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

Friday, September 4, 2015

Do You Ever Find Yourself in a Funk?

Do you have those sorts of days when you just have to get away from the turmoil of the social whirl? Of course you do.  But, suppose you found yourself in a trench crowded in, shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow soldiers for days, maybe weeks, at a time.  How do you escape?

Well, you would find yourself a little storage niche in the parapet like the Tommy below to grab a snooze and psychologically withdraw for a bit. The troops initially called these "funk holes" after an old British/Scottish slang term for shrinking away or cowering in fear. But after several tours in the trenches everyone found they needed an occasional visit to a funk hole. The connotation of "funk" shifted more in the direction of a mild depressive state rather than of a fearful frame of mind. That's why, today, when you're in similar need to get away, you're said to be in a funk, and no one gets too excited about it.

Image from the new war museum at Souchez, France

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Discovering Berzy-le-Sec and the Brutal Fight That Took Place There

The Château at Berzy-le-Sec Today, Undergoing Restoration

During my latest visit to the Western Front, we visited the battlefields of the element of the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July–2 Sep 1918) known as the Battle of Soissons (18 July–22 July 1918). For the first time, I visited the site of one of the culminating events of that action, the struggle for the village of Berzy-le-Sec. It was easy to see the strategic importance of Berzy and just how difficult it would be to assault. This tiny community is situated on a little rise that overlooked two critical lines of communication for the German Army in mid-1918: the Château-Thierry–Soissons Road and the Villers-Cotterêts–Soissons railroad line. For the Allied forces it was a critical target if they were to make the Marne salient untenable for the enemy. The village, however, is dominated by a 12th-century Château turned into a fort and excellent observation post for the defenders back then, the German 1st Guards Division. Originally assigned to the French 1st Moroccan Division, the U.S. 1st Division was given it to capture after the 1st Moroccan's failure.

What happened there from various sources:

On 20 July  orders were received that on account of the difficulties encountered by the French division on our left, its progress had been delayed, and Berzy-le-Sec, the taking of which had been assigned to them, was placed in our sector and the 2nd Brigade of the 1st was ordered to take it. The order to advance at 2:30 p.m. called for the 28th [Regiment] to take the town and the 26th to conform to its movements and take the railroad.

1st Division Troops Just Before the Assault on Berzy

By this time the divisional artillery was in position on the Paris-Soissons Road and delivered a terrific fire into the town and along the railroad. The capture of Berzy-le-Sec which dominated the railroad from Soissons toward the south meant the loss to the Germans of the entire salient. It involved desperate work, and that day we failed. The fighting was intense, often at close quarters, when the bayonet was used with telling effect. We swayed to and fro with the balance slightly in our favor. But by nightfall Berzy was still uncaptured.

The division commander MG Charles Summerall  came to the front line Battalions that night. He did not come to find fault but simply to learn some first hand information why we had failed and then to remedy the cause. He promised the boys relief the following night but the 1st Division wanted Berzy-le-Sec.

Soldiers of the 1st Brigade pushed forward at 4:45 on the morning of the 20th behind a rolling barrage and managed to capture Buzancy. Meanwhile, the 2nd Brigade, still facing staunch German resistance, received aid from American artillery which pounded Berzy-le-Sec for nearly three hours. Following the artillery barrage, the men of the 2nd Brigade swept forward in three waves. The 26th's 1st Battalion leapfrogged the 3rd and established itself beyond the railroad. The 28th Infantry swept into Berzy. All day long the battle raged, but the Hun had lost. All that now remained of the regiments was hurried forward to resist the counterattacks.  Companies and Battalions were so inter-mixed that their identity was practically lost, but all realized the necessity of holding that which had been so dearly earned.

The Château After the Battle

In four days fighting in the Battle of Soissons, the 1st Division would lose approximately 2,000 killed and 5,000 wounded.

Sources: 26th Infantry Regiment; First Division Foundation and Museum Website

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Quotes About the Submarine War

I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea. 
— H. G. Wells

Even if a submarine should work by a miracle, it will never be used. No country in this world would ever use such a vicious and petty form of warfare! 
— Admiral William Henderson, Royal Navy, 1914

No word of a submarine destroyer has ever been heard because it has been forced upon us, by experience, that submarines cannot fight submarines, nor has any successful antidote been found even by the most bitter antisubmarine experts with unlimited means for experiments. 
— Admiral Jackie Fisher, Royal Navy, 1914

The gravity of the situation demands that we should free ourselves from all scruples. 
— Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, Imperial German Navy, November 1914

The waters round Great Britain and Ireland, including the English Channel, are hereby proclaimed a war region. On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening. 
— Admiral Von Pohl, Chief of Marine Staff, Berlin, 4 February 1915

The unprecedented losses suffered during the last fortnight of April [1917], especially in the approach areas, greatly strengthened the hands of those who advocated the general introduction of the convoy system… 
Seaborne Trade, C. Ernest Fayle

We Are Losing the War!
– Admiral William Sims, U.S. Navy, April 1917

The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. [Some sources suggest both World Wars was intended.] 
— Winston Churchill, 1946

Submarine innovation continues in the post-Cold War security environment…with substantially greater roles in land attack and special operations forces delivery. 
— Admiral Henry Chiles, U.S. Navy, 2000

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War, reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War
by Samuel Hynes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The Unsubstantial Air tells the story of the Americans who fought and died in the aerial battles of World War One. They told their own stories in letters, diaries, and memoirs. Five key words feature in their writing: honor, duty, country, chivalry, and romance. These have been discussed earlier by Hynes in his The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (1997) and A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990). In this book, American aviators express surprise, and describe their success, delight, disappointment, and their determination to carry on, even when the big words do not match the reality of their experience. The volunteer fighters were often privileged. Hynes, himself a pilot in World War Two, describes how East Coast aristocrats like Teddy Roosevelt's son Quentin dreamed of chivalric single combat in the sky; they came to know both the beauty of flight and the omnipresence of death. Romantic ideals blend with a harsh but often exciting reality in the written records of the pilots who came of age in World War One.

The pilots were also, Hynes explains, tourists. Many had not been abroad before and reveled in the strangeness and beauty of England and France, delighted in invitations to local chateaux, in breaking rules and overindulging in drink. But they were also very serious and single-minded. Their main goal was to fly, to be pursuit pilots rather than bomber or observation plane pilots. There was indeed a strong sense of urgency in their flying that is reminiscent of a Harvard-Yale match.

The stories told in the pages of The Unsubstantial Air are not military history. They describe men and their planes, "the French earth and the sky; the flying, and killing, and dying and surviving" (4). It is necessary, Hynes argues, to listen to the voices of the fliers who tell their stories because only then can we begin to understand the story of the their lives in the air as well as on the ground, how they were changed, how they grieved for dead friends, and how they became fatalistic as they realized that death in the air was not just likely but almost inevitable.

The vulnerability of the young fliers is seen particularly clearly in the description of Joe Eastman's career. Eastman was a young student who was dogged by bad luck and nervousness. He is described as a kind of poet because he is particularly sensitive to atmosphere, especially the loneliness of a battlefield before the battle begins. His diary contains not only lucid descriptions but also fascinating illustrations (an excellent example is to be found on p. 221).

Eastman describes how his plane often broke down, resulting in numerous emergency landings. At the end of the war, he reflects that he was indeed a nervous pilot. Hynes shows that despite his nervousness, however, he was brave: while he shook as he put on his flying gloves, he still flew, thereby "dispersing any possible charge of cowardice: a coward flees from what frightens him; Eastman confronted it. I reckon that takes a high degree of courage, and as I read his honest, confessional diary, I feel admiration and affection for the troubled young man who wrote it" (272). Hynes is particularly moved by Eastman's addition of a separate piece of paper stuck into his diary at the end of his wartime entries and simply headed "killed". The names of 17 pilots are listed, all from the 94th and 95th Squadrons, in which Eastman served; as Hynes observes, "it's not a unit roster; these are personal dead" (281). Hynes mentions similar lists by other pilots.

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In the afterwards to this moving study, Hynes observes:

I come to the end of this story of the flying game with a feeling of admiration for the men I have met here, but also with a certain sadness. Like old Nester in the Odyssey, I look back on the war and think, 'So many good men gone.' How young they were, how promising those young lives that would not be lived out, what talents they had that their country might have used well in the years ahead. And what good guys they were - funny, risk-taking, good friends and good fliers. War is a cruel devourer of the young. And flying is a gamble that even the best pilots don't always win.

The Unsubstantial Air is both moving and tragic. The extracts from letters, diaries and memoirs bring the war in the air to life, with all its thrills but also its terrors. Hynes's study is copiously illustrated, carefully annotated and accompanied by a short but helpful bibliography. He combines personal knowledge of flying, the historian's attention to detail, and the critic's interpretive faculties to produce a rich study of thrills, fear, death, and destruction. This book is an important contribution to a remarkable 20th-century phenomenon — the wealth of participants' records of war — records that are invaluable complements to the accounts found in history books. The Unsubstantial Air is the story of how the participants saw the war, told by a man who can understand it not only because he flew in World War Two but because he knows that war is and always will be — an integral part of the human condition.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Monday, August 31, 2015

Trench Foot

Trench foot, formerly known as chilled foot until it became a widespread malady in the Great War, occurs when the feet are wet for long periods of time. It can be quite painful, but it can be prevented and treated. Symptoms of trench foot include a tingling and/or itching sensation, pain, swelling, cold and blotchy skin, numbness, and a prickly or heavy feeling in the foot. The foot may be red, dry, and painful after it becomes warm. Blisters may form, followed by skin and tissue dying and falling off. The photo above shows an extreme case.

How did the military deal with Trench foot? Here's some documentation:

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fort Souville, Verdun Battlefield

Ft. Souville Shelter Shown in 1920 Postcard

Contributed by Christina Holstein

One of the lesser known sites at Verdun is Fort Souville, which stands in the heart of the battlefield and less than one kilometer from the Fleury Memorial Museum. One of the first forts to be built at Verdun after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Fort Souville was originally built of stone and protected by the traditional ditch and drawbridge, although later modernization added a number of strong underground shelters and a retractable gun turret for two 155mm guns. 

Same Location as Above, 2008

The fort stands on a high ridge, and in 1916 the views — now unfortunately blocked by forest — stretched for miles in all directions. This made Souville a vital part of the Verdun defensive system, and it became even more important once Forts Douaumont and Vaux had fallen into German hands. Throughout the battle, Souville offered command and medical facilities, shelter and rest to troops going into the French front line. 

Wartime Entrance to Barracks and Fort

Ammunition Niches

155mm Turret

Afterward, it was estimated that between April and June 1916 the fort had been hit by 38,000 shells of all calibres, and although the parts above ground were largely destroyed, the underground shelters remained habitable throughout.

Post-1916 Pamard Dual-Machine Gun Turret
Author Christina Holstein on Right, Your Editor (Decapitated in Yellow Slicker), Top

The ridge to the south of the fort was the site of a number of important batteries and observation posts, as well as a unique 155mm gun turret. These have recently been cleared, and information about the various positions has been provided in three languages. A visit to this ridge is well worthwhile but visitors should stay out of the remaining parts of Fort Souville, which are all very dangerous. To reach the ridge, follow the path sign posted Massif fortifié de Souville, which leaves the D112 between the wounded lion monument and the Maginot memorial. 

Steve Miller and Christina Holstein Photographs

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Who Was William Rhodes-Moorhouse?

Lt. William Rhodes-Moorhouse of New Zealand was the first airman to receive a Victoria Cross. Although born and educated in England, his parents came from New Zealand and his maternal grandmother was of  Māori descent.  

Born to Mary Ann ("May") Rhodes (once New Zealand’s richest woman) and Edward Moorhouse, William left Cambridge University without a degree in order to pursue his passion for speed and mechanics. He was interested in the fledgling field of aviation, taking private flying lessons in 1909. In 1912 he became the first pilot to fly across the English Channel with two passengers.

When war broke out in August 1914 Rhodes-Moorhouse immediately joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant and was posted to the Aircraft Park at Farnborough. In March 1915 he obtained a posting with the No. 2 Squadron, based at Merville, northern France, where he flew a reconnaissance and light bomber aircraft, the BE.2.

A de Haviland BE.2

On 26 April 1915 Rhodes-Moorhouse set off on a solo bombing mission carrying a single 100-pound bomb. His target was a rail junction in the Belgian town of Courtrai (Kortrijk) through which German reinforcements were being sent to the front line. Rhodes-Moorhouse flew in low to make sure the bomb hit its target – so low that his machine was damaged by the force of the explosion. His reduced altitude also made him an easy target for infantrymen on the ground and a machine gun placed in a church tower. Gravely injured, Rhodes-Moorhouse managed to fly back to his base and refused all medical attention until he had filed his report. The following day he died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife and an infant son. For his daring raid Rhodes-Moorhouse was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross, becoming the first airman, and the first Māori or part-Māori, to be given the British Empire’s highest military decoration.

By Matthew Tonks at the New Zealand History Website

Friday, August 28, 2015

Cher Ami: Heroic Pigeon of the Lost Battalion

Cher Ami was a registered Black Check cock carrier pigeon, one of the 600 birds owned and flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. She delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun; on her last mission, 4 October 1918, she was shot through the breast and leg by enemy fire but still managed to return to her loft with a message capsule dangling from the wounded leg. The message Cher Ami carried was from Major Charles S. Whittlesey's "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Infantry Division that had been isolated from other American forces. The message brought about the relief of the 194 survivors of the battalion, and they were safe behind American lines shortly after the message was received.

For her heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" with palm. She was returned to the United States and died at Fort Monmouth, NJ, on 13 June 1919, as a result of her wounds. Cher Ami was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of her extraordinary service during  the First World War.

Source:  Museum of American History

Corrected text, 28 August 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015

H.G. Wells on What the Tank Would Mean for the Future of Warfare

From: "The Idea of a League of Nations," Atlantic Magazine, January 1919

In four brief years, therefore, Europe was compelled to develop a warfare monstrously out of proportion to any conceivable good which the completest victory could possibly achieve for either side.

German Photo of Captured British Tank

We may take as a typical instance of this logical and necessary exaggeration which warfare has undergone the case of the 'tank.' The idea of a land ironclad was an old and very obvious one, which had been disliked and resisted by military people for many years. The substantial basis of the European armies of 1914 was still a comparatively inexpensive infantry, assisted by machine guns and field-guns and cavalry. By 1918 the infantry line is sustained by enormous batteries of guns of every calibre, firing away an incredible wealth of ammunition; its structure includes the most complicated system of machine-gun nests and strong posts conceivable, and every important advance is preceded by lines of aeroplanes and sustained by fleets of these new and still developing weapons, the tanks. Every battle sees scores of these latter monsters put out of action. 

Now, even the primitive tank of 1917 costs, quite apart from the very high running expenses, something between seven and ten thousand pounds. At that stage it was still an expedient on trial and in the rough. But its obvious corollary in movable big-gun forts with ammunition tenders—forts which will probably be made in parts and built up near to the point of use, however costly they may be—is practically dictated if war is to continue. So too is a production of light and swift types of tank that will serve many of the purposes of cavalry.

H.G. Wells
If war is to continue as a human possibility, this elaboration of the tank in scale and species follows inevitably. A mere peace of the old type is likely to accelerate rather than check this elaboration. Only a peace that will abolish the probability of war from human affairs can release the nations from the manifest necessity of cultivating the tank, multiplying the tank, and maintaining a great manufacture and store of tanks, over and above all the other belligerent plants which they had to keep going before 1914. And these tanks will supersede nothing—unless perhaps, to a certain extent, cavalry. The tank, growing greater and greater and more numerous and various, is manifestly, therefore, one new burden—one of many new burdens—which must rest upon the shoulders of mankind henceforth, until the prospect of war can be shut off from international affairs. It is foolish to ignore these grimly budding possibilities of the tank. There they are, and they cannot be avoided if war is to go on.

But the tank is only one of quite a multitude of developments, which are bound to be followed up if the modern war-process continues. There is no help for it. In every direction there is the same story to be told—if war is still to be contemplated as a possibility—of an unavoidable elaboration of the means of war beyond the scale of any conceivable war end.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Artists and Authors Tell Us About War

Otto Dix, Self Portrait, 1915

We gingerly crossed the valley of Paddebeek through a hail of bullets, hiding behind the foliage of black poplar trees felled in the bombardment, and using their trunks as bridges. From time to time one of us disappeared up to their waist in the mud, and if our comrades had not come to their rescue, holding out their rifle butt, they would certainly have gone under. We ran along the rims of the shell-holes as if we were on the thin edge of a honeycomb. Traces of blood on the surface of some heavy shell-holes told us that several men had already been swallowed up. 
Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

I climbed up to the top of the gully I am in. Behind me was Fleury, and in front of me Vaux and Douaumont. I could see out over an area of ten square kilometres that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth. The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them. A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded - the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind. They were no bigger than ants down there. The artillery dominates everything. A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency.
Fernand Léger, Verdun, 7 November 1916

The rumbling of the artillery became more and more frequent and ended up forming a single rumbling of the whole earth. From all sides, outgoing bursts and explosions threw forth their flashing beams which lit up the dark sky over our heads with strips of light in all directions. Then the bombing grew so heavy that the flashes became continuous. In the midst of the uninterrupted chain of thunder claps we could see each other directly, helmets streaming like the bodies of fish, gleaming black iron shovels, and the whitish drops of the endless rain, truly it was like moonlight created by cannon fire.
Henri Barbusse, Artois front in 1915

The plain, which stretched as far as the eye could see, seemed to have been churned up by a mad plough. The entanglement of trenches formed in the grass a huge white net with much of the mesh gnawed away. In the middle, there was a pile of stones and beams from which emerged, here and there, a house and a tree with all its leaves: La Targette. Further on, some charred tree trunks and a few white stones: Neuville-Saint-Vaast (...) There were thousands of men on this plain and I could only see one of them. He was lying face down with his nose in the grass; he was dead
Jean Hugo, Le regard de la mémoire 1914–1945 (The Look of Memory)

A great movement of earth and sky through our burning eyelids, wet and cold; things you find in the pale dawn, one after another and all of them; nobody killed in the darkness, nobody even buried despite the relentless shell attack, the same earth and the same corpses, all this flesh that trembles as if from internal spasms, which dances, deep and hot, and hurts; no more pictures even, just this burning fatigue frozen skin-deep by the rain; another day dawning over the ridge while the Boche's batteries carry on firing on it and on what remains of us up there, mixed with the mud, the bodies, with the once fertile field, now polluted with poison, dead flesh, incurably affected by our hellish torture. 
Maurice Genevoix, Ceux de 14 (The Men of 1914)

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1934–36

Tomorrow: A Centennial Remembrance of the Pershing Family Tragedy in San Francisco

World War One Historical Association Presents
Pershing Family Remembrance
Thursday 27 August 2015 at 2 p.m.
Pershing Square and Presidio Officers’ Club
Presidio of San Francisco

On 27 August 1915, while Brigadier General John J. Pershing was deployed in Texas with his command, the 8th Infantry Brigade, the upper story of his quarters at the San Francisco Presidio suffered a severe fire set off by a coal-fired stove. In the fire, Mrs. Pershing (Helen Frances) and three daughters — Mary (6), Anne (7), and Helen (8) — all perished. Pershing's son, Warren (5), was on a lower floor and escaped with the help of a soldier. This was the great tragedy of Pershing's life.

On 27 August 2015 the World War One Historical Association will remember the Pershing family tragedy with a public wreath laying at Pershing Square in the Presidio of San Francisco at 2 p.m. An informational program in the Presidio Officers’ Club follows at 2:15 p.m.  Publisher Michael Hanlon and National Park Service Historian Stephen Haller will present an overview of Brigadier General John Pershing’s career, the events of the Pershing house fire and highlight World War One and the Presidio of San Francisco. Major General Alfred Valenzuela, United States Army, Ret., World War One Centennial Commissioner, will discuss the importance of military families. 

Made possible by the support of:

World War One Historical Association
World War One Centennial Commission
National Park Service
The Pershing Rifles
The Presidio Trust

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, reviewed by James Thomas

First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille
by Charles Bracelen Flood
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015

Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917

In today's political atmosphere, with a deeply unfortunate near Franco-phobia, many Americans seem to forget how close our two nations have been over the years. This was especially true during World War I. Even before the United States entered the war in April 1917, there was a tremendous amount of popular support for France in her struggle against Germany. One group of American young men went beyond simply cheering and actually fought for France through the fledgling technology of aviation. First to Fly by Charles Flood is the story of those young men.

Almost immediately after the outbreak of war, a handful of Americans already living in France and wanting to help the nation they had grown to love, rushed to enlist in the French Army. With the United States officially neutral, this created a difficult diplomatic situation. Most joined the French Foreign Legion, the ranks of which had been made up of men of any nationality since its creation, and fought for France through the Legion. Despite increasing German protests, American men continued to journey to France, join the Legion and fight in the trenches.

Meanwhile, aviation, like almost all technologies, made giant strides during the war. Military thinkers on both sides quickly recognized the possibilities and capabilities of airplanes to observe, bomb, strafe and destroy enemy aircraft doing those same things. France's air force grew quickly and beckoned potential pilots from the trenches to fight in the air. As the slaughter on the ground continued, some of the American volunteer soldiers began to take on this new challenge and became aviators.

Wealthy sponsors and donors with enough political clout to pull it off gathered these American pilots from French aviation units across the front and formed them into the Lafayette Escadrille, honoring the name of the great Marquis de Lafayette who came to America's aide during that new nation's War for Independence. From the first group of pilots, called the founders, the squadron grew steadily as more and more American young men joined and proved their mettle as fighter pilots, many shooting down the requisite five or more enemy aircraft to be labelled aces.

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When the United States finally joined into the war, most of these pilots left the Escadrille to fight for the United States in America's Flying Corps, and the Lafayette Escadrille was disbanded. Mr. Flood is not an historian, but First to Fly is excellent history. Using letters, diaries, official records, and a wide array of primary and secondary sources, Flood does a great job telling the story of the Lafayette Escadrille. The book reads like a collection of adventure tales as the author provides the accounts of the lives and deaths of many of these young men. The author never allows the reader to lose sight of the tragedies of the Great War, as exciting and adventurous as the air war sometimes seems to be.

It is not just the story of French or Franco-American aviation that is told in First to Fly, however; this is the story of World War I aviation on several fronts. British and German Great War aviation is also examined along the way. If there is anything negative at all to say about the book, it is the "throwaway" chapter on the U.S. Army's "Lost Battalion" and its pigeon savior. Everything else fits and leaves the reader longing for more. First to Fly is an excellent book for anyone who has an interest in Great War aviation or World War I in general.

James Thomas

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Legendary Sopwith Camel

From the USAF National Museum Website

Sopwith Camel F-1

The British Sopwith Camel F-1 shot down more enemy aircraft than any other World War I fighter. It was highly maneuverable and very difficult to defeat in a dogfight. Because of its tricky handling characteristics, however, more men lost their lives while learning to fly it than died while using it in combat.

The Camel first went into action in June 1917 with 70 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and 4 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service. Two U.S. Army Air Service squadrons, the 17th and the 148th, flew the Camel in combat while assigned to British forces during the summer and fall of 1918. Such famous U.S. pilots as George Vaughn (America’s second-ranking Air Service ace to survive the war), Eliot White Springs, Errol Zistel, and Larry Callahan were members of the 17th and 148th. A third U.S. unit, the 185th Aero Squadron, used the Camel as a night fighter on the American Front during the last month of the war.

Although 5,490 Camels were produced, very few remain in existence today. USAF personnel built the Camel on display from the original WWI factory drawings, completing it in 1974. The aircraft is painted and marked as the Camel flown by Lt. George A Vaughn, Jr, 17th Aero Squadron.

Technical Notes:
Armament: two Vickers .303-cal. machine guns
Engine: Clerget rotary of 130 hp
Maximum speed:  112 mph
Range:  300 miles
Ceiling:  19,000 feet
Span:  28 feet
Length: 18 feet 9 inches
Height: 8 feet 6 inches
Weight: 1,482 lbs. maximum

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Pershing Family Tragedy at the San Francisco Presidio

On Thursday 27 August 2015 there will be a Centennial Pershing Family Remembrance held at 2 p.m. at Pershing Square and the former Officers Club at the San Francisco Presidio.  Here is story of what will be remembered:

At about 4 a.m. on 27 August 1915, while Brigadier General John J. Pershing was deployed in Texas with his command, the 8th Infantry Brigade, the upper story of his quarters at the San Francisco Presidio suffered a severe fire set off by a coal-fired stove. In the fire, Mrs. Pershing (Frances) and three daughters, Mary, (6), Anne, (7), and Helen, (8) all perished. Pershing's son Warren (5), was on a lower floor and escaped with the help of a soldier returning to barracks. This was the great tragedy of Pershing's life.

The Fire Scene, 1915; Pershing Square Today
General and Frances Pershing with Three of the Children in the Philippines

All of the other seven persons sleeping at the residence that night escaped from the fire. Later it was established that the four had been killed by suffocation. Nearly all the rest suffered from shock and minor injuries. An investigation disclosed that the fire was caused by live coals dropping from an open grate upon the floor. It fell upon Pershing friend Major James Harbord, who was on the post commanding a ceremonial cavalry detachment supporting the nearby World's Fair, to notify Pershing of the terrible event. Thinking perhaps to save the general some shock, Harbord addressed the telegram to Pershing's aide. The aide, however, was absent, and the El Paso operator read the telegram to Pershing himself. The general had been expecting his family to visit El Paso only a few days later. 

Pershing rushed to San Francisco, arriving Sunday 29 August. Mrs. Pershing's parents, U.S. Senator and Mrs. Francis E. Warren, arrived that same day. Pershing first visited the funeral home, then went to the burned-out residence and finally to see his son who had been taken to Letterman General Hospital. Twenty-four Presidio sergeants accompanied the cortege to the train that afternoon and the mourners departed for Cheyenne, Wyoming.
From: Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco, 1846 to 1995

More on the Coming Event:

On 27 August 2015 the World War One Historical Association will remember the Pershing family tragedy with a public wreath laying at Pershing Square in the Presidio of San Francisco at 2 p.m. A public program in the Presidio Officers’ Club follows at 2:15 p.m. Roads to the Great War editor/publisher Michael Hanlon and National Park Service Historian Stephen Haller will present an overview of Brigadier General John Pershing’s career, the events of the Pershing house fire, and highlights of World War One and the Presidio of San Francisco. Major General Alfred Valenzuela, United States Army, Ret., World War One Centennial Commission, will discuss the lives of military families.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

99 Years Ago: The National Guard Deploys On the Border

On the Border
Arizona, 1916

On 9 March 1916, Mexican rebels led by Pancho Villa attacked the U.S. Army garrison at Columbus, New Mexico. All available troops were rushed to the U.S.-Mexican border, but there were not enough regulars to patrol such a vast area. On 9 May the National Guard of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas was called into Federal service; on 18 June the entire National Guard, except for coast artillery units, was called. Within days the first of 158,664 National Guardsmen were on their way to camps in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. National Guard units began patrolling the border immediately and columns of Guardsmen soon dotted the desolate landscape from Arizona to Texas

A typical National Guard unit sent to the border was the 2nd Connecticut Infantry. On 20 June 1916 the regiment assembled and began preparations for the long rail journey to the border. Within a week they were on a troop train headed for Nogales, Arizona. Although their patrols along the border were important, the training that the Guardsmen received was invaluable. Guardsmen were physically toughened and officers and NCOs gained experience in handling troops in the field. The 2nd Connecticut mustered out of Federal service in November 1916, only to be mobilized again in February 1917. The training the regiment received in Arizona would be important after the U.S. entered World War I two months later. Redesignated as the 102nd Infantry and assigned to the famous 26th "Yankee" Division, the regiment fought in six World War I campaigns. Today the 102nd Infantry, Connecticut Army National Guard, continues its proud record of over 300 years of service to state and nation.

From the U.S. Army Center for Military History
Painting by Donna Neary, as part of the National Guard Heritage Series

Friday, August 21, 2015

A French Artist Documents the AEF

I've come across this outstanding pictorial book from the First World War. It's titled: The American Army in France (1917–1919).  It features watercolors and black-and-white drawings by French artist Joseph-Félix Bouchor with text by Captain David Gray, U.S. Army, and an introduction by none other than Lieutenant-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. 

Here's a selection of some of the images with a little commentary from Captain Gray.

One of the daily features of life at AEF General Headquarters at Chaumont was the midday concert of the band in the great quadrangle at Damremont Barracks.  Aside from the presence of hundreds of officers and men in uniform, there was little in the daily life suggestive of war. . .

Just before moving into sector on the Chemin des Dames in February 1918, General Clarench Edwards of the 26th Yankee Division reviewed his division.  He used the opportunity to give his men an explanation of the theory and practice of the military salute.

General Charles Mangin is, for many reasons, a figure of special interest to Americans. . . During the war he commanded three of our best divisions in some of their hardest fighting. The 1st and 2nd were in the Tenth Army on 18 July 1918 [for the Battle of Soissons], and the 32nd Division was with him in August when he stormed the heights of the Aisne.

Fourteen-inch Naval Gun, south of Soissons, which bombarded railways and roads north of Laon, 32 kilometers distant.

French soldier and Captain Gray salute the graves of Marines at Belleau Wood

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Private Vernon Wymer, 23rd Infantry, 2nd Division, AEF

Contributed by Tom Boltz

U.S. Army Private Vernon Wymer 1900–1918
Vernon Wymer was the first Wood County, Ohio, serviceman to die in combat in World War I. He did not win any medals or receive any national recognition; however, his story is important because he is representative of the thousands of soldiers from small Mid-Western towns who perished in WWI. 

Vernon was born in 1900 to Charles and Ella Wymer. His mother died in 1915 soon after giving birth to Vernon’s youngest brother Gerald. As the eldest, it fell to Vernon to help his father raise his eight younger siblings.  However, within three years, the United States joined the war against Imperial Germany, and Vernon Wymer’s life changed drastically.

The Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune, a local newspaper, ran recruiting ads like the one on the left free of charge for the National Guard.

Shortly after America’s entry into the war in April 1917, National Guard Units throughout the U.S., in anticipation of mobilization, began recruiting efforts. The closest National Guard unit to North Baltimore, Ohio, where Vernon Wymer was living was Company H, 2nd Ohio Infantry Regiment, located in Bowling Green, the county seat.  

In May 1917, Company H was significantly under strength and needed to recruit over 64 men to reach its authorized wartime strength of 150. The unit officers began an intensive recruiting campaign throughout the county’s small towns, and local officials aided by sponsoring patriotic meetings to encourage young men to volunteer. Responding to these pleas, Wymer, along with several of his friends, went to Bowling Green and enlisted as a private in the unit on 26 July. 

In this 14 August 1917 picture of some Company H members,
Vernon Wymer (second row, sixth from left) and the other new recruits
have not yet been issued uniforms.
Although Company H was activated for Federal service on 2 August, Wymer and the rest of the company  remained at the local armory for several weeks. During this time, the unit conducted what training it could despite a severe shortage of equipment and weapons. Although the recruiting campaign brought in many new guardsmen, the unit was  still under strength. In mid-September, the 135 men in the unit left Bowling Green for Camp Sheridan, a training camp in Alabama. There conscripts were assigned to bring the unit up to full strength. Company H was later re-designated as Company E, 146th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division.      

This peaceful French wheat field in 2013 was the site where
Private Vernon Wymer was killed on 2 July 1918 when his unit attacked the
German troops that occupied the village of Vaux (left center). 
Wymer trained with the 146th Infantry until early May 1918 when he was re-assigned as a replacement to the American Expeditionary Force in France.  After arriving in France in June, Wymer was eventually assigned to the 2nd US Infantry Division as a rifleman with Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment. During the Defense of the Marne River Line Campaign, Private Wymer was killed during the Battle of Vaux on 2 July 1918 while his unit was attacking German units holding the village of Vaux.  

In this 2014 photograph, Vernon’s and Gerald’s graves are marked by an American flag.
Such flags are placed there each Memorial Day by the local American Legion Post.

At the request of his family, Private Wymer’s body was returned to the United States for burial in 1921. An estimated 4,000 people attended his funeral in North Baltimore, Ohio. No North Baltimore-area service members killed in action in World War II or later wars has received such a significant tribute for their ultimate sacrifice for their country. Vernon Wymer’s grave can be found in a quiet rural cemetery in Wood County, Ohio.  His youngest brother Gerald, who was killed in action in Belgium during World War II, is buried beside him.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The French Mutinies of 1917: The Real Numbers

There have been a lot of exaggerated numbers tossed around about the French mutinies of 1917. Some, by the way, prefer the use of terms like collective or systematic disobedience or indiscipline, since it involved a whole range of behaviors, much of which was not an open revolt against military authorities.

A Revealing Glance from a Frontline Poilu Later in the War

The late French historian Guy Pedroncini's work, Les mutinenès de 1917, is considered authoritative and here are his numbers.  Unlike other commentators, he freely uses the term "mutiny."

  • The French Army consisted of 112 divisions, and 68 were affected by mutiny.

  • Of these 68, five were “profoundly affected," six were “very seriously affected,"15 were “seriously affected," 25 were affected by “repeated incidents,” and 17 were affected by “one incident only."

  • A total 35,000 men were involved in mutiny.

  • 1,381 were given a “heavy prison sentence” of five years or more hard labor. Twenty-three men were given life sentences.

  • 1,492 were given lesser prison sentences, though some of these were suspended.

  • 57 men were probably executed (seven immediately after sentence and possibly another 50 after they received no reprieve. 

  • There were 43 certain executions (including the seven summarily executed) and 14 “possibly” or “doubtfully." Two more men were sentenced to death, but one committed suicide and one escaped (Corporal Moulin, who was known to be still alive after World War II).

  • It is known that of these 57, some were executed not for mutiny but for other crimes committed in the time when the mutinies occurred, including two men shot for murder and rape.

  • Therefore, fewer than 3,000 men received some form of punishment out of a total of 35,000.

See our earlier article on the 1917 Mutiny for more background here.
Source:  The Learning Site

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

November 1916, The Red Wheel, Knot II
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

November 1916, The Red Wheel, Knot II
by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999 (First American edition)

November 1916 is the second volume of The Red Wheel, which is a fictional representation of events leading from Tannenberg (Volume 1: August 1914) through the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Volumes 3 and 4: March 1917 and April 1917). Each of the volumes, a monument to Russian literature in size alone, is related to the others, but they stand alone and don't too heavily rely on their predecessors, although many of the characters are recurring. While volumes 1, 3, and 4 center around cataclysmic events, this second volume is unique. Solzhenitsyn was asked in an interview about the significance of the title November 1916 and what had happened then,to which the sage author answered: nothing.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
By this time General Aleksei Brusilov's summer offensive in Galicia had ground to a halt, counterattacks had been slowed by the weather, the devastating battles on the Somme and around Verdun had waned, and Allied demands for Russian action to draw German forces away from those battles had subsided. So why consider November 1916? Simply because by then the first Russian Revolution (Feb. 1917) was establishing its roots in the Russian psyche at home and at the front. And the author explains through his characters how this was being accomplished.

Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev (introduced in August 1914 as a staff officer who watched the disintegration of the Russian Second Army) has taken his first furlough since the war began. Beneath his announced plan to see his wife he has a hidden agenda: to get back to the Russian General Staff and tell them how bad the situation at the front really is. He is in command of a battalion in Galicia and has seen the false reports about morale and logistics that commanding generals have sent to the General Staff. He has also witnessed the defeatist attitudes that are spreading among the men because of the incompetent leadership.

Order Now
To all of these problems he has suggestions for improving the situation. The author skillfully follows the colonel through his trip to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in which he meets people of differing political viewpoints and also those who have information about things going on across the mother country, including graft, bribery, war profiteering, and general confusion. We are also made aware of the colonel's personal life, which nearly mirrors the overall state of Russia. In a nutshell, the colonel (representing the army) wants a divorce from his wife, who craves the cosmopolitan life of the bourgeoisie (the tsarist government) so that he can pursue a more traditional woman (peasant, free society). He is torn between the two women. One commands his loyalty as duty while the other promises freedom from a controlling, manipulating society.

Interspersed through the volume are chapters containing discussions by different political parties such as Bolsheviks, Kadets, and Mensheviks. At times dialogues become confusing unless the reader has a clear understanding of the complexity of Russian politics as well as its social mores. For example, two hundred pages, more or less, deal with political word bantering at a social gathering of liberal Duma deputies which dredges through not only the current political problems but also talks at length about the 1905 Revolution.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Solzhenitsyn clearly shows that there was never a question about whether a revolution was coming; rather it was how soon it would come and what shape it would take. Therein lay the rub. But this work is a must-read if you wish to grasp the confusion that was to follow the bread riots of February 1917 and the ouster of the tsar.

Michael P. Kihntopf