Digital First World War Resources: Online Official Histories — The War at Sea and in the Air


In an earlier post, I examined the official histories of the First World War on the land. Obviously, the war on land was only one aspect of the First World War, combat in the air and on the sea played significant roles in the outcome of the war. Indeed, it is in these arenas that some of the most significant innovations occurred, as armed forces learned to make the most effective use of new and untried technologies and how these technologies could be improved. The First World War saw the first use of powered aircraft, which became increasingly central to the prosecution of the war, and saw the first widespread use of submarines to attempt to enforce a wide-ranging blockade at sea. The official histories produced by each of the belligerents provide important sources for these aspects of the war.

With the largest navy in the world in 1914, Great Britain took the undisputed lead in Entente naval operations during the First World War. If the British official history of the war on land is hard to come by in electronic form, the same cannot be said about the corresponding history of the Royal Navy. The Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence was also responsible for the official histories of Britain’s effort at sea and in the air. The writing of the official account of the Royal Navy’s contribution to the war initially fell to the renowned naval historian and theorist Sir Julian Corbett, but was finished after Corbett’s death by Sir Henry Newbolt. The first of the five volumes of the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Naval Operations appeared in 1920 with the last published in 1931. The first four volumes of this series are available to be read online or downloaded. Naval Operations can be supplemented by the Admiralty Staff monographs, which were compiled during the Interwar period and cover various engagements and campaigns of the Royal Navy. The Royal Australian Navy has made available the first 19 volumes for download.

Other useful additions to Naval Operations are the British official histories covering trade during the war. The first volume of C.Ernest Fayle’s 3-volume series Seaborne Trade (1920-1924) is available to download. Additionally, two volumes of The Merchant Navy (1924-1929) by Sir Archibald Hurd are also free to download or read online.

As with the war on land, forces from the British Empire also contributed to the war at sea. Arthur Wilberforce Jose, a close friend of Charles E.W. Bean, was chosen to write the official history of the Royal Australian Navy during the First World War. After a torturous process of getting the volume through the censors, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918 was finally published in 1928 as volume nine of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume can be read online or download in parts from the Australian War Memorial website. In 1962, Gilbert Tucker produced the first volume of an official history of Canada’s naval services, which covers the First World War period. The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History Vol I: Origins and Early Years is free to download as a pdf from the National Defence and the Canadian Forces website.

Much like the US Army, in the Interwar period, the US Navy remained short of funds to compile an official history of its actions in the First World War. Lacking a large-scale official history, the Historical Section of the Navy Department produced four short volumes between 1920 and 1923, which are useful sources on US naval activity in the war, some of which are available online: German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada; The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities; The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France; and The American Naval Planning Section London.

The official history of the German navy’s war at sea is even more extensive than the Royal Navy’s history. During the Interwar period, the Marine-Archiv under the direction of Vizeadmiral Eberhard von Mantey undertook the publication of twenty-two volumes covering the Reichsmarine’s war as Der Krieg zur See 1914-1918. This was divided into seven different series, some of which are currently available to read online or download: ‘Der Krieg in der Nordsee’ (seven volumes); ‘Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten’ (five volumes); ‘Der Krieg in der Ostsee’ (three volumes); ‘Der Kreuzerkrieg in den ausländischen Gewässern’ (three volumes); ‘Der Krieg in den türkischen Gewässern’ (two volumes); ‘Die Kämpfe der kaiserlichen Marine in den deutschen Kolonien’ (one volume); and ‘Die Überwasserstreitkräfte und ihre Technik’ (one volume). Unfortunately, the volumes covering some of the most interesting aspects of the war at sea – the German submarine campaign and the battle of Jutland, for example – are not available online.

Great Britain emerged from the First World War with the only independent air force. The creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 meant that there was a strong institutional drive to produce a high-quality official history of the role of the air forces in the First World War. All six volumes of The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force are available online for reading or downloading. This series, published between 1922 and 1937, was begun by Sir Walter Raleigh and continued by H.A. Jones when Raleigh died in 1922. Its volumes contain useful primary sources in the form of reports and memoranda. The War in the Air can be profitably supplemented with the volume eight of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume entitled The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 was originally published in 1923 by F.M. Cutlack and provides considerable detail on the Australian effort in the air.

Much like the official history of the US Army in the First World War, constraints in the Interwar period, not least the lack of an independent air force, prevented the publication of an official history of US air operations during the war. Nonetheless, like the rest of the army, the US Army Air Corps had collected and produced considerable records of its activities during the war. In 1978, the Office of Air Force History finally produced a four-volume series, The U.S. Air Service in World War I. These four volumes, which are available to download or read online, reproduce reports written during the war and in the Interwar period and provide invaluable sources on US air activities in 1917 and 1918 and include large numbers of orders and reports written during wartime operations.

The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from possessing an independent air force. This fact alone retarded the writing of any official history of German air operations during the war. When the Luftwaffe was formed once Germany had repudiated the Versailles Treaty, the newly formed Reichsluftfahrtministerium began writing an official history of the German air activities during the war, entitled Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte von ihrer Entstehung bis zum Ende des Weltkrieges 1918. However, the Second World War and German defeat prevented the completion of this project and only four volumes of this series were published between 1941 and 1943. None of these appear to be readily available online. The closest there is to an official history of the German air effort in the war is Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte im Weltkriege edited by Georg Paul Neumann and published in 1920. This 617-page volume draws on official records and provides a useful source in the absence of the official history. An English-language translation of portions of this work was done by J.E. Gurdon in 1921 and published as a much-shorter The German Air Force in the Great War.

Like all sources, the official histories discussed here and in my previous post have their strengths and weaknesses for historians. However, like the increasing availability of archival material online discussed in an earlier post, these digital sources open new research possibilities for historians of the First World War. The ready availability of these histories should allow for a deeper understanding of the operational side of the war from a comparative perspective.

As with my previous posts on digital First World War resources, if you know of any I have left off this list, please let me know via the comments below. Once comments come in, I will update this and previous posts to reflect these.

Reconsidering US Marine Corps Involvement in the Vietnam War


In the 50 years since US Marines first landed at Da Nang on the morning of 8 March 1965, the history of their involvement in the Vietnam War has been one of the most misunderstood and sometimes contentious topics in modern military history. In most cases historians assert that the Marines had neither a clear understanding of the conflict nor the American military strategy to contain the spread of Communism in South Vietnam. By extension, the Marines’ involvement from 1965 to 1968 is often depicted as a series of unplanned and isolated events, demonstrating a divide between the Marines’ long-term vision and operational approach and the overall American military strategy in Vietnam. This interpretation, whilst enduring, has come to obscure the centrality of the Marines’ approach to implementing American strategy.

The landings at Da Nang, exemplify this problem. Nearly every study on American military intervention in South Vietnam opens with the Marines seizing Red Beach just outside Da Nang before quickly moving inland. Historians describe the landing as a hastily organized operation, conducted with insufficient regard to broader strategic requirements. Mike Gravel’s Pentagon Papers is typical in this regard:

 The landing of the Marines at Da Nang … represented a major decision made without much fanfare – and without much planning. Whereas the decision to begin bombing North Vietnam was the product of a year’s discussion, debate, and a lot of paper, and whereas the consideration of pacification policies reached talmudic proportions over the years, this decision created less than a ripple.

Yet, whilst the insurgency around Da Nang had intensified only weeks before the landing, senior American military officials had already been decided to land Marines before circumstances created an impulse for immediate action. This can be seen in the numerous plans developed in the preceding months and years.The only difference between these plans and the actual landing were the political and security conditions prompting intervention and the degree of intervention required. Moreover, Da Nang was a key strategic location within the context of the broader campaign. The city was a principal beachhead and major entry and pivot point for American combat forces in the northern provinces. Its situation placed it second only to Saigon in terms of political and military significance and the city was also an economic hub and the epic-center of the insurgency in the country’s northern region. Yet, despite access to recently declassified operation plans and planning documents, historians have yet adequately to explore the tactical and operational logic behind landing Marines at Da Nang and the landing’s connection to the Marines’ plan to carrying out the American military strategy in the northern provinces.

A second example is the misinterpretation presented by historians regarding the decision to assign the responsibility of containing Communism and defeating Communist forces in the northern provinces to the Marines. It of charged that the imminent threat of invasion posed by several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions monitoring the NLF’s progress from just across the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam created a need for a larger and more conventional US Army force, instead of Marines, to deter the NVA. However, the geography of the northern provinces was more suited for a lighter and more agile amphibious force, a fact keenly appreciated by senior commanders. Thus, far from the Marines’ naturally assuming responsibility for the northern provinces after the Da Nang landing because there was already a small Marine advisory presence there, the northern provinces were always the intended area of operations for the Marines even before they moved into that area in 1962. Here, again, the Corps’ actions supported overall US military strategy.

A third and even more disconcerting misinterpretation is that of the Marines’ operational approach after the Da Nang landing and commitment to the northern provinces. Their plan from the very start consisted of a gradual and deliberate build-up of air, ground, and logistics forces, first along the coast within the beachheads or “amphibious enclaves” and then into the interior. The movement into the interior consisted of a methodical expansion of the beachheads. The Communists’ reaction, the progress of pacification, and the reliability of intelligence dictated the speed in which the expansion occurred. Their operational approach focused on each aspect of the operational environment the Marines expected to confront in the northern provinces.

Not long after landing at Da Nang, the Marines began a firsthand study of the operational environment to validate their original assessment and to address their immediate tactical and operational concerns. These studies validated the initial plan. However, the operational environment created new tensions. The array of Communist forces, and more precisely the NVA positioned within striking distance of the northern provinces compelled the Marines to keep in mind the potential for general, or big unit war, even though the environment suggested a limited war. Any plan to win the trust of the people and defeat the insurgency obviously had to include aggressive small unit actions and a pacifying methodology simply due to the operational environment. Nevertheless, after winning the trust of the people, what were the Marines to do about the well-organized and equipped insurgent main forces and the NVA? Defeating both required a larger general purpose force capable of waging a big unit war more in common with general war. The Marines devised a “balanced” operational approach to expanding their beachheads and deliberately deployed air and ground forces to not only meet any potential threat, they did so to aggressively and purposely engage all threats.

These conflicting requirements are not acknowledged or fully understood in the existing scholarship. As Neil Sheehan has claimed:

There was a school of pacification strategists within the upper ranks of the Marine Corps because of its institutional history. The decades of pre-World War II pacifying in Central America and the Caribbean, codified in the Corps’ Small Wars Manual, were a strategic precedent which ruled that wars like Vietnam were wars of pacification. The Marines had adopted an approach that emphasized pacification over big unit battles.

Sheehan’s perspective on the Marines’ approach is misleading and inaccurate. The Marines, clearly influenced by their history, organizational thinking, and doctrine deliberately designed a flexible approach to carry out small unit actions against insurgents and to implement pacification programs for the people while at the same time recognizing the conventional threat presented by the NVA and as outlined in military plans. To cope with the multiple threats and complexities presented by the operational environment of the northern provinces the Marines knowingly incorporated big unit war in their approach to take on the larger and more capable NLF and NVA formations. Their approach required a deep appreciation of the American military strategy for South Vietnam, the operational environment, and a sensible application of all aspects of military power. Countless studies on the war suggest the Marines’ own misunderstanding of the conflict and the operational environment and their lack of an appreciation for the operational art of war and military strategy led them to design an incompatible and fragmented approach centered on a limited defensive strategy when, in fact they envisioned the need for big unit war.

The historiography of the Vietnam War thus mischaracterize the Marine Corps involvement in the northern provinces. Adding to the confusion is the Marine Corps’ own official history, which fails to place the Da Nang landing in its proper context, explain why the Marines were in the northern provinces, and even argues that although the Marines did indeed engage in big unit war; they did so only as a second thought and after ordered to against their better tactical judgement. While a correlation can be made between these misunderstandings and limited access to sensitive and classified documents and official reports, this nonetheless calls into question the full body of literature responsible for enabling the decades of unchallenged assumptions and imprecise conclusions plaguing our understanding of the war. Why Da Nang? Why Marines? Why the northern provinces? Why did the Marines fight as they did in the northern provinces? Until historians accurately depict the Marines’ involvement, the confusion and misunderstandings will persist.

About the Author: LtCol Nevgloski, assigned as the operations officer of The Basic School School, Quantico, VA, is completing his doctoral thesis on the US Marine Corps planning for Vietnam in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Image: Marines from Battalion Landing Team 3/9 coming ashore at RED Beach 2 northwest of Da Nang on 8 March 1965, via Wikipedia.

Digital First World War Resources: Online Official Histories — The War on Land


In a recent post, I examined the growing availability of governmental archival sources covering the First World War. In this, I want to look at the increasing number of official histories of the war that are becoming available online. In this post, I will concentrate on texts covering land operations. I will cover operations on sea and in the air in a separate post. Throughout the Interwar period into the post-Second World War period, the governments of most of the belligerents produced multi-volume series of histories covering operations during the First World War. These histories are not without their problems; Marcus Pöhlmann has given us an excellent analysis of the biases of the writers of the German official history and Andrew Green has examined the writers of the British official history. Despite issues identified in these assessments, official histories still provide invaluable sources for historians of the war: Written with full access to official and unofficial sources and often in close conjunction with key wartime leaders, official histories often give us insights we are unable to reconstruct with the sources available today. Additionally, they generally provide some of the most definitive operational histories of the war’s battles and campaigns.

The most extensive official history of the war was produced by France. Les armée française dans la grande guerre was produced by the Service historique of the French general staff between 1922 and 1938. This massive series runs to some 104 individual volumes. It is divided into different parts (tomes), with each tome consisting of multiple text volumes providing a narrative and analysis of operations (précis) throughout the war. These volumes are supported by numerous volumes of annexes that reproduce key orders, reports, and separate cases of maps. An example of the scale of this history can be seen in the first tome, which covers the war of movement up to mid-November 1914. This tome has four volumes of narrative and analysis with eleven volumes of annexes and eight cases of maps. The narrative volumes of this tome alone run to some 3,430 pages.

Given the size of this history, these volumes have generally only been available in a few major research libraries. Thanks to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we now have online access to these invaluable volumes. On their website Gallica, the précis and annexes of Les armée française dans la grande guerre can be read and downloaded as pdfs. Moreover, these pdfs have the advantage of being searchable, which is especially welcome since there is no index for the series. Individual volumes aren’t always easy to locate on Gallica and some are misidentified, but a very helpful list of each volume and annex, along with links to each, can be found here.

While perhaps not as extensive as the French official history of the war, the contribution of the forces of the British Empire have also been well covered by official histories. Between 1923 and 1949, the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence produced a large number of volumes under the title History of the Great War based on Official Documents: Military Operations covering Britain’s roll in the war on land, including fourteen volumes of narrative covering the Western Front and eleven dealing with other fronts. Sir James E. Edmonds took the lead in compiling these volumes. While many of these have been reprinted and many are available to purchase electronically on DVD, only the text volume one covering operations from the outbreak of the war till October 1914 is available to download without cost. (Volume 2 of 1914 used to be available on archive.org, but appears to have been taken down.)

In addition to the volumes covering operations during the war, the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence also published a number of series relevant to historians of the war. The Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914-1920, published in 1922, provides an invaluable source of all manner of topics related to the British involvement in the war, from casualties to size of the armed forces at different points in the war. Principle Events, 1914-1918 gives a useful chronology of the war from the British perspective. A.M. Henniker’s Transportation on the Western Front, which was published in 1937, also provides important information about the British logistical effort during the war.

Of course, the British experience of the war was not confined to troops purely from the British Isles. Though many might often have been first generation migrants, the constituent parts of the British Empire also played a key role in the course of the war. Under the direction of the noted war correspondent Charles E. W. Bean, the Australians produced twelve volumes covering the Australian contribution to the war — The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. The first seven volumes cover land campaigns from Gallipoli to the end of the war on the Western Front, and the other volumes examine the role of the Australian Flying Corps and the Royal Australian Navy. Digital copies of these volumes have been made available for download from the Australian War Memorial. Each volume has been broken down into sections of smaller pdf files, and these can be downloaded from the Australian War Memorial website.

The New Zealand contribution to military operations in the First World War is cover by four volumes of official histories. Major Fred Waite published The New Zealanders at Gallipoli in 1921; Col. Hugh Stewart published The New Zealand Division 1916-1919: The New Zealanders in France in 1922; in 1922, Sinai and Palestine was published by Lt Col C.G. Powles; and finally Lt H.T.B. Drew published The War Effort of New Zealand in 1923. A number of other volumes covered the artillery and engineers in the war. All of these, as well as some regimental histories, can be read online through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection run by the Victoria University of Wellington.

The large Indian participation in the First World War was covered in a single volume entitled India’s Contribution to the Great War published by the Government of India in 1923. This is now available to read on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts collection.

Although no where near as extensive, the official history of the Canadian army in the First World War is another useful source for historians of operations on the Western Front. In the Interwar period, the Historical Section of the General Staff of the Canadian army had begun work on a planned eight-volume history of the war. However, only one volume of narrative and one volume of annexes and maps had been published by the outbreak of the Second World War. Col. A. Fortescue Duguid published the first volume of the Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-1919, which covered August 1914 to September 1915, in 1938. After the Second World War, this project was abandoned, but a large, single-volume work entitled Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 was published in 1964 by Col. G.W.L. Nicholson of the Canadian Army Historical Branch. This volume covers the Canadian army’s participation in the war from mobilisation to demobilisation. Both versions of the Canadian official histories are free to download as pdfs from the Canadian National Defence and the Canadian Forces website.

Although the United States only entered the war in 1917, the official history produced by the US government provides a great deal of significant material. In 1918, the US Army organised a Historical Section at the Army War College to write a history of the American Expeditionary Forces in the war. However, budget restrictions prevented this from getting off the ground. The Historical Section, however, had collected enormous quantities of documents to write this history, and in 1948, many of these documents were published in a seventeen-volume series entitled, United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919. This series was republished by the US Army’s Center of Military History in 1988, and the volumes of this version are available for download from the Center of Military History website. Although this series does not provide a narrative of AEF operations, the orders and reports reproduced in these volumes come from US, British, and French units, providing easy access to a good range of primary material covering training, lessons, and operations in the last two years of the war. Along side the Allied documents, the series also often provides German documents in translation. Some of these German documents were captured during the war, but many were provided by the team of US researchers who worked in the Reichsarchiv during the 1920s and 1930s. More ‘official’ information about the US contribution to the war can also be found in Col Leonard P. Ayres’ The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary published by the US Army General Staff in 1919.

The military efforts of the Central Powers are also well covered in official histories. The task of writing the German official account fell to the Reichsarchiv, comprised of former officers from the pre-war General Staff’s Historical Section. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, these authors published twelve volumes of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Die militärischen Operationen zu Lande, covering Germany’s military operations till late 1917. Two further volumes covering operations in 1917 and 1918 were ready for publication in 1942 and 1944, but German defeat in the Second World War prevented their publication until 1956. The twelve volumes published before 1939 have been easy to purchase secondhand, but the final two volumes published in the 1950s have been rare, even in major research libraries. Fortunately, the Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich has recently digitised all fourteen volumes, which are available for download or to be read online. A warning about these: The pdf files of the individual volumes are extremely large and are prone to download problems. One of the reasons for the size of these digital files is the quality of the pdfs. These are sharp and the included maps are in colour, which makes them very useful.

The Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich has also digitised and made available for download 22 volumes of the Schlachten des Weltkrieges series. In total, 36 volumes were published in this series, and these volumes covered individual battles throughout the First World War. While not ‘official’ histories, these were written with the support of the Reichsarchiv and, indeed, sometimes by Reichsarchiv authors. The authors of these volumes had access to now-lost official army records held in the Reichsarchiv. Despite this, the quality of these volumes varies enormously. The best are high quality histories of individual battles; the worst are little more than ‘boy’s own’ accounts of the battles. Nonetheless, this series is a valuable source for researchers of German operations of the war, particularly as the volumes provide welcome detail on German battles and campaigns lacking in some of the later volumes of Der Weltkrieg.

In some ways the authors of the German official history of the First World War were fortunate compared to their erstwhile allies. Although Germany may have been reduced in size and power by its defeat in the war, at least it maintained sovereignty and integrity over most of its territory and governmental institutions. The same cannot be said for the Austrians, whose empire was dismembered by the Treaty of Saint-Germain. Nonetheless, the new government of the Republic of Austria embarked on the production of an official history of the Austro-Hungarian contribution to the First World War. Between 1930 and 1939, the Austrian Kriegsarchiv under the direction of Edmund Glaise-Horstenau published seven volumes of Österreich-Ungarns Letzter Krieg, 1914-1918 chronicling the ‘last war’ of this venerable empire. Digital copies of these seven volumes have again been made available by the Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich. An English-language translation of this series done by Stella Hanna is also available for download. This site also has copies of the maps and other documents held in the annexes to the text volumes. I have not checked the accuracy of the English translation against the German text.

This post has already gone on far longer than anticipated. In a following post, I will examine some of the official histories of the war in the air and on the sea, as well as those that cover the medical side of the war. In the meantime, if you know of sources I have missed, please add them to the comments below. I will endeavour to update this post when others have added additional sources on the First World War on land that I have left off.

Image: Informal portrait of Charles E. W. Bean working on official files in his Victoria Barracks office during the writing of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. The files on his desk are probably the Operations Files, 1914-18 War, that were prepared by the army between 1925 and 1930 and are now held by the Australian War Memorial as AWM 26. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The First Battle of Ypres and Problem of Counting Casualties


On a recent staff ride to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, I had occasion to discuss the 1st battle of Ypres, or the 1st and 2nd battles of Flanders as the German army named the events from 19 October to 22 November 1914. One striking aspect of my research into the fighting was the disparity between the German casualty numbers cited by different sources. Volume 2 of the British official history of the war puts German casualties from 15 October to 24 November at 134, 315. Volumes 5 and 6 of the German official history put total losses of the 4th and 6th Armies at 103,500 between 15 October and 18 November. Although the German official history’s figures cover a period a week shorter than that of the British official history, this alone cannot explain the 30,815 difference – Major fighting in Flanders, if not local attacks, was all but over by 18 November.

At first glance, the differences in numbers might not seem a particularly significant thing, but the discrepancies in these statistics are important for several reasons.

First, the battles in 1914 around what would become the Ypres salient developed into important myths for both the British and the Germans. From the German side, the so-called ‘Kindermord bei Ypren,’ or ‘slaughter of the innocents at Ypres,’ quickly entered the social and cultural consciousness. This myth focused around the large numbers of supposed ‘war volunteers’ who marched to war at Ypres with more enthusiasm than tactical sense and whose advance while singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ was brought to a murderous halt by the rapid fire of their better-trained British opponents. Although later historians, not least Karl Unruh, have systematically dismantled this myth, it was used during and after the war, particularly by the Nazis, to rally support for the war and to show the unity of a federal Germany. The death of so many young ‘volunteers’ further symbolized the sacrifices ordinary Germans were willing to make for the Fatherland.

From the British side, the 1st battle of Ypres was also an iconic experience. The battle represented the destruction of the old British army, which the British official history stated as being ‘gone beyond recall’ by the end of November 1914. The British calculated that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had suffered 58,155 killed, wounded, and missing between 14 October and 30 November. In other words, almost two-thirds of the casualties suffered by the BEF in the 1914 campaign had occurred during the battles around Ypres. The myth of the small, but plucky BEF holding off an enemy vastly superior in number, and at the same time inflicting a disproportionate number of casualties on their foe, is a powerful part of British memory of the battle.

In these twin myths of German sacrifice and of British bravery, the numbers of casualties mattered. For the British, the defence of the ‘immortal salient’ of Ypres had to be worth the high cost. Having seemingly inflicted twice the number of casualties, the BEF could be seen to have performed to the highest standards. The ratio of casualties also suggested how the relatively small BEF faced an enemy superior in numbers, if not in quality. This made the BEF’s destruction all the more heroic.

The second thing the difference in figures demonstrates is the challenges in comparing statistics between armies within battles, particularly in the First World War. The German figures cover losses of the 4th and 6th Armies, and these two armies conducted offensives in October and November 1914 between Arras in the south and the Channel coast in the north. Indeed, the Schwerpunkt of the 4th Army’s attacks for much of October was around Dixmuide, where the III Reserve Corps attempted to break through the Belgian and French defensive line along the Iser. In other words, fighting around the Ypres salient was only a relatively small part of a broader German offensive during this period – hence the German term for the battle, the battle of Flanders. The figures given by the British official history imply, if not state explicitly, that the German losses were inflicted during the battle around the Ypres salient, rather than the larger scale of the German offensive. Unsurprisingly, the British official history, and many subsequent histories of the battle, have focused on British involvement, but this has tended to obscure the bigger picture that provides crucial context for the fighting around the Ypres salient.

Another challenge we can see in comparing statistics for the battle of Ypres/Flanders applies equally to all battles during the First World War: How casualties were recorded differed greatly between armies, within armies, and across time. Again, several issues are apparent here. First, during the war, men who were not present after a battle were usually listed as ‘missing’ on casualty returns immediately after a battle. Some of these men were simply ‘lost’ and reappeared with their units after a period of time. Some had been captured by the enemy. Some had been killed and might be identified later. Some might never be found. Thus, how these men were listed as statistics varied across different casualty reporting periods.

Second, different units reported casualties differently as well. In some units, lightly wounded that remained with the unit were counted as wounded, in other units they were not. This could create large differences in casualty figures within armies, let alone between armies.

Finally, compiling an accurate count of casualties in the early stages of the war proved immensely difficult for later historians due to incomplete records. The German official medical history of the war published in 1934, the Sanitätsberichte über das Deutsche Heer (Deutsches Feld- und Besatzungsheer) im Weltkriege 1914/18, noted that the 10-day and/or monthly casualty reports from some units in the battle were either non-existent or had important gaps. While there were ways around some of the problems (e.g., using regimental records), guesses had to be made. The destruction of the bulk of the Imperial German army archives in 1944 has made any later investigation impossible. The task may have been easier for the smaller, more cohesive BEF, but undoubtedly gaps would have arose in the chaos of the initial months of the war.

The long and short of this is that calculating battle casualties, particularly in 1914, but also in the rest of the First World War, poses huge problems for historians. The existing sources are simply too variable to allow an accurate picture. The inaccuracy in the sources means that debates over who ‘won’ or ‘lost’ a particular battle in the First World War based on numbers of relative casualties rates are statistically futile. The variation, though, has allowed subsequent historians to pick and choose numbers that fit their arguments. In telling the tale of the outcome of the First World War all too often ideology has trumped historical accuracy.

Photo: Soldiers from the German, British, French, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Canadian armies salute the German fallen at Langemarck Cemetery, 8 September 2014, during Operation Reflect. © Robert T. Foley