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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Letter: "As Long as You Kept Your Head Down"


By Rifleman Edward Henry Cecil Stewart (13 Nov 1891–1 July 1916), Regiment: 1/5 Grenadier Company, London Rifle Brigade was killed on the first day of the Somme.  His body was never recovered, and he is listed on the Thiepval Memorial. Before the war he had worked at the Great Western Railway Audit office at Paddington Station London.


Extract from Undated Letter (Spring 1915?)

. . . As long as you kept your head down you were comparatively safe, so as it went on, this was where I had my first escape. I was on sentry duty for a couple of hours, from 1am to 3am and was instructed to keep a sharp look out. I did not care for the idea of keeping my head above the trench and looking for beastly Germans, however it had to be done, it was quite uncanny to watch the enemy trench which appeared somewhat like a black wave and only sixty yards in front, then you would suddenly see the flash of their rifles and machine guns immediately after would come the report and nasty thuds on the sandbags which you might be resting against. I fired about five shots at their flashes (the only target to aim at) then another two shells which lodged in the parapet either side of my head leaving about 2 to 3 inches between me and certain death. I thought that near enough but it turned out that it was to have something nearer than that. Our casualties here amounted on the average, to about two per day killed, of course, we thought it terrible at the time at least I did. 

Early April saw us relieved by another division and we were sent a few miles back for a well-earned rest, which consisted of physical drill and a run before breakfast. The remainder of the morning being spent in platoon drill musketry drills. After dinner we put the “cap on” our rest (why so called I do not know) by having a route march for two hours. We spent a few days like this and were dispatched with all possible speed to Ypres, here we went in to support the Canadians and spent a most unpleasant eight days, during which time we lost several hundred men, nearly all my friends who came out in the same draft and were killed or wounded, we had to retire, the best part being that the Germans did not find this out until two days after when we were more or less safely bivouacking in a very pretty wood. We stayed here for about a week; then we got to work again, digging reserve trenches just behind the front line, building up parapets which had been demolished by the enemy’s high explosive shells and such like, working all night and getting what sleep we could in the daytime. 

One morning we were awakened by the most awful din, it seemed as though hell had broken loose, shells were falling like summer rain. And people have often told me in the course of conversation it was raining shells and I admit I took it with a grain of salt, could not be possible I thought, but such I was surprised to find was possible and actually taking place there about 3.30am. This bombardment started and about half an hour later, I, with three others, were ordered to start reinforcing. We went up in fours, it being considered safer that way, half a mile over open ground we had to do, this being swept continually with shells, to give you a slight idea I can say the previous night, just in front of our reserve trenches was a beautifully green field, and the next morning it was as much as one could do to see any grass at all, simply one mass of craters, varying in diameter from ten to twelve paces. 

I had gone about half the required distance when a shell fell only a yard from where I was, the force of the concussion [explosion] pitched me several yards to my left and I came down rather heavily, however I reached the first line without any further mishap, where we had to stay until midnight when we had to be relieved again owing to not having enough me to hold the trench. Our honours were one V.C. (Victoria Cross), two D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Orders), one Military Cross and one or two D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medals). The next day I paraded sick, my back paining me so much that I could not stand straight for a week after. I am now back with the regiment who are on the line of communications. We are having leave shortly and if possible will pay a visit to the Audit office. Have you any news of Chichester?

Yours truly, 

(Rifleman) E.H.C. Stewart


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Collapse of the Third Republic


By William L. Shirer
Simon & Schuster, 1969
John D. Beatty, Reviewer


Author William Shirer (rt) with Edward R. Murrow


In just under 600 pages (hardbound; Kindle edition reviewed), William L. Shirer shares his meticulous research and personal insights on this pivotal period in French—and European—history, covering the years 1871–1940. While this book is primarily about the beginning of World War Two, it contains insights into France before 1914, and it starkly shows the devastating effects of the 1914–18 war on France.

The author should be no stranger to readers of 20th-century history. Shirer was a correspondent in Europe from 1920 to 1941, covering WWII from England, then returning to Germany after the war in 1945. His best-known book is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960, Simon & Schuster, New York), which won a National Book Award while selling over a million copies in hardback and paperback. He also penned a multi-volume autobiography, a history of the Bismarck chase in 1941, and a juvenile biography of Adolph Hitler, and many others on WWII.

Collapse is in five parts, called “books.” The Prologue is a familiar recap of the events of the summer of 1940, when the French armies fell apart in the face of the German blitzkrieg. This familiar story contains a disturbing undertone not of betrayal, but of anticipation, as if this disintegration of the French Army was, if not expected, welcomed.


Occupying Paris, 1940


Book One, The Rise of the First Republic 1871-1919, covers the period from 1871 and the end of the Paris Commune, to 1919 and Versailles. While most readers recognize these waypoints, they may not recognize much of what happened to France in this time, save the chapter on the Dreyfus affair. The France that Shirer describes is a nation in chaos, of communists and socialists, of monarchists (yes) and anarchists, of lonely Republicans and the entire nation in economic turmoil most of the time. The Dreyfus scandal only emphasized the state of unrest that France suffered most of the time. When the country came together in 1914 to fight off the German invaders, the reader might be surprised, because there is nothing in the preceding text that suggests that France would unite over anything. Shirer covers the Great War itself in a paragraph or two, but Versailles gets its own chapter in Book Two.

Book Two, Illusions and Realities of Victory 1919-1934, includes everything from Versailles to the global depression. Shirer cannot help but express a deep sadness for the country that he loved so much, describing the devastating effects of the million French war dead, the industrial-scale almost mechanized erosion of French morale during and after the war, and the most remarkable refusal of most in the French Army to recognize the changes that the internal combustion engine and the radio had wrought on warfare. They were aware of the writings of Rommel, Liddell Hart, and Douhet, but most of them, especially in the higher echelons, didn’t care. They firmly believed that the combat methods that “won” the Great War for France were good enough and could not be dissuaded. While we howl at such blindness today, the country that they defended agreed with them…when they thought about it, which wasn’t often. They were mostly concerned with economic survival, which, given the state of the economy, was never assured. Nor was the safety of the Republic, which seemed to lack broad-consensus support even in the government.


French Premier Pierre Laval (Executed 1945) with
the German Police Chief of Paris


Book Three, The Last Years of the Third Republic 1934-1939, covers the struggles for France to survive while watching Germany and Italy appear to thrive under fascism. Governments came and went in the Third Republic—over a hundred of them. Yet, it seemed as if it was always the same men in different offices, a situation that some described as a game of musical chairs. Yet, to be French before WWII was to be a political chameleon, as politicians went from Right to Left and back again while never changing their supposed political affiliations. Book Three also describes the French responses to Germany’s aggressions, from the Rhineland crisis in 1936 to the beginning of WWII in 1939, each viewed with confusion, fear, some panic, yet forced calm. Shirer gives the Munich crisis and the agony of Czechoslovakia three entire chapters; the Spanish Civil War, one.

Collapse was frankly something of a surprise. It contains personal interjections by Shirer about the events he actually witnessed, and about a country and a people he clearly loved. As a historian, I have to disdain these personal interludes; in Collapse I can see their value.

Book Four, The War and the Defeat 1939-40, describes a French response to the war in terms I could barely recognize. There were those high-placed in the French government who openly admired fascism, others who were avowed monarchists, and there were those who regarded the Republic and the Constitution of 1875 as a tragic mistake. There were also those who believed that France had no business fighting this war alongside Great Britain, that Britain dragged them into the war for unknown—or unstated—purposes. The surprise of the German advance through the Ardennes was familiar; French insistence that Britain was doing less than all it could to save France was not. Shirer describes the rush to surrender in the highest halls of the French government in painful detail and the role of Philippe Pétain in pushing the disillusion of the Republic.

Book Five, The Collapse of the Third Republic June-July 1945, is anticlimactic. The problem we have in reading history is we already know the ending, where the story ends up. In Collapse, that the French Republic ended in the summer of 1940 is plain, but how is no less surprising than much of the rest of the book. When liberated in 1944, the French people took some pains to investigate just who was responsible and meted out punishment to those most guilty of truly betraying the idea of France. Book Five shows why France put Pierre Laval up against a wall and shot him in 1945, while handing out the same fate to Pétain (though the courts commuted his sentence to life imprisonment), and why France tried Charles De Gaulle in absentia and sentenced him to death in 1941.

While Collapse of the Third Republic is not a WWI book, it is about the long-term effects of that war on one of the “victors,” and provides insights into why Georges Clemenceau was so adamant to punish Germany at Versailles. I highly recommended it to any student of the Great War to provide a complete picture of why winning is often nothing more than surviving.


John D. Beatty

Monday, August 8, 2022

"I Have Seen War" FDR As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Part II: America at War



FDR's Diplomatic Passport When He Visited the
Western Front in 1918


By Bob Clark, Supervisory Archivist
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

[Part I of this article was presented in Roads to the Great War on 7 August 2022]

By the end of February 1917, German U-boats had sunk nearly 800,000 tons of Allied shipping. Under this pressure, the British Admiralty revealed the intercepted Zimmerman telegram to the American embassy. This dispatch from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico City proposed an alliance between the two countries that would see the return to Mexico of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  An angry Woodrow Wilson released the telegram to the press on 1 March, and a wave of anti-German sentiment swept the nation.

Eighteen days later, three American steamers were all torpedoed, one without warning, and President Wilson called a Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue of war. With tears in his eyes, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels cast the last vote for war and made the decision unanimous. On 2 April, the president went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war. FDR was seated on the House floor next to his chief. Having been told by the president that "war has been thrust upon us" by the German government and that "the world must be made safe for  democracy," Congress rose to thunderous applause. America was now at war.




FDR threw himself into his mobilization duties. When Congress declared war on 6 April 1917, the Navy had slightly more than 60,000 men in its ranks and a meager 197 ships in active service. Within six months, its strength was quadrupled, and by war's end it would have nearly half a million men and over 2,000 ships. Except for sporadic firings on German submarines, the U.S. Navy for the most part did not engage the enemy in World War I. But thanks to its escort duties across the Atlantic, at the time of the armistice the Navy could boast that not one of the troopships that had carried two million Doughboys to the war had been lost on its watch.

Roosevelt was also responsible for Navy supply procurement. He contracted for vast amounts of materiel, sometimes before Congress had even appropriated the money, and he ordered the rapid expansion of training camps and the acceleration of ship construction. FDR was so effective at these tasks that the phrase "See young Roosevelt about it" was often spoken in wartime Washington.

Indeed, Roosevelt was so successful in the procurement arena that a mere two weeks after entry into the war, FDR was called to the White House for an urgent meeting. It seems that the Army chief of staff hadcomplained to President Wilson that "young Roosevelt" had cornered the market on supplies. An amused Wilson told FDR "I'm very sorry, but. . .You'll have to divide up with the Army."

As successful as he was, though, FDR did not want to be behind a desk for the duration of the war. He desperately wanted to see action, not only out of patriotism but because he knew that military service had been a part of cousin Teddy's path to the presidency. Indeed, FDR went to TR and asked the old lion's advice: "You must resign," TR counseled. "You must get into uniform at once."

But both Daniels and Wilson saw it differently. The talents, energy, and decisiveness that FDR brought to his position were indispensable as far as they were concerned. Daniels told Roosevelt that he was "rendering a far more important war service than if he put on a uniform." Army General Leonard Wood, who had gotten wind of FDR's desires to resign, wrote that "Franklin Roosevelt should under no circumstances think of leaving the Navy Department. It would be a public calamity to have him leave at this time." Finally, President Wilson put an end to the matter, instructing Daniels to "Tell the young man to stay where he is."

His disappointment at not being allowed to enlist did not dampen Roosevelt's enthusiasm for his job, however. One of FDR's most notable achievements during this period was his support for the laying of a North Sea mine barrage—a chain of underwater explosives stretching from the Orkney Islands to Norway.

Finally, in the summer of 1918, FDR got his chance to see the war. Secretary Daniels had ordered Roosevelt to go because the Senate Naval Affairs Committee was leaving for Europe soon, and he wanted FDR to get there first and to correct any problems that might raise the ire of the committee.  Roosevelt departed for Europe on 9 July 1918 aboard USS Dyer, a newly commissioned destroyer that was rushed into service without a shakedown so it could escort a convoy of troopships across the Atlantic war zone. FDR would consider his trip to Europe during World War I to be one of the great adventures of his life, and many of the stories he told about the trip became more colorful with each telling.

His accounts of events in letters to Eleanor are vivid and detailed, and he delighted in the more adventurous parts of his crossing. For example, two days out of Brooklyn, the convoy hit rough seas, and the Dyer was pitched about. As FDR recounted, "One has to hang on all the time, never moving without taking hold with one hand before letting go with the other. Much of the crockery smashed; we cannot eat at the table even with racks, have to sit braced on the transom and hold the plate with one hand. Three officers ill, but so far I am all right . . . "

There was much excitement the next day too, as FDR's convoy crossed courses at dawn with another American convoy out of Hampton Roads—"a slip-up by the routing officers" as FDR called it. But before the other convoy could be identified as friendly, the Dyer's alert whistle had blown and everyone had manned their gun stations. As the lookout spotted more and more vessels, "we began to wonder if we had run into the whole German fleet." Later the same day, just a few hundred miles from the westerly Azorean island of Fayal, a periscope was reported by the lookout. The Dyer headed for it at full speed and fired three shots from the bow gun. It turned out to be a floating keg with a little flag on it, probably thrown overboard by a passing vessel as a target to train gun crews. But FDR took it in stride, and through the years of retelling the floating keg would become a menacing U-boat that grew closer and closer until FDR himself could almost see it. 



USS Dyer at the Azores

On 14 July, FDR arrived in the Azores, where the next day the Dyer's engines broke down. He spent a day on the island of Fayal, touring the port of Horta and paying a courtesy call on the Governor and British consul. With the engines repaired, the Dyer left for Ponta Delgada, the larger Azorean island where an American naval base was located, and where he met with the admiral in command and toured the facilities. FDR's arrival in Ponta Delgada made such an impression on him that, after returning to the United States, Roosevelt commissioned noted naval artist Charles Ruttan to paint the scene. Roosevelt supplied pictures of the Dyer, photos of Ponta Delgada, and described the scene in detail for Ruttan, even down to which flags were flying on the Dyer and the number and type of support vessels in the harbor at the time. Roosevelt favored  this painting so much that he later took it with him to the New York Governor's mansion, to the White House, and finally to his study in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, where he hung it behind his desk, and where it remains to this day. 

FDR's convoy finally reached Portsmouth on 21 July, and he proceeded  immediately to London by car where he reunited with his staff that had preceded him aboard the Olympic. He spent much of the next week in official meetings with British admiralty officials, touring British and Irish navy yards, and examining British intelligence operations, which he considered "far more developed than ours." He was impressed overall with the British and wrote to Eleanor "I do wish you could see all this in war time: in spite of all the people say, one feels closer to the actual fighting here." He would be even closer soon enough.

On 30 July, Roosevelt had a 40-minute audience with King George V. As he recounted to Mrs. Roosevelt, FDR, and the king "talked for a while about American war work in general and the Navy in particular. He seemed delighted that I had come over in a destroyer, and said his one regret was that it had been impossible for him to do active naval service during the war." After talking at some length about the progress of the land war and the atrocities and destruction committed by the Germans in Belgium and northern France, Roosevelt mentioned that he had spent some time in Germany as a youth and had attended German school. As FDR recalled, the king replied "with a twinkle in his eye" that " 'You know I have a number of relations in Germany, but I can tell you frankly that in all my life I have never seen a German gentleman.' "

The next day, FDR departed for France. Arriving in Dunkirk, Roosevelt saw firsthand the destruction of war. "There is not a whole house left in this place," he recalled. "It has been bombed more than any other two towns put together, in fact." FDR then toured the harbor and an American flying boat base which, by Roosevelt's account, was the first actual American flying base in Europe-a base regularly bombed by the enemy. Upon leaving the base, Roosevelt passed through the city itself where he saw much of the population, " . . .men, women and children, who are still here taking the nightly raids as we would take a thunder-storm, appreciating the danger perfectly but accepting a gambler's chance that the next bomb will hit their neighbor's house and not theirs."

Roosevelt's party proceeded through bombed out Calais, and then spent the night in a country chateau, the headquarters of an American night bombing squadron. During the night, Roosevelt could hear and see the anti-aircraft guns at Calais bursting in the night sky.

FDR's party proceeded uneventfully to Paris where, on 2 August, the assistant secretary had an audience with French President Poincare, and then attended a luncheon in honor of Herbert Hoover, who was hailed has a hero for his efforts to provide relief to persons displaced by the war. Later in the day, FDR met with Premier Clemenceau who declared that every Frenchman and every American were fighting better than the Germans because, as the premier declared, "he knows he is fighting for the Right and that it can prevail only by breaking the German army by force of arms." FDR would later write: "I knew at once I was in the presence of the greatest civilian in France."


FDR on the Western Front

After another day of meetings and dealing with official business, Roosevelt proceeded to the front on 4 August. They passed out of Paris toward Meaux, but their progress was slow. He saw French troops headed toward the front at Chateau-Thierry, as well as Allied wounded and German prisoners being brought the other direction. Meaux itself was congested both with troops and with hundreds of refugees who had fled down the Marne from the front lines. As they proceeded beyond Meaux to ChateauThierry, FDR witnessed one of the horrors of war refugees on the road, not knowing where they were going or if they would have a place to return to. Here is FDR's description of the scene: "They went with big carts drawn by a cow or an ox and a calf trotting behind, bedding, chickens, household goods and children, and some times a grandmother, piled on top."

A few miles from Chateau-Thierry, Roosevelt's party was delayed for an hour by an American artillery train. As they later came over the rise into the valley of the Marne where Chateau-Thierry was located, FDR saw a horrifying sight. "On the ridge to the left lay a wrecked village [likely the village of Vaux on the west side of Hill 204 site of the American monument], four times shelled"—first by advancing Germans, then by the retreating French, then by advancing Americans of the Second Division, and finally by retreating Germans. "This was complete destruction, only detached walls remained. . .We are now in a purely military area."

They proceeded, with some difficulty, to locate the French headquarters, met and had lunch with local commanders, then went on to the eastern edge of Belleau  Wood. Everywhere Roosevelt looked, he saw destruction. They walked around and through shell holes, observing "the rusty bayonets, broken guns, emergency ration tins, hand grenades, discarded overcoats, rain stained love letters, crawling lines of little ants and many little mounds, some wholly unmarked, some with a rifle stuck bayonet down into the earth, some with a helmet, and some too, with a whittled cross with a tag of wood or wrapping paper hung over it and in a pencil scrawl an American name." It was a sight he would never forget—one that he would call on many times in the years to come.

Roosevelt's party spent the next several days touring the areas around Chateau-Thierry before proceeding to Verdun, but first they were issued helmets and gas masks. As they descended into the valley of the Meuse, they "came to the sharp turn known as 'L'Angle de Mort', so often described by American ambulance drivers, who passed through there so often by timing the intervals between shells, and where many of them were hit in spite of all precautions." Although the town of Fleury was pointed out to Roosevelt, there was not a brick standing to verify that a town had even existed there. He stopped to take a photograph, but he was hurried along because two German observation balloons had been spotted. As Roosevelt described it, after moving about a quarter mile, "sure enough the long whining whistle of a shell was followed by the dull boom and puff of smoke of the explosion at the Dead Man's Corner we had just left." Roosevelt had come under fire. The motor cars were sent back to conceal themselves, and the party continued their tour on foot. From a ridge, Roosevelt looked out over German and French trench lines, only 40 yards apart, but he could see no signs of life, even though he knew that they were manned at all times. And where there had once been forest behind the lines, there were now only stumps and wasteland.

Thus ended FDR's adventures on the front. The next day he departed for Rome, and then returned to Paris on 14 August. He spent the next three weeks inspecting American air and naval stations before boarding USS Leviathan on 8 September for the trip home. Aboard ship he was hit hard by the Spanish influenza that was sweeping Europe and the United States. His condition was exacerbated by double pneumonia, and Secretary Daniels, who was kept abreast of Roosevelt's condition, telegraphed FDR's mother and wife that they should meet the ship when it docked in New York on the 19th. Roosevelt had to be carried off the ship and taken by ambulance to his mother's house on East 65th Street.

Although FDR would recover from his grave illness, his marriage was changed forever. For, as Eleanor Roosevelt unpacked her sick husband's bags, she discovered letters that proved to her that FDR had had an affair with  a young woman named Lucy Mercer. A major step toward reconciliation took place when FDR once again traveled to Europe in January 1919. This time he took Mrs. Roosevelt with him, and they boarded USS George Washington in New York, bound for Paris. Four days into the journey, the Roosevelts were notified that Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor's uncle and FDR's role model, was dead. Both FDR and Eleanor were stunned. As Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, "Another big figure gone from our nation."

FDR played no part in the peace talks themselves. Rather he had been sent to France to oversee demobilization and the disposal of the Navy's foreign assets. The Roosevelts returned home, again on board the George Washington five weeks later. This time they traveled with President Wilson, who was returning with a draft Covenant of the League of Nations. Because Wilson had for the most part remained in his cabin during the voyage, FDR was surprised to receive an invitation from the president to discuss the League. Later at a luncheon, Eleanor remembered the intensity with which Wilson spoke about the League and that he had said "The United States must go in or it will break the heart of the world. . ."

Back home, Roosevelt settled back into Washington life. He oversaw the  completion of the Navy's demobilization and wrestled with the problems caused to the administration by higher prices, unemployment and labor unrest, and a Red Scare. 1919 also witnessed the failure of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of  Versailles and President Wilson disabled by a massive stroke.


FDR Visiting Battleship USS Texas, August 1918


Early in 1920, FDR was approached by an old friend about the possibility of his being a candidate for Vice President on the Democratic ticket. Well aware that the vice presidency had been on Theodore Roosevelt's path to power, FDR gave his assent. At the Democratic convention later that year, FDR gave a rousing speech in support of fellow New Yorker Al Smith's presidential nomination. Smith's nomination failed, but FDR's speech made an impression. After 44 ballots, the convention finally named James Cox of Ohio its presidential candidate, and Cox selected Roosevelt to be his running mate. Roosevelt was nominated by acclamation.

On 6 August 1920, a month after being nominated, FDR resigned from the Navy Department to campaign for the vice-presidency. Before he did so, he sent the following "All Navy" message to every ship and station: 

I want to convey very simply to the officers and men of the Navy my deep feeling at this separation after nearly eight years. I am honestly proud of the American Navy. I am happy too in the privilege of this association with it. No organized body of men in the nation is cleaner, more honorable or more imbued with true patriotism. 

We have grown greatly in these years, not merely in size but in right thinking and in effective work. I am very certain that this country can continue to give absolute dependence to the first line of defense. The Navy will carry on its splendid record.

Please let me in the years to come continue our association.

Thirteen years later, FDR would indeed continue his association with the Navy as he acceded to the presidency. He had seen war before, and he would see it again—carrying out the greatest expansion in the Navy's history to fight and ultimately to win a two-ocean war.

Source: Originally presented in the Fall 2011 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

Sunday, August 7, 2022

"I Have Seen War" FDR As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Part I: Peacetime and Neutrality



Wilson's Navy Department Team: Secretary Josephus Daniels & Asst. Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt



By Bob Clark, Supervisory Archivist
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

During the 1936 presidential campaign, President Franklin D. Roosevelt—running for a second term—was confronted with a difficult political situation. The country was overwhelmingly isolationist, but the situation abroad was growing more ominous. Civil war had broken out in Spain, and a new wave of fear was sweeping the nation—a fear that the Iberian conflict would spark a broader war into which the United States would then be drawn. The scars of the Great War still were unhealed. FDR chose Chautauqua, New York, to speak on the subject of peace on 14 August 1936.

His carefully crafted speech was designed to calm the fears of isolationists while hinting at the hard realities of foreign affairs. The president suggested that the United States was "not isolationist except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war. Yet we must remember that so long as war exists on earth there will be some danger that even the nation which most ardently desires peace may be drawn into war." As president, he was committed to doing all within his power to prevent such a calamity. For, as he told his audience in Chautauqua and the nation listening in via radio, "I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. 

I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping exhausted men come out of line-the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war!"

The speech was a direct attempt to calm the nation while calling on the other nations of the world to join with the United States in maintaining the peace-a wholly unsuccessful effort as it would turn out. It was the first of many speeches that FDR would make over the next several years moving the nation towards preparedness, until a surprise attack forced war upon us on the Day of Infamy. But the Chautauqua speech naturally raises the question—when did FDR see war?

Although he wanted to join the naval academy as a young man, his father would not permit him to do so. And the man who was now president never served in uniform. The answer lies in FDR's service in the Woodrow Wilson Administration for eight years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. A job he relished and thrived in, and a job he did so well that when the United States joined the fighting in 1917 President Wilson refused FDR's request to resign and enlist At the age of 30, FDR was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of the Navy on his eighth wedding anniversary, 17 March 1913. Later that day he wrote to his mother, "I am baptized, confirmed, sworn in, vaccinated—and somewhat at sea! For over an hour I have been signing papers which had to be accepted on faith—but I hope luck will keep me out of jail. All well, but I will have to work like a new turbine to master this job— but it will be done even if it takes all summer."

The assistant secretary position was one that FDR had aspired to for much of his life. His distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt had once held the post, and FDR saw TR as a role model, both in terms of his progressive politics as well as his career path. In 1907, as a young lawyer in the New York firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Millburn, FDR had told one of his colleagues that he thought he had a real chance of becoming president one day, and he intended to get there by first winning a seat in the New York legislature, then an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy, and then becoming governor of New York before running for the presidency. The similarities to TR's career trajectory were unmistakable.

FDR obtained the assistant secretaryship as a result of his efforts in the 1912 presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson. A vigorous young New York state senator who had made a reputation for himself by challenging the state's political machine, Roosevelt had worked hard for Wilson's nomination and election. At the Democratic convention in Baltimore, FDR had come to the attention of Josephus Daniels, a North Carolina newspaperman and Wilson ally. Roosevelt impressed Daniels with both his strong progressive politics and his unwavering support for Wilson. When Wilson then named Daniels to be secretary of the Navy, Daniels offered Roosevelt the number two spot in the department on the very morning of Wilson's inauguration. 

Roosevelt's response was an enthusiastic yes- "It would please me better than anything in the world," he said. "All my life I have loved ships and have been a student of the Navy, and the assistant secretaryship is the one place, above all others, that I would like to hold." Before FDR's nomination went to the Senate, Daniels followed custom by consulting with New York's two senators, one of whom was Republican Elihu Root who had been President McKinley's secretary of war and Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of state. Root gave his assent to FDR's appointment, but with one word of caution: "You know the Roosevelts, don't you," he asked Daniels. "Whenever a Roosevelt rides, he likes to ride in front." 

They were an unlikely pair, Daniels and Roosevelt. Daniels knew almost nothing about the Navy, having come from landlocked Raleigh, North Carolina, but he was a calm and savvy politician who had the president's ear. Roosevelt was a brashly self-confident man who lived and breathed all things naval. Despite their differences, they served together well throughout the entire Wilson Administration. Their respective strengths and weaknesses complemented each other. Daniels primarily concentrated on working with the president on policy matters, dealing with Congress, and watching over the fleet. Roosevelt's domain was the business of the Navy-supervising the department's civilian staff, managing the Navy's various bureaus, and negotiating contracts. Roosevelt made Daniels' job easier, and from Daniels Roosevelt learned the ways of politicking in the nation's capitol. Roosevelt would never forget the debt he owed to Daniels for bringing him to Washington. For the rest of his life, FDR called Daniels "Chief," and when Roosevelt became president in 1933, one of his first acts was to name Daniels ambassador to Mexico.



Daniels and FDR Honoring a Young Naval Officer



FDR relished his new job. But the Navy's departmental structure, and indeed the fleet itself, was hopelessly outdated. Although ranked third in the world in size, the numbers concealed the age and antiquated design of the ships.

The bureaucracy was also out of date, not having been changed since 1842, before the age of the ironclads. The department was organized into eight semi-independent bureaus, with each headed by a powerful bureau chief responsible to Congress, not to the Navy secretary. The admirals who served as chiefs held their posts for years, mostly in isolation from one another, and fought over territory, appropriations, and glory. The Navy Department, now overseen by Daniels and Roosevelt, was widely perceived to be the most difficult Cabinet level department to manage. 

FDR was highly critical of the department's organizational structure, but despite his best efforts, it would not be until the attack at Pearl Harbor that he would finally be able to bring the Navy bureaus under the control of the executive branch. 

FDR's primary areas of responsibility in the peacetime Navy Department were the department's thousands of civilian workers and contracting issues. Labor relations with such a vast civilian staff did not prove easy, but FDR took labor's complaints seriously, using his authority when possible to settle their grievances with the Navy brass. Roosevelt also was adept at handling contracting matters. Although often frustrated by the department's system of bureaus, FDR worked to bring about more competitive bidding in contracts, to lower costs to the government, and to improve efficiency in the Navy yards. Although not as successful as he could have hoped, FDR learned an important lesson about the need for efficiency in government.

Another of his primary responsibilities as assistant secretary was to tour and inspect naval yards and stations. Nothing made FDR happier than to board a ship bound for the next destination. Because the president and navy secretary each had their own flag that flew when aboard ship, FDR designed his own assistant secretary flag, and he delighted as he received a 17-gun salute as he boarded
ship-that's four more guns than a rear admiral gets.

His inspection trips were valuable to FDR in two respects. First, they helped him to gain knowledge of local conditions throughout the country and to make contacts with local Democratic Party officials-building a network of supporters that would be useful to his later political ambitions.

And through these trips, FDR came in contact with young Navy officers whom he would remember later as commander in chief. Among these notable young officers were William D. Leahy, who would become President Roosevelt's chief of staff; Husband E. Kimmel, future commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor; Harold L. Stark, future chief of naval operations; and Chester Nimitz, destined to greatness in the Pacific war. Perhaps the most memorable encounter, though, came when FDR ordered the destroyer commanded by Lt. William F. "Bull" Halsey, Jr., to take him to a naval base near Campobello Island, the Roosevelt family's summer home off the coast of Maine. Roosevelt asked Halsey's permission to pilot the ship through the treacherous Lubec narrows, and Halsey reluctantly agreed. Halsey feared that the assistant secretary would not understand the difference between handling a 700-ton destroyer and a pleasure boat. Much to Halsey's relief, Roosevelt expertly guided theship through the dangerous channel.

Although FDR enjoyed the trappings and privileges of the assistant secretaryship, after his first year in office, FDR began to grow restless. Despite his position, Roosevelt felt like he merely performed tedious housekeeping duties while Daniels was engaged in the high politics and grand strategic design that FDR aspired to. Roosevelt could make recommendations, but ultimate authority rested with Daniels. 

It was at this point that Roosevelt dipped his toe back into the waters of New York elective politics. Perceiving his path to advancement in Washington blocked for the foreseeable future, he briefly considered running for New York governor, only to be disappointed when he did not receive the support of either Woodrow Wilson or Cousin Theodore, both of whom were mending fences with the state's Tammany Hall political machine.

Then in 1914 came an open United States Senate seat, and he decided to enter the primary against the advice of Josephus Daniels. But Tammany Hall put forth a rival that had been cleared by the White House, and Roosevelt went down to overwhelming defeat, ending his elective ambitions for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, of course, the situation in Europe deteriorated dramatically. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, beginning a cascade of events that would soon embroil the continent in a general war. FDR feared that there was no hope in averting a larger conflict. He wrote to Eleanor, who was at Campobello: "The best that can be expected is either a sharp, complete and quick victory by one side, a most unlikely occurrence, or a speedy realization of impending bankruptcy by all, and a cessation by mutual consent, but I think this is too unlikely."


Rare Photo of TR and FDR Together with Lawyer
 W.H. Vanbeschoten, Syracuse, NY, 1915


Roosevelt also had concerns about the leadership of President Wilson's advisers, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and his own boss Josephus Daniels, both of whom were noted pacifists. Roosevelt also fretted over the Navy's lack of preparedness. "To my astonishment in reaching the Dept." he wrote to Eleanor, "nobody seemed the least bit excited about the European crisis—Mr. Daniels feeling chiefly very sad that his faith in human nature and civilization and similar idealistic nonsense was receiving such a rude shock. So I started in alone to get things ready and to prepare plans for what ought to be done by the Navy end of things . . .These dear people like [Bryan] and [Daniels] have as much conception of what a general European war means as Elliott [the Roosevelt's' young son] has of higher mathematics."

Of course, Daniels and Bryan were much more in tune with Wilson's policies than was Roosevelt. President Wilson quickly issued the first of many neutrality proclamations, and at the President's direction Daniels ordered all officers to refrain from public comment of any kind about the European conflict. The Navy was charged with watching the coasts, protecting the neutrality of American ports, and preventing the shipment of any kind of munitions to the belligerents. Roosevelt was appointed to two Cabinet-level committees, one of which was to find practical ways to implement Wilson's neutrality policies and the other to provide aid and relief to Americans stranded in Europe by the war.

Roosevelt took his role in Navy preparedness seriously. He often bristled at Daniels' pacifism and neutrality, and Roosevelt anticipated that the Navy might have to be used later in active conflict and he moved as best he could to put the Navy on a war footing.

In late October, when Daniels was away from Washington, Acting Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt took advantage of Daniels' absence to release a memorandum by high-ranking Admirals spelling out fleet deficiencies in manpower-13 battleships were laid up because 18,000 men were needed to man them. The memorandum was published in the newspapers, much to the White House's displeasure. And upon his return to Washington, Daniels gave Roosevelt a dressing down. Although FDR issued a public disclaimer and later had to tow the administration line in Congressional hearings, he wrote to Eleanor "The country needs the truth about the Army and Navy instead of a lot of soft mush about everlasting peace."

FDR was eager to see the war firsthand. His first attempt to get there in December 1914 proved unsuccessful. An official request to the First Lord of the Admiralty—Winston Churchill—received the following reply through the American embassy: "The First Lord desires me to express his regret that the present pressure of work in the Department would render it impossible to offer the assistance necessary for the accomplishment of such a visit." Certainly an inauspicious beginning to what would, 25 years later, become one of the seminal friendships of the 20th century.

The war at sea accelerated as 1915 began. Germany declared the waters around Britain to be a war zone, threatening to sink Allied vessels and neutral merchant ships. Britain responded with a counter-blockade. Wilson maintained neutrality, but he was stunned was torpedoed in the Irish Sea with nearly 1,200 lives lost, including 128 Americans. Wilson and Berlin then exchanged protest notes, the last American dispatch resulting in the resignation of William Jennings Bryan from the Cabinet because he believed it would lead to war. 

Although widely seen as an act of disloyalty to Wilson, Bryan's resignation revealed fractures in American opinion, with much of the country becoming more militant in its view of the war. Facing reelection soon, Wilson decided to stay in step, and in July 1915 Roosevelt was called upon by Daniels to draft plans for the Navy's expansion. FDR was delighted. By December, a plan had been pushed through Congress to increasethe Navy by 176 ships within three years, at a cost of $600 million-the largest peacetime construction program in the nation's history to date. As the naval build-up proceeded, Roosevelt took steps to mobilize the nation even more rapidly. He designed and proposed to President Wilson the creation of a Council of National Defense to coordinate war production. But the President was unwilling to take so drastic a step. Roosevelt continued to lobby Wilson on the Council, and finally in August 1916, Wilson permitted it to be attached as a rider to an Army appropriation bill. The council was authorized to place defense contracts directly with suppliers and to draw up plans for the
coordination of the nation's resources towards full mobilization. FDR's role in the creation of the National Defense Council was important for the future as well, for FDR would reactivate the Council's advisory panel in 1940 after the fall of France. Another project spearheaded by Roosevelt was the establishment of a naval reserve.

Nineteen Sixteen also saw the reelection of Woodrow Wilson by a narrow margin, aided by Franklin Roosevelt's prominence as the Administration's preparedness Democrat. FDR's unwavering positions on military preparedness and a strong navy helped to offset the criticism of his Cousin Theodore Roosevelt and the interventionist wing of the Republican Party. FDR campaigned hard for Wilson in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, suggesting that Republican criticism of the administration's initial slow mobilization effort was unpatriotic and counterproductive in light of the steps now being taken by the government. In one speech, FDR asked his audience "How would you expect the public to be convinced that a dangerous fire was in progress if they saw members of the volunteer fire department stop their headlong rush toward the conflagration and indulge in a slanging match as to who was responsible for the rotten hose or lack of water at a fire a week ago?" This fire hose analogy would again prove useful in 1940 as FDR explained Lend Lease to the American people.


FDR After a Test Flight on a Navy Seaplane



With Wilson reelected, Roosevelt made plans to remain another four years in Washington. At the same time, Germany took another bold step-ordering unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to drive Britain out of the war. The subsequent sinking of the American freighter caused Wilson to sever diplomatic relations with Germany. Roosevelt, inspecting Marines in Santo Domingo, was urgently called back to Washington by Secretary Daniels.

Continued tomorrow in the 8 August 2022 posting on Roads to the Great War

Source: Originally presented in the Fall 2011 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Montbrehain: Final Action of the Australian Corps


Men of the Australian Corps, 1918


After the failed Gallipoli campaign, the larger part of the Australian Imperial Force moved to the Western Front in 1916. Along with a single New Zealand formation, its four divisions in France were initially organized into I ANZAC Corps (1st Division and 2nd Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division) and II ANZAC Corps (4th and 5th Australian Divisions). A fifth Australian division, the 3rd, would be added to the mix when it arrived from Australia in November 1916. For two years the ANZACs found themselves in the middle of every major campaign on the Western Front. In November 1917, however, an all-Australian Corps was designated (the New Zealand Division had been reassigned to the British Third Army) and it would be destined  as part of the British Fourth Army to play a leading role in the final victory offensive of the Allies. 

The Corps' actions at  Le Hamel, Amiens, Péronne, Mont St Quentin and the Breeching of the Hindenburg Line are well documented.  However, the Australian Corps is not mentioned in accounts of the Armistice fighting because by 11 November it was out of the line. The nonstop fighting from July to October had exhausted the force—it needed a rest.  For some reason it's difficult to find details about their final battle on the Western Front, a smaller, but very tough and important struggle around the fortified village of Montbrehain.  With a little help from the Corps Commander, Geneal John Monash and some Australian sources, though, we can remedy that here.


Note: Montbrehain on Right


After passing through the American Divisions (27th and 30th) charged with capturing the highly fortified St. Quentin Canal and completing its capture, the Australians also took the Le Catelet line just east of the canal tunnel. Now only one German trench system remained. The 3rd and 5th divisions were replaced by 2nd Australian Division, which, in the last Australian infantry attack of the First World War, took the town of Montbrehain on 5 October.  the attack on Montbrehain was both strategic and a coordinated part of attacks by other British forces.  This attack breached the final elaborate system of German defences in the Somme sector. Advancing on the early morning of 5 October,  Australian forces succeeded in occupying the village and in the process took 400 German prisoners. The action claimed 430 Australian casualties. 

General Monash later summarized the accomplishments of the Australian Corps subsequent to his appointment as commander.  There had been some criticism that the casualties were excessive for the gains made, but he felt that this was not the case.  

Montbrehain was the last Australian battle in the Great War, and the fighting career of the Australian Army Corps had, as events turned out, come to an end. On that same day my Second Division was relieved by the 30th American Division, and I handed over command of the battlefront to [American Corps Commander] General Read. I had borne continuous responsibility, as a Corps Commander, for a section of the battlefront in France varying from four to eleven miles for 128 consecutive days without a break.


Montbrehain Captured: 1918 and Today

On these grounds, I believe that the real and immediate reason for the precipitate surrender of Germany on October 5th, 1918, was the defeat of her Army in the field. It followed so closely upon the breaching of the Hindenburg defenses on September 29th to October 4th, that it cannot be dissociated from that event as a final determining cause. 

Sources: Over the Top, August 2018;  Digger 64, "Montbrehain: the AIF’s last battle of the war."


Thursday, August 4, 2022

Remembering a Veteran: Enrico Toti—Civilian Volunteer for the Italian Army


Volunteer Enrico Toti

Enrico Toti (1882–1916) at age 14 enlisted in the Royal Navy as an electrician. After his discharge, he lost his left leg while working for Italian railways, at the age of 24. After his injury he became a cyclist. In 1911, riding on a bicycle with one leg, he cycled to Paris, and then through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark, up to Finland and Lapland. From there, via Russia and Poland, he returned to Italy in June 1912. In January 1913, Toti started cycling again, this time in Egypt; from Alexandria, he reached the border with Sudan, where the British authorities, considering the trail too dangerous, ordered him to end the journey and sent him to Cairo, whence he came back to Italy. 

When war broke out between Italy and the Austrian Empire, Toti tried to volunteer for the Italian Army but was not accepted due to his injury. Undaunted, he reached the front line with his bicycle and managed to serve as an unpaid, unregistered, fully non-regulation “civilian volunteer” attached to several units, finally to the 3rd Cyclists Bersaglieri Battalion. When he was sent to the front he wrote patriotic letters to his family, friends and newspapers.


Killed in August 1916, By October He Was
a National Hero


Volunteer Toti was killed in the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. The legend goes that as Toti lay dying on the field during the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, he hurled his crutch at the enemy. While the details of his death were never fully confirmed, his story quickly became well known, and he was almost inztantly a national hero. The postwar government of Mussolini promoted his story as well.

On 27  August 1916, he was awarded with the Gold Medal to the Military Valor, with this citation:

Volunteering, even if he was devoid of a leg, he rendered valuable services in the battle of April at quota 70 (to the east of Selz) and  on 6 August in the battle that led to the occupation of quota 85 (to the east of Monfalcone). In the enemy trench, he continued to fight ardently even if he was wounded twice. Shot dead by a third bullet, he launched heroically his crutch to the enemy and died by kissing the plumage of his hat at Monfalcone, 6 August 1916.


Statue of Toti at Villa Borghese, Rome

He is buried at the Cimitero Comunale Monumentale Campo Verano in Rome. At least two statues honoring Toti stand today in Rome. Since his official military service was actually with the Italian Navy, two submarines (no longer active) were named for him.

Sources:  Italofile.com; Wikipedia

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A Particularly Moving Wartime Photograph

Over the years, I've published thousands of images from the Great War. Once in a while I run across one that really moves me. Here's one such. MH

Click on Image to Enlarge

Accompanied by a Chaplain,  on 17 February 1918, South African Nurse Sister Mildred Flynn Lays a Wreath on the Grave of Her Brother, Dudley, Killed in the Fighting at Delville Wood During the Battle of the Somme

Source: Imperial War Museum


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

France's Lesser-Known But Truly Great Anti-War Film: Les Croix de Bois


Burial Detail

Wooden Crosses, or Les Croix de Bois (1932) in the original French, is considered by some critics to be the best of any nation's anti-war films, such as The Big Parade or All Quiet on the Western Front, produced in the interwar period. Maybe its toughest competition for this superlative comes from two better-known French anti-war films, Abel Gance's J'Accuse and Jean Renoirs Grand Illusion.  

Its general plot is a Gallic version of All Quiet: a young idealistic French volunteer-substitute  Gilbert Demachy (played by Pierre Blanchar) for Germany's Paul Bäumer joins a veteran unit, bonds with his mates, fights in many actions that gradually kill off most of his friends in the company, and, in the last scene of the movie, dies.

There are, however, many touches to Wooden Crosses that set it apart from similar war films. Gilbert's unit, the 39th Regiment of Infantry, is deployed to the Champagne, and all its combat sequences were filmed on location, in still existing wartime trenches that are recognizable because of the distinctive chalky-white soil of the region.  


French Graves in Champagne


There are multiple intense dramatic set-ups throughout the movie. In one, the troops are asleep in a dugout when they hear digging underneath—the Germans are tunneling a mine to lay explosives directly below their position! Their superiors, however, order them to hold the position, and some of the men are driven mad as the mine's detonation becomes more and more likely. Finally, Wooden Crosses features some of the most explicit and effective uses of symbolism to reinforce its message I've ever seen. The cross as an icon of death appears in countless ways: burial parties carrying crosses pass nearby, some of the men attend mass in a nearby village, and countless cemeteries are worked in the action, including the most intense battle sequence of the movie.