Engineers | 23 Oct 1914

Today is a day of heavy fighting, but also a day of military engineers. There may be a lot of fighting going on, but unlike the earlier battles to the south, it’s obvious that the ones now being fought will continue for some time. There appears to be no immediate risk of a serious breakthrough anywhere. Also, even if the Allies hold out and continue the war, it’s now quite plain that the war will continue into 1915. There may not be as strictly-defined a campaigning season as in the Early Modern period of European history, and there may be no ready equivalent to that great Russian commander General Winter. However, it’s still a great deal harder to fight, and to operate logistics, in the teeth of winter.


In this light, making a serious effort to set up good, strong defensive positions is a natural reaction. While the fighting goes on at the front in less than ideal positions, the Engineers have been working not just to reinforce the defences there, but also to prepare strong reserve lines that can easily be fallen back into. The work here is of course a lot easier to undertake than the work conducted under fire. The Engineers’ efforts will prove particularly vital in the Armentieres region, where trench-digging is particularly difficult, and the construction of breastworks is required instead.


One such retirement (from Givenchy) is conducted today in the La Bassee region. Last time the men retired, they found barely more than scratches in the ground that they were forced to improve themselves, in some cases digging with bare hands. Now they retire again. More Indians are joining the line, replacing French troops who head further north. This time the men arrive in recognisable trenches, some even with barbed wire in front. The Germans are busy shelling yesterday’s positions, not realising that the retirement has taken place.

Speaking of German artillery, it arrives in force at Langemarck, north of Ypres, and sets about reducing the hamlet to rubble. Then the German reserve infantry goes in again. The Engineers have been working around the clock and heedless of the shelling. Damaged barbed-wire is repaired. The shell-holes are linked up anew to replace the demolished trenches. The attack is repulsed again. To the east of Langemarck, the Germans have advanced as far as Pilckem, yet another tiny village on high ground. The BEF counter-attacks there today, launching a series of vicious bayonet charges, and retakes Pilckem Ridge.

On the Yser, the Germans seize a northern bridgehead over the Yser at Lombartzyde. If they can hold it, Nieuport will soon come under threat. This is a desperate situation, and the Belgians now begin to put desperate measures in hand. Meanwhile, Dixmude takes yet another battering, and yet again the attacks are repulsed.

On the Home Front in Britain, wide-scale arrests of “enemy aliens” continue. See the “Further Reading” section for more on this.

Actions in Progress

Battle of La Bassee
Battle of Armentieres
Battle of the Yser
Battle of Ypres (First Ypres)
Battle of Messines

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: it’s a bad taste day all round. On page 5, Gamages (an enormous and now-closed department store) announces its latest sale with the slogan “TREMENDOUS SLAUGHTER…in prices!” Further down the page, another advert, this one for such improving publications as “Germany’s Debt To Britain” and “The Gospel of the Devil: The Case Against Germany”.

The sour tone continues with gleeful coverage of “Energetic Police Action” in rounding up German, Austrian and Hungarian citizens on page 6. It gets better; there’s extensive reporting on “Life in the Concentration Camps”. Yes, folks, concentration camps were invented by the British Empire to use punitively against the Boers in South Africa. There’s been a lot of new scholarship recently that deals directly with the experience of prisoners taken by Britain and France. While there’s plenty out there on conditions suffered by Allied (and particularly British) prisoners and internees, the subject of prisoners taken by Britain and France has been extremely neglected by contrast, and hopefully I can find time as the war progresses to look into their situation.

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I features a propaganda release by 93 German academics. (Einstein signed the pacifist petition.)

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