Advertisement

Remembering the forgotten German soldiers who died on the Western Front during the First World War

Flowers lie on the mass graves of the Germans who lost their live in the First World War Credit: ITV News

When Europe’s leaders gather in the next few days to mark the centenary of the Armistice that brought to a close "the war to end all wars", the focus will be on the allied war graves of the Western Front: Flanders, Verdun, The Somme.

But the greatest death toll on that front was not French or British soldiers, it was Germans.

And yet in Flanders, amid the many Commonwealth and Allied war cemeteries that dot the countryside, you will find only four in which lie the remains of the German dead.

A German soldier in the trenches. Credit: Pathé

When northern France and Belgium were liberated, the graves of their former enemy were a low priority.

Makeshift cemeteries established during the conflict were charged enormous ground rents; there was pressure to consolidate graves into fewer and fewer sites, pressure that only grew after the second world war.

Today the cemetery at Langemark in Belgium holds the remains 44,300 German dead.

The cemetery at Langemark in Belgium holds the remains 44,300 German dead. Credit: ITV News

So great was the pressure for space that a single mass grave was established in the centre of the cemetery to hold 25,000 bodies, 8,000 of them unidentified.

Elsewhere in Langemark the fallen are buried up to 20 to a plot, without headstones or crosses.

Each man is listed by name, without rank or regiment or religion.

It is a very different place to the immaculately tended, always respectful Commonwealth war graves.

In Langemark the fallen are buried up to 20 to a plot. Credit: ITV News

This is not just a question of victor’s justice.

For Germans who, immediately after the war, believed they had not been defeated in France but betrayed back home, the lessons of the Western Front were very different.

For many in Germany the war was not something "never to be repeated", it was something to be avenged.

Private Johann Spies is buried in Langemark Credit: ITV News

Helmut Zierer, whose grandfather Private Johann Spies is buried in Langemark, remembers all to well how the history of the war was taught to him at school, and today feels he was lied to and betrayed.

He believes that the failure to teach Germans about the horrors and the sacrifices of the Western Front made the rise of Hitler possible, and led directly to the next great conflict just 20 years later.

Seventy years of peace on the Continent have calmed the animosities that raged in post-war Europe, but have also, perhaps, dulled people to some of the lessons of the conflicts of the 20th century.

One such lesson is that if the victors don’t honour the enemy dead as they do their own, if the defeated see in the sacrifice of their soldiers shame rather than pride, the seeds of future war can lie ready to germinate all over again.