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 25, 2018

The Road to Passchendaele
Reviewed by David Beer

The Road to Passchendaele:
The Heroic Year in Soldiers' own Words and Photographs

by Richard van Emden
Pen and Sword, 2017

As an author of books on WWI, Richard van Emden needs very little introduction. This, his latest book, maintains the high standards of his previous ones and proves to be not only lively and full of detail but also captivating. The author makes full use of his enviable personal archives of photographs taken sub rosa during the conflict, plus the letters and diaries of the men who were there. In this case van Emden focuses on four 1917 offensives: Arras, Messines, Third Ypres (Passchendaele), and Cambrai. By the time I finished this book I felt I had considerably more insight and empathy regarding the true feelings of the men and officers who fought in these battles.

British Wounded at Passchendaele

It was a pathetic sight to see the old horse, of whom I had grown very fond, bleeding profusely and suffering pain, and my conscience smote me for having spurred and sworn at the poor creature when he had stood petrified with fright a quarter of an hour before (p. 276).

1917 was a terrible year for everyone, men and horses. At sea there was unrestricted German submarine warfare and Britain's blockade of Germany. The Western Front saw some of the nastiest warfare yet. Increasing numbers of Britons were being conscripted and sent to France, some unhappily.

We were getting many conscripts from home, and I was intensely sorry for them. Many were middle-aged, with wives and families, and to be put straight into action, as many of them were, was beyond all question a far greater trial than we veterans had to begin with (p. 28).

It was gradually dawning on both sides that this might become a war of attrition, and what the United States would do was still an open question. Moreover, the winter of 1917 was unusually severe in northern France and Flanders. This is the context in which The Road to Passchendaele presents the written thoughts and feelings of the participants. Conditions are effectively brought to light by some 170 rare sepia-toned photos, as well as by the text:

3 August: Still raining. Great difficulty experienced with the guns owing to the trails and wheels sinking so deeply into the soft, wet ground. The whole battery had to heave on one gun every time it had to be pulled out to switch. Every conceivable means was adopted to try and prevent the trails sinking so deep, but none were very successful (p. 270).

Eight chapters cover the battles, and apart from the author's relatively brief discussions of the background military situations, we're carried through events by the words of the men: officers of various ranks plus privates, sappers, gunners, linemen, drivers, stretcher bearers and NCOs-although overall more officers are cited, possibly because of their superior writing skills. Occasionally there is a cheerful note but more likely it is the opposite, as, for example, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 at 3:00 AM:

A wretched awakening, pitch dark, cold, with a keen wind blowing. One can perhaps imagine the feelings of everybody that morning searching about in the darkness for equipment, chilled to the bone, half asleep, stumbling over other men's equipment and on top of all, the knowledge of a very fair prospect of 'pushing daisies up' before nightfall (p. 70).

British Soldiers with German Prisoners, Cambrai, November 1917

At this advanced date of the war it's surprising that cavalry was still sometimes used. At Monchy the results of an ill-advised charge were clearly seen:

As we turned the bend of the road to go up the hill, I stopped. The sight that greeted me was so horrible that I almost lost my head. Heaped on top of one another and blocking up the roadway for as one could see lay the mutilated bodies of our men and horses. These bodies, torn and gaping, had stiffened into fantastic attitudes. All the hollows of the road were filled with blood. This was the cavalry. (p. 93)

Elsewhere we learn a lot about tanks and how they were so limited in their movements. The arduous and dangerous work of "ambulance men" (stretcher bearers) and telephone linemen during battle are described by more than one writer, as are many other situations experienced and processed by those in the trenches. Occasionally I was surprised by conflicting emotions. During an advance through a barrage, after seeing numerous German corpses—including one with the top half of his head blown off—a young private writes:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun. You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects…I never enjoyed anything so much in my life-flames, smoke, lights, SOS's, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage properties to set off a great scene…From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic. . . (p. 356-358)

Another soldier, on the night before moving up to the trenches to go over the top, is more introspective:

I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the distant future when war should be no more, and the accursed trenches were only a memory, but I could see no future. I could not look beyond the next two days. My life, and the lives of thousands of other men, were but the playthings of the moment. In a couple of days, perhaps less, the acres of Klein Zillebeke would be stained with forty-eight hours their fresh young bodies would have started to rot…It was a stark raving fact that 20 per cent of the men were not expected to be living in two days from now. (p. 323)

It's been said before that the Great War had as many interpretations and reactions to it as there were people fighting in it. The Road to Passchendaele hints at this as it takes a broad cross-section of those who were there and gives us rich insights into their feelings, reactions, fears, and personal triumphs. I found these insights absorbing and enlightening and I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the very personal side of World War One in 1917.

David Beer

Monday, September 24, 2018

Kaiser Bill's Brother Henry

Henry, Prince of Prussia (1862–1929), the second son of Kaiser Frederick III and brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a respected naval officer.  One-time commander of the High Seas Fleet, he headed German naval forces in the Baltic during the war as a Grand Admiral.   He also held the post of Inspector General of the Imperial Navy.  He stepped down in February 1918 after the Bolsheviks had taken Russia out of the war.

His was a completely different personality than his brother, showing extraordinary tact in prewar visits to China and the United States. An outstanding seaman, Henry was a strong supporter of technology and innovation in the navy.  He was revered by his officers and sailors but had a conflict with Admiral Tirpitz that kept him from being influential at the highest levels of wartime policy-making.  After Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication, he continued to live in Germany and died there in 1929 of throat cancer, as had his father.  Two of his sons carried hemophilia, inherited from their mother, Princess Irene of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Photo from the Pritzker Military Museum

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orwell on the Nature of World War I Literature

George Orwell (Top Right) with the British Home Guard in WWII

In his 1940 literary essay "Inside the Whale" George Orwell contrasted the best  Great War's writings by its participants with those of contemporary author's who ignored the fighting and other authors who later wrote about the Spanish Civil War of which he was a veteran.

During the past ten years literature has involved itself more and more deeply in politics, with the result that there is now less room in it for the ordinary man than at any time during the past two centuries. One can see the change in the prevailing literary attitude by comparing the books written about the Spanish civil war with those written about the war of 1914-18. The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, ‘What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure. . .

If one looks at the books of personal reminiscence written about the war of 1914–18, one notices that nearly all that have remained readable after a lapse of time are written from a passive, negative angle. They are the records of something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void. That was not actually the truth about the war, but it was the truth about the individual reaction. The soldier advancing into a machine-gun barrage or standing waist-deep in a flooded trench knew only that here was an appalling experience in which he was all but helpless. He was likelier to make a good book out of his helplessness and his ignorance than out of a pretended power to see the whole thing in perspective. 

As for the books that were written during the war itself, the best of them were nearly all the work of people who simply turned their backs and tried not to notice that the war was happening. Mr E. M. Forster has described how in 1917 he read "Prufrock" and other of Eliot's early poems, and how it heartened him at such a time to get hold of poems that were ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’:

"They sang of private disgust and diffidence, and of people who seemed genuine because they were unattractive or weak...Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being so feeble...He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage."

That is very well said. Mr MacNeice, in the book I have referred to already, quotes this passage and somewhat smugly adds:

"Ten years later less feeble protests were to be made by poets and the human heritage carried on rather differently...The contemplation of a world of fragments becomes boring and Eliot's successors are more interested in tidying it up."

Similar remarks are scattered throughout Mr MacNeice's book. What he wishes us to believe is that Eliot's ‘successors’ (meaning Mr MacNeice and his friends) have in some way ‘protested’ more effectively than Eliot did by publishing "Prufrock" at the moment when the Allied armies were assaulting the Hindenburg Line. Just where these ‘protests’ are to be found I do not know. But in the contrast between Mr Forster's comment and Mr MacNeice's lies all the difference between a man who knows what the 1914–18 war was like and a man who barely remembers it. The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. 

If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of "Prufrock" than The First Hundred Thousand or Horatio Bottomley's Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

But, after all, the war of 1914–18 was only a heightened moment in an almost continuous crisis. At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all, decent people. 

The full (longish) essay can be read HERE 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

In Their Own Words: America on the Brink of War

From In Their Own Words of the Doughboy Center

Christianburg, Virginia

Clay and gravel roads, wooden sidewalks, kerosene lamps (later gas), and the simplest sanitary arrangements represented [American] civilization. It was not surprising... to see a sign painted in large letters on the side of a store where there were public baths, which read, "WHY MESS UP THE KITCHEN. BATHS FIFTEEN CENTS." The important facility in a village was the livery stable... The village was equipped with few conveniences... Each morning the grocery-man sent his wagon from house to house taking orders. In two or three hours the same wagon would return with the goods.

Capt. Geo. Van Horn Moseley, Fifth Artillery Brigade
Unpublished Memoir 

The country was a lot different before the First World War...More farm boys, and more folks who hadn't learned English yet...Their families had just arrived here.

Pvt. Al Furrer, Ammunition Train, 4th Division
1989 Interview

Greencreek, Idaho

The affair of the Lusitania has gone through me again and again. I feel as if I could not just go ahead as I have since the war started, making plans for my own advancement, or my own family's welfare...Thousands of men have given their lives to the end that Germany is not already in a position to destroy every woman, baby, and law of God, which interferes with [their] affairs... if I could go to this war as a citizen of the world, I would pray to be allowed.

Lt. Edwin Abbey, 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles,
American KIA April 1917, Letter

New York City

When I was a little boy about ten years old, my father went to Europe to visit his aged mother in Germany...After that I used to dream of an ocean voyage to Europe and particularly Germany... Little did I then think that "My First Journey" to Europe would be with a gun in my hands on a mission to kill my German cousins...I can think of no better starting point than August 9th, the second Sunday in August 1914. The previous week the war had fully exploded in Europe. We are in church, a little North Philadelphia...the people who composed our little congregation, hard working, honest, God-fearing. The older generation had, almost all, been born in Europe, the younger generation in the United States. All were American citizens, every one of them... 

Sergeant Maximilian Boll, 79th Division
Unpublished Manuscript, First Journey

Friday, September 21, 2018

St. Mihiel Salient: After the Battle

(Note:  The 103rd Field Artillery of the 26th Division had been made a major contribution to the recent victory.  A few days later, the division had been moved to the reserve and was position in territory that had been occupied by the German Army for four years.)

From:  Shadowboxing the Apocalypse: The WWI Correspondence of Dr. Theo Hascall, 103rd F.A. 26th Yankee Division by Shawn Pease

Behind the Hindenburg Line. 
Sept. 15, 1918.

My very dear Wife, 

Well, Dear, after all the marching, wet, rainy camps here we are at last in the woods where Heinie Fritz Bosche has lived for the last four years. For 4 days I lived in a leaky old dug out with a YMCA man, a Mr. Patterson. The place had a fireplace in it in which we kept a roaring fire days and evenings and had some good games of whist. Well at one o’clock on the morning of the 12th all out guns opened up and there was plenty of noise for a few hours. Some reply from Fritzie but guess he was smothered for after noon we stopped firing and got news that our Infantry was still pushing them. Couldn’t move the next day the roads were shot up so badly and we had had so much rain – but yesterday noon we started out and it took us about 8 hours to go 12 kilometers! 

A mighty slow and tiring trip but one part of it was intensely interesting as it was at the Hindenburg line. Here was a bad hill and bad road and it took our column a long time to make it. As my cart and ambulance are the tail end of a Battalion line of march, I walked ahead and had a chance to look over No Man’s Land and the strong cement dug outs, trenches and machine gun pill boxes showed that Mr. Bosche has sure put in a lot of work and had reason for believing his line to be impregnable. But it didn’t take our Artillery long to make hash of it! 
This is the first big operation the Americans have put through alone and it surely has been a great success. 
One of 155mm Artillery Pieces of the 103rd FA Regiment

Just at present our Regiment is occupying a reserve position, the objectives of the Drive being attained. Now whether we will go up again and start a new drive or old the position, or go to some other sector or go back for the rest of our rest period and permissions – no one knows except those higher up and they are not telling us yet. Guess they want to see just how far Fritzie is going to retreat before they decide themselves! 
Late supper tonight – it won’t be ready until 19 o’clock though we usually eat at 17. 
We’ve had canned willy and bread with and without coffee for 5 successive meals and the cook was waiting to see if any new rations were coming. No such luck – so its corned willy again with the addition of potatoes. Believe he’s going to try to camouflage it by making fish cakes out of it! 
The mail is no better. Hadn’t heard from the folks for weeks. Just now had a letter dated Aug 19 from Mother and one from Higgins of same date. There must be at least three or four due me still from you and a bunch from the folks – if not from anyone else. 
How goes everything at home? Kiddies back at school, I suppose and Eastern Star and EOW in full swing again. Well I’m beginning to hope that I’ll be home by a year from now. Let’s hope so anyway. I’ve been very lucky so far – nary a scratch or gas or sickness, just doing my bit without any D. S. crosses or Croix de Guerres. The Artillery doesn’t have much chance for reckless exhibitions of bravery anyway. The ordinary routine takes enough courage at times, without any frills! Well, chow is ready; will finish later.

Well that’s the best timed Bill  [corned beef] I’ve ever had – there was plenty of lard or grease and the cakes were well done. 

It’s too dark to write more tonight and lights are not allowed, so I will finish tomorrow. Goodnight, Sweetheart, sweet dreams.

Monday noon Sept. 16 –
Days work done and I’ll try to finish this before dinner. 
After two weeks of continuous rain the last three have been hot and sunshiny without a cloud in the sky. As per usual we are camping in some woods with our wagons camouflaged. Pat and I have a couple of rubber blankets stretched across some sticks for a roof and litters for beds and we are very comfortable. Pat – or Mr. Patterson – is a young Canadian from the University of Alberta. He has a deformed left arm which makes him unfit for military duty but he’s a hustler and very popular with the boys getting YMCA supplies whenever possible. Unfortunately on drives or other moves it’s hard work always to make connections. He hasn’t been with the Regiment or Battalion very long but the boys all hope he won’t be transferred as he had their interests at heart all the time. 

A Destroyed German Command Post in the St. Mihiel Salient

 I went “scouting” yesterday through a lot of old German (not so very old at that) camps and trenches – but the Infantry, Machine Gunners and Engineers beat me to it and I could find no souvenirs except a Bosche Red Cross haversack. Pretty bulky and I doubt if I can sent it home, but it’s a pretty slick thing and I’d like to have it to show my friends later. 

Signs of activity at kitchen – a rattling of mess kits can be heard. Wonder how they will disguise the canned Willy or monkey meat this time? 

No disguise at all this time – just plain Willy warmed up – lordy hope we get some fresh rations – and mail soon. 

Well I guess I’ve exhausted my fund of information and I’ll close – 

Lots of love to you all, 

Lt. Theodore C. Hascall M.C. 
       103d  FA

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Images from My Last Battlefield Tour

In August 2018, I led my last First World War battlefield tour. I intended it to be a comprehensive tour of the American battlefields of the war with an emphasis on the sites of personal significance to the members, especially those who had relatives who served in the war. The size of the group had me concerned, but I got all the support I needed from my company, Valor Tours. It turned out to be a wonderful success. Thanks to everyone who participated.

The full group at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery
Supt. Bert Caloud on the far right

Bob K. at the wheel of one of the veteran trucks of the Voie Sacrée

The group did a walking tour through Belleau Wood  
from the memorial glade to the hunting lodge.

Bruce Malone, Supt. of the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.  We visited all the WWI Cemeteries in France and Belgium, and Bruce and all his colleagues at the ABMC sites gave us a wonderful welcome.

Jim O. at the Lost Battalion Site

Jose F., Tracy B., and Gary L. remembered the fallen of the Rainbow Division at the Croix Rouge Farm, 42nd Division memorial.  
Gary's grandfather served in the division.

Your editor with Virginia D. at the St. Juvin monument to the 16th Infantry, 1st Division.  Virginia's dad served with the division.

On our first day, we stopped at Le Hamel, where the U.S. 33rd Division supported a notable Australian victory on 4 July 1918.

Your editor with Mary Jane and Tim K. at the Meuse Heights.  Mary Jane's great uncle participated in a rescue mission at this location while serving with the 90th Division.

Preserved trenches at Navarin Farm, Champagne
Blanc Mont Ridge visible in the distance

Robin Richmond discusses the crossing of the Meuse River the last night of the war by the 5th Marines of the 2nd Division at this site.  Robin's uncle participated in the action.

North of Soissons is the Château de Blérancourt, 
site of the Musée Franco-Américain

On our final day of touring we visited General Pershing's former headquarters at Souilly.

View of Verdun from our hotel at the former officers club

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Australian Corps Assaults the Outposts of the Hindenburg Line

An Australian Lewis Gun Team in Péronne

After the capture of Mont St. Quentin and Péronne, depleted Australian divisions continued to rotate and the 1st and 4th now took over. Monash agreed that the men of his other divisions, who had been in action since 27 August, "were so tired from want of sleep and physical strain that many of them could be seen by the roadside, fast asleep." By 10 September the Australians were only a few kilometres from the forward outposts of the main enemy line. There the Germans were occupying trenches that had once belonged to the British but had been lost in the enemy advance back in March.

A week later, on 18 September, in the rain, the two divisions were in heavy action once more and advanced beyond the villages of Le Verguier, Villeret, and Hargicourt. In this important action, known as the battle of the outpost line, each division advanced on a two-brigade frontage, fighting across old British trenches, and carrying their lines well forward to finally overlook the main enemy defences.

On the Move Again

The attacking battalions were protected by a good creeping barrage, and once again a lot of smoke shells were fired. This time Monash used twice as many machine guns, drawing the extras from the 3rd and 5th Divisions. "This gave me a total of 256 Vickers Machine Guns on a frontage now reduced to 7,000 yards," he wrote. In the absence of enough tanks he used deception; he had some dummy tanks made up from canvas, hessian, and timber. On the morning of the attack these were dragged to positions where the enemy would see them and believe that they were part of a much stronger assaulting force.

These actions on the Australian front were not isolated successes. The Allies were pressing forward. To the south the Americans, now engaged in big battles, as well as the French, made major advances. The German forces were falling apart, and as the British, Americans, French, and Belgians assaulted their lines a lot of territory was being given up. Still the Hindenburg Line stood as a major and imposing obstacle.

The Australians’ 1st and 4th Divisions contained brigades that had been fighting since the legendary landing at Gallipoli in April 1915. Now, although physically near the end of their tether, and with few riflemen available in their battalions, the two divisions had brought the advance right up to confront the Hindenburg Line. But these divisions were not fit enough for any further fighting and needed to be rested and reinforced before the winter. It was time for them to be relieved and go back to the rear areas. On the right, the 46th Division of the British 9th Corps took over from the 4th Division. Meanwhile some more of the Americans were moving into the Fourth Army’s operational sphere, arriving by 22 September.

Moving Through the Captured Outpost of Hargicourt

For General Monash, the reinforcement crisis had become critical. Less than half the number needed were coming from Australia.  The AIF was still dependent on voluntary enlistments after the prime minister’s proposals in 1916 and 1917 to introduce conscription had been defeated in referendums at home. Already the recruiting standards had been lowered; by 1918 the minimum required height had fallen to just 5 feet, and the age range had been extended to 18–45 years. Those who now joined up were almost exclusively directed toward the infantry, where the casualties had been heaviest. 

Within a week, however, the Australian Corps would be facing its greatest challenge of the war, the capture of the Hindenburg Line.

Source: Amiens to the Hindenburg Line, Australian Department of Veterans Affairs

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Letters from the Boys
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Letters from the Boys:
Wisconsin World War I Soldiers Write Home

by Carrie A. Meyer
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018

The human stories of a war can often be found in the letters home from the front. They provide insights into what was on the soldiers' minds, what they wanted to tell, and what they were allowed to tell. Letters from the Boys is drawn largely from the collection of Great War letters from soldiers to their homes in Green County, Wisconsin, found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Most of the soldiers whose letters are featured enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard.

Soldiers of the Wisconsin National Guard Departing for Camp Douglas, 1917

For many their journey to France started with training at Camp Douglas, 90 miles northwest of Madison. After a few weeks there three companies were transferred from the 42nd "Rainbow" Division while others moved to Waco, Texas, to Camp MacArthur, named for Wisconsin's Arthur MacArthur, Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War and hero of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Rebellion. Incorporated into the 32nd Division, they left Camp MacArthur for Camp Merritt, New Jersey, to await trans-Atlantic transportation from Hoboken.

The narrative includes a general introduction to the milieu of Green County and Wisconsin from which the men were drawn. The reluctance of Wisconsin to embrace the war cries and its response to the declaration of the war are chronicled and documented by statistics of the numbers of American and Wisconsin casualties.

The letters tell the spirit and events of the times in what they say and what they do not. From Camp Merritt, New Jersey, on 30 January 1918 "Teddy Roosevelt gave us a dandy talk." Impressions of their first ocean voyage varied. According to Melvin Lynn, the people on the ferry boats cheered us. There were many seasick days…At night not a light was to be seen and the thought that we might encounter a sub...sure gave one a creepy feeling .(p.28)

More upbeat was Clarence Bontly:

I want to tell you of our trip across. It was simply great, and I have never enjoyed anything quite so much. (p. 28)

In France things were different:

The French train is not like one in the U.S. Our train was made up of about 35 box cars which are about one-half size of a box car at home. They are marked '8 chevaux ou 40 hommes' which in English is 'eight horses or forty men.' You have a little straw on the floor of the car with which to make your bed. (p. 30-31)

The influence of censors is reflected in the vague references to conditions and questions about home. Correspondence describing life at the front is rare but transformative. The words of the warriors take readers back to Mars' realm in a way that no researchers can rival. Get comfortable, become insensitive to your surroundings, open your mind's eye and read the words from the front. As Reuel R. Barlow wrote:

Big guns are knocking the top off a long ridge over here, and I feel sorry for the Germans when the Americans and French let loose. The Americans fire the French gun six times as fast as the French do, because they load it on the recoil…German prisoners…ask what kind of "machine-gun artillery" the Americans have, because they shoot so rapidly. The French are afraid that the gun will jam and blow up. Not so the Americans. They pack her full and let her go.

We have been under shell fire four days...the Boche have been pushed back…At night I see only the trunks of the shell-stripped trees against the sky…Our own artillery is behind us and it bangs...the sound of machine gun fire off to the northeast, and then the whistle and bang of shells coming over…A spectacular sight at night is to see the sheets of flame that burst from the big guns, situated in a straight line along a ridge as far as one can see. I wish I could describe…the scenes I have witnessed in a certain little valley where once there were many villages, but now nothing is discernable but the foundations of buildings and a few crumbled walls, around which swarm thousand of Americans, with all their paraphernalia. We see German planes fall every day and air battles every few hours.

Sincerely, from the other side of the Hindenburg line
(pp. 73-76)

Letters reflect the fears and enthusiasm of a fighting and advancing army. Great War students are indebted to author Carrie A. Meyer for mining the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society to extract these gems from the historical record. She supplements the letters to set the stage for soldiers' tales. The epilogue answers the quest of what became of these correspondents after returning to Wisconsin.

I will close with two quotes. We want to know how the Armistice was reported:

Alors mes petite enfants. La guerre es fini, n'est ce pas?..the war is over…Germany is all through, down and out, and a second-rate power. Her War Lord (?) in flight, the Crown Prince in tears, and the country in a revolution.

I won't be home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but if the flu don't get me, I ought to be with you by the Fourth of July. (pp. 192-193)

Men of the 32nd Red Arrow Division Parading in Milwaukee, 1919

With the advent of peace, a writer's thoughts were eased and turned to the mundane:

We are still leading an aimless existence…we are doing a jitney service. Just had a big bowl full of milk so, all in all, I am quite "comfy"…I guess I will just have to scratch and have a mighty cootie army until I get into decent clothes again. . . I am tired tonight, so will hit this pile of feathers. I want to come home. (pp. 195-196)

Patient, peaceful, humorous, hopeful, only its date is ominous—7 December 1918.

James M. Gallen

Monday, September 17, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Capt. Timothy L. Barber, MD, 313th Infantry, 79th Division

Capt. Timothy L. Barber was a physician and a surgeon in Charleston, WV, when the United States entered the war.  Barber organized a medical unit made up of local men. In July 1918, he was detached from his unit stationed in Fort Meade, MD and sent to France to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

On 10 October 1918 he died in a field hospital after triggering a German mine.

In a letter to his mother, Dr. Barber wrote:

Just a line to assure you that I am all right.  Have been on the firing line a week and it was like a lifetime in hell!  It was one of the worst and bloodiest battles of the war, and why or how I came through it is more than I can tell.

We have been going from one hill and woods to another ever since being relieved—sleeping in the rain and on the hillsides—no baggage, dirty, no water to wash in and very little to drink, marching 10 to 20 miles every night, the men all tired from the six days of continuous fighting.  My mother, you cannot imagine what a terrible life this is!  I am 10 years older already, and have seen all my friends and comrades blown to pieces beside me.  The suffering has been great.  We lost about 45 or 50 percent of our regiment.

Have received a number of letters which I will answer as soon as we stop long enough to get my mind together, and paper enough to write on.

We leave tonight for the front again.

Capt. Barber is buried in the U.S. Meuse-Argonne Cemetery Plot F, Row 32, Grave 4

Source: ABMC

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Roads Classic: Flying Over the St. Mihiel Salient

Lt. George Churchill Kenney was one of America’s most distinguished military men. A career Air Force officer who enlisted as a private and rose through the ranks, at the end of World War II he was commanding general of the Allied Air Forces in the Pacific; later he headed the Strategic Air Command for two years before retiring in 1951 as a four-star general. Soon after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, he signed up for the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, United States Army. At 27 he was two years above the age limit for combat flying, but he concealed his true birth date, passed the physical, and was sworn in. After learning to fly at Hazelhurst Field in Mineola, New York, he arrived in France in December, underwent two months of advanced training at Issoudun, and received orders to report to the 91st Aero Squadron, where he served as an aerial reconnaissance pilot, winning two aerial victories and several decorations. He kept a diary throughout his service. These are the entries for the period during which the American First Army was conducting its first offensive to reduce the St. Mihiel Salient.

6 September — … The Germans dropped a note saying that Foster was a prisoner unhurt but that Siebring was dead. A note in Pep’s handwriting was enclosed asking us to send him cigarettes, canned kidneys, and his tennis racket to his prison camp through the Red Cross in Switzerland. This system works well. All the letters from the prisoners agree that the stuff sent them comes through all right.

11 September — …Major Reynolds gave us the advance dope on the new first all-American offensive, which jumps off tomorrow at daybreak to reduce the Saint-Mihiel salient...

91st Aero Squadron Insignia

12 September —Americans over the top after a brute of a night of artillery preparation fire. The Saint-Mihiel salient is busted. Every town in the salient on the German side is in flames. The old lines are dead. Hellish flying weather all day but lots of it just the same...

13 September —Got up for the early flight but the clouds were down to the ground. The guns up at the front were still going strong. Went over at 10:00 A.M. on visual reconnaissance from 100 meters to 300 meters altitude. … The Americans are into the Hindenburg Line in three places.

14 September —Up on a six-plane photo mission but I was delayed on the take-off and missed the formation. As we had a camera, Bill and I went over anyhow. Got a few good pictures but the weather was too cloudy to finish the job. Six Boche, Pfalz or Fokkers, jumped me near Etain and chased me out to the west of the sector toward Verdun. As soon as they left, we went back in for a visual reconnaissance. Over Conflans, the carburetor backfired and blazed up. I sideslipped and dove and the fire finally went out. We got back home after about three hours’ flying. The plane was pretty badly shot up by Archie fire...Strahm and Wallis had another fight with six red-nosed Fokkers. Looks like the Germans have moved the Richthofen Circus into this sector. They paint the noses of their planes red...

Salmson 2a of the Type Flown by Kenney

15 September —…Went over with Badham on a photo mission. Diekema and Hammond and Cole and Martin flew protection for us. Over Gorzé we were jumped by four Boche, Pfalz Scouts. Badham [Kenney's gunner] shot one down from about fifty meters. He went up in a zoom and fell off in a vrille, on fire, and disappeared in the woods below. My ship was badly shot up with one of the elevators almost off and wobbling. I turned back toward the field wondering how much longer we would be flying. As Diekema and Cole closed up behind me, one of the Boche dove on Cole’s plane and opened fire. At the first burst, a bullet pierced Cole’s neck forcing him to make for the lines and an emergency landing before he fainted from loss of blood...This evening, the doctors over at the Toul hospital said that Cole would be all right and back in…about six weeks.

Source:  American Heritage, December 1969

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who Was Handley Page?

Frederick Handley Page (1885–1962) was a British aircraft designer and manufacturer, who opened the world's first aircraft factory in 1909.  During the war Handley Page specialized in building bombers, culminating in the O/400 twin-engined bomber and the first British four-engine bomber, the V/1500. These aircraft were intended to undertake long-range strategic bombing.  His post-WWI business focused on commercial aviation.  In the Second World War his company built the Halifax bomber and military transports, and in the 1950s, returning once more to bombers, produced the Victor jet-powered strategic bomber.

Sources:  Who's Who in World War One, Britannica Online, the RAF Museum

The Handley Page O/400

The Handley Page V/1500

Friday, September 14, 2018

After Caporetto: How Italy Recovered

By Paolo Morisi

An important aspect of World War One is the role played by the state in organizing the war effort both in terms of marshaling the troops to the front as well as mobilizing the society and the economy. The issue is of particular interest in the Italian case because the state was far less developed than in France or in Britain and thus had to catch up quickly by developing greater financial and organizational capacity after war was declared.

At the onset of the war, the government of Antonio Salandra expected a brief offensive campaign to take Trieste and Trento and put a quick end to hostilities. These hopes were soon disappointed. Between May 1915 and October 1917, the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought numerous battles, many of which along the Isonzo river. In the 12th Battle of the Isonzo
the Austro-Hungarian army, with German assistance, achieved a breakthrough at Caporetto, forcing the Italians to retreat to the Piave River. The Austro-Hungarian army did not advance beyond the Piave River as Italian troops resisted protecting their land.

Prior to the disaster at Caporetto the Italian authorities, led by the Paolo Boselli national coalition government, had adequately prepared the country for a long war. Boselli was an older statesman who assembled a very heterogeneous coalition by standing above partisan politics and urging all political parties to unite to face the crisis. 

First, the government organized the mass conscription of over 5 million men which were called into the army. More than half of these men were peasants, many of which were unable to read or write and did not understand the purpose of the war. Forced conscription challenged the state's legitimacy especially in the southern regions where sections of the population had previously sympathized with the Brigantaggio phenomenon, bands of toughs rebelling against the military and the police. But during the war when faced with violent outbursts the government would call on the Carabinieri to quell the revolt. The effectiveness of the Carabinieri allowed the government to continue its recruitment effort without major delays. 

Second, the government also organized an industrial mobilization economy aimed at boosting productive capacity. The state ran huge budget deficits, as it became the key customer of the developing industrial apparatus. Quick depreciation schedules, advance payments and favorable interest rates allowed the government to induce large corporations such as Fiat and ILVA to produce in a timely manner. Moreover, war production councils were set up where industry, government officials and regional authorities met to hammer out procurement plans. A dedicated Ministry of Arms and Munitions was created to oversee the production effort and coordinate all activities at the local and national level. 

Most importantly, the Boselli coalition preserved Italy's delicate parliamentary regime during wartime, thus preserving democratic institutions. The Supreme Army Commander Luigi Cadorna represented the biggest threat to democracy has he frequently called for extreme measures to ban free speech and intervened in political matters that were out of the sphere of competence of the military. Cadorna complained about Socialist propaganda against the war and asked for its suppression. He also fought very hard against Minister of the Interior Vittorio Emanuele Orlando and asked to have him removed. He even banned Leonida Bissolati, a minister acting as an intermediary between the government and the military, from entering the war zone. The national coalition resisted Cadorna's call for the suspension of democratic rights and isolated the extreme right in the parliament which wanted to establish an authoritarian government lead by the military.

After Caporetto, a new government was formed, led by Orlando, which continued most of the policies initiated by Boselli. But, Italian resistance along the Piave required both greater military and political responses. 

Caporetto had been the biggest single military disaster in Italian history. In October 1917 the Italian army suffered 10,000 deaths, 30,000 wounded, and 293,000 had been captured by the enemy. Moreover, during the retreat from Caporetto the Italian army had left behind 3,152 cannons, 1,750 large cannons, 3,000 machine guns, 300,000 guns, 1,600 heavy trucks, and 150 airplanes. For Italy the scope of the war had changed from an offensive to a defensive one as the Austro-Hungarians were close to capturing some of Northern Italy's biggest cities. The country was demoralized, the army was in disarray, and many civilians believed that the war had been lost. 

On the home front the war required an intense campaign of industrial innovation to reconstruct the Italian army with new equipment and supplies. At Caporetto the Italian army had been routed partly because the troops were war weary and lacked food, clothing, and adequate supplies. The domestic industry once gain remarkably increased production. Food rations for the soldiers, for instance, were increased to 3,580 (from 3,067) calories per day to overcome what had been thus far an insufficient daily diet. Moreover, to boost the morale of the troops and of the population, the government coalition decided to initiate a major propaganda campaign. A special Uffici P unit within the army was formed to adopt innovative propaganda techniques using cinema and printed media to instill a strong sense of patriotism as well as to better define the purpose of the war among the soldiers. Trench newspapers became very popular with the soldiers especially because they avoided excessive rhetoric and focused more on educational topics. An agency for the welfare of the soldiers was also formed, the Opera Nazionale Combattenti, to oversee pensions and other programs such as the creation of postwar rural cooperatives for the soldiers. 

On the military front a change in the top leadership was also deemed necessary by the government, and to that end General Armando Diaz replaced General Cadorna in November 1917. Cadorna major failings as a military strategist were that he had been unable to anticipate the Austro-Hungarian and German attack at Caporetto despite massive evidence that pointed to a major counteroffensive and his stubbornness in pursuing poorly planned and predictable offensive campaigns from 1915 through 1917. With Cadorna's dismissal the government finally took greater control over the military. Since then Italy had been the only democracy where the military had openly flouted the government's authority by at times refusing to give information relating to number of casualties and details over military operations. But by the end of 1917 a more balanced power relationship had been established between military and civil authorities. 

In addition, the government took two very important initiatives to strengthen the country's wherewithal in the face of foreign invasion. Two Arditi special forces had been recently set up. These volunteers, which participated in many bayonet and hand to hand combat attacks, quickly became heroes and set the example for the rest of the army. Italy badly needed something to hold on to in a time of crisis and the Arditi provided a much-needed bedrock of patriotism and heroism. In order to raise the low morale of the troops, the government also decided to change many of the harsh disciplinary policies enforced by Cadorna. Cadorna had treated his soldiers with disdain. He would randomly execute soldiers to discipline the troops and he would dismiss assistants that did not agree with his tactics. He had also ordered severe restrictions on the soldiers. For instance, they were not allowed to go into bars or to read certain newspapers while in or near the front line. Many of these restrictions were removed by the new government. Indiscriminate punishment shootings were no longer allowed and the government and the military no longer endorsed unnecessary counterattacks with little hope of success thus sparing the life of many soldiers. The number of casualties dropped considerably in 1918 to 143,000 as opposed to 520,000 the previous year. Only on 24 October 1918, when the course of the war had changed, did the military command begin a major counteroffensive by ordering the infantry and the cavalry to cross the Piave River. By 3 November the Austro-Hungarian army had been pushed back and Italian troops captured Trent and Trieste. 

In 1915 Italy was a recently created nation-state. Other recently established nation-states such as Russia, for example, were not able to sustain the war effort and were ultimately overwhelmed by military, political, and social crisis. The courage of the soldiers along with the resourcefulness of the government and society allowed Italy to successfully overcome those difficult years. The Great War represented a major stepping stone for the creation of a modern Italian national identity.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Prewar Russian Expansion

From the beginning of the 16th-century
through the middle of the 17th, Russia on
average annually added territory equivalent to
the size of the Netherlands, and it continued
expanding until World War I. No other state in
world history has expanded so persistently.
Richard Pipes

19th-Century European View of Russia: Huge, Barbarous, and Blind

Looking at a pre-WWI map of the world, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer vastness of Russia by 1914. Russia grew as a multinational and multicultural empire along with the Western European empires, but there was an important difference between them—the colonies of the Western European empires (those of Great Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain) were overseas, physically separated from their capitals. Russia, however, was a continental empire without a clear differentiation between the ruling core and its colonies, more like the Ottoman Empire. Although the Western European states developed national identities separate from their colonial possessions, Russia did not. Many historians have argued that Russia never was a nation-state but developed as an empire from the beginning. Its need for expansion was self-perpetuating—it was constantly conquering or acquiring territory populated by non-Russian ethnic and nationalist groups.

The Muscovite principality marked the geographic center of the territory settled by ethnic Russians in
medieval times, and the Muscovite court formed an efficient capital with a monolithic, militarized political organization. Neighboring political-military groupings were comparatively weak and vulnerable to invasion. However, these acquisitions formed a belt of regions of dubious political loyalty, arousing permanent insecurity in the core state, which responded with repression and further expansion of boundaries to create buffer zones. Because the Russians' deeply ingrained sense of territorial security created the need for both large and expensive state bureaucracy and military, Russia's commerce, economic growth, and technological development consistently lagged behind those of its European neighbors.

Yet Russia's vast natural resources, large territory and population, and ability to mobilize a large army made the country a formidable player in European politics. After the defeat of Charles XII and Sweden at Poltava in 1709 and the relocation of the capital from Moscow to the newly built St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea in 1713, Russia continued to expand in the Baltic region. Later in the century, under Catherine the Great, Russia expanded in the west through the three partitions of Poland (in 1772, 1793, and 1795) and to the south at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.

Far from St. Petersburg: Cossacks Patrolling the Border

The Cossacks are an interesting aspect of Russian imperialism. They were originally refugees from the Turkic states of Central Asia, who preferred a nomadic life on the steppes to serfdom. Their cultural inclinations made them perfect for fighting along the rough borderlands. After a centuries-long process they were co-opted into Russian service, becoming the vanguards of expansion and the
protectors of the frontier.

In the 19th-century, expansion continued to the south into the Caucasus and to the southwest into Central Asia. Historians have argued that the geography of Eurasia was as conducive for the Russians as it had been for the Golden Horde and Tamerlane, enabling the creation of a huge continental empire. Professor Edward Keenan has suggested that the tsars were pragmatic opportunists—in other words Russia expanded because it could.

However, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, Russia's imperial ambitions brought it into conflict with other nations and empires similarly ambitious or anxious about their declining fortunes. Throughout the 19th century, Russian rebuffs or defeats in Europe were repeatedly followed by greater attention and expansions to the east. For example, the defeat of Russia in the 1853–56 Crimean War at the hands of a coalition of France, Sardinia, the United Kingdom, and the Ottoman Empire was followed by extensive Russian conquests in the East. In the Caucasus, Russia had been fighting for decades, but pacification was nearly complete when in 1859 legendary Chechen leader Shamil was captured. In a series of successful military expeditions from 1865 to 1876 in Central Asia, Russia conquered the khanates of Kokand, Bokhara, and Khiva. The far eastern boundary of Russia had remained unchanged from the Treaty of Nerchinsk with China in 1689, but in 1858 China gave up the left bank of the Amur River to Russia through the Treaty of Aigun, and in the 1860 Treaty of Beijing, China ceded the Ussuri River region.  The reign of Alexander III saw expensive probes to the the south, threatening the British Raj, into Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. His son, Nicholas II, would suffer the humiliating loss of territory in the east in the war with Japan.

Source:  The Russia Balance Sheet by Anders Åslund and Andrew Kuchins