Manfred von Richtofen won his first aerial combat with Jasta 2 in the skies over Cambrai, France, on 17 September, 1916. Between that day and his death in 1918, he shot down another 79 aircraft – and that figure includes only confirmed kills. If unconfirmed kills are included, his tally may have exceeded 100 kills.
Nor was von Richtofen merely a force to be reckoned with on his own – as leader of the Flying Circus, he and his men killed a total of a total of 644 enemy aircraft. It was at this time that he became known as the Red Baron.
He was eventually shot down himself on April 21, 1918, although who fired the fatal shots has never been confirmed.
Also known as the third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele was an attempt to capture the strategically important village of that name in Belgium. Entente forces led by the British attacked on July 11, 1917, in what would become a long and drawn out struggle. Over the next five months, the battle would become synonymous with the mud in which it was so often fought. It would also be one of the first major land engagements to involve tanks (although only on the Entente side – the first tank vs tank battle did not occur until April the following year).
The battle swung both ways at different times, and some historians even classify it as two battles in a single campaign, with a comparative lull between them. Like many battles in World War One, it has become emblematic of the pointlessness and brutality of war. The battle finally ended on November 10, 1917, with the fall of Passchendaele to Canadian forces. More than 560,000 soldiers were killed in total, with the German losses exceeding the Entente losses by only 40,000. Although the battle was won, if not for the entry of the Americans into World War One that year, it might have proved a Pyrrhic victory, especially in light of the Russian surrender on the Eastern front, which had freed up German forces there to fight in the west.
Passchendaele did teach valuable tactical lessons to the victors, mostly at the unit level and mostly applicable only to trench warfare. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler was a veteran of Passchendaele, and considering the difference between the German invasions of Belgium in 1914 and 1940, one cannot help but wonder what lessons in strategy and tactics he drew from the experience.
Nearly a year after the guns fell silent – and five years to the day since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the Treaty of Versailles marked the formal ending of hostilities between Germany and the Allies, Germany’s allies having been dealt with in separate treaties. The Treaty of Versailles was hailed as a great triumph almost everywhere except in Germany, which had been forced to take the blame for the war, forced to disarm and saddled with ruinous war reparations to pay – in addition to surrendering territory to Poland in the east and France in the west, and being stripped of all its colonial possessions.
As such, the treaty imposed a burden upon Germany that was certain to foster resentment and to cripple the German economy. When the Depression hit, a decade later, Germany was one of the places it hit hardest, since the government had to pay reparations ahead of any attempt to alleviate the economic effects. Come the hour, come the man – unfortunately for everyone, the man for that hour would be an Austrian named Adolf Hitler.
At the time of Harry Patch’s death, he was aged 111 years and 38 days. The last surviving World War One veteran to have fought in the trenches of the Western Front, he was nicknamed “the Last Fighting Tommy.”. His great age made Patch the third-oldest man in the world, the oldest man in Europe and the 69th oldest man in history (at least, history since reliable records were kept).
In his later years, Harry Patch was deeply cynical about his experience of war, and the politicians who start but never fight in these wars. Patch was a passionate opponent of war for most of his life, and did not hate his former enemies; rather, he pitied enemy and ally alike. As he put it:
“Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.“