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

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Remembering a Veteran: Ace in Both World Wars: Oberst (later Generalleutnant) Theo Osterkamp

Osterkamp During World War I

The best-known dual-World War ace was Oberleutnant zur See and (later Generalleutnant) Theo Osterkamp (1892–1975). He is also a rare example of the recipient of his nation's highest military honor in two separate wars. He would shoot down both a Camel and a Spitfire in his dramatic career. At the beginning of the war, the Prussian Army rejected him for health reasons, but Osterkamp was accepted by the Freiwilliges Marine Flieger Corps and flew with Marine Field Jastas I &II.  First as an observer and then piloting a variety of aircraft, including the Fokker D.VIII, he became the German Navy's highest scoring ace with 32 victories.  Osterkamp was one of the last Germans awarded the Pour le Mérite, in 1918. When the war ended, he went east to fight the Bolsheviks in the Baltics.

With His Wife Inspecting a Lufwaffe Aircraft

In 1933, he joined Germany's new Luftwaffe. In 1940, Osterkamp commanded JG 51 flying ME-109s in the Battles of France and Britain. During World War II, he was credited with six more victories. (Some sources contest this number.) He eventually rose to the rank of Generalleutnant and was awarded the Ritterkreuz, Germany's highest award for valor during the Second World War. His criticism of the Luftwaffe High Command led to his dismissal from service in December 1944. He survived and lived into his 80s, passing away in Baden Baden in 1975. 

Sources:; WikiCommons

Friday, February 23, 2024

Barking, East London, Remembers Its Victoria Cross Recipient: Sgt. Job Drain

The town of Barking in east Greater London has created a wonderful monument to its fallen  in the Great War.  It features a sculpture of Barking's WWI Victoria Cross recipient, Job Henry Charles Drain, and a smashing panel depicting the action in which Drain risked his life.

He and his officer, Captain Douglas Reynolds, and his fellow driver Frederick Luke, all received the VC for the action. Drain and Luke were personally awarded with their  Victoria Crosses by King George V in France on 1 December 1914.  Reynolds received his decoration from the King in January at Buckingham Palace and was promoted to major. He was killed in action on the Western Front on 23 February 1916. Luke and Drain both became sergeants and survived the war.  

Click on Image to Enlarge

An inscription on the relief summarizes the action nicely:  

Le Cateau, France 26 August 1914

On this day, the 37th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, had lost four of their six howitzer guns in action. Driver Job Drain was one of the soldiers who volunteered to recover the last of the guns. Under intense fire and showing disregard for his own safety, he drove his team of horses within yards of the German lines, retrieving the last remaining gun thus preventing it from falling into enemy hands. For this act of bravery he received the Victoria Cross.

The Proud Soldier Wearing His Victoria Cross

A second inscription on the panel reads:

In memory of the sons and daughters of Barking and Dagenham who fell in the Great War.

After the war, Drain had some difficulty getting back into civilian life.He worked as a messenger for government offices in Whitehall, then as a fish porter, a local bus driver, and finally for the London Electricity Board. Job died in 1975 at age 79 and is buried at the local Rippleside Cemetery.

42 Greatfields Road, Barking

Sources:, Fine a Grave, Statues Hither & Thither, Barking and District Historical Society; Joolz Guides YouTube

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Austro-Hungarian Cemetery at Gorjansko on the Carso Plateau

The Austro-Hungarian cemetery of Gorjansko on the Carso Plateau is considered the best preserved World War One cemetery in Slovenia. Buried in it are men from a wide number of nationalities who died at the nearby hospital. Its striking monument was completed in 1916 while the war in the area still raged. Some of the stone crosses and marble plates have been stolen over the years, but the site retains its wartime look. A number of the fallen were exhumed in the 1930s, but at least 6,015 are still interred at the cemetery in individual or mass graves. Probably because of the great variety of religions that were represented in the Dual Empire's forces, there is an assortment of styles for the grave markers.

Present-Day Photos

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The AEF 5th Division's "Red Devils" Take Frapelle, 17 August 1918

A 5th Division 155mm Artillery Piece at Frapelle

Early in the war, the Vosges Mountains in eastern France were the site of ferocious fighting, but they had remained stagnant for three years when the fresh U.S. 5th Division was sent to train there in the spring of 1918. The first divisional troops occupied trenches late on 14 June and experienced their first casualties on the same night. From then on, the 5th Division suffered from regular German attacks. On 17 June, a mustard gas attack killed three, wounded three, and gassed 24 men of the 60th Infantry Regiment. The Red Devils, naturally, responded with raids on the German lines. Theirs was the typical trench-warfare experience for six weeks. 

By August, however, they were experienced enough to be designated as an assault unit for the upcoming St. Mihiel Offensive. Before they departed, the division was asked to eliminate a most annoying salient around the hill town of Frapelle threatening the Allies' position. Their capture of Frapelle would be the first Allied advance in the sector since 1915.

On 15 July, the division moved to the Saint-Die sector where Frapelle is located. The division's four infantry regiments divided the front approximately equally. The 60th Infantry Regiment took the sector between Celles-sur-Plaine and Moyenmoutier; the 61st Infantry Regiment occupied both sides of the Rabodeau; the 11th Infantry Regiment occupied the Ban-de-Sapt sub-sector; and the 6th Infantry Regiment was on the front line in Bois d'Ormont. The 5th Division started patrolling and raiding the German lines regularly, both by night and by day. The first units of the Artillery Brigade joined the division on 28 July. The division was then ready for a major offensive action. Their mission was to capture Frapelle and the hill just to its north to dominate and close off the valley below.

On 17 August, after an artillery preparation of ten minutes, the attack was launched at 0400 hrs. The 6th Infantry advanced from the west face of the salient behind a rolling barrage. The German defenders, however, were quick to mount a counter-barrage. At 0406 they opened fire and hit the U.S. departure trench, striking some of the other assault waves. Despite the casualties inflicted on the attackers, the defenders withdrew from all but a few strong points. Most objectives were reached promptly.

By 0630 hrs., the village of Frapelle was liberated after four years of German occupation. The Germans immediately started a massive bombardment of the Americans, which lasted for three days and nights and included intensive use of mustard gas. The men of the Red Diamond Division organized their positions, built new trenches, and set new wires. A German counterattack failed on 18 August, and by 20 August, the American positions were completely consolidated. The high ground north of Frapelle was held and the valley below barricaded. The sharp salient had been eliminated.

The Gas at Frapelle Was So Severe Many Doughboy Uniforms Had to Be Destroyed

The division left the sector by 23 August and moved to Arches where new headquarters were established. The division lost 729 men in the Vosges. Shortly after that rest, the 5th Division was transferred toward St.-Mihiel, where it participated in the successful St. Mihiel Offensive. The subsequent record of the division was one of the best in the AEF. Somewhere along the line, its members had earned the nickname "Red Devils."

Sources: St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, February 2021

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918

This Title Can Be Purchased HERE

By Jonathan Boff
Cambridge University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Paul M. Ramsey, 
University of Calgary

Originally published on the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, Issue 3

For understandable reasons, historians have consistently tried to clear the waters by reducing the complexities of the First World War. This process has been vital in understanding the origins of the war, its conduct, victory and conclusion, and in shaping the historiography. Moving beyond earlier fixed interpretations, for the last 20 years the idea of a "learning curve" has played a major role in explaining British success in the autumn of 1918. Yet, its explanative power is limited in three significant ways. Firstly, war and strategy is reciprocal; the battlefield is an interactive play of forces, and not simply the play of one side. Secondly, friction resulting from this and multiple other interactions means war is complicated and winning is difficult. Thirdly, learning is often uneven within large institutions and dynamic problems cannot be solved with single solutions. With this in view, Jonathan Boff’s book addresses these fundamental issues and reanimates the complexities of the First World War, challenging many assumptions about victory and defeat on the Western Front in 1918. Boff expertly navigates these muddy waters and demonstrates how explaining complexity trumps earlier monocausal explanations; showing as Clausewitz made clear that everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult, especially winning.

Winning and Losing on the Western Front is a brilliantly detailed comparative Study at the tactical and operational level of General Sir Julian Byng’s British Third Army and the opposing German Second and Seventeenth armies during the Hundred Days campaign fought from August to the Armistice in 1918. Four basic assumptions dominate explanations by historians for the British defeat of the German army. The Germans lost either because they were outnumbered in men and machinery or German army morale collapsed. The British won either because they were tactically better and employed a successful combined arms method or by virtue of superior operational art. 

By integrating and adding nuance to these hypotheses, Boff argues that Third Army was able to win on the Western Front during the Hundred Days because it was better able than the seriously weakened and increasingly operationally limited German armies facing it to maintain a higher operational tempo and execute better combined arms tactics. There was no single sufficient condition for victory and winning required a combination of British success and significant German failures. Although innovation and learning were uneven in the British army, it adapted better than the German army to modern warfare. The principal conclusion is that British ability to better apply the techniques of modern war, added to the accumulation of earlier attrition and the tactical and operational shortcomings of the German army, caused German defeat and produced British victory.

Third Army Commander General Sir Julian Byng
Inspects a Captured German Gun

Boff meticulously and persuasively demonstrates this argument by addressing the four basic hypotheses explaining victory and defeat. First, successful attrition meant that the German army started the Hundred Days at a manpower disadvantage and attrition during the campaign aggravated the problem, accelerating the exhaustion of German divisions. While Third Army by comparison was better able to replace causalities, it was less able to maintain its material advantage. As the Hundred Days  progressed weather conditions and logistical problems reduced any British material lead, however the perception by some German soldiers of British material superiority was greater than the reality. Manpower and material were important, but never alone decisive. Secondly, the effect of perceived inferiority under worsening conditions  undoubtedly damaged German morale. Yet, the morale picture is less straightforward than historians have hitherto suggested and the view of the German army as a morally spent force is an oversimplification. Rather, morale in the German Second and Seventeenth armies is shown to be better than previously thought; mood may have been poor, but spirit was not broken. Although British morale was probably good and certainly better than that of the Germans, it was not unwaveringly great. Nonetheless, good morale was important for success at the tactical and operational level. Thirdly, the British army employed good combined arms tactics and the calibrated use of combined  arms in support of infantry, including artillery, machine guns, tanks, aeroplanes, gas and cavalry, maximizing combat effectiveness. However, it is not clear that Third Army’s combined arms method was fully "the true elixir" of Allied success that John Terraine described. Undoubtedly, at the small-unit tactical level Third Army did display a highly sophisticated, flexible, and diverse practice of combined arms method. 

Yet, some units were unwilling or unable to grasp the approach and even between the sophisticated units no universal tactical method existed. Nonetheless, the German tactical response was slow, rigid and exaggerated the threat of armor and aviation,  which distorted and weakened the German defensive scheme. German failure to respond to the impressive diversity of British combined arms method contributed to British success. Fourthly, by delegating control to the ‘man on the spot,’ British command was able to maintain a higher operational tempo than the German army. However, a complex and variable command system meant decentralization of  command and the promotion of initiative in Third Army were not consistent,  undermining British efforts. Nevertheless, the over-centralized German command system was deeply flawed and contributed to the failure of German operational art. In attempting to fight on fixed defense lines often without good intelligence or artillery support, the German army was unable to match British operational tempo, counterattack effectively, or regain the initiative. The British may not have done everything right, Boff argues, but they did more things better than their enemy, and the shortcomings of the German army were a major factor in its defeat.

Relatively overlooked by historians, the British Third Army advanced over sixty miles and was one of the most active, suffered the most casualties, captured the second  most prisoners and was the largest and most representative of British fighting manpower of the five British armies in the late summer and autumn of 1918.  Redressing this, and adding balance by giving due attention to the opposing German  armies, Boff’s well-formed case study provides the basis for his insightful analysis and clear argument. Boff’s use of quantitative and qualitative methods are excellent. For  example, by combining a stylistically strong narrative with simple but illustrative  figures, Boff is able to effectively demonstrate the importance of attrition to British success (19-20, 70). Moreover, the consistent and authoritative use of the available German primary source material is impressive, especially in support of British records.  Indeed, the chapter on morale in particular makes a significant contribution to an understudied and important aspect of the war. While the Canadian Corps receives little attention, Boff’s treatment of the analogous New Zealand Division provides an interesting comparison that will interest Canadian military historians, as will his analysis of Third Army operations and command at Havrincourt in September 1918. Although the Canadian Corps is well covered by Tim Travers, Bill Rawling, Ian M. Brown, Shane B. Schreiber and Tim Cook, a methodologically similar study of the Canadian Corps in the First World War would be welcome. 

This book left me disputing only one small detail. Does Boff make a clear enough distinction between tempo and momentum and explain how they relate? If tempo is about timing and rhythm, and momentum is about mass and velocity, is it not true that the former allows you to achieve the latter, that they are not interchangeable words, but rather, have a causal relationship? Indeed, tempo allows the application of pressure, which in turn, creates and then increases momentum, allowing you to control operations. That being said and nitpicking aside, Winning and Losing on the Western Front is a model study of combat at the tactical and operational level. Boff effectively challenges those narratives reliant on reductive explanations for British victory and German defeat in 1918 by explaining the complexity of war on the Western Front, while making an important argument about the difficulties of the problem faced by the British army in adapting to fight and win in modern warfare. This required “an intensely practical attempt to unpick a series of different specific tactical, operational and strategic knots” as both “armies were locked in a deadly evolutionary struggle”. What Winning and Losing on the Western Front makes clear in very Clausewitzian terms is that the British army demonstrated “an understanding of the complex nature of modern warfare which was more complete than the Germans ever achieved." The German army was unable to compensate for all the intrinsic friction of warfare to the same extent the British army did. Winning was difficult and British success was in adapting to the realities of modern warfare. It is impossible to do justice to Boff’s multiple and elegantly intertwined arguments. It simply must be read. The specialized undergraduate class and graduate level seminars will benefit from reading this book, but it may not serve a general lower-level undergraduate course. Nonetheless, it is surely made accessible to the general reader by its methodical style. In this book, soldiers will recognize the characterization of the immense difficulty and complexity of operations in war, theorists will rediscover the utility of history in adding example after example to their theoretical bones, and historians will praise Boff’s historical method. Winning and Losing on the Western Front will be a standard reference for historians of the First World War for years to come.

Paul Ramsey


Monday, February 19, 2024

When Hindenburg and Ludendorff Finally Gained Supreme Command

Ober Ost Command & Staff in the Field

After the triumph of Tannenberg, the Hindenburg and Ludendorff  duo would spend the next 22 months of their collaboration in the east attempting to knock Russia out of the war. They would be constrained and sometimes fully frustrated by two factors. In the words of Eastern Front historian Norman Stone, the pattern of the war in the east was of "more or less constant Austro-Hungarian crisis." After their early successes in the fall of 1914, the partnership—mindful of the early failed Austrian offensive in the south—got their first taste of cries for help from their weaker ally when they were compelled to send a German division to help hold the Russians out of Hungary in December of 1914. Much has been written about how burdensome the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on Germany during the war. The empire was deep in decline, its army wildly diverse ethnically in a time of rising nationalism, under-manned, under-gunned, and inexpertly commanded. Through diplomatic ineptitude, they even managed to draw in an additional enemy against the Central Powers, Italy. In the course of the war, the Dual Monarchy required the Kaiser's assistance in conquering its original adversary, Serbia, and—to avoid collapse several times on the Eastern Front—assistance in the Carpathians in 1915 and against the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. Only the German troop deployments at Caporetto made that attack feasible and saved the Austro-Hungarian position on the Italian Front in 1917. All of these "extra responsibilities" had, of course, the greatest impact on the German planning and operations on the Eastern Front during the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime. Admiral Tirpitz described the situation as being "tied to a corpse."

The partnership's second on going distraction was the unpredictable support from their two superiors, Kaiser Wilhelm and the new chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Helmuth von Moltke after the First Battle of the Marne. Falkenhayn initially recommended negotiating a peace settlement with the Russians and focusing on the war against France. This approach was blocked quickly due to a meeting of the minds of the Austrian high command and his own commanders in the East. Falkenhayn's thinking next moved to an offensive strategy on the Western Front, while conducting a limited campaign in the east. He hoped that Russia would accept a separate armistice more easily if it were not humiliated too much. This still brought him into conflict with Hindenburg-Ludendorff, who favored massive offensives in the east. In effect, Ober Ost argued for an inversion of the Schlieffen Plan concept of knocking out France quickly to concentrate on Russia. 

At Last, at the Kaiser's Side

Other initiatives in 1914 failed for Hindenburg. He felt the Russian Army simply had too many troops at that point. After the turn of the year, however, the clear stalemate on the Western Front found the Kaiser open to other possibilities. Convinced by Hindenburg-Ludendorff of the possibilities on the Eastern Front, he intervened for once in the disputes among his commanders and ordered that the major military effort for 1915 take place in the East. Falkenhayn accordingly strengthened German forces there with a new army (Tenth) and authorized the formation of a new, mixed Austrian-German force to cooperate with Habsburg efforts in Galicia. 

On the surface, the stupendous 1915 success in the south with the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive and at an earlier victory in the north at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes, were substantial victories. The partnership was credited with massive territorial gains and having inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on the enemy. Yet, oddly, the Russians were still in the war. Further, garrisoning larger territory required more troops and the Central Powers planners began realizing they were starting to run out of manpower. To the disappointment of Hindenburg-Ludendorff, the Kaiser and Falkenhayn were losing their enthusiasm for the East and planned to move some of the partnership's forces to the West. Fighting on both fronts in 1916 would be of a different character than in 1915. These changes, though, would also open a surprising opportunity for the partnership.

The following year brought the downfall of the hated Falkenhayn. Behind the scenes, the political infighting had been brutal. Falkenhayn had found it hard to counter the partnership's aggressive Eastern Front strategy given their national popularity. Ludendorff openly hated the Chief of Staff and found it impossible to work with him. In retaliation, Falkenhayn had tried to transfer Ludendorff out of his headquarters position and even asked Hindenburg to retire. Kaiser Wilhelm personally disliked both Ludendorff and Hindenburg's personal ambitiousness but needed to publicly support them.

Double Portrait by Hugo Vogel

Against this backdrop, Erich von Falkenhayn had an utterly disastrous 1916. His advocacy of the blood-draining Verdun Offensive committed his nation to an attritional battle at a time when Germany was running out of manpower. The Allied offensive on the Somme was strongly resisted, but it was allowed to turn into a second attritional struggle. Finally, during the summer of 1916, his long-held view that Romania with its substantial 650,000-man army would never join the Allies in the war proved incorrect. They joined the Allies when the Brusilov Offensive showed Russia was still dangerous. Kaiser Wilhelm lost all confidence in his warlord. Falkenhayn had to go. For Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, the army and the nation, the choice was obvious. His Majesty had deep reservations about the pair, both individually and collectively, but he made the appointment of Paul von Hindenburg to the post of Chief of the Great General Staff on 29 August 1916. Ludendorff demanded joint responsibility for decision making and authority to sign most orders. Hindenburg did not refuse and authorized that a new position, First Quartermaster General of the Great General Staff, be created to emphasize Ludendorff's nearly equal and comprehensive authority. The pair had completed their march from anonymity to supreme command.

Sources: Battles East by Irving Root; The Eastern Front, 1914-1920 by Neiberg and Jordan; Wikipedia

Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Day at the Somme—"15 September 1916" by Wilfrid Ewart

Excerpted from Way of Revelation: A Novel of Five Years; Lt Ewart was a member of the 2nd Scots Guards during the attack described here.

1.  THEY perished.

When the roll came to be called at a little village in the valley of the Ancre, barely one-fourth of those who had marched into action ninety-six hours before answered to it.

Colonel Steele fell gloriously. From a shell-hole in the midst of the battlefield, though mortally wounded, he directed the sway- ing fortunes of his battalion while consciousness remained, thus at the last earning the admiration of the officers and men who had hated him. His second-in-command, Major Brough, had fallen an unexpected victim to illness and, without taking part in the action, went home. The young adjutant, Langley, coming up with all speed from reserve was fatally struck down. Alston, grievously wounded, lay a prisoner in German hands. The two other company-commanders, Vivian and Darell, supported by the remnants of their men, were last seen fighting at the bayonet's point, a grey sea of Germans in full counter-attack closing round. The subalterns and ensigns fared no better on that great and terrible day. But Cornwallis went happily, oh! how happily home to England with a bullet in arm and thigh.

Of the rank and file, the non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, the majority of those not accounted for were found to have attained their ultimate rest.

Out of the fight which for twenty-four hours swayed up and down the green-brown, shell-scarred slopes of Ginchy, Morval and Lesboeufs until at length the victory was won out of the fightcame Captain Sinclair, smiling, dirty, tired, limping . . . and alone.

The 2nd Scots Guards (SG) Were on the Far Left

2.  Night brooded over the battlefield. It was the hour for the burial of the dead. 

To Lieutenant Sir Adrian Knoyle who, as it happened, had been detailed to remain among the officers in reserve befell this duty. A cold rain drove in gusts. A wet wind blew. Gloom and darkness lay over all. Gloom and darkness reigned in his heart. Bitterness strangled it.

They lay around scores of them, a hundred, three four hun- dred. Impenetrable blackness hid them. But when the star-lights went up they could be seen as men sleeping vague forms outlined upon the ridge of a trench, upon the lip of a shell-hole.

All shapes, all attitudes, all positions. Some on the back, hands to thigh, heels together, gazing upwards; some on the side and some curled up as though enjoying pleasant dreams; some flat on face, arms and legs outspread ; some with head resting on arm or pack and one knee raised. Some whole ; some twisted, bent up, in halves or shreds; some with nails dug deep into mud and weird contorted faces; some rigid, some stiffening by degrees, and some quite limp and loose. Some in couples clasped like children who crouch together from sudden fear ; some lying across one another carelessly. Some drunk with rum in death. . . . Germans, too, Germans very much like the rest. And once, once only, a grey and a khaki figure locked on each other's bayonets.

He touched them at times stumbled over them. Picking his way among the shell-holes, he felt the soft, unnatural flesh, the hair, rough, draggled and wet, without life, coagulated; the body stiff, unyielding, unresponsive and empty.

Mingled with the soil, torn from their bodies their letters, their pipes, their photographs of women, their tobacco-pouches, their lockets of women's hair, all the poor paltry things they valued once tied up with the pay-book, hung around the neck, tied to the string of the metal disc.

The rain drove in gusts. How the wind keened! There was an occasional rifle-shot. Figures moved in the gloom.

"Who are you?"

"Kamerad ! Burial-party !"

They, too, creeped like jackals among the slain!

Earth upon earth. Dust back to dust. Into the shell-hole, fling them. Cover them up!

Darkness and gloom. Gloom and darkness in the heart. Bitter- ness strangling it.

Clink of the spades.

"Come on! Heave in this one! Heavy, ain't he? . . . Cover him up!"

Reinforcements Moving Up 15 September 1916

3. Over that dread scene, over that waste of shell-holes, of greenish water, of scarred and upchurned earth, broken trenches and mangled wire, all night long, it seemed to Adrian Knoyle, a vague familiar figure stood. Through the paling gloom and the swish of the rain, through the shrill of the wind and its driving gusts, through the livelong night, he saw it standing there a sombre stooping form with hands folded and head bent as one pondering.

And when the star-lights went up, they revealed the white and mirrored room. And the woman of the dazzling tiara and the reddish-golden hair smiled. And the violins shivered out Humoreske while dancers spun and whirled.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Fort Vaux: Before the Great Battle — A Roads Classic

From the earliest days of that blazing month of August 1914, when the clash of nations began, Fort Vaux, plying with its questions the Woevre plain on the Thionville and Metz side, was awaiting on tenterhooks the results of the first collision. At night it saw the long glittering arms of the Verdun searchlights rake the skies above its head, scanning the stars for zeppelins or Taubes. Several regiments, marching past it, had taken up their station farther eastward, in front of Jeandelize or Conflans. The hours of waiting dragged on. It heard the firing of guns, but not from the quarter where it was keeping vigil. The sound was coming from Longwy, or perhaps from Longuyon. The storm, whirling along the Lorraine border, seemed to be swooping down upon the Ardennes.

Model of Fort Vaux

On 20 and 21 August the fort saw troops defiling past it, with laughter and song on their lips. They were marching toward Longuyon by the Ornes road. They knew nothing as yet of the rigours of this new war. With light hearts they went to it, as lovers go to a trysting place. The Third Army, massed at Verdun, was making for Virton. On the 22nd it had already come to grips with the Crown Prince’s Army.

On the 25th, the garrison was cheered by a stroke of good fortune of which it was at once informed. A German motorcar, which was carrying the General Staff orders, while running along the Étain road, went astray over the distances, and on the evening of the 24th came into our lines and was there captured. Our command, into whose hands the enemy’s plans had so luckily fallen, gave orders for a surprise assault on the left flank of the 35th Division of the Landwehr and of the 16th Corps, which formed the left wing of the Crown Prince’s Army. The former, throwing down their rifles, fled as far as St. Privat, and the latter beat a hasty retreat to Bouvillers. It is possible that this Étain fight, a little-known episode of the first battles, checkmated a rush attack upon Verdun.

Nevertheless it was necessary to give up the pursuit on the night of 25–26 August, in order to remain in close co-ordination with the movements of the neighbouring army and to pass along the left bank of the Meuse, leaving reserve divisions to guard the right bank on the line Ornes-Fromezey-Herméville.

What Fort Vaux then saw go by at the foot of its slopes is a sight which those who witnessed it will never forget. In after years they will tell it to their children and their children’s children, that the memory may be kept green in each generation.

Aerial View of the Fort Today

Along the road from Étain to Verdun, seeking a haven of refuge in the old fortress which, more than once in the course of centuries, must have sheltered the inhabitants of the Meuse valley against the onrush of Germanic hordes, came a hurried throng of two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, of cyclists wheeling the machines which they had no room to mount, of wheelbarrows, of pushcarts, of pedestrians, of dogs, of cattle. Each took with him his most treasured possessions or what he had hastily snatched up in his house. On the carriages many had piled mattresses, trunks, quilts, provisions, furniture, and on the top of all these were the old people, the sick, and the children. Yet these three classes could not always find room on the vehicles. Among those who trudged on foot were the blind and the halt, women carrying their babies, little ones with a doll or a bird-cage in their hands. Some of them, their legs being shaky or not long enough, were too weary to drag themselves along. Behind these terror-stricken fugitives, the villages were in flames. They turned night into day over the whole countryside. Little by little the fire drew nearer. Now it is Rouvre that flares up, now Étain.

A woman stops by the roadside and sits down; she has bared her breast to suckle a round, rosy baby which already has crisp curls and looks like those7 infant Jesuses of wax that are placed in mangers at Christmastide. Around her is a group of three youngsters. A soldier comes up and questions her. He is already well on in years, a Territorial. The rapt look in his eyes, as he gazes at the children, is so tender that one feels he must have left a similar brood of his own at home.

“Where do you come from, my poor woman?”

“From Rouvres; they have set fire to it.”

“How pretty they are!” His “they” and hers are not the same, but his meaning is not lost on her.

“One is missing,” says the woman. And she begins to cry.

“What has happened to it?”

“They killed her. She was eight years old. They fired on her as she was running in the street. This one also they tried to take from me. I pressed him to me hard enough to drive him into my flesh. One of them was going to plunge his bayonet into the poor mite, but one of his comrades turned it aside.”

The child has had its fill. The group goes on again.

Click on Image to Enlarge
Views of the Fort after the 1916 Battle

This is the new war, the war of frightfulness preached by Bernhardi. There was an epoch when truces were patched up for burying the dead and picking up the wounded. There was an epoch when a certain war-time chivalry held sway, to protect the weak and the innocent. That period was the barbarous Middle Ages. But civilization and culture came into being, and we now have war without pity,8 without quarter. One of the two opponents, tearing up the scraps of paper which regulate the treaties and the duties of nations, turning its plighted word into a sham, and crushing the innocent and the weak, has compelled the other to put him into a strait-waistcoat, as if he were a madman. It is a war that opens unbridgeable gulfs and leaves behind it indelible memories. It is a war of Hell, which demands the sanction of God.

Fort Vaux, from its hilltop, saw all this. It felt that its own stones were less hard than the hearts of the men who had flooded the earth with this torrent of suffering.

At last the procession came to an end. The road now resembled one of those ancient river-beds which leave a white track amid the pale foliage of the willows.

The fort, on its lonely perch, was ruminating. “My turn will come. I bide my time. That mighty Douaumont that overlooks me, will it defend itself longer than I? It has a greater need of shells. As to Souville and Tavannes, if the enemy comes from the north, I am in front of them, I shall screen them.”

An important personage, no less than the Governor of Verdun himself, came to examine its resources, to look into its physical and moral condition, to test its strength.

“Are your eyes well guarded, and can they see far enough? Are your arms and your shields tough? Have you enough ammunition, food, drink? Do you know all your instructions, above all the one that is common to all the forts: to die rather than surrender?”

With such questions as these he visited the observing stations, the transverse galleries, the casemates, the turret, the armoury, the provision stores, the cisterns, and inspected the garrison.

He had already come once before, at the beginning of August. This second visit foreboded an early attack. The enemy was not far off: he was known to be at Étain, at Billy-sous-Mangiennes, at Romagne-sous-les-Côtes, not in great masses but in small detachments. From the north, he was passing above Verdun and turning off to the Argonne. Verdun, well defended, served the French Army as a pivotal point for the immortal struggle of the Marne.

The Outside of the Fort Today

One of the neutral historians of the war, Gottlov Egelhaaf (quoted by M. Hanotaux), has written: “If the Crown Princes of Bavaria and Prussia had been in a position to seize Verdun in August-September 1914, and accordingly to force the line of the Meuse, the German armies would have burst upon Paris at one fell swoop. The two Princes, however, were held up at Verdun, and thus the German supreme command was forced to take the decision of leading back the right wing of their army. Verdun could not be captured, and for this reason it seemed essential to change the plan of campaign.” A very lame explanation  of our victory on the Marne, but one that at least emphasizes the importance of the part played by Verdun in September 1914. Fate decreed that Verdun should twice attract and twice wear out or shatter the German forces.

Only by hearing the roar of the guns could Fort Vaux follow the battle fought on the left bank of the Meuse, before Rambercourt-aux-Pots, Beauzée, La Vaux-Marie. From the roar of the guns it could convince itself of the enemy’s retreat, of his withdrawal to the north.

Suddenly, however, on 17 September, it hears the guns farther to the south. The enemy hurls himself at Hattonchâtel and the Meuse Heights, bombards the Roman camp above St. Mihiel, fights in the barracks of Chauvoncourt. He has not yet abandoned the quarry that he covets. After trying to invest Verdun on the left bank, he returns by way of the right bank, but the front is fixed at Spada, Lamorville, and Combres.

It is fixed at three and a half to five miles in front of Fort Vaux on the line Trésauvaux-Boinville-Fromezey-Ornes-Caures Wood. On 18 February 1915, a red-letter day, the fort is pounded with 420mm shells. Douaumont has been favoured with some on the 15th and 17th, and it was only right that Vaux should follow Douaumont. The fort examines its wounds and is happy.

“The engineers have worked well. Only my superstructure has suffered. My casemates are of good material.”

And it will rejoice exceedingly to learn next day that the range of that famous 420mm battery has been found, that it has been shelled in its turn and destroyed. The giants have been silenced, and that promptly.

Near the Top of the Fort, a Blown Cupola

April and May were months of hope. Would they bring victory with the spring? The guns thundered daily at Marcheville and at Les Éparges, which had been gained. The Woevre was smoking as if weeds had been heaped up there for burning. Then the cannonade slackened off. Decidedly the war would be a long one against an enemy who stuck to our countryside like a leech. It needed patience, staying-power, will, organization, munitions. All these would be forthcoming.

So the troops got accustomed to war as well as to garrison life. The Territorials billeted in the villages of Vaux and Damloup, when they were off duty, played games of chance in the street or used the cemetery as a place for sleeping. They helped the country folk in their haymaking. They looked for mushrooms or strawberries in the woods of Vaux-Chapître and Hardaumont, after first looking for lilies of the valley. In the trenches their life, so full of thrills the previous winter, glided along in a calm that was no doubt relative—but what is there that is not relative?—and in monotony. On the summer evenings, on the escarp of the fort, the little garrison sat down with legs dangling, and watched night rising from the Woevre plain. Now and then a distant rocket would end in a shower of stars.

All this went on till one day, at the end of August 1915, the fort was sharply taken to task:

“You are not so important as you make out—or rather the whole land of France is as important as you. Did she not open out lines from one end of the country to another to shelter her defenders? It can no longer be denied that the enemy may be made to respect us at any point whatsoever of the national soil. Berry-au-Bac is an isolated salient on the right bank of the Aisne, and Berry-au-Bac has not yielded. It can no longer be denied that with artillery and determination one can capture any redoubt. Les Éparges formed a natural fortress, and we have taken Les Éparges. The fortified places have been unlucky during this war. They offer too easy a target for the big howitzers. Antwerp, Maubeuge, Warsaw, Lemberg, Przemysl, surrendered with their war material, their magazines, their troops. Verdun will no longer be a fortified place. Verdun will offer no resources, no booty to the enemy. Verdun will be nothing but a pivotal point for an army. You will no longer be anything but a look-out post and a shelter....”

“That may be,” the fort admitted. “In any case, I am only a soldier, and it is my business to obey. But my loins are strong. It will need much steel to crush them. You will see what I am capable of, if ever I am attacked.”

The fort, now shrunken, became enveloped in the mists of winter. It heard less and less of the guns. Its diminished garrison grew bored in the almost deserted corridors. The news which came from the rear contained mysterious hints of a great Allied offensive which was slowly preparing and would develop when the time was ripe, perhaps not before the summer of 1916: England would methodically complete her gigantic new military machine, and Russia would need time to heal the wounds inflicted on her during the 1915 campaign. It is flattering, when one lives on the border of the Woevre, to have such distant and important friends, even if they need a certain amount of time for settling their affairs.

In January and February 1916 the fort felt certain qualms:

“I don’t like being left so quiet as this. We know nothing here, but we have intuitions. Things are moving on the other side. Surely something is brewing.”

Things were moving indeed in the forest of Spincourt and in that of Mangiennes. Our aviators must have some inkling of it, for they make more and more frequent flights. But the soil is ill-fitted for observation, with its countless dips and its undergrowth. Even where there are no leaves, the brushwood defends itself against aerial photographers.

Your Editor (L) and Group Overlooking a 75 Turret 

Information comes that the railway of Spincourt, Muzeray, Billy-sous-Mangiennes, is working in unaccustomed fashion. It seems that the big calibre guns have been detrained.

We are assured that new German corps have been brought into the district, among them the 3rd, which is returning from Serbia.

Finally, the belfries of Rouvres, Mangiennes, Grémilly, Foameix—how had they been spared till then?—were overthrown by the Germans: no doubt they might have served as guiding marks for our artillery!

Whence come these vague rumours and these definite reports? There is no chance of finding out for certain. The soldiers who come back from Verdun bring them back and retail them. Silence is not a French virtue. There is uneasiness in the air. Yet the weather is so appalling—squalls of wind and snowstorms—that the attack seems unlikely, or at any rate postponed.

“To-morrow,” thinks the fort, which has faith in the strength of its walls. “Or the day after.”

On 20 February the weather takes a turn for the better. On the 21st, at seven o’clock in the morning, the first shell falls on Verdun, near the cathedral. The greatest battle of the greatest war is beginning.

From:  The Last Days of Fort Vaux, March 9–June 7, 1916
By Henry Bordeaux

Friday, February 16, 2024

The Glasgow Cenotaph

St. George Square, Glasgow

Over 200,000 Glaswegians served in the Great War—18,000 of them did not survive and 35,000 more were wounded or injured. After the war, a memorial committee was   established, chaired by the Lord Provost Sir James Watson Stuart. It recommended the building of  a public memorial in George Square, site of Glasgow's City Chambers, and financial support for disabled servicemen.

The  Cenotaph  was designed by Sir J.J. Burnet in 1922 and is flanked by sculptures of lions by Ernest Gillick.  It is described as a 9.7-meter-tall polished grey granite tall squat obelisk  in a U-planned enclosure with low walls and a pair of sculptured lions couchant [lying down, heads raised] guarding the site.


West Face

There is a gilded metal cross in the form of a sword on the face and below it a representation of St Mungo in front of Glasgow's coat of arms.The rear (east) face bears a carving of the Scottish version of the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. In the foreground is a panel with an embossed wreath.

The obelisk bears several inscriptions. On the west face, carved into the stone either side of the figure of St Mungo: "PRO PATRIA / 1914 1919 / 1939 1945" and then below, in raised lead letters: "TO THE IMMORTAL HONOUR OF THE / OFFICERS NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS / AND MEN OF GLASGOW WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR / THIS MEMORIAL IS DEDICATED / IN PROUD AND GRATEFUL RECOGNITION BY / THE CITY OF GLASGOW" and then, carved into the stone at the base of the cenotaph: "THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE"

Lion Couchant 

On the east face, carded to either side of the royal coat of arms is "PRO PATRIA / 1914 1919" and then below raised lead letters read: "TOTAL OF / HIS MAJESTY'S FORCES / ENGAGED / AT HOME AND ABROAD / 8654465 / OF THIS NUMBER / THE CITY OF GLASGOW / RAISED OVER 200000" and then in smaller letters "UNVEILED / ON / SATURDAY 31ST MAY 1924 / BY / FIELD MARSHAL EARL HAIG OF BEMERSYDE / GM KT GCB / COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE EXPEDITIONARY / FORCES IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS / 1915-1919"

East Face

Further raised lead letters on the south and north faces read, respectively: "GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN / THAN THIS / THAT A MAN LAY DOWN HIS LIFE / FOR HIS FRIENDS", quoting from John 15:13; and "THESE DIED IN WAR / THAT WE AT PEACE MIGHT LIVE / THESE GAVE THEIR BEST / SO WE OUR BEST SHOULD GIVE".

Sources:  The Glasgow Story; Wikipedia, Wiki Commons, Historic Environment Scotland