly appear on cards produced after the War as ruins. In this particular case the lack of cards might have more to do with the security concerns of censors so publishers were more attracted to creating generic views.

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Although the flooded lowlands surrounding the Yser were an imposing barrier, the Germans made several attempts to cross it starting in late November and into December. Small light draft boats were employed in these attacks but they could never bring enough men at one time to overwhelm Belgian defenses. After suffering heavy casualties the Germans gave up on these tactics, and the Yser front calmed down. There would be continued fighting around the flanks of this flooded basin, but the Yser front would generally remain quiet until the last months of the War.

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The border between Germany and France ran across the Vosges Mountains that commanded the Alsace plain along the Rhine. Anyone holding the dominating peaks could block all movement through the region below by calling down accurate artillery fire. German Landwehr units had occupied the Vosges in August of 1914, but their presence was not seriously contested until November when the French threw them off of the peak of the Hartmannswillerkopf.

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By the end of November with the Western Front stalemated, the Germans began shifting troops to the East where they could be put to better use exploiting their recent victories over the Russians. Fearful that a reinforced German army in the East might knock its Russian ally out of the War, General Joffre ordered a number of winter attacks against the German line extending from Nieuport to Verdun. It was hoped that even a few small breakthroughs would halt this transfer of reinforcements. This led to much inconclusive fighting, most notably at Champagne, which continued into the next year. For the most part the front line trenches were essentially drawn.

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The British and Belgians supported the French winter offensive by staying active in Flanders. By mid-December the Belgians made moves against Nieuport, and they made joint attacks with the French resulting in the retaking Dixmude and an advanced on St. George. Many of these minor encounters were of little strategic value, but none were too small to be overlooked for propaganda purposes. They became major victories or were displayed a determined defense, all out of proportion to actual events. Postcard publishers were happy to pick up on this because it meant more sales. The public was extremely hungry for military related images when the War first broke out, but as time went on these small encounters became less unique and they were not covered in such numbers.

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During December the most serious fighting in Flanders took place at Givenchy when the Germans attacked after detonating mines under an Indian held position. There would be attack and counterattack but very little ground permanently changed hands. The fighting here probably gained more attention on postcards than usual because the Indian troops involved gave it an exotic flare that might attract more customers.

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The Allied propaganda war had grown so strong so fast that it began doing real harm by confusing facts on the battlefield, not only with the public but with those responsible for making actual military decisions. For most of the war the Allies seemed to have no clear idea of what was truly happening in the front lines and only reported what they thought was best for the war effort. Allied postcards generally remained generic stressing patriotic values rather than events.




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