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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Battle on the 4th of July: Le Hamel, 1918



The capture of the town of  Le Hamel and its surrounding areas was thought to be a significant and strategic boon to the Allied cause in 1918. Capture of these areas would provide an important foothold around the Somme area, as well as adding depth to defenses on Hill 104—the Villers-Bretonneux plateau. Perhaps most important, this area was the key to the defense of nearby Amiens. Unless they gained control over this area, Allied movements would be blocked between Villers-Bretonneux and the Somme, and mounting an offensive would be much more difficult.

Australian and Troops of the 33rd U.S. Division That Fought Together in the Battle

The Plan
The Hamel operation was under the command of Lieutenant General John Monash (his first as a corps commander), who stated:

It was high time that the anxiety and nervousness of the public, at the sinister encroachments of the enemy upon regions where he had never previously trodden, should be allayed by a demonstration that there was still some kick left in the British Army. I was ambitious that any such kick should be administered, first, at any rate, by the Australians.

The attack would primarily take the form of an infantry assault, but with significant tank and artillery support. Monash wanted to attack as early as possible, to avoid light, decreasing enemy visibility and protecting the troops from fire for as long as possible.

Planning was conducted in strict secrecy. Dummy installations were created to throw the Germans off, harassing fire was maintained while troops were getting into positions, and no daylight movement of troops was allowed—nothing that would warn that an attack was about to take place. Monash also asked for 18 planes to bomb Hamel, as well as older, noisier ones to distract attention from the noise of the tanks' whereabouts and movements. Several arms of attack were coordinated through the detailed and organised planning of Monash and his senior officers. All decisions and strategies were outlined, refined and formalised in group meetings.

A Mark V Tank in the Village After the Battle

The Attack
Of the attack, Gunner J.R. Armitage wrote in his diary:

The earth shook and the mind boggled at the concussion.

On 4 July, operations by the Australian Corps against Le Hamel and surrounding areas were launched. For the first time in the war, American troops acted as part of an offensive. Four companies were sent as attachments to the Australians, in an effort to give the Americans some firsthand battle experience.

The Hamel confrontation was described as a brilliant success. In two hours, all objectives were obtained, and 1,400 German prisoners were captured, as well as many weapons. Australian troops suffered 1,062 casualties, with 800 killed. Although Hamel was a great success for Australian troops, they had entered into battle already holding some strong cards. By July, the German offensives had been all but stopped. New techniques and weapons, such as the successful use of tanks at Cambrai in 1917, an artillery that was more comprehensive and had improved accuracy, and more Lewis guns (light machine guns), had significantly improved AIF performance by 1918. Better and faster communications were also an integral part of Hamel's success, such as the use of reconnaissance planes. Movements of German as well as Australian troops were marked on maps identical to those held by command below, and dropped down to motorbike riders who then dispatched the maps to the relevant section area. Consequently, Monash and battalion leaders had current information on the progress of the battle in minutes, compared with earlier laborious systems of communications.

Overlooking the Battlefield Today from the German Position

Planes were also used to drop ammunition and supplies to troops on the battlefield below by parachute—the first time in a battle on the Western Front that aircraft were used for this purpose. Use of the Mark V tank was also pioneered at Hamel and would continue to play a prominent role in 1918 battles. Sixty Mark V tanks and four supply tanks were used. In preparation, Monash made the men from the different tank and infantry divisions mix and form friendships, and each infantry battalion painted its insignia on a tank. As well as fostering camaraderie, this made it easier to plan movements, as each tank and battalion were color coded and would advance together. In the fighting, only three tanks were disabled, and many Germans troops surrendered when faced with them.

Artillery was used heavily at Hamel to hit German batteries, ammunition dumps, and installations. Two-thirds of the artillery power was directed at German counter-batteries, causing many German casualties, and destroying their artillery capability to hit advancing infantry. Combinations of artillery, high explosives, shrapnel, and smoke were employed, as well as heavy firepower (Lewis and 46 heavy machine guns) to move with the attack.

Infantry, artillery, tanks, and planes worked together for over two kilometers, with relatively few losses. Monash wrote:

A perfect modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases.

A civil engineer by profession, Monash perhaps better understood these precepts, and could see their best application when looking at a map of a battle plan. Monash's ability to realize the potential of these weapons when used in combination is what is said to have distinguished him from other commanders in the battlefield.

Le Hamel Memorial on the Plateau Commanding the Sector

French President Georges Clémenceau visited Australian troops who had fought at Hamel and said in a speech:

I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen: "I have seen the Australians, I have looked into their eyes. I know that they, men who have fought great battles in the cause of freedom, will fight on alongside us, till the freedom for which we are all fighting is guaranteed for us and our children."

Sources: Australian War Memorial Website

Friday, July 3, 2020

Artillery's Learning Curve in the Great War



French 75 in the Field in 1914

Overview

From the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, artillery is judged to have accounted for perhaps 50 percent of battlefield casualties. In the sixty years preceding 1914, this figure was probably as low as 10 percent. The remaining 90 pcente fell to small arms, whose range and accuracy had come to rival that of artillery.

It was not until the First World War, with its mostly static, soft infantry targets, that artillery was transformed through the use of indirect fire, improved target acquisition, [command and control], and heavy equipment and munitions. This primacy was reflected in the relative allocation of manpower to the artillery and the accounting by artillery for more than half the casualties inflicted in that war.

In the First World War successive events brought about fundamental revisions of tactics, counter-measures, and further evolution. Preoccupation with fire and maneuver of infantry gave way to concern for artillery firepower, machine guns, tanks, and aircraft. The art of command and control (C2) was seen to lie in the way a commander applied firepower, rather than in the way he deployed foot soldiers.

In 1914 infantry was still required to provide its own covering fire, when artillery was not available. Artillery fire, when provided, was almost always controlled by observed fire; counter-battery (CB) fire was advocated but generally impractical; harassing fire, let alone continuous fire, was seldom used, and artillery played little part in battlefield deception.

By 1918 artillery was expected to provide sufficient fire to spare the infantry a long firefight, thus saving their energy for penetration and exploitation phases of the battle. Artillery was expected to prepare a route through which the supported arm might pass; to achieve this it was given enormous quantities of ammunition and numerous technical aids. The increase in artillery strength relative to infantrymen doubled for the British and German Armies from 1914 to 1918 and tripled for the French Army.  

Advances in technique were such that the greater part of fire was either unobserved or unregistered. CB operations had become a science in fire superiority, with a separate organization and staff involved in a deep battle not previously conducted. The key to surprise and deception was no longer to be found in the placing and use of a "General Reserve," but in the methods of applying masses of artillery.

This transformation was common in varying degrees to all the belligerents and experienced four phases: 

  1. the realization in 1914 that existing artillery practice was inadequate, 
  2. the consequent testing of new methods and build-up of materiel in 1915
  3. the tactics of "mass destruction'"by artillery fire from 1916–17,
  4. and, finally, the adoption of "neutralization" from 1917–18.

The lessons learned from these experiences shaped the foundations of modern artillery operations, and many are still recognizable today. Maneuver is dependent upon firepower, and artillery must achieve equipment and fire mobility if it is to support maneuver operations successfully; artillery can be effective against armor as well as infantry; deep attack by artillery can influence the contact battle decisively; effective operations against enemy artillery are a prerequisite for the success of a combined-arms plan; the acquisition of targets by technical means is essential to successful artillery operations; C2 of firepower is at least as important as the design for maneuver  in battle; and operations are unlikely to succeed without thorough logistic, and primarily artillery logistic, preparation.

British Piece at Ypres, 1917

Some Specific Issues:

1.  New tactics were required to make best use of the firepower thus harnessed. At first these were characterized by the 'destruction' of everything in the path of advancing infantry, which had become impotent without artillery support. The vulnerability of attacking infantry forced artillery to devote the greater part of its effort to the close battle; but it was slow to learn that this effort would be better deployed against the men who manned the obstacles than against the obstacles themselves. Lengthy destructive bombardments sacrificed surprise, granted the enemy time to mobilize his reserves, and caused such damage to the terrain that the attempt to create tactical mobility created administrative problems, thwarting mobility on a grander scale and the possibility of a strategic penetration

The tactics of 'destruction' called for vast logistic support, particularly in the supply of artillery ammunition. The weights required and the conditions in which these traveled were largely responsible for the cumbersome character of operations. No attack could be planned until a commander was confident that he had sufficient ammunition, and this often determined the scale of an operation. When planning an attack, Foch was more interested in the numbers of guns than in the number of divisions available. It was useless to have more guns or order a higher rate of fire if ammunition was not available. If supplies were limited, it was sometimes necessary to narrow the sector of attack to generate the required density of fire.

2.  [After the Battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917] The relationship of artillery to other arms was. . .  redefined. Artillery was not required to aid mobility for the infantry by destroying obstacles and machine guns. Instead, it aided mobility by destroying or 'neutralizing' enemy artillery, and whatever infantry firepower might escape the tank. Surprise could not be achieved without forbidding registration. In earlier battles the techniques of predicted fire were too crude to guarantee accuracy, but by November 1917 major progress had been made. Target location for CB fire which did not exist in 1914, had been transformed from an art to a science. Indirect fire, which had proved dangerously inaccurate in!915, was a routine and reliable method of fire; and gas and smoke shells had become available in quantities that made 'neutralization' with these munitions a feasible alternative to 'destruction' with HE. Accurate maps were available and compensation was routinely made for meteorological conditions and variations in ammunition and the muzzle velocities of individual guns.

Artillery' s efforts were not reduced but redirected. The same mass of guns and equipment was still required, whose observation by the enemy might have compromised operations. All unit moves therefore were made in darkness and at the last possible moment, with great attention paid on arrival to camouflage. Artillery was unlikely to neutralize all opposing pieces with HE, so extensive use was made of gas and smoke.

3.  The lessons of spring 1918 were that artillery in defense must produce sudden and annihilating concentrations of fire on demand; that it must be sited in depth; and that artillery commanders should use their initiative to influence the close battle. To do this they needed good observation and communications. Their primary task was to delay attacking infantry, and put it out of synchrony with the supporting barrage, thus making it vulnerable to infantry firepower. It was also appreciated that as offensive mobility returned to the battlefield, artillery in defense would have to respond with greater flexibility and a capacity to react to the unforeseen.

Once strategic surprise had been lost, artillery bombardment returned to a normal pattern, but not to cutting wire. This task was carried out by tanks which also destroyed the machine guns covering it. Artillery's main task was to support this armored mobility against the threat of enemy artillery.

French Motorized Artillery Column, 1918 (Georges Scott)

4.  The role of artillery might have changed, but not its importance. The speed of the advance was still governed by artillery and the ability of the logistic organization to sustain it. The new role of artillery was seen in its deployment for the Battle of Amiens, which opened on 8 August 1918. Despite the large force of tanks, artillery density was only slightly less than it had been in 1917, and because there was no preliminary bombardment the number of guns and the weight of fire generated during the assault was far greater.

Source: Fire and Mobility, J.B.A. Bailey, The Military Press, 1989

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Random Thoughts on the Battle of the Somme, Part II: A Roads Classic


104 Years Ago Today, the Final 140 Days of the Somme Began



6. One mystery about the Somme that I've never seen satisfactorily explained is how the German Army, which had minimal casualties on 1 July, managed to catch up to the grand total for the British Army over the next 140 days. They started out with all the advantageous positions, and they knew the Allies' intentions. Didn't the machine gun and massed artillery give the defenders a decisive advantage? Everywhere else they did.

Vigil at Thiepval Memorial, July 2016

7.  The Pals Battalions and, in general, the commitment of the under-trained New Army divisions are part of the tragic dimension of the Somme and elements of its compelling mythic heritage with its soccer balls, the Leaning Virgin, sacred trees, and countless memorials and cemeteries of varied design. The near-annihilation of the experienced 29th Division (eight months continual combat at Gallipoli) in trying to capture the mine site on Hawthorne Ridge and Y-Ravine, however, shows that there were more fundamental flaws in the initial concept that the inexperience of the troops.

Hull Commercial Pals at the Somme, 28 June 1916

8.  The poor bloody infantry suffered the most, of course. But the failure of the campaign was due to the poor performance of the artillery. To begin with, the Royal Artillery simply lacked enough guns, especially larger pieces. None of their major missions—cutting the wire, destroying trenches and redoubts, supporting the advancing infantry, and suppressing enemy artillery—were accomplished to an acceptable level.  Plus, they suffered a high number of duds, many of which came from American suppliers.

9.  The Somme is the Great War's most remembered battle (at least in the English-speaking world). For instance, the U.S. Library of Congress catalog has 289 citations for the "Battle of the Somme" and 161 entries combined for the three biggest American battles of the war, the Second  Marne, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. I'm sure the ratio would be much greater in, say, the British Library. Why the Somme fascination? Some speculations:

a.  It was almost inhuman in scale. Beside the casualties, there is no better symbol of the Somme than the Lochnagar Mine Crater, fired on the first morning of the battle.

b.  Much of what we know about the Great War comes from British sources, and the Somme sent shock waves through the British Empire like no other event in history. It affected every level of their stratified society from the working class Pals of Accrington to the "playing fields of Eton." (Over 1,100 Etonians died on the Great War's battlefields.) It touched every corner of the empire—Canadians, Anzacs, South Africans, and even Indian Lancers, served and died at the Somme.

Robert Graves
Alan Seeger

c. The Somme marks a literary fault line. The early war poets, like Rupert Brooke, John McRae, and Alan Seeger, wrote of tradition, duty, and sacrifice. Well, Seeger dutifully met his "Rendezvous with Death" at the Somme on 4 July 1916. About the same time, two junior officers of the 38th Welsh Division named Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were approaching Mametz Wood, where their unit would encounter a brutal fight. They would help initiate what has become the more famous school of war writers, the rejectors of the past, who saw the war as futile and a great betrayal. Graves later wrote, "I found in Mametz Wood a certain cure for lust of blood" and aptly titled his war memoir Goodbye to All That.

10.  Final Irony

After all that happened in 1916, what happened next truly must have seemed to have made the whole effort appear futile. The red area marks all the territory captured by British and French forces in the 1916 battle. The green line marks Operation Alberich, AKA, the retreat to the Hindenburg Line (9 Feb–20 Mar 1917). The Allies were "gifted" with three times the territory they had bled barrels for, and the Germans were manning a shorter and much more defensible front line.



Roads to the Great War
Has Much More on the Battle of the Somme


Just enter "Somme 1916" in the search box at the top of the screen and you will find two dozen articles we have presented earlier on the battle.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Random Thoughts on the Battle of the Somme, Part I: A Roads, Classic


104 Years Ago Today, 

the Battle of the Somme Began



Last Sunday I had a wonderful time in Sacramento, CA, making a presentation on the coming centennial of the Battle of the Somme for the city library's World War I Revisited Project. The turn-out was a "full house" and the audience was engaged and knowledgeable about the war. Our host, James Scott, could not have been more hospitable and helpful. I made some notes for my PowerPoint presentation. Here are some of my comments and images I used during the presentation. In the past, Roads to the Great War has published numerous articles on the famous battle; at the bottom you can find some tips on how to quickly access them.

1.  In the English-speaking world the Somme is the war's signature battle. It gave the 20th century its most haunting image (at least before the mushroom cloud), the soldier rising out of a trench mowed down in no-man's-land in his tracks.
Men of the Newfoundland Regiment, 29th Division, 1 July 1916
In a Short Time 90 Percent of These Men Will Be Dead, Dying, or Wounded

2.  The First Day on the Somme is a story told over and over, but the next 140 days of the battle are the more important part of the tale. In the larger British sector, where the original intention was the rupture the German line, the battle seamlessly evolved into a war of attrition.The 60,000 killed and wounded they suffered on 1 July 1916 was multiplied by a factor of seven. Furthermore, in some dance of death, the German Army—despite having all the defensive advantages—managed to closely parallel the British losses.

3. Many authors focus blame for the incredible casualties on either Douglas Haig or 4th Army commander, Henry Rawlinson. Another entry in that discussion should be none other than General Joffre. Recall that France was the dominant member of the 1916 coalition and led (forcefully) the planning for that year's campaign. It was to be a joint French-British attack, originally with 39 French divisions committed. The requirements of dealing with Verdun did not inhibit Joffre's drive for the attack to proceed despite:

a.  An ever diminishing availability of French divisions, and

b.  The skepticism about the whole affair but the northern sector commander, Ferdinand Foch.

Thiepval, Now Site of the Largest Somme Memorial
Close to the Front Line But Not Captured Until September 1916

4.  General Foch was one of the victims of the Somme. After the failure of the five-month battles and losses that accumulated at the same rate as Verdun, he found himself in disfavor and was pushed to the side in favor of the rising star, Robert Nivelle. Luckily, Foch was rehabilitated in time to become the most important Allied general of the 1918 campaign.

5.  The rolling, apparently open country of the Somme looked like the perfect location to attempt a major breakthrough. However, the Germans had been in the sector since October 1914 and converted every village, rise, ridge, and forest into a defensive stronghold. After the failure of the first day's assault, following the sound military principle of reinforcing success, rather than failure, Haig's staff decided to push south of the Albert-Baupame Road where there had been some modest, although incredibly expensive success around Fricourt village, and the singular fully successful operation of the day, the capture of Montauban village.  The valley they chose to move through had a horseshoe of five small forests: Mametz, Bazantin, High, Delville, and Trones Woods. Each was a superb defensive position on a plateau, commanding the gently rising surrounding countryside. Readers know the story of Belleau Wood for the U.S. Marines. The middle phase of the Somme was Belleau Wood times five for the British Army.

Roads to the Great War
Has Much More on the Battle of the Somme

Just enter "Somme 1916" in the search box at the top of the screen and you will find two dozen articles we have presented earlier on the battle.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

On the Eastern Front 1914: Meine Kriegserinnerungen


by Werner N. Riess. Edited by Warren C. Riess.
1797 House, 2020
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer


Young Werner Riess  (Center) in 1902 with His Father and Brother

When I finished On the Eastern Front 1914 I thought of the motion picture Rollerball (1975) and a particular scene (I'm paraphrasing here) in which the protagonist asks the futuristic library computer to tell him about events in the 13th century. The computer answers by saying nothing of note happened during that time. In short, the entire 13th century was deleted because no one had seen any need for it. Many historians these days often overlook or ignore memoirs that are not done by notable people or that do not contain heroic battle scenes. I beg to differ with that viewpoint and this work shows how important daily life is.

On the Eastern Front 1914 was written by Werner Riess while he was convalescing from gall bladder surgery in 1915. He had just spent six months as an artillery corporal in charge of the 6th Battery Supply Team, with the 36th Reserve Artillery Regiment, 1st Reserve Corps, Eighth Army, in East Prussia. He tells us he wrote the memoir while the experience of war was still fresh in his mind. It probably was never meant for publication. Werner Riess had his manuscript typed out in two copies. (Interestingly, Warren Riess later had the book's type mimic typewritten letters, a nice touch.) These copies—the original handwritten manuscript no longer exists—remained with the family after Werner's death and were passed down to his grandson Warren, whose wife encouraged him to translate them into English and publish them.

A Battery Similar to Riess's Drilling Before the War

In these pages the reader will find a war of movement very unlike the image we all have about most of the war being a stalemate of trench warfare. Riess was extremely descriptive in explaining what life was like in an active battery during some of the most harrowing months of the war. His battery was involved in the battles of Gumbinnen, Tannenberg, and the First Masurian Lakes, but there is little bravado in his words. He's not in the thick of things although he comes under fire a number of times and has near-death experiences. Rather, he spends more time talking about nonstop movement to reach positions where the cannons opened fire. The reader experiences the road and weather conditions, the fatigue of countless hours of marching, and the wonder that a single soldier has about what all the movement and haste is about. Luckily, we have the editor to give us a more detailed picture of what was occurring.

Warren Riess has added a section in each chapter of the memoir that explains the strategic events his ancestor was going through. These sections are brief and very well written and include portions of letters to and from the author's wife that go into more detail than the memoir does. At times I was amazed that there was so much detail in the letters, which included place names, unit designations, and command structure names. At times, the information that the pages contain is overwhelming, a cornucopia of battle information. There are no heroics to applaud, although the mention of near misses is frequent. I wondered about this. Wouldn't this have caused his wife severe stress knowing that death could occur at any time? However, Riess and the people around him did their job to the best of their abilities and rarely looked for praise beyond the satisfaction that they had contributed to a victory or a successful retreat. He does not state that he was lucky or fated for something better.

Every so often the author hints at the horrors of the war through tacit remarks such as a comment about the youthfulness of a corpse lying on the side of the road, or about maiming injuries sustained by friends, or the destruction of homes due to artillery fire. He tactfully talks about the futility of the war—not easily done considering that he wrote the memoir during its first year when hopes were still high for a timely German victory. Riess never returned to the fray after his surgery and died (the circumstances of his death are unknown) sometime in 1918, probably before the war ended.

To counter the library computer material of Rollerball and sensationalist historians, the personal experience of a few months of war is worth knowing about. Riess did the job for which he was trained and duly documented it. The drudgery of the times is just as important as the moments of action. As a bonus, the editor has included a copy of the untranslated memoir for those who can read German and want to explore the innuendos that exist in the language. On the Eastern Front 1914 is a work that is a priceless reference guide for understanding the Great War on a personal level.

Michael P. Kihntopf

On the Eastern Front 1914: Meine Kriegserinnerungen

The Author Martin Riess (Center) as a Young Man with
His Father and Brother

by Werner N. Riess. Edited by Warren C. Riess.
1797 House, 2020
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer


When I finished On the Easter Front 1914 I thought of the motion picture Rollerball (1975) and a particular scene (I'm paraphrasing here) in which the protagonist asks the futuristic library computer to tell him about events in the 13th century. The computer answers by saying nothing of note happened during that time. In short, the entire 13th century was deleted because no one had seen any need for it. Many historians these days often overlook or ignore memoirs that are not done by notable people or that do not contain heroic battle scenes. I beg to differ with that viewpoint and this work shows how important daily life is.

On the Easter Front 1914 was written by Werner Riess while he was convalescing from gall bladder surgery in 1915. He had just spent six months as an artillery corporal in charge of the 6th battery supply team, with the 36th Reserve Artillery Regiment, 1st Reserve Corps, Eighth Army in East Prussia. He tells us he wrote the memoir while the experience of war was still fresh in his mind. It probably was never meant for publication. Werner Riess had his manuscript typed out in two copies. (Interestingly, Warren Riess later had the book's type mimic typewritten letters, a nice touch.) These copies-the original handwritten manuscript no longer exists-remained with the family after Werner's death and were passed down to his grandson Werner whose wife encouraged him to translate them into English and publish them.

A Battery Similar to Riess's in a Prewar Exercise

In these pages the reader will find a war of movement very unlike the image we all have about most of the war being a stalemate of trench warfare. Riess was extremely descriptive in explaining what life was like in an active battery during some of the most harrowing months of the war. His battery was involved in the battles of Gumbinnen, Tannenberg, and the First Masurian Lakes, but there is little bravado in his words. He's not in the thick of things although he comes under fire a number of times and has near death experiences. Rather, he spends more time talking about non-stop movement to reach positions where the cannons opened fire. The reader experiences the road and weather conditions, the fatigue of countless hours of marching, and the wonder that a single soldier has about what all the movement and haste is about. Luckily, we have the editor to give us a more detailed picture of what was occurring.

Warren Riess has added a section in each chapter of the memoir which explains the strategic events that his ancestor was going through. These sections are brief and very well written and include portions of letters to and from the author's wife which go into more detail than the memoir. At times I was amazed that there was so much detail in the letters, which included place names, unit designations, and command structure names. At times, the information that the pages contain is overwhelming, a cornucopia of battle information. There are no heroics to applaud although the mention of near misses is frequent. I wondered about this. Wouldn't this have caused his wife severe stress knowing that death could occur at any time? However, Riess and the people around him did their job to the best of their abilities and rarely looked for praise beyond the satisfaction that they had contributed to a victory or a successful retreat. He does not state that he was lucky or fated for something better.

Every so often the author hints at the horrors of the war through tacit remarks such as a comment about the youthfulness of a corpse lying on the side of the road, or about maiming injuries sustained by friends or the destruction of homes due to artillery fire. He tactfully talks about the futility of the war—not easily done considering that he wrote the memoir during its first year when hopes were still high for a timely German victory. Riess never returned to the fray after his surgery and died (the circumstances of his death are unknown) sometime in 1918 probably before the war ended.

To counter the library computer material of Rollerball and sensationalist historians, the personal experience of a few months of war is worth knowing about. Riess did the job for which he was trained and duly documented it. The drudgery of the times is just as important as the moments of action. As a bonus, the editor has included a copy of the untranslated memoir for those who can read German and want to explore the innuendos that exist in the language. On the Eastern Front 1914 is a work that is a priceless reference guide for understanding the Great War on a personal level.

Michael P. Kihntopf

Monday, June 29, 2020

Remembering a Veteran: Dr. William T. Fitzsimons, Medical Corps, AEF


By James Patton

Dr. Fitzsimons
William T. Fitzsimons was born in Burlington, Kansas, on 18 April 1889 and attended St. Mary’s Seminary before shifting to the University of Kansas (KU) School of Medicine, from which he received his MD in 1912. In September 1914, Dr. Fitzsimons felt compelled to travel to Europe to assist, in whatever way he could, those soldiers currently being ravaged by the early battles of the Great War. He spent six months treating the wounded at hospitals in England, and then crossed over to work in hospitals in Belgium, before returning home in late 1915.

Back in Kansas, Fitzsimons accepted surgical and teaching positions at the KU School of Medicine.  As soon as the United States declared war on Germany, Fitzsimons joined the Army Medical Reserve Corps. He was quickly commissioned a first lieutenant, and in July 1917, steamed back across the Atlantic. KU Med School Dean Dr. M.T. Sudler later said 

His voluntary return to France was made in spite of the fact that he had seen the Great War in all of its hideousness. He could have no feeling of romance, for he knew the grimness of the struggle upon which he entered; yet he felt that there was definite work which he could do; and perhaps the call came more clearly to him because of this former experience and knowledge.

The Army assigned Lt. Fitzsimons to a group of doctors called the Harvard Unit. He would serve with this unit for less than two weeks. On the night of 7 September 1917, Fitzsimons was killed during a German air attack on Base Hospital No. 5 near Dannes-Camiers in Pas-de-Calais, France. He was the first American officer and, with his comrades  Pvts. Oscar Tugo, Rudolph Rubino, and  Leslie Woods, one of the first four American soldiers to be killed by enemy action.   

The hospital was apparently the target of the attack, a colleague (Maj. Paul Wooley, MD) later recalled: “there was nothing of military value near the hospital tent in which he was working.” Some even claimed that the American unit itself was the target. Former president Theodore Roosevelt drew the country’s attention to Fitzsimons’s death with a scathing, front-page editorial that appeared in the 17 September 1917, edition of the Kansas City Star, denouncing Germany’s “calculated brutality,” her “deliberate policy of wickedness,” and her “systematic campaign of murder against hospitals and hospital ships.” 

In a moving eulogy, Dean Sudler said:

Any country is safe when such high ideals are held and practiced by its young men. This loss brings home keenly to the University of Kansas that the liberty of our country was again in jeopardy and that men were giving their all in order that democracy might live; and the future of a free country be safe-guarded.

In 1923 St. Mary's College, Where Fitzsimons Spent Time as an Undergraduate,
Dedicated This Arch in Honor of the Students Who Served in the War
and, Specifically, Fitzsimons Himself

KU Chancellor Frank Strong also praised Fitzsimons’s willingness to “give his life for the freedom of all humanity.” He praised Fitzsimons’s selflessness as indisputable evidence of how “our country has assumed the spiritual leadership of the world.” Strong also hoped that, in the future, all young men would be as willing as Fitzsimons to “feel the promptings of loyalty and respond so nobly to the call of their country.”

In 1920, the Army renamed its General Hospital No. 21 in Aurora, Colorado, as Fitzsimons General Hospital. The Army operated this facility until 1999, when it was turned over to the University of Colorado as the site of the Anschutz Medical Campus and the Fitzsimons Life Science District. In 1922 the William T. Fitzsimons Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Missouri, was also dedicated to his memory. It’s still there, at Paseo and E. 12th St..

Source: The University of Kansas

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Return of the Mayflower: American Destroyers Arrive at Queenstown


Click on Painting to Enlarge


Return of the Mayflower
Painting by Bernard F. Gribble. U.S. Naval Academy

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917 when Congress declared war on the German Empire. Literally days later, American naval officials met with their counterparts from the French and British navies who revealed the dire situation of the Allied war effort. This same message was being sent to U.S. Navy leadership by Rear Admiral William S. Sims, the officer sent to liaise with the British Admiralty in London. German submarines were inflicting tremendous losses on shipping bound for Allied European ports, particularly those in Great Britain. These losses were causing a disruption in supply shipments to the Allies that threatened to starve them into submission. The Entente naval officials requested assistance from the U.S. Navy, including the dispatch of destroyers and small anti-submarine vessels to combat the submarine menace. President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Benson agreed to initially dispatch six destroyers to Europe, a number soon increased to 36.



Division Commander Joseph Taussig (second from right) and His Officers


On 24 April 1917 six destroyers of Division Eight, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, under Commander Joseph Taussig were tied up in Boston, Massachusetts, prepared to depart immediately upon receipt of orders. The vessels were among the most advanced destroyers in the Navy at the time. Sealed orders from Washington arrived that morning and at 16:45 Davis (Destroyer No. 65) shoved off and steamed for open sea followed in single file by McDougal (Destroyer No. 54), Wainwright (Destroyer No. 62), Conyngham (Destroyer No. 58), Taussig’s flagship Wadsworth (Destroyer No. 60), and Porter (Destroyer No. 59). At a prescribed position 50 miles east of Cape Cod, Taussig unsealed his orders in which Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels tasked the division “to assist naval operations of the Entente Powers in every way possible.” He ordered the vessels to sail to the British naval base located at Queenstown (now Cobh, pronounced "Cove") on the southern coast of Ireland, ideally located to combat the submarines infesting the strategically essential Western Approaches to the British Isles.

After a difficult transatlantic cruise that was fraught with mechanical troubles and rough seas, the division encountered the British destroyer Mary Rose off the coast of Ireland on 3 May. The British vessel hoisted the signal “Welcome to the American colors,” and escorted her allies to Queenstown.


Photo of the Actual Arrival (Compare to Painting Above)


On the afternoon of 4 May 1917, the American sailors arrived at Queenstown. As British and American naval officials greeted the destroyers, small boats full of civilians packed the harbor and the town cathedral sounded a bell rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Motion picture clips taken of the arrival circulated throughout the British Isles in the following weeks and provided a needed morale boost to the populace. The pomp and celebration almost did not occur; only hours before Division Eight arrived, British minesweepers had cleared a path through a freshly laid German minefield outside of the harbor. The Germans had anticipated the American arrival as well.

After the division tied up at their Queenstown moorings, Commander Taussig and the ship captains reported to Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, RN, senior officer on the coast of Ireland. Navy folklore states that Bayly inquired when the Americans would be ready for sea. Commander Taussig immediately replied, “We are ready now, sir.” While Taussig wrote in his diary that he did not recall ever saying this, he does note that another American officer, who was in the room, assured him that he had said it. Nevertheless, after limited training and the installation of depth charges on some of the American destroyers, they departed from Queenstown for their first anti-submarine patrol on 8 May 1917.


Destroyer USS Wadsworth at Anchor, Queenstown Harbor

The Atlantic crossing of Division Eight marked the first of many such wartime voyages. By 6 April 1918, 59 American destroyers operated in European waters. U.S. Navy destroyers and other anti-submarine craft helped provide the strength needed to effectively combat the German submarine offensive. With increasing numbers of vessels on hand, Allied officials instituted a convoy system that drastically lowered shipping losses from German submarines. As part of that system, American destroyers escorted transports carrying over 1.25 million American service members without the loss of a single European-bound transport. These destroyers also escorted some 27 percent of merchantmen carrying cargoes to England, France, and Italy. In short, the U.S. Navy contributed to defeating the submarine blockade, thereby keeping Great Britain in the war. The troops the Navy escorted to Europe convinced the German Army high command that continuing the war was a fruitless endeavor and thereby directly contributed to victory on land. The arrival of Division Eight, an event referred to as “The Return of the Mayflower,” has come to symbolize the U.S. Navy’s significant contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War.

Sources: Essay from Dr. Dennis Conrad and S. Matthew Cheser, Naval History and Heritage Command

Saturday, June 27, 2020

On the Idle Hill of Summer: Europe on the Brink of War (BBC Video)


On the Idle Hill of Summer
BY A. E. HOUSMAN

On the idle hill of summer,
      Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
      Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
      On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
      Soldiers marching, all to die.

East and west on fields forgotten
      Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
      None that go return again.

Far the calling bugles hollo,
      High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
      Woman bore me, I will rise.





Friday, June 26, 2020

Russia's Unknown Soldier


Photos from Steve Miller's Collection


Russia's Unknown Soldier fell in the 1941 Battle of Moscow. The fallen of World War I are not honored in a similar fashion, at least not yet.


The Unknown was selected from the cemetery which marked the closest point the German Army came to Moscow in 1941. He was disinterred and moved to the walls of the Kremlin in December 1966.


The tomb is located at the northwest corner of the Kremlin and is accessed through the Alexandrovsky Gardens.


The torch for the memorial's Eternal Flame was transported from Leningrad, where it had been lit from the Eternal Flame at the Monument to the Fighters of the Revolution on the Field of Mars. To the left of the tomb is a granite wall with an inlay stating: "1941 – To Those Who Have Fallen for the Motherland – 1945".

Eternal Flame


A New Russian Tradition—For Newly Weds to Visit and Leave a Flower
 at the Tomb of the Unknown


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Churchill Looks Back on the Last Day of War



11 November 1918

It was a few minutes before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I stood at the window of my room looking up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square, waiting for Big Ben to tell that the War was over. My mind strayed back across the scarring years to the scene and emotions of the night at the Admiralty when I listened for these same chimes in order to give the signal of war against Germany to our Fleets and squadrons across the world. . . 

And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government Departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke of Big Ben resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay, thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy. . . 

After fifty-two months of making burdens grievous to be borne and binding them on men’s backs, at last, all at once, suddenly and everywhere the burdens were cast down.

In Winston S. Churchill, volume IV World in Torment 1916-1922, by Sir Martin Gilbert.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Special Focus: Woodrow Wilson and the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia


The May and June St. Mihiel Trip-Wires Were a Double Issue on America's Siberian Intervention

Waiting in Siberia: White Russian Forces


May Issue
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/smtw0520.htm

June Issue
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/smtw0620.htm



May: Why Siberia?

Part 1: Wilson Confronts the New Russia
Part 2: The Czech Legion
Part 3: President Wilson Sends the Army
Wilson's Biographer Explains the Decision
Siberian Timeline

June: Siberian Briar Patch

Part 4: The Military Mission
Part 5: Along the Railroad
Part 6: Time to Leave
Doughboys at Ekaterinburg
The Landing of the Japanese Army

U.S. Commander MG William Graves and Staff with
White Russian Commander Grigory Semenov


Other Topics:

May:

100 Years Ago: Kiev and the Fate of Ukraine in Play
WWI Film Classic: Reds
The Centerpiece of America's New World War One Memorial

June:

100 Years Ago: Treaty of Trianon Signed
WWI Film Classic: Admiral
77th New York Metropolitan Division to Be Honored in France

Plus all our regular updates and features in both issues

May Issue
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/smtw0520.htm

June Issue
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/smtw0620.htm


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Lafayette Escadrille: A Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron


by Steven A. Ruffin
Casemate Publishers, 2016, Paperback, 2020
Michael Hanlon, Reviewer


I do not feel that I am fighting for France alone, but for the
 cause of all humanity—the greatest of all causes.
Kiffin Rockwell, KIA


At Bahonne Aerodrome During the Battle of Verdun

On my bookshelves sit many "illustrated" and "photo" histories touching on the First World War. Usually, either the historical narrative or the set of images suffers, and often, both. Former USAF aviator Steven Ruffin's treatment of the Lafayette Escadrille, however, is now the most balanced  and complete of such works in my collection. The story of the squadron is comprehensively told: origins, personalities, operations, aircraft, and the enormous contributions the unit made by the pilots to America's Air Service when their homeland entered the war. As for the photos gathered by the author and his publisher—the huge collection (for a 228-page volume) is superb, comprehensive and nicely displayed.

Founding Member Norman Prince
The unique French-operated American World War I squadron that we now know as the Lafayette Escadrille made an impact far greater than its actual combat achievements. It was during the 1916 Battle of Verdun that the American volunteer ambulance drivers and pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille got the American public—despite their country's neutrality—emotionally involved in the actual fighting of the war. And they were unquestionably on the side of the Entente, which helped shift public opinion toward the Allies. 

During its 22-month operational period, the 38 Americans who eventually flew with the squadron downed a total of 33 enemy aircraft, 16 of which were credited to the squadron's lone ace, Raoul Lufbery. Eight Americans from the squadron died in combat, including founding members Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, Norman Prince, and James McConnell. An additional three—Lufbery, Paul Pavelka, and James Doolittle—were killed soon after leaving the squadron. Yet, in spite of this more or less average combat record, the Lafayette Escadrille has continued to live in history as an aviation legend. Why? Author Steve Ruffin offers these thoughts.

These highly principled young Americans were much more than simply mercenaries. They volunteered for what they believed – almost to a man – to be a greater cause: that of France and of freedom. It was almost entirely for these ideals that they put their lives on the line. In so doing, they forged a seemingly unbreakable bond with this country's oldest ally and are today rightfully remembered as the men who comprised America's first fighter squadron.

Two elements of The Lafayette Escadrille make it especially enjoyable for me. On the first, let me begin by asking the reader something. Have you ever been reading a military history work and started wondering if the writer had ever visited that battlefield? It's happened to me frequently. Well, you won't get that feeling with Steve Ruffin as your guide. He has "seen the elephant" and traveled to all the key sites of the squadron in France and back here in the states. It adds a pleasurable sense of authenticity when your historian includes visual descriptions of such things as the state of the dozen or so aerodromes where the unit was deployed or the sites of crashes of friends or foes. Included in the collection of photos is an excellent set of "then-and-now" shots with the present day images taken by the author.

Also to be commended are the three concluding chapters that cover the phase-in of the pilots to the American Air Service, biographic sketches of postwar lives of the survivors, and the legacy of their service, especially the magnificent Memorial de l'Escadrille Lafayette outside of Paris. Right up to the end, the author fills us in with rich details I've not seen in other sources like the sad deaths of lion mascots Whiskey and Soda shortly after the Armistice and the 4,000 false claimants to having served in the Lafayette Escadrille.

Highly recommended without qualification.

M. Hanlon

Monday, June 22, 2020

Recommended: First Impressions of the Versailles Treaty


By Mike Shuster
Originally Presented at The Great War Project, 4 April 2019


The German Delegation That Would First Hear
the Terms of the Versailles Treaty

The Germans, in the midst of fighting Bolsheviks and imminent starvation, managed to stay in close touch with the peace process in Paris.

So reports historian Thomas Fleming.

"They had even set up a Bureau for Peace Negotiations. The Bureau’s existence testified to the widespread German conviction that Germany had signed a contract with Woodrow Wilson to negotiate peace on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points."

[To prepare for the peace conference], “The country put forty bureaucrats to work,” Fleming reports, “on Wilson’s various statements on peace, backed up by more than one hundred experts on agriculture, industry, education, and almost every other conceivable topic that might come up when negotiations with the Allies began.”

“When the Allied note asking Berlin to send representatives to hear the preliminary terms arrived in Berlin, the German foreign minister assumed that the document could be picked up by a messenger. He would dispatch an ambassador, an aide, and four clerks to do the job.”

“Back came a stiff reply from the Allies.” They wanted top individuals – individuals capable of carrying out decisions – plenipotentiaries in the parlance of diplomacy, ready to discuss all aspects of the proposed peace.”

“The foreign minister, a veteran diplomat, was not in the least non-plused. He quickly assembled politicians, soldiers, and top-level bureaucrats, and soon 180 Germans were on their way to Versailles.”

They arrived on 29 April 1919 over a century ago. Around their hotel was a barbed wire fence patrolled by French sentries.

“For the next week,” reports historian Fleming, “the Germans waited, and waited, and waited. In Paris the drafting committee was still writing the treaty. Meanwhile groups of French patriots showed up at the hotel’s barbed wire fence to scream insults at the Germans.”

On 5 May, the draft of the treaty went to the printer. More than 200 pages, 440 articles, 75,000 words. Before dawn on 7 May, messengers rushed copies to Allied delegations, including to collaborating officials such as Herbert Hoover, in charge of getting food to the starving people of Germany.

Hoover concluded that Wilson could not make peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points, and he didn’t hold back telling Wilson as much.

“Hoover finished reading the draft treaty at dawn. He could not believe his own disappointment. The thing was an abomination, a parody of the Fourteen Points. The economic clauses aimed at crippling Germany would pull down the whole continent.

“Unquestionably the terms contained the seeds of another war,” was Hoover’s view.

And in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, “The terms were immeasurably harsh and humiliating.” And they made a mockery of the League of Nations.

What did it all add up to? Lansing asked. “Disappointment, regret, depression.”

Editor's Addition:

Nonetheless, the principals—Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau—were pleased with the draft.  On 7 May, for the first time, the German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, heard the Allies' terms. They were stunned.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

It's 25 April 1918 and the Most Important Position on the Western Front Is Mont Kemmel, Flanders


Mont Kemmel Today from the German Approach

The second of Germany's Ludendorff Offensives, Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), was launched in French Flanders on 9 April 1918.  Meanwhile, the initial German attack in the Somme, Operation Michael, continued despite strengthening Allied opposition. Luckily for the Allies, Ludendorff did not choose to terminate Michael earlier and redirect all available forces to support the effort in Flanders.  

Georgette, nonetheless, started with success similar to its immediate predecessor. The Portuguese Expeditionary Force collapsed almost immediately at Neuve Chapelle and only a spectacular defensive effort by the British 55th Division prevented an early collapse of the southern Allied sector. The spectacular advance was quickly followed by the capture of Estaires (9–10 April), Messines Ridge (10–11 April), and the destruction and capture of Bailleul (12–15 April). The opening advance, however, fizzled out near Hazebrouck, a railway junction and the most strategically important objective of the entire campaign (12–15 April). Instead of renewing the assault on Hazebrouck, Ludendorff decided to focus on pushing through the Flanders Hills, the most eastern of which is Mont Kemmel. It was there that Operation Georgette eventually ground to a halt.

French Troops En Route to Mont Kemmel

The First Battle of Mont Kemmel (17–19 April) put a stop to another advance, this time directed toward BĂ©thune. Several British divisions did their best to check the German advance with only sparse resources at their disposal. At Bailleul, for example, delaying units were stationed under cover of railway embankments and overpasses, turning them into field fortifications. The British forces covering Mont Kemmel were eventually able to repulse the three-division assault, but their final line was stretched thin and General Haig had no reinforcements to send.

Aware of his ally's perilous situation, General Foch sent in French troops to face the Germans at Mont Kemmel. By 25 April the French reinforcements had arrived but quickly found themselves pitted against elite mountain German troops. This Second Battle for Mont Kemmel began with an intense hail of shells reminiscent of Verdun for the Frenchmen. After some furious (often hand-to-hand) fighting, though, the Germans finally took control of the summit. A four-mile gap had opened in the Allied lines, and it would remain uncorrected for eight hours. It was one of the last opportunities of the war for the German Army to turn their fortunes, but they were unable to organize an exploiting attack.

French Ossuary, Mont Kemmel

The Spring Offensive drew to a close with a final German attack launched from Mont Kemmel on 29 April. They were able to take one more of the Flanders Hills to the west, but were stopped there. Even though the Germans had managed to move forward, Georgette was ultimately a failure because the Allies had also stabilized the front and prevented the enemy from breaking through, albeit at great cost to human life. Marshal Foch's skillful dispatch of reinforcements to Mont Kemmel had saved the day.

The Sad Angel
Today Mont Kemmel is remembered as the most significant battlefield of the French Army in Flanders. Nicknamed "bald mountain" by the poilus because of the desolation on its war ravaged summit, Mont Kemmel is today home to an ossuary which holds the bodies of 5,294 French soldiers, most of whom were killed on the hill, although only 57 of the soldiers were identified prior to being interred. The column which stands at the center of the cemetery is topped with the traditional rooster mascot of France.

Farther up the hill stands an imposing victory memorial to the French soldiers who fought on the battlefields of Belgium. It features the statue, sculpted by Adolphe Masselot, of the Roman goddess Victoria, whose melancholic gaze has earned her the nickname "The Sad Angel of Mont Kemmel Hill."

Sources: Battlefields of Northern France and Wikipedia