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

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Légion étrangère in the Great War

Swedish Volunteers for the Legion

The French Foreign Legion of the colonial era was mainly deployed in extra-European areas and consisted of mercenaries on five-year contracts. After its foundation in 1831, the  Legion’s main task was to serve French imperialism with deployment in colonial conquests and counter-insurgency in Africa, Mexico, Indochina, and the Middle East. In World War I, the Foreign Legion fought in many critical battles on the Western Front, including Artois, Champagne, Somme, Aisne, and Verdun (in 1917), and also suffered heavy casualties during 1918. The Foreign Legion was also in the Dardanelles and Macedonian front and was highly decorated for its efforts.

The situation during World War I, however, was different: A large proportion of the Legion was deployed not on colonial soil but on the Western Front and other European theaters of war. This was mainly due to a decree from 3 August 1914 that allowed foreign volunteers to enlist “for the duration of the war.” As French law forbade foreigners from joining the regular army, these enlistments had to be in the Foreign Legion.

The Legion on the March in Champagne

In the days before the enlistment decree, there had been several calls to serve for France, including one by a group of intellectuals living in France led by the Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961). Cendrars himself immediately joined the Legion and lost his right arm in September 1915, an experience he would describe in his autobiographical book La Main coupée (1946). Those willing to serve for France included, amongst others, Italians, Russian expatriates, East European Jews who had fled to France in the 1890s, nationals of neutral countries (including the American poet Alan Seeger (1888–1916)), members of minorities of the Habsburg Empire, and allegedly even 800 Germans and Austrians. 

Their motives included a love for France and its political system and the wish to participate in a war that was anticipated to be short but in some cases also the need to avoid unemployment after the closing of factories upon mobilization. Altogether nearly 43,000 foreigners enlisted in the French army during World War I, although not all of these served in Foreign Legion units.  In the summer of 1914 the Foreign Legion, as usual, was dispersed to colonial locations in Morocco, Algeria, and Indochina. When the war broke out, the Algerian battalions were ordered to send half of their manpower to France to incorporate the new recruits and form four new Legion regiments. Those staying in North Africa included a large proportion of Germans and Austrians, who in general displayed a remarkable loyalty to the French mercenary troop. Unlike the figures of the other units of the “Armée d’Afrique” fighting on European soil, the number of legionnaires did not increase but displayed a sharp fall from 1914 to 1918. While the overall number of legionnaires from 1913 to 1915 doubled to nearly 22,000, there was a drop to about 12,000 in the second half of the war. Five march regiments were formed and then reorganized into a single regiment on 11 November 1915 due to severe losses to create the RMLE or the Foreign Legion Marching Regiment. 

Legionnaire Edward Morlae Wrote a 1916 Memoir
on His Experiences in the War

The inclusion of allegedly idealistic wartime volunteers into the Legion would considerably, albeit only temporarily, change its image. The London Times during autumn 1916 characterized legionnaires as “fighters for an idea," attributing to them “a deeply-rooted love of liberty and justice”: “The old idea that the Legion is a regiment of wrongdoers is exploded […].” However, the wartime Legion did not just consist of idealistic volunteers, and indeed, the amalgamation of “old” legionnaires arriving from the colonies and the wartime volunteers proved to be extremely difficult. The two groups’ mentality and outlook were radically different: Many of the new volunteers were patriotic, middle-class, politicized, and not at all happy to be incorporated into the infamous mercenary unit. “Old” Legionnaires, on the other hand, overwhelmingly stemmed from the lower classes, considered fighting a profession and hardly empathized with the idealistic volunteers.

A lack of experienced cadres added to these problems which, together with high casualty rates and widespread discontent, would soon result in a serious crisis that threatened the Legion’s fighting efficiency. In May and June 1915 there were several cases of mutiny. These problems forced the Legion to restructure and to restore much of its prewar character. Many volunteers had left again after their own countries had entered the war. British and Belgian volunteers had very quickly been allowed to join their own national armies in 1914. The same applied to Italians in spring 1915. In mid-1915, wartime volunteers were also given the opportunity to fight in other French units, and many volunteers decided to do so. Those who remained in the Legion from now on were voluntarily there. New entrants only had to serve for a very short time in the Legion before being transferred to other units.

American Volunteers

All these measures transformed the Legion on the Western Front from a gathering of reluctant foreigners to an elite regiment, considerably reduced in numbers, but strengthened in morale and fighting efficiency. It was not by chance, therefore, that the Legion would not be affected by the general morale crisis and mutinies of the French army in spring 1917. In November 1915 two Foreign Legion units had been merged into the “Régiment de marche de la Légion étrangère” which subsequently would fight at the Somme, at Verdun, in the second Marne battle and other theaters of war. Towards the end of the war, however, a serious dearth of recruits would jeopardize the Legion’s continued presence at the Western Front. Officially 4,116 members of the Foreign Legion were killed on the Western Front and another 1,200 in other theaters of war. Thus, roughly 10 percent of those serving in the Legion between 1914 and 1918 lost their lives.

Sources: Chemins de Mémoire;  A Soldier of the Legion: Edward Morlae; Encyclopedia 1914-1918

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Sins of Horatio Bottomley

War Booster Extraordinaire 

Horatio Bottomley (1860–1933) was a man of humble origins, who became a famous, popular, and larger-than-life character during the years before and during the First World War. He started up the populist magazine John Bull and other newspapers and magazines and made a great deal of money out of these and other business ventures. He was twice elected to Parliament. Bottomley was involved in several failed companies and narrowly escaped being convicted of fraud at trials in both 1893 and 1908.

During the war, after his offer to serve as Director of Recruiting was rejected by the Government, he set himself up as an unofficial war recruiter and propagandist, holding vast meetings which whipped up the crowd to a fever of anti-German feeling and patriotism. His style was bombastic and jingoistic, but wildly popular, and his hundreds of "patriotic war lectures", publicized and performed like music hall entertainment, made a great deal of money. The profits were advertised as going to his War Charity Fund; in fact, they went into Bottomley’s own pocket.

The swindle that finally brought him down involved the Victory Bonds Club, which was set up in 1919. Bottomley claimed that for a minimum investment of £1 (compared with £5 for the underlying bonds), subscribers would get the chance to win prizes from a lottery funded by the interest payments. Bottomley used the money in a bid to rebuild his media empire, as well as to fund an extravagant lifestyle.

Arriving at Bow Street Court for His Trial

Bad investments, poor administration, and the high level of expenses meant that the club could only survive if it could find new investors (turning it into a de-facto Ponzi scheme). Unfortunately for Bottomley, investors started to lose confidence in the scheme, pulling their money out. In 1921 Reuben Bigland, Bottomley's former business partner, published a pamphlet attacking him and the club. 

After Bottomley lost a libel case against Bigland, he was arrested by the police. He went to trial on 19 May 1922. After a 28-minute deliberation by the jury he was convicted of embezzling £170,000 and sentenced to serve five years in prison. After serving the full sentence, he tried many schemes to resurrect his fortune—even a music hall speaking gig—but died destitute on 26 May 1933.

Sources: Scotland's War; Money Week; The Times Literary Supplement

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Pershing’s Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I

Edited by David T. Zabecki and Douglas V. Mastriano
Osprey Publishing, 2023
John D Beatty, Reviewer

Panthéon de la Guerre, Detail
National WWI Museum, Kansas City, MO

(Click on Image to Enlarge)

In the pantheon of books on WWI, you can count the number of works on American leadership during the Great War on the fingers of one hand. There are many essays on the U.S. Army’s education system before 1920, but they are buried in dusty archives and specialist publications. Pershing’s Lieutenants is an effort to correct that with 26 essays of selected officers at all levels of command and as a bonus give some insight on just why the officer pool was so limited.

MG Zabecki is no stranger to many, having several military history works under his name or aegis; this reviewer wrote several essays for Garland's World War Two in Europe: An Encyclopedia that Zabecki edited. Douglas V. Mastriano is a Pennsylvania state senator who wrote a well-received biography of Alvin York. The two editors together wrote the introduction and wrote several essays.

Well-known scholars wrote all the essays that are grouped into classifications such as future chiefs of staff of the U.S.Army, future commandants of the U.S. Marine Corps, the senior staff officers, the army commanders, corps and division commanders, the specialist officers, and the regimental officers. The count of essays in each section is uneven, but that hardly matters.

The biggest section is the future chiefs of staff. All five officers are familiar—Hines, Summerall, MacArthur, Craig, Marshall—and appear in the order they served in the top spot. The same for the commandants—Lejeune and Neville. After those two, the order no longer matters. What matters is the quality of the essays and how they convey the message the editors want to pass on: America went into WWI in something of a muddle, but came out of it with a greater sense not just of leadership but also of organization. The army commanders and the corps and division commanders sections exemplify this sense. From the very highest echelons to the very lowest, not just organization but the fundamentals of Western Front warfare in 1917 had to be learned and developed in a hurry. It becomes painfully obvious, reading the essays, that Pershing’s draconian policy of removing officers who couldn’t measure up or were not physically fit was essential.

The specialist officers section has interesting vignettes of familiar names. While Billy Mitchell was indeed a specialist, George Patton was a cavalry officer assigned to the early tanks and nearly died in the Meuse-Argonne. The regimental officers section contains a future president of the United States (Harry Truman), a future head of the OSS (Bill Donovan), and the son of a president (Teddy Roosevelt Jr.). The appendix, "U.S. Army Professional Military Education in the Early 20th Century," is essential to understanding why the leadership pickings were so slim. Pershing had a very shallow pool to select from, and the appendix shows why. Though they don’t mention it, the Navy/Marine Corps education system wasn’t a lot better.

The list of officers is hardly comprehensive, but all the essays are complete bios, some spending more space outside the 1917–18 time frame than in it. But the essays highlight the reasons behind the selection of these men over others, sometimes for negative reasons. The United States was still in its adolescence in 1917, though it grew up in an awful hurry. The leadership of the Army and Marine Corps was better than was to be expected in 1917, and Pershing’s Lieutenants reflects assessment. Well worth the time, if only for an appreciation of the interaction among leadership, experience, and education.

John D Beatty

Monday, September 18, 2023

Organizing the Kaiser's Army for War

By Janet and Joe Robinson

Even though most people find it convenient to call it Germany, there really was no completely unified Germany before the First World War. The German Empire, which was not founded at all until 1871, was just over 40 years old when the war started. Nietzsche in 1873 wrote that "up until now there has been no original German culture." The empire itself was a cobbled-together federation of 25 different states. Each of the states had given up their sovereignty to be part of the empire but had a wide range of powers in governing their internal affairs. Not all of the states were equal, some states having a considerable amount of autonomy, while others had very little. While the Imperial German Constitution provided for an imperial navy, there was no imperial army. In fact there were four separate armies.

The army had four distinct components—Prussian, Württemberg, Saxon, and Bavarian armies. This was and is incredibly confusing as far as terminology is concerned. Even Bismarck was confounded by the references. He admitted that it was not constitutionally correct, but rather than name each individual army, he elected to use the expression "imperial army" for the sake of succinctness. Reichsheer was the term favored by the Kaiser. The Imperial German Army is the term used in many sources, but most of time one sees "German Army" used even though it is not correct.

According to the Imperial Constitution, the empire covered the expenses of the Prussian, Württemberg, and Saxon components. Bavaria had to cover the  peacetime expenses of its army from its own resources. Only upon mobilization did Bavaria receive financial support from the Reichstag. Artidl3 53 of the Imperial Constitution declared that the Navy of the Empire was united and under the Supreme Command of the Kaiser. Artidle 53 was written, in part, because of all the 25 states, only Prussia had a navy prior to the constitution. Art. 63 stated, "The entire land force of the Empire shall constitute a united army, which in war and in peace shall be under the command of the Kaiser." Article 63 is legal language, which makes for many loopholes. There was no imperial army but simply contingents of the member states. The navy was an internal indivisible organization set forth in the constitution. The army was a collective unit and its unity did not cancel the existence of state contingents. The term "Imperial German Army" is an improper collective phrase that is used continuously, under which the combining of the different armies may be easily understood.

The key to understanding this is that when the states joined the German Empire, they ceased to be sovereign but did not cease to be states. Nowhere did the states give up sovereignty more completely than in military affairs. Most states had their own armies, but each army was recruited, organized, equipped, and drilled not in conformity with state regulations but rather by the rules of the empire, which were determined by Prussia. Formally, the state possessed military supremacy, but the content and extent of that supremacy was determined by the military conventions between the state and Prussia. 

The Hanseatic cities and four principalities did not form their own military. Rather, Prussia had units stationed in their capital cities, and often those Prussian units are erroneously considered units of the hosting state; however, they were not—they belonged directly to the Prussian army. The conscripts from these states entered directly into the Prussian army through separate military conventions. This was really a holdover of the North German Confederation, i.e. Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Hamburg vom 23, Juli 1867. This made sense at the time; however, these agreements froze regimental structure and eventually led to a very convoluted recruiting and naming system. For instance, Infantry Regiment 31 (1st. Thüringisches) was moved from Erfurt in Thüringia to Altona, a suburb of Hamburg, in 1871 and lost any connection to Thüringia except in name.

All states eventually entered into military conventions with Prussia. These conventions ceded to the King of Prussia what constitutional powers the states may have had relative to military matters. Unlike the North German Confederation, each of the armies was placed underneath the Kaiser and imperial army in the event of war as well as in peace. The King of Saxony and the King of Württemberg could appoint officers within their contingents; however, the appointment of generals was contingent upon the consent of the Kaiser. The Kaiser personally approved the appointment of every army corps commander. The King of Bavaria had no such restrictions; he still had the right to appoint commanding generals of the Bavarian army corps without being endorsed by the Kaiser. By these conventions, the rulers of the states resigned all power over their armies into the hands of the King of Prussia. Their sovereignty over the military was in name only. The rulers retained military honors and the right to appoint aides-de-camp. The small states paid a certain price to the Prussian treasury for each soldier absorbed into the Prussian army. Prussia then paid the men, promoted them, and received their oath of allegiance.

Officers of the small states were normally required to provide a written document to their ruler reinforcing their faith as loyal subjects, but then submerged themselves in the Prussian army. In many cases, the rulers of the small states published farewell messages to their troops. 

So why was Prussia so dominant? In addition to great success in recent wars, when the 22 states of the North German Confederation united, Prussia represented 80 percent of the total population and 85 percent of the total area. (Of that population of 30 million, 24,000,000 were Prussian and 2,000,000 were Saxon, leaving 4,000,000 to be divided among the other 20 members.) Art. 61 of the North German Confederation constitution gave Prussia the power of having all military legislation immediately introduced into the entire territory of the union. Art. 61 of the imperial constitution was the same with the change of words from "the entire territory of the union" to "the empire." Prussia gained the constitutional right to dictate military regulations and instructions; other legislation had to be adopted immediately by all contingents in the empire. By 1914, 19 of the 25 army corps were from Prussia. Seventy-five percent of the army was Prussian. 

The Kaiser's control of the military, explained in the constitution, was controversial. Total control benefited the Kaiser and the military, but the Reichstag held a different view. The Kaiser split control of the army into three separate groups: (1) the chief of staff, who was in charge of the Great General Staff, (2) the war minister and the corps commanders, and (3) the Kaiser's Military Cabinet. This led to an unbelievably convoluted chain of command that often revolved around who had the most access to the Kaiser. 

The chief of staff and the Great General Staff were responsible for military strategy, mobilization, and the readiness of the army. The war minister—who was really the Prussian war minister—was responsible for doctrine, ostensibly the corps commanders, and for the structure of the army. He was directly responsible for the size of the army and getting financial support annually from the Reichstag; he was also responsible for dealing with the Chancellor. The Military Cabinet was directly responsible to the Kaiser, independent of both the Great General Staff and the Ministry of War and made all the personnel appointments in the army. 

This is the crux of the split-command issue. The war minister drafted the legislation and submitted the budget to the Reichstag that funded the size of the army. The chief of staff determined what the requirement for the size of the army was. The Military Cabinet determined what key officers would be in position to make it all happen. This agreement and competition  amongst these three groups, especially the war minister and chief of staff, would lead to a disconnecting of requirements and resources.

Source: Originally preswnted in OVER THE TOP, April 2010

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Lost Blueprints for the First Tank Find a Home

Auctioneer Paul Laidlaw with the Blueprint

In 2021 the "lost" blueprint for the world's first tank, the British Mark-I, was  unearthed in an "astonishing" discovery. It was sold at auction in February 2022 by Cumbria auctioneer Paul Laidlaw.  The fascinating document is the only known blueprint for the British-made Mark I tank that exists. Sold alongside it was the 20-page patent specification for the tank. The Tank Museum in Dorset secured the plans and patent for the Mark-I tank for a hammer price of £14,600.

The highly detailed, large-scale technical plan is like an X-ray for the tracked vehicle that helped change the course of the First World War. The 44" x 28" blueprint, dated May 1916, came from a private vendor whose family have owned it for some considerable time.

British Mark-I tank, C.19 "Clan Leslie," at the
Battle of the Somme

The museum-quality documents have been described as the "birth certificate" for the tank, an invention that also changed the nature of modern warfare. The patent describes the tank as "transport vehicles propelled by an endless moving chain track" in the shape of a "lozenge or diamond".

It says they are adapted to traverse conditions that are "exceedingly difficult owing to the presence of obstructions, such as trenches, parapets, shell holes, craters and so forth". 

"The casing as seen in the side elevation, approximately in shape resembles a lozenge or diamond standing on its edge. The high end is the front, whilst the low end is the rear."

"The chain track or tracks extend entirely around the frame, so that the machine is arranged within the area enclosed by the track or tracks."

The Mark-I tank was designed and manufactured in 1916 by agricultural machinery company William Foster & Co of Lincoln. The documents bear the ink stamps of the designers and manufacturers of the tank "William Foster & Co Limited, Engineers, Lincoln, England" and "Metropolitan Carriage Wagon & Finance Co. Ltd."

Specifications That Accompany the Drawings

The historic documents were sold by Laidlaw Auctioneers of Carlisle, Cumbria. Mr. Paul Laidlaw, a star of the BBC's Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip, said the blueprint is like a work of art in its own right.

He said: "It has always been thought that no original blueprint for the Mark-I tank exists. The Imperial War Museum and the Tank Museum in Dorset do not have one. . . When I laid eyes on the blueprint its immediate visual impact far exceeded my expectations. It's like seeing an X-ray of a mechanical leviathan and gives some insight into why these 'land ships' induced such shock and awe in the troops of 1916. . . The blueprint is a thing of beauty. It is a work of art as much as it is a historical document and with the original draft patent document, this is the birth certificate of the tank."                        .

Sources: Wales Online and the BBC

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Adolf Hitler — "War Poet"?

Hitler with His Fellow Soldiers

It Was in the Thicket of the Forest at Artois... 
based on a true event.

Attributed to Adolf Hitler

It was in the thick of the Artois Wood.
Deep in the trees, on blood-soaked ground,
Lay stretched a wounded German warrior,
And his cries rang out in the night.
In vain ... no echo answered his plea ..
Will he bleed to death like a beast,
That shot in the gut dies alone?

Then suddenly . . .
Heavy steps approach from the right
He hears how they stamp on the forest floor .
And new hope springs from his soul.
And now from the left . . .
And now from both sides . . .

Two men approach his miserable bed
A German it is, and a Frenchman.
And each watches the other with distrustful glance,
And threateningly they aim their weapons.
The German warrior asks:
"What do you do here?" "
I was touched by the needy one's call for help."
"It's your enemy!"
"It is a man who suffers."

And both, wordless, lower their weapons.
Then entwined their hands
And, with muscles tensed, carefully lifted
The wounded warrior, as if on a stretcher,
And carried him through the woods,
'Til they came to the German outposts.
"Now it's over.
 He will get good care."
And the Frenchman turns back toward the woods.
But the German grasps for his hand,
Looks, moved, into sorrow-dimmed eyes
And says to him with earnest foreboding:

"I know not what fate holds for us,
Which inscrutably rules in the stars.
Perhaps I shall fall, a victim of your bullet.
Maybe mine will fell you on the sand
For indifferent is the chance of battles.
Yet, however it may be and whatever may come:
We lived these sacred hours,
Where man found himself in a man . . .
And now, farewell! And God be with you!"

This is presented here as a matter of historical interest rather than for the quality of the verse. (Although this is a translation, and I don't know how well it reads in the German original.)

Sources: I've found two sources which attribute this poem to Hitler: Hitler to Power  by Charles Bracelen Flood, and the original (in German) Hitler’s World View by  Eberhard Jäckel.

Friday, September 15, 2023

The 3rd Division's Rock of the Marne Tradition

3rd Division Soldiers Form the Distinctive Shoulder Patch

No American military unit today more enthusiastically embraces and honors its First World War experience than the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, currently based at Fort Stewart, Georgia.  Nearly 105 years ago, the German Army launched the fifth of the their "Ludendorff Offensives" on the front between Chateau-Thierry and Reims. Along the western half of the sector this meant mounting an assault across the Marne River. The key crossing  point was five miles east of Chateau-Thierry around the village of Mezy. Just behind Mezy was the opening to a valley which—if entered—would allow the attackers to penetrate the Allies' rear deeply.  Defending on either side of Mezy were two regiments of the American Third Division. Their action here  on 15 July 1918 helped halt the last German offensive of World War I. 

The Division's Engineers Constructing a Bridge Across the River Marne After the Rock of the Marne Action

Here is the division's own explanation of the importance of  what came to be known as the "Rock of the Marne" battle by Lt. Col. Tim Stoy, former Historian of the Society of the 3rd Division:

Division Headquarters, Fort Stewart

Divisional Flag with Battle Streamers

The Great War ended 105 years ago, and no known 3rd Infantry Division WWI veterans are still alive. Later the division fought with distinction in WWII, then in Korea, was a mainstay of the U.S.  Army in Europe during the Cold War and most recently has served 3 combat tours in Iraq. It is reasonable to ask what being the Rock of the Marne means in America's army today. Even as the 3rd Infantry Division served in Andernach, Germany as part of the Army of Occupation from November 1918 until late summer 1919, it was already known as the Marne Division. The letterhead of the division newsletter, The Watch on Rhine, proudly displayed that title. Two of the division’s then-constituent regiments, the 30th and 38th Infantry, proudly still bear the name Rock of the Marne on their unit insignia. Not only the words but also the symbolism of these two unit insignia depict the battle on the Marne River. The arrow with its tip pushed back represents the German attack in the division’s sector along the Marne when the regiments and division stood fast when the units to the left and right were driven back from the river.

When 3rd Infantry Division soldiers or officers meet one another, they greet one another with “Rock of the Marne.” When they see the division’s distinguished unit insignia on their service dress uniform they see a wyvern, a winged dragon, standing atop a rock, the rock symbolizing their fame as the Rock of the Marne as well as the division motto “Nous Resterons La,” We Shall Remain Here! The division also has a mascot, Rocky the Bulldog. His name comes from the division’s being the "Rock of the Marne" and from its dogged determination to win in combat, which started at its very first battle in 1918, the 2nd Battle of the Marne, and continues to be its hallmark today. 

Rocky was designed by Walt Disney, and the rights to his image were sold to the division for $1 in 1965. Every day we are reminded of our WWI heritage as we see the blue-and-white division patch everywhere in the unit areas. Our patch was designed at the end of WWI—the white stripes representing our three operations in 1918: Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. The blue represents the loyalty of the soldiers defending ideals of liberty and democracy. And everyone who wears that patch carries the name “Marne Soldier!” 

Official Army Depiction of the Rock of the Marne Action

3rd Division Memorial at Nearby Château-Thierry

Order the best historic account of the "Rock of the Marne" episode by author Stephen Harris HERE, and his other WWI works (All Recommended).

Thursday, September 14, 2023

My First World War One Article: Jack London on the Great War

This initially appeared on Trenches on the Web in 1997.

Jack London, 1915

Jack London on the Great War

By Michael E. Hanlon

The world has turned many times since the day my father sold Jack London a newspaper at some boxing venue in San Francisco and the famous author and newspaper correspondent goodnaturedly chatted with him briefly. That chance meeting long-ago, insured that London's works would be well represented in my early reading. When I escaped the childrens' department and made my initial visits to the adult section of our neighborhood library, Dad came along to help me select my books. THE SEA WOLF was the second 'adult' volume I ever read. [For some reason lost in memory, Dad's first pick was Zane Grey's RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE.]

Subsequently, I went through a long period devouring every volume the library possessed of Jack London's works. I recall enjoying the Alaskan adventure yarns a lot more than, say, the SCARLET PLAGUE in which a worldwide pandemic was prophesied, or the IRON HEEL, which projected war between Germany and the United States as well as the rise of a totalitarian reaction to a successful socialistic revolution. But in those days I had yet to hear of the Spanish Flu or the rise of fascism, so I had no appreciation of how "cutting-edge" Jack London could be when inspired.

War Correspondent, 1904
London with Japanese Officials, Russo-Japanese War

In college, I experienced another phase learning about him in his roles of journalist and social critic. George Orwell, I had read, considered THE ROAD, London's memoir of his hobo, vagabond days as his greatest work. This started me reading all the author's nonfiction works including the truly excellent despatches from the front lines of the Russo-Japanese War.

At some point, I moved on from Jack London's literature, and eventually developed my abiding interest in history and in the Great War of 1914–1918. For a long time, I parked Jack London and World War I in different stalls in my memory garage. Then one day recently, I saw a reference to London's last assignment as a war correspondent—he had accompanied the U.S. forces on their punitive mission to Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914. Something clicked and I started asking myself what London, who died on 22 November 1916, might have done in the way of reporting [or at least commenting] on the first two years of the war in Europe.

My researching efforts were not very successful at first—his biographers are sketchy on this subject—but finally, the historian at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, California, steered me in the right direction. He put me in contact with Winifred Kingman, operator of the nearby Jack London Bookstore, whose late husband Russ was a London biographer and authority. Winifred agreed that World War I was just too big of an event for a dynamic and curious individual like Jack London to ignore. She was kind enough to search through the indexing of her husband's 50,000 [!] reference cards and discovered some revealing material. It required only some minor editing to organize things and to cull-out London's occasional ventures into Nietzschean and socialistic theorizing. What emerged is the same eclectic mixture of incisiveness and intellectualizing that characterized most of London's work.

Rather than supply full commentary, I have decided to take a documentary approach for the rest of this piece, using the best of the material supplied by Winifred Kingman. Here is Jack London, with minimal annotating by me, discoursing on the coming and early years of the Great War:


"Soldiers [in the future] will be compelled to creep forward, burying themselves in the earth like moles...

"Future wars must be long. No more open fields; no more decisive victories; but a succession of sieges fought over and through successive lines of widely extending fortifications. The defeated army — supposing that it can be defeated — will retire slowly, entrenching itself step by step, and most likely with steam 'entrenching machines.'

"The artillery has come to be greatly relied upon. Competent military experts hold that French artillery has increased in deadliness in the past thirty years one hundred and sixteen times. This has been made possible by the use of range-finders, chemical instead of mechanical mixtures of powder, high explosives, increase of range, and rapid fire."

[Despite the accuracy of these predictions, the completed article somewhat illogically forecasted the end of large-scale warfare.]

Vera Cruz Mexico, 1914:  Correspondents (L-R) Jimmie Hare, London, Frederick Palmer, Richard Harding Davis


"Jack London to Go to War Scene! — Just Waiting for Big Battle — Preparing to Leave"
Headlines, San Francisco Call, August 14, 1914

In October 1914, Colliers Magazine offers to hire London as a war correspondent, but he declines upon learning it is impossible to get to the front without being arrested. [Russ Kingman Note, source unknown]

"I am looking forward, however, soon or late to going to Europe (soon as reporters [are] allowed to go to front.)
Letter to Dear Friend Braam, December 11, 1914.

Jack London, however, never made it to the Western Front. He would spend about two-thirds of his last 18 months visiting Hawaii trying to regain his failing health.


"Get a Gun! Says London"
Headline, San Francisco Bulletin, August 31, 1915

"I may add to my views on War that I think our National Guard a silly effort at preparedness; and that I believe in compulsory universal military service for our country for as long as there are gun-fighting nations liable to shoot at us." J.L.
Inscription in Lt. Willson's copy of LOVE OF LIFE


"Warn the Kaiser...[of]..."The inevitability of war [with America]"

Letter to George Sterling, January 13, 1915.

"All I have to say about Germany is: Germany [is like] a big, stupid, blundering child that thought it thought like a man."

Letter to Mr. Mills, June 8, 1915

"I wish to tell you that I am profoundly pro-ally. I believe that the present war is a war between civilization and barbarism, between democracy and oligarchy...War is a silly nonintellectual function performed by men who are themselves only partly civilized, or by men who are really civilized and who must [face?], in battle, the barbaric attack of barbarians."

Letter to John Malmsbury Wright, September 7, 1915

" I believe the world as far as concerns not individuals, but the entire race of man, is good. The world war has compelled men to return from the cheap and easy lies of illusion to the brass tack and iron facts of reality. It is not good for man to get too high up in the air above reality. The world war has redeemed [humanity] from the fat and gross materialism of generations of peace, and caught mankind up in a blaze of the spirit. The world war has been a pentecostal cleansing of the spirit of man."

Comments to Pathé Exchange, June 16, 1916

[This intellectual's view that is slightly weird sounding today was by no means exclusively London's. The Italian critic Benedetto Croce made similar points in urging his country to declare war in 1915.]

Jack London, who once wrote, "So much of the game has been gain, though the gold of the dice has been lost," lost his life, possibly at his own hand, November 22, 1916.

London's Grave Near the Ruins of Wolf House,
Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen, CA (Added 2023)

Russ Kingman's PICTORIAL BIOGRAPHY OF JACK LONDON and a visit to Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon, Sonoma County, California, are recommended to all. My favorite works by London include all of his short stories and reporting, his semi- autobiographical works MARTIN EDEN and JOHN BARLEYCORN, and that novel about the tyrannical sea captain Wolf Larsen that my father, the former newsboy, handed me at the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library once upon a time.

With thanks to the rangers of Jack London State Park and Winifred Kingman.


Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Antwerp Falls — On to the Yser for the Belgian Army

Belgian Troops Retreating West of Antwerp

On the morning of 8 October 1914, King Albert issued his evacuation order for Antwerp in response to increasing German pressure. The withdrawal was made in some confusion over the next 48 hours, with the majority of the Royal Marine Brigade withdrawn. The additional British Army force, which meanwhile had landed at Zeebrugge, was placed under the command of Sir John French of the BEF and ordered to cover the Belgian Army retreat and then move from around Gent toward Ypres. The remains of the Belgian field army, dispirited and in some disorder, joined civilian refugees clogging the roads to the coast or made their way into the Netherlands. After more than two months of continuous action against overwhelming odds they were exhausted and needed rebuilding, but they still existed.

One proposal for the Belgian Army was withdrawal west of Calais into France to regroup. Albert saw two great dangers in this. He knew that any attempt to take his army under French command would be resisted by his Dutch-speaking soldiers (who made up most of the lower ranks), and he also saw that if he abandoned Belgian soil he could be usurped as king. It was finally agreed that the Belgian Army would concentrate in the Nieuport-Dixmude area, just inside Belgium, with the French Marines of Admiral Ronarc'h on their right in Dixmude. By 14 October the Belgian Army started to prepare positions along the Yser, and it would be this small strip of Belgium that would be defended by Belgian soldiers, commanded by their own king, until the end of the war.

The Strategically Important Locks at the Nieuport "Goose Foot"

As the Belgian engineers began constructing defenses along the Yser they became aware of French intentions to flood the low ground near Dunkirk, a move which would risk the Belgian forces being trapped by water behind them and by advancing Germans to their front. The obvious solution was to inundate the low-lying farmland running from Dixmude, some nine miles inland, to Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, thus producing a major obstacle to stop the German advance. This low-lying ground was below high tide level and even the canalized rivers flowed between embankments, their water levels higher than the surrounding land.

On the evening of Sunday 25 October, Belgian Army engineers started preparing the area to be flooded. Exhausted soldiers, working with whatever materials were at hand, made the railway embankment watertight. In the small hours of the 28th, the final part of the plan was executed when the Spanish Lock at Nieuport, now under German observation during daylight, was secured in the open position to allow the rising tide to move inland.

The Germans launched eight infantry regiments on a six-mile front on 30 October in an attempt to force the railway embankment before the rising water defeated them. In the little village of Pervyse, Belgian soldiers of the 13th and 10th Infantry Regiments together with a battalion of French Chasseurs repelled the attackers and took 200 prisoners. The Germans succeeded in taking Ramscappelle but, realizing the water behind them was still rising (ankle-deep in the morning, the water was knee-high by midday), started to filter back across the rising flood. The inundation continued to rise while the last few isolated farms still held by the now-marooned enemy were taken.

Kings George V and Albert I Meet After the Retreat to
the Yser Line

On the morning of the 31st, a Franco-Belgian attack was launched against the Germans in Ramscapelle, but General von Beseler, commanding the German Third Reserve Army Corps, had already ordered a withdrawal across the Yser. This defeat for the Germans, engineered in no small part by two civilians who were familiar with the lock system, was one of the decisive setbacks of the Great War. It was never reversed: the Channel ports supplying the British Army never fell, and an immovable anchor was set on the northern end of the emerging Western Front. Farther south on this same day, the fighting west of Ypres was giving the German Army one last opportunity for a breakthrough that could flank and roll up the entire Allied position.  Our account of what happened around Ypres can be found HERE.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

More Precious than Peace: A New History of America in World War I

By Justus D. Doenecke
Notre Dame Press, 2022

Publisher's Synopsis:

In More Precious than Peace, the long-awaited successor to his critically acclaimed work Nothing Less than War, Justus D. Doenecke examines the entirety of the American experience as a full-scale belligerent in World War I. This book covers American combat on the western front, the conscription controversy, and scandals in military training and production. Doenecke explores the Wilson administration’s quest for national unity, the Creel Committee, and “patriotic” crusades. Weaving together these topics and many others, including the U.S. reaction to the Russian revolutions, Doenecke creates a lively and comprehensive narrative.

An Excerpt from More Precious than Peace, from the Publisher

America’s participation in World War I marks one of the most remarkable periods in the nation’s history. The United States sent nearly two million troops overseas, created an unparalleled war machine, and established a propaganda apparatus the envy of any nation. Such efforts are particularly extraordinary in a nation whose leadership was totally inexperienced in such matters. A decade before the nation entered the conflict, its president headed a major eastern university, its secretary of war served as a solicitor of a leading Midwestern city, its secretary of the navy edited a metropolitan daily in the South, and the secretary of the treasury had just helped create a subway connecting Manhattan to Jersey City. Its postmaster general was the attorney for a judicial district outside of Austin, Texas, while its nation’s leading general administered a fort outside of Manila. The man who headed the nation’s war propaganda ran a newspaper in Kansas City. The president’s alter ego, a confidant who would be entrusted with the most delicate of diplomatic missions, had recently been an intimate of several Texas governors and was just becoming immersed in national Democratic politics. Only the secretary of state had some experience befitting his station as he was a respected international lawyer whose specialty lay in arbitration. Of all the wartime ambassadors to Europe, just one had ever held a diplomatic post before.

Given such lack of experience, in some ways the American war effort achieved remarkable success, especially as the United States participated as a belligerent for merely a year and a half. While yet a newcomer to the coalition fighting the Central Powers, President Woodrow Wilson articulated peace aims that forced all the warring leaders, friend or foe, to respond to his agenda. Presenting an alternative vision to V.I. Lenin’s dictum of an immediate peace with no annexations or reparations, he captured the popular imagination both at home and overseas with his stress upon self-determination of peoples and an entirely new global order, thereby strengthening liberals everywhere. Even his military intervention in Russia drew little contemporary dissent, with quarrels over his motives remaining left for historians to debate decades later.

Certain other cabinet members possessed genuine strengths. Secretary of State Robert Lansing framed an agreement with Japan, nebulous to be sure, that reduced tensions at a critical juncture in the conflict. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels directed massive convoy operations and engineered a “Bridge of Ships” that sent hordes of Doughboys overseas with minuscule single loss of life. William Gibbs McAdoo, secretary of the treasury, raised $17 billion in massive publicity drives while authorizing $7.3 billion in loans to the Allies, money crucial to their survival. He also coordinated a complex railroad system, one that had been so chaotic that in winter 1918 that much of the economy was barely functioning.

The Wilson administration suffered less corruption than had existed under Abraham Lincoln. It showed more imagination than did a host of subsequent wartime presidents, ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, particularly in the ability to propagate its war aims. Waging its first total overseas conflict in its entire life—manpower, factories, farms, indeed its thinking—the nation was welded into a militarized behemoth. As part of a production miracle, several million inductees were supplied with 30.7 million pairs of shoes, 21.7 million blankets, 13.9 million wool coats, and 131 million pairs of socks. George Creel, chairman of the nation’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), distributed close to 100 million pieces of literature throughout the world. Most important of all, American shipments to Europe, ranging from steel and copper to textiles and raw cotton, were crucial in making victory possible. Furthermore, in the fall of 1918 the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in the Allied triumph.

As expected, the Wilson administration set a premium on national unity. Americans, the president pledged in his war message of 2 April 1917, would “dedicate our lives and fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have” to the common effort. Two weeks later, in a proclamation urging sacrifice, he remarked, “We must all speak, act, and serve together!” In his Flag Day address delivered within two months, he warned, “Woe be to the man or group of men that seek to stand in our way in this day of high resolution.” Speaking to Congress in May 1918, Wilson went so far as to claim “politics is adjourned.”

The story of the war, however, is not one of consensus. Although the success of four Liberty Loan campaigns indicates massive popular support for the military effort, few realize the degree of dissidence manifested in the nation. Not only was politics never “adjourned.” From the time the country entered the war, attacks on the Wilson administration remained strong and bitter. Early in April 1917, six senators and 50 members of the House voted against entering the conflict. At the time, at least four additional antiwar senators and up to 50 representatives still opposed American belligerency, though they felt pressured by the need to express national unity and, if they were Southerners, by Democratic party loyalty. Final congressional tallies supporting conscription belie strong initial dissent over the matter, expressed over several weeks and lodged within the highest ranks of the president’s own party. The CPI and particularly director Creel drew impassioned congressional attack as did the original espionage bill of June 1917 and the sedition act of May 1918. The nation experienced persecutions of German-Americans, an ethnic group totaling at least eight million people. It saw as well wide-sweeping repression of political radicals, who nonetheless offered surprising resistance that continued until well into the war.

Moreover, in other ways as well, the war was no success story, the administration showing itself woefully inept and occasionally downright destructive. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson refused mailing privileges to scores of dissident journals, especially if they were on the political left. Before the U.S. entered the conflict, Colonel Edward Mandell House, Wilson’s primary adviser, had already proven himself out of his depth in negotiating with the British. Critically as important as the war drew to an end, American and Allied obstinacy concerning any sort of negotiated peace cost countless lives on all sides.