The National Archives maintains a fine collection of photographs from the British Army during WWI. The only information included with this photo tells us that British troops captured this German soldier on June 8, 1917, during the fourth summer of WWI. I wondered who he was.
The first thing I notice, of course, is that gaze–what U.S. Marines a war later would call “a thousand yard stare.” He’s exhausted physically and emotionally. That’s a clue that helps me know, if not who he is, where he got captured. There are others.
Another hint is the date of the photo. The previous day, June 7, the British Army pushed up and over Messines Ridge, which formed the southern flank of the Ypres Salient in Belgium. Messines was the first operation in the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Battle of Ypres. To begin the battle, the British detonated 19 huge mines under the ridge, vaporizing hundreds of Germans entrenched on the modest heights.
This German’s unit was at the northernmost portion of the ridge, just south of Hill 60 and the Caterpillar, two artificial hills formed when a railroad went through in the 1850s. I can tell his location from the “120” on his shoulder strap. It means he was in the 120th Reserve Infantry Regiment of the 204th Infantry Division out of Württemberg. The Caterpillar and Hill 60 mines were two of the largest, with over 50,000 lbs of explosive each. Along with 17 other mines buried deep below the crest of the ridge, Hill 60 and the Caterpillar exploded at 3:10 a.m. on June 7. It still ranks as one of the largest man-made explosions ever.
Were these men in the front line at the time or further back in reserve? I don’t know, other than they were still alive to surrender on the 8th. If they were curled up sleeping in the front line that morning, they were thrown from their slumber by the “terrific tremor” that rocked and rolled no-man’s-land like a ship tossed at sea. To one British officer, the “earth seemed to open up and rise up to the sky…all shot with flame.” Clods of earth, shattered chunks of concrete from the German blockhouses that dotted the lines, barbed wire, men and bits of men, all rained down on the awestruck defenders who just seconds earlier were lost in their dreams. These German soldiers felt and saw it all, and from a distance much closer than 1,000 yards.
Barton, Peter, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalle. Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers’ War 1914-1918. Gloucestershire, UK: Spellmount Limited, 2007.
—Underground Warfare. Pen & Sword Books, 2010.
Turner, Alexander. Messines 1917: The Zenith of Siege Warfare. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.