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 23, 2018

The Great Explosion of Lille

Click on Image to Enlarge

On 11 January 1916, at 3:30 a.m., Lille was rocked by a violent explosion that could be heard as far away as Holland. A bright yellow flash lit up the sky—the 18 Ponts munitions depot had just exploded. The German Army had been using an old fortified outwork, comprising 18 arches (the source of its French name), to store large quantities of explosives and munitions. Undoubtedly accidental, the explosion left a crater 150 metres wide and 30 metres deep on one side of boulevard de Belfort. Twenty-one factories and 738 houses were brought down in the Moulins district of the city. One hundred and four civilians died, 30 Germans and nearly 400 people were wounded, including 116 severely.

This catastrophe, commemorated by the  monument on rue de Maubeuge shown above, was one of the saddest episodes of the "terrible years" of the German occupation which ran from October 1914 to October 1918. Throughout those 210 long weeks martial law ruled the city of Lille, cutting it off from the rest of the country. Families could obtain no news of their fathers and sons who were engaged in the fighting or held as prisoners of war. Life was very hard; the occupiers pillaged the factories and confiscated anything of use that they could find in people's houses, such as bicycles, horses, metal, and even mattresses and pillows.

Damage on a Nearby Street in Lille

In addition to the material privations, 10,000 citizens of Lille, mostly young women, were "deported" from the city in April 1916 and sent to work in the farms of Aisne and Ardennes. In a city where only 35,000 inhabitants out of 150,000 could provide for themselves, food soon became an acute problem. Toward the end of the occupation civilian rations were down to 300 grams of coarse wholemeal bread and 60 grams of bacon a fortnight. During the terrible years 22,911 deaths were registered for only 8,594 births. But the people of Lille did not give in to the hostage-taking, imprisonments, and deportations—many heroes gave their lives to further the cause of the resistance.

Source: Remembrance Trails — Northern France

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Why France Stayed the Course at Salonika

A Parisian in Salonika
France stuck steadfastly to a Balkan campaign while half her coalfields and the iron ore of Briey and Longwy had fallen into the clutches of Germany... France obviously had certain territorial designs in
the eastern Mediterranean—in the first instance this involved the possession of Syria and Cilicia and included, at least in the first half of the war, Palestine.

But the possession of Syria merely reflected a deeply held conviction that France's future was inextricably bound up with her standing in the Near East. It masked, therefore, a much broader aim, to carve out as wide a sphere of influence as possible in the whole area. Thus, while campaigns on the Western Front might help France win the war, those in the east would play as important a role in aiding her to win the peace. In a strategic sense, then, the Salonika expedition was a lever for French ambitions in a wide area. More immediately, however, it was used as the vehicle by which France would acquire direct economic and hence political influence in the area closely affected by the presence of her army.

All of these factors made it most unlikely that France and England would be able to cooperate fully in the Salonika venture, especially when there were few in England who even favored the continuation of the campaign. France's underlying strategic motivation inevitably cut across British interests in the Mediterranean balance of power, while her commercial and political aspirations in Greece and Macedonia ran counter to British policy, which in this part of the world at least, was more concerned with winning the war as soon as possible.

Professor D.J. Dutton, University of Liverpool
"The Balkan Campaign and French War Aims in the Great War"

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Commencement of Operation MICHAEL Marks the End of Trench Warfare

German Soldiers Infiltrating a British Position, Spring 1918 (AWM)

31 October 1914 was the day the war of movement on the Western Front stopped. Afterward, there would be no big breakthroughs until 1918, and 41 months of stagnant, but bloody, trench warfare would ensue. By mid-day on 31 October 1914 there were no more flanks, just one last gap in the entire line from the Swiss border to the English Channel where a breakthrough seemed possible. It was at a place five miles east of Ypres on the grounds of Gheluvelt Chateau, just north of the Menin Road. 

Shortly before noon, the line of the British 1st Division was broken at Gheluvelt. If at that moment German reinforcements available close at hand could thrust through the gap and spread out fanwise, they could have rolled up the defenders on either flank in their rear and simply broken the cohesion of the British in Flanders to pieces. The impulse of retreat began to seize the British troops. Already men and guns were streaming back toward Ypres. The Germans quickly assembled 13 battalions for a final follow-through attack. 

General Charles FitzClarence, commanding the British Army 1st Brigade, was nearby and saw the declining situation. At Polygon Wood north of Gheluvelt, he got hold of the 2nd Worcestershires, part of the reserve of the 2nd Division on the north, and ordered them to counterattack immediately. This movement had scarcely begun when a shell burst in Hooge Chateau, where the staff of both divisions had assembled for a conference, practically destroying them. 

Plugging the Last Gap at Gheluvelt
31 October 1918

But the Worcestershires—a tiny force of eight officers and 360 men—swept all before them nonetheless. They fell upon their adversaries, who were mostly Bavarians, and drove them back in confusion from the chateau grounds. The line was reestablished. The Western Front of the Great War was effectively completed. General FitzClarence, sadly, did not have much longer to live. He died on 11 November 1914 in fighting along the Menin Road, where many more would fall in the remaining four years of war. 

The years of trench warfare gave the general staffs time to study the problem of breaking the trench lines and conduct experiments—almost all of which failed—to accomplish this. By 1918, however, the combatants all had solutions they thought would do the trick, some combination of infiltration tactics, better artillery registration, shorter and more intense barrages of high explosive and gas, tanks, better coordination of infantry, engineers, artillery, and logistical support, etc. 

The first general to apply his new "package" of trench-busting techniques was German Quartermaster General Erich von Ludendorff. He planned to defeat the British Army north of Paris and then force the French to seek terms. His staff was instructed to develop a series of offensives targeting either the British directly or the French to fix them in place, reluctant to send reinforcement to their Allies. There were five major attacks that came to be called the "Ludendorff Offensives"—one each month from March to July–—and one for August that was canceled when the French and Americans launched the first Allied counteroffensive of the year. 

The Man of the Hour
Col. Bruchmüller
The first, and most memorable, German operation of 1918, Operation MICHAEL, was launched in the Somme sector on 21 March. We will be covering the Ludendorff Offensives in all the publications of in the ensuing months, but the initial success of MICHAEL stunned the world, not to say the British Army. 

In Ludendorff's package of solutions, the key was artillery. Col. Georg Bruchmüller, an obscure officer retired for nervous problems in 1913 but recalled to duty for the war, developed German artillery techniques to a fine art by the time of the Ludendorff Spring Offensives of 1918. The essence of the Bruchmüller artillery preparation was a carefully orchestrated, short but intense bombardment designed to isolate, demoralize, and disorganize enemy defenders. 

The effect was increased by surprise. At the start of the German offensive on 21 March 1918, Bruchmüller began his bombardment with ten minutes of gas shells to force the British to mask, followed by four hours and 25 minutes of mixed gas and high explosives. The preparatory fires shifted back and forth so that the British did not know when the artillery was actually lifting for the infantry advance. Meanwhile, automatic rifle teams moved as close as possible to the British positions during the bombardment. When the Germans did advance, they moved behind a rolling barrage, further enhanced by intense fog. The combination of surprise, brevity, intensity, and carefully selected targets was unique. The power of this initial assault and exploitation allowed a 40-mile penetration and the capture of 1,200 sq. miles of territory. However, the Allies weren't beaten—the British Army didn't break and the French provided sufficient reinforcements—and the German push lost its moment. Ludendorff's solution was to apply his solution to other areas of the Western Front and hope for better results 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Last Battle...
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Last Battle: Victory, Defeat, and the End of World War I

by Peter Hart
Oxford University Press, 2018

Canadian Wounded, Battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918

If you're familiar with any of Peter Hart's previous books you'll have an idea of what to expect in this one: solid historical information punctuated by relevant quotations from the soldiers who were there. The author is oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London and has access to large archives of original testimonies from those who fought in the Great War. He has put these materials to impressive use in previous publications such as The Great War, The Somme, and Gallipoli. His latest book, The Last Battle: Victory, Defeat, and the End of World War I, now does a similar job by describing and enlivening the final battles of 1918.

Don't be misled by the book's singular title word "battle". There were several battles in the closing months of the war and Hart devotes ample space to them. Described at length are the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the Battle of Canal du Nord, the Fifth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Courtrai. Later chapters cover the Battles of St Quentin Canal and Beaurevoir, plus the Battles of the Selle and Sambre. Another chapter focuses on the Americans on the Meuse. Two final chapters deal with the "Day of Days," 11 November 1918, and the aftermath of the war. The author does admit that his "emphasis as a British historian is on the British Army with an appreciative reflection on the massive contributions of victory made by the French, American and Belgian forces" (p. x). Descriptions of some of the fighting also reveal considerable admiration for the combat skills of the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.

Many of us are more familiar with the opening moves of the war and the tragedies of Gallipoli, the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele than we are with the endgame of the conflict. I'm one of these people and am thankful for this book—it enabled me to see more completely the total movement and costs of the war. For example, the Germans lost over 40,000 officers and 1,181,577 other ranks between the launching of their spring offensives on 21 March and 1 October 1918. (p. 243)

Advancing New Zealanders Passing Through Bapaume, 14 September 1918

These and other statistics are made all the more hard-hitting by the numerous interspersed quotations from soldiers involved in the conflict. These first-person accounts give us considerable empathy for the attitudes and feelings of those who fought in the last days, those who were there at the end—and especially for those who didn't quite make it. Up to the end (and even beyond) stray shells and other quirks of fortune obliterated the lives of many who were looking forward to peace, going home, and putting their civilian clothes back on. Much is made of other concerns looming behind the fighting in these last months. I found the analysis of President Wilson's Fourteen Points and the hope they inspired in the Germans (but not the Allies) to be interesting. The author sees them thus:

The Fourteen Points were a somewhat idealistic attempt to set a course for global harmony between nations. Given the often pernicious nature of America's relationship with Central American countries, there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy about this assumed position of moral superiority. (p. 247)

Politics and personalities involved in the cease-fire agreements were complex and often cantankerous. Trust was in short supply. Typical of British idiom and attitude was General Henry Rawlinson's memo, which opened with the observation that "The Bosche [sp.] is really squealing now, but I am not sure that he will not wiggle out of the hole we have got him into, unless we Allies, and especially the Americans and ourselves, keep a stiff upper lip". (p. 252) Relationships between leading figures, military and civilian, were touchy and even petty, and as Hart states, "All this political wrangling leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth when one considers that men were being maimed and dying in huge numbers with every day that passed. By this time, most soldiers and civilians wanted as early an end to the war as possible." (p.263)

The book's final chapter, "Aftermath", is in some ways the most interesting and moving. Other studies have described the soldier's experience once the war ended, and in many ways it was the same whether the soldier was British, American, or French. The big question—What are we going to do now? (p. 355) The author brings this into perspective in several ways. Many did not leave the army as soon as they wanted to and were to become part of the occupation forces, where a variety of experiences, good and bad, awaited them. Others were assigned to help clean up the battlefields, a job that "was both gruesome and dangerous at times." (p. 378) As one British corporal wrote: We were then employed on a task which I thought was disgusting. I had to take working parties out to clear up all sorts of rubbish, dud bombs, dud shells, which were still killing men long after the war was over. The whole countryside was littered with lethal weapons which might go up at any time We lost one or two men through these shells…(p. 379)

Ironically, however, it didn't take long before the business of "battlefield tourism" began to flourish. Meanwhile, the British army began its colossal job of demobilizing over three million men, the process of which proved to involve far more administrative paperwork than enlistment had. And these new civilians, like so many of their French and American counterparts, were to find that their last battle was not fought in 1918. They now "had to fight to retain their self-respect in a society that did not seem to care one iota for their welfare. For some these would be the greatest battles of all." (p. 395)

Near the End: German Prisoners and American Wounded Being Evacuated

This is a rich and comprehensive book, one I can certainly recommend. If, like me, you have tended to study the earlier and middle parts of the Great War more than its tumultuous final moves, then Peter Hart's The Last Battle will give you a solid view of what happened as the war drew painfully to its end.

David F. Beer

Monday, March 19, 2018

100 Years Ago: Moscow Becomes Russia's Capital

In March 1918, as a matter of prudence and precaution, Lenin made the decision to move the seat of his government to Moscow.

November 1918: Lenin at Red Square, Moscow, on the First Anniversary of the Revolution

His new government, which came to power in a coup d'etat organized primarily by Leon Trotsky, was susceptible to the same sort of overthrow. Petrograd was a politically active city with lots of monarchists, anarchists, socialists, and angry liberals still roaming the street. Furthermore, its location was difficult to defend. Its location on the coast made it vulnerable to landing parties, and it was just 20 miles from Finland, where a civil war had broken out in January 1918. Germany sent troops there, and should the anti-Bolsheviks prevail there—which they eventually did—hostile troops would have only a short distance to travel to occupy the capital.

Military Rehearsal at Red Square (Reuters)

Today, there is speculation that St. Petersburg native Vladimir Putin dreams of moving Russia's capital back to his hometown. But in the 21st century, Moscow has become an even more concentrated center for Russia's economy, military, and resurgent religion.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ford's Model T at War

One of Henry Ford's Ambulances at the USAF National Museum

During World War I, the Allies used thousands of Model T cars and trucks because of their low cost and ease of repair. The ambulance version's light weight made it well suited for use on the muddy and shell-torn roads in forward combat areas. If stuck in a hole, a group of soldiers could lift one without much difficulty. By 1 November 1918, 4,362 Model T ambulances had been shipped overseas. 

The light wooden body was mounted on a standard Model T auto chassis. The 4-cylinder engine produced about 20 hp. There was no self-starter; the engine had to be cranked by hand. This vehicle was equipped with an early form of automatic transmission and could carry three litters or four seated patients and two more could sit with the driver. Canvas "pockets" covered the litter handles that stuck out beyond the tailgate. Many American field service and Red Cross volunteer drivers, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Bret Harte and cartoonist Walt Disney, drove Model T ambulances. 

Another Adaption from the Model T Was the Light Delivery Vehicle
Over 5,000 Were Delivered to the AEF
On Display at the National World War I Museum

"Hunka Tin," a poem written as a parody on Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din," appeared in the American Field Service Bulletin and was used in Ford dealers' advertising throughout the United States. The final stanza read: 

Yes, Tin, Tin, Tin.
You exasperating puzzle, Hunka Tin.
I've abused you and I've flayed you,
But by Henry Ford who made you,
You are better than a Packard, Hunka Tin. 

In addition to the specimens shown here, which is at the U.S. Air Force National Museum, you can also see an example at the  Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio of San Francisco. Disney drove a Model T ambulance in France just after the war ended.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Live and Let Live System

[Editors note 1. This is an article I ran across a few years ago. It's very informative, but seems to me that it assume that uniform anti-war, defeat-the-high-command, and solidarity with fellow proletariat of the enemy predominated in the front lines throughout the war.]

The General Staff issued orders and directives to its soldiers at a prodigious rate. Rather than revealing that soldiers were not performing their duties, this demonstrates the desire of the authorities to control the soldiers' behavior. It must be remembered that Britain’s army in the Great War was composed largely of the working classes from the most hierarchical and deferential industrial society in the world... 

Scottish Soldiers, Typical of the British Troops in the Early War

The General Staff and the political powers, who acted to continue the war and command the soldiers, felt the soldier must be considered as an agent. Following this, it can be seen that some soldiers rejected the war outright: M. Ward wrote in December 1915, that he did "not want to see any more fighting or hear any more shells coming over." This rejection has been described by Tony Ashworth in his analysis of how soldiers were able to control and radically alter their situation, reducing the danger within their surroundings. This was accomplished through the "live and let live" policy, described by Edmund Blunden as one of the "soundest elements in trench war." Live and let live was defined as a truce in which enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time. R.J.T. Evans (LC) in a letter dated November 1915 illustrates this when he wrote that whilst in a trench German soldiers called out, "you no shoot, we no shoot." Relieving troops moving into the front line were able to take on the trench and possible truce, and acquaint themselves with the potential hazards in the area. This is illustrated by A.J. Abrahams’s memoir which described such a manoeuvre, when soldiers would enquire about the attitude in the area by asking, "any shit about?"

This exchange of ideas was also enabled by the architecture of the trenches. The transverse structure of the trenches, which was designed to prevent enfilading fire along the whole length of the trench, also acted to group men together along a line. Usually these positions were held by a small group of soldiers from the same section performing a tour of duty. This distribution allowed the soldiers, to some extent, to avoid surveillance by the commanding officer, which facilitated the live and let live principle, as well as encouraging the communication between men of attitudes, actions, and principles.

Some junior officers may have also connived in this policy of sociability and of keeping aggression to a minimum. Live and let live was therefore a refusal of the values and outlook dictated by the military hierarchy and it alleviated the violence and danger in the landscape, altering the "space of death" within it.

From: "Archaeology on the Battlefields: An Ethnography of the Western Front"
Published in Assemblage 11 (2011): 1-14 

French Troops Just Trying to Have a Meal During a Gas Alert

[Editor's note 2. For my two cents worth, I think it might have been more related to practical matters and involved tacit understandings rather than communications between the troops. For instance, if the other side was bombarding your ration parties as your dinner was being brought up and you were going hungry as a result, the opposition was damn well not going to get fed either.]

Friday, March 16, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Private Louis Ziegra, Yankee Division, AEF

"One of the Bravest Men They Had Ever Seen"

Private Louis Ziegra After the War

By Terrence Finnegan
Excerpted From:  A Delicate Affair on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches

Private Louis Ziegra of the 26th Division, 102nd Infantry, battled single-handedly an entire 30-man German patrol on 15 April 1918. Here's an account of the action—

At the regimental line dividing the 101st Infantry and 102nd Infantry, two men dressed in American uniforms speaking perfect English arrived at a 102nd Infantry’s company PC at Marvoisin  purporting to be on a liaison mission from the 101st Infantry requiring sketches of the adjoining sector and the latest password. The officer at the PC declined to accede to the request, but his suspicions were not sufficiently aroused to hold the men. The men departed, passed a company runner, and proceeded north in the direction of the German lines. Something was in the works for that sector.

Later that night, a 30-man Zug (platoon) from  7 Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 258 (7/258), under command of Leutnant Frederich, conducted a patrol one kilometer into American lines near Xivray on the regimental sector line separating 102nd Infantry to the east and 101st Infantry to the west. Frederich’s Zug also included several Husaren [cavalrymen] that had just been sent to the front as infantry. 7/258 intercepted the Company H rations and mail wagon heading towards Marvoisin. After passing Xivray, the wagon was moving eastward, passing over a stone bridge across the Rupt de Mad. It was a still night with the wagon making the only noise. 

The Action Described Took Place Along the Blue Track

Three men were on the wagon, the driver, the acting company mess-sergeant (actually private) Louis “Louie” R. Ziegra, and a rifleman serving as the guide sitting inside the wagon. They were heading to the front lines to Company H. Private Harry Marvin was looking forward to seeing his best friend Louie as well as receiving rations and mail. As the wagon approached the bridge bullets flew killing both mules. Private Ziegra fired back, killing one of the Husaren with a shot to the head. Stosstruppen jumped on the wagon and grabbed the driver. The driver was hit over the head with a rifle and fell backward into the wagon. The guide in the back took a bullet to the wrist and fell to the floor. Both proceeded to play dead. Then the fight began. Private Ziegra was shot at close range with a Becker-Hollander small-calibre pistol. The bullet entered his chin, missed the jaw bone and exited near the right nostril. Despite the blood spurting from his head, Ziegra didn’t stop pummeling the German Stosstruppen that jumped him. Soon he was overpowered and taken away as a prisoner. Vizefeldwebel Ettighoffer remembered the American violently lashing out with his fists, flooring a German with each blow. Several assailants had bloody noses, a few broken teeth, and black eyes. With the struggle over, the Germans robbed the wagon of mail and rations, and proceeded back to their lines with Private Ziegra. 

Private Marvin: “They had to fight to carry him off and had there been four or five instead of 20 or 30 they never in this world would have taken him.” At the opportune moment both driver and guide sprang up and ran north into the Company H kitchen area where they described the fracas. A patrol quickly went out looking for Louie but found instead rubber waders, a sack of second-class mail, tins of corned beef, and an American and German helmet at a break point through the barbed wire. Iron crosses from the scuffle were awarded to nine Stosstruppen. Gefreiter Stollenwerk was promoted to Unteroffizier and the rest of the raiding party were given leave.

Ziegra's Fellow Soldiers of the 102nd Infantry
Five Days Later They Would Be Targeted in the Famous Raid on Seicheprey

Private Louie Ziegra became a legend among the Germans. He was a 25-year-old second-generation German-American whose father, Richard, bitterly opposed the German militarism of the time. Lieutenant Joseph P. Burke, an American officer captured that Saturday at Seicheprey, reported after returning from Germany in late 1918 that a German officer commented on Private Ziegra, stating that he was considered one of the bravest men they had ever seen. It was said that he had killed or knocked unconscious several of his captors while fighting with bare hands. It became necessary to knock him out with a rifle butt and carry him back to German lines. Not only did Ettighoffer write about the incident, but General der Artillerie von Gallwitz also mentioned Ziegra’s fighting spirit in his postwar memoirs: “An American of the 26th Division, captured at the southern front by Xivray had defended himself mightily and refused all testimony.”

Private Ziegra’s capture made the western village of Marvoisin off limits to all vehicles bringing rations supply. Two weeks later orders were generated stating that Marvoisin was to be abandoned during the evening hours. A stand-to position was established across the Rupt de Mad and along the “Q” trench. 

In his lifetime, Private Ziegra never received recognition for his valor that night. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds in the action. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Images of Australians on the Western Front

Most Australians deaths during World War I were on the Western Front, 45,000 out of about 60,000.  However, Gallipoli and the subsequent focus on Anzac Day for commemorative purposes, has led to something of understatement  of that nations contributions in the war's most important theater.  Interestingly, this is not so much the case for their ANZAC partners from New Zealand, whose triumphs at Messines in 1917 and at Le Quesnoy in war's last days are well-acknowledged.  For the Australians, however, even down-under historians—with the exception of Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson—seem to understate their work at the Somme and Passchendaele. 

It's harder to neglect the Aussies work in 1918, though.  In March and April, they plugged the gap at Villers-Bretteneaux,  played a critical role (with the Canadians) in the Battle of Amiens, and (with a little American help) broke the Hindenburg Line at the St. Quentin Canal.  One writer that did just to the Australian  Corps was its commander, the brilliant strategist and tactician, Lt. John Monash, who wrote an excellent memoir, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, available online at:

One of the best things about this work is that it is well mapped and highly illustrated.  Here is a selection of the photos all featuring Australians in action on the Western Front.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

WWI Atrocity Propaganda and Its Legacy

Report of the Committee Led by Viscount Bryce, 
Assessing "Alleged German Outrages", 1915

By Professor Jo Fox, British Library

Atrocity propaganda focused on the most violent acts committed by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, emphasising their barbarity and providing justification for the conflict. 

Victims shot, bayoneted to death, killed with knives, arms lopped off, torn off, or broken, legs broken, nose cut off, ears cut off, eyes put out, genital organs cut off, victims stoned, women violated and killed, breasts cut off, persons hanged, victims burnt alive, one child thrown to the pigs, victims clubbed to death with butt ends of rifles or sticks, victims impaled, victims whose skin was cut into strips.

Professor R.A. Reiss, a prominent forensic scientist commissioned by the Serbian prime minister to conduct an enquiry into war crimes, thus categorised the numerous violent acts against civilians perpetrated by the occupying Austro-Hungarian forces in Serbia in 1914. His account bore striking similarities to French and British publications of the same period, notably Le livre rouge des atrocités allemandes and the Bryce Report. In painstaking detail, such reports recorded the crimes of 1914, individual acts of violence against civilians, troops and prisoners of war; looting and pillage; the use of weapons "forbidden by the rules and conventions of war"; the destruction of ancient libraries and cathedrals, and of homes and villages; rape, mutilation, and torture. Vivid illustrations and first-hand testimonies accompanied each description of the "crimes without name", while Liège, Louvain, Dinant, Antwerp, Reims, Arras, and Senlis were transformed into "martyred towns", ravaged by an uncompromising, inhuman enemy whose victims ranged from children to the elderly, from men of God to the injured and helpless. Such images dominated the early propaganda of the Great War, serving as a potent reminder of the justification for war and a vindication of the sacrifice it demanded.

The German Changes Clothes But Always Remains
a German, Remember! Italian Poster

Atrocity propaganda varied, appearing in books, newspapers, pamphlets, sketches, posters, films, lantern slides, and cartoons, and on postcards, plates, cups, and medals. It operated on many levels. Official government reports presented "evidence" that German troops had contravened the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Eyewitness accounts from victims and perpetrators made for compelling and convincing reading, and, although methods of investigation often fell short of legal standards, the reports appeared to be based on irrefutable facts. That respected experts led these enquiries (Bryce, for example, having served as a British ambassador to the United States, member of the House of Lords, and jurist) further legitimised the allegations.

Postwar Stamps from a French Organization
Dedicated to Remembering German Crimes

While the reports tended to adopt an objective tone, salacious stories were extracted from testimonies to form the basis of sensational newspaper articles, exhibitions (such as that by Louis Raemaekers in London in 1915), or popular books. This created a dynamic, transformative and self-reinforcing propaganda environment. William Le Queux detailed the suffering of the ‘honest, pious inhabitants’ of Belgium, at the mercy of ‘one vast gang of Jack-the-Rippers… frothing with military Nietzschism’ and excited by ‘a primitive barbarism’. Although initially a response to the invasion of Belgium in 1914, atrocity stories drew - as Le Queux’s account suggests - on pre-existing anti-German sentiments. These sentiments were strengthened by wider official and unofficial publicity campaigns that pitted German Kultur against Christian civilization and morality, and created an interpretative framework for subsequent events. The ‘assassination’ of Edith Cavell, the sinking of the Lusitania, the declaration of unrestricted U-Boat warfare, Zeppelin raids, and the use of gas in the trenches all seemed to confirm the fundamental depravity of the German character and bolstered the hierarchy of enemies. Thus German atrocities were afforded a particular prominence, whereas the Turkish slaughter of Armenians passed almost unnoticed. The power of atrocity stories derived in part from their ability to stand either alone, as singular acts of barbarism and moral depravity, or as a series of pre-meditated collective behaviours that condemned a nation. These shocking stories allowed propagandists to justify the war, encourage men to enlist, raise funds for war loans schemes, and shake the United States from its neutrality. The impact of such propaganda was enduring, lasting well into 1918 and beyond.

Depiction of German War Aims, British 1918

The German response

Allegations of atrocities proved difficult to refute. Any attempt to do so attracted further publicity, and explanations offered by the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities seemed only to confirm their guilt. The ‘Manifesto of the 93’, signed by leading German scientists, scholars and artists, including fourteen Nobel Prize winners, refuted charges of war guilt and legitimised the retaliation of German soldiers against illegal franc-tireurs (irregular forces, ‘free-shooters’), asserting that German troops had acted within international law. German propaganda pointed to the hypocrisy of ‘perfidious Albion’ (Great Britain), whose brutal Empire had perpetrated countless atrocities against the suppressed peoples of Ireland, India, Egypt, and Africa, and pointed to Germany’s own record of scholarly endeavour and social welfare.

The German Foreign Ministry’s ‘White Book’ sought to exonerate German troops as the victims of an illegal and unrelenting ‘people’s war’ conducted by Belgian civilians. This strategy proved unsuccessful. The Académie française condemned the Manifesto, while the ‘White Book’, highly selective and deploying unconvincing evidence, seemed to confirm German crimes and was demolished by the Belgian Livre Gris (1916). Attempts by the Austro-Hungarian Government to justify its troops’ actions met with similar criticism: Reiss condemned the ‘tardy excuses of the Austrian officials [which] fall to the ground’. By simply responding to Allied accusations, German and Austro-Hungarian propaganda was purely reactive: it failed to exploit the Allies’ own contraventions of international law, handing to them the moral high ground and ultimately the more convincing explanation for the outbreak of war.


In the inter-war period, investigations into the nature of war propaganda suggested that atrocity stories had been fabricated by the Allies in order to justify the war and to encourage enlistment. Although more recently historians such as John Horne and Alan Kramer have illustrated the importance of the franc-tireur myth to the German military mind-set and highlighted the contravention of international law entailed in the murder of c.6000 Belgian citizens in 1914, for many years doubts about the veracity of Allied claims and the memory of the franc-tireurs remained. 

A True Report of Atrocity from World War II, That Overlooked or
Discounted Because of the Experience in the Earlier War

When German forces once again occupied Belgium in 1940, monuments to civilian resistance in 1914 were destroyed, while researchers sought evidence of the existence of a citizen army in the Belgian and French archives. Liberal democratic propagandists of the Second World War were divided over the memory of the Great War: some invoked the experience of 1914 to demonstrate Germany’s continual threat to a peaceful Europe (Lord Vansittart’s Black Record, 1941, for example), while others pointed to the uniqueness of Nazism. While seeking ‘another Edith Cavell’ for their campaigns, they were limited by the popular memory of ‘false’ 1914 atrocity stories. As a result, they feared exposing themselves to charges of exaggerating Nazi atrocities in Europe from 1941, with the consequence that the plight of the Jews and others was largely ignored and public attention directed elsewhere.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Winged Warfare
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Winged Warfare

by Lt. Col. William A. Bishop
Forgotten Books reprint, 6 September 2012

Billy Bishop in the Cockpit

Historians can research records and artifacts, but only the veterans can write from experience of the sights, sound, smells, and emotions of combat. Winged Warfare is the collected recollections of Billy Bishop, greatest Canadian and second greatest British Empire flying ace of the Great War. When he was 17, Billy's parents sent him to the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, for some military discipline.

This work is Bishop's stream-of-consciousness wartime memories. Like many early aviators, Bishop transferred from another service. In July 1915, after the 15-day crossing on an old cattle boat with 700 seasick horses he became a cavalry officer with the Mississauga Horse of Toronto of the Second Canadian Division in England. His ambitions were elevated when, knee deep in the dank, slimy, boggy mud of the cavalry camp he saw an airplane overhead. He quickly concluded that being an observer in the air was better than commanding a division on the ground. Confiding his ambition to fly to a friend in the Royal Flying Corps was the first step in taking flight. The initial assignment of new aviators was to be an observer who, well, observed. His training included what to observe and what to ignore. Once his observer wing was on his uniform he was off to France with a burning desire to become a pilot. His "machine" would fly over German lines for an hour or more, as he noted and photographed enemy positions. The machine gun he had by his knee went unfired during his four months as an observer.

After a knee injury sidelined him for several months Bishop got his chance to fly. Ground school led to elementary training in the air. He describes his first solo as the greatest day of his life. Although expecting to be assigned to zeppelin hunting over England, he applied for duty at the fighting front.

The 7th of March, 1917, was the day Billy Bishop returned to France for his second tour at war. In his inaugural mission he was assigned to bring up the rear of a formation over German lines. Eighteen days later he would record the first of his 72 kills. After his last five kills, on 19 June 1918, Bishop was sent to England on leave from which he would, to his disappointment, not return to France. He describes the ceremony during which the King invested him into the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

What I like about this book is the detail that can only be described by a veteran who has lived the events recorded in its pages. Bishop's casting as a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and his obvious pride as he looked own on "We Canadians" as they attacked Vimy Ridge and elsewhere all provide insight into an age when Canadians were gaining a grasp of their national identity. The second-by-second narrative of the dogfight seizes the reader's imagination. The intense cold that could stop hemorrhaging can only be intellectually experienced in the first person. The perceived distinction of going up against the Red Baron's squadron, the immense red birds with graceful wings and painted a brilliant scarlet from nose to tail, hints at the romance retained by this form of warfare. Only Bishop could convey his thoughts on downing an enemy aircraft:

While I have no desire to make myself appear as a bloodthirsty person, I must say that to see an enemy going down in flames is a source of great satisfaction. You know his destruction is absolutely certain. The moment you see the fire break out you know that nothing in the world can save the man or men in the doomed aeroplane.

Later he would observe:
The idea of killing was, of course, always against my nature, but for two reasons I did not mind it: one, and the greater one, of course, being that it was another Hun down, and so much for good in the war; secondly, it was paying back for some of the debt I owed the Huns for robbing me of the best friends possible. Then, too, in the air one did not altogether feel the human side of it. As I have said before, it was not like killing a man so much as just bringing down a bird in sport.

Winged Warfare is a short read composed by a warrior, not a professional writer. We read it for its detail and the spirit of its author, not its research and analysis. It pays to open this time capsule from the Great War.

All in all, an extremely good and enlightening read.

James M. Gallen

Monday, March 12, 2018

Backstory: Setting the Stage for an "Irony of Fate"

It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.      
Woodrow Wilson, 1913

The Republican Ticket: Taft and Sherman

In June 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt sought the Republican nomination at the party convention in Chicago. He was infuriated by what he took to be a betrayal of his progressive program by his personally chosen successor, the incumbent William Howard Taft. The delegates chose Taft anyway, with former New York congressman James "Sunny Jim" Sherman as his running mate.

Roosevelt and his supporters bolted, then formed the Progressive Party, popularly known as the Bull Moose Party. [T.R.—"I am as strong as a bull moose."] At their convention in August, California governor Hiram Johnson was selected as T.R.'s running mate. [One of their campaign managers in Contra Costa County, California, would be your editor's great-uncle,  Superintendent of Schools William Hanlon.] 

The Progressives: T.R. and Hiram Johnson
The Democrats were elated by the Republican split, realizing that their opponents' 16-year rule was at an end. The only real suspense was generated around the question of which Democrat would be the next president. Favorite son candidates were put forth from all sections of the country. The strongest appeared to be House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, the personal favorite of the influential William Randolph Hearst. Despite widespread support, Clark was unable to gain the necessary two-thirds vote in the early balloting. 

The turning point occurred when the still influential William Jennings Bryan switched his support to New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, an advocate of moderate reform. Bryan would later be appointed Wilson's secretary of state as a reward. After 46 ballots, the exhausted delegates finally selected Wilson and Indiana governor Thomas R. Marshall as his running mate. 

Destiny's Ticket: Democrats Wilson and Marshall

Wilson won a lopsided electoral victory in November 1912. His election was nearly assured from the beginning because of the Republican split. Against all his predispositions, he would eventually embrace the role of the nation's war leader, and, later self-designated world shaper.  Fate proved to have a fine sense of irony.

Material from:

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Roads Classic: "Hurrah for the Next Man Who Dies!"

Click on Image to Expand

When I was the membership chairman of the old Great War Society, we asked our new enlistees what got them interested in the First World War.  I was surprised at how many mentioned the 1938 film The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and David Niven.

The "show stopper" scene in that movie is not any of the combat sequences but in the mess when the pilots drink a musical toast to the next man who dies. The lyrics used in the movie are an adaptation of a 19th-century poem out of India titled "The Revel" by Bartholomew Dowling. Here are the pilots singing their song:

Click on Image to Expand

Errol Flynn Leads the Singing

We meet ’neath the sounding rafter,
  And the walls around are bare;
They echo our peals of laughter
  It seems that the dead are there.

So,  stand to your glasses, steady!       
  This world is a world of lies.
Here's a toast to the dead already—
  Hurrah for the next man who dies!

Cut off from the land that bore us,
  Betray’d by the land we find,
The good men have gone before us,
  And only the dull left  most behind.

So,  stand to your glasses, steady!       
  This world is a world of lies.
Then here's a toast to the dead already—
  Hurrah for the next man who dies!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

About Those Tommies

  • "Tommy" as a name for British soldiers came from the name in the sample paybook given to new recruits in Wellington's time: Thomas Atkins.

  • The original 1914 British Expeditionary Force was composed of six infantry and one cavalry division, totaling 150,000 men.

  • 5,704,416 Tommies from the United Kingdom (Great Britain & Ireland) eventually served in the war.

Tommies As We Recall Them

  • About 2,670,000 volunteered, of which 1,186,000 had enlisted by 31 December 1914.

  • About 2,770,000 were conscripted.

  • 724,000 Tommies were killed; 2,000,000 were wounded; and 270,000 were POWs,

Tommies Heading Down That "Long, Long Trail A-Winding"

  • Besides the regulars, the British Army overseas was supplemented by "Territorials", volunteer reserves, originally intended for home defense but who could opt for "Imperial Service" overseas.

  • "Pals" battalions were special units of the British Army composed of men who enlisted together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues ("pals").

  • By one count, there were 643 Pals battalions.

Source: The British Soldier of the First World War, Peter Doyle

Friday, March 9, 2018

100 Years Ago: Gotha Raids on Paris Accelerate

A Gotha Bomber Ready for Take-Off

Between January and September 1918 the German Gotha bombers flew 483 separate sorties over Paris.  March 1918 featured an acceleration in the bomber raids on France's capital. A Gotha raid on Paris on 8 March 1918 resulted in the death of 13 and the injuring of 50 from over 90 bombs dropped. Another raid, on 11 March, caused the death of 34 and injury to another 78 persons.  Ten raids in total were mounted against the city during the peak of the air raids, between 8 March and  1 July.

Damage on Lille Avenue, Paris, from the 29 March Raid

The bomber missions were supplemented in late March with fire from the secret Paris Gun located 75 miles away in the forest north of Laon.  When the first shells landed, the city's air raid sirens where sounded—no one could conceive of an artillery piece that could  fire from behind the enemy's lines, the closest of which was over 50 miles from the city.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Historic Images of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

I recently received a wealth of wonderful information and imagery from the staff of the American Battle Monuments Commission. I'll be sharing it with our readers throughout the Centennial.  These images tell a story by themselves. I've just included some text and captions as needed.

From the ABMC Website:
Within the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France, which covers 130.5 acres, rest the largest number of our military dead in Europe, a total of 14,246. It is located just east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, Meuse, France, approximately 26 miles (42 kilometers) northwest of Verdun.  Most of those buried here lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I. The immense array of headstones rises in long regular rows upward beyond a wide central pool to the chapel that crowns the ridge. A beautiful bronze screen separates the chapel foyer from the interior, which is decorated with stained-glass windows portraying American unit insignia; behind the altar are flags of the principal Allied nations. The cemetery required almost two decades to complete.  It was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1937.

Click on Images to Enlarge

Remains of the Fallen Were Gathered from Field Cemeteries

En Route to Romagne

A Ceremony Was Conducted When the Original Coffins Arrived for Interment

General Pershing Inspects the Cemetery in the 1920s

The Completed Temporary Cemetery Which Held 23,000 Burials

An Exhumation from a Temporary Grave
Families Could Choose to Have the Fallen Return Home for Burial
The Temporary Burials Were Also Exhumed for Preparation for Final Burial 

The Final Design with Over 14,000 Burials Took Almost 20 Years to Evolve

Some of the Final Markers with Photos of the Interred Super-Imposed

General Pershing at the Formal Dedication, Memorial Day, 1937

World War II GIs Visiting the Cemetery

Today the Cemetery Is the Site of Frequent Remembrances

Display at the New Visitors Center

From the ABMC Website:
A renovated, 1,600-square-foot center visitor center reopened in November 2016. Through interpretive exhibits that incorporate personal stories, photographs, films, and interactive displays, visitors will gain a better understanding of the critical importance of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive as it fits into the Great War.

Watch the Video  Never to be Forgotten: Soldiers of the Meuse-Argonne and
Listen to General Pershing Here

Images selected from:  American Battle Monuments Commission Archives, Library of Congress, and the Film Never to be Forgotten: Soldiers of the Meuse-Argonne.