War history: Walk in the footprints of the enemy and understand both sides of the war
- Credit: Archant
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, discusses the importance of understanding the view from both sides of the battlefield.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking at the First World War just from our own national perspective. This is also true of almost all aspects of military history. We naturally want to know more about our own nation, regiment, town or, most commonly, our own family. There is nothing unusual about this desire to know more and the tendency to take sides with your own nation.
However, if we really want to understand the Western Front, we need to metaphorically get out of our trenches, walk across no man’s land and look back, viewing the British experience from the fire step of the German trenches opposite.
The German viewpoint is deliberately included in our Ypres Salient day excursion itineraries; we visit the only German war cemetery in the area, at Langemark. The architecture and ethos of the cemetery contrasts dramatically with the familiar feel of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites.
Most British visitors comment on the stark contrast between Langemark and the 150 CWGC cemeteries and memorials in the countryside around Ypres. The design and layout of Langemark never fails to stimulate a lively discussion, even before we get into the battles that took place in the surrounding fields.
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Langemark is cared for by the German counterpart to the CWGC, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge – The German People’s Organisation for the care of War Graves. Within the cemetery is a multitude of stories embedded in the oak-panelled walls and flat headstones that mark the resting places of 44,292 German soldiers and, by twist of fate, a pair of British Tommies entombed alongside their opponents.
The cemetery also contains the body of Lieutenant Werner Voss, one of the most charismatic and, at the time of his death, highest-scoring fighter aces of the German Air Service. His story does not end with a special memorial or even an individual headstone; he is buried almost anonymously among thousands of German soldiers in a mass grave close to the entrance.
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The Langemark site was assured an enduring place in German history when Adolf Hitler wrote of the 1914 Battle of Langemark in his book Mein Kampf; he even falsely claimed to have fought in the battle. Hitler named the huge bell tower at the Berlin Olympic Stadium the Langemark Tower.
Such was the importance of Langemark and the mythology surrounding it that Hitler returned to visit the site soon after his victorious Blitzkrieg campaign of 1940. We examine the reasons for this prominence during our visit to Langemark.
• The next guided day trip to the Ypres Salient departs from Diss, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket on Wednesday, April 30. Langemark cemetery will feature as part of the itinerary. For full details, visit www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary