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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War
reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War

by Ian Castle
Osprey Publishing, 2015.

With this book, historians of the Great War have an accessible, eminently readable volume covering German airship and bomber raids on London during the war. Author Ian Castle is an expert on the "London Blitz" and has several books to his credit. This current effort combines some of his previous work into a single, updated volume.

First Blitz is divided into two parts. The first deals with German airship raids on London, while the second deals with German airplane (bomber) raids on London. Castle recaps the development of airships in the early 20th century, and their use by the German Navy and Army. Later, he discusses the development of the German Gotha and Giant bombers used against England in 1917 and 1918.

In order to counter the German airship threat, the British arranged a series of searchlight and anti-aircraft batteries throughout the country. Likewise, the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service, at different times, held responsibility for the aerial response to the raids. The British struggled to find the correct combination of incendiary bullets and aerial bombs to counter the airships; in the end, British aircraft used a combination of incendiary, explosive, and tracer bullets in turn, thereby puncturing airship fuel cells and igniting the escaping hydrogen-oxygen mixture. Most of the British airplanes in use could not easily out-climb the airships, so aerial bombs, which had to be dropped on top of the airships from above, were not practical.

Each of the nine airship raids on London is covered in some detail. Castle identifies the German commander of each airship, and he describes each airship's approach and "bomb run." There were, of course, raids on other parts of England, but these are only covered in an incidental way.

The first London airship raid was flown on 31 May/1 June 1915, and the last occurred on 19/20 October 1917. Although there were more than nine raids scheduled, adverse weather and mechanical problems caused many missions to be scrapped or altered in flight. The Germans used several different types of airships; although each wrought some death and destruction, by 1917 both the German Navy and Army decided that the raids on London were not fruitful enough. The final airship raid over England took place in August 1918.

The first bomber raid on London was by a solo aircraft on 28 November 1916 and the next, also a solo effort, was on the night of 6/7 May 1917. But the concerted effort to bomb London by fixed wing aircraft didn't start until June 1917. These bomber raids surprised the British because they took place in broad daylight, in contrast to the nighttime airship raids experienced up to that point. England didn't even have a suitable civilian air defense warning system at the time. The British needed to borrow men and equipment from the front in France in order to bolster homeland defense. This did not go over well with the generals prosecuting the war in France, and most loans were of a short duration. The last and largest bombing raid over London took place on the night of 19/20 May 1918.

Bomb Damage in London, 1914-1918

This fine book is basically a play-by-play account of airship and bomber raids over London; the author covers both British and German activity and adaptations, in addition to major personalities on both sides. The photographs, maps, and illustrations in and of themselves make this book worthwhile. The maps in particular are fascinating; they show, in large scale, the ground tracks of the airships and bombers over the target area and impact points of individual bombs. Gleaned from military, police, and fire reports, the maps are important visual aids when studying these raids. Castle also tallies the numbers of people killed and wounded, plus the monetary value of the property destruction of each raid. Specially commissioned artwork rounds out the fine visual appeal of the book. There are no footnotes or endnotes, and the "select bibliography" is all too brief. I highly recommend First Blitz to anyone interested in aerial warfare, British military history, or the history of the home front during the war.

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, October 24, 2016

100 Years Ago: Rollback at Verdun Begins

After their attacks against Froideterre-Fleury-Ft. Souville line had ground to a halt, the new German leadership called off further offensive operations at Verdun.  The French now desired to eliminate the German threat to Verdun completely, Monsieur Poincare, President of the French Republic, on 13 September 1916, awarded the Legion of Honor to the City of Verdun. With this award began the new phase of dislodging the German threat and pushing them back. 

General Mangin
General Charles Mangin, called in June to take command of Group "D" which manned the front between the Meuse River and Fleury, planned the counterattack.  On 17 September, he sent General Robert Nivelle a report which outlined his plan to retake the "Hot Zone" of the right bank including the key Forts of Douaumont and Vaux.  

The plan outlined advances on a series of limited objectives. Using as a base to launch attacks the village of Fleury, which had been secured by the French in August, French and colonial troops would first seize the site of the destroyed Thiaumount Ouvrage, followed by an advance on Fort Douaumont, then Fort Vaux, and concluding with a push north on the Meuse Heights.

The plan was approved on 21 September.  A mock battlefield was established at Stainville, near Bar-le-Duc to train the assault teams. Exactly one month after the approval of the plan, French artillery began the counter-attack with a three day continuous shelling. On the 24th of October, the first waves of the 38th, 133rd and 74th Divisions moved forward under a creeping barrage following a precise time table and with artillery lending maximum protection. The colonial troops of the 133rd division were give Fort Douaumont as their main objective. One account of Douaumont's recapture states:

On 24 October, a dense fog overhung the entire plateau. Nevertheless, General Mangin decided to attack. At 1140 hours, marching by compass, without hurrying, in good order, and with assurance, his troops proceeded over muddy terrain. Observation points were useless. Only several planes, flying very low, followed the progress of the battle and kept the French commanders informed.

By October the Entire Verdun Battlefield Was Bare of Vegetation

The 38th Division sharpshooters captured Thiaumont Ouvrage in the first assault. While the 38th was consolidating its positions, Zouave infantrymen went through them, and attacked the village of Douaumont. The Zouave Regiment then received orders to take Fort Douaumont. There was some confusion caused by heavy fog to get to their new positions in the line of departure. Major Nicolay, in command of the battalion assigned to charge the fort and drive out the Germans, wrote in his report:

With the French planes cruising just over the fort, the battalion approached the moats in single file, rifles slung, their leaders in the front. They climbed the steep slopes of the rampart from where they saw the gaping ends of the casement of the fort behind the incredibly torn-up court. The heads of the columns stood and gazed at the great chaos which the fort, symbol of determination and power, had become. The commander of the battalion (Nicolay himself) after checking on the movements in the moat, rejoined those in the lead, and while rendering homage to this consecrated and unforgettable sight gave the order to take the machine guns which began firing from the bottom of the casemates. The third resistance was overcome, and everyone reached his objective (the operation having been fully rehearsed before the attack). Each turret was taken, one after the other.

Nicolay's men now controlled the superstructure of the fort. By morning of the 25th the entire fort was in French hands. The army and the nation celebrated.

Fort Douaumont Recaptured

General Mangin now needed to take Fort Vaux, key to the defense of his eastern flank. He made plans to assault it with an additional division on 3 November. When the French moved on the fort as planned, they found that the Germans had evacuated it the day before. The "Hot Zone," the center of action in both the opening and end game of Verdun had been secured, but Mangin was not finished. He next planned an attack along a ten-mile front on 5 December, thus hoping to regain at once the entire French section lost in the first days of the battle.

In preparation for this attack, he ordered the construction of 30, kilometers of road, including one of logs for artillery, ten kilometers of narrow gauge railway, numerous delivery and return trenches  and ammunition  and supply depots. The engineers accomplished all of this construction, much under heavy shell fire.

With four divisions in place, four more in reserve, and two lines of artillery, against five German divisions in the line and four in reserve on a six-mile front between Vacherauville and Bezonvaux, General Mangin's artillery opened fire with 750 guns in preparation of a new attack on 29 November. Bad weather intervened, forcing him to halt the firing. On 9 December, the weather having improved, the artillery resumed its preparatory fire. At 10:,00 hours on 15 December, a "Black Day" according to Crown Prince Wilhelm, the French attacked Louvemont capturing a large number of prisoners and their artillery. The readjusted front was now two miles north of Fort Douaumont, not quite to the opening line of February but close enough for the French to claim they had regained all the territory lost in the battle.

The Re-planted Area of the Final Fighting Today — Forts Douaumont and Vaux Barely Visible on the Horizon (Steve Miller Photo)

By 18 December the longest battle of the First World War was over.  The French in 1917 would make minor advances on both sides of the Meuse, but the next major offensives in the area would be initiated by General Pershing's AEF in September 1918.

Source: This is adapted from an article prepared by the students of American Verdun High School, which closed in 1968 after General de Gaulle ordered American forces out of France.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

First and Last Ships To Be Sunk

The first ship to be sunk in the Great War was the German auxiliary minelayer SS Königin Luise, which was scuttled after damage by Royal Navy fire on 5 August 1914. It had been attempting to lay mines off of the Thames Estuary. During the action the destroyer HMS Lance also fired what is believed to be the first British shot of the war. Launched in 1913, it  operated as a steam ferry between Hamburg and the Netherlands, until it was commandeered as a mine sweeper

SS Königin Luise During Its Service as a Ferry

The last ship sunk was the pre-dreadnought British battleship HMS Britannia. She was en route to Gibraltar when she was torpedoed off Cape Trafalgar on 9 November 1918 by U-50. The obsolete capital ship had been assigned as a convoy escort. Fifty men of the crew perished in the sinking.

HMS Britannia, Launched 1904

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Why Does Craonne Have Its Own Song?

Good-bye to life, good-bye to love, Good-bye to all the women, It's all over now, we've had it for good With this awful war. It's in Craonne up on the plateau That we're leaving our skins, 'Cause we've all been sentenced to die. We're the ones that they're sacrificing.
Song of Craonne, 1917

Craonne, May 1917

The ancient village of Craonne was located on the slope just below the Chemin des Dames. By 1914 it had already gained mention in history books as the site of a victory by Napoleon during his 1814 campaign. In September of 1914, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Marne, the village was the scene of fighting between the retreating German Army and the pursuing French. There were a number of the 600 villagers killed in the action after taking refuge in Craonne's cellars.

Site of Village Church

Subsequently, the village was evacuated and the Germans used it as an outpost after recapturing the site in early 1915. In the artillery prelude to  the 1917 Nivelle Offensive, French artillery effectively leveled the village. It then became the site of ferocious fighting in the opening of the battle on 16 April 1917. The attacking French 2nd Division lost half its strength that morning. There were similar disasters during the failed Nivelle operation, but – possibly because of its Napoleonic association – the name "Craonne" registered and was remembered by the embittered Poilus, who soon after began organized disobedience to their officers. The lyrics of a protest song sung by grumbling soldiers in the trenches that had been around since the winter of 1914/15, was adjusted to feature Craonne. It was subsequently adopted by the mutineers as their anthem and later universally by pacifists worldwide. It is powerfully moving even in the 21st century. 

Memorial to the Fallen of Craonne

After the war, a new village by the same name was built a half-mile to the south. The original village of Craonne was first classified a prohibited area, then handed over to the French Forestry Service, which turned it into an arboretum featuring dozens of different trees. A war memorial was also placed on the site near the former village church of St. Martin. Today Craonne retains the haunted feeling of such other tragic spots on the Western Front as Mort Homme and Hill 60.

Contemporary photos by our resident documentarian, Steve Miller.

Friday, October 21, 2016

First Yanks in the Air, Part II — The Air Service

The U.S. Air Service Arrives

Being a Gimper

The 94th soon began to develop a persona, a culture straight from the Lafayette Escadrille. Thanks to the influence and example of Lufbery, Hall,Peterson, and Marr, the 94th Aero Squadron absorbed the heritage of the Escadrille. The Lafayette veterans, especially Lufbery and Hall, taught the 94th the Escadrille’s tactics and traditions, and the 94th developed a distinctive personality reflected even in the language it spoke. A dependable comrade was a “Gimper,” after a mythical bird that would stick no matter what happened. The Gimper was the highest standard for a pursuit pilot.

Everyone, according to Rickenbacker, wanted to be a Gimper :

If you were up in the air and ran into a dozen enemies and you were getting the worst of it, and the fellow with you stuck with you and gave it to them until they fled, then you’d know he was a Gimper. If he didn’t have motor trouble, and his gun didn’t jam [and] he didn’t accept any one of dozen excuses for zooming off home and leaving you to do the same if you could get away, he’d be a Gimper all right.

Developing a Doctrine of Air Warfare

In the process of developing its pursuit force, the Air Service had borrowed heavily from the Allies, but had made its own original contribution as well.  Eddie Rickenbacker, too, recognized significant differences between the French and British approach to war and, writing after the conflict, agreed that the American
approach was an amalgamation of the two. According to the ace:

Each had worked out a method of scientific murder that did the job. . .The French were inclined to be cautious as a settled military policy of getting the best results with the least expenditure of valuable lives and costly planes. The British were foolhardy as a matter of principle and morale, because they found they got the best results with their people in that way. Compared with the French . . . our men seemed reckless. Compared with the British they seemed cautious. . . We were working out ours with the experience of both to help us, and the methods of both to choose from. The result was, generally, a sort of compromise.

Source: LIKE A THUNDERBOLT: The Lafayette Escadrille and the Advent of American Pursuit in World War I by Roger G. Miller from the USAF Museum

Thursday, October 20, 2016

First Yanks in the Air, Part I — The Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille

First Victory

On the morning of 18 May 1916, a German LVG appeared in the sky over Thann in the Vosges region, near the ancient French city of Nancy. The LVG was a well-armed, two-seat observation airplane, and the Vosges was a quiet sector of the Western Front, in stark contrast to the merciless slaughter taking place to the north at Verdun. Normally the two airmen could expect to do their reconnaissance with little interruption, but on this day they had left luck behind. A speck appeared in the sky to the west and rapidly grew into an enemy pursuit aircraft, an avion de chasse, an agile, single-seat Nieuport. The Germans, busy at their trade, failed to see the enemy draw near. A veteran hunter or more cautious pilot might have seized the opportunity to surprise the LVG and launch an attack out of the sun or from behind a cloud, but this one approached directly, without guile. Suddenly aware of the danger, the observer seized his machine gun and began firing while the pilot turned the airplane toward the safety of the German lines. The chasse pilot closed to pointblank range and, just as a collision appeared imminent, fired a quick burst, then swerved away. The encounter was over that quickly. Both the observer and pilot collapsed; the LVG rolled and plunged to earth. The Nieuport banked away leaving a plume of smoke to mark the scene of combat.

French troops witnessed the brief fight and by the time the Nieuport reached its field at Luxeuil-les-Bains had confirmed the kill. It was an auspicious event. Everything about the victorious aircraft said “France” except the pilot’s name. Kiffen Yates Rockwell was an American citizen assigned to Escadrille N.124, known unofficially as l’Escadrille Americaine, and his victory was the unit’s first. It was quick and impressive by contemporary standards of air combat. Rockwell had engaged at incredibly close range, almost sticking his gun into the enemy cockpit, but his daring attack allowed the LVG’s observer to put a hole in the Nieuport’s top wing main spar. Rockwell, in turn, killed the two men with only four bullets, a marvelous feat of marksmanship. Cheering comrades lifted him from the cockpit and began a wild celebration. A tradition began with N.124’s first victory. Rockwell’s brother Paul, serving elsewhere in the French Army, provided a bottle of 80-year-old bourbon. Kiffen Rockwell took the first drink, but the Escadrille set aside the rest. From then on, credit for downing an enemy aircraft earned the victorious pilot a shot from “The Bottle of Death.”

Escadrille Americaine to Lafayette Escadrille

An additional change took place. The adventures of l’Escadrille Americaine had generated considerable publicity in the U.S., where the public was enthralled by the idea of American airmen fighting on the Western Front in this romantic new medium. Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador, however, formally protested that the American squadron violated the Hague Convention and complained that it had bombed American citizens in Germany. Secretary of State Robert Lansing brought the problem to the French ambassador, Jules Jusserand. William Thaw, home on leave, addressed the situation, telling reporters that only the press called the unit l’Escadrille Americaine; its official name was N.124, while the French minister of war unilaterally announced that henceforth the unit would be called l’Escadrille des Volontaires, a pronouncement that pleased no one.

Eventually, someone suggested l’Escadrille Lafayette in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who had fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War. Dr. Gros always claimed credit, but the name was logical and had been around for a bit. Monsieur de Sillac had referenced Lafayette in a letter in mid-1915, and in a July 1916 article in Collier’s magazine, former president Theodore Roosevelt called the airmen “Lafayettes of the Air.” The name proved popular, and, to German frustration, the unit’s fame and prestige continued to grow under its new official title. 

Source: LIKE A THUNDERBOLT: The Lafayette Escadrille and the Advent of American Pursuit in World War I by Roger G. Miller from the USAF Museum

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lieutenant Raymond Asquith: The Asquiths Go to War and One Gives His All

By James Patton

Lt. Raymond Asquith
Raymond Asquith was born in Hampstead on 6 6 November 1878, the firstborn child and eldest son of Herbert Henry (familiarly known as “H.H.”) Asquith and his wife, the former Helen Melland (1855–1891). H.H., son of a Yorkshire tradesman and orphaned at seven, won a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union. In 1876 he became a Lincoln’s Inn barrister and struggled for ten years until he was elected a Member of Parliament (MP). He served as Home Secretary from 1892 to 1895 and when the Liberals returned in 1905 he was made chancellor of the exchequer before becoming prime minister on 5 April 1908, serving until 5 December 1916. 

Raymond was twelve years old when his mother died and fifteen when his father married Margot Tennant, a family friend. Raymond didn’t get on well with Margot, feeling that she wasn’t motherly to his younger siblings. He grew distant from his father, partly due to Margot and partly due to a keen sense of competition. He seemed to be determined to outdo his father in everything.

He was educated at Winchester and, like his father, at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was the president of the Oxford Union Debating Society and received a first in 1902. As a graduate he was elected a fellow of the prestigious All Souls College, Oxford, passing what has been called the hardest examination in the world. Although he dabbled in poetry at Oxford, he was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1904. Much more successful at the law than his father, he was junior counsel in the North Atlantic Fisheries Arbitration and also in the investigation of the sinking of the Titanic

In 1907 Raymond married Katherine Horner (1885–1976). This was a socially acceptable match, as her family was landed and wealthy. They would have three children, Helen (1908–2000), Perdita (1910–1996), who became Lady Hylton, and Julian (1916–2011), who in 1928 succeeded to the peerage granted to his grandfather in 1925 as Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Katherine never remarried.

Meanwhile, a political career was envisioned for Raymond, and in 1914 he was tapped to be the next Liberal candidate for the constituency of Derby.  

The war intervened, and soon after the onset the Asquith boys volunteered to do their bit (except Anthony, who was 14). Raymond and Cyril (1890–1954) were commissioned in the 16th (County of London) Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles). Raymond later transferred to the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, on 14 August 1915.

Cyril stayed with the Westminsters and ended the war as a captain. Arthur (1883–1939) was commissioned in the navy and soon assigned to the Royal Naval Division. This may not have been what he intended, but he made the most of it; he was awarded three Distinguished Service Orders, was wounded four times, and ended the war as a one-legged brigadier serving in the Ministry of Munitions. Herbert (1881–1947) a minor poet, was commissioned in the Royal Artillery. 

Wounded Men at Ginchy, September 1916

On 15 September 1916, during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Raymond’s outfit, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, led the attack on Lesbeoufs that was launched from Ginchy. Quoting from the War Diaries:

The bombardment overnight on the German positions opposite was continuous. At 6.20am, zero hour, the creeping barrage came down and the two Guards brigades moved forward…  

Raymond Asquith was leading the first half of 4 Company, 3rd Grenadier Guards, which went over the top at zero hour from a spot not 500 yards outside the hole in the ground that was once Ginchy. Taken by the 16th (Irish) Division on 9 September, German counter-attacks had retaken the north-east corner until the night of 13/14 September when 2nd Grenadier Guards had pushed them out... 

The Guards Division were faced by the Serpentine Trench ahead of them and The Triangle on their right, both protected by thick bands of barbed wire and machine guns from the Quadrilateral that swept the ground in front of them… 

Lieutenant Asquith, leading 13 and 14 platoons of No.4 Company was shot and fatally wounded in the chest in the first wave, soon after leaving the trench. The story goes that he urged to be propped up, smoking cigarettes, so that he could encourage his men as they continued into the fight; he died later that day.

This attack was led by three tanks. Only one was of any help.  From the History of the Guards:

Asquith's Grave, Guillemont Road Cemetery
The remaining tanks wandered about in various directions and are reported to have done a certain amount of useful fighting on their own account either in the area of the Guards Division or in that of the 6th Division, but they certainly failed on this occasion to carry out their main task and were of no help to the infantry in the subduing of machine-gun fire. 

~ Report of Major-General G. P. Fielding, 19 September 1916

Also in killed in this action were a serving MP, G.V. Bearing, and the son of another MP, David Henderson.   

Raymond is buried in CWGC Guillemont Road Cemetery [Plot I. Row B, Grave 3], where his headstone is inscribed "Small time but in that small most greatly lived this star of England," a concluding line from Shakespeare's Henry V. He is memorialized at Amiens Cathedral and also in St. Andrews Church in Mells, Somerset, his wife’s family parish. The latter was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a family friend, and is the smallest memorial ever designed by Lutyens, who also designed the Thiepval Memorial, the India Gate, and the Whitehall Cenotaph, among many others.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Verdun: the Left Bank
reviewed by the Editor

Verdun: the Left Bank

by Christina Holstein
Pen & Sword, 2016

Memorial at Malancourt on the Approach to Cote 304

Almost all histories of the 1916 Battle of Verdun emphasize the fighting on the right (or east) bank of the River Meuse. It was the locale of the struggle's opening and end game and also some of the best remembered names: the Forts Douaumont and Vaux and Fleury village. There was, however, a middle period when the main action shifted to the other side of the river, when the German Fifth Army of the Crown Prince tried to break through and take Verdun from the west. This area is known as the Left Bank and it featured some of the most horrendous fighting of the Great War. Verdun expert and friend of this reviewer, Christina Holstein, has filled a big gap for us. In Verdun: the Left Bank she provides us with a combined battlefield guide and history that helps us understand this important sector. It is the fourth in her series on Verdun, and I found it the most helpful for me because it covers territory few other authors cover in any depth. Fortunately, it became available just before I led my spring tour to Verdun, and  I made some last-minute adjustments to the tour itinerary after reading this work. For instance, we spent much more time around the village of Malancourt. This interesting little place was the gateway for the German Army to Cote 304 (to the right of the memorial shown above) and for the U.S. Army's assault on Montfaucon (behind the memorial) in 1918. By the way, both the French defenders of 1916 and the American 79th Division are recognized on the memorial.

The three months of intense fighting on the left bank is covered chronologically in a way that is easy to follow. Key positions like the villages of Malancourt, Cumières, and German-occupied Forges and the strategic hills such as Mort Homme, Cote 304, and the important rear artillery position of Bois-Bourrus Ridge are clearly positioned for the reader with lots of details about the action there. To describe the fighting Christina draws heavily on primary French and German sources. (Her skills as a multi-lingual translator really enhance the battle accounts.) This work is also highly illustrated with over 150 photos and helpful maps.

I mentioned above that this work proved very helpful in planning my recent Verdun trip. Here's a general section I found eye-opening even after visiting the Verdun battlefield a dozen times earlier:

In fact, Verdun was not just defended by walls; it also had formidable natural defenses. The city is surrounded by flat topped limestone hi ills that rise to 390 meters above sea level and offer grandstand views in all directions. Streams have cut the hillsides into deep ravines which provide concealment for both troops and observers, while the valley bottoms, marshy and overgrown in both summer and winter, hinder easy movement and force communication lines to concentrate in the few gateways that remain naturally dry. The winding valley of the River Meuse is dominated by interlocking spurs, which block passage along the valley from any direction and control the river crossings, while frequent floods, which event today fill the valley from side to side, form another natural obstacle to movement of armies. [16]

If you are interested in learning about the Battle of Verdun in-depth, after reading one of the survey histories of the battle like Alistair Horne's classic, The Price of Glory, you can do no better than reading Christina Holstein's studies of Verdun. In addition to Verdun: the Left Bank, she has written similar volumes on Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, and a guide, Walking Verdun.

Mike Hanlon

Monday, October 17, 2016

Recommended: The War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth

Last month, in a posting about war poems that have stuck with me over the years, I included a sonnet titled "Harbonnières to Bayonvillers: Picnic" by the forgotten John Allan Wyeth of the 33rd Division AEF. It is included in a collection of Wyeth's work,  This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets. A longtime friend and correspondent, Bradley (B.J.) Omanson, who contributed the annotations for This Man's Army, contacted me afterward to alert me to his blog on Wyeth. Naturally, I took a look and discovered that B.J. is doing some amazing things at his site.

He posts articles that make the case that Wyeth was the best American poet of WWI, that show how respected he was among literary insiders like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson, and that "document," visually and with telling details, the accuracy of the descriptions  presented in the 52 sonnets. 

Shown here are  parts of B.J.'s commentary on the tenth sonnet in the cycle, "Oisemont: Place de la Maire." 

Visit the War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth at:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Those Old Michelin Battlefield Guides, #2 The St. Mihiel Salient

When I first started Roads to the Great War, I recommended the original Michelin Battlefield Guides as a great source of  battlefield images. Immediately after the war, these guides – produced by the Michelin Tire Company – were state-of-the-art helpers for tourists. Today, however, they would just get you lost. The roads, visual landmarks, and signage today are quite different from those of the 1920s. Nevertheless,  their historical summaries photos are still superb and quite unique. I promised to share some of their images with our readers but forgot (temporarily for three years) about it. Here are a dozen images for you from the St. Mihiel Salient, which, even today, has such an amazing collection of interesting sites to see that it is in effect an outdoor museum of the Great War.

I've selected some images I've never seen in other works with their original captions. They can be found in the guide titled The Americans in the Great War, Vol II: The Battle of Saint Mihiel.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Remembering a Veteran: Saki at the Somme

Among the 73,000 names engraved on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval is that of Lance Sergeant H. H. Munro of the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. H.H. Munro, aka Saki, had gained popularity before the Great War for his witty and off-beat stories. He could have avoided serving, but Munro was the son of a soldier and a child of the Empire. And so he found himself at the Somme in November 1916 during the battle's final stages, when the high command decided that they damn well ought to capture the village of Beaumont Hamel, because they were supposed to take it on the first day of the fighting, July 1st. Munro's company had been put out to guard the left flank in a night attack on the village. It was a foggy night, and the fighting had died down by the early hours. Munro and some other men had taken cover in a shell hole. An English officer called across to a friend. A man struck a match, Munro snapped, "Put that bloody cigarette out!" whereupon he was shot in the head by a single round from a sniper. As Saki, he always appreciated a telling punch line.

Sometime before his death, he made this contribution to war poetry titled "Carol" —

While shepherds watched their flocks
     by night
  All seated on the ground,
    A high explosive shell came down
      And mutton rained around. 

Read a fine tribute to Munro at:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Albert Robida: The Futurist Who Visualized the Great War

Albert Robida (1848-1926) was a French illustrator, etcher, lithographer, caricaturist, and novelist. His work in which he
visualized coming warfare appeared in two waves.

From 1883 to 1890 he published a remarkable series of magazine pieces and books that addressed future wars, the most famous being "La Guerre au vingtième siècle" (War in the Twentieth Century). His war scenarios are sometimes fantastical–Mozambique takes on Australia in 1975–but his caricature-style drawings capture many aspects of the Great War of the future struggle. 

Many of his predictions would be validated during the war of 1914-1918.:

  •  Railroads would play a dominant role, used for mobilizing and moving troops, and as mobile artillery platforms.
  • Airships and balloons would be used for bombing, firing specialized artillery, and observation.
  •  Chemists would be called on to create asphyxiant gases.
  • Artillery and barbed wire would command the battlefield.
  • Tunneling would be required to attack and advance.
  • Specific weapons would include armored vehicles, bomb-dropping airships, fire and gas projectors, and anti-aircraft artillery.

Robida examined every dimension of future life, but after the turn of the century he returned to future war as a favorite topic and income producer. In a brilliant series for the magazine La Guerre Infernale he covered the same territory, but this time drawing in a more realistic style, updating the look of his soldiers and their weaponry. Once again (see above), his work captures the grimness of World War I battlefields, and the use of airships as a terror weapon. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who Was Tasker Bliss?

General Tasker Bliss
Born at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 31 December 1853, General Tasker Bliss served for more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, participating in four campaigns, and reaching the rank of general and serving as chief of staff and commanding general of the Army.

Before America's entry into the Great War he served mainly in staff and school assignments. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he was military attaché in Madrid. He returned to participate in that war in both Cuba and Puerto Rico and later was department commander of the Philippines. He was appointed chief of staff of the Army shortly after the declaration of war, but by the end of 1917 he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 64.

Bliss was kept on active duty by order of President Woodrow Wilson and sent to France where he served as U.S. military representative to the Allied Supreme War Council. Since President Wilson could not be present at the meetings, Bliss had measurably a statesman's rôle. When his resources of tact and argument failed, his stubborn resolution, backed by a thorough study of the subject, was a check on the conflict of national interests among the Allies at the expense of joint action. His letters to Secretary Baker, in their intimate reports of the operations of the council, are an indispensable contribution for the historian. They also reveal how the Allied leaders sought early on to circumvent President Wilson's Fourteen Points and his plans for a league of nations. From the outset he was for the unified command in the field, which ultimately was given to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, and at the same time he supported General John J. Pershing's insistence that American troops should not be infiltrated into the Allied armies. 

Bliss on Right as Member of the U.S. Commission at Paris

He was for unconditional surrender of the German Army in conclusive admission of its defeat, but then for wise and farsighted support of the German republic to ensure its endurance. Later he was selected by President Wilson to be one of five American delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. He was very supportive of the president and afterward spoke in favor of the League of Nations and disarmament for all to avoid future wars. He also served as governor of the Soldiers Home until 1927 when he finally left active service.

Tasker Bliss died in Washington, DC, on 9 November 1930 and was buried in Section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery, where he lies among other family members. 

Sources: Arlington Cemetery Website, Imperial War Museum, Nelle Rote, and the Dictionary of American Biography 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Faking a Classic Combat Photo

You've probably seen the image above in photo histories of the Great War. It was one a series of propaganda photos created for exhibitions that were mounted in London by British, Canadian, and Australian photographers. "The Raid," as it was originally titled (later it was known as "Over the Top")  has a lot of dynamic elements to it — too many, as a matter of fact. It turns out that it was rather difficult to get dramatic combat images to show the folks back home because battlefields are damn dangerous places. And no photographer in his right mind would be standing in no-man's-land with shells falling all over the place and aircraft overhead looking for targets of opportunity to take an image of the boys going over the top.

M.T. Jolly in Australia has made a systematic study of WWI propaganda photos, and he has discovered a lot about "The Raid" that explains how these images were manufactured. It was the work of Australian official photographer Frank Hurley, who was stationed in Flanders and Palestine late in the war. I was surprised to discover in Jolly's work that these "composites" as they were known were officially sanctioned, and they were revealed as assemblages in the exhibition's catalogs. Such language as "This picture is a combination of two photographs, each taken on the Ypres battlefield, and is constructed to show an incident common in the experience of those who know the place," was used to subtly justify (or alibi) the fact that they were faked.

Jolly believes 12 different negatives were combined to create  "The Raid." Here are a few of the pieces that I think give an idea of how the final product was patched together.

This is a preliminary photo of what will actually turn out to be both groups of soldiers going over the top in the composite photo. Note that they are not ducking or watching for approaching enemy or aircraft overhead. Also, the photographer is standing in the open on the parapet. He's not worried about being shot at either. This is clearly not combat, it's a reenactment or training exercise — the men are simply too casual for someone who is facing the possibility of imminent death. Note for further reference the position of the tarpaulin in the trench.

These are the men going over the top shortly after the above photo.  Shell explosions have been added to enhance the feel of battle. This group is shown on the left side of the final composite.  

These are the same men leaving the same trench a second or two later. The photographer has moved a few steps backward and to the left, so the troops look slightly smaller and in a different formation. This is the base image for the right side of the final photo. It's the same men as on the left side. You would think that the tarpaulin would be a give away, but look again at the final composite below.

The tarpaulin on the left has been shaded in by about 30 percent to make it less conspicuous. The tarpaulin on the right has been shaded in completely. The effect is that this appears to be a simultaneous attack from two different trenches. More shading was added to the merged images to distinguish between the two trenches and more explosions dropped in to add to the excitement. In the sky, the smoke – not visible in the base photos – was added, plus the low-flying airplanes. The author believes these aircraft were photographed by Frank Hurley in Palestine and transported to this position on the Western Front via photographic negative. All-in-all, the end product is extraordinary, but, alas, it is still a fake.

Source: "Fake Photographs: Making Truths in Photography," PhD Dissertation by M.T. Jolly at the University of Sydney, 2003.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Ingenious Mr. Pyke:
Inventor, Fugitive, Spy

reviewed by Bryan Alexander

The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy

by Henry Hemming
Public Affairs, 2016

What makes the creative mind tick? How can unusual approaches to problems succeed, and what makes them fail? <i>The Ingenious Mr. Pyke</i>is a very engaging, inspiring, and sad biography of an odd thinker.

Geoffrey Pyke is best known as the instigator of Project Habbakuk, a wild WWII plan for the Allies to build warships out of ice (actually a compound of ice and wood pulp, dubbed "pykrete" after the inventor). Hemming situates that extraordinary idea in a lifetime of creative ideas, many of which failed or backfired.

Pyke's career began with the First World War, which is what led me to the book (since I'm obsessively researching that period). When war broke out in 1914 Pyke decided to best serve Britain by sneaking into the German Empire as a war correspondent and/or spy. Although he made it in past armies, fortifications, and an armed border, remarkably, he was caught in less than a week and interned at the Ruhleben camp for suspicious foreign civilians, located just outside of Berlin.

Pyke could easily have been stuck there for the war's duration, or simply shot, but instead managed a daring escape. Back in Britain he published an account of the adventure, which became a bestseller:

He had. . .written a best-selling book, smuggled himself into Germany, become an amateur spy, faced execution in solitary confinement, converted to socialism and escaped from a German detention camp. All this by the age of twenty-four. (438)

On the Eve of the Great War
Pyke Had Been Editing This
Literary Magazine at Cambridge
After the war's conclusion, Pyke turned his mind to… getting rich, of all things, while starting an innovative school, the former to pay for the latter. After some energetic study (and rooming with John Maynard Keynes!) he came up with a commodities trading scheme that made him a great deal of money for several years (124ff). This let him launch Malting House, a school which saw children as young scientists and investigators. Its emphasis on students as independent learners reminds me of Summerhill, which was opened roughly the same time. Blending Freudian psychology into the curriculum and pedagogy is definitely contemporary (134). All of this fell apart in a few years, as his financial plan ran into opposition, and the school failed. Hemming observes sympathetically:

Geoffrey Pyke was bankrupt, he was being sued, his experimental school had closed, he was living in a nursing home and had been described as borderline insane. But he still had not reached rock bottom. During the winter of 1929, with the global economy entering meltdown, his wife left him. (153)

Yet Pyke didn't succumb, but turned instead to a new cause for inspiration, and that took him forward for more than a decade: stopping the Nazis. Hemming takes us through a series of prewar projects aimed at understanding and undermining anti-semitism. WWI played a role, with Pyke being inspired by the Turkish Armenian genocide (162). He published articles and magazines against the fascists. He arguably helped create the Mass Observation sociological analysis project, in order to grapple with German attitudes (170). Pyke also raised money and invented tools and vehicles to support the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Hemming concludes that Pyke also gave some information and support to the USSR, which elicited MI5's attention. Once WWII broke out Pyke brazenly talked himself into a very high position, working with Mountbatten's Combined Operations outfit. Hemming shares a good story about Pyke impressing the imposing British lord with a creative way to sink a battleship: changing the density of the water around it (253). At Combined Ops he invented pykrete, along with a strange, screw-powered vehicle for snow operations, not to mention a concept for sending materials and soldiers ashore for amphibious attacks through pipes. He also helped shape commando and special forces operations, an influence felt to the present day.

Prototype of  Pyke's Snow Vehicle

Pyke traveled to the U.S. to organize his ice ships, and ran afoul of Vannevar Bush (373-4, for example) (if you don't know the name, realize he helped come up with the technology you're using now). Bush's analysis of Pyke actually rings true, describing this very odd and creative man as "someone who has a contempt for channels of authority and ducks around them" (314).

Eventually Pyke left Combined Ops, having alienated many there, and convinced MI5 that he was a Soviet spy. Failing to come up with new schemes or traction for old, and vitiated by ill health, he committed suicide in 1948.

Hemming structures the book along chronological lines, framed by Pyke's death and charges of being a Soviet agent. Each chapter appears as a how-to guide, like "How To Defeat Nazism" or "How To Succeed in America." Along the way the book presents good quotes from Pyke, some of which are actually useful to the reader. For example,

Military people. . . don't really plan at all. What they call planning is trying to adapt what they were taught in youth, with the minimum of alteration, to what they can see. That's why they see so little. (279)

So what makes a creative mind like Pyke's tick? Hemming thinks Pyke began by "thinking adventurously," being unafraid to look foolish. Then he challenges accepted ideas with powerful skepticism, "to keep doing so until he found the one that did not ring true -- for there was always at least one." (432) Next comes stating the problem correctly. "He often found that tiny adjustments to the formulation of a problem could unlock a torrent of fresh ideas." (433) That done, Pyke would scan history and the present, looking for inspiration and above all connections. "EVERYTHING IS IRRELEVANT TILL CORRELATED WITH SOMETHING ELSE." (caps in original; 434) Pyke would further push at the problem with experiments, internal dialogues, reversing expectations (if the Nazis obsessed over "the Jewish question", why not investigate the Nazi question?), and a willingness to rapidly try out new solutions.

Heritage: A Snow Dome Constructed of Pykrete Juuka, Finland, 2014

There are also biographical forces which shape unusual minds like Pyke's. Hemming shows a young man growing up under a series of blows and stresses, from losing his father early to being sent to military school, being abused for his Jewish heritage, and suffering from poor health. These events forced Pyke out of the ordinary.

Another lesson from Hemming's biography: the creative mind needs champions and allies. Pyke's escape from Germany in WWI required a fellow escapee. His rise in WWII depended on Mountbatten's patronage. Mountbatten then set up a group of radical thinkers in Combined Ops, which became a space for Pyke and his creativity to thrive. (A desire for this is what leads some of us to social media)

So why do Pykes fail? For one, they can drive hierarchies mad. Vannevar Bush:

Everyone who has ever worked in a complex pyramidical organization recognizes that there occasionally appears somewhere on the ladder of authority a dumb cluck who has to be circumvented if there is to be any progress whatever. . .He can throw any organization, civilian or military, into confusion. His breed should be exterminated for the good of society. (314)

For another, the unusual nature of creative thought can remove the thinker from social interaction. Hemming saw Pyke's passions as backfiring:

Pyke's emotional fragility and heightened sensitivity to being sidelined appeared to make [working easily in a group] impossible. When he felt himself being marginalized he had a tendency to self-destruct, and would either cast around for a scapegoat or become difficult and behave, as one colleague put it, like an "awkward cuss." (378)

Third, Pyke's habit of challenging all accepted ideas threatened those who held them, of course. <i>The Ingenious Mr. Pyke</i> is a tragic work, in that Pyke died with so many ideas defeated or unrealized, and largely unrecognized. That combination of inspiration and sadness together presents a powerful case study of extraordinary thinking and how it fares in the world.

Bryan Alexander