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

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Worst Year of the War? It Was 1917, By Far

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson, 1917

Nineteen-seventeen was the most important and historically influential year of the Great War. It's well understood that 1917 was a pile-up of disasters and miscalculations, from Germany's decision to implement unrestricted U-boat warfare in January to the Bolsheviks' triumph in the autumn, and with the ill-fated Nivelle, Kerensky, and Passchendaele offensives, plus the Italian collapse at Caporetto strung out in between. But how, you may ask, can it be argued that 1917 was worse than other years of the war, some of which had higher death tolls? Or, reducing the question to one statistic for a single belligerent, how was Passchendaele (244,000 casualties) worse than 1916's Battle of the Somme (416,000 casualties) for the British?

The answer to this has two dimensions: one physical, one metaphysical. That popular and highly quotable military philosopher, Sun Tzu, addressed the first of these: "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." By the end of 1917 every one of the war's original participants had suffered horrendous casualties and had made debilitating expenditures of their nation's wealth. They were running out of men and money. Anxiety over this was building on everyone's home front as shortages were experienced in factories and at dinner tables. On the battlefields, all the generals were growing deeply concerned about the fighting spirit and discipline of the men, and how they would replace the massive losses.

But accumulated physical losses were the lesser factor in what happened in 1917. As another military authority, Napoleon Bonaparte, reminds us—in war, "Morale is to the physical as three to one." In 1917, the morale of heads-of-state, citizens, and soldiers bottomed out. Futility, mindlessness, and tragedy started to be the defining aspects and heritage of the First World War, even while the fighting carried on. This moral burden of the war is still with us. Something less tangible, in the area of mass psychology, lasting and open-ended, started coming into play during 1917, and it has stayed around, its influence shaping even our current century. Defeats like Caporetto and failed, costly endeavors like the Allies launched on the Chemin des Dames, and in Flanders and Galicia, were felt no longer as mere setbacks but as national humiliations discrediting the governing classes and—for the troops—defining the war as purposeless, futile betrayals.

Maybe the war's most damaging long-term impact was the exhaustion of morale suffered by Europe's well-educated, creative, affluent, and political elite. They became the main vectors for transmitting despair and pessimism to future generations, leaving the body of Europe vulnerable to something even worse, the corrosive aspects of Modernism, the hatred of authority, and the irrational impulse to discredit all institutions and traditions. Then and since, there have been few articulate defenders of order and continuity, and they are getting rarer. 

In 1917 the cumulative spiritual fatigue triggered mutinies, food riots, and revolutions, which led soon after to the Lost Generation; totalitarian governments; a second, larger war; a longer cold war; the atomic age; and a series of ill-conceived policies, leading right up to the present-day immigration catastrophe in Europe. This long decline surely has deeper, older roots than the Great War, but the events of 1917 certainly provided powerful downward accelerators.

Adapted from my introduction to the December 2018 issue of OVER THE TOP Magazine.  MH

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Bullecourt Digger

On 11 April 1917 as part of the Battle of  Arras the British 5th Army stormed the village of Bullecourt, an important link in the German defence known as the Hindenburg Line. A second offensive was launched on 3 May, but neither of these two operations achieved their objective and the five Australian divisions which took part in the fighting suffered heavy losses, close to 10,000 dead. 

The Australian Memorial Park outside Bullecourt honors those Diggers who lost their lives in these two events of the Battle of Arras. The centerpiece of the park is this statue of an Australian Digger, which is less well known as the Digger statue on the Somme battlefield or the "Don't Forget Me, Cobber" at Fromelles.

Friday, April 19, 2019

How the War Impacted the Population of Scotland

A Cameronian Battalion Departing for the Front

By the end of the Great War, half of Scotland's male population aged between 18 and 45 years had joined up to go to the front to fight. The First World War took a devastating toll of Scots who put on uniform and served in the armed forces, and it subjected their families at home to enormous anxiety, suffering, and grief.  The war not only affected Scots on a personal level but also had an impact on the civilian population as a whole.

In 1914 the estimated population in Scotland was 4,747,000, compared to 5,328,000 in 1913. There had been a general decline before the war because of emigration. In 1914 there were 14,000 fewer people than were counted in the 1911 census.

An accepted total of the Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated. Estimates vary between 100,000 and 148,000. The higher figure is the total of the names inscribed on the rolls of honor of the Scottish National War Memorial, which includes Scots who had left Scotland before the war but returned to serve. 

In 1915, the year after the outbreak of war, deaths of civilians increased by about 8,000 to a total of 82,000. The next peak occurred in 1918, when some 78,000 deaths were registered, an increase of almost 9,000 over 1917. The deaths largely occurred from September onward as a result of the severe influenza epidemic known as the Spanish Flu, which was particularly virulent among young adults. Soldiers returning home unwittingly spread the virus. Doctors often cited pneumonia as the eventual cause of death on death certificates, but the influenza also weakened resistance to other infections, which could be given as the cause of death. Deaths caused by the war and the 1918 influenza epidemic drastically reduced the number of men in the 20–40 age group.

After 1914, with so many young men away on military service, there were generally fewer births. The year 1917 saw the fewest registered births since 1855, and fewer babies were born to unmarried mothers. Marriages also decreased, dropping by 6,000 between 1915 and 1917.

The Largest of Glasgow's Many WWI Memorials

The end of hostilities in 1918 changed the picture: marriages grew by about 17,000 between 1918 and the peak of almost 47,000 in 1920. The inevitable baby boom followed. The year 1920 was and remains a record year for births: almost 137,000 children were registered, about 30 percent more than the average of the previous five years. This baby boom was far more dramatic than the booms experienced at the end of the Second World War or even in the 1960s.

In 1919 the population of Scotland was estimated at 4,823,000, the highest since 1855. This figure continued to grow, peaking at almost 4,898,000 in 1922. Rising emigration during the 1920s , as well as falling marriage and birth rates, helped reduce the population total.

Source: The National Records of Scotland

Thursday, April 18, 2019

American Tank Operations in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

No tank is to be surrendered or abandoned to the enemy.  If you are left alone in the midst of the enemy keep shooting.  If your gun is disabled use your pistols and squash the enemy with your tracks…If your motor is stalled and your gun broken still the infantry cannot hurt you.  You hang on [and] help will come.  In any case remember you are the first American tanks. You must establish the fact that AMERICAN TANKS DO NOT SURRENDER
Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Commander 1st U.S. Tank Brigade

American Tankers with Their Renault FT-17 Tanks (IWM)

George Patton and his tankers had a major success under their belts at the St. Mihiel Salient in early September 1918, despite an alarming number of vehicles lost due to mechanical breakdowns and the muddy terrain.  Two weeks later, they would be called upon to support General Pershing's First Army in the even larger Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Here is an account of their effort in the opening of the battle from the U.S. Army Museum—

Aimed at breaking through German lines by advancing through the Meuse-Argonne sector, the campaign began on the night of the 25–26 of September with a massive Allied artillery barrage.  At 0530 on 26 September, the 344th and 345th Tank Battalions rolled out in support of the 28th and 35th Divisions, I Corps.  The bulk of the two battalions supported the 35th Division to the east of the Aire River, while Company B of the 344th and Company A of the 345th supported the 28th Division to the west.  Fierce resistance was soon met on both sides of the river, but the men of the 1st Tank Brigade were resolute.  The 28th Division’s advance was stalled by heavy machine-gun fire outside the town of Varennes, leaving the tanks without infantry support.  Unfazed, Captain Dean M. Gilfillan of the 345th Tank Battalion doggedly continued his attack.  With his tank in flames after receiving two direct hits from artillery fire, and suffering a wound from an enemy machine gun, he managed to destroy two German machine guns and gun down a number of German soldiers before abandoning his vehicle moments before it exploded.  Despite being subsequently wounded by shrapnel, he remained at his post long enough to witness a second, successful assault on Varennes.

Patton's Tanks Training at Mass Maneuvering

To the east of the Aire River, the 35th Division was checked by German forces that were strongly entrenched on a hill south of Cheppy. Here, Patton had advanced on foot to survey the situation.  Finding his tanks unable to advance over German trenches and thus come to the aid of the infantry, he ordered all available personnel to clear a path through, handing out picks and shovels and going so far as to strike one of the soldiers who was slacking.  After this was accomplished and the tanks were able to advance, Patton led a haphazard amalgamation of leaderless soldiers in a charge on the German positions, but he was cut down by German fire and had to be evacuated.  Despite their commander no longer being in the fight, the tankers rolled onward, wiping out the offending machine-gun nests on and around the hill, and in concert with remnants of the 138th Infantry Regiment, secured Cheppy. Historian Carlo D’este stated that the assault on Cheppy “…may well have been the first-ever example of tank-infantry cooperation in an offensive situation.”

Plaque at Camp Roberts, CA, Named
for Cpl. Harold Roberts, First Tank Corps
Medal of Honor Recipient, KIA 4 Oct. 1918
So it went, day after day, the Tank Corps intrepidly pushed forward, often in advance of the Infantry. First Lieutenant Harvey L. Harris wrote that “It’s surprising what they ask us to do.  Doughboys to Generals have sent us against places a battleship couldn’t capture…” and Patton later wrote that the infantry had seemed to have “…forgotten the firepower which they themselves possessed and expected the tanks to completely obliterate all resistance before they would advance.”  This success, however, came at a price.  By 3 October, fifty-three percent of the officers and twenty-five percent of the enlisted men of the 1st Tank Brigade had become casualties.  The vehicle attrition rate was also high:  the 1st Tank Brigade started the offensive with 127 Renault tanks supplemented by fourteen more on the night of 27 September.  By 3 October, the brigade had only eighty-nine operational vehicles.  These numbers were about to drop again as the offensive was resumed on 4 October.  Heavy fighting once again resulted in a staggering loss of personnel and equipment; by the next morning, only thirty tanks operable tanks remained, and by 10 October, six of seven captains in the brigade were casualties.

U.S. Tank Advancing at Recicourt, Mid-October 1918

Although Tank Corps mechanics had been feverishly working night and day to keep the tanks in fighting condition, having forty-eight tanks operable on 11 October, mechanical failures do to extended use necessitated a withdrawal of most of the tanks for servicing.  While most of the 1st Tank Brigade was withdrawn from the front, a provisional force designated the 1st Provisional Tank Company, under the command of Captain Courtney Barnard, consisting of ten officers, 148 enlisted men, and twenty-four tanks, was created on 13 October.  It was supported by the 321st Repair and Salvage Company and Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 344th Tank Battalion.  This unit went on to perform admirably (aside from the usual mechanical issues and getting bogged down in the trenches, shells holes, and other obstacles) in actions on 14 October and 1 November.

Source: Selected from "The Dawn of American Armor: The U.S. Army Tank Corps in World War I,"  Eric Anderson, U.S. Army Historical Foundation

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Snapshots of the War in 1915

Last Sunday, we published an article about the battles on the Western Front in 1915.  It reminded me of something I've benefited from by looking at thousands of photos from the war over  the last quarter-century. Usually, without first reading the caption of a photograph, I can guess with a pretty high degree of accuracy the year the photo was taken. That's because everything looked different over the time, the battlefields, the trenches, the uniforms and kits of the soldiers.  Here's a selection from 1915. The war's been on a year, but the battlefields haven't yet taken on the lunar landscape look, most of the troops haven't been issued helmets yet, and, while some of the images show the brutal side of war, things just don't look quite as grim as photos from the following year when Verdun and the Somme took center stage.

Click on the Image to Enlarge

French Artillerymen in the Vosges Mountain Sector

King George V at a Military Review at Stonehenge

German Trench at Notre Dame de Lorette

Austrian Soldiers Torch a Polish Village

Battleship HMS Majestic Sinking at Cape Helles, 27 May 1915

V Beach, Gallipoli, After the Troops Move Inland,
River Clyde in Foreground

Lord Kitchener in the Foreground Visiting the Western Front

Italian Troops Moving a Gun to Higher Ground

British Burials, Hullach, Loos Battlefield

A French Band Wearing Gas Masks While Performing

General Joffre, Accompanied by General Cadorna,
Tours the Alpine Battlefields

A Single German Cavalryman Guards a Column of Russian Prisoners

Sources:  Tony Langley Collection, The Illustrated Album deluxe 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Now the War Is Over: Britain 1919–1920

Simon Fowler and Daniel Weinbren
Pen and Sword Military, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Many uninvolved people assume that when a war ends and 'peace breaks out'-well, that's that. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there might be a collective sigh of relief from some, the agony continues but on a different note. In this, the United States, France, Germany and Britain followed parallel paths to varying degrees. How Britain reacted in 1919-1920 to the most terrible conflict it had ever known is the subject of Now the War is Over and as the authors reveal in detail, all was far from quiet on the home front after the Armistice was signed. A nation of some 46 million people can't lose over 750,000 young men on the battlefield and have a million and a half return wounded-many severely-and then pick up and carry on as usual.

In nine chapters Now the War is Over details the political, financial and social disruption that Britain experienced at the war's end. The first problems arose with countless soldiers wanting nothing more than to get out of uniform and back to civilian life. This brought about revolts against the military system even while troops were still in France, with localized mutinies, riots and general disrespect for officers. Resentment over who got to go home first was rife, and the soldiers showed it. Officers were at a loss about keeping waiting troops occupied-there were few educational opportunities such as American forces enjoyed-and one commander ordered troops to parade with their helmets burnished (scraped and polished) to give them something to do. There was more swearing over this order than had been heard for some time (4).

Fear was a common response among Britain's governing and upper classes as the war drew to an end. A society based on firm class lines saw a threat to its stability in the return of a few million war-experienced soldiers who might be better trained in violence than police and other law enforcement personnel. What would prevent upheavals as in Russia and Germany? In fact, numerous strikes, riots, protests, and demonstrations (many now forgotten) did take place all over the United Kingdom. But this unrest, violent and even bloody as it sometimes was, never became organized in any nationally united way-most remained locally organized. No soviets arose, no government was overthrown, and a troubled Britain muddled through while finding it impossible to return to the old ways and values. Life had been changed forever.

In addition to other upheavals, Ireland was reasserting its claims for independence and the IRA fought a long and violent campaign against the British State (p.22). Industrially, as factories producing war materials including vehicles and munitions cut back or closed, unionized workers protested and went on strike. Also, returning servicemen had plenty of reason to feel resentful and neglected:

Veterans found that Britain had changed during the war, often, in their eyes, not for the better. And although the fallen were commemorated in memorials and ceremonies, many ex-servicemen felt that their sacrifices were not sufficiently recognized. Protests around the Peace Day celebrations in July 1919 were often about how ex-servicemen had not been invited to the festivities. Rather the money had been spent on feting local elites who had done well out of the war (27).

"Black and Tans," British Auxiliaries Deployed to Ireland,
Blocking a Road 

The fight for recognition, reparations, medical care, and pensions were to be a constant theme in the 1920s in Britain, as it was in the United States, although no Bonus March took place.

Chapters 3 and 4 give considerable depth to both the economic and political reconstruction that Britain underwent during these postwar years, but perhaps Chapter 5, "Adjusting to the Peace," is the most interesting. The situation was to be expected:

During the war tens of thousands of women entered the factories and offices to fill the gaps left by men joining up or to boost the war economy. Between July 1914 and July 1918, the number of women employed in Britain rose by nearly 1.5 million, with virtually all of them engaged in new occupations or hired as substitutes for men. In engineering, where large numbers of women were employed, the figures rose from about 170,000 women in the industry before 1914 to 594,000 in 1918 (69–70).

Now, of course male trade unionists worked mightily to remove women from the workplace so that returning men could get jobs. Women were expected to return to the home or go back into domestic service. This worked to a certain degree, but women had changed too. Many didn't want to go back to service in a big house. Worse still, many women now smoked, painted their lips and fingernails, and wore shorter hair and dresses. They went to dance clubs, enjoyed the newfangled Jazz bands, and even became "flappers" much to the horror of the establishment. Nothing, however, was going to bring back a prewar Britain.

Although Now the War Is Over treats little that is new in the larger outline of postwar social upheaval, the authors do give intriguing examples of what was taking place on the everyday level. The second half of the book holds our attention on a variety of topics, from dealing with the wounded and mutilated to crime, drugs, horse racing, hastily written ephemeral literature, spiritualism, and the nation-wide ardor to commemorate the fallen. This latter ranged from building the Cenotaph to itinerant artists who for a small fee would provide a postcard-size sketch of a military grave with a loved one's name quickly written on it to be pinned to the wall of a grieving family's home.

Four pages of black-and-white photographs are included in the book and the notes for each chapter are excellent. If this segment of history interests you, you'll find Fowler and Weinbren's book an intriguing and useful resource.

David F. Beer

Monday, April 15, 2019

Was the Food Weapon a Myth?

Mark Harrison of the University of Warwick argues yes.

Berlin Butcher Shop, Scene of a 1919 Food Riot

Food was an essential element of two world wars (Collingham 2011). Moreover, food security was a core element of German war preparations (Lee 1975). Despite such preparations, many believed, Germany was strangled by the British (later Allied) blockade. The food weapon appeared to have been decisive—Germany was starved into submission.

This belief has historic significance. After the war it helped to sustain the notion (attributed to Germany’s wartime leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff) that Germany remained unbeaten militarily; the army was betrayed by the surrender of the home front. The memory of the blockade also ran deep in the National Socialists’ project to restructure Europe in Germany’s interest by force, as when Hitler  remarked in 1939: “I need the Ukraine, so that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.”

The idea that Germany was starved into defeat would have astonished prewar observers. The British and German prewar diets were quite comparable. At the outbreak of war Germany imported only 20–25 percent of calories for human consumption; for Britain the equivalent number was 60 percent. It was natural for Angell and Bloch to suppose that in wartime British consumers would starve first. Yet all measures of wartime trends show a contrast that was unfavorable to the German consumer. During the war British food supplies were somewhat constrained and their average composition deteriorated; in 1918, the average household consumed more bread, less fat, and substantially less meat than in 1913. In Germany, in contrast, in 1918 the average household ate less of everything, and supplies of meat and fats had collapsed.

Ration Stamps Issued in Alsace-Lorraine

Germany also compares unfavorably in food distribution. There, it was families on lower incomes that were less protected from average trends. In Britain the access of poorer families to food improved relative to the average (Gazeley and Newall 2013); this is more likely attributable to the high demand for all kinds of labor than to rationing, which was introduced only at the end of 1917 (for sugar) or during 1918 (for some meats and fats). In Germany price ceilings and rationing came in 1916 and covered bread and flour, meat, fats, and oil. But rations supplied little more than half of required calories, so everyone had to find unofficial sources to survive. In this setting the wealthy had the advantage. Nutritional deprivation has been observed in the heights of soldiers and and the heights and weights of schoolchildren born before and during World War I (Blum 2013; Cox 2014). Both show average declines and increases in inequality.

Finally, excess mortality among German civilians wartime is put at around 750,000, most likely because of hunger and hunger-related disease (Davis and Engerman 2006: 204).

The blockade was the adversary’s salient intervention in Germany’s food supplies, and it is easy to leap to the conclusion that the blockade was therefore the cause of German hunger. But this story is confounded by two factors. One is straightforward—Germany chose to go to war with its principal trading partners. Angell and Bloch had argued forcefully that great powers heavily dependent on trade should not attack the sources of their own prosperity. But this is exactly what Germany did (and Shinzo Abe was right to note the fact). The German economy was much more interlinked with its future adversaries than its future allies. In 1913, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia accounted for 36 percent of prewar German trade (Gartzke and Lupu 2012: 131). The same figure for Austria–Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire was only 12 percent. From this perspective, Alan Kramer (2013) has pointed out, much of the “blockade” was no more than an Allied decision not to supply the enemy across the front line.

Hungary Berliners Cutting a Horse Carcass 

Another confounding factor is suggested by the fact that the loss of trade was not the only supply shock disturbing the wartime food market. Prewar plans for wartime autarky assumed that German farmers would farm more intensively to feed the nation (Lee 1975). But the opposite came about, because war mobilization stripped German farms of young men, horses, and nitrates. War mobilization also diverted domestic industries from producing the manufactured goods that farmers needed to supplying weapons for the front line. As food prices soared, farmers retreated into self-sufficiency. When civilian officials stepped in to control prices, the farmers’ aversion to trade only increased.

In his economic history of the war Gerd Hardach  asked how the blockade interacted with Germany’s economic mobilization. He conjectured:

The tremendous economic decline of the Central Powers between 1914 and 1918 was caused less by the blockade than by the excessive demands made on their economies by the war.

Hardach did not suggest how to implement this comparison in the German market; here is a simple way to think about it. Start from the fact that before the war Germany imported at most one quarter of calories for human consumption, producing the other three quarters on its own territory. In that context the war induced two welfare losses. One, arising from wartime obstacles to external trade, raised the costs of the one quarter of calories that was previously imported. The other, arising from wartime mobilization, raised the costs of the three quarters produced at home. Is it reasonable to suppose that the loss associated with the one quarter was larger than the loss associated with the three quarters?

Figure 6 illustrates the point. Pw is the peacetime world price of calories; Qp is peacetime calories produced and Qc is calories consumed, the gap being filled by imports at the world price. Suppose that war cuts off all trade—an overstatement of the case. The welfare loss from the blockade is the triangle ABC. Suppose that at the same time war mobilization raises the costs of domestic production. Then the welfare loss from mobilization is the triangle OCD. While the height of each triangle cannot be ascertained, its base is known. The trade loss is proportional to prewar trade, whereas the mobilization loss is proportional to prewar consumption. Since the share of prewar trade in consumption was at most one quarter (and not all trade was cut off), we can reasonably presume that the welfare loss from mobilization was greater than the loss from the blockade.

Further welfare losses could have arisen from price ceilings and rationing. On the evidence already cited they redistributed welfare adversely but are ignored in the figure. Wartime mobilization ended well before the lifting of the blockade, which was maintained after the Armistice and, extended to the Baltic, became even tighter. Until Germany’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, with the fighting over and German soil under German control, trade sanctions were the Allies’ only coercive lever to ensure that Germany came to terms. Among Germans the continuation of the blockade was bitterly unpopular and became a source of lasting resentment. Yet, as Offer (1989: 388–391) reports, prices did not rise and rations did not fall. One explanation is that the end of war mobilization compensated for the intensified blockade.

It was both plausible and convenient for politicians of the war period and later to blame Germany’s wartime economic difficulties on the Allied blockade. This must be largely a myth. The blockade was not the only factor in the disruption of German trade. The disruption of trade was not the only factor that disrupted the German internal market for food. Arguably, the military mobilization of agricultural resources into war, and the economic mobilization of industry, had a larger disruptive effect than the shock from foreign trade.

Source: Selected from the paper "Myths of the Great War," Mark Harrison, University of Warwick.  Presented as the keynote lectures to the Economic History Society annual conference at the University of Warwick, 28 March 2014, and the Ninth Appalachian Spring Conference in World History and Economics, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, 12 April 2014.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

It Must Have Seemed Like the Nadir of Trench Warfare

1915: Burying the Dead

A little over a year into the war the Allies, whose strategic thinking was firmly guided by Joffre, attempted a d double offensive against the German salient into France, north and east of Paris, in an effort to "rupture" the German position. It couldn't have gone worse and it must have seemed that things were as bad as  they could possibly be.  Looking over history's shoulder, we can see Verdun and the Somme looming just ahead of the peoples of 1915. However, to them, back at the end of 1915, it must have seemed that things could not be looking worse. This is what they were mulling over as the 1916 campaign lay ahead.

In Artois a joint British-French effort, known in some sources as the Battle of "Artois-Loos" (map, locations 1 [British] & 2 [French]), resulted in limited gains and high losses. British losses of 60,000 killed and wounded around Loos alone stunned observers. The French attack to the south captured the key town of Souchez but failed again at Vimy Ridge. 

The accompanying failure—solely a French effort—in Champagne (map, location 3) to sever the main east-west rail line supporting the German front, however, sent greater shock waves through France. The massive national effort made there to provide logistical support, including millions of rounds of heavy artillery shells for a decisive breakthrough, had proved utterly inadequate to the challenge. The advance had moved the front merely four kilometers. 

Politicians' faith in Joffre began to wane and they looked to other theaters of war, like the Balkans, for deploying the nation's forces. For the citizenry, victory now seemed barely perceptible, beyond some distant horizon, and would be most assuredly astronomically costly to attain. For the French Army, the Western Front—France—had to be the decisive front, but what new rabbit could they pull out of the hat? The attritional warfare they had inadvertently fallen into was unsustainable. Official figures (probably on the low side) showed 191,000 French casualties in the double fall offensives, including 31,000 killed. 

The sole remaining option was to look to the British. In the winter of 1915–16 General Joffre would abandon French-only offensive operations and focus exclusively on encouraging and collaborating with his ally. Attacking side-by-side would enable the massing of troops and, more important, the artillery of both armies. Naturally, this had to be in a location adjacent to the British sector. Perhaps, somewhere around the River Somme? Yes, that should work nicely. Thus did the failures of 1915 lead to the "Big Show" of 1916. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Harrow School's Tribute to Lt. Alex Fitch

Lt. Alex Fitch

Above a fireplace in a room at Harrow School a light has shone on the portrait of a young man in uniform night and day for the past 89 years.

When 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Alex Fitch was killed in northern France in September 1918 his parents were determined their only son would be remembered.

Fitch had been a pupil at Harrow School and was one of 644 Old Harrovians killed in the Great War.

The memorial to him, the Alex Fitch Room, makes up part of Harrow School's War Memorial Building. It was completed in 1926, but the room, a gift from the Fitch family, appears to be much older.

Anne Hall-Williams, a tour guide at Harrow, said, "The walls are actually made up of Elizabethan panels and the floor is made up of teak timbers from a George III warship called the St Vincent.

"The fireplace is interesting because it is a composite. It is also much older than the building itself. The interior is from the reign of King Henry V and the carving around the outside dates from the reign of King Henry VII."

The doors to the room are inscribed with the words "Pass Friend," taken from the lyrics of a Harrow School song.

The song remembers the sacrifices of the Boer War and the words were written by Fitch's housemaster, George Townsend-Warner.

You stand there where your brothers stood,

And pray where your brothers prayed,

Who fought with Death as brave men should

Not boasting and not afraid.

For the blood and the lives that your brothers gave,

For the glory that you share,

The message comes from beyond the grave,

The challenge - 'Who goes there -


Pass, Friend - All's Well

Above the fireplace is a portrait of Fitch in uniform. His head rests on his right hand and he is holding a cigarette in his left. Over the portrait burns a light and it burns permanently.

Mrs Hall-Williams said, "That was put there at the request of Alex Fitch's parents, and it has been burning there since 1926. The only time it had to be turned out was during the blackout in the Second World War. Otherwise, it is on all the time."

The room was built for a specific purpose. Fitch's family, especially his mother Lady Fitch, wanted a place where parents visiting the school could meet their sons.

Subsequent generations of the Fitch family have made use of the room.

Jamie Ingham Clark is Fitch's great-nephew and is himself an Old Harrovian. He said, "My father was also at Harrow, mostly because of the fact that Alex Fitch had been there. We used the room for his mother's original intent."

Alex Fitch Room

He says over the years the room has come to be used for other purposes. "Certainly I remember taking my French O-level oral in that room, and I think I did the odd music lesson when I was learning, unsuccessfully, the bagpipes."

Despite the change of use, the appearance of the room is as it was in 1926. It contains Elizabethan chairs, a Cromwellian refectory table, and Jacobean chests, all given by the Fitch family.

Mr Ingham Clark said, "Lady Fitch's gift stipulated that nothing should be in that room which, to quote the biblical text, moth nor rust could corrupt. The idea being that it would never change from her ideal, as she gave it."

Fitch is also remembered in Harrow School's Roll of Honour and within the six volumes of the Harrow Memorials of the Great War. In each volume, for each Old Harrovian, is a photograph and a short biography.

The entry for 2nd Lieutenant Fitch contains the words written to his father by his commanding officer:

"I loved your boy and I trusted him with very responsible duties which always proved his capability, and, although he was so young, his personality was so great that he held his men in the hollow of his hand, and they all liked and respected him."

Monument to the School's 644 Killed in the Great War

Harrow guide Anne Hall-Williams says the gift of the Fitch family remains as relevant as it ever was—"He was their only son."

"Everybody who loses a child usually wants some kind of memorial, even today. So he's lived on, which is what they wanted—immortality for their son."

Alex Fitch's great-nephew agrees.

"I think it is a fantastic memorial," said Mr Ingham Clark. "Not only to a much-loved son but to recall the sacrifice of so many young men from such a wonderful school."

Source:  BBC, 22 August 2015; Harrow School Enterprises

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Siege of Kut: Some Observations

by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester 

British Soldiers at Kut During the Siege

Descriptions of British soldiers’ lives under military siege include words such as gallant, heroic, even plucky. This thin optimism fundamentally serves the home front and politicians and does nothing to alleviate the horrors of the actual circumstances. On the other hand, the resourcefulness, stalwartness, and humor of the British and Indians under siege at Kut for 146 days do stand as testimony to the reserves of strength in those soldiers when tried to their utmost.

One example of such humor in Ronald Millar's Death of an Army: the Siege of Kut 1915–1916 is a mock menu proposing a dinner to be held on 28 February 1916 in honor of the 16th anniversary of the relief of Ladysmith—at the “Optimus Hotel, Kut.”

In the tradition of The Wipers Times and similar wartime soldiers’ publications, the menu and program show through humor, sarcasm, and song the detachment and despair that coexist under siege and in the trenches. Food and drink in both circumstances are a constant topic, at Kut even more so. In reality, of course, food dwindled to horseflesh, here noted as “Cutlets, Jaipur Pony Superb” for the Entrée. The after-dinner program makes witty comments on the conditions and predictable digs at army administration and the ever-delayed Relief Force:

·      Pt I: 8. Two Step  ‘Be Quick and Get Under’ [by] A. Dugout

·      Pt. II: 1. March  ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ Percy Lake[1]

·      Pt. II: 2. Cornet Solo  ‘I Hear You Calling Me’  Aylmer[2]

The counterpart of this joshing is the need to mend and make do, to revise and invent to be able to keep up the defense and hold out while other supplies besides food dwindle or are non-existent—weapons and ammo. The defenders had artillery, to a degree, but no mortars at all. Given the periodic raids and imminent attack from the Turks, mortars were needed for their short-range, high-trajectory qualities. Both the weapon and its shells were improvised, thanks to several companies of Royal Engineers serving with Townshend’s force:

            …’jam pot’ grenades, or bombs, were made. These were jam tins containing gun-cotton charges which were then topped up with pieces of metal, old rusty nails, broken glass,Turkish shrapnel picked up at the fort… [p 107]

         Future Grenades    

There were some unsatisfactory attempts at creating mortars from wood and baling wire (which Millar describes as “Elizabethan weapons”), but the answer came from the Gnome 80 [not 70, as Millar states] engines from the Martinsyde S1 aeroplanes[3] left at Kut:

The answer to the problem of the wooden mortars was supplied by Captain [R.E.] Stace’s modifications to the Gnome aircraft engines. He had converted the cylinders of the radial engines into mortars and two of these arrived at the fort. At first they threw 3-lb. T.N.T. aeroplane bombs which were fairly accurate up to a range of 300 yards but occasionally snags occurred. Loose collars were attached to the bomb so they would fit snugly in the cylinder. These sometimes failed to drop off when fired and spoiled the projectile’s trajectory. This failure often caused the bomb to land inside the fort. The mortar gunners developed skills similar to those of ornithologists and could spot a ‘collared’ or ‘collarless’ bomb immediately and remove themselves quickly from the vicinity of the explosion. Captain Stace, however, solved the problem by adapting the gun so that it could fire the ‘jam pot’ bombs which fitted snugly in the barrels of the Gnome mortars without collars. [pp 111–112]

Gnome 80 engine, c. 1915
Photo from

Martinsyde S1 scouts in Mesopotamia
Photo from

The Relief Force attempts never could break through, and Townshend’s only option was an honorable surrender, which tragically took his soldiers into a grim death- and disease-ridden captivity. By the end of both siege and captivity 5,476 British and Indian troops had died. There can be no accounting of the deaths of the Arab civilians trapped in Kut or dispatched by the Turks upon their capture of the town.

[1] Lt.-Gen. commanding the Mesopotamian Force charged with relieving the siege.

[2] Lt.-Gen. led first failed relief attempt.

[3] Millar uses the plural of engines and implies plural aircraft as well, but according to Trevor Henshaw in The Sky Their Battlefield II (2014) only one Martinsyde S1 was “…now [December 1915] abandoned at Kut owing to damage or inability to evacuate” (p 295).

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Recommended: The Doughboy Cartoons of Abian Wallgrem

Presented by James Lileks at

So who was he? A Marine, for starters. An American soldier in the AEF during WWI, Abian "Wally" Wallgren drew comics for Stars and Stripes. His style was typical for the era—broad goofy caricatures with oversized feet. But for a young man he had wit and promise—some of the cartoons you'll see here are quite accomplished.

At the risk of getting deluged by information, I must admit I can't find much info on him. (I've found a few websites that use his cartoons, but they all stink.) In the 1930s he briefly drew for Happy Days, a government-issued paper handed out in CCC camps, suggesting he didn't have a booming postwar career. The book from which these cartoons are taken is often auctioned off on eBay or elsewhere and seems to be his sole contribution to the cartoonist's art. It's almost 90 years old and sturdily bound.

These drawings were originally printed on brown paper; I've made most black and white. I'm not presenting them with much commentary, as that would seem superfluous.

To view a selection of Abian Wallgrem's cartoons click HERE

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Doughboy Tells His GI Son What to Expect in Combat

Veteran Dwight Fee (left) wrote this letter when his son enlisted for service in World War II. As a private with the 319th Infantry, 80th "Blue Ridge" Division, Dwight Fee had fought in the costly, but ultimately successful, Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He did not reminisce about events. Instead, he focused on courage and character. To Fee, the war had been both horrifying and full of adventure. He would be up for it again if duty called and told his son: “I wish I could go FOR you, or at least WITH you.” William would survive his combat in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge, with the 11th Armored Division, although he was seriously wounded by a landmine in March 1945.

Dwight Fee to his son Private William Fee

1 October 1944

Well, I figure you’re off on the Great Adventure. There will be many disagreeable experiences; soul-shaking experiences; tragic experiences; uplifting experiences. You will see examples of selfishness and selflessness that will stir you tremendously . . . I have no doubt that you will develop the same respect that I have for the Infantry , the Gol-Darned Infantry, and the same awesome regard for the Medics.

I have no fears for you; you will do well. You have the finest spirit of any one I know of. I wish I could go FOR you, or at least WITH you, but this is your war. Mother and I will pray that God will give you courage for any danger you will have to face; that you will be given steadfastness, and patience, and resolution. We believe that God lays on nobody more than he is able to bear; that through all trials. God will provide the qualities needed to meet them. I believe David: The Lord upholdeth all that fall; The cast-down raiseth up again.

Just be your own self: and there are not many people to whom I could say that.

You are serving in a great cause. Because of you and those like you millions of fathers and mothers and children again will be able to think and speak freely without fear; to live their lives without oppression. And we here at home will be spared what most certainly would have been the fate of those people if all of you had not gone out to prevent the domination of the world by Japan [inserted in pencil to replace “Italy”] and Germany (and Italy)--and don't think for a minute that they wouldn’t have dominated it . . . And they'll try again in another generation if they can.

Goodnight, son. Have at em! As always, Pop. Keep busy. keep bucking.

Sources: Smithsonian National Postal Museum and the American War Letters Archives, Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University, CA

Monday, April 8, 2019

Over There with Private Graham: The Compelling World War 1 Journal of an American Doughboy

Bruce Jarvis and Stephen Badgley
Badgley Pub Company, 2018
James M. Gallen, Reviewer

The Centenary of the Great War has spawned a swarm of histories and reprints of memoirs. Over There with Private Graham is a minimally edited account of the journal of Private William J. Graham, an overage volunteer with a Pennsylvania National Guard Military Police Company that was incorporated into the 28th U.S. Infantry Division. A 38-year-old Philadelphia policeman upon enlistment in 1917, Graham served in Europe from May 1917 and continued his service until September 1919 in the Army of Occupation.

The chain of custody of this 660-page hand written journal is a mystery tale in itself. Author Bruce Jarvis purchased a set of unsigned, unbound handwritten double-sided pages. He later recognized quotations from the journal in The Iron Division, National Guard of Pennsylvania in the World War. Some detective work enabled Jarvis to connect the dots between references to the author, Bill, and criticisms of Captain Henry Crofut, leading to Bugler William J. Graham. Eventual contact with Graham's grand-daughter unearthed additional journal entries.

This work commences with a brief biography of Graham who, but for his writings, would have been an undistinguished enlisted man. This is followed by a preface explaining the origins and discovery of the journal. Then comes a stream of consciousness of observations and commentary by an American serving on the Western Front. What makes this tome rare, if not unique, is its unvarnished report of the author's experiences. Having been written contemporaneously with the events it describes, it is free from the bias and reflective changes prevalent in postwar memoirs. Apparently having not been mailed, it was neither subject to nor intimidated by the censor's knife. I find its entries to be rather upbeat with little of the morose tone evident in many first-person war memories. Graham served as an MP, which placed him out of the front lines but close enough to them to have seen the results of action at the front.

Entries generally range from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two. They are generously supplemented by many black-and-white period photographs and leavened by humor or an occasional poem, often written by Graham himself. Throughout, the theme that the Americans were pushing while the Germans were retreating is evident. The entries provide insight into the life of the Doughboys, the phrases they used, their values, the practicalities of the war, and the characters with whom Graham interacted.

Reports of actions describe the sights and sounds and display the enthusiasm of the Americans freshly committed to battle:

October 10, 1918: At 2:30 a.m., the American artillery and the Hun batteries started a bombardment. It was wicked! The roaring of the guns were [sic] deafening. I will make a bet the Hun is coming out second best in this duel. Our boys have the Boche's number when it comes to artillery fighting. The wounded and gassed victims are coming in very fast to the hospital in Fleury. There have been five hospital trains each day this week…At 10 a.m. word came in that the three Marne division are in the lines hammering away at "Fritz" being backed up with our boys, using the French 75s like a machine gun battalion would handle their machine guns (p. 253).

October 11, 1918: I cannot figure out how the Germans can stand this method of warfare which the Americans are serving them. Thousands upon thousands of shells fired from as many guns…day and night (p. 254).

References to the baseball throw of hand grenades, support from service organizations such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, and the Knights of Columbus, tell a bit about the life of the common Doughboy. The anxiety that the war might start again if the Germans did not sign the treaty reminds readers that the Armistice was not necessarily the end of the war and that the soldiers knew it. The creeping fraternization between occupiers and civilians evidenced a gradual easing of tensions as the war receded into memory.

William Graham (Arrow) and His Fellow MPs of Company B

Over There with Private Graham is an oversized book with a cover photo of a Doughboy with helmet, revolver, and gas mask in front of no-man's-land. The entries make for easy reading either straight through or in bits and pieces as they are capable of being appreciated alone or in small groups. The many historic black-and-white photographs supplement the text and convey valuable information on their own. This is not a book for the big story of the Great War. It brings the reader in touch with a real Doughboy. Try to find notebooks of your grandfather or uncle, the neighbor when you were growing up, or the family friends of whom you have heard others speak. Maybe they can speak again to you through words echoing those of Private Graham.

James M. Gallen