Since August of 1914, the major powers of Europe had been at war with one another. In Western Europe, Germany had struck the first blow by overrunning Belgium and invading France. French and English troops halted the German advance and the conflict bogged down into trench warfare. In Eastern Europe, Germany and its ally Austria squared off against Tsarist Russia. The war extended against Italy, and in the Caucuses Mountains and the Middle East with the Ottoman Turks. But the scenes of the bloodiest fighting were on the Western Front.
In 1917, Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, conceived a plan for a massive offensive to break the German lines. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was wary of Haig’s plan and the casualties it would inevitable produce. By the spring of 1917, some 250,000 British soldiers had been killed in action. For the sake of comparison, consider how much the American public’s support for the war in Iraq has waned after some 2,900 dead. Adding to Lloyd George’s hesitation, the French army in 1917 had been crippled by mutinies and would be unable to provide much assistance to Haig’s proposed offensive. But while the Virgin Mary was busy speaking to children in the Portuguese countryside in order to further world peace, Lloyd George relented in the face of Haig’s obstinacy. And so the stage was set for one of the bloodiest battles of World War One.
The main objective of Haig’s offensive was to seize the high ground held by the German army in Flanders. In order to overcome the well fortified German positions, Haig relied on massive artillery barrages to smash the German forward positions. As military historian John Keegan describes it in his book “The First World War”, Haig’s “first objectives had been fixed six thousand yards away from the British start line, within supporting field-gun range. Once those had been taken, the artillery was to be moved forward and the process recommenced, until, bit by bit, the German defenses had been chewed through, the enemy’s reserves destroyed, and a way opened to the undefended rear area.”
After fifteen days of bombardment and the firing of FOUR MILLION shells, the Second and Fifth British armies attacked at 3:50 A.M. on July 31, 1917. Writes Keegan, “By late morning…the familiar breakdown of communication between infantry and guns had occurred; cables everywhere were cut, low cloud cover prevented aerial observation” and the only news of the assault “was by runners, who sometimes took hours to get back, if indeed they ever did.”
At two in the afternoon, the Germans counterattacked and beat back the British troops. To add to their misery, in addition to the rain of German artillery shells, the summer rains began to fall and turned the dry earth to mud. The British persisted in their offensive as the rain continued to fall. On August 4, a British artillery commander wrote “The ground is churned up to a depth of ten feet and is the consistency of porridge…the middle of the shell craters are so soft that one might sink out of sight.” In the aftermath of another attack on August 27, a British officer named Edwin Vaughan described how “dozens of men with serious wounds…crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them, and powerless to move, they were slowly drowning.”
All throughout the summer of 1917, the attacks continued. In September, the British army inched forward bit by bit with their bite and hold strategy. But the Germans adapted to the British tactics. Knowing that massing their troops in the front lines would simply expose them to death from the British artillery, the German general Erich Ludendorff ordered that the forward positions should be thinly manned, with the bulk of the army kept to the rear to counter-attack. Thus a pattern would develop. The British artillery would shell the German forward positions. The British attackers would occupy the German forward positions. The German artillery would then shell the British attackers and the Germans would counter-attack and reoccupy the forward positions.
By mid-October, the British army had been fought-out, and Haig had to rely on the relatively unscathed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC. On October 12, 1917, the ANZAC troops were ordered to take the remains of the town of Passchendaele. Writes Keegan, “Caught in front and flank by machine gun fire, the ANZACs eventually retreated to the positions from which they had started their advance on that sodden day. So wet was the ground that shells from their supporting artillery buried themselves in the mud without exploding, and the New Zealanders alone suffered nearly three thousand casualties in attempting to pass through uncut wire.”
The next day, October 13, the “Miracle of the Sun”, was allegedly witnessed by approximately 70,000 people in Portugal. It would be the last of the Fatima visions. General Haig’s Flanders offensive would continue for another month, coming to an end on November 10, 1917. In considering the arguments pro and con over the offensive, called the Third Battle of Ypres, Keegan writes, “What is unarguable is that nearly seventy thousand of [Haig’s] soldiers had been killed in the muddy wastes of the Ypres battlefield and more than 170,000 wounded. The Germans may have suffered worse - statistical disputes make the argument pointless - but, while the British had given their all, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had another army in Russia with which to begin the war in the West all over again.”
In my two part series on Noah’s Ark, I described God’s unleashing of a destructive flood as punishing humanity the Rube Goldberg way. The Fatima visions could be described as God trying save humanity the Rube Goldberg way. It takes quite a feat of mental compartmentalization for ardent Catholics to believe that the Virgin Mary’s alleged appearance to children in rural Portugal was a beautiful and miraculous event while hundreds of thousands of young men were killed on the battlefield of Flanders. Why didn’t the Virgin Mary appear to General Haig and General Ludendorff, or Lloyd George and Kaiser Wilhelm? Why didn’t the Miracle of the Sun happen over Passchendaele on October 12, thereby potentially saving the lives of thousands of people, rather than dazzling tens of thousands of people a day later in a country far removed from the conflict? A Supreme Being who makes the sun dance around in the sky does not impress me. A Supreme Being who stops the pointless slaughter of tens of thousands of human beings? Now that would be a miracle that deserved remembering with a candle.