BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Winston Groom, author of "A Storm in Flanders," why did you get interested in World War I?
WINSTON GROOM, AUTHOR, "A STORM IN FLANDERS: THE YPRES SALIENT, 1914-1918": Well, I think -- war has always sort of interested me for a lot of reasons. In this particular case, my grandfather was in World War I, went over, did not fight in Flanders, fought with the Americans, who mostly fought in France. And when I was about 15 or 16 years old, I remember having a luncheon -- Sunday dinner, they called it -- at my grandparents' house. And I was looking through the bookshelves and found this little, thin paperback book, which was the Michelin guide to the battlefields of Ypres and Flanders.
And my grandfather had gone over back in the 1920s just to revisit and had bought these little Michelin guides. And the Michelin people put out really stunning historical surveys of the war, I imagine to get people to burn up more tire rubber for the Michelin rubber -- tire company. And I began to look at this thing and thought, "What kind of destruction is this?" I was raised on World War II. My father was in World War II. But I looked at the pictures, both aerial photographs and ground photographs, and it looked like Hiroshima.
And it occurred to me we never really were taught about World War I other than America won World War I for everybody. And so it -- after that, I began just to read a little bit. And then I read more and more and more out of interest, not out of any desire at 15 to 16 years old to write a book about it, but -- there came a point a few years ago when I thought, you know, "This story hasn't been told."
And it was a combination of a number of things, as I think I alluded to in the introduction that I wrote, that I had been in a war myself. I was in Vietnam. And I don't know how these people stood that. I don't think I could have gotten my men to stand that kind of horrible warfare, let alone me, four years of nothing but killing, day in and day out. In the war that I fought, sure, you'd have a fight every once in a while, and most of the time you were doing something else. This thing was four years of constant slaughter.
LAMB: What years for World War I?
GROOM: From 1914 to 1918.
LAMB: And what years did you write about?
GROOM: From 1914 to 1918.
LAMB: Well, let's just take a look at the cover of your book here and define some of these things. First of all, how do you pronounce this right here in French?
GROOM: That is pronounced in Flemish Ypres. I like to say if somebody stuck you in the bottom with a hat pin, what would you say? But they pronounce -- on the maps these days, the Belgians had called it -- they've respelled it I-P-R-E-S. But that's still pronounced Ipres.
LAMB: How about this photograph on the cover? What is this?
GROOM: That is -- well, I had a big argument with my publisher over that. I didn't like that picture. I told them it looked like a man being rolled in a garbage dump. But they wanted a photograph. And that is a man removing the -- what they called the identity tags, which is similar to our dog tags, from a dead man at the Battle of Passchendaele, which was the final big Battle of Ypres in Flanders.
LAMB: Flanders is located where?
GROOM: It's located in -- in western Belgium, northwestern Belgium.
LAMB: Here's a map on the -- right on the inside of your book. This is the North Sea up here, and the English Channel. This would be France. And I outlined the state of Belgium being right in here.
LAMB: And the area that you write about happened where?
GROOM: Just -- well, I can't point at that, I don't think, but in this area up here, which was the key to the English Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk and Boulogne. And I'm not sure I'm pronouncing some of those correctly, but -- if the Germans had been able to turn that northern flank of the allies, meaning the British and the French, and secured those ports, there's a question among historians -- and of course, nobody ever knows all this "what if" stuff, but -- if they had secured those ports and been able to not only deny them to the British, because that's obviously the supply route across the channel, but to build submarine bases on those ports, conceivably they could have won the war because also then they would have turned the flanks and been able to come down the English Channel and get behind the British and French armies who were fighting in France. So it was very crucial.
LAMB: How many people died in World War I?
GROOM: Well, about nine million -- nobody really knows anything about that --nine to ten million military people, which is an enormous number, and civilians were probably about that many. Far more civilians died in World War II because of the bombing on both sides. I mean, you know, we blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so forth, and then the Germans murdered a great many people. But the number of military casualties -- as a military war, World War I was extraordinary. I mean, nine million fighting men died. And if you -- I used to have the math, but if you did it by day, how many soldiers, sailors, marines, so forth, were killed, and divide it into -- you know, day by day into four years, it was a lot of people.
LAMB: What was the war about? And when did the United States get in it?
GROOM: Well, it was really about -- and this is so controversial, we could be here for a week. But my short version is Germany wished to expand. Germany, at this point, in the early part of the century, and especially 1912, '13, beginning of 1914, had an enormously powerful army. And with her ally, Austria, Germany sought to expand herself. They were having what -- based on what Hitler said, too, in World War II, "Lebensraum," they wanted more -- more land.
They didn't do it as overt -- as overtly as Hitler did, who was quite an evil man. I think the Kaiser of Germany, at that point -- the emperor, king -- didn't wish war. But he was ready to fight it if it was coming. And of course, this tinderbox down in the Balkans and Sarajevo, where a -- where many bad things happened, a Serbian man assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, and this set the whole thing sort of in motion. The Russians felt that they had some sort of suzerainty in the Balkans because the Balkans were mostly Slavic people. The Austrians felt that they ought to have control of the Balkans. And the whole thing was sort of like a canoe that just rocked and rocked, and finally everybody fell out of it in the water, and then began fighting each other very viciously.
LAMB: Which countries were on which side?
GROOM: Oh, goodness. There are so many.
LAMB: But the main ones.
GROOM: All right. The main ones -- on the -- the Central Powers side, which was the German side, you had, obviously, Germany, Austria, Hungary. Turkey got into it somewhat later. Those are the man powers. Then the allies were France, which had a mutual defense treaty with Russia, so you had France, Russia.
Great Britain got into it because they had guaranteed the independence of Belgium, which was neutral. And they did that because they knew that Belgium was right sitting on the English Channel and the North Sea. They didn't want anybody else coming in there. So Belgium had a treaty with England since 1838, I believe, that they would guarantee their independence. Britain got into it. And then the British empire, which was huge because it was India and all of the Caribbean nations that Britain controlled -- they came in -- Canada, Australia, New Zealand.
The Americans stayed out of it as long as they felt that they could. I think that the Americans really did not take sides in this thing until after the Germans torpedoed the enormous passenger liner the Lusitania and some hundreds of Americans were killed. But the Americans traditionally, I think, had a mistrust of England. We didn't get in it because of England.
You know, we had problems with King George in the American Revolution. And in the War of 1812, the British came over and burned the Capitol, which is right down here, and the White House. And in the Civil War, the British sided, at least tacitly, with the Confederacy, with the South, building them great blockade-running ships and selling them arms, and so on. And also, you had in America at that point, these enormous immigrations of Germans and the Irish, who despised England. And so the Americans were not eager to get into this fight. They figured Europe's problems are Europe's problems.
But after the Lusitania and after the introduction by the Germans of gas warfare, I think there was a decided sway in public opinion and in the American press that Germans were not behaving properly here. And it didn't take much. And then when -- after the Lusitania incident...
LAMB: August of 1915.
GROOM: That's right. The kaiser realized he'd made a mistake, the German Kaiser, and he called off unrestricted submarine warfare. Then, in 1917, he reinstated it and a number of American ships were sunk -- nothing on the scale of the Lusitania. These are smaller boats. But Americans were killed, and was it. I mean, you can't -- if you're going to be a nation in -- what we call a civilized nation and go around just sinking indiscriminately any ship that comes within any distance of international waters, I think you're going to have to fight America. And that's what got us into it.
LAMB: How many men did we lose? How many were killed, Americans, in World War I?
GROOM: About 50,000, which is a lot of men, but compared to what the English and the French and the Germans and other powers lost, it is almost minuscule. It's horrible to say it, but we lost 50,000 or more in Vietnam, and we think of this as a huge figure. We have a big memorial right down the road here in Washington to those 50,000. I don't think there's a World War I memorial. I don't believe there is, and...
LAMB: And they're just building...
GROOM: Building a World War II memorial.
But the -- just as a -- in a -- an example, in this little corner of Belgian Flanders that I'm writing about, which is about the size of Manhattan Island, there are about 280,000 or 290,000 British alone buried there.
LAMB: Are there markers on the graves? I know you talked about the mass graves.
GROOM: There -- there -- it's one of the biggest graveyards in the world. There are markers everywhere. But 80,000 of them were never found. They were simply blown to bits. And there is a wonderful memorial there at what's called the Menin Gate, which was the gate, the old medieval gate that the town of Ypres had to go -- to get out of Ypres and go to the town of Menin, which was to the east. And that is the -- well, you can call it a gate. In those days, during the war, it was simply blown apart. But that's where most of the British soldiers marched through to get to the battlefield. And after the war, they restored this gate in all of its splendor, and there are 50,000 names of those British soldiers who were missing carved inside and burnished with gold.
And the interesting was that they began to do this just after the war ended. A couple of years later, the British War Graves Commission determined that there were another 30,000 British soldiers missing. And they couldn't be -- because the memorial was already in progress of being built, there was nowhere to put their names, so they put them in Tinecot (ph) cemetery, which is about four miles down the road, five miles down the road.
Well, you know, you can imagine the horror of that conflict, where you had 80,000 men who were simply blown to bits. They couldn't find enough of them to put into a grave.
LAMB: Have you been to the battlefield?
GROOM: Yes, a long time ago. I didn't go back for this book because so much of it now is, like, under interstates or something. I mean, it's -- it -- in a way, like a lot of our Civil War battlefields here in America. And you know, all countries expand, and there's shopping malls and thises and thats, but I've seen enough.
LAMB: Where's the accent from?
GROOM: My accent?
GROOM: Oh, boy. Do you know where I was born? Right here, Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C. My father was in the adjutant general's department. He was a lawyer during the Second World War, and he was at the Pentagon. And I came along, and so I was born in Washington, but my family has lived in Mobile, Alabama, for many, many years. And then I moved back to Washington as a reporter for the "Washington Star," the old paper here. And then I moved to New York.
And I've probably got the most bastardized accent that anybody -- I remember when "Forrest Gump" -- they were -- it was in production. And I got a call from a woman who was the voice coach for Tom Hanks. And she said, "We would like to tape record you, your voice, because you obviously have the voice of Forrest Gump." I said, "That's ridiculous. I've got no -- I mean, I've got an accent, I don't know where it's from." So I put them onto a friend of mine, who I, in my ear, mind, thought that sounded like Forrest Gump. And then indeed recorded him. And now every -- I mean, every two or three years, they call him up. "We'd like to record you again" for something else. It drives him crazy.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
LAMB: What number book? How many books have you written?
GROOM: Maybe 12?
LAMB: How many of them are novels?
GROOM: Most of them -- four, five history or biography sort of books. But I -- I picture myself as a novelist, but what I discovered in my advancing age is that when you don't have a really good idea for a novel, go and do something else. And I love history. I love it just as a -- it's fun to me. It's like golf or tennis. And you can really get into it. I just love sitting and reading, and suddenly, the material begins to accumulate behind you in bookshelves and files, and so forth, and you sit and read, and you go over and you cross-reference something. And it's a constant influx of ideas. Whereas I think in novel writing, it's more difficult on some sort of intellectual plane. Meaning I can only write novels, like, two hours a day. They're very intense. The phone doesn't ring. I mean, I take no -- you know, I just say, "All right, this is my time." But after two hours, you get tired. History is a constant job of getting the history right, getting the story right, getting the material in.
LAMB: What year did you write "Forrest Gump," and where were you when you wrote it?
GROOM: I wrote "Forrest Gump" in about six weeks in 1986. And I was living in New York, but I had come for the winter to Point Clear, Alabama, where -- which is a summer resort across Mobile Bay, where I grew up. And I had lunch with my dad, who was quite old. He was in his '80s, and an old, retired lawyer. And he began to reminisce about growing up in turn-of-the-century Mobile, Alabama, on these hot, dusty streets. And there was a young man who was retarded, probably a child. And the other kids would tease him and chase him and throw sticks at him, and so on. And one day, this young man's mother bought a piano and began to teach him how to play it. And within a week, he'd mastered the piano.
And I remember going back that evening thinking, "Oh, that may be a scene somewhere." I recognized what it was. I'd seen "60 Minutes." They had a show on idiot savants. And by that night, I had written the first 10 pages of "Forrest Gump." I had the voice. I had the size of the character. I had whatever I wanted. I just went through it -- no notes, not net, no nothing.
LAMB: And what did it do to change your life?
GROOM: Well, I -- I've been able to upgrade my brand of toilet paper.
LAMB: I mean, was it a big deal for you?
GROOM: At the time it came -- it was published, which was in '86 or '87 -- I can't remember precisely -- it did tolerable, as books go. I think it sold 25,000, 30,000 copies. The movies bought it before it was published. It was Warner Brothers, at that point. And it languished, as these projects will do. And from time to time, I would get a call from the producers, and they said, "Oh, this-and-so director would like to do it now, and thus-and-such actor would like to do it," and they -- because movie people love to talk about actors, and that -- and they were talking about Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, who -- wonderful actors but rather small, whereas the, you know, Gump character in the book is six-foot, six and runs 100 yards in 10 flat -- big guy.
And finally, I just thought -- they would say -- I was writing the script, at this point. They would say, "Well, write it for" -- oh, who'd they -- the Fonz, the man -- Henry Winkler. He wanted to play it. And I finally just said, "Well, why don't we just write it and see if you can find an actor who can play this -- play this role?" And it languished and it languished. And all of a sudden one day, they called and said Tom Hanks is going to do it.
And at that point, it had moved to Paramount Pictures. And I'm damned, they just made it. They went right out and made it. And...
LAMB: Now, when you write a book like this on World War I, does that name, Winston Groom, from the "Forrest Gump" experience, sell a book?
GROOM: I doubt it. I mean, I think it does because my name is sort of familiar, vaguely, but it is not a household word. Everyone once in a while, I pick up a "New York Times" crossword puzzle and there I am. But it's not like John Grisham or Clancy or -- you know, the world-famous writers.
And one of the amusing things -- just after "Forrest Gump," the movie, came out, and I was going around and signing books -- and at this point, the book was, I don't know, half a million, a million copies. I don't know what it was. I would -- I was out in Los Angeles, and the same publisher, Grove Atlantic, had just published "Shrouds of Glory," which was my little history of the western campaigns in the Civil War. And they were paying the bill out there for me to go to book stores around Stanford and various places. And here I would go to the book store and arrived in a limousine paid for by Grove Atlantic and sit there and just sign my book "Shrouds of Glory." And all these people were lined up around the block for me to sign "Forrest Gump" books.
So I called the publisher, and I said, "Look, I think what we ought to do here is to say that if you want me to sign a `Forrest Gump' book, then you have to buy `Shrouds of Glory.'" I thought that was pretty smart until I realized -- because I hate signing books -- I'd just doubled my work. I would sit there for sometimes four and five hours to try to get through this throng who really came there for "Forrest Gump." They didn't come there to buy a Civil War book, which is fair enough. I mean, I don't -- I don't write these books to be a big best-seller. I mean, it's fun to be a best-seller. These are done in a much more tight …..meaning there are certain people who like these kinds of books, and they seem to appreciate them, and I appreciate their appreciation.
LAMB: Back to this book -- this picture seemed to me to represent right here what you write about. Explain what I'm really alluding to.
GROOM: Well, the problem in Flanders -- and it was not just limited to Flanders, but the fighting in that part of Belgium was basically fighting in mud. The subsoil in Belgian Flanders is a very thick blue clay, and it doesn't drain. And that's about two feet down. And so when it rains, the water simply stays there. Well, these fellows are having to dig trenches because of all this horrible artillery fire that's going back and forth, and the trenches simply didn't drain. I mean, they tried to pump them, but the pumping equipment was very primitive, as you can imagine, in 1914, 1918.
And so most of the time, these guys simply waded around in water up to their knees, and all sorts of horrible repercussions came from that, such as trench foot, which is now -- when I was in the Army, they called it "immersion foot," but it simply rots the feet. And then, of course, you got all this water and you got dead people, you got dead animals. Very bad infections and diseases resulted from simply having to stand in water most of the time.
LAMB: Four battles you write about of Ypres.
GROOM: Yes. There were four main battles, but the fighting there was really constant.
LAMB: For four years.
GROOM: For four years. Every -- the -- the -- what they called "wastage" -- that was the word that the British army used, meaning the casualties that occur every day without there being a major engagement going on. The wastage was anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 menu a day in Belgian Flanders. Every day, 365 days a year for four years. Just the wastage.
LAMB: I have a feeling it might be useful -- on page 202, you have a long paragraph that paints a picture -- I don't know if you want -- if you want to read it, I'll give it to you -- to give us some sense of what you found. It's this paragraph right here. You need glasses, or can you do that?
GROOM: Well, I didn't bring my little...
LAMB: I'd be glad to read it if it's -- if it's -- but I -- I thought it's important that the audience can hear...
LAMB: ... the details.
GROOM: OK. "Into one of these holes crawled Lieutenant Alfred J. Angel (ph) of the London battalion of the Royal Fusilliers. Most of his men were teenagers, new conscripts and drafts from the great city. For many, it was their first battle. `The ground they occupied was' -- he reported" -- Lieutenant Angel reported -- "`was almost beyond description. The stench was horrible, for the bodies were not corpses in the normal sense. With all the shell fire and bombardments, they'd been continually disturbed, and the whole place was a mess of filth and slime and bones and decomposing pieces of flesh.'
"As Lieutenant Angel crawled among these charnel pits, now under constant artillery fire, checking on his men, he came upon a young boy, a teenager, his first time in the line, sobbing and crying. `He was crying for his mother. It was pathetic, really. He just kept saying over and over again, `Oh, Mum. Oh, Mum. I want my mum.'
Angel tried to reason with him, but to no avail, and became concerned that his behavior would panic the other troops. Finally, he slapped him in the face, `Hard as I could.' This produced the desired effect, and one of Lieutenant Angel's corporals said, `I think I can manage him now, sir.' `Well, he took that boy in his arms, just as if he were a small child. And when I crawled back a little later to see if all was well, they were both lying there asleep, and the corporal still had his arms around the boy, mud, accouterments and all. At zero hour, they both went over together.'"
LAMB: And how did you find all this, all the details on the grime and the stench and the death and...
GROOM: Oh, it -- there's an enormous amount of it in so many places -- in people's diaries, in letters. You can actually find a great deal of it on the Internet. There are whole World War II -- I mean, World War I sites -- World War II sites, too.
LAMB: You said there's one, Trenches on the Web.
GROOM: Trenches on the Web really will lead you to practically anyplace. It's a terrific place to start.
GROOM: Trenches on the Web. And it's a British site, and -- but from there, they will give you links to this and that and the other. But I -- you know, you start off, like anything else -- I started off, aside from my original research, which was just years of accumulated a book here, a book there, by getting the official history, which was written by a General Edmunds, who was at Ypres, who was all over the place. But he was a brigadier general, and he was assigned by the crown to write the official history. And it took him years. It took him till after World War II was finished to finally get -- it's many -- I think it's -- I can't remember. It's maybe 18 volumes, each one some inches thick.
And that's really your reference point, even thought there have been a lot of quibbles with Edmunds and his version of it. After the war ended, that's when the war of the books began: They should have done this, they should have done that, they should have done this. And then you branch out, and there are a number of book stores in England that just specialize in World War material -- I mean war monographs that nobody's ever heard of, that sort of thing. So that's really just like any other history.
I didn't try to do the definitive history of World War I or, for that matter, of England. There are probably 100 books just on this battle -- most of them known in England or France, but not here.
LAMB: SO what did you try to do that was different?
GROOM: Well, what I tried to do was using the fighting in Flanders, which is so well known because of the pulling in Flanders Fields. I tried to use that as kind of a centerpiece. I call it kind of a Christmas tree effect: Now that's the trunk of the Christmas tree, and then you hang the ornaments till you describe not only this battle, but you describe it in the sense of the war as a whole. So I go off occasionally on what you call a tangent. You can't understand the war because of that one battle; you have to mention Verdun, and Gallipoli and the Somme.
And I did it for Americans. The English are extremely well versed in World War I -- obviously: A whole generation of their menfolk are buried there in France and Flanders. The French are two: I think there was some some fantastic figure about the number of books and other material in the French archives on World War I book after book and paper after paper. The Germans don't have a whole lot, and a lot of what they did have was destroyed in World War II by bombings.
LAMB: How many men did the French lose in World War I?
GROOM: The French?
LAMB: The French.
GROOM: I think about 1.5 million. I may have that figure in the book. The British lost about 900,000. The French lost more. And a lot of them were lost in the first three weeks of the war, because they stopped the Germans; the Germans were right outside of Paris, looking at the Eiffel Tower.
LAMB: They could actually see the Eiffel Tower?
GROOM: Sure, and the French stopped them at the Battle of the Marne. The British at that point were a relatively small army of about 80,000 to 100,000 men. They were sending more every week so there's no way to just put a real number on it. But the French had millions and the Germans had millions.
LAMB: How many did the Germans lose?
GROOM: I believe about two million. Somewhere there is - I apologize my Alzheimer's is catching up with me but I think it was about two million. All those figures are in there at some point, and nobody really knows.
LAMB: Where was World War I fought? I mean you're talking here about Belgium and also in France.
GROOM: World War I was fought all over the world but primarily it was fought on the Western Front which ran from the French border with Switzerland all the way 480 miles north to Ypres in the North Sea. That was the Western Front.
Then there was the Eastern Front with the Germans fighting the Russians and that ran all the way almost along the entire Russian border. Then it was fought in North Africa, the same as it was fought in North Africa in World War II.
It was fought on the high seas everywhere. It was fought in Africa itself in these strange little German colonies and French colonies and British colonies in darkest Africa, and the combatants would locate one tribe or another to fight with them.
And there was one very pitiful African tribe called Bastions and they fought against the Germans very handily. It was fought in the Pacific Ocean. Japan was one of their allies, and even though Japan did not fight in any significant way in World War I.
When it was over the Treaty of Versailles gave them as a reward a number of German-owned islands in the Pacifics, the Marshalls, the Bismarks, and I believe part of the Carolines and they became Japanese mandates from which the Japanese in World War II caused us a great deal of trouble. We had to go take them back.
LAMB: You mentioned in Flanders Field, a poem written by Major John McCrae -- is that right?
LAMB: A Canadian?
LAMB: He's 43 years old. I've got it here. I can read a little bit of it just for people who haven't heard it. Why was it written?
GROOM: Well, I think he was a major at that point, McCrae was a physician with the Canadian Army and he was in Flanders and one of his good friends who was a young lieutenant was blown to bits one day by an artillery shell and they had to sort of gather him up and they put him in a bag or something in some way to resemble a human form.
And McCrae conducted the burial services and afterwards went and sat on the stoop or whatever you call it of his ambulance very depressed, and the people who were there, there are whole books just on the poem in Flanders Field. McCrae sat there and it was recorded that artillery was reeling in the sky, the poppies were growing in Flanders Field and he penned this poem in, I don't know, an hour or two.
Nobody really knows how long but right there very near the battlefield where the artillery was going off around him, and didn't know what to do with it, showed it around a little bit, showed it to several British magazines, was turned down, and finally almost a year later or seven or eight months later, "Punch" which is a British satirical humor magazine published it and it became emblematic almost of the war.
It was a great rallying cry to take up our quarrel with the foe. It's a remarkable piece of poetry. People wrote poetry in those days. Nobody much writes poetry anymore.
LAMB: This is December the 8th, 1915?
LAMB: First stanza is: "In Flanders Field the poppies blow because the crosses row on row that mark our place and in the sky the lark still bravely singing fly scarce heard amid the guns below." You have other poems in here, in the book. What was - when you go back to World War I and Ypres and these four battles, what characterized them? I mean you even, as you said earlier you get into the Germans using gas. There was a million soldiers in this valley, in this area or more?
GROOM: It depended. From time to time there were more because you have to count the support troops and reserve troops and so on. In the battles themselves and each battle was distinct in and of itself, there probably were not more than 100,000 men actually fighting at any given moment but...
GROOM: Some of it was very much hand-to-hand in the beginning especially because there were no trenches. There was no barbed wire and these people were fighting over territory. They were fighting in the woods. They were fighting in the fields. They were fighting everywhere and sometimes it was very much hand-to-hand.
Later, it became less of that. It became more of an artillery battle meaning that the notion was simply to have the artillery, one would hope, erase all messages of living life and then the men would presumably go in and mop up. Well that wasn't the way it was either because as soon as the artillery stopped, the other side would come out of whatever hole they were living in and they would, you know, shoot you just like anything else.
LAMB: How important were these battles in the end as to who won the war?
GROOM: Well, I think you can only assess that by saying if the British, and there were French involved as well at Ypres, but not to the extent that the British were. If the Germans had driven the British out of the town of Ypres, out of Belgium Flanders, taken the channel ports, I think the entire war would have had a different complexion meaning that depending on how the Germans used what they had taken, it could have resulted in a negotiated settlement earlier than the unconditional surrender or it could have resulted in an immediate German victory and I think historians pretty much weigh with that.
LAMB: Of all the characters you read about that were involved in Ypres, which one would you name as number one, the most interesting?
LAMB: Characters, whether it be a general or a leader or soldier?
GROOM: Haig. Haig was the British commander after 1915.
LAMB: Sir Douglas Haig.
GROOM: Sir Douglas Haig.
LAMB: Does that have anything to do with Peg and Haig Scotch?
GROOM: It does. He was a Scotsman and his family was in the distillery business and Haig has been probably the most controversial figure of the entire war.
LAMB: Which one is he in this photograph here on the bottom?
GROOM: He's the gentleman on the far right if your camera is looking the same direction, this one right here.
LAMB: Who else is in there? Who else is in that photograph?
GROOM: Let's see, I believe that is General Joffre on the far left. He was the French commander and I believe that Poincare is the French president. The King of England is the gentleman here in the middle and General Fouche (ph). I believe that's how he pronounced it.
LAMB: A French general?
GROOM: A French general. That was taken within weeks of the end of the war. They were all smiling. Normally you don't see these men smiling. They didn't have much to smile about.
LAMB: So what was so interesting about Sir Douglas Haig?
GROOM: Well actually on the face of it not much. He was said to be a very dull person but he's become so controversial. After the war, as I mentioned earlier, it became the war of the books and a lot of people complained bitterly that Haig simply was a butcher and a donkey and he expended all this life in the Battle of ….through the battles of - that was part of the Ypres campaign, that he simply didn't care about human life and he was what they call a Westerner.
I mean he insisted that the main effort be on the Western Front as opposed to other areas such as sending British troops to fight with the Italian Army, which was allied with the allies at that time. And, he got a pretty bad rap, I think. This is opinion. I'm not an absolute expert on Haig. There were many, many books written about Haig. I found him to be an interesting character.
He was a religious man. He got blamed for that. Some historians said General Haig assumed that he had a divine mission in winning the war and so forth, but my theory is look, in those days a lot of people were religious and if anybody got a right to pray it's going to be Haig.
LAMB: There's a picture here of General Haig there on the left and then Lloyd George the Prime Minister there on the right?
GROOM: Yes, well that was an enormously controversial relationship. Lloyd George did not believe in Haig but he couldn't get rid of him. Haig was a friend of the king as well if Lloyd George became prime minister about halfway through the conflict about the same time Haig became the commanding general.
If Lloyd George had relieved him it would signaled to the Germans that the British didn't like the way the war was going, a lot of political scheming there. Lloyd George wanted to do anything to get the fighting away from the bloodshed, the bloodthirstiness of the Western Front and Haig did not and about the only thing that you can say about it is that in the end Haig won. When everybody else was left dead on the field, Haig and the British Army were standing there. Whether he was right in this, it's a what if question.
LAMB: Why did the Germans and why and when did the Germans use mustard gas?
GROOM: Mustard or any kind?
LAMB: Any kind.
GROOM: Well, first they used chlorine gas in 1915. The Germans were actually the largest manufacturer of chlorine in the world. They had a huge industry and people knew about poison gases. I mean it wasn't like some strange secret weapon but nobody thought of using them. It was inhumane, terribly inhumane.
People were getting shot out and shelled out and bombs falling from the air, and suddenly to poison the very air that men breathe was considered barbaric, but the Germans thought it would give them the opportunity to break through up there at Ypres to get to those channel ports. And, so they released this horrible chlorine gas in 1915.
And, it was only the Canadians who somehow managed by urinating in their underwear and putting it over their nose where the ammonia and urine would counteract the effect of the chlorine gas, the Canadians saved the day. The Germans could have just come pouring through and accomplished those things which I suggested, taking the channel ports.
Then the Germans used another kind of gas, Diphosgene gas, which was I read somewhere and I remember my editor and I had a quibble about it. They said it was eight times as deadly as chlorine gas and my editor said how would they know it's eight times? What if it was ten times? I said OK, let's say ten times but it was far more dangerous because if it got in your lungs, it simply ate the lungs away.
And then mustard gas, which was the third gas the Germans introduced in 1916, was probably the nastiest of all because it simply ate big holes in your skin as well as destroying your lungs and tissue. I've seen the most grotesque pictures and actually did not use on in this book because I just considered it too grotesque. It looked like leprosy or something. It just ate everything away.
And, of course, as soon as the Germans used it, the allies began to use it and it never was a deciding factor in any battle but it was just another horror or frightfulness is the way the British described it of the war.
LAMB: Here's some more pictures that describe what it was like in World War I. What is this?
GROOM: That is the final Battle of Ypres which came to be known as Passchendaele, one of those almost unprounceable words, too many vowels in it but Passchendaele was a little village on a ridge around - the ridge semi-circled Ypres like an amphitheater and the Germans, of course, were occupying the ridge and the British wanted it back because the British were being shelled by it.
And, this was actually the battles at Passchendaele which lasted about four months, I think came to symbolize all of the horror and the suffering of the entire first World War. It was fought in mud, sometimes waist deep. It began to rain in the autumn of 1917 and it never stops. It doesn't stop raining in that part of the world, Holland and that part of northern Belgium. It just rains all the time.
Sometimes it's a great big huge rain. Sometimes it's drizzle rain. They love the drizzle rain but the ground of course fills up with water and the men, the British attacking, had to cross this slop that had been torn up by at this point, in that battle alone, probably four to five million artillery shells, each of which creates a crater depending on the size of the shell of some great dimensions and the craters fill up with water and the craters were filled up with dead Germans, and the craters were filled up with blood.
And, these fellows simply had to cross this ground maybe 200 yards at a time, maybe half a mile at a time but they had to simply wade through this slop.
LAMB: This picture of a German, was that your idea?
GROOM: I found that picture fascinating, yes. The expression on the fellow's face showed sort of incredible determination, defiance, defeat all at once and to me it sort of symbolized the men of both sides. If you look at both sides, you can find a good picture of a British soldier somewhere and the German soldier. These guys, they didn't really know what they were fighting about exactly. They were told to go and do it.
LAMB: What's this one?
GROOM: That is what they call a carrying party. It's a stretcher bearing party. During the Battle of Passchendaele showing that the landscape of the battlefield, nothing but craters and water, the normal carrying party was four men.
During that last fight in 1917 at Passchendaele, they sometimes had to have 16 to 18 men to carry one stretcher case out of the battle area because of the struggling and plus there was so much artillery that inevitably many of the carrying parties would be killed or wounded.
LAMB: You talk about the building of the trenches. How big were these trenches that they lived in the British soldiers?
GROOM: There were some ideal trenches, and I have been there. The ideal trench would be about six by seven feet deep with what they call firing steps so that the men could move in the trench without having their head blown off but when they had to fight, they would step up on the step.
Ideally, the trench would have boards. There would be some sort of drains in the trench. Then there would be dugouts in the back side of the trench for the men to shelter themselves out of the weather and so on. That's the ideal trench and it will be protected by barbed wire in front and sometimes more than 100 yards of it. I mean 100 yards out and strand after strand after strand.
There would be sandbags, parapets, ….which would be the back with the sandbag. In Ypres that really didn't work well because the water level was so low or high, two feet below ground you couldn't more than two feet down. You'd hit water.
So the only way that they could really construct what we call a trench would be actually what I call a fortification meaning they would have to build up. You get two or three feet and then they'd have to build up with sandbags.
And, you know, a bullet will go through a sandbag sometimes, so a man can be minding his business, standing there smoking a cigarette. The next thing you know his head is blown off. They were very unsatisfactory in Ypres. They refined them more as the war went on. Concrete was used. Big timbers were used.
They had some metal corrugated things like that. Some men even wrote home for those little penny packets of flower seeds to plant flowers in their trench which the British loved to plant flowers. And they became as homey as you could make them but it was still a pretty rough business.
LAMB: There are a couple pictures here that would later be of some value in World War II, not pictures but people. Who's in this picture?
GROOM: That is Adolf Hitler who was a young aspiring painter and that is in - I can't read it from here, but when the war broke out, Hitler was ecstatic.
LAMB: In the Munich….
GROOM: Hitler was actually a Bavarian but he joined the army and was by all accounts a fairly good soldier. He rose to the rank of corporal, never higher, won the Iron Cross.
LAMB: Was he ever at Ypres?
GROOM: Oh yes, he was at Ypres for three of the four battles. He was gassed there in the end in 1917 and he was there for the great Christmas truce, which became sort of a legendary element of World War I.
In 1914, the beginning of the war, both the British and the Germans on Christmas Day simply quit fighting and went out and met in the middle of no man's land, played soccer, and exchanged gifts, and tobacco and photographs and so forth until the commanders found out about it and sent them back to shooting each other again.
LAMB: Here's another well-known figure from World War II. This is Winston Churchill.
GROOM: Yes, Churchill was there. Churchill had been the first Lord of Admiralty and he set in motion the fairly disastrous British adventure in Turkey at Gallipolis, and afterwards was drummed out because of that and went to rejoin his old regiment at Ypres, and by all accounts Churchill was a wonderful officer.
He was fairly old then for an officer. He was a major. I think later he became a colonel but he was in his mid 40s, had not fought a battle since the Boer War, but was a remarkable figure. His motto was war should always be fought with a smiling face, and he would tell his officers if you can't smile then you grin.
LAMB: Do you have another book you're working on?
GROOM: I do. I have a couple. The one that I'm working on now as work is something that happened after, inspired me after the September 11th, that horror show. I began to think what Americans might be interested in is what Americans can really do when they get mad, and so I chose to take another look at 1942, which is the first year that America had to fight World War II, and the first half of that year was an unmitigated disaster.
In Pearl Harbor our entire fleet was sunk, the Philippines were lost. The Japanese were bombing Australia, had taken over all of the southwest Pacific. The allies were being beaten in North Africa by General Rommel and come midway in that year in the Battle of Midway Island, our navy sunk, practically destroyed the Japanese fleet and then the Battle of Guadalcanal sent us back to where we were going. And, Americans are a little tougher than some people give us credit for.
LAMB: When do you expect to have it out?
GROOM: A year and a half maybe, couple years.
LAMB: We're out of time. This is what the book looks like by Winston Groom, "A Storm in Flanders" from World War I. Thank you very much.
GROOM: Thank you.
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