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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Roads Classic: How Did the Disaster at Caporetto Occur?

With the centennial of the Italian Front's most famous battle, I thought readers would like to see this article we presented in our first year.  I'll be leading a tour of the Caporetto battlefield this summer, so if you would like some information about the trip, just email me at

How Did Caporetto Occur? 

The Caporetto offensive launched  24 October 1917 along the Isonzo River, is considered one of the most decisive victories of the 20th century. It was boldly planned, very ably organized, and well executed. While two Austrian armies, under General Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna, attacked the Italian Third Army on the Carso and Bainsizza Plateaus on the lower ground near the Adriatic shore, further north in the more mountainous  part of the Isonzo sector, the German-Austrian Fourteenth Army, targeted the Italian Second Army. Comprising the six German divisions and nine Austrian under German General Otto von Below, with Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen as his chief of staff, the Fourteenth Army's masterful  double breakthrough proved decisive, annihilating the Second Army.

The assault stunned Italians troops and their commanders, who fell back in confusion: Below's van reached Udine, the former site of the Italian general headquarters, by October 28 and was on the Tagliamento River by October 31. . .The Italians [eventually] sustained about 500,000 casualties, including 250,000 taken prisoner.   How could such a catastrophe occur in so short a period?  The answer–I believe–lies in the faulty deployment by the Italian Commando Supremo. Even the anxious Italian King, who visited Caporetto a few days before the attack, expressed skepticism over the dispositions made by his generals. The map and photos below should demonstrate these weaknesses to you. 

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Important things to note:  A.  The opening day's battlefield was huge, roughly 12 x 12 miles; B. The front line and the Italian defensive lines weave back and forth across the Isonzo (Soca) River; C.  The large gap between Italian 2nd and 3rd lines;  D.  Tight fit of all three Italian Lines west of Tolmino (8). 

Following the Map from Top (North) to Bottom (South)

  • Mte. Rombon (1) was the site of ferocious mountaintop fighting right up to the opening of the 24 October offensive. It marks the northern extent of the Caporetto battlefield. Occupied by Bosnian troops, it gave the German-Austrian forces an excellent view of their enemy's deployments before the operation.  Far below its peak on the river lies the village of Plezzo (2).

  • Plezzo (2) was just behind the front line of 24 October. The front here crossed the Isonzo, meaning attacking forces would not need to force a river crossing, simplifying things greatly for them. Here Austrian divisions and German gas officers would execute the most successful gas attack of the First World War, and charge through a huge opening that opened the road to Caporetto.  The photos below show the area today.

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The view from the 3rd Italian line above the river bend looking northeast toward Plezzo (2) along the narrow river valley. Mte. Rombon (1) is in the far distance. In this area the mountains are quite close on either side of the river.

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However, just along the river near Plezzo (2), there are some low flat spaces. Italian forces deployed here were hit with a lethal gas barrage, allowing a clean breakthrough by Austrian divisions.  One of the dirty secrets of WWI is that gas attacks were effective when used intelligently.

  • Moving south past a big bend in the Isonzo is the town of Caporetto (3), the opening objective and namesake of the battle.  It is a road-hub at the head of a second valley (off to the right on the photo below) and its capture allowed the deep pursuit into northern Italy after the initial  rout. 

  • Mte Nero (4), at 2244 meters on the left of the photo, was on the front line on 24 October.  Three Italian divisions, the 43rd, 46th, and 50th, were deployed just below its peak and that of a second summit on Mte Mrzili (5). Heavy fog and rain on the morning of the battle obscured the vision of these units. South of Caporetto most of the Italian 2nd line and all of the 3rd line were on the opposite side of the river. By mid morning, unbeknownst to them, the three divisions on Nero and Mrzili were being flanked from their left (also left on the photo) by the enemy units that had broken through at Plezzo (2) and were marching down the river edge. This was not their only danger, though.

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About 10 miles south of Caporetto (3) lies another river town, Tolmino (8). General von Below was executing a second breakthrough there.

  • Below is a spectacular view of Tolmino (8) from a hang glider above the Isonzo.  Once again the front line and 2nd and 3rd Italian lines cross the river at a perpendicular just north of the town.  Here the Italian positions were too tightly bunched. Both the town and the high hill to the right of the town–part of the Tolmino Bridgehead (7)–were occupied by  German troops, as was the hill to the left of town which offers a superb view down the valley towards Caporetto.  Once again the Central Powers were able to attack on both sides of the river at the same time. Additionally, a strong attack here had the potential of punching  through all three Italian positions very quickly; and an assault from the Bridgehead (7) could be mounted attacking downhill. It was a position of maximum danger for the Italian Army and maximum opportunity for their opponents.

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For orientation purposes:  Just out of view to the left of the glider is Mte Mrzili (5) and over the pilot's left shoulder is Mte Nero (4);  ahead is Tolmino (8) in the center and the Bridgehead (7) is to the right; out of view on pilot's right is Mte. Kolovrat (6).

  • The attack in this area had three branches. Out of Tolmino (8): One German division attacking out of Tolmino  advanced along the river and headed for Caporetto (3).  This group would join up later in the morning with the group advancing from the Plezzo (2) breakthrough. The three Italian divisions deployed along the slopes of Mrzili (5) and Nero (4) were cut-off and captured en masse. Many of those troops did not fire a shot in the battle.  Caporetto (3), itself, was secured by 1600 hours. 

  • Also out of Tolmino (8), German Alpenkorps (including Lt. Erwin Rommel) crossed over advanced on the other side of the river up onto the Mte Kolovrat (6) range to reduce the strong points of the 2nd and 3rd Italian positions.  Over several days each of these strong points were eliminated.

  • The third group attacked out the Bridgehead (7) and targeted the right flank of the Second Army where its XXVII Corps was deployed.  A relief of units was in progress when the attack hit and the confused Italian forces were devastated.  

  • In summary, almost all the troops in the three Second Army lines were killed or taken prisoner in the early stages of the fighting.  Subsequently those troops in reserve and in the rear areas were threatened by a double flanking maneuver that quickly followed the initial double breakthroughs out of Plezzo and Tolmino. After capturing Caporetto, the northern Austro-German force pushed west, then south into the Veneto. Meanwhile,  the force that advanced out of the Tolmino Bridgehead also threatened the flanks of the remains of Second Army on one side of its thrust and the Italian Third Army on the other side.  This effectively collapsed the entire Italian position along the length of the Isonzo River, leading to the headlong retreat that is the hallmark and most remembered aspect of the Battle of Caporetto.

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The view from an artillery position on the Italian 3rd line on Mte Kolovrat (6). The hill just below marked the 2nd line. Rommel captured a position there early in the battle.  On the left just across the river, the early slopes of Mte. Mrzili (5) where the Italian 46th Division found itself stranded can be seen.

If only one of the attempted breakthroughs had succeeded, the Central Powers would have certainly gained a major victory at Caporetto.  However, with both succeeding on 24 October, an entire Italian Army was wiped off the board.  The heartland of Italy was threatened, and the positions of mountain troops to the north of Caporetto and and the 3rd Army to the south along the Adriatic were made untenable. In Italy today "A Caporetto" is another name for a disaster. In future postings on Roads to the Great War we will discuss the pursuit that followed the double breakthrough, and how Italy–after a long retreat–stabilized the situation along the Piave River.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Under Bombardment

View of a Bombardment
[Editor's Note:  This is one of the best descriptions I've ever read of what it was like to be the target of a pre-attach bombardment from the enemy.  It's from the novel Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He was wounded in August 1918 in the Battle of Amiens and survived the war.]

We never become accustomed to the shellfire. Its terror for us increases with each passing day. The days out on rest ease our harried nerves, but as soon as we are back in the line again we are as fearful and jumpy as the newest recruit. With the first hiss and roar of a shell we become terror-stricken as of old.

We look at each other with anxious, frightened faces.

Our lips tighten.

Our eyes open wide.

We do not talk.

What is there to say?

Talk of the coming offensive continues.

The sector becomes more tumultuous.

The guns rage all night.

We "stand to" long before dawn and wait at the parapets expecting an attack until long after sunrise.

The fatigues are innumerable.

Every night there are wiring parties, sapping parties, carrying parties. We come back exhausted from these trips. We throw ourselves down in the dugouts for an hour's sleep.

But we do not rest.

There is no time for rest. We stagger around like drunken, forsaken men. Life has become an insane dream.

Sleep, sleep–if only we could sleep.

Our faces become grey. Each face is a different shade of grey. Some are chalk-coloured, some with a greenish tint, some yellow. But all of us are pallid with fear and fatigue.

It is three in the morning.

Our section is just back from a wiring party.

The guns are quiet.

Dawn is a short while off . . .

We sit on the damp floor of the dugout.

We have one candle between us and around this we sit chewing at the remains of the day's rations.

German Troops Undergoing an Artillery Barrage in an Underground  Bunker

Suddenly the bombardment begins.

The shells begin to hammer the trench above.

The candlelight flickers.

We look at each other apprehensively. We try to talk as though the thing we dread most is not happening.

The sergeant stumbles down the steps and warns us to keep our battle equipment on.

The dugout is an old German one; it is braced by stout wooden beams. We look anxiously at the ceiling of the hole in which we sit.

The walls of the dugout tremble with each crashing explosion.

The air outside whistles with the rush of the oncoming shells.

The German gunners are "feeling" for our front line.

The crashing of the shells comes closer and closer. Our ears are attuned to the nuances of a bombardment. We have learned to identify each sound.

They are landing on the parapet and in the trench itself now.

We do not think of the poor sentry, a new arrival, whom we have left on lookout duty.

We crowd closer to the flickering candle.

Upstairs the trench rings with a gigantic crack as each shell lands. An insane god is pounding it with Cyclopean fists, madly, incessantly.

We sit like prehistoric men within the ring of flickering light which the candle casts. We look at each other silently.

A shell shatters itself to fragments near the entrance of the dugout.

The candle is snuffed out by the concussion.

We are in complete darkness.

Another shell noses its shrieking way into the trench near the entrance and explodes. The dugout is lit by a blinding red flash. Part of the earthen stairway caves in.


In the blackness the rigging and thudding over our heads sounds more malignant, more terrible.

We do not speak.

Each of us feels an icy fear gripping at the heart.

With a shaking hand Cleary strikes a match to light the candle. The small flame begins to spread its yellow light. Grotesque, fluttering shadows creep up the trembling walls.

Another crash directly over our heads!

It is dark again.

Fry speaks querulously:

"Gee, you can't even keep the damned thing lit."

At last the flame sputters and flares up.

Broadbent's face is green.

The bombardment swells, howls, roars.

The force of the detonations causes the light of the candle to become a steady, rapid flicker. We look like men seen in an ancient, unsteady motion picture.

The fury of the bombardment makes me ill at the stomach.

Broadbent gets up and staggers into a corner of our underground room.

He retches.

Fry starts a conversation.

We each say a few words trying to keep the game alive. But we speak in broken sentences. We leave thoughts unfinished. We can think of only one thing–will the beams in the dug-out hold?

We lapse into fearful silences.

We clench our teeth.

It seems as though the fire cannot become more intense. But it becomes a little more rapid–then more rapid. The pounding increases in tempo like a noise in the head of one who is going under an anesthetic. Faster.

The explosions seem as though they are taking place in the dugout itself. The smoke of the explosives fills the room.

Fry breaks the tension.

"The lousy swine," he says. "Why don't they come on over, if they're coming?"

We all speak at once. We punctuate our talk with vile epithets belittling the sexual habits of the enemy. We seem to get relief in this fashion.

In that instant a shell hurtles near the opening over our heads and explodes with a snarling roar. Clods of earth and pieces of the wooden supports come slithering down the stairway.

It is dark again. In the darkness we hear Anderson speak in his singsong voice:

"How do you expect to live through this with all your swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain?"

For once we do not heap abuse and ribaldry on his head. We do not answer.

We sit in the darkness, afraid even to light the candle. It seems as though the enemy artillerymen have taken a dislike to our candle and are intent on blowing it out.

I look up the shattered stairway and see a few stars shining in the sky.

At least we are not buried alive!

The metallic roar continues.

Fry speaks: "If I ever live through this, I'll never swear again, so help me God."

We do not speak, but we feel that we will promise anything to be spared the horror of being buried alive under tons of earth and beams which shiver over our heads with each explosion. Bits of earth from the ceiling begin to fall . . .

Suddenly, as quickly as it began, the bombardment stops.

We start to clear up the debris from the bottom of the stairs.

To think we could propitiate a senseless god by abstaining from cursing!

What god is there as mighty as the fury of a bombardment? More terrible than lightning, more cruel, more calculating than an earthquake!

How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways again and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulfur, we who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies?

Canadian Troops Awaiting an Enemy Assault

Yes, all of us have prayed during the maniac frenzy of a bombardment.

Who can live through the terror-laden minutes of drum-fire and not feel his reason slipping, his manhood dissolving?

Selfish, fear-stricken prayers–prayers for safety, prayers for life, prayers for air, for salvation from the death of being buried alive . . .

Back home they are praying, too–praying for victory–and that means that we must lie here and rot and tremble forever . . .

We clear away the debris and go to the top of the broken stairs.

It is quiet and cool.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Kitchener's Mob
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson

Kitchener's Mob: The New Army to the Somme

by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster
The History Press, 2016

Kitchener's Mob tells the hectic story of the raising of Kitchener's Army in August and September 1914. The number of volunteers who joined Kitchener's Army was higher than the total number of soldiers obtained by conscription in 1916 and 1917 combined. In fact Kitchener and the War Office were able to add five New Armies to Britain's military forces. Kitchener's first call was for 100,000 men; this goal was reached within just two weeks. A further 100,000 men were required almost immediately. Feelings of patriotism ran high, as in the case of Harry Gilbert Tunstill, a land agent and county council representative who, on 24 August had just returned from a trip to Russia and immediately took on the responsibility of raising men to serve in the New Army. All but two of the New Army divisions saw action in France and Belgium. As Boyle and Foster demonstrate, the men of Kitchener's Army suffered greatly during the first few months of the war because of a severe shortage of weapons, equipment, and accommodation.

British Troops Advance Along the Ancre, Late in the Battle of the Somme

Kitchener's Mob is divided into five chapters: Men of the Moment, Kitchener's Men, Pals, Road to the Somme, and End of an Experiment. The first chapter describes Kitchener's qualities as a leader in time of war. Kitchener's Army quickly entered the popular imagination, as evidenced in the wide range of posters, postcards, and advertisements reproduced in Doyle and Foster's study.

Chapter two, "Kitchener's Men", describes the training of the volunteers, and the production of their uniforms and equipment. Among the many evocative illustrations in this chapter are the photographs of individuals and groups at camp and in training. Equipment was hard to come by and of questionable quality. All the same, the total weight carried by Kitchener's men was between 61 and 65 lbs., which included clothing, arms, ammunition, accoutrements, rations, and water.

Conditions in the camp were far from comfortable, as the postcard text below illustrates:

Down in our blinking camp,
We're always on the ramp,
That's where we cop the cramp,
Through sleeping in the damp.
(p. 81)

It is clear, however, that despite the difficult conditions, spirits ran high.

"Pals", the third chapter of Kitchener's Mob, describes how the retreat from Mons in August 1914 spurred on the recruitment campaign as fears grew that the Expeditionary Force would be pushed back to the Channel ports. The Pals concept grew out of this fear along with a subsequent request that the City of London raise a whole battalion of stockbrokers. Two weeks later, a letter from Lord Derby appeared in the Liverpool Echo, addressed specifically to the commercial classes:

It has been suggested to me that there are many men, such as clerks and others engaged in commercial business, who wish to serve their country and would be willing to enlist in the battalion of Kitchener's New Army if they felt assured that they would be able to serve with their friends and not to be put in a battalion with unknown men as their companions. Lord Kitchener has sanctioned my endeavouring to raise a battalion that would be composed entirely of the classes mentioned, and in which a man could be certain that he would be amongst friends (p. 95).

Pals regiments, from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland became a vital part of Kitchener's Army. A particularly moving photograph reproduced in the chapter is that of Private 15/1545 Tom Scawbord, who was killed on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 (p. 119). The chapter also describes recruitment in Ulster, showing a photograph of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912; they are a pathetic sight as they march with neither uniforms nor ammunition.

Chapter Four, "The Somme", is richly illustrated with photographs from the front, showing the trenches, dugouts, labor battalions, and German barbed wire. There are also extracts from letters such as the one below, which makes it clear that soldiers found it difficult to describe what it was really like at the front:

It is awfully cold and dismal at nights. I would refer you to Rudyard Kipling for a description of the dawn and the close of the day, when soldiers stand to arms, to give you a truer idea of something no-one but a good poet can describe (p. 174).

The chapter also contains a section on Gallipoli and Egypt.

It is, however, the section on the Somme that is the most powerful. With the aid of maps, photographs, and illustrations from Punch, Doyle and Foster demonstrate the challenge that the Somme represented for Kitchener's Army. They conclude Chapter Four with the following sentence ~

"The story of Kitchener's Army does not end with the 151 days of the Somme, but there the youthful army came of age—and it would face the challenges of 1917 head on" (p. 197).

Pvt. Charles Branston
The final chapter, "End of an Experiment", is shorter than the previous ones. It describes how the social experiment of locally raised battalions of volunteers met the reality of modern warfare - and how so many did not make it across no-man's-land. Their bodies remained in France, as a symbol of patriotism and sacrifice. The lack of experience of the men and their leaders took its toll. The chapter ends with the statement "one thing is clear: the road to the Somme paved by Kitchener's Army continued on to the victory of the citizen army in November 1918" (p. 204).

The photograph of one of the men on the final page says it all:

Charlie Branston was wounded by shellfire in the trenches at Contalmaison on 10 July 1016, and killed in action on 12 October 1916 near Lesboeufs. His name is among the thousands recorded on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval.

Kitchener's Army includes a wide variety of documentary sources, both primary and secondary, is richly illustrated throughout, and meticulously annotated. It is a fine commemoration to the patriotism and sacrifices of the thousands of men who joined Kitchener's Army. They are not forgotten.

Jane Mattisson
Østfold University College, Norway

Monday, June 19, 2017

Recommended: Avian Anti-Submarine Warfare

By:  David A. H. Wilson, Cumbria Institute of the Arts, United Kingdom

Attempts were made throughout the First World War to discover means of countering the enemy submarine. Both defensive and offensive measures were assessed and sometimes implemented, with varying degrees of success. So serious were the losses caused by the U-boats in their campaign of unrestricted warfare and the resulting effect on national morale that the authorities in Britain were soon prepared to consider from all quarters every proposal to locate, track, destroy, neutralize or evade the U-boat.

Systematic assessment and experiment began in 1915 with the establishment of the Board of Invention and Research (BIR) and then continued in late 1916 with the creation under naval control of the Anti-Submarine Division (ASD). To develop antisubmarine measures, as well as others to contribute to winning this "struggle of invention," the BIR invited and received suggestions from scientists, navy personnel, and members of the public. The latter source produced many bizarre ideas, but some of them were considered worth investigating. Among these were proposals to train gulls and other birds to indicate the presence of U-boats.

Source:  International Journal of Naval History
April 2006,Volume 5 Number 1

Read the Full Article Here:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The USS Recruit

The USS Recruit

By Keith Muchowski

At half past noon on 30 May 1917 New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel arrived at Union Square for a public gathering. It was one of several Decoration Day events taking place around the city. Uptown, Governor Charles S. Whitman and Major General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island, were presiding over the annual parade past the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park. Fifty-two years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, there were still several hundred aged Boys in Blue in the procession. This year’s event had special resonance—the United States had entered the Great War earlier the previous month and tension was high. Mayor Mitchel was in Union Square to launch the USS Recruit, a scaled-down, wooden replica of a U.S. battleship built, as its names suggests, to spur enlistment in the American armed forces. The Recruit remained in Union Square for almost three years and proved a big success. Nearly 25,000 men joined the Navy there. The Navy generously shared the facility with the Army and Marine Corps. The public could purchase Liberty Bonds at the site. There was fun to be had too. Sports and entertainment were a regular features aboard the USS Recruit.

New York Mayor Mitchel and His Family at the USS Recruit's Christening

Mayor Mitchel had called for the construction of the Recruit just over a month earlier, on 27 April. Everyone understood the importance of expanding the Navy. Germany and Great Britain had spent much of the past two decades building their naval forces. Playing catch-up, President Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet on an a 14-month around-the-world journey in December 1907. Still, the U.S. Navy was a fraction of the Europeans’. The Navy Department in Washington had established New York City’s quota at 2000 sailors, a number that Mitchel was determined to meet. The task of building the Recruit fell to the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense, who hired the George A. Fuller Company, whose work included the Flatiron Building just north of Union Square, to construct the 200’ x 40’ ship modeled to resemble the USS Maine. Construction expenses were $10,000, just under $200,000 in today’s dollars, and the funds were raised through private subscription.

View from the Bow, USS Recruit

Civic and military dignitaries watched the mayor’s wife, Olive Child Mitchel, christen the Recruit with a bottle of champagne, after which her husband turned the ship over to the Navy. The city’s flag came down and the pennant representing Admiral Nathaniel Riley Usher rose in its place. Navy and Marine officers wasted no time getting down to business. The Recruit was outfitted with office space, medical facilities for physicals, electricity, running water, and even living quarters for physicians. It was aboard the USS Recruit in June 1917 that Lieutenant John Philip Sousa made his first public appearance after enlisting in the Navy days earlier; the 63-year-old composer was leading his Marine Band again for the first time since leaving the Corps in 1892. The following month there was a vaudeville show with Broadway stars, followed a week later by an appearance by soprano Mabel Garrison of the Metropolitan Opera. Irish heavyweight Jim Coffey oversaw a boxing tournament in May 1918. Adding to the international flavor, a contingent of ANZACS from Australia attended the pugilistic matches to get to know their new allies and build camaraderie.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels Addresses a Crowd from the Recruit

Of course none of this got in the way of serious business. The recruiting, charity, and bond drives continued. On 10 March 1918 Governor Whitman’s wife set forth three carrier pigeons to First Lady Edith Wilson back in Washington in a publicity move for a Women’s Overseas Hospitals U.S.A fundraiser. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels came aboard the following week, just as the spring fighting season was about to commence in France. The National League for Woman’s Service sent its Camouflage Corps in July 1918 to paint the ship various shades of white, black, green, blue, and pink. This camouflage demonstration aligned neatly with the Recruit’s mission to instruct New Yorkers on what the Navy did and how it operated. To this end there were “wash days” and demonstrations of machine gun and artillery maneuvers, all while the recruiting was going on. Union Square had long been a meeting place for radicals and agitators. Ironically while sailors, solders, and Marines were working aboard the Recruit, socialists, anarchists, and suffragists were pamphleteering against the war in the same park.

Crew and Mascots

The Armistice came in November 1918, but the Recruit continued its work for another 16 months with its usual mix of work and public diplomacy. A troupe performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera “H.M.S. Pinafore” in summer 1919. On 10 September the Navy flew a “free balloon” over New York City for the first time, the craft leaving the Rockaway Naval Air Station and settling over Union Square while dropping recruiting leaflets along the way. In early 1920 officials decided to decommission the Recruit. The idea was to send the ship to Luna Park, the amusement center in Coney Island. For reasons that are still unclear that did not come to pass. Presumably Luna officials decided that visitors did not want to be reminded of the war while relaxing at the amusement park. Americans in 1920 wanted nothing more than a return to normalcy. The ship’s fate came rather anticlimactically, and sadly little or nothing remains of the USS Recruit today. On 16 March 1920, 80 sailors stood at attention while the Recruit band played its last rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The American flag and commanding officer’s standard came down from the masthead for the final time, and construction workers quickly began disassembling the vessel.

Keith Muchowski is a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, New York. He blogs at

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Whoops—There Might Be a War Coming! The Prewar Rush to Fill the Ranks

The Kaiser Reviews His Troops on the Eve of War

By early to mid-1913 the Balkan situation and a growing sense of defensiveness by European leaders over the cascading series of disagreements and crises seem to have led to an unstated acceptance of the possibility of imminent war. All the major land powers concluded they needed more bodies in uniform. In their own fashions they initiated legislative measures to accomplish this.

In March, Russia began this cycle with the unveiling of a five-year "Great Program" of expansion before the Imperial Council by the military leadership. This naturally quickly got the attention of the members of the Triple Alliance and encouraged subsequent responses from them. Being Imperial Russia, though, the process there took the longest to work through and was not fully approved until June 1914. Nevertheless, its implementation added two full corps to the army and substantial increases and modernization in artillery.

In May, with the backing of President Raymond Poincaré, a controversial bill known as the "Three Year Law" was introduced. It was intended to allow France to match the size of the German Army on mobilization and (this was not so publicized at the time) to make it possible for France to launch the offensive operations contemplated under the latest war plan. An immediate boost was provided by calling up two new classes simultaneously, combined with an extension to three years active service for those already in uniform (the classes of 1910 and 1911). The bill was passed in August after an appeal to the legislature by General Joffre.

The Kaiser and his generals were now looking at the two-front war they had long planned for. A shift in national priorities was in order. Immediately after gaining approval for a naval bill (something less that Admiral Tirpitz had urged), an effort was mounted to increase the strength of the army. Like the French effort it was a political "hot potato," but for another reason. The expenses of building the fleet had made the Reichstag resistant to cost increases that could increase tax burdens. After much sparring, a compromise was reached on 30 June. In October the final measure was approved, which added 136,000 enlisted men and included many reorganizing measures regarding the army, reservists, and home guard, which would facilitate the mobilization in 1914. By one rough estimate, it increased the army of 1914 by one-sixth.

During the Balkan wars the Dual Monarchy had passed a series of emergency military measures, but the overall situation of declining political stability further alarmed the leadership, both military and political. The war ministry reported in August 1913 that increases in manpower and artillery were needed due to recent technical innovations and a diplomatic situation shifting against the Monarchy's interests. Changes were approved by October 1913 with the support of one-time anti-militarist Hungarian leader István Tisza. These included credits for war materials and for expanding the intake of conscripts to allow for a larger force on mobilization. 

Sources: Pierre Miguel's writings on French politics, David Hermans on the arming of Europe, and the WWW-Virtual Library

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great War's 101 Defining Events: Numbers 31–40


(click on image to enlarge)

This series will run every Friday on Roads to the Great War through its completion.

Remembering a Veteran: From Doughboy to Army Commander, William Hood Simpson

West Point Cadet, Class of 1909
While often overlooked in the history of the European Theater of Operations during the Second World War, William H. Simpson, commander of the U.S. Ninth Army, proved to be one of the most effective American generals of World War II. Calm, modest, and utterly dependable, Simpson led the Ninth Army through some of the war’s bloodiest fighting. In a testament to Simpson’s abilities, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his book, Crusade in Europe, stated, “If Simpson ever made a mistake as an army commander, it never came to my attention.”

William Hood Simpson was born on 19 May 1888 near Weatherford, Texas. In 1905 he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Upon graduating in 1909, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry and was assigned to the 6th Infantry. From 1910 to 1912, Simpson served with his regiment in the Philippines, fighting against rebellious Moros. He later took part in the Punitive Expedition of 1916.

One month after the U.S. declared war against Germany in April 1917, Simpson was promoted to captain and became the aide-de-camp to MG George Bell, Jr. In July 1917, Bell assumed command of the 33d Division, an Illinois National Guard unit. Simpson was later named the 33rd's operations officer, which provided him invaluable experience in upper-level staff procedures. The division saw action alongside the Australian corps in the Somme sector, most notably in the Meuse-Argonne, and at war's end in the St. Mihiel sector.   

Lt. Col. Simpson with 33rd Division Patch

In America's greatest battle of the First World War the 33rd Division was one of the most successful American formations.  In the opening of the attack it neatly captured the village of Forges on the opening  of the battle, thus securing the right flank of Pershing's First Army.  Later, in  October 1918, it became the first American unit to force a crossing of the Meuse, beginning the push to the strategic Meuse Heights.  

Simpson earned a Silver Star and a Distinguished Service Medal. He later served as the division’s chief of staff from November 1918 until he returned to the U.S. in June 1919 to become chief of staff of the 6th Division. Simpson reverted to his permanent rank of captain on 20 June 1920 but was promoted to major the following day.

General Simpson in 1959

Continue reading about his distinguished service in WWII at:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

100 Years Ago: The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo Winds Down

Tenth Battle of the Isonzo
12 May–8 June 1917

By 1917 Italy had agreed to coordinate its operations with its allies. Spring of that year was to be the occasion of a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front to be led by French general Robert Nivelle. Italy, therefore, also had to plan for a decisive breakthrough in its only feasible area for offensive operations, the Isonzo. The usual priority, expansion of the Gorizia corridor for a further push to Trieste, was this time turned into a diversionary part of a broader attack. So the initial attack was on the Carso Plateau, but in the overall scheme, it was to be a diversion.  Serious fighting, though, would ensue toward the end of the Tenth Battle as Austrian forces were ground down.

Italian Trench During the Battle (Possibly Carso Plateau)

For mysterious reasons, however, in the spring of 1917 Comando Supremo seemed bent on capturing as many mountains as possible. Moving from north to south, they engaged in an indecisive war of mines for control of Mte Krn's peak east of Caporetto. The largest assault (sound in concept but weak in execution) on the Tolmino bridgehead began on 15 May and failed. Mte Kuk and Mte Vodice near Plava were successfully captured, but Mte Santo across the river from Mte Sabatino was not, at first.

Hills Around Gorizia from the Austro-Hungarian Position

As the main battles in the north staggered to conclusion with Mte Santo finally secured by General Capello's Second Army, Third Army was ordered to attack again on the Carso. After some initial progress, they reached the outskirts of Mte Hermada in the last days of May but eventually were halted and pushed back by stiff Austrian counterattacks on 6–8 June  as reinforcements arrived. Elements of the Catanzaro Brigade refused to advance in a last futile attack on Mte Hermada and were subsequently formally decimated as punishment in July. After taking 157,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured), it was time for General Cadorna to adjourn the bloodletting.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory

by Martin Marix Evans
Pen and Sword, 2005

Stretcher Bearers Crossing the Inundated Battlefield

Passchendaele (also Third Ypres, July–November 1917) was and remains a controversial battle, with participants and historians feuding over its strategy and outcome over the past century. Martin Evans retells the story, ultimately arguing for Passchendaele playing a positive role in helping the Allied cause to eventual victory.

As a Pen and Sword publication, Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory focuses entirely on the battle. Readers seeking contemporary geopolitical context, social history, or diplomatic analysis should look elsewhere. Instead Evans offers a meticulous examination of military events, including a detailed probe of geography (including the soil conditions, which proved horrendous), order of battle, and events on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Evans offers a good account of disputes among British commanders, notably the divide between campaign organizer General  Sir Douglas Haig and operational leader General Hubert Gough. The latter famously argued for caution and slower timetables at key moments (61). The campaign's bogging down depressed Gough badly but left Haig energetic and demanding (139–140, for example).

Evans makes excellent use of primary sources, like this vivid depiction by 2d Lt. D.G. Browne of the Allied bombardment's effects :

The [German] front line was not merely obliterated: it had been scorched and pulverized as if by an earthquake, stamped flat and heaved up again, caught as it fell and blown all ways; and when the four minutes' blast of destruction moved on, was left dissolved in its elements, heaped in fantastic mounds of mud, or excavated into crumbling pits already half full of water. There cannot have been a live man left in it. At our point of crossing there was nothing to be seen which remotely resembled a trench; before us yawned a deep muddy gulf, out of whose slimy sides obtruded fragments of splintered timber, broken slabs of concrete, and several human legs clothed in German half-boots…(43)

Or this scene of classic horror:

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning…And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me…(76)

The book is profusely illustrated by period photographs. Some are quite striking, like the ruined tank (44) or the classic Menin Road shot (107). Was Passchendaele an Allied victory? Evans carefully makes the case for yes, largely by hedging his claims and identifying enormous Allied challenges ("If, then, this was a victory…In the long run…it was not without value" [249]). First he shows that the terrain was terrible for both infantry and machine and that summer 1917 saw unusually bad weather, worsening the scene still further, leaving the ground soupy and nearly impassable (62, 156). Second, Evans reminds us that it saw the use of many technologies which were experimental or in early days at the time, even though most became wartime staples by 1918, such as radio (7).

Most important of these technologies was the tank, which was still in early trials, and often malfunctioned badly around Ypres. Evans offers many rich accounts of tanks bogged down in confusion, mud, or mechanical failure, along with fascinating details, like soldiers laying down long tapes for tank drivers to follow (38), especially when drivers couldn't see well enough to avoid going off-road (111). Tanks did score some successes, but were sometimes misused on inappropriate terrain (62–67; 80; great anecdote 69–70) or in numbers too small to be effective.

One captain notes this sad view of the new technology during the course of the campaign:

Any plan for using [tanks] as fighting weapons appears to have been abandoned. In an endeavor to find a job for tanks, my two were being sent forward to be used experimentally as tractors for hauling guns and supply sledges…(123)

Third, new tactics were beginning to surface at Passchendaele. The massed charges of 1914 were gone, and in their place practices emerged such as focusing machine gun fire against strongpoints (79). Creeping barrages were improving (106). The Germans were also developing new tactics in response to Allied pressure, like lightly manning a front line as a "forefield" from which survivors of an attack could easily retreat to enable an artillery response (134).

Australians Wearing Box Respirators, Ypres, 1917

Fourth, the Allied offensive around Ypres drew down German resources strategically. Ludendorff sometimes viewed the Allied attack as hurting his ability to exert force elsewhere, as in the Italian theater (130), and found British persistence to be depressing (148). Arguably this contributed positively to the cause, as other Allied offensives failed badly during this time, Nivelle's and Kerensky's in particular. And yet the Allies failed to effect a breakthrough, despite gaining some ground, and they suffered horrible casualties

Evan's Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory is therefore useful but does suffer from some problems. It lacks any footnotes, and instead asks readers to write in for sources (ix)! Furthermore, the maps—ah, how frustrating they turned out to be. On the one hand I'm delighted to see so many of them, around 20, in a short book. Unfortunately nearly all are period maps, lovingly reproduced, but not always helpful. Some of the originals were clearly huge, and suffer too much data compression by being crammed onto a half page (the two on 143 might be the worst examples). Several original sketch maps do serve well enough (74), but others are more useful as glimpses into commanders' thinking, and less as aids to the reader.

As for Evans's conclusion, it feels persuasive to me, especially in the larger geopolitical context, and given the Allied learning curve with new technology and tactics. Recommended for any student of the Western Front.

Bryan Alexander

Monday, June 12, 2017

Knights of Columbus Service in the Great War, Part II

A  "Casey" at the Front

By  Joseph Pronechen


To run the huts, Knights of Columbus workers, known as secretaries, began arriving in France from the United States in March 1918. These men did not qualify for military service but still wanted to help as much as they could. Their uniforms were like the U.S. Army’s but with “KC” on their shoulder badge and buttons. Naturally, secretaries quickly got the nickname “Casey.”

One such Casey was Frank Large, later grand knight of Palos Council 35 in Bristol, CT. His poor vision prevented him from enlisting, but he served as a secretary and chaplain’s assistant at southern U.S. camps. His uniform and several items from his work are displayed in the museum exhibit.

The Caseys dispensed items such as candy, gum, cigarettes, playing cards, sewing kits, razors, postcards, and rosaries. The KC secretaries sometimes even went to the front lines and trenches to hand out items to soldiers. They also operated large mobile food trucks known as rolling kitchens — a Knights invention — to bring the men hot coffee, cocoa, and other warm food.

The secretaries even provided tremendous quantities of sports gear and equipment, including baseball bats and gloves emblazoned with the order’s emblem. During their first month overseas, 14,772 baseballs, 2,286 sets of boxing gloves, and 1,687 footballs were doled out. Doughboys played 5,000 games of baseball every day wearing uniforms also supplied by the Knights.

No doubt some got pointers from Hall of Fame infielder Johnny Evers, who played on the Boston Braves 1914 World Series winning team and was the league’s MVP. A member of Troy (NY) Council 176, Evers joined the Caseys and served overseas from July to December 1918.

Caseys also helped the wounded in the field and hospitals, writing letters for men unable to do so themselves. One KC secretary, Frank Larkin, a past grand knight of Mystical Rose Council 268 in New York, NY, remembered a badly wounded young soldier at a hospital in Neuilly, France, calling out to him: “Have you a minute to spare, Casey?” The young man first wanted to write a letter but then said, “Casey, get a priest.” He had a smile on his face as a chaplain gave him the last rites.

Since more than a third of the soldiers were Catholic, chaplains were there to serve the men—and serve with them. Among the first five K of C chaplains to arrive in France, for example, was 1st Lt. Chaplain John B. DeValles. Known as the Angel of the Trenches, Father DeValles never recovered from exposure to mustard gas while ministering on the front lines. He died shortly after the war, in 1920. His tunic, helmet, Distinguished Service Cross, Portuguese Military Order of Christ, and French Croix de Guerre medals are on display in the K of C Museum exhibit.

The exhibit includes numerous other World War I artifacts as well, including a 13th-century altar stone from Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, which was bombed during the war; uniforms, helmets and hats from service members; a rosary and pocket shrine; the Catholic Prayer Book for the Army and Navy; and an autographed manuscript of “The Peacemaker” by famous poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer, a Knight from New York who died in the war.

The exhibit even includes a gallery simulating a trench and trench warfare, complete with lighting and special sound effects. 

Men of the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division Visiting a Mobile Kitchen at Juvigny, France


By the end of the war in November 1918, more than 116,000 American men and some 60,000 Canadians had died in the conflict. Among them were 1,500 members of the Knights of Columbus from the United States and approximately 120 Knights from Canada. Both the first and the last U.S. officers to die in the war were Knights.

“The first name on the casualty list of the American army in France is that of Dr. William T. Fitzsimmons of Kansas City, killed in a German air raid on our hospitals,” wrote former President Theodore Roosevelt in the fallen doctor’s hometown paper. “To the mother he leaves, the personal grief must in some degree be relieved by the pride in the fine and gallant life which has been crowned by the great sacrifice. We, his fellow countrymen, share this pride and sympathize with this sorrow.”

Lt. Fitzsimmons was a member of Kansas City Council 527. In 1914, before the United States entered the war, he had served as a volunteer with the Red Cross in France for four months, returned home, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Medical Officers Reserve Corps. When the AEF was formed, he immediately volunteered and was with the first five physicians heading overseas in June 1917.

Fitzsimmons was waiting to help the wounded at Base Hospital 5 in Pas-de-Calais, France, on the afternoon of 4 September, when he was killed by a bomb from a German plane. His memory wasn’t forgotten, nor was that of 1st Lt. Chaplain William F. Davitt, the last U.S. officer and chaplain to be killed in the war. A member of Holyoke (MA) Council 90, Father Davitt volunteered as a K of C chaplain and served with the 125th Infantry. He was killed by one of the last shells fired in the war, just over an hour before the ceasefire at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

The priest had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for organizing and leading the rescue of 40 wounded soldiers cut off from the troops. One soldier wrote that Father Davitt’s “DSC” should stand for “Died in the Service of Christ!” 

A "Casey" Assists a Wounded Doughboy in the Argonne Forest

Even though the war ended on 11 November 1918, a number of the recreation centers remained in full swing. Serving troops at a hut in Koblenz, Germany, Knights gave a new meaning to the nickname “Doughboys,” producing more than 40,000 doughnuts a day in their large kitchen.

Overall, about 1,100 men and women served overseas to run nearly 150 K of C huts. Even more worked in a comparable number of huts stateside.

The war relief effort during World War I made such an impression that between 1917 and 1923, approximately 400,000 men joined the Knights, doubling the prewar membership. Through its war relief efforts, both on the battlefield and behind the lines, the Knights of Columbus earned international esteem and recognition. And it was through this work that the Knights brought the message of charity, care, and Christ to countless servicemen.

This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Columbia magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven, CT. Thanks to Richard VandenBrul for making this possible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Knights of Columbus Service in the Great War, Part I

By  Joseph Pronechen

A century ago, as World War I raged in Europe, the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. When Americans joined the war effort and soldiers sailed overseas, the whole country was soon singing “Over There,” the hit song by George M. Cohan.

Among the U.S. servicemen shipping over to Europe were some 100,000 members of the Knights of Columbus, including hundreds of clergy and war relief workers. Many more Knights would assist in war relief in the states, keeping up morale at military camps and raising funds. Knights from Canada already had been fighting in the trenches for more than two years. World War I officially began on 28 July 1914, and Canada entered the war the following week, together with the United Kingdom.

To mark the centenary of the U.S. involvement in the war, a new major exhibit is now on display at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, CT, and will be open through 30 December 2018. The title of the exhibit, “World War I: Beyond the Front Lines,” speaks to soldiers’ lives during the long months of war, including how the Knights provided them major support.

The Order’s work had such an impact that Gen. John Joseph Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), stated that “of all the organizations that took part in the winning of the war, with the exception of the military itself, there was none so efficiently and ably administered as the Knights of Columbus.”


Soldiers Writing Letters at the Knights of Columbus Hut, Camp Gordon, GA

On 14 April eight days after the United States entered the war, the K of C board of directors passed a resolution, which was sent to President Woodrow Wilson. It assured the president that “the crisis confronting the nation hereby reaffirms the patriotic devotion of 400,000 members of this Order in this country to the Republic and its laws and pledges their unconditional support to the President and Congress.”

Soldiers needed a respite from the war; they needed Mass and the sacraments. The Knights of Columbus came to the rescue, providing a major service with recreation centers, which became known as huts. This initiative was inspired by 15 such centers that the Order had established the previous year for National Guardsmen serving along the Mexican border. The Knights’ Committee on War Activities coordinated fundraisers and war relief efforts, and the Order soon financed huts both in the United States and around Europe. When the first goal of $1 million was raised in record time from the stateside councils, the goal was upped to $3 million. Catholics and non-Catholics alike donated, and the goal was raised again to $12 million. The final amount exceeded $14 million—at a time when bread was 7 cents a pound.

Similar efforts were already underway in Canada for war relief efforts. Canadian Knights at first helped by providing chaplains with portable altars and giving soldiers rosaries, medals, and prayer books, as well as entertainment. Because recreation huts in England were run by non-Catholics, Catholic chaplains from Canada eventually appealed for K of C help to establish huts for the Canadian camps in England and France.

In May 1917, plans to erect Catholic huts for Canadian soldiers were set in motion thanks to the efforts of Knights such as Major Rev. John J. O’Gorman, an Ottawa-based priest who spearheaded the Catholic Army Huts program in Canada. With the support of K of C state councils and the Canadian hierarchy, a series of fund drives were launched that raised more than $1.2 million for some 30 Canadian huts in France and 20 in England, all of which were run by Catholic chaplains.

Meanwhile, dozens of huts were built on or near U.S. military bases in the United States and Europe, offering soldiers an escape from the war. The spaces were versatile, and even the largest were designed to make the soldiers feel like they were at home, with tall windows and bright colors.

The K of C hut slogan was “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” No soldier or sailor had to pay a cent for anything the Knights gave them, nor would any free will offering on their part be accepted by the secretaries who ran the huts. They gave everything free to whoever walked in, with no questions about religion, race, or rank. The uniform was all that mattered.

In the huts, soldiers had the opportunity to attend Mass, go to confession, hear a music recital, see vaudeville entertainment, or watch a movie. They could attend a dance, sit ringside at popular boxing competitions, write letters home (the Knights provided 1,800 tons of stationary), or read a book from the library.

The Exhibit at the New Haven Museum

The exhibit at the K of C Museum has a wonderful example of a typical hut, down to the player piano, around which soldiers would sing wartime favorites like “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”

They would also join in the chorus of the Knights’ official hut song, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free!”—“Ev’rybody welcome, ev’rything free. That is the slogan of the K of C. For all the boys here, and ‘Over There,’ The K of C is doing its share.” By the summer of 1918, when the National Catholic War Council was created to coordinate Catholic works related to the U.S. war effort, the Knights of Columbus continued in its role as the Catholic agency providing recreational activities.

This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Columbia magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven, Conn. Thanks to Richard VandenBrul for making this possible.