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

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Face of Battle: Spring 1917

German Field Gun Firing, Western Front, 1917

The face of battle, as the historian John Keegan famously called it, is well known, hence three diary entries—,one Canadian, one French and one German—might well serve our purpose [of showing what the fighting was like during the Nivelle/Arras offensive of spring 1917.] 

Private Adelbert F. Brayman, 50th Battalion (Calgary) of the 4th Canadian
Division, was wounded storming Hill 145 at Vimy. He remembered the ferocity of the battle:

From the very first minute of the attack we came under murderous and hellish fire from the machine guns . . . we lost about 30 per cent of the fighting forces before we got into [the enemy’s] green line of trenches and went into hand-to-hand fighting. . . . As we looked back up that ridge in the early dawn we witnessed a scene never to be forgotten. The entire face of the hill was covered with German green and Canadian khaki. Men lay out there in that blood-soaked field, some dead, some dying.

A young French baker from Burgundy named René Jacob wrote his parents from the battlefield near Soissons as follows:

How can one describe it? What words to use? Corpses everywhere. Black and green corpses. Corpses in strange positions: a knee jutting up into the air, or an arm resting against a trench wall. Corpses that one has to cover with chalk or straw, or dirt and sand. The ground covered with their entrails. Corpses that one buries or burns. A terrible smell, a smell as from a charnel house, rises up and chokes us. . . . I spoke to you earlier of a battlefield; no, it is more like a slaughter yard. Not even the wind that blows across the Ridge can disperse the stench of death.

A Lone Poilu atop Plateau de Californie, East of Soissons

On the German side of [Vimy]  Ridge at Giessler Heights, Hermann Bauer with 14th Bavarian Infantry Regiment wrote home in much the same vein:

Has all hell broke loose? An ear-splitting din and roar goes on unabated, and already the first 15mm shell bursts into the south wall of the [sand] pit. A trench wall collapses, but there is no time to think. . . . And the [snow] flakes fall much like shell splinters. They tear all life into shreds. We all suck in our breaths. . . . The Tommys have broken through. 

Now, come on you Canadians! Suddenly they burst forth from Sand Pit 2; they disdain any ground cover, these Canadian storm troops. They seem to believe that their hellish [artillery] fire has demoralized and buried us.

From: Herwig, Holger (2016) "“The Battle-Fortune of Marshal Hindenburg Is Not Bound Up with the Possession of a Hill: The Germans and Vimy Ridge, April 1917," Canadian Military History: Vol. 25

Friday, March 27, 2020

The U.S. Navy's Razzle Dazzle Exhibition

All the Slides Can Be Enlarged for Better Viewing
Just Click on the Image

During the WWI Centennial an  exhibition on razzle dazzle camouflage was created by the National Museum of the United States Navy and the Great Lakes Naval Museum to commemorate the navy's effort during the conflict. Here are some of the graphics used for the program.

The Theory

A Large Variety of Schemes

In Practice

A WWII Example

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Our March Issue of the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire

Don't Miss Our March 2020 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire

Special Focus:  Reflecting on the Gas War

  • Gas Warfare Begins
  • The Gas at Second Ypres: 22 April 1915
  • The Four Types of Gasses
  • The American Experience with Chemical Warfare

Soldiers of the U.S. 366th Infantry Receiving Gas Mask Instruction

  • "Gas! GAS! Quick Boys!"
  • The Worst: Mustard Gas
  • Different Perspectives on Chemical & Biological Warfare
  • The Future of Chemical-Biological Weapons on the Battlefield

Other Topics:

Three Senatorial Opponents to the Treaty
William Borah (ID), Henry Cabot Lodge (MA), and Reed Smoot (UT)
  • 100 Years Ago: The Senate Votes Down the Versailles Treaty for the Final Time
  • WWI Film Classic: Many Wars Ago
  • Plus all our regular updates and features

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Main Problem with War Horses: Feeding Them

Editors Comment:  Until I found this article, I never contemplated the idea that dependence on animal transport brings strategic limitations. The authors of this article point out how the need to feed its huge number of horses hindered the German Army in its execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914.

The period between the American Civil War and World War I was filled with advances in technology, which were not fully taken advantage of by the European powers. Furthermore, the dominant powers in Europe (France, Prussia, England, and Russia) failed to truly understand the lessons that could have been learned from the Civil War. Cavalry charges and long baggage trains of horse-drawn wagons persisted, and with that returned the age-old need to feed the livestock. In many ways, the First World War resembled all past wars. However, its rapid consumption of supplies, especially ammunition, dictated that the times and ways of war were changing. But for the moment, it was remarkably similar to the past, in that during the war, Great Britain shipped 5,253,538 tons of ammunition to France as well as the greatest single item shipped, which was 5,438,602 tons of oats and hay. Fuel for horses continued to be a dominant factor.

Regardless of the lessons the Germans should have learned from the past, during World War I, they placed a huge emphasis on cavalry and did not prepare for their maintenance in the field. The German high command ordered commanders to feed their horses off the land as a result of the army’s sheer numbers of horses. Martin van Creveld relates that any attempt to supply the army from home bases would have been impossible. As the Germans moved into France early in the war, luck appeared to be with them, as the land was rich and the grain had just been harvested. However, much of the grain was still green, causing many of the horses to become sick and die very early in the campaign. A critical shortage in fodder resulted, and by the time of the Battle of the Marne, where French and British forces engaged and halted the German advance, most of the horses were too weak to keep up the pace.

The German invasion plan, known as the Schlieffen Plan, depended on the speed of the invasion, yet the horses employed in reconnaissance and pulling the heavy artillery were so poorly fed that they could not keep up the pace. Many died before the Germans crossed the border into Belgium. By 11 August 1914, preceding the Battle of the Marne, cavalry forces ordered a four-day halt to find food for the mounts. By the Battle of the Marne, the starved horses pulling the German artillery, which was the only arm that had a distinct advantage over French forces, could not keep up the pace. “By this time, too, one German army at least was finding that the state of the cavalry seriously interfered with operations.”

The German high command’s severe lack of oversight of properly feeding the horses proved to be a decisive factor in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. Following the offensive stall after the Battle of the Marne, the consumption of supplies reached proportions unmatched by any previous war. However, this consumption rate could not have been maintained if the front had not stalled and remained stationary throughout the war.  Supply movement via horses would have been inadequate given the war’s immense scale. Toward the end of the war, both sides began to introduce motorized transport on a very small scale and argued that “complete motorization of local transportation and the widespread use of combat vehicles would restore mobility to the battlefield.

Source: The Air Force Journal of Logistics, Vol XXXIV

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Division During World War I

by Leonard V. Smith
Princeton University Press; First Edition, 1994
Ron Drees, Reviewer

Unhappy French Soldiers

This work follows the French Fifth Infantry Division (DI) through the entire Great War, not so much as a historical record but analyzed as a social scientist would. The primary thesis is that soldiers' behavior was a function not only of the command structure itself but also of what soldiers negotiated with the command structure.

As the war raged on, the enlisted men gained ever-increasing control from the officers as to when attacks would cease. This "control" was illustrated by the disciplinary measures invoked as punishment for the eventual mutinies as commanders wanted to reestablish a semblance of control but without punishing everyone.

Between Mutiny and Obedience is well illustrated with photographs of significant participants and places: General Mangin, Fort Douaumont of Verdun infamy, and trenches and schematic maps showing the battles of the Fifth. Numerous French words and phrases are used, making me wish the author included a glossary so monolingual readers could understand the author's text.

The first example of the infantry "making their own decisions" was at the Battle of Charleroi in August 1914.  Four attacks failed with 3,940 casualties (20 percent of the Fifth).  The Division believed they had suffered enough and verbally expressed their dissatisfaction.  Fifth DI Commander Gen. Verrier ordered a retreat.   Many of the other French forces had departed for the rear already, thus avoiding encirclement and annihilation of the French army which would have given Germany a war-ending victory.

The attempted recapture of Fort Douaumont during the battle of Verdun was even worse. The 12,000-man division suffered over 5,300 casualties: killed, wounded, missing in action, for no gain at all. Soldiers from one battalion successfully persuaded the commander to surrender rather than fight to a certain death.

Yet the pitched battles may not have been the worst. Trench warfare with its occasional shellings and artillery barrages left men feeling trapped in a prison of mud for extended periods of time. The soldiers' sentiments began to resemble those when fighting a pitched battle. The futility of combat put soldiers into a conflict: military uselessness versus losing the war.

Author Leonard V. Smith contends that until the mutinies, soldiers manipulated formal authority by refusing to pursue an attack when no military value would result, but then matters degenerated until troops openly rejected authority by mutinying. The mutiny for the Fifth DI began on 28 May 1917, when the division was ordered to return to trenches instead of meeting relatives for the Pentecost holiday. The soldiers protested to officers who did not respond with force, resulting in no injuries to either side. More discussion followed the next , the demonstration gradually faded away. Over the next two days, two protesting regiments were trucked away from the front lines and placed under another corps. There were more protests during 5–7 June, with the battalions eventually moving into the trenches. What is curious about these protests is that the division had been in a quiet sector for three months.

French Court Martial

Now a comment on the word "mutiny." My dictionary defines it as "revolt against and often forcible resistance to constituted authority." Over 3,500 soldiers expressed their reluctance, verbally, to return to the trenches. Sometimes they refused to march in the direction ordered by their commanding officers. The commanding officers did not use force, such as calling in other "loyal" troops, but tried to reason with their subordinates. The result was that the troops eventually returned to a state of military order. No one was shot during the "mutiny"—or struck or battered by any means. In one instance, order was restored before an officer could complete his report of the incident. There simply was no violence, and, thus, this was not a mutiny where force was used to overcome command. Instead, what the Fifth DI did was once described by another historian as a sit-down strike.

Pétain, who had replaced Nivelle as army commander, responded by reforming leave policy, frontline rotations, and food distributions—but conducted a series of courts martial. The results army-wide were 3,427 convictions, 554 death sentences, and 49 executions. The aftermath of the mutinies ended with only a fraction of men being court-martialed and an even smaller fraction executed. The command structure had reinstated its authority, yet tacitly admitted that there was justification for the difficulties.

The social science jargon in Between Mutiny and Obedience increased the difficulty of comprehension, making the experience a bit of a slog. While the futility of the Great War battles and the constant "wastage" certainly increased the frustration and futility of the regular soldier, the author does not link how many of the soldiers from 1914 could have survived in the Fifth DI until May 1917. Certainly not all troops had the same level of frustration.

Reading the book will increase one's understanding of what the Poilu endured, whether in the trenches or attacking a fortified position. This along with the mutinous events and court martial process give considerable insight into the thinking of the French command structure. An understanding of this is compensation for clambering through the social science jargon and French phraseology.

Ron Drees

Monday, March 23, 2020

Becoming a Doughboy

The Doughboy's military training set him apart from others. In less obvious ways as well, life in the Army contributed to the creation of the Doughboy folk. The Army issued each man one of the newfangled safety razors. The Army taught the Doughboy to stand naked in line to be deloused and to submit to its relentless curiosity about the condition of his private parts. The cigarette came into vogue. The wristwatch, long considered an effeminate device, became a popular item, partly because there was no place on the uniform for the old pocket watch and fob and because a famous war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, wore one. 

The Army prescribed for sexual behavior by declaring unreported venereal disease an unlawful affliction and by training men in the use of the prophylaxis station. Basic training shaped the soldier's ideas of what the correct pose of the accomplished warrior should be. It served to blur all former social attachments—"knifing off" the old associations which interfere with group assimilation. The severe haircut and the many personal indignities jarred loose the civilian outlook and rearranged it into an army outlook in a process which Robert Jay Lifton described for men of a later war as "a form of symbolic death and rebirth."

Robert Sandels
Essay, "The Doughboy as Folk"

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Recommended: Battle of the Somme Video

This 2014 documentary on the Somme presents a fairly conventional interpretation of the battle, but it has a number of unique features. Most important is the great selection the producers made for the film's expert "talking heads."  The host, Royal Marine Major General Julian Thompson commanded a British brigade in the Falklands War and does an outstanding job of describing the strategic situation and providing a smooth transition to experts on the geology of the Somme, artillery fuses, machine gunnery, pigeon communications, mining operations, and a host other specialties.  More than the story of the Battle of the Somme, this documentary is an introduction to the realities of battle on the Western Front, circa 1916.

Thanks to Paul Albright  for recommending this video.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Hindenburg Line

The irreplaceable losses in the "big battles" of 1916 raised awareness of a looming manpower crisis for all the war's original participants. None, however, more deeply felt the urgency of the hour than did Germany, the most capable and driven of the Central Powers. The Kaiser and his allies were now engaged in a desperate war of attrition with a more populous coalition. Trading casualties at the same rate meant—with mathematical certainty—inevitable defeat. In other postings, we have discussed how the German Navy successfully argued for unrestricted U-boat warfare to shift the odds. Germany's army, that is to say Hindenburg and Ludendorff, eventually supported the scheme but were not as confident of its success as were the admirals. They still had to deal with a wearing, multi-front ground war that seemed to be turning against them. Being more experienced on the Eastern Front, they decided their best hope for final victory lay in focusing on knocking Russia out of the war in 1917.

Click on Images to Enlarge
Hindenburg Line Southwest of Bullecourt
Barbed Wire Belts on Left, Trenches, Tank Traps, Bunkers to the Right

What to do in the west, though? After many pronouncements of "No Retreat!" Ludendorff analyzed the numbers and concluded he did not have a enough divisions to secure the the Western Front as it was configured in late 1916. The line needed to be shortened and strengthened. What grew out of subsequent staff studies was the almost incredible complex of reinforced concrete bunkers, deep zigzagging trenches, massive belts of barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles known as the "Hindenburg Line." 

The Hindenburg Line  was the strongest defensive system built during the First World War. Its reputation for impregnability was matched only by its ambitious design. Jagging across most of the Western Front in Belgium and northern France, nothing like it had ever been seen before. Requiring an enormous amount of labor and material, its extensive fortifications included deep zigzagging trench lines fortified with reinforced concrete shelters, heavily armed strong points, and wide belts of barbed wire combined to form an intimidating barrier for any attacking army and to maximize the firepower of war's two greatest killers—artillery and machine guns. The fortifications also skillfully integrated natural topographic features such as ravines, villages, and waterways to afford every possible advantage to the defending troops and make any Allied advance as difficult and dangerous as possible. Perhaps its most ingenious use of terrain was creating the world's longest anti-tank ditch from the St. Quentin Canal. 

Reinforced Concrete Bunker Under Construction

In 1917 the system lived up to its promise, as this chronology suggests:


16–20 March: Operation Alberich: the German Army withdraws to the Siegfried-Stellung in anticipation of an Allied spring offensive.

9 April–7 May: During the Battles of Arras and Bullecourt, the German Army's new defensive doctrine is put to the test against the British Expeditionary Force.

16 April–9 May: The German Seventh Army employs the army's new defensive doctrine to defeat a massive French offensive during the Second Battle of the Aisne (Nivelle Offensive).

31 July–10 November: In response to the British offensive during the Third Battle of Ypres, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht deepens the defenses of the Flandern-Stellung.

11 November (Ironic date, no?): The German High Command decides to launch a major offensive to defeat the British Army before American forces arrive on the Western Front in strength. 

In the Argonne Sector, American Troops Breaking the Hindenburg Line

To drive the Germans from French soil, the Allies knew they had to overcome these obstacles — and it was a deadly task requiring new weapons and tactics. Ludendorff's decision to renew the offensive in early 1918, however, depleted his forces for the coming crisis when the Americans were present in strength and the Allies were prepared to implement their own improved offensive schemes. The 1918 spring offensives had some success, bringing the German Army within artillery range of Paris, but fresh American divisions arrived on the battlefield, denying victory and sapping German morale. By the time it became necessary for the German Army to fall back to the Siegfried, Wotan, and the other withdrawal positions, it was too weak and demoralized to properly defend them. The Allies, employing new combined arms tactics and weapons, supported by a substantial logistics train, were able to nullify any advantages the fortifications provided to the German Army. Germany's last line of defense proved a forlorn hope.

Source: Over the Top, January 2017

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Commemorating the Battle of the Marne

France's victory in the 1914 Battle of the Marne brought out a powerful emotional upsurge in the nation. The combination of relief and a restored confidence that victory could be found resulted in many publications commemorating the battle, its anniversary, and the commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre.  This surge mostly lasted until 1916's Battle of Verdun and the grimmer times of the late war.  Afterward, however, the Marne would be remembered as France's greatest victory of the Great War.

Joffre: Forever the Architect and Victor of the Marne

Joffre's Message to the Army

Where the Battle Was Fought

The British Contribution Wasn't Forgotten

Victory Medallion

One-Year Anniversary on the Battlefield Near Villeroy

Postwar Children's Book Remembers the Battle

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

How Press Flack Douglas MacArthur Created the Rainbow Division

MacArthur of the Rainbow
After returning from the Vera Cruz expedition, for which he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, Douglas MacArthur was assigned to the War Department as a staff officer, where he was promoted to major on 11 December 1915. In June 1916 he was assigned as head of the Bureau of Information at the office of the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. MacArthur has since been regarded as the Army's first press officer or, as it's now known, public affairs officer. It was in this position that MacArthur learned many of the "public relations" skills for which he later became known: how to ingratiate himself with reporters, plant stories, justify the decisions of his superiors, and make sure he was frequently photographed.

Following the declaration of war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard, with 122,000 members on 12 July 1917, but getting those troops into fighting shape would also take time. The New York and Pennsylvania National Guards had division-sized units, and New York's soldiers had just served on the Mexican Border in 1916, so these units could probably be readied to deploy relatively quickly.

But the War Department was concerned that if one of these state divisions went to France first it would look like favoritism and anger other sections of the country.

So Major Douglas MacArthur (later five-star general Douglas MacArthur during World War II and the Korean War) had a good idea—take National Guard units from across the country and combine them into one division. That division could then be deployed to France without slighting any particular state or region.

In describing the division, first to his superiors and then later to newspaper reporters (MacArthur was then also acting as the War Department's press person), MacArthur said the division would stretch across the United States "like a rainbow." So the division, still without a number, quickly became known as the "Rainbow" Division and MacArthur would soon be promoted to colonel and made the division's first chief of staff.

The "Fighting 69th" Regiment Departing Their New York City Armory
for Service with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division

Eventually, 26 states and the District of Columbia would be tapped for troops to comprise the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. The units were told to report to Camp Mills just outside Garden City, Long Island, on 20 August. The Rainbow Division would go on to attain one of the finest fighting records of any division—regular, volunteer, or National Guard—in the American Expeditionary Force. From its activation in August 1917 through the Armistice in November 1918, the 42nd was in combat longer than any other American division and suffered more than 50 percent casualties.

Sources: MacArthur Memorial; U.S. Army website

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

From Marne to Verdun: The War Diary of Captain Charles Delvert

by Charles Delvert
Translated by Ian Sumner
Pen & Sword, 2016
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Charles Laurent Delvert (1879–1940) entered the French Army in 1899 as a one-year volunteer in an effort to complete his military obligation early and decrease the time spent in the army from three years. After the year, he was released to the reserves for a period of 12 years followed by seven years in the territorials. He maintained his association, rising through the reserve ranks and receiving a commission in 1912. Between 1900 and 1914 he attended two autumn maneuvers, one in 1902 the other in 1912. When the war started, Delvert was called to command the 2nd Platoon, 4th Company, 101 Infantry Regiment, 7th Division. He began his diary on the train platform as his regiment left Paris and kept it until demobilization in March 1919. The diaries are extensive and produced three books of his authorship and a number of books by others whom Delvert accused of adding dramatization when none existed. This work covers 7 August 1914 to June 1916.

From Marne to Verdun is an infantry soldier's diary arranged in daily fashion. There are descriptions of duties and the problems in dealing with the men, but most illuminating are the personal notations. Those notations are highlighted by footnotes written after the war which go into detail about the event or persons and offers scathing criticism in a spirit of anti-war. First encounters with the Germans in Belgium are of interest. The entries show how the attitude of à outrance resulted in needlessly high casualties. Of note was an incident where two battalions of the 130th Infantry Regiment were nearly annihilated in just a few minutes. One battalion was caught eating a midday meal while the other was ordered to charge entrenched machine guns without artillery preparation.

Delvert lamented the fact that the battalions had no idea of whom or what they were facing. In his early entries he complained about the lack of reconnaissance and heavy artillery, noting that the Germans were far better prepared for war. Cavalry, the source of information, was nowhere to be found, hence the unpreparedness of one battalion, while heavy artillery had been eschewed in favor of the more mobile 75mms during the previous years. The 75s had a flat trajectory which made them nearly useless for indirect fire or in dealing with fortifications. The Germans could stand off hidden behind hills with their howitzers and pound both soldiers and artillery without risk to themselves.

There are also comments about morale. French Army regulations required that territorial and reserve units had to be commanded by line officers. Those line officers looked down on their reserve fellow officers as inferior (Delvert also mentions that his peacetime training was totally inadequate) lacking a clear sense of any military situation and telling them numerous times just how inferior they were. Consequently, decisions were reached not by consensus but by the will of the commander.

Additionally, reserve officers were not considered for decorations or promotions until the line officers received theirs. The attitude was that the war would be short and line officers would have a career after. This attitude did not change as the war progressed and the line officers were killed off. Delvert also states that the soldier was considered merely as a means to an end. Line officers very rarely consider their needs. These themes repeat themselves throughout the diary. Verdun, where Delvert commanded a company on the west of Fort Vaux, is a real eye-opener.

Capt. Delvert
French artillery shooting was blind. The artillery commanders refused to send forward observers to direct shots, and the areas occupied by French forces were unknown because of the constant attacks and counterattacks. The result was that French artillery was more deadly to Delvert's men than were the German cannons. He was constantly shooting up green flares to tell the artillery to lengthen their range. Within a day he ran out of green flares. Delvert had had no idea just how precarious his company's existence had been until he reported to the battalion after relief where he found out that he and his men had been written off. The commander hugged him and treated him like a long-lost son, marveling at his survival.

From Marne to Verdun is an excellent book. We have very few translated French experience books available and this is one of the best, as evidenced by the many works which used Delvert's entries to their own purposes. I can find little fault in his entries, although those which are made while not under fire do get a little flowery. One of the things I found most interesting was his description of the men commanding him and the men he commanded. A reader could almost draw composites of the soldiers, it is so complete with heights, physical stature, eye and hair colors, and foibles. I cannot list all the things that I found so interesting.

Michael Kihntopf

Monday, March 16, 2020

Behind the Lines: Belfort and Its Lion at War

The View of Belfort from Atop the Citadel

The Citadel of Belfort, France, and the surrounding system of forts, formed the first line of defense in the Séré de Rivières system of fortifications in the Belfort Gap. Located in northeastern France between Épinal and Besançon, the primary line was built in the late 19th century to deal with advances in artillery that had made older defensive systems obsolete. 

The Lion of Belfort is a monumental statue by Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, that is situated against the cliff underneath the castle of Belfort. Completed in 1880, it symbolizes the heroic resistance of the French army besieged in Belfort during the French-Prussian War (1870–71). Prussian forces assailed the city of Belfort for 103 days. The invading force numbered around 40,000 strong against the mere 17,000 French forces, but the Prussian siege was defeated. The defenders were eventually ordered by French authorities to cease their defensive efforts. All of France, nevertheless, considered the defense  a lone victory in an otherwise disastrous war. 

The Lion of Belfort

The statue is made entirely of red sandstone from the Vosges and evokes the sphinxes from ancient Egypt. The lion is 70 feet long, 37 feet high, and watches over the old town with a combative look on its face. It was initially planned to face toward Germany until the sculpture was finally set westward after German protests in the 1870s.

Because of its heroic status, and possibly because of the fame of the statue, Belfort was considered an option to Verdun as the site of an attritional battle that the French nation and army could never abandon.

The Lion Up Close

Smaller copies in bronze stands in the center of Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris and in Dorchester Square, Montreal, Quebec.

Belfort was the anchor for Joffre's opening diversionary attack as part of Plan XVII, known as the Battle of Mulhouse.  Afterward, despite the setback, Belfort remained in French hands for the entire war. In 1918 American intelligence officers, assisted by the French, planted disinformation documents in a Belfort hotel indicating U.S. forces were planning to attack through the Belfort Gap to capture Mulhouse, rather than against the St. Mihiel Salient as was actually the impending offensive. The effort was later called the "Belfort Ruse." Long after the Armistice, it was discovered the ruse had been successful and had allowed Pershing's First Army to achieve tactical success in the opening of the St. Mihiel Offensive on 12 September 1918.

Sources: France's Monuments, Atlas Obscura, and Wiki Commons

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Doughboys' Grenades

Described by Sgt. Donald D. Kyler,
16th Infantry, 1st Division

Grenades Used by the AEF

[During our training at Domremy-la-Pucelle] we were given instruction in the use of grenades. At first it was by French non-commissioned officers, using their grenades, which were of several types. The first was a training grenade, made of sheet metal, and could be thrown about ten yards away and left to explode with little danger of fragments harming the thrower. But they were not to be closer than that. We had a few cases of men being injured by not throwing quickly enough or far enough. The second type was a fragmentation grenade, made of iron, and with much more explosive power. It was for longer range use, or to be thrown around or behind something, or in a hole or dugout. It would be dangerous to be thrower if it exploded anywhere near him. Another type, heavier and with more explosive power, was for throwing into the openings of caves or fortifications, etc. Immediate cover had to be taken by the thrower to escape the resulting blast.

Those devices were all pear shaped, with a pin sticking out of the small end about half an inch. That end had a metal cap covering the pin, secured with sealing wax. When ready to use the grenade, the cap was twisted off and the pin pushed in, which ignited a time fuse. Five to seven seconds after the pin was pushed in the blast would occur. So there was no time to be lost in throwing the grenade. The short time fuse was necessary so that the enemy would not have time to throw the grenade away from him. However, they have been known to do so. Ideally, the timing should be such that the grenade would explode just as it reached the target.

The grenades came to us packed tightly in wooden boxes and were well protected. In taking them into the field or trenches, it was our practice to carry them in bags. Rough handling sometimes loosened the protecting cap over the firing pin. I heard of an accident when grenades in a hag exploded, causing causalities.

Another type of grenade was the rifle grenade, which was fired from a grenade launcher. The grenade launcher was shaped like a beer bottle with the bottom removed. The neck of the launcher was placed over the muzzle of the rifle and locked in position by a twisting motion. They were issued one to each squad. The grenade had a hole through its center the same size as the rifle barrel, and was placed in the open end of the launcher and let slide down until it came to rest on the decreasing inside diameter of the neck part of the launcher. The butt of the rifle was placed on the ground and was ready for firing. When fired, after the bullet had passed through the grenade, there was an area of high pressure still in the rifle as the bullet left it, which gave the grenade a considerable boost into an arched trajectory. The maximum range could be achieved by holding the axis of the launcher at slightly more than 45 degrees from the horizontal. At a [greater] angle than that the range would decrease, until by holding it straight up, theoretically the grenade would come down on the launcher. From the maximum range of perhaps two hundred yards the range could also be decreased by holding the launcher at an angle less than 45 degrees from the horizontal, until at the horizontal the range would be only a few yards, which was impractical for a number of reasons.

A Member of the 369th Infantry [Harlem Hellfighters]
Firing a Rifle Grenade

The grenade had a time fuse which was ignited when the bullet struck a projection as it passed through the hole in the grenade. To depress the muzzle toward the target would flatten the trajectory and decrease the range and lessen the time of the grenade in flight. The grenade, when striking the ground, would not explode promptly and would thus give the enemy time to take evasive action.

It was necessary to have the butt of the rifle against the ground or some solid object, because of the recoil. In no case should it be rested against any part of the body. Some of our rifle's stocks were broken by the force of the recoil when using the launchers.

The rifle grenade, like the fragmentation hand grenade, had a powerful explosive charge. It filled the need for a plunging type projectile beyond the range of the hand grenade and less than the range of the light mortar. It could be fired over the tops of embankments, walls, buildings, or trees. Like the light and heavy mortars, howitzers, and certain high angle guns of the artillery, its fire was of the plunging kind. It was designed to fire at a high angle into the air, and the angle of arrival of the projectile at the target at a steeper angle than that at which it was fired. Therefore, that type of fire power was very useful in getting into ravines, behind buildings, and in thick woods.

The disadvantages of rifle grenades were that they lacked accuracy, and the difficulty of supply of grenades at the right place at the right time. Their weight made it impractical for a soldier to carry them on his person, so special means of supply had to be adopted when they were to be used.

Men of 83rd Division in Grenade Training

The rifle grenade was operationally an extension of the hand grenade, and like it, no aiming devices were used when firing. By much practice with it we became able to place the grenade in its effective explosive zone. Like a hand grenade, its fuse was ignited when fired or thrown and would explode in a few seconds. A hand grenade was not to be thrown like a baseball. It was much too heavy for that. The throwers arm should be kept extended, and the grenade heaved high into the air with the arc of the throw at an angle of about forty or fifty degrees from the horizontal. Otherwise, the throwers arm would soon be strained and the ability to throw gone.

I had great respect for the value of hand and rifle grenades, hut regarded them as secondary in importance to the rifle and bayonet. If the infantry is to be very mobile, and not loaded down with excessive weight, then their use was of necessity limited to defensive positions or to selected and well supplied periods of attack. Like the ammunition for machine rifles, a carried supply was soon exhausted when going forward in an attack. And going forward to attack was necessary if we were to be successful in war.

Grenades of other types were also supplied. For example: smoke grenades for laying a smoke screen, toxic gas grenades, and incendiary grenades. Rocket type grenades for signaling, for use in the grenade launcher will be described later.

We used the French grenades until the summer of 1918, when grenades of our own were supplied to us. They did not have a pin to be pushed in, hut instead had a small handle to be held down while a cotter pin with a ring on the end was pulled out and discarded, which allowed the spring loaded handle to rise when released. When throwing the grenade, the handle was released when leaving the hand which ignited the fuse, which was timed for five seconds. Those grenades were much safer in use and in handling than the others had been.

Sources and thanks: Thanks to Martin Marix Evans and Hanna Lundstedt of Taylor & Francis for making possible this selection from American Voices of World War I: Primary Source Documents, 1917–1920. Illustrations are courtesy of Bruce Canfield and Tony Langley. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Recommended: France's 50th Anniversary Battle of Verdun Documentary

This mesmerizing documentary on the Battle of Verdun has some unique features. On its 50th Anniversary, Verdun still had a large number of survivors of the battle alive. Dozens of them are interviewed in the presentation. Members of the present-day French Army explain some of the finer points of the battle. The battlefield film footage is not perfectly restored—none of the tricks Peter Jackson has mastered—were available at the time. However, the battlefield and the soldiers are captured very well and the overall effect of the images is powerful. 

One thing to be aware of. On YouTube, the film is divided into five pieces and is intended to move from one segment to the next with a single click. Sometimes this worked for me, sometimes not. Consequently, I've presented links to all five parts below. In any case, this is a must-see presentation for anyone who has an interest in the Battle of Verdun. 

Part 1

Part 2


Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Friday, March 13, 2020

3 October 1918: Germany Asks for Peace

Prince Max of Baden

Berlin, October 3, 1918

The German government requests that the President of the United States of America take the initiative in bringing about peace, that he inform all the belligerent states of this request, and that he invite them to send plenipotentiaries for purposes of beginning negotiations. The German government accepts as the basis for peace negotiations the program stated by the President of the United States in his speech to Congress of January 8, 1918 (1), and in his subsequent
pronouncements, particularly in his speech of September 27 (2).

In order to avoid further bloodshed, the German government requests the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land, at sea, and in the air.

Max, Prince of Baden

(1) The well-known  Fourteen Points

(2)  Less remembered is Wilson's speech in New York on this date.


These, then, are some of the particulars, and I state them with the greater confidence because I can state them authoritatively as representing this Government's interpretation of its own duty with regard to peace;

First, the impartial justice meted out must involve no discrimination between those to whom we wish to be just and those to whom we do not wish to be just. It must be a justice that plays no favorites and knows no standard bu the equal rights of the several peoples concerned;

Second, no special or separate interest of any single nation or any group of nations can be made on the basis of any part of the settlement which is not consistent with the common interest of all;

Third, there can be no leagues or alliances or special covenants and understandings within the general and common family of the League of Nations;

Fourth, and more specifically, there can be no special, selfish economic combinations within the league and no employment or any form of economic boycott or exclusion except as the power of economic penalty by exclusion from the markets of the world may be vested in the League of Nations itself as a means of discipline and control;

Fifth, all international agreements and treaties of every kind must be made known in their entirety to the rest of the world.

Special alliances and economic rivalries and hostilities have been the prolific source in the modern world of the plans and passions that produce war. It would be an insincere as well as an insecure peace that did not exclude them in definite and binding terms.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What Was the Shell Crisis?

Today Marks Our 2,500th Article

I'll bet that we have posted some articles on your favorite Great War topic. Try the site search box at the upper left corner of the site to see if this is the case.  Let me know in the comments section if you don't find anything and research a new entry for you.  
Mike Hanlon, Editor/Publisher

British Gunners in Flanders


In the last decade of the 19th century, artillery firepower was revolutionized. Steel field guns of larger calibers could range up to seven kilometers. Smokeless powder meant gunners could see to identify their targets. The remaining problem was that of recoil: the discharge of the shell caused the whole gun to move, and it had to be relaid for each round. The solution was for the barrel to move while the gun’s carriage remained stationary. Brakes checked the recoil and springs forced the barrel back to its original position. Crews could now stay close to the gun’s breech, sheltering behind its shield. In 1897, the French army adopted the war’s most effective quick-firing field gun, the 75mm, capable of firing 20 rounds a minute. In the following decade, the other European armies raced to match it. 

They recognized that previous calculations of shell consumption were now outdated, revising their expectations on the basis of the wars fought after 1899. By 1914, most had doubled their stocks, holding between 1,000 and 1,500 rounds per gun, thought to be enough for about six months’ fighting. Larger quantities in peacetime created the danger of obsolescence. Crucial now was the speed at which munitions industries could be converted to wartime production. In 1914, shell shortages emerged more quickly than anticipated for all the combatants—for France within six weeks, during the battle of the Marne, and for other armies, including the British and German, by November. The shortening of the day and the worsening of the weather as winter approached then provided some respite. Shortages, however, became critical as the spring campaigns of 1915 unfolded.

The British Experience

During their first offensive operation of 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, it became evident that the British Army would fast run out of shells for its artillery. The British Army in France had enough guns but, due to slow manufacturing of ammunition, not enough shells to fire. By mid-1915 British guns were restricted to firing only four or five shells a day. This "Great Shell Scandal" led to the collapse of Herbert Henry Asquith's government, forcing him to form a new, coalition government in 1916 which eventually led to his replacement by David Lloyd George.

A Well-Supplied British Howitzer on the Somme, 1916

The key ingredient of all ammunition for both shells and small arms at the time was cordite. Before the war the key ingredient of cordite—acetone—had been purchased from Germany. By 1916 it was discovered that conkers [horse chestnuts] fallen from trees could be boiled down to make acetone. A new Ministry of Munitions, headed by Lloyd George, was set up, and improvements to production and new factories and techniques were put in place. This eventually alleviated the crisis and enabled the manufacturing of up to 50 million shells a year, allowing the large offensives such as the Battle of the Somme to be mounted. 

Sources: Canadian Journal of History (1983, #1), 1914-1918 Online 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Recruiting the Armies: Volunteers & Conscripts

By: Alexander Watson
Published: 29 Jan 2014 on the Website of the British Library

A Full Belly: A German Cartoon Showing a  Benefit of Military Service
(3 Slops and a Flop Each Day in American Lingo)

The origins of conscription and the "citizen soldier"
The First World War was fought predominantly by conscript armies fielding millions of "citizen soldiers." The origins of this type of military lay in the levée en masse (mass mobilization) organized by the French revolutionary regime at the end of the 18th century, the first modern force built on the idea that all male citizens had a duty to bear arms in defense of their nation. However, it was France’s rival Prussia which improved and systematized the military model, developing a new form of universal short-service peacetime conscription. After spectacular victories over Austria and France in 1866 and 1871, this provided the organizational template for other continental European armies. Austria-Hungary imitated it in 1868, France in 1872, and Russia in 1874. Britain and the United States, which relied primarily on their navies for security, were alone among the major powers in remaining with small professional armies.

How conscription worked
Short-service systems of conscription obliged healthy male citizens to undergo a relatively brief period of military training in their youth and then made them subject for much of the rest of their adult lives to call up for refresher courses or for service in an emergency. The exact terms of service varied from country to country, but Germany’s system provides a good example. There men were drafted at age 20 for two or three years of peacetime training in the active army. While all had an obligation to serve, financial limitations meant in practice that only a little over half of each male year group was conscripted. After training, men were released into civilian life but could be called back to the army until they reached the age of 45. In between, men passed through various reserve categories. Those who had most recently completed their training belonged to the first-line reserve for five years, where they could expect to be redrafted early in the event of crisis. Later, they were allocated for a decade to the second-line Landwehr. The third-line Landsturm was the oldest band of reservists, intended mainly for rear-line duties in a major war. The short-service conscript system offered two major advantages. First, it created a large pool of trained manpower that could quickly augment the standing army in an emergency. In August 1914, the German army needed just 12 days to expand from 808,280 to 3,502,700 soldiers. Second, in a long conflict, the system offered an organizational framework capable of deploying nearly the entire manpower of a state as soldiers. Conscript forces became true "nations in arms" in 1914–18. Fifty-five percent of male Italians and Bulgarians aged 18 to 50 were called to military service. Elsewhere the proportions were even higher: 63% of military-aged men in Serbia, 78% in Austria-Hungary, and 81% of military-aged men in France and Germany served.

War volunteers and enlistment motivations
While conscript armies proved indispensable, and even the British in 1916 and the Americans in 1917 began to draft men, significant numbers of volunteers also served in the First World War. Most famously, in Britain 2,675,149 men volunteered, the vast majority in the first half of hostilities. However, even countries with long traditions of conscription also had large volunteering movements. In Germany, around half a million men came forward. The great rush was at the start of the war: in the first ten days 143,922 men enlisted in Prussian units alone. France’s voluntary enlistments were smaller but steadier, reaching 187,905 men by the end of hostilities. In multinational Austria-Hungary, men appear to have been less willing to volunteer for the emperor’s army, although they promptly obeyed call-up orders. Some nationalist movements did recruit successfully, however. The Polish Legionaries, the largest of these forces, had 21,000 volunteers by 1917. While volunteers tended to be disproportionately middle-class, their motives for joining the army may not have been so different from those of conscripts. Patriotic duty appears to have been a prime motivation for both groups, although coercion was also influential. Volunteers were not subject to the legal sanctions faced by conscripts who disobeyed drafting orders, but they might be exposed to considerable social pressure to enlist. For small minorities, economic factors or lust for action and adventure were important. These recruits, whether conscripts or volunteers, were citizen soldiers, whose attachment to their societies and stake in their states’ existence go far to explain the tremendous resilience of the armies of 1914–18.