During October - November 1914 the fighting in the vicinity of Langemarck gave rise to a myth. This myth concerned young students advancing on the enemy during a bayonet charge singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles'. This myth is an exaggeration of what actually happened and its importance.
Hitler included this myth as part of ‘Mein Kampf', which he wrote during 1925. Hitler's Bavarian regiment was probably at Gheluvedt and not at Langemarck and almost certainly did not sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles'. In fact, young men would not actually sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles' as this was not the national anthem. It is also quite unlikely that anyone charging the enemy with fixed bayonets would be able to sing, let alone sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles'.
Why were the armies at Ypres? The "race to the sea" during the early war of movement was an attempt by both sides to outflank the enemy. The German tactics at the time were to take the channel ports and to isolate the BEF. The German Sixth Army was comprised of four Corps of which three were inexperienced reservists or students/school leavers. The newly appointed German Commander-in-Chief, Falkenhayn, hoped that their enthusiasm would outweigh their inexperience. But the BEF was quite strong around Ypres, and the German attacks were not focused enough to punch a hole in the Allied line. Highly motivated but poorly trained German soldiers hurled themselves onto strongly held lines but found the combination of machine gun fire and barbed wire impossible to penetrate. The last phase of the battle (7 -18 November) saw over 25,000 German casualties, one of the highest rates of loss in the war. Evidence of Germans advancing and singing tended to be isolated and was only used as an identifying feature against friendly fire. Actually, the Reservists in 1914 wore caps very similar to those worn by the BEF so friendly fire was not so rare.
Ypres was not taken in 1914 so Falkenhayn and his staff appeared to have created the myth as disinformation in their communiqué from the German High Command on 11 November 1914 (this report was repeated on the front pages of newspapers across the country):
We made good progress yesterday in the Yser section. West of Langemarck young regiments broke forward with the song ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles' against the front line of enemy positions and took them. Approximately 2,000 men of the French infantry line were captured and six machine guns were captured.
Not only was this untrue, the incident referred to took place at Bixchote. Langemarck was chosen as a reference presumably because of his Germanic sounding name. The London Times published a report of the battle on 14 November, 1914, entitled ‘Defeat of the Prussian Guard'. In this report the German attack on Nov 11 was pressed forward with bravery and determination' but the penetration was resisted in spite of three incursions which were repulsed with difficulty.
The Langemarck myth joined the two other great myths of the Great War:
- the enthusiasm in August 1914 for the start of the war;
- and the invincibility of Hindenburg after the Battle of Tannenberg.
(In fact Hindenberg appeared to have created his own myth which led him to being Supreme Commander of the German army in 1916 and President of Germany in 1925.)
The Langemarck myth was kept alive through the Weimar republic as a rallying cry for those who placed their faith in the German spirit. This rhetoric became associated with the conservative right in German politics and became a central platform in the National Socialist literature. By 1932, the so called ‘sacrificial deaths of the students' was referred to by Hitler who claimed to have served at Langemarck.
Why would such a myth like Langemarck be inspired? Early in the war there was a greater tendency to romanticise the fallen men. Directly after the war, the idea of courageous young students being killed in battle inspired a yearning for a lost period of heroism and sacrifice for the Fatherland . But were the casualties so young? Unlikely as only 18% of regiments in the front line contained men under the age of 21. The idea of martyrs fitted with the ‘stab in the back' myth created in 1918. In a lost war with over two million casualties, the idea of young students dying in vain in November 1914 was preferable to the shame of November 1918.
Subsequent events were made to reinforce the myth:
- The date 9 November became symbolically important: it was made Germany Day in 1923 and was the date of Hitler's putsch in Munich 1923.
- From 1933-1944, under the National Socialists, 11 November 11 became Langemark day as a counter to Armistice Day in the West.
- In 1924 the Langemarck memorial was unveiled.
- During 1928 - 32, the Langemarck cemetery was renovated by public subscription with a profile which suggested front line defences; this certainly fitted in with the National Socialist cult of the dead.
- The National socialists continued to use the Langemarck myth of young soldiers betrayed by the aristocracy as a weapon when called for.
- In 1936, a Langemarck Hall was built as part of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Although this hall was pulled down by the Allies in 1945, it was rebuilt in the 1960s.
Reference: this article is based on a talk given by Nick Martin to the Yorkshire Branch of WFA.
Submitted by: Peter J Palmer
Images courtesy Wikimedia.
Image of crosses and the memorial part: Terry A. McDonald - www.luxborealis.com