Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

1916: A Global History
reviewed by David F. Beer


1916: A Global History

by Keith Jeffery
Bloomsbury USA, 2016


This is an extremely readable book that appropriately appears exactly a century after the year it focuses on. Looking at 12 areas of the world in 1916, Keith Jeffery illustrates how the war was indeed a global disaster. As he points out in his introduction, "My aim in this book has been to use emblematic events from each month of 1916 as hooks for a series of reflections through which the astonishing range, variety and interconnectedness of the wartime experience can be charted" (3).


It's not hard to identify the crucial events of 1916, of course, but it's understandably impossible to view them in isolation. The flow of cause and effect can't be partitioned that way. Thus Jeffery's first chapter, on Gallipoli, deals with a lot of what took place in 1915 as well as the tense troop withdrawals which culminated in January 1916. By the end of this chapter we know much about the debates and reasons leading up to the landings, the terrible conditions encountered, and the amazing variety of combatants involved (including the Zion Mule Corps). An analysis of how time has dealt with the memory of Gallipoli among the involved nations and peoples concludes this chapter.

Other chapters follow the same course, straying for various good reasons outside their assigned year. Since there is little interplay between chapters, 1916 could almost be considered an anthology of articles rather than a flowing history of the war. The author's desire to primarily show how WWI was, as his subtitle indicates, a truly global disaster happening in many areas leads him to focus on specific actions in specific places.


That the author is an Irishman is evident from the start, and Ireland plays a recurring theme in his book. Following Verdun and the Isonzo, chapter 4 looks squarely at the events of 24 April 1916 in Dublin. Interestingly titled "Ypres on the Liffey" (The Liffey is the river that flows through Dublin.), the chapter opens with Roger Casement and his meandering career culminating in his execution as a traitor. Just about all other Irish concerns of the time find a place in this chapter, including the painful paradox of resentment for the British and the vast numbers of Irishmen who volunteered to fight in the British Army. Halfway through 1916 the "greatest naval battle of the war" (Chapter 5) took place, following earlier engagements in the Pacific, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Jutland turned out to be the high point of naval warfare, but economic warfare was to continue on the high seas with blockades and submarines. These are often thought of as mainly British and German matters, but stressing the global nature of the war, Jeffery shows how other nations such as the Dominican Republic, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Japan, and the USA were also affected by the war on and under the seas.

Next the author looks at the Eastern Front, first at the early battles of 1914 and 1915 which then led up to "the last great Russian effort of the war, the Brusilov offensive [which was] launched on 4 June 1916. . .and effectively destroyed the Habsburgs' military capacity, though it simultaneously placed intolerable strains on the Russian empire" (Ch. 6, p. 153). Following are chapters on Asia and Africa, where events and demands also serve to reveal that few colonized or indigenous peoples escaped the reach of the conflict.

As is well known, the Battle of the Somme began on 24 June 1916 and lasted almost to the end of the year. Jeffery doesn't ignore key events here, but he stresses Irish involvement in the battle. The 16th (Irish) Division drew substantial numbers of recruits from all over Ireland, Ulstermen as well as Catholic nationalists, and was to "carve a fine reputation for itself in some stiff fighting on the Western Front" (p. 246). The differing ways in which the Somme — and the war itself — have been commemorated all find a place in this chapter.

Russian Cavalry in Action during the Brusilov Offensive

The final three chapters of 1916 cover the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans, the USA, and Russia. Much familiar ground is covered. However, I found the sections on Greece, Serbia, and Salonika to be lucid reminders of these often-ignored theaters. The anti-war and then pro-war Woodrow Wilson receives much attention in Chapter 11, as do American attitudes toward the conflict. Propaganda and sabotage were rife at this time, all leading up to America's entry into the war in 1917. The Russian situation, with Rasputin's murder the day before 1916 came to a close, is the final topic of this book. Political and subsistence riots, enormous military losses, and the dark foreshadowing of what was to come all make up Jeffrey's closing chapter.

This book is easy to read and is a good refresher for those who are already familiar with the Great War. There are excellent notes and bibliography but the page of perfunctory maps is hardly useful. Some interesting illustrations are found in two different parts of the book, but I couldn't find any reference to them in the text. All in all, this is a good read that covers the important conflicts of 1916 while showing how nearly impossible it is to focus on the events of one year of the war without considering the foreshadowing and aftermath of those events.

David F. Beer

Monday, September 26, 2016

Proof Germany Is Commemorating the War


Although there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the English-speaking press, German institutions  are remembering the war. It takes a little digging, though, to find some of the best resources. For instance from June 2014 through most of 2015, the Ausstellung IM LVR-Freilichtmuseum in the Kommern district of Mechernich, Germany  presented an exhibit on the Rhineland in the War..

It included an exhibit of the works of Anton Keldenich (1874–1936), a talented regional artist and diarist, who served in the front line despite being too old to be conscripted and quite small. He was initially fascinated by the war machine and sketching of machine guns and rifles and life in the trenches. As the war continued, he designed crosses for fallen soldiers. He eventually became disillusioned over the terrible loses of his comrades. 

Here are some of his wartime images displayed in the exhibit.

Self-Portrait


1914 Mobilization, Probably Before the Artist Himself Enlisted


On Alert at a Machine Gun Bunker


Orderly Life in the Trenches, Watercolor



Later War Sketch


A Selection of the Artist's Watercolors at the Exhibit



Sources:  LVR-Freilichtmuseum  Website  (LINK)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Roads Classic: Rat Catching — The Sport of the Trenches


The post about the Antwerp Olympiad the other day reminded me of this article. Back when we were lucky to have a couple of hundred visitors a day, this was one of our most popular articles.

I imagine readers have probably wondered if the soldiers of the Great War had much time to exercise and indulge their sporting and non-lethal competitive instincts when serving in the trenches. Well, below is proof they did. In lieu of the cancelled 1916 Olympic Games (scheduled for Berlin, by the way) the boys spent their spare time tracking down their trench mates, Mr. Rat and his gazillion cousins, and sending as many as possible to the great Rat Hotel in the sky. I don't know what impresses me more about the photos below — the dedication, enthusiasm, and pride of the German and French rat-catching teams with their catches shown below, or simply the frightening number of the vermin. Rats were clearly in endless supply on the Western Front.













Saturday, September 24, 2016

Witches' Brew: The Deadly Gas Attack at Caporetto

The single most militarily effective use of gas ever was at the northern breakthrough sector of the October 1917 Battle of Caporetto. Almost 2,000 gas canisters were fired into a flat basin on either side of the Isonzo river defended by the Italian Army's Friuli Brigade. Due to the fog that morning, sentries were slow to spot the fumes and sound the gas alarms. The new gas combination of diphenylchloroarsine and diphosgene was remarkably fast acting and efficient. Over 700 defenders quickly died at their posts and the German-Austrian forces broke through on both sides of the river, cutting off tens of thousands of Italian troops on the surrounding mountains.

Gas Launchers for the Caporetto Offensive

Diphenylchlorarsine was believed to penetrate the gas masks of the time and to cause violent sneezing and vomiting forcing removal of the protecting device. Diphosgene is a lethal asphyxiant, much more effective than the chlorine gas used earlier in the war. It irritates and inflames the inner part of the bronchial tubes and lungs and causes steady coughing, difficulty in breathing, and, frequently, acute pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). 

Panorama of the Northern Breakthrough Position

Below is an after-action account of a reconnaissance mission by an Austrian officer that captures both the inhumanity and the effectiveness of the gas attack near Plezzo on the Caporetto battlefield.

We had seen many terrible things, but what presented itself to our eyes on this occasion surpassed every preceding spectacle and will stay in my memory forever. There in roomy and well-supplied shelters and caverns were frozen some eight hundred men. All dead. A few, fleeing together, had fallen to the floor face down. But the majority were bunched up near the walls of the shelters, rifles between their knees, uniform and weapons intact. In a sort of barrack we found another forty bodies. Near the entrance were the officers, the non-coms, and two telegraph operators with their headsets on, a writing pad in front of them, pencils in hand. They hadn’t even tried to use their gas masks. They must have died without even being aware of what was happening. 

Italian Positions, Northern Sector Caporetto

A little later we came to a cavern, whose entrance was camouflaged with sandbags. We opened a passage and entered, shining the cone of light of our flashlight along the damp walls. At the end we saw a kind of storehouse of weapons and clothing. In a corner deeper in the room there was tangle of bodies. From the darkness there emerged some yellow streaks, faces a ghastly pallor. These for sure, had felt the blow of the gas bombs. 

Out! Away. It seemed as if we were suffocating. I grabbed Simic by the arm and we left.  

When we were further away, we removed our gas masks and dried the sweat off our brows. My colleague tried to smile to hide his dismay. We walked toward the battery without saying a word. 

Fritz Weber, Austrian Army Artillery Officer

Friday, September 23, 2016

Recommended: One View of Wilsonianism


(This is the most succinct and devastating critique of Woodrow Wilson's world view that I've run into. If someone has a comparably concise positive view, I'd be happy to present it as a response. I made this offer once before in our newsletter, the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, and didn't get any takers. The editor does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in these "Recommended" articles but does believe that they are thought-provoking and worthy of our readers' attention.)

President Wilson and His Peace Commissioners, Paris 1919

Wilsonianism views human conflict as an expungeable by-product of greed, militarism, oppression, secret diplomacy, and idolatrous worship of the balance of power. Wilson imagined a world born again as a democratic league practicing disarmament, free trade, arbitration, and collective security. Of those tenets, freedom of trade and open sea lanes remain vital interests that the U.S. Navy alone can defend. Wilson's "open covenants" did not survive the first week of his own conference, disarmament is the quickest way for the United States to lose its friends and encourage its enemies, and self-determination (as Wilson's secretary of state, Robert Lansing, predicted) is a Pandora's box that spews forth new horrors to this day. Finally, however much Wilson fudged the fact, the League of Nations implied an abridgment of the unilateralism that most Americans still cherish. Wilson's dream, as Henry Kissinger rightly notes, has even less of a chance in the era to come, since the ranks of the major powers may soon include Russia, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Iran, and Nigeria [?], none of which has a tradition of Western jurisprudence. 

In historical perspective, Wilsonianism may well come to be seen as the product of one narrow strain of turn-of-the-century, Anglo-American, Progressive, Protestant thought. 

Walter A. McDougall
"Back to Bedrock: The Eight Traditions of American Statecraft," 
Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 1997

Professor McDougall's full article can be found here (registration required to read for free):

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A U.S. Air Force Presence on the Somme!

[A Personal Note: I wanted to include an entry for today with a U.S. Air Force connection, so I've been saving this one. It was 50 years ago today I was sworn into the U.S. Air Force at the Oakland, California, induction center and sent on my way to Lackland AFB outside San Antonio. Six years later, I returned to civilian life a better man (so the family tells me), and I've never stopped appreciating my time in uniform.]


When I lead a battlefield tour, I always ask the group members to suggest sites of particular interest to them. For my recent tour of the Somme battlefield, member Rob Swaney suggested we stop at Regina Trench cemetery, where over 2,200 Canadian lads, who fell attacking that stoutly defended position, have their final resting place. After we arrived, Rob led us to one of the graves and told us the following story. It's one I had never heard before, despite my Air Force and WWI interests.

Lt. Shaw
Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, is named in honor of World War I pilot 1st Lieutenant Ervin David Shaw. Shaw, a Sumter County native, was assigned to the Royal Air Force 48 Squadron, as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Service in 1918. He had enlisted in the U. S. Army in June 1917, received training, and was anxious to see action. In April 1918 he requested an honorable discharge in order to accept a commission as pilot with Signal Reserve Corps, Royal Canadian Air Service.  He was eventually assigned to 48 Squadron of the RAF. Shaw died after three enemy aircraft attacked his Bristol F.2B while he was returning from a reconnaissance mission on 9 July 1918. Lt. Shaw downed one of his attackers before he was killed.

He is buried in Regina Trench Commonwealth War Grave Commission Cemetery, overlooking Courcellette on the Somme Battlefield

Being the first Sumterite killed in the Great War and the only Sumter aviator to die in combat, Ervin Shaw became the namesake of Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter County, SC, when the base was established in June 1941.

Thanks for Your Research, Rob.  You Really Added to Our Experience

Sources:  Find a Grave and the Shaw AFB Websites.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The PH Helmet Respirator

One of the archetypal First World War images is of the PH helmet respirator issued to British soldiers in the mid-period of the war. 


After the Second Battle of Ypres, in which asphyxiants were used to great effect, new gases such as phosgene and hydrogen cyanide made improved gas protection imperative.  Experiments indicated that a hooded helmet that had been first soaked in sodium phenate could provide protection. The Phenate Helmet (or 'P' Helmet, or the Tube Helmet, as it was officially known) was adopted from mid-November 1915 and featured the more durable glass goggles set on a hood made of multi-layered linen. The original design had had flannel layers of cloth dipped in sodium phenolate and glycerin, protecting against chlorine and phosgene but not against tear gas. Normal exhalation of carbon dioxide reduced the ability to combat hydrogen cyanide gas, so a tube-shaped valve was fitted so the wearer would breathe out through his mouth.  

A further development followed the realization that when the P Helmet was exposed to greater concentrations of phosgene it lost its capacity to protect the wearer. The PH Helmet (Phenate Hexamine) replaced it in October 1915 and added hexamethylene tetramine, which greatly improved protection against phosgene and added protection against hydrocyanic acid.

British Machine Gunners at the Battle of the Somme

From January 1916 all such helmets were to be dipped in a phenate-hexamine solution, thus the PH Helmet came into being, and it was this type that was commonly used by all British troops in France by July 1916. In the meantime, the small-box respirator – the most recognizable gas mask of the war – was being developed and introduced. It consisted of a face piece and a filter box, connected by a corrugated tube. 

Sources:  The Imperial and Canadian War Museum Websites and Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
reviewed by Ron Drees


The Trigger:
Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War

by Tim Butcher
Grove Press, 2014

In Custody

This book was very highly praised when first published two years ago. Both the Guardian and the Times designated it as one of the Best History Books of the Year, and the Sunday Times assigned it Best Biography of the Year. Ben Macintyre, in the Times (UK), aptly wrote:

Tim Butcher does a superb job of filling in [a] large and fascinating gap, with a book that is part travelogue, part biography, part history and part journalism, as well as an absorbing exploration of the way the overlooked past colours the present. Highly readable but profoundly researched, The Trigger represents a bold exception to the deluge of First World War books devoted to mud, blood and poetry.

The reader should be aware, however, that The Trigger is only secondarily a WWI book and primarily a book about the legacy of WWI in the Balkan region of Europe. It sheds light on a part of the world and tragic events with which our familiarity is inadequate. That makes it worthwhile reading. Moreover, the book has a number of useful maps, showing the general geography of the region, the route used to smuggle the conspirators into Sarajevo, and the streets where the assassination took place.

Butcher's book recounts the causes and events leading up to WWI, recaps the 1992–1995 Balkan War, and gives the author's reactions as he revisits war sites from when he as a reporter covered the more recent wars. The title is overly dramatic, as Austria used the 1914 assassination as an excuse to declare war. If not for this event, some other excuse would have been used, and Gavrilo Princip may have been the first to state that.


Order Now
The Trigger follows Princip from his very poor village to Sarajevo, where he obtained a secondary education. In the process, he became radicalized and dropped out of school. He was supported by the Black Hand with weapons, marksmanship training, and assistance in crossing the border into Bosnia. In Sarajevo, due to failed communications with motorcade drivers, he took advantage of a very close range opportunity to kill the Archduke and his wife, Sophia. In between, the author tells us of his own trek across the countryside, recounting some of the horrors of the 1992–1995 Balkan Wars-sieges, massacres, and mass escape attempts.

Princip's heritage has changed over the decades, as first he was a murderer, then became a hero with his firing location immortalized in cement footprints and a tomb where his remains were reburied. Later his memory would be trashed as the Yugoslavia he wanted had failed to protect his Bosnia, and as the author describes, his tomb became used as a toilet. An informative and pleasurable read indeed!

Ron Drees

Monday, September 19, 2016

Antwerp 1920: The Great War's Olympics


With the completion of the recent Olympic games in Rio, it's well to recall the impact of the Great War on the international sports festival. The 1916 games — scheduled for Berlin — had been cancelled, and the next games were destined to be held in the shadow of the war. 

Nevertheless, the VIIth Olympiad, held 14–29 August 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium — a city occupied for most of the war — was strikingly different from any earlier or subsequent event. The selection process for the site, who would be invited to compete, the preparations, and the military aesthetic and sensibility that permeated the games were dramatically influenced by the war. 

The Olympic ideal was supposed to be "above" all politics and the International Olympic Committee had purposely settled down in neutral Lausanne during the hostilities, but its president, Baron de Coubertin (who, as a Frenchman, had luckily enough found himself on the correct side) had enough common sense to understand that less than two years after the end of the war, German or Austrian athletes would not be welcomed with open arms in a country that they had helped ruin. The former Central Powers (or what was left of them) were not really excluded. They were simply not invited to participate in 1920. It would not be until the 1928 Olympics that Germany once again sent athletes to the Games. Neither was Bolshevik Russia invited; not only was it considered a subversive state advocating the spread of world revolution, it had also left the Allies in the lurch in 1918 by signing a separate peace treaty with Germany and Austria. Moreover, Bolshevik Russia was engaged in warfare with the newly independent Polish state, a state that was receiving military aid and assistance from France. Twenty-nine nations accepted the invitation to participate. Among them were the newly independent states of Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, created in the aftermath of the Great War. 

Stadium Entrance

On 14 August 1920, King Albert I of Belgium, wearing the uniform of supreme commander of the Belgian Army, opened the VIIth Olympiad with these words: "In reply to our invitation, athletes from the four corners of the earth have gathered together in Antwerp to celebrate with us the return of peace."

Belgian War Heroes Take the Olympic Oath

At the stadium entrance where one would expect a sculpture expressing the essence of athletic competition, something like a hurdler or discus thrower, was a statue of a soldier throwing a grenade. At the opening ceremony, Belgian soldiers ringed the field, and the American contingent was led by a flag bearer in the team uniform of blazer and straw boater accompanied by four officers of the U.S. military. The Olympic oath was taken by medal-winning water polo player and fencer Victor Boin, who had received the Croix de Guerre with Palms (both French and Belgian Croix de Guerre), for bombing and sinking an enemy submarine in the North Sea, destroying numerous floating mines and rescuing several French aviators. He was supported in the ceremony by two fellow Belgian war heroes.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

How U-boat Captains Got the Babes


I don't think there is any necessity to translate the German captions here to get the message. This is from the German magazine Lustige Blatter, probably sometime before the convoy system was implemented.

Click on Image to See Larger Version


From Tony Langley's Collection

Saturday, September 17, 2016

An Inventor of Influence: Giovanni Cavalli


Lieutenant general Giovanni Cavalli (1808–1879) was an Italian soldier, artillerist, and inventor. He is credited with the creation of the first successful rifled breech-loader gun.

General Cavalli

He entered the Royal Academy of Turin in 1818 and graduated from it on 1828 as first of his class, with the rank of lieutenant. He worked on ways to reform and improve the work of artillerists and pontoneers, detailing proposals to change size and duties of gun crews, the procedures to drill them, among others.

Then-captain Cavalli's first design for a breech-loading gun dated from 1832, but initially it was met with indifference; only in 1843 did his proposal spark some interest, and he was sent to Sweden to oversee the construction of an experimental rifled gun to his specifications. He met there and collaborated with Baron Martin von Wahrendorff, and in 1846 the first trials with the gun met with resounding success. Made of cast iron, the piece accurately fired a 64-pound projectile 3,400 yards.  An improved 1854 model that was less prone to bursting when fired had a range of three miles.

Cavalli's Prototype

He fought in the First War of Italian Independence with the rank of major, participating in the siege of Peschiera del Garda; he also served in a similar capacity in the Second Italian War of Independence, as a colonel. Afterwards he became director of the foundry of the Turin arsenal.

Promoted to major general in 1860 and to lieutenant general in 1862, he served on the Comitato d'Artiglieria (Artillery Committee) and from April 1865 as commander of the Royal Academy of Turin. He retired in July 1879, dying in Turin shortly after. The weapon whose development he championed would become the deadliest of the First World War.

Sources:  Wikipedia and Nel centenario della nascita del generale Giovanni Cavalli

Friday, September 16, 2016

Interviewing Martin Middlebrook


Recent Photo of Martin Middlebrook Visiting the Somme & Sharing His Insights

Martin Middlebrook is the author of possibly the single most popular work on WWI, The First Day on the Somme.  I've lost touch with him over the years, but for a time he was a regular contributor to my publications.  I recently ran across a 2005 interview I did with Martin.  I think it still has some interesting comments from the distinguished author.

1. Greetings, Martin, tell us: There have been many books about the Battle of the Somme since your First Day… was published, yet yours is still a perennial favorite. Why do you suppose it made such a lasting impact?

MM: I suppose the short answer is that it was the first British book published as a result of asking the ordinary soldiers what happened to them in the First World War. Until then, most memoirs had been written by the officer class.

I consider myself remarkably fortunate that I decided to tackle the subject just after the official documents from the First World War were released to the Public Record Office under the 50-year rule, and that I sought out the men at a time in their lives — most in their seventies at that time -— when they were still mentally alert and when they were retired from work and had time to talk to me or answer my letters. Incidentally, many or most of the best personal quotes were from men I never met but who were willing to send written contributions after receiving a carefully prepared questionnaire. I wrote a long article on my writing of First Day for Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner website. Perhaps you could provide a link to it. [Click Here.] 


2. What is your favorite spot on the Somme?

MM: This is a difficult choice; I have so many "favourites." But to choose one:

AVELUY WOOD (LANCASHIRE DUMP) CEMETERY has the most beautiful peaceful setting on the edge of a quiet road through the wood. I like the typical wartime name incorporated by the IWGC in the peacetime title.

The cemetery actually contains four different types of graves. The scattered graves in the deep left is the original cemetery started on 1 July 1916 when two men from the Ulster Division died, presumably at a Forward Dressing Station brought to this convenient sheltered place near the front for the opening of the offensive. The other graves here are what I call a "comrades plot." To the right are the trench, shoulder-to-shoulder burials of men killed in and near the wood in the 1918 fighting -— a true battlefield burial plot. Between those two groups and the gateway are two small post-war concentration plots made by the Army Graves Service and the IWGC in the typical manner in which remote cemeteries were joined to the nearest road by post-war concentration (at the same time relieving the IWGC of the need to find burial places for a few dozen of the huge number of their "surplus" graves at that time).

Aveluy Wood Cemetery, Somme Sector

Finally, against the rear wall, are the memorial stones to men whose graves are "Known to be..." or "Believed to be..." buried in the cemetery. All these different features are most useful when I use this cemetery to give my "development of the British cemeteries talk" to groups. An added attraction is that I cannot remember ever being interrupted by the arrival of other visitors.

Some of my other favourites are:

Ten Tree Alley Cemetery — takes real effort to reach this remote spot. Hawthorne Ridge Cemetery No. 2, in a quiet corner of the Newfoundland Park, which is being steadily spoiled by officialdom (though I do sympathize with the problems involved; I was so fortunate to do most of my visiting before the age of mass commercial touring). Gordon Dump Cemetery, for the quirky way the cemetery had to be turned back to front after the roadway meant to provide access was closed and spoiled the cemetery architect's earlier design. Better stop now, but there are many more. Oh, go on, one more. Take a good guidebook and go up to the Bois Francais for a variety of reasons. 

3. You do not seem as harsh in your criticism of Field Marshal Haig as many of your contemporaries. How do you think his leadership and command rates compared to his peers: Joffre, Foch, Pétain, Hindenburg/Ludendorff, Pershing, Cadorna?

MM: You have the wrong chap here, Mike. I'm Martin Middlebrook, not John Terraine, Corelli Barnett, or John Keegan; they are not my contemporaries. Let me explain.

Histories on the First World War (or any other conflict) come in one of three categories — looking at war from the top downwards, from the bottom upwards, or a mixture of the two.

I am an unreformed "from the bottom upwards" man — interested in the experiences of the ordinary soldiers and in the detail of tactics and actual battlefield experience. I only include the minimum of generalship and tactics necessary to set the scene for my main story. John Terraine and Corelli Barnett (and possibly others) have criticized my First Day because they thought, because I write about disasters, that I am criticizing the generals. They were "from the top downwards" experts. I do not believe that they had bothered to read my books first. In fact, they would find it hard to find any direct criticism of Haig in any of my books. It just happens that choosing a day like July 1st, 1916, allows the best opportunity to write about the things in which I am interested — and, apparently, many other readers also.

I do have personal opinions about Haig, etc. but do not feel qualified to put them into print. 

4. Of all the veterans of the Great War you were able to meet personally, who was your favorite character?

MM: No problem with this question. Private Thomas Easton, 1st Tyneside Scottish, 34th Division.

Tom Easton was one of many men from the northeast of England who offered their help after my appeal appeared in a local newspaper. An employee of my poultry business who lived in that area interviewed him on my behalf. (The handful of interviews he did was the only time that an outsider did interviews; John Howlett, then my co-author designate, did some in Manchester as well. All interviews for all my other books were carried out by myself.)

Much later, after I had started the writing, I decided to highlight the experiences of a limited number of men, initially 14 in number, one for each of the attacking divisions on "the first day." I chose Tom Easton to represent the 34th Division, drove the 220 miles to his home, and conducted an in-depth interview.

Tom Easton Memorial
Lochnagar Crater, Somme Battlefield
I found that he was a retired coal miner, living, appropriately, at No. 1 Aged Miners' Cottages, in a mining village in Northumberland in the far northeast of England. He was a genial man who cooperated fully. Despite his seemingly humble origins and abode, I found that he was a natural leader among the working class that was his life. After the war he had become a trade union leader, and he was currently an alderman (the highest elected position in local government at that time) on Northumberland County Council (only one level lower down from Parliament) — as a member of the Labour Party, of course. In addition to his help with the book, he became a lifelong friend.

Later, as my writing progressed I decided that 14 principal characters were too many for the reader to follow and reduced the number to the ten you see in the book. Tom Easton disappeared from the list but not from the book. (The whole idea of that exercise was to induce the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with those selected men, then feel a sense of sadness when two of them — Billy MacFadzean and Dick King — were killed on the first day, and another — Henry Webber — soon afterwards; this was to provide a contrast to just presenting lots of statistics of men killed. It was an unusual device, a risky one perhaps, but it seemed to work; but I never used it again.) 

The book was written. I kept in touch with Tom. There were two sequels. About three years later, Michael Kernan, a journalist at the Washington Post, contacted me. He was taking a year's sabbatical and wanted to write a book about one man from the Somme; whom could I recommend? I met Michael in London, over a meal at a Chinese restaurant, and put him in touch with Tom Easton. So the Washington, DC, journalist made his way to No. 1 Aged Miners' Cottages for a series of meetings. Michael's book was published in 1978. He called it The Violet Dots after the cemetery symbols marked on the CWGC Michelin maps of the battlefield areas. The book was a little gem, probably very rare now. I wonder how many of your members possess a copy. (The publisher was George Braziller, New York; the ISBN is 0-8076-0887-4. Someone should republish it! Can anyone give my best wishes to Michael Kernan?)

The second contact was a more personal one. A few years later I took my wife and three young daughters for a holiday in Northumberland. Tom invited us to "drop in for a cup of tea" on the way. We found a table completely covered in sandwiches, homemade cakes, etc. — a fine example of northern English hospitality. My family loved it.

I never saw Tom again. Through my book, he became known to a wider circle of admirers; there were other visitors to his cottage. In later years he became more frail and died after a fall when he slipped on some dog muck on a pavement. A memorial to him stands on the edge of the Lochnagar Crater. 

5. Tell us about your interest in the WWII air war, which as a U.S. Air Force veteran, I share.

MM: OK. I lost an uncle in the First World War — Sgt Andrew Crick, 1/4th Lincolns, 46th (North Midland) Division, died of wounds October 1915 at Remi Farm, buried Lijssenthoek. When I was a boy (I was born 1932) our family had a close friend, Theodore Archard, a bachelor, a devout member of our local Catholic church. I was very fond of him; I called him Uncle Theo. He was an industrial chemist in the food industry, a reserved occupation when war came in 1939 — i.e. he need not serve in the forces. But he volunteered for RAF aircrew and became a Lancaster navigator in Bomber Command. He and all his crew were killed when shot down by a night fighter in a raid on Mailly-le-Camp, a Panzer training camp and depot in France, just before D-Day. I visited his grave — one of 21 in one long row, three crews — during my first trip to the battlefields in 1967.

I expected to return to full-time work in my poultry business after The First Day on the Somme was published in 1971. I had realised the dream of having my Somme book published, now back to normal life. Then I received a phone call from my agent: an American publisher — Norton — was going to publish the Somme book! I was astonished, had never thought of an overseas publication. I decided not to return to the chickens; I would raise my ambitions and try to write two more books, one about the air war, one about the sea, both from another war. You should detect some self-indulgence here. What I had done with the Somme and was about to do with the two new books was to cover both world wars and all three theatres of war, researching and interviewing to my heart's content, and actually getting paid for it! 

So, what was next? I have always seen RAF Bomber Command as the Second World War successors of Kitchener's Army — all volunteers, led by similar characters — Haig and Harris, committed to seemingly endless battles of attrition with frightful losses. I nearly decided on Theo Archard's Mailly-le-Camp raid, but it had only involved two of the six bomber groups. I found that Theo Archard had flown on the Nuremberg Raid a few weeks earlier when Bomber Command suffered its heaviest loss of the war —  95 heavies for little bombing success at Nuremberg. Theo's crew, a new one on ops at that time, had just made it home from that raid. 

So, The Nuremberg Raid it was. I followed the same formula as The First Day, though not with central characters, met some more interesting people but of another generation, including top German night-fighter pilots and their senior officers. Convoy, the North Atlantic naval book, followed. 

A German publisher took both of those books and the Americans also. To hell with poultry farming, I'll continue writing. The two main themes have been the Western Front and the bomber offensive. (My poultry business, left in the hands of managers, collapsed later, but it would have done eventually because of changes in the industry. I paid off all the debts. I was lucky that I had my books and the battlefield touring business to keep me going. My books may appear to have been successful, but their income would never have kept me; it was battlefield touring that paid the domestic bills until I reached the age of 65, when I received the modest Old Age State Pension and cashed in my investment policies.) 

There was one memorable interlude in the succession of RAF bomber books. For The Battle of Hamburg I made a small visit to the United States to interview 8th Air Force aircrew members who had taken part in the two small B-17 raids during the Hamburg offensive. It was my first visit to your country and I enjoyed every minute of it. I deliberately followed up later with The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, the preparation for which culminated in a six-week visit. I carried out 80 interviews in a air flight and car-hire trip from coast, to coast, to coast — from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, to the Gulf. It was great to meet great men such as Curtis LeMay and Ira Eaker, and so many B-17 and P-47 pilots and crewmen. I was shown great hospitality by their wives, who were so impressed that a man had come from England to interview their husbands. While interviewing Hub Zemke at his almond ranch in California, Hub's wife spent the evening shelling a bag of nuts for me to snack on during my journey next day. A B-17 gunners wife baked me a pecan pie after I had gone from their modest home to my nearby motel. The ex-gunner was waiting for me with the pie when I appeared next morning. Then there was my "10-cent visit to Minneapolis-St Paul." The 10 cents was for a phone call from the airport to my first contact; the eighth man delivered me back to the airport three days later. I had not spent a cent in the interval. 

My American Express card became red hot; the book was in debt for several years but eventually turned a profit. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission was published in New York, by Scribners. I am very proud of it but disappointed that it did not sell particularly well. Thomas Coffey had published a book on the two Schweinfurt raids and had done very well with it. I felt my book was at least as good, probably better on the German side, but the U.S. book-buying public obviously thought otherwise. But it was all a great experience. 

Thanks again, Martin, for your great contribution to the literature of both world wars.  I hope our paths cross again someday.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

100 Years Ago: The First Tank Attack

Lt. Bert Chaney, 41st Division
Witnessing the First Successful Tank Attack at Flers

[Dozens of tanks were committed to the 15 September 1916 renewed offensive at the Somme.  The operation bears the name "Battle of Flers–Courcelette" in many sources. Tanks were used at both those fortified villages that day. The attack against Flers is considered the most successful use of tanks in the attack.]

Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body. There was a huge bulge on each side with a door in the bulging part, and machine guns on swivels poked out from either side.

Basic Design of the British Mark Series Tank


I was attached to battalion headquarters and the colonel, adjutant, sergeant-major, and myself with four signalers had come up to the front line. From this position the colonel could see his men leave the assembly trench, move forward with the tanks, jump over us and advance to the enemy trenches. As a new style of attack he thought it would be one of the highlights of the war.

While it was still dark we heard the steady drone of heavy engines, and by the time the sun had risen the tanks were approaching our front line, dead on time. The Germans must have heard them too, and, although they had no idea what to expect, they promptly laid down a heavy curtain of fire on our front line. This had the effect of making us keep our heads down, but every now and again we felt compelled to pop up and look back to see how the tanks were progressing. It was most heartening to watch their advance, we were almost ready to cheer. But there was a surprise in store for us.

The Tanks That Attacked Flers

Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine guns swiveling around and firing like mad.

Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top of the parapet, shouting at the top of his voice, "Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say." By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo, but, giving no thought to his personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks in an endeavour to attract their attention.

George Louth of the 41st Division Also Witnessed the Attack against Flers

Although, what with the sounds of the engines and the firing in such an enclosed space, no one in the tank could hear him, they finally realized they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits. One of the tanks got caught up on a tree stump and never reached their front line, and a second had its rear steering wheels shot off and could not guide itself. The crew thought it more prudent to stop, so they told us afterwards, rather than to keep going as they felt they might go out of control and run on until they reached Berlin.

The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves, our lads coming up behind them, taking over the village, or what was left of it, and digging in on the line prescribed for them before the attack. This was one of the rare occasions when they had passed through the enemy fire and they were enjoying themselves chasing and rounding up the Jerries, collecting thousands of prisoners and sending them back to our lines escorted only by Pioneers armed with shovels.

The 41st Division Memorial at Flers Is Among
the Most Famous on the Western Front

The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Three War Poems That Stick with Me

107th Infantry Memorial, Central Park New York City (Steve Harris Photo)

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But, gropers both through fields of thought confined,
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form,
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm,
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But, until peace, the storm,
The darkness, and the thunder and the rain.

Charles Hamilton Sorley, Suffolk Rgt., Killed at Loos, 1915
(Sorley was studying in Germany when war broke out.)


Guard Duty 

A star frightens the steeple cross
a horse gasps smoke
iron clanks drowsily
mists spread
fears
staring shivering
shivering 
cajoling
whispering
You! 

August Stramm, German Army, KIA Eastern Front 1915


Harbonnières to Bayonvillers: Picnic (a Sonnet)

A house marked Ortskommandantur—a great
sign Kaiserplatz on a corner of the church,
and German street names all around the square.
Troop columns split to let our sidecar through.
“Drive like hell and get back on the main road—it’s getting late.”
“Yessir.”
The roadway seemed to reel and lurch
through clay wastes rimmed and pitted everywhere.
“You hungry?—Have some of this, there’s enough for two.”
We drove through Bayonvillers—and as we ate
men long since dead reached out and left a smirch
and taste in our throats like gas and rotten jam.
“Want any more?”
“Yes sir, if you got enough there.”
“Those fellows smell pretty strong.”
“I’ll say they do,
but I’m too hungry sir to care a damn.”

John Allan Wyeth, 33rd Division AEF, Survived War
From: This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets
Available from the University of South Carolina Press

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Other Combatants, Other Fronts: Competing Histories of the First World War
reviewed by Bryan Alexander


Other Combatants, Other Fronts: Competing Histories of the First World War

by James Kitchen, Alisa Miller, and Laura Rowe
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011


This is a book for World War I scholars and students. It is not for the general reader or WWI newbie, since it presumes the reader is very familiar with the conflict at a global scale.

Other Combatants, Other Fronts is an anthology of articles presented to the Fifth International Society for First World War Studies conference. As such, the contents are very diverse, ranging geographically from Sicily to eastern India, Canada to Turkey. Topically the articles are grouped under headers of alternative mobilizations, neutrality, race and nation, and the legacies of violence; all are really best described as cultural, rather than military history (xv).

Wartime Cartoon Showing Some of the Complications of Neutrality for the Netherlands

Each piece is well researched, grounded in primary and secondary literatures, a deep dive into one particular, often obscure corner of the First World War. This is especially noteworthy since the majority of authors are not established scholars, but grad students and postdocs (xiii, 319ff). As such Other Combatants, Other Fronts previews the next generation of WWI scholarship.

The introduction by Kitchen, Miller, and Rowe is excellent, both as a way into the rest of the volume, as well as a fine precis of recent WWI historiographical issues. I would recommend it to any graduate student or undergrad considering the field. Kitchen et al begin by lamenting the Anglo-centrism of much writing, calling instead for moving scholarship "towards a total history" of the war (xix). They see the British "myopia" as a problem echoed in other accounts, which tend towards a national focus when the war really was transnational (xxii). (This agrees with my reading so far.) An emphasis on total war is one way forward (xxiv ff). So is micro-history, looking at small, sub-national stories. Combined, the approach is "both beyond and below the level of the national approach to war" (xli).

That totality includes taking the colonial background much more seriously. The editors argue that European and American powers applied lessons from the experience of their imperial wars to WWI, bringing colonial war home to Europe. In many respects total war was thus simply "colonial war writ large," with the conflicts of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 incrementally taking on elements of earlier imperial struggles (xxxiv). If they are correct, Kitchen, Miller, and Rowe conclude that "this...gives the First World War its novelty within the history of total war" (xxxi). Personally, that gives me a new way to think about not just 1914–1918, but also the post-1815 century of imperialism. That also argues against the sense of August 1914 as a break in history.

Let me touch on each article by section, too quickly, though, for the good work every one represents:

A. Alternative mobilizations

"From Peacetime to Wartime: The Sicilian Province of Catania..." tracks one piece of Italy's responses to war, from 1914 (when Italy was neutral, shockingly) onward. Very useful glimpse of the war's issues in microcosm, with a fascinating look at a neglected bit of Europe.

"The Aims of Science Are the Antithesis to Those of War" compares British and French scientists and scientific institutions as they scrambled to mobilize for war in different ways. Very useful context for and complement to the famous German Manifesto of the 93 (October 1914).

Jack Cornwell, VC
"'Faithful Unto Death'" describes the creation of heroic myth around Jack Cornwell (left), a British casualty of the battle of Jutland (1916).

B. Neutrality

"'A Wonderful Something'" probes the Netherlands, who remained neutral throughout the vast war raging all around them.

"Government by Committee" zeroes in on the way the Dutch tried to maintain their commercial relations through blockades and U-boats, emphasizing administrative history. Useful context for the food war fought between Britain, France, and Germany.

"La Suisse Pendant La Grande Guerre..." (which appears in both French and an English translation, alas only partial and summary) draws out details of Swiss neutrality. This is a worthy focal point, given how many intellectuals visited Switzerland — think of Lenin and Einstein, for starters. Charrier makes a case for Romain Rolland being a social network hub.

C. Race and Nation

"Challenging European Colonial Supremacy" delves into the details of how colonial powers (Germany, Britain) used racial rankings to humiliate prisoners. There were plenty of tactical, even minute ways to treat internees in racially relative terms.

"'Racial' Mixing of Prisoners of War in the First World War" returns to Europe and the Franco-British use of colonial troops against Germany, arguing that WWI institutionalized racism as a prisoner of war tactic, "the first articulation of the notion that integration of prisoners of war of different races contravened civilized norms regarding the conduct of war". This led to postwar legal recognitions of race, which obviously went on to help drive mentalities for the Second World War (195).

"The Recruiter's Eye on 'The Primitive'" looks at an Indian labor unit and how the British organized them, from recruitment to return home. Personally, I was introduced here to the Kuki-Chin rebellion, which I hadn't known about (210ff).

"Beyond the Bonhomme Banania" focuses on how France acculturated Senegalese troops, largely through reviewing two books about these Africans by Lucie Cousturier. There's another pointer to WWII in a fascinating and disturbing account of how French and German citizens responded to the presence of these black troops over the Rhine after WWI's conclusion (230-233).

Annanese Troops from Indochina Arriving on the Western Front

D. The Legacies of Violence

"From 'Skagerrak' to the 'Organization Consul'" traces the emotions of German sailors from their reactions to the Battle of Jutland through the revolution and postwar period. This article links their frustration from lack of combat and fury at the scuttling of their ships at Scapa Flow to the violence of postwar irregular groups.

"Perceptions of the First World War in Turkish Autobiography" does exactly what it says, working through a series of memoirs to see how their authors addressed certain aspects of the war in the Ottoman theater. I found this especially fascinating, partly from unexpected details, like the operation of a Montessori school in Lebanon (281; I thought this was a European-only thing at the time). Wirtz displays a fine literary sensibility in addition to his historian's approach, drawing attention to powerful scenes in these texts (for example, 282).

"Fighting the Alien Problem in a British Country" examines how Canadian veterans became politically active once they returned home. Specifically, they often became xenophobic, even violent, towards other nationalities, going so far as to be seen "alien hunting" (302, 310).

Despite the richness outlined above, Other Combatants, Other Fronts has many limitations. I won't criticize its miscellaneous nature, since it's a conference volume, after all. But the absence of America, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, not to mention East Asia, is a glaring omission; to their credit, the editors admit some of this (xli).

The lack of visual media (photos, maps, charts, illustrations) beyond the awesome front cover is another problem, leaving the reader to Google a variety of topics which the book could have addressed. This is especially annoying when certain articles explicitly discuss specific paintings and photographs, like the Banania ad or the postcards assembled by Likosky.

Moreover, many authors are reticent about the implications of their research beyond how they might challenge historiography. It's up to the reader to apply conclusions and findings to WWI and beyond. Nevertheless, Other Combatants, Other Fronts overall is a useful volume for anyone seriously examining WWI. It's a kind of technical collection, with each component addressing a small piece of the larger puzzle. Many of the articles shed light on interesting and/or obscure issues. At a meta-level, the book gives a glimpse into some forthcoming WWI scholarship.

Bryan Alexander

Monday, September 12, 2016

Verdun Twenty Years Later: A Doomed Reconciliation


It must have promised to be a wonderful, idealistic, hopeful, pacifistic dream come true. French and German veterans aspiring to a reconciliation between their nations collaborated on a joint 20th-anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Verdun with a dramatic honoring of their fallen comrades. It was held on 12 July 1936 at the new, massive Ossuary, the odd mixture of fortress and cathedral architecture containing the skeletal remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German fatalities, and the adjacent French National Cemetery. Both are located on one of the "hottest" spots of the Verdun battlefield. 

Verdun Ossuary and National Cemetery


The Veillée de Verdun, as it was known was initiated by well-meaning former Poilus who were hoping to defuse the heightening international hostilities of the day. They did not appreciate, however, that they would actually be dealing with the Nazi government, who controlled the German participation from behind a curtain of sincere veterans. The German authorities fully intended to distract public attention from their own rearming effort and the Führer's hostile intentions. Despite the Nazi flags borne by the 500-man German delegation and their Heil Hitler saluting, the French participants and observers were utterly duped. Franco-German relations seemed to have advanced, steps had taken back from some bottomless precipice. Four years later, though, Verdun and Paris were both occupied by the German Army. France was utterly defeated. 

French Veterans at the Nighttime Event in the Cemetery

In the run-up to the Second World War the 5.5 million-man French veteran community and its official organization, the Anciens Combattants, were powerful voices in politics. Their advocacy for international peace, strengthened by the apparent success of the Veillée de Verdun, negated in good part French "alarmists" attempting to prepare the nation for the coming onslaught. Even after France surrendered in 1940, the Anciens Combattants were the strongest supporters of Verdun hero Henri Pétain's collaborationist government. Apparently, the price of the victory at Verdun included an epidemic of self-deception for a generation of France's warriors.