Tag Archives: 1914

Great War Wednesday: Heads Up

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Zouave in 1914 kit.

It’s a safe bet to say no one was ready for World War I. The last time Europe erupted in a continent-wide conflagration, a Corsican artillery corporal was the one who lit the flame. One hundred years of relative peace saw great progress in weapons technology, but other areas lagged conspicuously far behind. Nowhere on the battlefield was the state of general unpreparedness more obvious than the uniforms all the combatants marched off to war clothed in.

The French cavalry famously wore uniforms almost indistinguishable from those Napoleon’s famous cuirassiers had worn on the field at Waterloo. The French also fielded several of their Zouaves regiments still wearing their distinctive brilliant red flowing pantaloons in 1914 and 1915.

For their part, the British had learned from the Zulu Wars and the two Boer Wars how foolish their traditional bright red coats were on even a semi-modern battlefield. As a result of heavy casualties in those engagements, especially to officers, they wisely marched off to the Western Front wearing khaki colored kits. Unfortunately, while khaki is a marvelous camouflage in the Transvaal of Africa, it sticks out like a duck in a hen coop on the green fields of Flanders.

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The wool Kepi hat, standard issue 1914-1916

Brightly colored uniforms aside, all the combatants shared one flaw in their strategy for protecting their soldiers — no one wore helmets. Helmets or “helms” had once been the crowning piece of any worthy soldier’s kit. Knights of course wore elaborate face-encompassing tubs of metal, but even the lowliest archer or pikeman would have some sort of iron or at least boiled leather pot to guard his pate.

Unfortunately, the advent of gunpowder spelled the doom of the helmet. Commanders reasoned, quite logically, that any helm capable of stopping a bullet would prove entirely too heavy and cumbersome for soldiers to wear with any regularity. As a result, the substantial protective headgear gave way to more elaborately colored and beplumed “shakos” which enabled generals to keep track of their troops in the smoke and fog of battle. For 200 years, the helmet, if it was worn at all, was a ceremonial headpiece at best. So things stood at the outset of the Great War as the French marched off in their traditional white wool “kepis” while the Brits wore soft flannel field caps into the early battles.

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The distinctly Prussian pickelhaub

By the middle of 1915, however, trench warfare had set in in earnest and officers began noticing a new type of injury causing great casualties among the men. Whenever the massive field guns’ shells exploded near the lines, they would fling great plumes of rock, soil, and shrapnel into the air — often to great heights. As men like Galileo and Newton proved throughout the centuries, what went up was going to come down . . . HARD. A man might not be harmed in the least by the blast from a Bertha, but the fist sized rock she kicked up falling from a quarter of a mile high onto his cute little kepi would do a number on the old brain pan. Helmets started making a rapid comeback.

The Germans were at the forefront of helmet development having been the only power to enter the war with some semblance of one already — the iconic “pickelhaub” with its prominent central spike. The spiked helm was more for looks, however, so the Germans began development on a three piece forged helmet with a modest visor and a defined skirt at the back protecting the wearer’s neck. This became the famous “stahlhelm” which would serve with distinction throughout the Great War and later be a symbol of the Nazi regime during World War 2.

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A “B” pattern Brodie helmet.

Across the Channel, the British developed the Brodie Helmet which became the stereotypical look of the British infantry “Tommies” during the War. The Brodie, unlike the stahlhelm was stamped from a single piece of steel instead of being meticulous fitted together. As a result, the Brodie could be turned out in much greater numbers at a greater rate enabling the British Expeditionary Force to be fully fitted out with helmets before any other army.

The Brodie was a practical design which hearkened back to medieval yeomen’s helmets. It was a shallow dome covering the head and sported a wide brim all the way round designed to shield the neck and face from falling debris in the trenches. The first production Brodie helmets had a bit larger brim than the later standard models, but High Command realized through early trials that the wider brim made it difficult for the men to aim their weapons from a prone, or lying down, position. The Brodie would later become the standard helmet for America’s doughboys and dogfaces upon the United State’s entry into the war.

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French Adrian helmet of 1916

Other countries adopted their own versions — with modifications — of the stahlhelm and the Brodie depending on which side they were fighting. The French drug their feet the longest and it was actually the middle of 1916 before they exchanged their useless kepis for their version of the Brodie called the Adrian helmet which had a bit narrower brim but a more rounded cup over the head.

As soon as helmets started appearing in the trenches commanders noticed casualties from falling debris began to decline. In 1914 – middle 1915, the most common fatal injury was from falling projectiles. Once helmets appeared in sizable numbers, those injuries declined by two thirds and fatalities by around half.Of course, like their late medieval forebears, none of the helmets would stop a bullet, but such was not in their design. Instead, they kept the rocks and mound of dirt the guns kicked up from cracking the skulls of the men ducking down in the trenches.

One thing both sides had in common was that, while all of the helmets produced sported chinstraps, they were universally removed, tucked up, strapped over the top of the helm, and basically placed anywhere but fastened securely below one’s chin. The reason for this reluctance to wear one’s helmet fastened with its chinstrap has its roots in battlefield apocrypha. Apparently, someone at sometime, maybe he was English or perhaps Hungarian possibly even Russian, but whoever he was, he saw a comrade decapitated by a shell blast because the overpressure of the blast caught the helmet — securely fastened by the chinstrap — and ripped it from the poor soul’s head taking said head along with it. Something no one seems to ever question is the fact that any shell landing close enough to decapitate a helmet and chinstrap wearing soldier is probably going to be close enough that the helmet is just an afterthought.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s Great War post.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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Great War Wednesday: A Most Perfidous Weapon

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https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02871/Barbed-wire_2871765c.jpgWorld War I was the proving ground for a great number of new weapon systems. Machine guns entered widespread usage. Artillery improved to the pinnacle of its deadliness. Submarines and airplanes made their debut on the big stage, and poison gas wasn’t just for use against tribal natives anymore.

Oddly enough, however, one weapon which, along with the shovel, proved effective beyond belief was never meant to be a weapon at all. It was invented to fill a need on the plains of the United States – a need to limit the freedom of cattle. One doubts Mr. Lucien Smith pictured the tangled bloody moonscaped battlefields of the Western Front when he filed his patent in 1867 for his invention to make fencing in cattle cheaper and less labor intensive, but his brainchild will forever be linked with the hellish killing fields of No-Man’s-Land.

Mr. Smith invented barbed wire.

Barbed wire in essence is two or three strands of wire twisted around each other and at regular intervals, a one to four pointed barb is twisted into the strand creating a single wire with thousands of flesh shredding “barbs” pointing outward. Different patterns cropped up from time to time before the Great War, but mostly they were just variations on this basic theme. At first, the wire had to be twisted by hand and creation of enough for any use was a time consuming process. By the time of World War I, however, giant barbed wire conglomerates like Smith and Glidden Barbed Wire Company had developed machines which turned out thousands of feet of wire each hour. Barbed wire now existed in quantities to make it an efficient battle implement.

The wire would have been effective if great coils of it were simply unstrung between the trenches and in places, this is exactly what happened. Like so much in this war of excess though, if a simple way was good, an overly involved way was much better. What developed was a series of x-shaped uprights spaced a few feet apart. Then, the engineers wove multiple coils of barbed wire over and around each post. The result was a waist or chest high hedge of shining steel that rusted within hours of exposure to the torrential dampness of Flanders.https://i0.wp.com/www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/warpictures/trenches/images-trenches/15-german-stormtroopers-during-attack-gw000.jpg

Barbed wire lay in solid hedges in multiple lines parallel to every trench on the Western Front. Soldiers on the attack would have to pass through those hedges if they had any hope of reaching their objectives. Now, as any of us from Gray Court could tell you, passing over, under, or through a simple five strand “bob wire fence” could be difficult under simple, peaceful circumstances. Inevitably, crawling under would get your pants caught but climbing over risked the staples pulling out of the posts and dropping you across the bottom four strands in quick succession. In modern times, a mishap like that translated into a visit to the ER for a tetanus shot and some stitches; during the Great War, in a time before tetanus shots or even simple antibiotics existed, scratches from this rusty obstacle could mean an agonizing death as any opening in a soldier’s skin welcomed vast quantities of dirt and other filth into his bloodstream.https://i2.wp.com/aboutnicholasii.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/4/6/38466355/6733743_orig.jpg

So soldiers faced an obstacle impossible to maintain a walking pace through which they needed to sprint across in order to avoid machine gun fire, sniper bullets, and bursting shells. It was a thorny problem both sides in the war faced. They would both employ several methods to attempt to overcome the barbed barriers. One of the most straightforward was a thick pair of leather gloves and a hefty set of wire cutters. Unfortunately, commanders found out early on that the man with the gloves and cutters wasn’t given a sunny reception by the other side if they observed him while bent to his task. As a result, most wire cutting missions took place in darkness.

Unfortunately, cutting gaps into the wire often caused more problems than it solved. Since the gaps were the safest places to pass without getting shredded, great congregations of soldiers gravitated towards the gaps. Before they had gotten to the second line of wire, however, the machine gunners on the other side would note where the gaps created bottlenecks and adjusted their withering fire accordingly. In this way, the final state of the soldiers was worse than the first.

Before long, bright men in the high commands decided artillery was the most efficient way to clear the attack corridors of wire. Seems like a good plan, but the execution, like so many plans in this war, proved less than adequate. At first, they would try shrapnel shells to cut the wire. Shrapnel shells are essentially huge shotgun blasts of pellets which exploded and shot downward at the ground . . . very effective on personnel, but, as anyone who has ever tried to shoot a limp rope or wire in twain could have told the commanders, absolutely useless on wire.

When thousands of casualties pointed to the ineffectiveness of shrapnel shells, the commanders switched to regular high explosive munitions. While enough of these projectiles would indeed cut the wire in many places, the sections would sail into the air to land atop one another willy-nilly fashion and instead of nice orderly rows of wire in predictable areas, no-man’s-land became a greater nightmare of shell craters lined with pointy, rusty steel.

For three years, men were swallowed up by the walls of barbed wire. Finally, another invention making its debut in the Great War emerged and removed the terror of wire for all succeeding generations. Barbed wire was doomed as an effective weapon as soon as the first Mark I “Matilda” tanks from Britain lumbered across the fields crushing the coils of wire beneath their treads on the fields of Cambrai.https://i0.wp.com/www.diggerhistory.info/images/tanks/tank-wire.jpg

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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The London Times from January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

“Had he and I but met
      By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
      Right many a nipperkin!

     “But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

     “I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That’s clear enough; although

   “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
   Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
   No other reason why.

    “Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown.”

Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”

Men in their natural state show little inclination to go off and kill one another. The taboo against homicide is so ingrained within us that those who would be soldiers have to undergo desensitization to killing and interestingly enough, one key way of doing this is using violent video games, but that’s a post for another time. As a society we have labels for those who like to kill or enjoy killing or aren’t even bothered by killing. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths or simply “monsters.” Some studies of combat troops have found as many as 1 in 5 soldiers never fired their weapons during battles in which they participated. It seems despite all the sensational novels and television shows, even in the face of The Fall and our broken human natures, enough of God’s image remains within most people to cause severe distaste and discomfort when faced with taking the life of another Image-bearer of our Creator. Few events throughout history show this proclivity towards peace more clearly than the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.

Ever since August, Tommy, Pierre, and Fitz had been killing one another on an industrial scale from the border of Switzerland to the English Channel. What began as a war of movement now degraded into a stagnant morass of trench warfare with misery compounded by machine gun fire. By the time Yuletide came around, men on all sides realized they had been lied to — the war certainly would NOT be over by Christmas. So it was along the Western Front as the troops hunkered down in their muddy trenches on December 24, 1914 and prepared to spend the most miserable Christmas Eve of their lives cold, damp, and utterly devoid of cheer. Then, something changed.

By most accounts, the Germans started the affair up around Ypres by singing Christmas hymns and lighting candles. As the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht” drifted across the shell-pocked moonscape of No-Man’s Land, a few adventuresome Brits climbed atop their trenches to listen and then join in. When they didn’t tumble back into the trench with holes through their heads from snipers, more soldiers climbed out of their burrows to join in the singing.

At some point, accounts say, some German lad attached a bit of white cloth to the top of a small evergreen tree, climbed out of his trench, and walked towards the British.  When he didn’t fall to an Enfield round, more of his comrades joined him. The Brits, realizing this wasn’t a ruse, climbed out and the two erstwhile enemies met in the midst of the barbed wire and shell holes between their trenches.

Their first action was to gather up the dead, some of whom had been lying unattended for weeks, and carry them back to the rear for proper burials. That grim work accomplished, the two groups began some tentative conversations and the spirit of Christmas took over from there. The troops began exchanging small gifts — the English had a surfeit of tobacco; the Germans an abundance of chocolate — so these two commodities rapidly changed hands. Some men exchanged caps or buttons or whatever trinkets seemed to interest the other party. They sang more carols together. In some places up and down the front a game or two of football — soccer for the Yanks — broke out. As the old cliche’ says, “a grand time was had by all.” Then, some hours after the festivities began, it ended. Both sides embraced and returned to their trenches with the knowledge they would soon begin the unsavory work of trying to kill one another anew.

Officers on both sides were appalled by the impromptu ceasefire. They knew actually meeting the enemy and seeing he had a regular face and neither horns nor fangs made killing said “enemy” much more difficult. Orders went up and down the chain of command. The Christmas Truce of 1914 would be the last for the duration of the war. The enlisted were threatened with court-martial or worse should any of them be so silly as to attempt such a humane action ever again. The old men who send the young men to fight and die for the wars the old men started had spoken.

Still, for a brief shining moment in the midst of Satan’s playground, the Prince of Peace reigned supreme. The joy of Christmas stopped the mouths of the artillery and silenced the bark of rifles, if only for a time, proving for anyone who cared to ponder on the topic that peace is stronger than war if only men would embrace the light.

Love y’all and Merry Christmas! Keep those feet clean during these celebrations.

Great War Wednesday: First Battle of Ypres — The Carnage Properly Begins

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The beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall in the Ieper city center.

The little Belgian town of Ieper, more famously known as Ypres, is no stranger to bloodletting. The Germanic tribal ancestors of the town fought Roman raids. The stubborn Flemish bled in a massacre by French troops in the fourteenth century Battle of the Golden Spurs. The War of Spanish Succession and the War of the First Coalition both raged outside the city’s walls.

All the bloodshed of the previous centuries paled however when compared with the series of battles fought here during the First World War. The first of these encounters, called aptly enough The First Battle of Ypres, began on 19 October 1914 and lasted over a month until 22 November 1914. The battle is most notable for being the first of the trench battles which came to symbolize the next three and a half years on the Western Front during the Great War.

Up until First Ypres, battles had been fluid. The German invasion through Belgium into France slowed somewhat at Mons and then halted altogether at The Miracle on the Marne early in September 1914. What followed is now called the “Race to the Sea” where each combatant tried desperately to outflank the other in what was quite literally a race northwest to get to the English Channel, turn the opponent’s flank, and secure a victory. Unfortunately, the race was a tie and the result was The First Battle of Ypres.

In many ways, Ypres became the training ground for the rest of the war and both sides paid in hogsheads of blood for the lessons. First, no one brought enough of anything. The Germans famously claimed the men would be home for Christmas and the French and British had similar overly optimistic assessments of the coming conflict. As a result, men ended up at the front without enough supplies. On the German side, captured Russian and Belgian small arms had to be pressed into service while on the Allied side, the artillery batteries were woefully under armed. Before this battle, doctrine of the day figured a few hundred shells would be expended in the course of a battle. By the time Ypres ended, the generals realized a few hundred shells wouldn’t last an hour. By the end of the war, individual guns were allotted a thousand shells EACH.

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The end of the line of trenches on the Western Front. The top barbed wire is German while the lower strands are Allied. The wire literally runs right into the sea.

As with most of the months long “battles” of the First World War, a detailed analysis is far beyond the scope of my little blog. Thousand page books litter libraries across the land devoted only to this one battle. I would like to note two major outcomes of the First Battle of Ypres, however. First, the battle introduced the trench system to the Western Front. After neither side managed to gain the other’s flank, no one could figure out what to do. Situations like this were somewhat unusual and given the flatness of the coastal terrain and the deadliness of the new machine guns and heavy artillery, both the German and the Allies figured nearly simultaneously the best thing to do would be “dig in.”

Now armies had dug in before. Trenches in warfare were nothing new, per se, but what was new was the scale of trenches developed up and down the front during and after this battle. By the beginning of 1915, an unbroken line of trenches and associated fortifications stretched all the way from the beaches of the English Channel roughly southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland. The saddest commentary of the Great War is probably the best known — those trenches would STAY more or less in a static position for three years during which time hundreds of thousands of men would hurl themselves across No Man’s Land under withering fire with the goal of taking the other side’s trenches. Massive carnage and miniscule territorial gains were the inevitable result each time.

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Cloth Hall circa 1918

The second development of the First Battle of Ypres is the area which became known as the Ypres Salient. This area directly around the ancient town was a “bulge” into the German lines. Vicissitudes of war in the early stages of the battle resulted in the Entente forces holding this one bulge several hundred yards into German territory. While that may seem like a good thing — being far out in the enemy’s lands — it was actually horrible. Because of the bulge of the Salient, the mostly British and Commonwealth troops stationed at the Salient came under fire from THREE sides simultaneously instead of just one. This Ypres Salient endured for the length of the war down to the final German “Hundred Days” offensive in 1918 and it ate men as a hungry cow eats grass.

During the six-week long battle, the British forces lost 58,155 men including the last of the professional army that arrived in August, the French lost 86,237 men and Germany suffered losing 134,315 men. The Belgian army — never large — ceased to exist altogether. Those seem like staggering numbers of dead and wounded and truthfully they are, but despite the ferocity of the First Battle of Ypres, the casualties were quite light when considered beside later battles such as the Somme and Verdun when it became de rigueur to have 50,000 men die in a DAY, not a six-week stretch. Still, it was a small taste of things to come.

That’s all for this episode of Great War Wednesday. Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

 

Great War Wednesday: Belgium Shows Her Backbone

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The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege's forts

The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege’s forts

Germany had been spoiling for a war — with France especially — for over twenty years leading up to World War I. Unfortunately, given her position in the middle of Europe, any war was likely going to be a two-front affair and anyone who studies military history knows two-front wars are the nightmare of any nation’s military intelligentsia. With such a dire prospect looming,  the German military’s High Command, led by mostly Prussian aristocracy (think “Von” this and “Von” that), had developed a plan designed to make a two-front war not only winnable, but relatively simple. Officially, the plan was called Aufmarsch I West but those who study The Great War usually refer to it by the name of its principle designer and call it “The Schlieffen Plan.”

As several libraries worth of books and articles are floating around about the Schlieffen Plan, I’m not going into any great detail here, but the gist of the plan was thus: all along the border with France, Germany would maintain a token force to keep the French honest. Meanwhile, a huge force several armies strong would march from Germany’s heartland through neutral Belgium and come crashing down on the flank of the entire French border. This “sledgehammer head” force would push down all the way to Paris too quickly for the French forces on the border to react, Paris would fall, and France would be knocked out of the war at which point the bulk of German troops would pile on trains and head across France and Germany to engage the Russian Empire’s forces which would be just beginning to mobilize . . . theoretically.

The action would take place so fast and with such precision the British Empire would not have time to field a force and once France fell and Russia was neutralized, Kaiser Wilhelm II was certain his favorite first cousin King of Great Britain George V would figure any attack would be a waste of lives, resources, and –most dear to “a nation of shopkeepers” — money, and the two grandsons of Queen Victoria could divide the Old World amongst themselves. The plan was quite thorough, right down to timetables of trains leaving from thus and such a station and this or that corps arriving at just such spot in France. It was a fantastic plan, theoretically, but German High Command chose to overlook the sage advice of one of their country’s greatest military minds of the previous generation, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who famously said, “No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”

For the Schlieffen Plan to be successful, German forces had to get through neutral Belgium with alacrity. In all the wargaming  and planning leading up to 1914, High Command felt 48 hours would be sufficient to traverse the little country. What’s more, they counted on using Belgian roads, bridges, and railways to speed the sledgehammer head’s advance into the French heartland. Unfortunately for Germany, in all their years of careful planning, they’d failed to let the Belgians know they were expected to lie down and allow the jackbooted German war machine to pass unhindered through their homeland. Germany would pay for that oversight in blood.

On August 1, 1914, Germany sent Belgium a diplomatic ultimatum announcing Germany’s intention of passing through Belgium and demanding the Belgians not resist militarily, leave all bridges and railways intact, and get all civilian traffic off the country’s roads to expedite passage of German soldiers. The Belgian government responded with some awesome variation of “up yours” and proceeded to dynamite all the bridges over the rivers and all the locomotives and tunnels in the country before putting up barriers all over every road leading into Belgium from Germany. Then, the Belgians manned their ring of forts leading into the interior and waited.

As soon as German troops entered the country, Belgian reservists and even some civilians began harassing the columns during their march. Many German soldiers fell to snipers in the thick hedgerows and along the stone walls of the farm country. The first real test of the German war plan came on August 6 when the German forces attacked the heavily fortified city of Liege. Before attacking, German commander General Otto von Emmich sent an envoy to the commander of the forts under a flag of truce. He demanded the Belgians surrender the forts and stand aside. The fortress commander’s name has been forgotten, but his ballsy reply has not, “Frayez-vous le passage, Messieurs!” (“Gentlemen, you must fight your way through!”)

The Germans started the attack with a good old frontal assault figuring the Belgians wouldn’t have the stomach to repel such an attack. They found out it’s pretty easy to stomach any attack when you’re behind two foot thick concrete and steel walls and you’ve got a plethora of machine guns at your disposal. In a surreal scene which was to repeat itself all too many times in the following four years, German soldiers charged uphill at the forts and Belgian machine gun positions opened up on them. Thus the Germans were the first in the war to discover the equalizing power of Mr. Hiram Maxim’s invention.

The gallant Belgians held the German advance stalemated until August 15 knowing all the while help was not coming from France or Britain. They might have held on longer, but on August 12, the Germans brought up huge artillery pieces like 17 inch coastal battery guns via railroad. Once those guns were in place, it was just a matter of time. The forts of Liege were designed to repel any caliber of small arms fire and even the standard field pieces of their era, but the guns the Germans brought to bear were anything but standard. Within hours of setting the guns up, they began raining shells the size of small cars down on the brave defenders. Some of the forts caught fire and those that didn’t had their walls systematically reduced to flat rubble. The Belgians had fought bravely and punched far above their weight in this opening act of the war, but in the end they had no answer for the super-heavy artillery and the country fell to the invaders on August 17, fifteen days longer than the Schliefen Plan demanded.

The Belgian resistance wasn’t in vain. The fifteen days they held out enabled the British Expeditionary Force to land and dig in in good order just across the border and the French had precious time to mobilize reserve forces and move better troops into position to blunt the coming assault. The tiny country of waffles and chocolate may have been overlooked by the German war planners, but they gave their allies a precious commodity in war — time.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!