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

Friday, March 22, 2019

"The Kingdom of the Guns"—French Artillery at Verdun

Early in the Battle of Verdun: A French Howitzer Firing

From: The Royal Australian Artillery Historical Company

On 21 January, French Général de Corps d’Armée Paul Chrétien arrived to take command of XXX Corps, part of the garrison of the Région Fortifiée de Verdun or RFV (Fortified Region of Verdun). He was appalled by the state of the defences on the 65 kilometre front: artillery batteries were not dug in, telephone wires not buried, and barbed wire obstacles were flimsy to non-existent. 

Surprisingly, the forts that ostensibly were the principal defences of the entire zone were not under his command: perhaps just as well for his state of mind as they were undermanned with poor quality reservists and had been stripped of many of their guns. Chrétien took little comfort from, and did not share, the views of his Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, that the Verdun region was a strategic backwater, unlikely to be the target of a major German attack as it was of little strategic value to the Germans.

On 21 February 1916, General Chrétien was proved right to be worried. A German artillery barrage of unprecedented volume and intensity began at 0715 and continued until 1600 hrs, heralding the attack by three German Corps against the single understrength French XXX Corps, along the twelve kilometre northern and eastern part of the front: two Corps attacking two understrength French Divisions, the 51st and the 72nd. The Germans had amassed over nine hundred heavy guns and over six hundred field guns for the attack.

Given they were attacking a known fortified position, the Germans had included a number of ‘super heavy’ guns, designed from the start to eliminate fortresses: seventeen 305mm and thirteen 420mm howitzers and three 380 mm guns for long range counter-battery and interdiction work. (French intelligence failed to notice their arrival in the area!) Ammunition supply would not be an issue as the Germans had stockpiled over two and a half million shells and planned to expend half of that in the first nine hours of the barrage. The French were outgunned almost four to one and the problem was to be exacerbated when the German’s over-ran some of the immobile French heavy guns in the initial advances.

There is much heated debate between historians about (the German Commander) Erich von Falkenhayn’s intended strategy at Verdun but many believe he planned a largely attritional battle in which the numerically and technically superior German artillery was to keep killing French infantrymen until the French Army was broken.  If so, then Verdun was one of the few battles designed specifically around the killing power of artillery: arguably the antecedent of the air power theorists of today.  Compelling evidence for this is the failure of the German artillery and air force to interdict the single supply line into Verdun. It would have been easily achieved, would have rendered further defence impossible yet it was not done. Either German planners were incompetent or the idea was to allow the French to continue funnelling troops into the killing zone

Mid-Battle: Larger Pieces Arrive on the Verdun Battlefield

Initially, the German attack was devastating. The rate of fire was so great it added a new word to the military lexicon: Trommelfeuer (drum fire) where the sounds of individual guns and separate exploding shells were lost in one overwhelming noise. Leading the assault were assault pioneers, armed with flamethrowers in addition to their usual weapons. Supporting the theory that the objective was the French Army rather than territorial gain, the attack didn’t involve all available troops: many of the line infantry units remained in their own defenses. However, the French defenders in the forward trenches were often simply obliterated by the ferocity of the artillery and the Germans had little trouble capturing their original objectives.

Unfortunately for them, however, that familiar problem for artillery of both sides in this war —poor and unreliable communications—meant rigid attack timetables had to be followed, leaving little room for initiative and exploitation. The French, faced with impending disaster, quickly adapted new techniques. Instead of occupying predictable defensive lines, their infantry spread out to occupy shell holes or folds in the ground, making them more difficult to kill or neutralize by artillery alone. The defense gradually thickened and, while France paid a huge price for it, after six months on the defensive, they began to drive the enemy back. Eventually, in October, the symbol of Verdun, Fort Douaumont, was recaptured and by December the enemy were back to their February start line.

Although both sides made the usual extravagant claims of success, the battle could best be described as a draw. Initial German success could not be maintained and German tactical mistakes provided sufficient breathing room for the French Army to completely rethink its tactical doctrine, especially on defense and counter-attack, and to develop a new organizational structure more suited to the type of warfare it faced. While the story of Verdun resonates with stories of French infantry heroism and indeed of German gallantry, it was not just the modern-day Poilu who eventually defeated the attack. A rejuvenated French artillery, utilizing new techniques, old and new technology weapons in innovative ways and buoyed by the promises of new, modern weapons, also played a part.

The French started the battle at a huge disadvantage in artillery. Some of this was due to decisions early in the war but the more significant reasons had their origins prewar. As is well known, the prewar period was one where the tactics of élan and attaque à outrance predominated in all armies but was adopted with almost religious fervor by the French Army (and indeed the French government). For the artillery, this meant a heavy focus on mobile field artillery—guns that could keep up with a rapidly changing battlespace. The technical limitations of the day, both in steel quality and transport systems, meant that for larger-calibre guns to function, they had to be very heavy which then meant they were simply too heavy for horse or oxen to move quickly or efficiently. The heaviest guns that could be moved tactically were limited to about 150mm or smaller. As all sides anticipated a war of maneuver, large-calibre guns lagged in both production and development, the notable exception being the German specialized heavy howitzers intended to overcome  French and Belgian forts—and even the Germans believed that once they had achieved that purpose, they would be relegated to a static defensive role. The Germans discovered, however, that in the changed nature of warfare when the trench system prevented mobility, these large-calibre weapons provided effective means of overcoming an entrenched enemy. Although aware that the Germans had, before the war, developed 105 and 150mm field pieces,  practically everyone in France was surprised by the tactical versatility of these larger, more capable artillery pieces.

Two other factors combined to ensure that, when war broke out, France was much less well prepared to deploy and employ larger-calibre artillery than the Germans. In 1897, in a major technical advance, the French Army introduced a radically new field gun—the famous Mademoiselle soixante-quinze or 75mm fast-firing field gun. Light, and equipped with an advanced recoil system, the 75 seemed to fit every artillery role the strategists and tacticians could think of for artillery in a field army. Consequently, there was little appetite within the Army or within French government to invest in larger-calibre guns. Even when German developments with their larger-calibre field guns suggested the 75 might need larger-calibre support, squabbling over designs and suppliers between the Army technical branches, Army headquarters, the government and the various industry groups offering solutions meant the French went to war with only 544 guns heavier than the 75, and the most modern of these was a 155mm howitzer designed and built in 1904! Practically all the heavier pieces were relegated to fortress duties.

Late Battle: Railroad-Mounted Guns Give the
French Firepower Dominance

Nor was the 75 as perfect as the French believed. Limited elevation and light shell weight proved to be severe handicaps, especially after trench warfare replaced manoeuvre. Instead of immediately looking to develop larger calibres as a solution for the 75’s shortcomings, the French invested an inordinate amount of scientific and engineering effort early in the war into improving the 75’s shells to correct its problems. This was perhaps understandable, given there were over 4000 75s in service in 1914 and the number rapidly escalated, reaching 21,000 by the end of the war. These improvements did help, but after two years of war, the French were forced to acknowledge the limitations of a light gun and institute a crash program to develop and produce heavier calibres of guns. Their enthusiastic adoption of mortars of differing calibres also augmented the venerable 75. Somewhat unexpectedly, the 75 did prove very versatile, being quickly adapted as an effective anti-aircraft gun and ending the war as France’s premier platform for delivering gas: where explosive weight was arguably less of an issue than volume of fire.

By the time the war came to Verdun, another problem arose for its defenders. Joffre, who was later criticised for this move, had recognized that fortresses were "death traps" in the face of modern artillery. Having observed the fate of fortresses in both Belgium and on the eastern front, he abandoned fixed fortifications as the core of his defense strategy, preferring trenches and barbed wire. Nor did he consider heavy-calibre guns tied up in fortresses a useful employment of these weapons, so removed most of them to support his field armies (54 artillery batteries and 128,000 rounds of ammunition were removed from Verdun alone after August 1915.) Given that the Germans had, in 1914, achieved artillery domination in the field, this was both reasonable and probably essential to avoid defeat. It did, however, severely reduce the defensive value of the Verdun fortresses. The whole point of a fortress was to provide the artillery with superior protection from infantry attack while positioning the guns to dominate the surrounding areas. Even the much-maligned Maginot Line in World War Two did dreadful execution among German troops trying to capture sections of it. Without guns, even old-fashioned slow-firing ones, Verdun had little hope of resisting a determined German attack. But many of the guns, especially the better ones, had been removed in late 1914. 

In addition to the valor of the infantry, Verdun was saved for the French by the complete reappraisal of their artillery tactics and a complete about-face on the priority afforded the development and production of heavy guns. Early in the German offensive, in March, Joffre ordered the immediate production of 960 medium and 440 heavy guns! French General Henri Philippe Pétain, who had opposed the prevailing prewar French cult of the offensive and argued for heavy artillery to the point of ruining his career,  was appointed commander of the RFV on 26 February. Having an infantryman with a deep appreciation of how to employ artillery in command dramatically improved the French position, and Pétain quickly instituted several critical modifications of organization and doctrine. Divisions received additional medium howitzers, while the 155s and larger guns, together with the heavy mortars, were grouped at corps and army level to ensure fire dominance at critical points. The number of artillery regiments was increased from 115 to 247, even though France was running out of military-aged males. 

Recognizing the importance of aerial observation, Pétain directed French military aviation to obtain air control over the battlefield so that artillery spotters, in aircraft and balloons, could operate unimpeded. The French assembled what became the world’s first dedicated fighter squadrons, continually improved their aircraft, and achieved Pétain’s objectives by May. French gunnery accuracy improved dramatically as the battle proceeded. Contrary to Joffre’s view, Pétain used the existing fort system as the basis for a defense line. The remaining fortress artillery was heavily reinforced, and they became the support for local tactical attacks. He so recognized the need for heavy artillery that on 6 March, he asked GQG (French General Headquarters) to stop sending large infantry formation reinforcements—that clogged up the roads—and concentrate on sending heavy artillery instead.

His major achievement was, however, to re-establish the infantry’s confidence in their artillery. Pétain took close personal interest, every day, in what the artillery was doing. He ensured it had both sufficient ammunition and sufficient incentive to fire both offensive and defensive barrages. He personally reviewed the actions and effects of batteries and made his staff focus on the tactical employment of the guns, especially coordination between infantry and artillery in counter-attacks. Those staff he found wanting or who failed to demonstrate the expected degree of enthusiasm for the new techniques were quickly and ruthlessly removed. Recognizing also the serious effect of German artillery on the French infantry morale, Pétain focused closely on counter-battery work and on the tracking and locating of all German artillery. His attention to the artillery also carried though to its logistics support and he ensured that the flow of shells and spares was never interrupted. By the time he left in June, over 2000 tons of ammunition a day was being delivered to the fortress zone

The Germans, through another tactical mistake, also provided Pétain with an early opportunity to use his artillery effectively in the offensive. By failing to clear the west bank of the Meuse and its existing batteries of emplaced obsolete 155mm guns, Pétain was able to use these to fire into the flanks of the advancing infantry and, arguably more importantly, interdict German logistics assets, including forward dumps and bridgeheads. The German VII Korps suffered very heavy casualties from these guns during an attempt in March to clear the east bank of the Meuse. The Germans recognized the threat and launched a series of attacks to clear the west bank but this brought them into range of massed French guns from reserve forces such as the French Third Army (farther to the west) and they paid a heavy price for limited gains. This also saw the Germans reacting to French initiatives for the first time since the battle had begun.

100 Years Later: The Results of the Great Artillery Battle
Can Still Be Seen

In June, Pétain was promoted and General Robert Nivelle took command of the Verdun defense. However, by then Pétain’s re-invigoration and reorganization of the French artillery was well entrenched. Although Nivelle faced several more massive German attacks, his experienced and confident gunners largely broke them up or were able to provide effective support to retake lost ground. Even the first mass use by the Germans of phosgene gas failed to win the battle, largely because French artillery was able to break up the exploiting infantry formations. The Battle of Verdun was the longest single battle of the First World War, lasting from 21 February to 18 December 1916. It was one of the first in which Allied artillery made the greatest contribution to the outcome. It is a battle worthy of study for all gunners.

Source:  Presented by permission of the Royal Australian Artillery Historical Company. This was a seminar paper originally presented and published as part of the "Firepower: Lessons from the Great War" Seminar Series (including a link to the Series page:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Map Series #4 St. Mihiel Offensive

I can't fathom all the criteria that Google uses to rank websites, so I can't explain why this is so, but if you type in "St. Mihiel Offensive" + map in the Google search box, at the top of the results list you will get (at least I got) two links to this map from Library of Congress pages.  You can click on the image to expand it, but I think—that unless you have read a helluva lot about the operation—you will be utterly mystified as to what happened there in September 1918 when Pershing's First Army launched its initial offensive.

On the other hand, if you connect to the third entry on the list, which is the Wikipedia article on the St. Mihiel Offensive,  you will find it uses the map below.  If you were to spend an afternoon browsing the Web, you would discover  that this simpler map is used on numerous  sites (sometimes in modified form) by historians, bloggers, genealogists, and others with various levels  of insight on the battle.  On the other hand, you will find the usage by others of the Library of Congress recommended map is approximately zero.

Why do World War I researchers find the lower map handier? Primarily, this is because the cartographer's intention was that it would help readers understand the battle.  I can say this categorically, because I was the designer of this map.  In 1998—that other century, long past—I was putting together my first WWI website, The Doughboy Center.  The St. Mihiel map is one of a series I did to accompany the articles on the major AEF battles. There was a photo/editing program bundled into an early version of Windows that I used to draw this.  If you think it looks a little shaky, that's because the mouse was shaking as I dragged it along the mouse pad. 

In looking at it today, frankly, I'm a little embarrassed about how amateurish it seems and with the inaccuracies with the exact placement of the units and towns. But it seems to have taken a life of its own and it's out of my hands now. The People have spoken. Nonetheless, the map still gives a generally accurate depiction of the opening and culmination, and what happened in between. It clearly conveys this information: On  12 September 1918, three American corps and one French attacked an enemy salient located east of the Meuse River and and southwest of the Woevre Plain, reducing it in five days. Details include a scale, directions of the advances, and  locations of key features, towns, and  the final front line.  Pershing had to stop the troops there to re-focus his First Army on the coming Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Even though some of folks who have borrowed my map have forgotten to mention where they found it, I'm very gratified that so many have found it useful over the years. By the way,  I'm spending some time updating The Doughboy Center so you're invited to visit it.  You'll see some of the other maps by my alter-ego, that internationally recognized  cartographer.  LINK

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Forgotten Struggle of the Italian Front

By Richard Galli

Over the Agnelizza Valley, chock full of the dead—the skeletons of last year's battle, and the swollen corpses of this year's battle that has lasted a fortnight. And a shining skull grins next to the livid mask of a man killed yesterday.
      Paolo Monelli's description of the Ortigara battlefield

The Battle of Ortigara was not the largest or most costly battle on the Italian Front, but for 19 days in June 1917 it was a microcosm of mountain front's warfare and the terrible attrition of the Great War. Ortigara is often called "the Calvary of the Alpini" with its useless sacrifice of Italy's finest troops. In a determined offensive on the Trentino Plateau, Italian General Ettore Mambretti seized strategic Monte Ortigara. However it was quickly retaken by Austrian General Artur von Mecenseffy in some of the bloodiest alpine fighting of the war. Austria lost 9,000 casualties, and the Italians sacrificed over 23,000 men (2,800 killed).

The reality of two years of warfare on the Altipiano [starting in May 1915] had seen endless Italian and Austrian raids, artillery duels, and several pitched battles, primarily around Monte Pasubio. Little or no change occurred in the existing line, the old frontier, including the mighty Austrian Strafexpedition in the spring of 1916. Most of the Altipiano had been captured in this offensive, which very nearly broke out onto the vulnerable Venetian Plains. The Italian Army eventually halted the attack and immediately counterattacked; again back to the old lines. 

Ortigara Today

The Battle of Ortigara took place on a cluster of barren windswept mountains, soaring cliffs, boulder fields, and sparse rocky meadows—the highest and northernmost ridge of the Trentino Plateau, the Altipiano. In 1917 the Italian High Command considered the strategic position of these peaks a dangerous bulge in the front, an area where Austria could break through and flank the Italian bastions of Monte Pasubio to the west or Monte Grappa in the east. Control of the Brenta River Valley or the capture the entire plateau were additional concerns for the Italians. Indeed all of these fears came true in late 1917, although Pasubio and Grappa held on, barely. The Ortigara area also controlled the vital Passo dell'Agnella, which led into the strategic Val Sugana, the primary Austro-Hungarian supply route to their entire Altipiano line and a direct road to the city of Trento. The Italian commanders knew this as well as the Austrians, who had fortified the area with Germanic tenacity and depth. 

Straightforward and well designed, the Italian attack seemed worthy of success, at least in theory. The focus would be along the northernmost three kilometers of the Altipiano front line–Monte Ortigara. The Italian 20th Corps attacking force was made up of the 52nd Alpini Mountain Infantry Division and the 9th Bersaglieri Light Infantry Regiment, with the 29th Infantry Division—the combined Piedmonte and Regina [Queen's] Regiments, in reserve. These 52 battalions were all experienced troops, having fought across this mountain front, including the Isonzo River area, whose Carso and Bainsizza Plateaus were as harsh and rocky as this great northern spine of the Altipiano. 

Ortigara Is Located in the Center of This Map

Facing the Italians was the 6th Austro-Hungarian Infantry Division. The 24 battalions of this division were the numerical equivalent of 32 Italian battalions. These men were also seasoned veterans of mountain warfare, including two regiments from the Third (or Eiserne) Korps [Iron Corps] of elite Kaiserjäger mountain infantry and Feldjäger light infantry, who held the heights of Monte Ortigara. Supporting the infantry deployments were 428 Italian artillery pieces and 220 mortars facing 150 Austrian cannons and 75 mortars. These odds seem one sided, but it must be noted that the Italians had a terrible supply route of twisting mountain roads, and many of their cannons were light, mule-packed alpine guns. Most of the Austrian mortars were heavy 305mm Škodas, and all their artillery had a rapid supply line of valley railroad and mountain teleferiques. To make matters worse, two Italian deserters had informed Austrian intelligence of the planned attack. On the evening of 9 June 1917 both sides were on high alert.

On 10 June the opening Italian barrage began at 0515 hours and finished at 1500. Following dangerously close to the explosions, Bersaglieri and Alpini rapidly overtook many Austrian positions. Only speed could capture these fortifications; once manned they were a deathtrap of wire entanglements and machine gun bunkers. The Austrian trenches and tunnels were deep, often with three meters of solid rock overhead. On the highest peaks, the Alpini continued the attack. Their battalions captured the summits of Monte Chiesa, Corno de Segala, Peak 2003, as well as Peak 2101 of Monte Ortigara. Many points in this wilderness were known only by their elevation. As with the entire front, their new, often tragic names would appear after the war. Passo del'Agnella was tenuously captured, with the front line running directly through its center.

Alpini Preparing for the Assault

On the second day [11 June] mountain clouds and heavy rain turning to snow engulfed the area. The Italian commanders were forced to delay the offensive, but fighting continued to rage between platoon and patrol within the clouds. Artillery was for the most part useless. On 15 June the fog cleared. Earlier that morning, at 0230, three battalions of Kaiserjäger retook Peak 2101 despite the fresh snow and ice. Four days later the Alpini once more held its heights, in a similar lightening raid. 

Hidden in caverns or behind ridges, the enemy artillery  made existence hell. The very nature of these bare stone mountains worked against the attackers. If your forces did not capture or recover established defensive positions, digging new trenches was an industrial effort, near impossible with infantry hand tools. Ricocheting shrapnel, rock, and bullets would take their additional toll. 

The Italians attempted counter-battery with aerial bombardment. On the morning of 18 June 145 Italian aircraft, including 26 Caproni heavy bombers, attacked Austrian batteries, teleferiques, ammunition, and supply dumps to the west of Monte Ortigara and in Val Sugana. Several large explosions were observed, but once again the Austrians hunkered in their caverns and waited for the inevitable Italian attack.

Italian Observers Watching the Battle

As is often said of this war's battles, Ortigara began to "take on a life of its own." With two elite corps of mountain troops facing each other there was no letdown in the fighting. Every attack was immediately countered; the resulting casualties surpassed what was typical of this war's terrible attrition—in the sardonic humor of the Italian soldati, "meat for the cannons." The Austrians, meantime, were perfecting the recent Germanic concept of "storm troops," heavily armed infantry infiltrating the enemy's weaker areas, however scarce these places were on Ortigara. The Alpini were not so tactically advanced, but relied on their traditional courage and pride, wheeling their mountain artillery pieces into repeated attacks as direct fire weapons against Austrian strong points.

The crux of this fight occurred when the Italians captured the primary and highest point of Monte Ortigara, Peak 2105, on 19 June 1917. In 45 minutes seven battalions of Alpini, led by the local men of Battalione Sette Comuni, captured over 1000 Austrians, five cannons, and 14 machine guns. In brilliant sunshine and calm morning atmosphere this was the high tide of the Italian offensive.

It did not take long for the Austrians to retaliate. On the 22 June Austrian artillery, including new batteries brought up from other parts of the front, began a nonstop pounding of the Italian positions. Two hundred and fifty tons of high explosive shells were dropped into these two square kilometers. In the last hour of fire, 90 tons of artillery and mortar rounds were focused on the Italian stronghold—Peak 2105. The effect of airburst shrapnel, delayed high explosive shells, stone splinters, and ricochet on the solid rock was murderous. High-angle mortar fire hit the Alpini fortunate enough to escape gunfire on the leeward slopes. At 0230 hours on 25 June, the darkness was hideously illuminated by Austrian flamethrowers, leading seven battalions of Austrian Kaiserschützen mountain troop reservists and regular infantry. The remaining reserves of the 52nd Alpini and the Queen's Own Regiment were thrown into the battle. 

Victorious Austrian Defenders

Unit histories from both sides report fierce hand to hand combat with club, pick-mattock, knife, and rocks. By morning the battle was over, with 1000 Italians wounded and/or captured, a similar number killed and Monte Ortigara in Austrian hands. In the morning calm, gas shells were fired onto Peaks 2101, 2003, and Passo del'Agnella accompanied by a creeping barrage of high explosive and waves of Austro-Hungarian infantry, the Eiserne Korps final reserves. The smoke of numerous brush fires compounded the deadly situation. Italians were unaware of the deadly gas until it was too late. This was only the second time poison gas had been used on this entire Alpine Front, where both sides had abstained from using it, due to either [arguably] chivalry or [more likely] the unpredictable mountain atmosphere. The Austrians captured the pass and all four peaks. The next day [26 June] a valiant counterattack by the remains of two Alpini battalions reinforced by regular infantry survivors [in total numbering little more than 200 men] recaptured Peak 2003 and the old trenches at Passo dell'Agnella. These troops, considered a rear guard, were withdrawn to what must have seemed ancient starting lines on 29 June 1917. The Battle of Ortigara was over, nothing had changed. 

Paolo Monelli summarized it thus—

In an incredibly narrow space, men by the tens of thousands were nailed to the rock under artillery fire hitting them from every inch on the horizon, and under avalanches of fire, clouds of gas, and torrents of liquid flame, the three peaks were won, lost, retaken and finally abandoned when we no longer had a single battalion with which to continue the struggle. 

Italian Prisoner Column After the Battle

The losses on Ortigara devastated the Italian Alpine Corps. The 52nd Alpini Division suffered 12,633 casualties of their 15,000 men. Total Italian casualties were 2,865 killed in action or died of wounds, 16,734 seriously wounded, 2,600 captured and 3000 missing in action—totaling 25,199. In this narrow area of three peaks and three kilometers the Austrian Third Corps lost 992 killed, 6,321 wounded, and 1,515 missing or captured—totaling 8,828. The Iron Corps report to the Austrian High Command read, "the battalions returning from the Ortigara inferno are dross." To the Italian Alpini, Army and people these peaks will forever be known as la tomba degli alpini [the tomb of the Alpini] or il Calvario degli Alpini [the Calvary of the Alpini]. 

The Altipiano front line would eventually be breached by a combined Austrian and German offensive in October 1917, known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, or Caporetto. Few returned to the area of Ortigara until after the war, when the remains of those lost were recovered. Italian soldiers and Austrian POWs performed initial searches. Soon the loved ones of the fallen took up the search. Memorials were put up for both sides in the early 1920s. To this day bodies are found.

Austrian (L) and Italian (R) Monuments

Today, Ortigara is a sparse wilderness surrounded by rich meadows and deep forests. Only at the height of summer will one find hardy mountain flowers and tufts of grass between the rocks or see the occasional shepherd and his flock. Despite the scavenging for brass by locals during the impoverished Depression, underfoot the Ortigara battlefield remains half stone, half iron artillery fragments. (This statement is more realistic than poetic.) Few come to these lonely peaks except on the second Sunday of each July, when local Altipiani, veterans of both sides and relatives of the dead make a pilgrimage, to pay their respects at graveyards and a memorial atop Monte Ortigara, whose inscriptions appeals, per non dimenticare [do not forget].

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mr. Punch's History of the Great War

Charles L. Graves, ed.
Cassell and Company, Ltd, 1919 
 (Current reprints available)
David F. Beer, Reviewer

26 April 1916 Cover, Featuring Mr. Punch

One of the best-known humor and satire magazines in Britain was Punch, or, The London Charivari. It ran from 1841 until 1992, with a brief resurrection from 1996 to 2002. In its heyday it helped coin the term "cartoon" with its clever and sometimes scathing illustrations. Its prose style was informal for the times and could happily rip apart pretense and hypocrisy. The title was taken from the "Punch and Judy" puppet or marionette shows dating back to the 1600s, and Mr. Punch, the hook-nosed curmudgeon of those shows, is also the main character in the magazine. Often including poetry, John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" was first published anonymously in the 8 December 1915 edition of Punch.

Punch flourished during the Great War, and the magazine was more than ready to cover the conflict:

Though a lover of peace, Mr. Punch from his earliest days has not been unfamiliar with war. He was born during the Afghan campaign; in his youth England fought side by side with the French in the Crimea; he saw the old Queen bestow the first Victoria Crosses in 1857. . .Later on again he had watched, not without grave misgiving, the growth of the great Prussian war machine which crushed Denmark, overthrew Austria, and having isolated France, overwhelmed her heroic resistance by superior numbers and science, and stripped her of Alsace- Lorraine (vii).

This prologue introduces almost 300 pages of month-by-month commentary, including cartoons and poetry, summing up events for each month in Punch's unique and patriotic style. August 1914 opens thus:

Four weeks ago we stood on the verge of the great upheaval and knew it not. We were thinking of holidays; of cricket and golf and bathing, and then were plunged in the deep waters of the greatest of all Wars (1).

The month includes a one-page cartoon of a small, defiant boy with a small stick defending a gate marked "No Thoroughfare" being threatened by a large man with a huge cudgel, curved pipe in his mouth, and large sausages dangling from one pocket—obviously Germany—with the caption "Bravo, Belgium!"

Each month through November 1918 is similarly dealt with in four or five pages, with some three to five cartoons plus verse, and the book concludes with a retrospective epilogue that also looks forward to the year ahead. You could get a lot of enjoyment just browsing through the cartoons,but be warned that some of them contain a distinctly British sense of humor.

Typical of Punch's commentary as it follows the war's events is that of December 1915:

Things have not been going well in the East. The Allies have been unable to save Serbia, Monastir has fallen, and our lines have been withdrawn to Salonika. The experts are now divided into two camps, the Westerners and the Easterners, and the former, pointing to the evacuation of Gallipoli, are loud in their denunciations of costly "side-shows"(66).

Yet the fortitude of the British soldier must also be emphasized, or in the words of Mr. Punch "The 'philosophy of Thomas' is inscrutable…and he derives satisfaction from comparisons:"

If we're standin' in two feet o' water, you see
Quite likely the Boches are standin' in three;
An' though the keen frost may be ticklin' our toes,
'Oo doubts that the Boches' 'ole bodies is froze?

An accompanying cartoon shows a wounded and bandaged (but ever-generous) Tommy berating a German prisoner with "Look what you done to me, you blighters! 'Ere-'ave a cigarette?" (68). The beginning of the Somme battle is treated in the same phlegmatic manner in July's entry for 1916:

. . . July has brought us a new experience-the sound fifty or sixty miles inland in peaceful, rural England, amid glorious midsummer weather, of the continual throbbing night and day of the great guns on the Somme, where our first great offensive opened on the 1st, and has continued with solid and substantial gains, some set-backs, heavy losses for the Allies, still heavier for the enemy (97).

A full-page cartoon for the same month shows a laughing Tommy bandaging his own wrist wound with his rifle in the crook of his arm and a German helmet pinned on the bayonet, the caption below stating in all capitals: WELL DONE, THE NEW ARMY. The following month, August, includes a short poem "from an R.F.C. man":

Returning from my morning fly
I met a Fokker in the sky,
And, judging from its swift descent,
It had a nasty accident.
On thinking further on the same
I rather fear I was to blame

Back in August 1915 the magazine had complained that “The war of Notes goes on with unabated energy between Germany and the U.S.A.” and also recorded that “Mr. Winston Churchill, the greatest of our quick-change political artists, is said to be devoting his leisure to landscape painting. The school that he favors is not publicly stated.” (50). However, April 1917 finds Mr. Punch less tongue-in-cheek when he reports that

Once more the rulers of Germany have failed to read the soul of another nation. They thought there was no limit to America’s forbearance, and they thought wrong. America is now ‘all in’ on the side of the Allies. The Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are flying side by side over the Houses of Parliament. On the motion introduced in both Houses to welcome our new ally, Mr. Bonar Law…declared that the New World had stepped in to redress the balance of the old; Mr. Asquith…lauded the patience which had enabled President Wilson to carry with him a untied nation; and Lord Curzon quoted Bret Harte (145).

A drawing of a huge eagle, talons outstretched and swooping away from the Statue of Liberty, accompanies this month’s entry.

Thus it goes with Mr. Punch, as this engaging volume follows the course of the Great War with popular historical analysis, humor, irony, many telling cartoons and plenty of poetry—much of it moving and clever. I can recommend Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War to anyone who would enjoy a chronicle of the War laced with the wit and wisdom that was available to the British reader on the home front.

David F. Beer

Monday, March 18, 2019

From the U.S. Navy's WWI Collections — Art

The U.S. Navy has done a terrific job of documenting its service during the Great War. On the next three Mondays, we will be giving examples from their collection of naval art, artifacts, and photography.  Much of the material can be found at the online sites of two institutions: the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Links to the two sites can be found at the bottom of this page.

Click on the Images to Enlarge

Sixth (U.S.) Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet Leaving the 
Firth of Forth

Outward Bound for Freedom

Survivors Awaiting Rescue Off the Isles of Scilly

Chief Yeomanette of the Navy

14-Inch Rail-Gun Train

USS Bainbridge at Sea

Capturing Black Mont, 3 October 1918

Shooting Down a Kite Balloon

British Attack on the Zeebrugge Mole, 23 April 1918

The U.S. Battle Fleet Returns to New York City, 26 December 1918

A Brother's Homecoming


National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Naval History and Heritage Command

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Madison Square Park’s Victory Arch

Victory Parade for the 27th Division, AEF
New York City, 25 March 1919

Keith Muchowski

Washington Square Arch in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and The Soldiers' and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza are two of the most iconic structures in all of New York City.  Long gone today, however, are several archways in New York City that, while no longer extant, were meaningful to the people who built and experienced them in their time. And then, almost as quickly as these arches were built, they were gone.

Leading this list of fleeting corporeality is an edifice constructed in New York City just after the Great War—the Victory Arch that stood at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets from 1919–1920. Other examples of these transient edifices include the original plaster and wooden Washington Square arch hastily constructed in 1889 for the centenary of President Washington’s first inaugural. This is not to be confused with two additional albeit more modest arches built at the same time a few blocks north in Madison Square for that same centennial. A decade later, again in Madison Square, came the Dewey Arch, built in honor of the admiral who had done so much to win the war in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Citizens turned out at these sites in the hundreds of thousands to honor the achievements of those for whom they were constructed and witness what they knew was history in the making.

Aerial View of the Completed Arch

Ironically the Victory Arch was not conceived in triumph but can be traced to when the war’s outcome was still very much in doubt; planning for a Great War-related edifice dated as far back as February 1918, when most Doughboys and prospective recruits were still stateside. The project’s major stakeholders included the eminent National Sculpture Society, the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense, and the U.S. military itself, among others. These leaders envisioned a monument that might serve as a recruiting tool in those still-early days of American involvement in the war. That structure never materialized, but on November 12—the day after the Armistice—officials returned to the idea of a memorial and the project was on once again. Because a Mayor’s Committee on National Defense no longer made sense once the Armistice came Mayor John Francis Hylan immediately created two new bodies: a Mayor's Committee of Welcome to Home-Coming Troops and a Mayor’s Committee on Permanent War Memorial. Hylan quickly appointed department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker chairman of both committees. As the committee titles indicate, Wanamaker and his associates had a dual mandate—first would be the homecoming welcomes for various units, followed thereafter by the creation of a permanent Great War memorial.

Time was of the essence. In late 1918 and early 1919 troops were coming home by the thousands crammed aboard transatlantic ocean liners, soon to be discharged and returned to their families. Wanamaker and his associates got down to work immediately, selecting Madison Square just before Thanksgiving and by year’s end hiring Thomas Hastings to design the arch. Paul Wayland Bartlett, head of the National Sculpture Society, was to execute a chariot atop the edifice with symbolic figures representing wisdom, power, justice, and peace alongside it. Eager to take part, dozens of prominent artists and architects, including Daniel Chester French, Cass Gilbert, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney participated as well, not just in Madison Square, but at sites farther up Fifth Avenue at the 42nd Street New York Library and East 60th Street adjacent to Central Park. Donations poured and volunteers rolled up their sleeves for the task.

The work proceeded over the winter while troops continued their return. On one day alone—6 March 1919—over 13,500 men from the 27th Division arrived in New York Harbor aboard the Leviathan and Mauritania. The 27th—O’Ryan’s Roughnecks—was comprised primarily of men from the Empire State and their return naturally drew great excitement. Men from the 27th continued pouring in over the following days and weeks and the division’s homecoming parade was soon scheduled for 25 March. It would stretch nearly five miles from Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to 110th Street. The New York Times described Fifth Avenue on the eve of the event, gleaming as it was in the flood lights of 100,000,000 candle power, as a “canyon of brilliancy.” The 27th Division parade that passed through the Madison Square Park Victory Arch that 25 March was the largest gathering in New York City up to that time. The crowd was so large and proved so unwieldy that two people were killed and over thirty wounded as attendees pushed forward to get a better look. The following day the Roughnecks were back at Camp Upton, soon to be discharged in early April and returned home. In early May the men of the 77th Division had their parade. City and military officials maintained a stronger presence for the march through the Arch of the Doughboys from the 77th “Liberty” Division.

The Soldiers' View As They Marched Through the Arch

The parades and homecomings over, the Madison Square Victory Arch was demolished by summer 1920. Rodman Wanamaker and his colleagues then began their next task—building a permanent memorial. The idea of a Great War memorial for New York City continued for almost a decade and a half. Interest was initially intense but waned as the 1920s progressed and it became apparent that the war to end all wars had led only to revolution, discontent, and instability. Many were also turned off by what they saw as the various proposals’ excessive triumphalism, anti-German nativism, and excessive price tag. United States Congressman Fiorello H. La Guardia, himself a Great War veteran—a major in the U.S. Air Service stationed on the Italian-Austrian front where he ran bombing runs and worked as a translator and liaison—eventually even soured on the project. La Guardia was elected mayor of New York City in November 1933 and in January 1934 appointed Robert Moses commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. Moses believed parks should be more for exercise and recreation than commemoration and quickly set about on his mission of building playgrounds, swimming pools, and ball fields. While there are many fine World War One monuments in New York City, a permanent, large-scale Great War memorial for Gotham was not to be.

Keith Muchowski, a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, writes occasionally for Roads to the Great War. He blogs at

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Remembering a Veteran: Pvt. Ollie O. Olive, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, AEF

By Glenn Hyatt

Ollie Olive, Private, Co. K, was operating a captured machine gun, holding out against one of the counterattacks along the railroad spur. As described by one of his comrades to his family after their return from France: "Ollie climbed into a tree to have a better line of fire on the enemy with the machine gun. His position was located by the enemy and with a withering fire they cut him down. He didn't suffer but was killed outright."

Olive fell at the age of 19, defending his comrades, his body was recovered and returned to his family. Olive is buried at Arlington Cemetery.
Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner

They Had a Rendezvous with Death

The fall weather finally providing a relief to the summer heat and Armistice/Veterans day just around the corner I took time this weekend to finish up a little business that I seem to have put off again and again. I planned to visit the grave of a fellow Virginian from my home town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, who was lost in the Great War.

My interest began some years ago while visiting our World War I memorial with my fellow VFW members. The name of Ollie O. Olive seemed to leap from the tarnished bronze plaque, and I wondered, who was he, how did he meet his fate?

My fascination continued as I interviewed his surviving sisters and became familiar with the family's story of their lost brother. During trips to France I visited the battlefield and found the location where the men from Fredericksburg fought during World War I. I had even located a picture of Ollie in uniform.

Ollie was a young man whose family worked a small farm just outside of town. He was a frail and sickly boy, nearly crippled at times with what the family described as the rheumatism. In 1916 Frederickburg's National Guard regiment, (The Washington Guard, 2nd Virginia, Company K), mustered into service for the Texas border. Ollie fancied himself as a soldier but was disappointed when he was not accepted. 

In the ensuing months the papers were filled with reports and letters from Company K as they served on the border. They returned in February of 1917 to a parade through town as the community crowded into the streets welcoming the returning heroes. The men of Company K marched through town before being demobilized and returning to civilian life. But as fate would have it, Ollie's chance to join up came again in just a few short months.

With the declaration of war in April of 1917, Company K was once again called up. The paper was full of advertisements calling for the enlistment of able bodied men to fill the ranks for service in Europe. Ollie went to the recruiter and this time convinced them that he would fill the bill. Without even a chance to return and say good-bye to his family, Ollie began the adventure which would culminate in a strip of shell-torn forest on a French farm, north of Verdun.

Company K, became part of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, and was selected to assault the heights overlooking the sleepy Meuse River which meandered across the blood drenched battlefield of the Western Front. Occupied by the enemy since 1914, these heights provided a commanding position from which German batteries raked the allied troops attacking through the Argonne Forest. On 16 October 1918 Ollie and his fellow Virginians joined an attack across an open field against the German lines. Machine guns played their deadly tattoo, cutting through the Doughboys like a scythe. Ollie and the other survivors of Company K gained the woods sheltering the enemy line. As Ollie's comrades related the story to his family, he mounted a captured machine gun in the shattered stump of a tree and raked the Germans in counter attack after counter attack. Finally the enemy located his position, and as the soldier in Alan Seeger's epic World War I poem, Ollie kept his rendezvous with death.

After the war, as the victory celebrations passed and the horror of war dimmed in the veterans' eyes, Ollie was returned. His family selected Arlington Cemetery as his final resting place and there he was laid to final rest.

As I walked the distance from the reception center to Section 18 in the back corner of the grounds, I recalled my visits to the battlefield and that same strip of woods where Ollie fought and died. I recalled the moss covered trenches and collapsed bunkers that still run through that section of battle line, the rusted equipment poking through the forest floor and the barbed wire which still lay in coils in the tangled underbrush. I also recalled the details of  Ollie's unselfish sacrifice.

Ollie's Resting Place: Section 18, Arlington National Cemetery,
Argonne Cross in Distance

I reached Section 18 and looked for Ollie's grave, #3240, I also became very aware that all about me were soldiers' graves that had one thing in common. These were the dead of the Great War, the fallen, those who had given their all in the War to End All Wars...Names such as William Penny, 318 Infantry, 80th Division, Leroy Small 115th Infantry 29th Division, 167 Infantry of the (Rainbow) Division, Second Division. Boys from Wyoming, New York, Oregon, and so on and so on..all of which were dated 1917–1919. Then I found plot 3240, Ollie's unassuming white marble stone was inscribed "Ollie O. Olive, 29th Division, Virginia, October 1918."

I looked around me, there in all directions row after row of white marble stones stood as mute testimony to those who slept below. Ollie had kept his rendezvous with death, as all the men who lay in this yard, they had given their lives for their country, for democracy, for mankind.

When November 11th approaches and we commemorate the Armistice of 1918 as well as veterans everywhere, remember Ollie and his comrades. For they have passed to us the torch of freedom.

Sources: The Doughboy Center and Find a Grave

Friday, March 15, 2019

The World War One Origins of the American's Creed

Dunedin, Florida

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.

William Tyler Page
While the Great War was still under way, the House of Representatives honored William Tyler Page, a longtime Congressional employee and future Clerk of the House, for his authorship of the “American’s Creed.” In 1916, on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I, Henry Sterling Chapin, the editor of an educational journal, devised a national writing competition to foster patriotism and civic responsibility among U.S. citizens. 

Of the more than 3,000 submissions for an American Creed, Page’s winning entry was described as “brief and simple but remarkably comprehensive of the best in American ideals, history, and tradition, as expressed by the founders of the Republic and its greatest statesmen and writers.” 

The House ceremony to recognize Page included Speaker of the House James Beauchamp (Champ) Clark of Missouri and former Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois. Members of Congress paid tribute to the veteran employee—who began his career as a House Page in 1881—for his service to the institution and his country. Page, who received $1,000 for his winning entry, recited the “American’s Creed” on the Capitol steps which ended with the declaration, “I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.” In further recognition of Page’s accomplishment, the House placed a bronze tablet of the “American’s Creed” in the Capitol.

Sources:; U.S. House of  Representatives Website

Thursday, March 14, 2019

At Bois de Borrus the Night Before the Meuse-Argonne

By Major Ashby Williams
Commander, First Battalion, 320th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division 

The 80th Division Moves to the Front for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

AFTER THE MEN had had their coffee—I remember I drank a good swig of it, too—I gave directions that the men should get in shape to move out of the woods. Then followed one of the most horrible experiences of my whole life in the war, and one which I hope never to have to go through again. The Boche began to shell the woods. When the first one came over I was sitting under the canvas that had been still spread over the cart shafts. It fell on the up side of the woods. As I came out another one fell closer. I was glad it was dark because I was afraid my knees were shaking. I was afraid of my voice, too, and I remember I spoke in a loud voice so it would not tremble, and gave orders that Commanders should take their units to the dugouts which were less than a hundred yards away until the shelling was over, as I did not think it necessary to sacrifice any lives under the circumstances. Notwithstanding my precautions, some of the shells fell among the cooks and others who remained about the kitchens, killing some of them and wounding others.

In about twenty minutes I ordered the companies to fall in on the road by our area preparatory to marching out of the woods. They got into a column of squads in perfect order, and we had proceeded perhaps a hundred yards along the road in the woods when we came on to one of the companies of the Second Battalion which we were to follow that night. We were held there perhaps forty-five minutes while the Second Battalion ahead of us got in shape to move out. One cannot imagine the horrible suspense and experience of that wait. The Boche began to shell the woods again. There was no turning back now, no passing around the companies ahead of us, we could only wait and trust to the Grace of God.

We could hear the explosion as the shell left the muzzle of the Boche gun, then the noise of the shell as it came toward us, faint at first, then louder and louder until the shell struck and shook the earth with its explosion. One can only feel, one cannot describe the horror that fills the heart and mind during this short interval of time. You know he is aiming the gun at you and wants to kill you. In your mind you see him swab out the hot barrel, you see him thrust in the deadly shell and place the bundle of explosives in the breach; you see the gunner throw all his weight against the trigger; you hear the explosion like the single bark of a great dog in the distance, and you hear the deadly missile singing as it comes towards you, faintly at first, then distinctly, then louder and louder until it seems so loud that everything else has died, and then the earth shakes and the eardrums ring, and dirt and iron reverberate through the woods and fall about you.

This is what you hear, but no man can tell what surges through the heart and mind as you lie with your face upon the ground listening to the growing sound of the hellish thing as it comes towards you. You do not think, sorrow only fills the heart, and you only hope and pray. And when the doubly-damned thing hits the ground, you take a breath and feel relieved, and think how good God has been to you again. And God was good to us that night—to those of us who escaped unhurt. And for the ones who were killed, poor fellows, some blown to fragments that could not be recognized, and the men who were hurt, we said a prayer in our hearts.

Such was my experience and the experience of my men that night in the Bois de Borrus, but their conduct was fine. I think, indeed, their conduct was the more splendid because they knew they were not free to shift for themselves and find shelter, but must obey orders, and obey they did in the spirit of fine soldiers to the last man. After that experience I knew that men like these would never turn back, and they never did.

From Experiences of the Great War (1919)