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

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Those Bloody Kilts: The Highland Soldier in the Great War


By Thomas Greenshields
Helion and Company, March 2022
David F. Beer, Reviewer



The kilt was a unique dress, ironically, by virtue of extraordinary custom and tradition, the most blatantly masculine dress in the Army…” (p. 171).

What would you be thinking if you were part of a Highland Scots regiment going over the top in your kilt? Hard to say, but you would be following a long and proud history of Celtic warriors going to war wearing an ancient and honored garb. This is made clear in Thomas Greenshields’s Those Bloody Kilts, an almost magisterial book of over 500 pages, with copious notes, and many photographs. It examines in extraordinary detail not only the wearing of the kilt but also the use and meaning of the bagpipes and practically every other aspect of life in a Highland regiment during the Great War. 

Those Bloody Kilts is the result of the author’s tireless research among letters, diaries, notes, accounts, and reports of both officers and everyday soldiers, carried out in the Imperial War Museum, the National Library of Scotland, the Liddle Collection, plus various regimental museums. Seventeen chapters run from the part historically played by Highland regiments in the British Empire to organizational matters, kilts, the pipes, discipline, comradeship, ferocity, identity, and courage. Kilted regiments in Canada and South Africa are included in this study.

Three chapters are devoted to the kilt, and its mystique, tradition, correct wearing, and its hazards in stormy weather and combat. It was the tradition to wear nothing under the garment and many Highland soldiers followed this even though it could be problematic on gusty days, riding a bicycle, or going upstairs in buildings or a bus. In the trenches, the kilt could acquire more than its share of lice, accumulate heavy mud around its hem, prove chilly on cold days, and could catch on barbed wire. One touching report describes how several Highlanders were mowed down by machine guns on going over the top and how later the chaplain went among the bodies, rearranging their kilts with his cane so that nothing too personal was exposed. Nevertheless, the martial honor, pride, and glamor in wearing the kilt remained.


Kilted Dead on the Western Front


The kilt was, indeed, such a source of pride that at least two American Medical Officers attached to Highland battalions desired to wear it. One at least succeeded. ‘He was as proud as Punch, but he created a great deal of amusement. The kilt would not sit properly on him. His hind quarters could not make it wiggle waggle. It was no use, the kilt would have soon been down to his knees, but for the use of braces’ (pp. 156-157)

Just as the kilt was an important factor in the morale and esprit de corps of Highland regiments, so were the pipes. (Both still are.) Traditional bagpipe music can be stirring, wistful, inspiring, and mournful, and Scots bagpipers played an important role in the Great War. As Douglas Haig (a Scot himself) wrote:

The Pipers of Scotland may well be proud of the part they have played in this war. In the heat of battle, by the lonely grave, and during the long hours of waiting, they have called to us to show ourselves worthy of the land to which we belong. Many have fallen in the fight for liberty, but their memories remain. (p. 228)


Reviewer David Beer Is a Piper, Himself


Many pipers lost their lives in the Great War, but contrary to the glorious image of a piper leading troops over the top, this was not commonly the case. As far as combat was concerned, most pipers played to companies going up to the trenches or collecting them when they returned. Their safety, however, was never guaranteed.

Chapter 9 on "Discipline" analyses the very human side of the Scots soldier and reveals him to be no different than others. Although allegedly with a weakness for alcohol, the statistics show no more drunkenness among Scots than among other soldiers. Other sins are interestingly covered in this chapter, including disobedience, neglect, cheating on censorship, looting, theft, self-inflicted wounds, suicides, cowardice, gambling, and mutiny. After this litany, I was surprised to find a further section on "Other misdemeanors” (p. 274).

Chapter 15, “Ferocity and Compassion,” is an interesting amalgam of the darker side of warfare. A popular impression of the Highlander was that of the ferocious bayonet-toting soldier (p. 410). This image has numerous reports to support it, such as the following:

Two Kilties caught a German who shouted for mercy and said he was a Christian. The fellows said, ‘Alright, you’ll be an angel tomorrow,’ and bayonet him. Other 2 caught 2 officers & 4 men who were asking for mercy; they: ‘By ----you’ll get mercy this time,’ and bayoneted the lot.” (p. 422)

Plenty of evidence of German perfidy is given to justify such actions, and it’s impossible to judge a person who is in the heat of battle. The author also gives several citations from soldiers and stretcher bearers who felt pity for the wounded or defeated enemy.

Chapter 17, "Final Thoughts," nicely brings together the myriad topics covered in the first sixteen. This very readable book could almost be considered an encyclopedia of the experiences of kilted Highland regiments in World War One, and it is impossible to do it justice in a short review. 




By the time I finished the book, however, I could at least partly empathize with the written words of Lieutenant C.B. Anderson on foreseeing his own death:

“. . . don’t grieve, there are worse deaths than leading a platoon of Highlanders into action.” (p. 481)

David F. Beer

Monday, July 4, 2022

Alan Seeger Makes His Rendezvous at the Somme: 4 July 1916
By David Beer – A Roads Classic





Alan Seeger was born in New York in 1888. Encouraged by his family, he was attracted to literature at an early age, especially poetry, and was an enthusiastic contributor to the in-house magazine his family enjoyed producing. His wealthy family sent him to private school and then to Harvard College, where he was particularly interested in Celtic literature and edited and wrote poetry for the Harvard Monthly.

His parents were dismayed when, after graduating from Harvard, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he lived a bohemian life. They sent him to Paris in 1912 to study at the Sorbonne, but this further encouraged his eccentric lifestyle and intensified his love of poetry. He also became interested in politics and wrote several sonnets and other poems on the events of the day that were leading up to the World War. Although he was visiting London when war was declared, he at once rushed back to Paris and enlisted with some 40 other Americans in the French Foreign Legion. The training was demanding, but he appears to have been happy and proud to be fighting for a country he had come to love. His poems and letters home were now taking on a more fatalistic theme and also expressed the classical sentiment that death for a good soldier could be a beautiful and noble thing.

Seeger was soon to see action with the 2nd Foreign Regiment, action which gave him experience and also material for his poetry. "The Aisne (1914-1915)" describes his first experience of battle along the Chemin des Dames. By September 1915 he was in the thick of the Battle of Champagne, which he vividly described in his letters home. There, after seeing grape pickers busy not far from the fighting, he wrote a long poem in which he appealed to wine drinkers to "Drink sometimes…to those whose blood, in pious duty shed/Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth" (Champagne 1914-1915).


Romantic poet, dedicated diarist, and warrior,  Seeger's life in this bio.

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After a spell of sick leave and recuperation for bronchitis he returned to the front. He was scarcely inactive. According to one biographer, "He delighted in sneaking off on solitary scouting excursions, bringing back scraps of German newspapers, and leaving his visiting card on the German wire…he longed for the Croix de Guerre."

When the blood baths of Verdun and then the Somme developed, Seeger longed to be in the thick of things, and at this time he wrote what is considered by many to be the best American poem of WWI—"I Have a Rendezvous with Death."

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Few poems have been so fatalistic and at the same time cruelly prophetic. On 4 July 1916, Seeger's section was ordered to take the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. As he charged forward, German machine guns opened up from a nearby hollow, and Legionnaire Seeger made his rendezvous.


Click on Image to Expand

At Belloy-en-Santerre

Above (top), Mike Hanlon's late friend and traveling-mate Mark Fowler of Dallas, Texas, reads "Rendezvous" at the field where Seeger fell during the Battle of the Somme. Below is the marker in the village of Belloy-en-Santerre honoring Seeger and identifying his burial site.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Fascinating Champagne


Trench at La Main dé Massignes, Champagne Sector


Forget about that bubbly stuff, there's another good reason to visit France's Champagne. It  holds an endless series of  unforgettable sites for the military history enthusiast. We have highlighted a number of them on the region's standard tourism kiosk map below with a photo and some details about each stop lower down. Point  #1 (unfortunately, off the map) should be the starting point of any visit to Champagne. It's the magnificent Rheims Cathedral—a World War I veteran—one of the world's greatest treasures. This is a highlights listing, though. In Champagne there are countless monuments and markers and, of course, more military cemeteries than we could possibly list here.


Click on Image to Enlarge




1. Cathedral of Our Lady of Rheims (off the map)

The cathedral was targeted especially early during the war, and its wounds can still be viewed. After the spring of 1915,  international outrage led the the German Army to halt its regular targeting of the cathedral, but random impacts still occurred, especially when fighting intensified in the local area.





2. Fort de la Pompelle (off the map)

Located five miles southeast of the cathedral on N44, Fort de la Pompelle defended Rheims eastern flank for most of the war and is now the site of one of the best museums on the Western Front, which includes the world's largest collection of German Pickelhaube helmets.



3. 1917 Nivelle Offensive Remembrances 

In the spring offensive of 1917, the only minimally successful French attacks were in the hills east of Rheims.  Relevant sites to see include the monument on the left located on D931, the bronze sculpture on the right located at Nauroy, where there are two villages détruits nearby, and a German cemetery.



4. Russian Expeditionary Force

Russia sent an expeditionary force of two brigades to the Western Front. The troops trained, fought, and sometimes mutinied in the Champagne. The chapel, cemetery,
and a memorial across the road honor their service.



5. Aubérire Triple Cemetery

Farther east on D931, this cemetery has sections for French, German, and Polish Foreign Legion fallen. The tomb marker above recognizes the service of Legionaires killed in the 
1917 fighting.



6. Four Corporals of Souain Memorial

In 1915, four corporals in the French Army were shot by firing squad as an example to the rest of their companies during the First World War. The executions, which occurred in the vicinity of Souain on 17 March 1915, are considered to be the most egregious and most publicized military injustice during World War I in France. The events inspired the 1957 American antiwar film Paths of Glory. It is located in the town square at Suippes, where they were court-martialed.



7. Souain French and German Cemetery

The largest French cemetery in the Champagne-Marne sector is located at a dramatic hillside location outside Souain and includes 60,000 French burials. An adjacent German cemtery contains the remains of nearly 14,000 additional fallen from the war.




8. Navarin Farm Memorial and Ossuary

The Navarin Farm Monument to the Champagne Battles is the principal French memorial in the Champagne region. It marks the site where French forces were stymied throughout 1915, stayed in place for three years, and waged a notable defense in the opening of the Second Battle of the Marne, July 1918. The crypt contains  the remains of 10,000 unnamed soldiers along with General Gouraud, commander of the 4th French Army in 1918.  The figure on the right atop the pyramidal ossuary is an American soldier.  The battlefield and trenches around the monument have remained untouched since 1918.



9. Blanc Mont (Sommepy) U.S. Memorial

The Blanc Mont monument honors the American and French soldiers who fought together in the Champagne region of France between July 15 and October 27, 1918, including the American 2nd, 36th, 42nd, and 93rd divisions. The monument is located on the ridge of Blanc Mont, a key point in the German defenses that was captured by the American 2nd Division on  3 October 1918 during the opening of the operation that forced the enemy to abandon the Champagne.  Interestingly, its "Lookout Tower" style was conceived of by Arthur Loomis Harmon, principal architect of the Empire State Building.



10 St-Étienne-à-Arnes

In the later stages of the battle for Blanc Mont Ridge, this fortified village was the focus of action with the local cemetery (shown above) being a key positions for enemy defenders. On 8 October 1918 a mixed force of U.S. Marines from the 36th Division and Oklahoma National Guardsmen from the 36th Division captured St-Étienne.  In the ensuing fighting, Choctaw Nation soldiers from the 36th Division became America's first Code-Talkers.



11. 369th (Harlem Hellfighters) Infantry Memorial

Honoring the segregated American 369th Infantry (formerly 15th New York) that fought under French command, this monument honors their distinguished service in capturing the village of Sechault on 29 September 1918. The action earned the Croix de Guerre for the entire regiment. A twin monument for the regiment stands in New York City.  Sgt. Henry Johnson of the regiment was recently awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions earlier in the war.




12. La Main dé Massignes


The results of a restoration effort that began in 2012 the former French trenches at La Main dé Massignes are now considered to be the most authentic example of such restored trenches on the Western Front. (Compare to the photo at the top of the page.) As of July 2022, they are reported to be open every afternoon, 1-6 p.m., except Mondays and holidays.






Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Somme: Then and Now–Video


I found this film about the Somme experience both informative and moving. You'll feel intimacy, like you're part of a stretcher detail or helping Royal Marines fire a 15.5 inch howitzer. The editor uses the technique of overlaying combat footage (black and white) on contemporary color views of the battlefield to great effect. However, let me say, you will not enjoy this unless you are an active viewer. It's tough to visually integrate the two types of film and a lot of clues (the graphics, for example, are very helpful but on the small side) will be missed if you take a passive approach.  Anyway, happy viewing.  MH


Friday, July 1, 2022

The Lusitania and the Preparedness Movement—A Roads Collection



O Lusitania, Empress of the Sea,

Art thou dead an buried in the deep,

With all thy freight of human souls,

Victims of the Huns' most hellish darts.

O Lusitania, my tears are falling for thee. . .

Phoebe Amory, Survivor 


The sinking of RMS Lusitania was a powerful human tragedy, as H.G. Wells later wrote, "All the achievements of 19th century civilization seemed to many to be following in the downward wake of the Lusitania." We are not a attempting a comprehensive look at the event, though. Here we are focusing on one important result of the disaster—how the sinking helped shape the decision by the United States to fight in what had started out as a European war, from which the nation had determinedly tried to remain neutral. 

The sinking of the great ship did not cause America to declare war—that would not come for two more years—but it decisively shifted American public attitudes against Germany and toward the Allies, and resulted in the departure of the last "true neutral" among President Wilson's advisors, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. However, it was former President Theodore Roosevelt's response that best captured the nation's immediate response:  "That's murder . . . this represents not merely piracy,  but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any oldtime pirate ever practiced. This is the warfare which destroyed Louvain and Dinant, and hundreds of men, women and children in Belgium. It is warfare against innocents traveling on the ocean, and to our fellow countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action." ( 7 May 1915, Interview)




Articles


Eyewitness: Through the Periscope: RMS Lusitania


News of the Lusitania Arrives at the World's Fair


Joyce Kilmer's Lusitania Poem


Lusitania Propaganda Posters


Countdown to America’s Entry into the Great War


Preparedness Fever: The Parades of 1916


The Plattsburg Movement: Where General Pershing Found His Officers


Who Was Josephus Daniels?


Newton Baker and the National Defense Act of 1916


Representative Julius Kahn, the American Military's Biggest Booster in Congress



Henry Ford's Peace Ship


Preparedness Parade


Book Reviews


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania


Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898–1920


The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America



Thursday, June 30, 2022

Stefan Zwieg on the Coming of Another World War



During the First World War Zwieg Volunteered for
the Austrian Army. He Was Judged Unfit for
Frontline Service and Assigned to the War Archives


Farewell, you dear ones, you companions of many fraternal hours in France, Belgium and England, we need to take leave now, for a long time. No words, no letters, no regards that I could send to you in your now hostile cities would find their way into your hands. And if they did, they would not reach your hearts. All of a sudden, we are separated from each other through violence—we, who have long been joined in friendship and common affinity. Yet I lament it not. Because for the first time, we would no longer understand each other, even if we exchanged speech and retort but in writing. We are not who we were before the war and the fate of our homeland stands between our feelings. You are far from me these days, and foreign, and no language—not ours, not yours—could make it so that we are close and trusting again. Farewell, you dear ones, farewell companions!

Stefan Zweig, Letter to Friends in Foreign Lands, 1914


In 1939 Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was living in England.  A second world war seemed to be near. At the conclusion of his final work, The World of Yesterday, he reflected about he responded to the coming war and the shadow of the previous war that still hung over him and Europe

I went that morning—it was September 1, a Friday—to the registry office at Bath to secure my marriage license. The official took our papers and was uncommonly friendly and zealous. Like everyone else at this time, he understood our desire for haste. The ceremony was set for the next day; he took his pen and, in a careful script, began to write our names in his book.

Just then—^it must have been about eleven o’clock—the door to the next room flew open. A young official burst in, getting into his coat while walking. “The Germans have invaded Poland. This is war !” he shouted into the quiet room. The word fell like a hammer blow upon my heart. But the heart of our generation is already accustomed to all sorts of hard blows. “That doesn’t have to mean war,” I said in honest conviction. But the man was almost incensed. “No,” he cried vehemently, “we’ve had enough! We can’t let them start this sort of thing every six months ! We’ve got to put a stop to it! ” 

Meanwhile, the clerk who had already begun to fill out our certificate laid his pen down thoughtfully. After all, we were aliens, he reflected, and in case of war would automatically become enemy aliens. He did not know whether marriage in such circumstances was still permissible. He was very sorry but in any event he would have to apply to London for instructions. Then came two more days of waiting, hoping, fearing, two days of the most terrible suspense. Sunday morning the radio gave out the news that England had declared war against Germany. 

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it,  sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance.

It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

I went to my room and packed a small bag. If the prediction of a friend in high place were fulfilled, then we Austrians in England would be counted as Germans and would be subject to the same restrictions; it seemed unlikely that I would be allowed to sleep in my own bed that night. Again I had dropped a rung lower, within an hour I was no longer merely a stranger in the land but an “enemy alien,’’ a hostile foreigner; this decree forcibly banned me to a situation to which my throbbing heart had no relation. For was a more absurd situation imaginable than for a man in a strange land to be compulsorily aligned—solely on the ground of a faded birth certificate—with a Germany that had long ago expelled him because his race and ideas branded him as anti-German and to which, as an Austrian, he had never belonged. By a stroke of a pen the meaning of a whole life had been transformed into a paradox; I wrote, I still thought in the German language, but my every thought and wish belonged to the countries which stood in arms for the freedom of the world. Every other loyalty, all that was past and gone, was torn and destroyed and I knew that after this war everything would have to take a fresh start. For my most cherished aim to which I had devoted aU the power of my conviction for forty years, the peaceful union of Europe, had been defiled. 

What I had feared more than my own death, the war of all against all, now had become unleashed for the second time. And one who had toiled heart and soul all his hfe for human and spiritual unity found himself, in this hour winch like no other demanded inviolable unity, thanks to this precipitate singling out, superfluous and alone as never before in his life. Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noonday sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a Sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “ Can it be that they don’t know it yet?” But they were English, and practiced  in restraining their emotions. They needed no flags and drums, clamor and music to strengthen themselves in their tough, unemotional determination. How different from those days of July, 1914, in Austria, but how different was I, too, from the inexperienced young man of that time, how heavy with memories! I knew what war meant, and as I looked at the well-filled, tidy shops I had an abrupt vision of those of 1918, cleared-out and empty, seemingly staring at one with wide-open eyes. 

As in a waking dream I saw the long queues of careworn women before the food shops, the mothers in mourning, the wounded, the cripples, the whole night- mare of another day returned spectrally in the shining noonday light. I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield,—my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which soil hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

Stefan Zweig and Elizabeth Charlotte Zweig, his wife, died by their own hands at Petropolis, Brazil, on 23 February 1942. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Alcohol Ration for the German Soldier




Beer Ration Delivered to the Front


The Germans enjoyed a varied assortment of alcohol rations, ranging from small measures of beer, German wine, brandy, and, most famously, schnapps. The daily schnapps rations of 125ml enjoyed by many of the German forces played a pivotal role in defining the war in the German psyche, especially from those who went on to write their experiences of the conflict. Normally, each soldier in the trenches received one of the following: half a liter of beer, 1/4 liter of wine, or 125ml of brandy or schnapps. 

The German army’s experience with alcohol during World War I was more varied than that of their Allied counterparts on the Western Front. This was due in part to the strong degree of regionalism within the German Empire and its army. Units from Bavaria were much more likely to be issued beer as part of their daily ration than units from Prussia or the wine-producing regions of the Rhineland. The German home front also had to deal with food shortages due to the British naval blockade, which placed stresses on the alcohol industry due to an increasing demand for foodstuffs key to alcohol production such as potatoes, barley, and sugar.  This shortage eventually affected those in the front lines.


An Artillery Unit on the Eastern Front Enjoying Their Ration


The machine gunner and Expressionist artist Otto Dix recalled the experience in the trenches as: "Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, caves, corpses, blood, Schnapps, mice, cats, gas, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, steel." During the 1920s Erich Maria Remarque, author of the seminal All Quiet on the Western Front, wrote lovingly about schnapps, saying, "It is easier to write about the psychology of women than to understand schnapps; schnapps has soul." In his postwar novelization of his war diary, Storm of Steel, Jünger mentions being issued with schnapps, beer, and wine. He discusses “downing several bottles of red wine” in a dugout after an artillery barrage and spending the last of his money on wine during preparations for the ill-fated 1918 Spring Offensive because there was nothing else his comrades could have spent the money on.

Sources: Thedrinksbusiness.com and Pointshistory.com Websites

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Chasing the Great Retreat: The German Cavalry Pursuit of the British Expeditionary Force Before the Battle of the Marne, August 1914


By Col. (Ret.) Joe Robinson, Sabine Declercq, and Randal Gilbert
Helion and Company, March 2022
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer


Idealized View of Germany's Cavalry


Ably assisted by two co-authors, Robinson has followed up his excellent work, The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914, with this book as a continuation piece. The work is another masterpiece which gives many Great War historians a necessary insight as to why the war wasn’t, in fact, concluded by Christmas as the Kaiser promised and newspapers shouted in the streets all over the world.

But before the reader can get to the gist of the book, the authors launch into a very eye-opening prelude. Specifically, they caution the reader to consider why certain paradigms exist in the structure of World War I accounts. Examples are the tenacity of British soldiers at Mons, where they released so many well-aimed rounds (15 per minute) that the attacking Germans thought they were faced with many machine guns instead of rifle fire, or the accounts of British victories at Le Cateau and Mons while German histories of the same battle claim a victory in both instances for their armies.

In the authors’ words, the truth of the matter is that the victor writes the history, and if the paradigm is said often enough it is believed.  Additionally, to reinforce these concepts there is a whole generation of writers who rely almost totally on British accounts without delving into either French or German accounts since they lack language and research skills. History is about gathering data and presenting it in an unbiased manner which has not always happened among authors. Taking this position into consideration, the authors then present the reader with a detailed description of the German cavalry’s composition, its missions, and where it fell into command and control of an offensive.

Truly, the cavalry’s existence in the early Great War days is a fine example of command echelons not understanding how to use the fast moving, hard hitting, most flexible arm of war-making in the early 20th century. In fact, the Great War created command structures which did not exist in peacetime and, therefore, lacked user guides. And that lack of understanding does not stop at deployment. It also appears in the most crucial area of war, logistics. There were no plans on how to feed or supply a force that could cover 30 kilometers a day and cross from one army’s control to another in the space of 48 hours. 


British Forces Under Fire During the Retreat from Mons


Once the reader understands the cavalry’s missions and logistical problems, the authors talk about the Great Retreat—but not from the Allied perspective. This is a German show and as such the next chapters describe how the German General Staff (OHL) and the 1st and 2nd Armies attempted, in accordance with their concept of encirclement, to get around the French left flank and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which occupied that position. Of note to me, the OHL was not surprised by the appearance of the BEF, as many accounts that I have read stated. They fully expected to meet British troops. However, they were surprised with the fact that the BEF went into the line directly from the embarkation points.

Additionally, Robinson is quite clear in painting a picture of a less than prepared Tommy who was not a colonial battle-hardened soldier as I had been led to believe over the years. He was rather a peacetime garrison bloke who was as new to war as his counterpart. The book’s day by day reporting of unit placements, confused orders, and missed opportunities is a treasure source. Each day’s report is illustrated with a daily map. The detail of some unit identifications did get a little excessive in places, but I was reading for content. Had I been researching information for my own book, all the superb data would have wound up in notes to be drawn from as I wrote my opus.

This is a work that merits a spot on a historian’s bookshelf next to Terence Zuber’s The Mons Myth, A Reassessment of the Battle (2010). Both are well balanced in their description of events before the war settled into a stalemate and passed Christmas in the trenches.

Michael Kihntopf

Monday, June 27, 2022

Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, Orkney



HMS Hampshire, an armored cruiser, was en route from Orkney to Russia, taking Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, on a secret mission to bolster support from the tsar for the war when it hit a mine and sank on 5 June 1916. There were only 12 survivors, 737 perished, including Lord Kitchener and his staff.

HMS Hampshire at Anchor

Kitchener Memorial

Sailing alone in heavy seas into high winds, Hampshire was approximately 1.5 mi (2.4 km) off Mainland, Orkney, between Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head at 19:40 on 5 June when an explosion occurred and she heeled to starboard. She had struck one of several mines laid by the German minelaying submarine U-75 on 28–29 May, just before the Battle of Jutland. About 15 minutes after the explosion, Hampshire sank by the bow. Most of the lifeboats were smashed against the side of the ship by the heavy seas when they were lowered.The ship is upside down at a depth of 180–230 feet  of water.


Panels Listing the Fallen


Inscription on the Tower


A tower was erected on Marwick Head on Mainland, Orkney, in 1926 by the people of Orkney to the memory of Kitchener and the officers and men of Hampshire. The Kitchener Memorial is a square, crenellated stone tower with the inscription: "This tower was raised by the people of Orkney in memory of Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum on that corner of his country which he had served so faithfully nearest to the place where he died on duty. He and his staff perished along with the officers and nearly all the men of HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916."

View of the Sinking Site from the Tower


Source:  Thanks to Steve Miller and Mike Crutch for the great photos; The Scotsman, Wikipedia


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Captain Willy Rohr and the Birth of StormtroopTactics


Major Willy Rohr, Late War


By Dave Shunk

[By late 1914] the German Army identified the fact that the traditional equipment of the infantryman, the rifle with fixed bayonet, was unsuited to the conditions of trench warfare. The rapidity with which this problem was understood and the steps made to correct it, through the development of alternative weapons and tactics, indicates strongly that communication from the frontline troops to the higher command was very close. How German Captain Willy Rohr then changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army is a remarkable story. 

He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. [Modern U.S. Army Field Manual 3-0 describes the challenge Captain Rohr faced:]  

Decentralized operations place a premium on disciplined, confident small units that can integrate joint capabilities and fight together as combined arms teams. Leaders must prepare their units to fight and adapt under conditions of uncertainty and, during the conduct of operations, must also ensure moral conduct and make critical time-sensitive decisions under pressure. Conducting effective decentralized operations will require a high degree of unit cohesion developed through tough, realistic training and shared operational experience. 

World War One began in July 1914 but by year’s end the war of maneuver ended in the West and trenches extended along the entire European front. The tactical problem was simple—how to take trenches without unacceptable losses to the attacker. The Germans had three advantages to solve the problem: a decentralized command structure dating back to 1806, mission command orders which  inherently pushed trust down to the lowest levels, and a history of accepting new ideas. 

In 1915 the German Army needed fast tactical innovation and adaptation. The German General Staff turned to combat veteran and pioneer (engineer) named Captain Willy Rohr. As soon as he took over command of the assault detachment Rohr began a period of rapid evaluation of ideas and equipment. In this he cooperated closely with Captain Reddemann, commander of the experimental flamethrower unit. In only a few weeks these two officers developed the Strossstuppgedanke (assault squad concept), which was to remain the basis of German infantry tactics for 30 years.

Captain Rohr assumed command in August 1915 and never looked back. He immediately began experiments on the front line with new weapons, tactics and techniques. Innovative and adaptation flowed from his unit, other combat veterans like Captain Reddemann attached to the unit, and Rohr’s creative mind. The following describes the new weapons and equipment developed by his unit.

1. Flamethrowers: Flamethrowers were among the first new weapons tested. Captain Rohr turned to another combat seasoned officer for his expertise.  A  Landwehr captain and Leipzig fireman, Reddemann, inspired by accounts of flame throwing weapons used in the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War, Reddemann had begun conducting field exercises with simulated flamethrowers in 1907. By 1915 he a developed a backpack model, with a crew of two men. The chief tactical effect of the flamethrower was the fear that it inspired in the hearts of enemy soldiers. The first use occurred in February 1915 northwest of Verdun near Malancourt, France. The attack began with the flamethrowers spitting 40-meter-long streams of burning oil in the French position. Even though most had not been burned by the oil, the defenders were too shocked to react when the German infantry attacked.


Storm Trooper Grenade Specialist


2. Infantry Assault Weapons: Captain Rohr also tested lightweight cannon, grenades, machine pistols, mortars, and lightweight machine guns. Captain Rohr looked for these weapons to restore firepower with maneuver. The essential elements of the tactics that Rohr developed in the course of these experiments were (1) the replacement of the advance in skirmish lines with the surprise assault of squad-sized storms troops (Sturmtruppen or Stosstruppen), (2) the use of supporting arms (machine guns, infantry guns, trench mortars, indirect artillery, flamethrowers) coordinated at the lowest possible level to suppress the enemy during the attack, and (3) the clearing of trenches by—rolling them up—with troops armed with hand grenades. Recognizing the inadequacy of indirect fire artillery Rohr emphasized the importance of organic heavy weapons, Truppwaffen (squad weapons), within infantry units. While indirect fire was still essential for general suppression, the squad weapons enabled particular targets to be engaged with speed and precision. Their presence restored firepower to the infantry and so filled the gap in capabilities caused by the eclipse of the rifle.

3. Uniforms: Body Armor and Helmets. Not to be forgotten were the less than useful prewar uniforms. The assault unit designed their own uniforms based on their combat experiences and future needs. Not all items proved useful to the troops. Body armor did not match up with Captain Rohr’s ideas of speed of maneuver. . . Captain Rohr discarded body armor. Speed and violence of execution were far better protection than metal armor. The only piece of armor he adopted for all operations was the coal scuttle helmet (Stahlhelm) that was later to become the trademark of the German soldier of both world wars.  Captain Rohr‘s men had also substituted ankle boots and puttees for their 1866-pattern leather jackboots. The stormtroopers had also started sewing leather patches on their elbows and knees—shielding their most vulnerable joints from the wear and tear of crawling. 

4. The Assault Squad:  Capt Rohr’s unit now had new weapons and uniforms but the big question remained—how to use all this in combat? He had a new answer–throw away the linear-based organizations in use since Napoleon and try a new combat infantry organization called the assault squad.

Individuals within the German army had experimented on a local level with squads of infantry attacking across no man’s land. Captain Rohr took the basic concept of a maneuver squad and quickly developed the new organization into an innovative force, the assault squad. What distinguished Rohr‘s techniques from the prewar German tactical doctrine was the organization of attack forces in small groups deployed in depth, instead of advancing in a broad firing line, and the arming of individual infantry soldiers with various types of weapons, instead of the standard issue rifle.

Since the individual infantryman was no longer required to participate in the battle for fire superiority, infantry formations and equipment were remodeled. Whereas the prewar emphasis had been on firepower, the new emphasis was on assault power.  Rohr called these section sized units Strosstruppen or Sturmtruppen (assault squads)  Each squad consisted of eight men and an NCO. This proved the most effective size both for command purposes and for best use of the terrain. . . This squad provided flexibility of maneuver and control, specialized weapons, and quick response to the changing conditions. The assault squad gave the on-scene infantry commander the optimum in flexibility of maneuver and combat power.

5. Tactics. After the development of the uniforms, weapons, and assault squad one more key item to match the innovative organization —new tactics. Rohr developed new tactics which depended on decentralized command for the infantry commander to choose where to attack the enemy, operational adaptability to organize the assault squad as the mission dictated, and mission orders for maximum freedom in tactics to accomplish the mission. The solution came to be known as infiltration tactics.

Dispersed and irregular character of moving swarms (as opposed to well defined line abreast formations) permit infiltrators to blend against irregular and changing terrain features as they push forward. Small units exploiting tactical dispersion in a focused way—rather than large formations abiding by the Principle of Concentration—penetrate adversary to generate many non-cooperative (or isolated) centers of gravity as basis to magnify friction, paralyze effort, and bring about adversary collapse. The flexibility of infiltration tactics allowed the infantry commander to use terrain, supporting artillery, and/or gas to close with the enemy. The infantry forces then selected which trench segment to attack based on real time reconnaissance. The heavy weapons and the offensive firepower within the squad made a local fire storm which over whelmed an isolated trench area. The infiltration tactics sought out a weak point to assault.

Captain Rohr’s assault tactics contained a basic attack flow that consisted of three waves. The three waves were done in sequence to fight for intelligence; the on scene commander acted on the intelligence and used his initiative to attack where necessary. The first wave was an infantry probe (from the accompanying division) . . . to identify enemy positions [for the storm companies]. Two hundred and fifty meters behind, the elite storm companies and flamethrower section, with additional [division] infantry support, attempted to penetrate the enemy zones by pushing through weak areas to envelop enemy positions. Supporting these efforts was the third wave, about 150 meters behind, which contained the storm battalion's heavy weapons. This third wave provided fire to support the forward movement of the storm companies and to protect the flanks of the penetrations.


One of Rohr's Units After a Successful Operation


Once the infiltration made a penetration into a weak point in the enemy trenches the German assault squads used indirect or flank attacks. This greatly aided in collapsing enemy resistance and widening the breakthrough gap. The penetrating force turned at an angle from the main direction of advance and assaulted the flanks and rear of enemy forces on either side, in order to widen the gap created. German instructions ordered units to breakthrough and roll up (aufrollen) from the flanks and to take the strong points by envelopment. 

On 12 October 1915 Capt Rohr led his men into combat with the new ideas put into action. The new Stosstruppen squads and infiltration tactics overran and rolled up the French trenches they attacked in the Vosges Mountains. Gone were the days of old linear infantry tactics. At 5:29 that evening, six large flamethrowers opened fire on the French forward trench. From behind each flamethrower, a squad-sized stormtroop followed the jets of burning oil into a designated portion of the enemy trench, systematically clearing that section of trench with hand grenades. Lessons learned and refinements were immediately applied to the organization, tactics and weapons by Captain Rohr. Highly successful combat tests occurred again in January 1916 and later during the Battle of Verdun, where Rohr's troops performed 70 missions..

Rohr would personally command one of the new Sturm battalions for the remainder of the war and his unit would fight in  innumerable  operations, suffering heavy casualties.  His methodology, however, would have a much broader impact on the war, contributing to the successes of the Central Powers at Riga, Caporetto, and the Ludendorff spring offensives of 1918. He was retained by the post-Versailles German Army but found that his particular tactical genius had no application. He resigned in frustration and went into banking in Lübeck, where he died in 1930.


Source: Excerpted from "Army Capstone Concept & the Genesis of German World War One Assault Squad & Infiltration Tactics—The Historical Linkage," Small Wars Journal, by Dave Shunk, 3 August 2010.