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

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Bob Reynolds's Excellent Adventure

Bob Reynolds (Center) Celebrating the 100th Anniversary
of the Royal Air Force

My friend Bob Reynolds passed away at age 99 last month. I got to know him through my battlefield tour work with the company he founded in 1977, Valor Tours, Ltd. He was highly esteemed, even beloved by many of us who had traveled with him over the years. When he started out, Bob was doubly qualified to organize such an enterprise.  He had long been an executive in the airline business with international responsibilities and knew the travel and accommodations part of the operation hands down. More important, though, Bob's WWII varied and fascinating service with the RAF gave him great credibility in attracting veterans,  their families, military service organizations, unit associations, reunion groups, historical societies and government institutions with an interest in the Pacific and Europe wartime theaters.

Flt. Lt. Reynolds on Left with His Lancaster Crew,
Naples, 1944

He joined the Royal Air Force on 4 September 1939 and entered active duty in July of 1940. He completed flight training and received his wings in March of 1941. Bob served as a flight instructor in Ontario, Canada, and returned to England in early 1943 as a pilot. He continued serving as an instructor to the U.S. 8th Air Force, training Yanks in map reading and how to navigate through cloudy, European skies. He later joined the 101st Squadron, piloting Wellington and Lancaster bombers. He and his Lancaster crew flew bombing missions over Germany and made several runs to retrieve British  prisoners of war for repatriation. He landed the first RAF aircraft in Berlin after VE day.

By the time of my involvement in 2006, his company, Valor Tours Ltd., was being managed by his daughter, Vicky.  Up to that point, despite being the largest operator of battlefield tours in America, Valor Tours had never run a First World War tour. Some of the regular customers, though, decided they wanted to visit the Western Front, and Vicky tracked me down. For the next two years, I had little contact with Bob, who had moved out of the Bay Area. However, he still led some of the tours, and by word of mouth had heard that the new World War I tours  were going well.  

Bob's Parents: Lt. George and Marcelle Reynolds
on Their Honeymoon

One day I got a call from Vicky, informing me that Bob and his wife Betty wanted to join my next tour, but they had a special place they wanted to visit—some specific place his father, Lt. George Reynolds of the  Royal Engineers, had served. This sort of request was always something I always tried to accommodate, but this one would prove to be one of the most challenging I'd faced. The Royal Engineers were everywhere on the Western Front, and George Reynolds moved all over the place in different assignments, surveying, construction, and so forth. How to identify with some certitude a place where Lt. Reynolds actually tread was a big problem.

British Troops Aboard a Light Rail (Narrow Gauge) Train

His son Bob, though, had one vivid memory of visiting a site in France where his dad said he had supervised the maintenance and operation of a light rail line for several months during the spring 1917 Battle of Arras. (In the interwar period the family owned a summer house in Normandy and traveled around France a lot, so his recollection was solid in a general sense, but not too specific about exactly where this took place.)  

The next step was to try to pin down the lines where George might have served. We called on every British Army expert we knew. U.K.-based researcher Sidney Clark networked with a chap named Kevin Horn, who had access to a library of war diaries  that included engineering units. His searching yielded  the decisive information we needed. Lt. George Reynolds was assigned to the 113th Company of the Royal Engineers between 17 March and 18 May 1917. The company was responsible for a long stretch of rail line from Doullens to Arras, and on 23 March Lt. Reynolds had been given responsibility for a 10-kilometer stretch around the village of Mondicourt. Toni and Valmai Holt of Holt's Tours were also very helpful. Toni was a Royal Engineer, himself, and was able to find the map shown here that displays the Mondicourt section.

As you can see, the map is an engineering map not a road map. I could only compare it in a rough way to my Michelin map. As of my departure for France that spring,  I didn't have a specific point I could direct our bus driver to, and I did not know if there would be any remnants of the rail line even if we were at the right point. The one thing I noticed in comparing the two maps was that for the stretch under Lt. Reynolds's command,  the rail line ran parallel to the Doullens-Arras roads (N25), just about 50 yards to its south side.  

Leaving Doullens, I decided to drive to Mondicourt and take the first right turn and see what I could see. If that didn't work, I would go back to the N25 and take every turn-off I could until I found a rail right-of-way. I had not informed the group (including Bob and Betty) of where we were headed.  I held my breath as we turned at Mondicourt, but immediately felt a great release when I realized the entire former rail line was still clearly delineated and had been converted to a regional trail. (The aerial view below shows the path.) 

After the bus was parked,  I just asked the group to dismount and join me for something interesting on the trail. We walked a bit, and when the group gathered, I told them the story of Lt. George Reynolds and his service during the Battle of Arras. Bob, as you can see below was bursting with joy and the group was thrilled for him.   

Bob in the Center with the Group
on His Father's Former Rail Line

That night at the hotel he shared his happiness at being able to appreciate for the first time exactly what it was that his dad had done in the War to End All Wars.

How I'll Remember Bob

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Historian Michael Neiberg Recommends Some WWI Fiction

Editor's Comment: Back when I was the editor for the Journal of the World War One Historical Association, I asked prolific military historian Michael Neiberg to contribute an article on the long-term impact of the war. He included some thoughts on the literature of the war.  Here are his comments and a list of his favorites. MH

French Author Henri Barbusse

We all know about the poets of the First World War, but for some odd reason the novelists and memoirists of the war have, with the exception of Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque, faded into relative obscurity. There are, however, a number of wonderful novels, many of them based on personal experience, that are well worth the time. The best of the group is probably Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We (published in the U.S. under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune), a Cockney slang-filled story of British soldiers on the Somme. Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, now in a new English translation with the title Under Firewas a sensational bestseller when published in 1916 and remains poignant today. Liam O’Flaherty’s The Return of the Brute deals with Irish soldiers stuck in an impossible situation. One of my favorites remains Jaroslav Hašek’s hilarious take on the ineptitude of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in The Good Soldier Švejk

The Books Can Be Ordered Here

Monday, February 22, 2021

The U.S. Navy Memorial at Gibraltar

The World War I Naval Monument in Gibraltar, is located at the Straits of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. It is a masonry archway which leads to a British Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. Over the arch are two bronze seals of the United States and the Department of the Navy. This monument, constructed of the stone from the neighboring Rock of Gibraltar, commemorates the achievements of the U.S. Navy in the nearby waters and its comradeship with the British Royal Navy during World War I.

Steps lead downward from the south side of the Naval Monument to the busy harbor; thus its nickname of the “American Steps.” The inscription on the north side of the monument:

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) bound for combat in Europe relied upon sea transport. German submarines posed a major threat to the traffic. General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, summarized the menace thus:

In the five months ending June 30, 1917, German submarines had accomplished the destruction of more than three and one quarter million tons of Allied shipping.

Scout Cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2) was the flagship for the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Force operating from Gibraltar

The U.S. Navy cooperated with the Royal Navy and other navies in fighting the submarine menace. Gibraltar was one of its major bases. The Navy’s Patrol Force operated there from August 1917 until after the Armistice of 11 November 1918. Its ships included cruisers, destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, and submarine chasers.

The ships attacked German submarines and escorted convoys to and from ports in France and Great Britain. During July and August 1918, the Patrol Force escorted 25 percent of all Mediterranean convoys to French ports and 70 percent of all convoys to English ports from the vicinity of Gibraltar. General Pershing paid tribute to the Navy’s performance in his 1919 final report. He said:

To our sister service we owe the safe arrival of our armies and their supplies. It is most gratifying to record that there has never been such perfect understanding between these two branches of the service.

Sailors from the USS Raleigh at the 1937 dedication
of the monument 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

General Pershing's Letters Home to His Son Warren


General Pershing and His Son Warren Back in Lincoln, NE, in 1920—Warren Had Spent the Post-Armistice Period with His Father in France

Read more of Pershing's letters to his son and learn about the documentary film Black Jack Pershing: Love and War, here:

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Prisoners of War & Repatriated Civilians

By Terrence J. Finnegan

German Prisoners: Future Sources of Intelligence

The Importance of the Order of Battle

To the military commander, knowing which unit was on the other side of No Man's Land—known as the order of battle—was the priority. A British intelligence officer commented that, "If reliable information is to be afforded by troops in the front line, it is essential that they should have some idea of the organization of the German army." A senior British analyst explained, "As everyone knows, the basis (of intelligence work) is the building up of the enemy's order of battle, for when this has been done the identification of one unit is prima facie evidence of the presence of the division to which it belongs and possible also of the corps or even army."


The most predominant source of intelligence collection in positional war was interrogation of prisoners. Both sides made capture and retention of prisoners a primary objective. Not only did it reduce the threat by one soldier, prisoners were usually a treasure trove of  information providing a sole source of information covering many critical issues. One British intelligence chief described the process. "Most of the information which a prisoner has is information in detail regarding the enemy defensive works on his own immediate front.

To extract this information from him requires time. It is sometimes necessary to take the prisoner back in the frontline trenches or to Observation Posts and almost always necessary to examine him with the assistance of aeroplane photographs." Ludendorff's chief spy manager at the front, Oberstleutnant Walter Nicolai, gave testament to the value of prisoner interrogations: "Our greatest and most valuable source of news in the western theatre of war—and at the frontline the only one—was furnished by prisoners of war."

Repatriated Men

Civilians in Newly Liberated Territory Had Lots of Information

An additional source of human intelligence consisted of interrogating repatriated civilians as they made it to Allied lines from German-held territory. Interviews were normally conducted by intelligence personnel in the sector looking for information on German activity and intentions. Following confirmation from local French authorities that the repatriated men were authentic, subsequent intelligence interviews sought elaboration on whatever modifications were being observed by aerial photography or other observation sources. 

Here's an example of valuable  information gathered from repatriated civilians by the AEF Intelligence Branch:

The 2 French civilians who came into our lines near Pont-a-Mousson on Sept 2, have described in detail a water supply system by which water from the Fontaine du Soiron, 66.8-48.3, is pumped to reservoirs at 3 points, each about 1 km. distant (N.W., S.W and S.) whence it is to be piped to points on the Hindenburg line from Dommartin, S.E. to Mont Plaisir Farm, for use in concrete work. This system is partly visible on photos, where it has the appearance of buried cable trenches, and it has been so represented on maps. The civilian's statement is entirely consistent with the photographic evidence and indicates that the further strengthening of the Hindenburg line is to be looked for at the points indicated. 

Source: "Summary of Intelligence," 1st Army Corps, U.S. Second Section, G.S. 

From "Military Intelligence at the Front," Over the Top, February 2009

Friday, February 19, 2021

Trench Raiding à la Rommel, Part II

Typical No-Man's-Land in the Vosges Sector

Part I of this article appeared in yesterday's (18 February 2021) posting on Roads to the Great War.

Part II

Those were hours of strenuous work! Occasionally, a wire cracked and we stopped work and strained our ears to listen into the night. By midnight we had cut our way through the second wire belt and we were a hundred feet from the enemy trench. Unfortunately the rain and the storm abated somewhat, and it had become a bit lighter. Ahead of us lay high and continuous chevaux-de-frise [a defensive barrier, sometimes spiked].

Each separate framework was long and heavy and the innumerable wires were too heavy for our light wire cutters. We crawled a few yards to the right and tried to separate two of the chevaux-defrise. This effort merely made a lot of noise, which sounded to us like a thunderclap. If the hostile sentries, now a hundred or so feet away, failed to hear us, they were surely asleep.

The next few minutes were not pleasant, but all remained quiet on the southern front. I gave up trying to separate the chevaux-de-frise which were too firmly anchored and, after a brief search, we found a shell crater which gave us an opening. We wormed our way through and covered the few yards between us and the enemy position.

Rommel's Plan

Another shower started. The three of us were between the wire and the enemy trench where the water trickled down the trench bottom over some stone steps and on into the valley, Cautiously, the leading men of the assault detachment squeezed under the chevaux-de-frise. The remainder were farther back in the first and second wire belts. Suddenly we heard footsteps coming down the trench from our left. Several Frenchmen approached us coming downhill in the trench and their slow and even steps resounded in the night. They were unaware of our presence. I estimated their strength at three for four men. A trench patrol ? What were we to do ? Jump them or let them pass? The chances of jumping them without raising a ruckus were remote. It would be a man for man fight. Our own assault detachment could not take part for it was still out in the wire. We could have overpowered the trench patrol, but then the trench garrison would have gone into action and covered the barriers with fire. Our return would have cost us dearly and, under such conditions, we would have had little luck in bringing back a prisoner. I quickly weighed the pros and cons and decided to let the enemy pass unmolested.

My two companions, Schafferdt and Pfeiffer were informed and we took complete cover at the edge of the hostile trench for, above all, we had to hide our hands and faces. The chevaux-de-frise interfered with our crawling back. We would have been detected had the French patrol been on the job. In case they were, we got ready to jump them. With our dispositions made, we lay and waited.

Their footsteps were regular and they conversed softly. Anxious seconds crawled by. Without hesitation, the French trench patrol came abreast of us and went on. While the sound of footsteps died away, we heaved a sigh of relief and waited a few minutes to see if they would return. Then, one after the other, we dropped into the trench. The rain had stopped and only the wind whistled over the bare slope. As the wary men entered the trench, bits of earth and rock broke loose from the trench wall and tumbled noisily down onto the stone steps. Again anxious minutes passed. Finally the whole assault detachment was in the trench.

We divided and Lieutenant Schafferdt, with ten men, went down the slope while Staff Sergeant Schropp and his ten went in the opposite direction. I went with Schropp. We felt our way carefully up the steep trench. Only a few steps separated us from our objective, the sentry post on the rock ledge. We wondered if the enemy had noticed anything. We stopped and listened. Suddenly over on the left something smacked into the barrier, followed immediately by an explosion on the trench parapet on the right. Hand grenades exploded with a roar. The leading man of the assault detachment reeled back, and the whole detachment became jammed in the trench. The next hand grenade salvo struck among us. It was a question of attacking immediately or surrendering. "Let 'em have it!" We rushed the enemy and managed to pass under his hand-grenade fire. Stierle, my groom, who had come up forward for this party only, was hit on the larynx by a Frenchman, and Sergeant Nothacker dispatched the man with his pistol. A short time afterward, two other men of the sentry detachment were overpowered. One Frenchman managed to escape to the rear.

Typical Trench—Vosges Sector

With our flashlights, we made a hurried search for dugout entrances. We found one hole that was empty, but a second one was full of Frenchmen. With my pistol in my right hand and flashlight in my left, I crawled into the twenty-inch opening followed by Sergeant Quandte. Seven fully armed Frenchmen sat along the wall, but they threw down their arms after a brief argument. The safest course was to take care of these lads with a grenade or two, but this was contrary to our orders, which specified that prisoners were to be brought back.

Lieutenant Schafferdt reported two prisoners with no losses in his unit. While we were occupied with the job at hand, the wire-cutting detachments had been working like beavers and the paths through the wire were ready.

Since the coup had accomplished its purpose, I gave the order to withdraw. We had to break away before French reserves got into action. Without further annoyance from the enemy, we regained our position with a bag of eleven prisoners. Particularly pleasing was the fact that we suffered no real casualties. Lance Corporal Stierle had a slight scratch from a hand grenade fragment. Recognition by our superior officers for this fine operation was not long in coming.

Unfortunately, the next day brought retribution, for a French sniper picked off Staff Sergeant Kollman in a quiet sector of the company trench. This lamented loss dampened our joy over the successful Pinetree Knob affair.

Lt. Erwin Rommel

After this the days in the "Open Position" were numbered. The Supreme Army Command had other work for the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. Toward the end of October we moved east.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Trench Raiding à la Rommel, Part I

The Future "Desert Fox" with a WWI Friend

In the fall of 1916, that most industrious lieutenant, Erwin Rommel, found himself deployed with the Württemberg Mountain Battalion to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, about 25 miles north of the Swiss border.  In his 1937 somewhat self-promoting case study book known in some sources as Infantry Attacks, he discusses a successful trench raid  he had commanded while posted there. In the essay, which uniquely covers the attack from concept to its aftermath, he reveals the thoroughness, self-confidence, and determination to "lead from the front," that would serve him throughout his service in both World Wars. In his book, he heads this section, "Raid on 'Pinetree Knob' Sector." I've been unable to locate its exact location, so the  position shown on the map below is only approximate and the trench photos here are all from the general sector, not specifically Pine Tree Knob.

Part I

Early in October 1916, several units, among them the 2d Company, were ordered to prepare plans for raiding the enemy to take prisoners. My Argonne experience showed me that this type of work was dangerous, difficult to organize, and usually resulted in a high casualty list and, for this reason, I held my boys in check as far as raids were concerned. Once ordered, I pitched in and started planning. To begin with, in order to determine the feasibility of working into the enemy position, I went out on reconnaissance, accompanied by Staff Sergeants Büttler and Kollmar. We crept and crawled through the tall and fairly dense fir forest toward a French sentry post, established at the upper end of a forest path leading up toward the enemy. The path was overgrown with tall grass and weeds and we were most careful in crossing it some fifty yards from the enemy. Once across, we slipped into a ditch and wormed our way forward. 

Cutting through the mass of barbed wire with cutters was a back-breaking job requiring a maximum of caution. Night began to fall and we heard, but could not see, the French sentry move about his post. It was slow work getting through the wire, especially since we could only cut the lowest strand of wire. Eventually we reached the middle of the entanglement. At this point the French sentry exhibited a certain amount of restlessness and cleared his throat and coughed several times. Was he afraid or had he heard us? If he tossed a hand grenade into our ditch, it was curtains for the three of us. To make matters worse, we could not move, let alone defend ourselves. We held our breath and let the tense moments tick by. As soon as the sentry quieted down, I began to withdraw. By this time it was totally dark. In crawling back, we snapped a few twigs and this inadvertent act received immediate recognition. The enemy alerted his entire position and for minutes sprayed the entire landscape between positions with all varieties of small arms fire. We hugged the ground and let them pass over us. When silence fell, we resumed our journey and returned without suffering any casualties. Our reconnaissance proved conclusively the difficulty of raiding in those wooded sectors.

Next day, I proceeded to examine the possibilities of getting into a hostile position called Pinetree Knob, and found the situation more favorable. Under cover of darkness, the position entanglements could be reached silently by moving up a grass-covered glade. However, the barriers consisted of three separate belts of wire requiring hours to cut. Only five hundred feet separated our trenches from those of the enemy. It took several days and nights of careful reconnaissance before we were able to determine the exact location of two sentry posts on Pinetree Knob. One was located in the center of a glade in a concealed sentry box; the other was two hundred feet to the left on a rock ledge from which it was easy to cover the surrounding terrain with fire as well as with visual observation. Only on rare occasions did we receive machine gun fire from this part of the sector.

General Terrain in the Vosges

Any operation in this direction moving over grassy terrain totally devoid of cover required a moonless night. During the next few days and nights we studied the details of the approaches into the Pinetree Knob position and observed the personal habits of the garrisons of both outposts. In doing so, we carefully avoided drawing our opponent's attention to the impending expedition. I based my plans on the results obtained through our reconnaissance. This time I did not intend to sneak into the positions proper; I proposed to negotiate the wire field midway between the two posts, get in this trench and then strike them in flank or preferably in the rear. The raid required a force of twenty men, for we had to split up on arrival in the hostile trench. Also I had to plan to get my raiding parties out and I had to allow for a possible attack by the local trench garrison. A wire-cutting party was to be placed opposite each enemy outpost. They were to crawl up to the edge of the wire and remain there doing nothing until the raiders started cleaning out the trench with pistols and hand grenades or until signaled from within the captured outpost positions. Not until one or other happened were they to start cutting the wire and make a path for the raiders' escape. 

I discussed the raid with the subordinate leaders, using sketches and pointing out the terrain from the trench. The various detachments started their preparations by holding rehearsals close behind our positions. October 4 was a cold and nasty day. A strong northwest wind drove clouds through our 3500-foot position. Toward evening the wind changed into a storm, and a rain of cloudburst proportions beat down. This was weather I had been praying for. By that time the French sentries had their heads deep in their coat collars and had taken refuge in the most sheltered corner of their sentry holes, thus reducing their efficiency as guards. In addition, the wind would drown out most of the noise occasioned by our approach and wire cutting. I reported to Major Sproesser my intention to carry out the raid during the coming night and received approval.

French Position Similar to Rommel's Description

Three hours before midnight, in a pitch black, stormy and rainy night, I left our positions with my three detachments and crawled slowly toward the hostile position. Soon the wire-cutting detachments under Staff Sergeant Kollmar and Lance Corporal Stetter left us and moved off to the right and to the left. Lieutenant Schafferdt, Staff Sergeant Pfeiffer, and I went with the assault detachment and crawled behind our wire-cutters. The other twenty soldiers followed in single file at three-pace intervals. We crawled noiselessly toward the enemy. The wind howled and whipped rain into our faces, and soon soaked us to the skin. We listened anxiously into the night. Single shots rang out here and there and an occasional rocket flare flickered in the darkness, but the enemy remained quiet. The night was so dark that the silhouettes of the surrounding rocks were indistinguishable at more than sixteen feet.

We reached the first obstacle and the hard work began. One of our trio wrapped a rag around every strand before using the cutters. Another took the tension off the wires, and the third slowly cut the wire through. The ends of the cut wire were bent back carefully to prevent betrayal by the noise which would result were they allowed to fly back unimpeded. Every move had been tested beforehand.

We stopped work occasionally and listened intently into the night before starting our tiresome job again. In this manner, inch by inch, we cut our way through the high, wide and very finely lace French wire. We had to content ourselves with cutting a path through the lower strands only.

Continued tomorrow in Part II

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Isaac Rosenberg's "In the Trenches"

Isaac Rosenberg

By David F. Beer

Isaac Rosenberg’s roots were probably the humblest of all the war poets. He was born in 1890 to impoverished Jewish refugees from Lithuania and had to leave his London school at 14 to become an apprentice to an engraver. He found he was gifted in both painting and poetry, but eventually leaned toward poetry. In 1915 he enlisted in a Bantam Battalion since he was under the required height for a regular battalion. Although his background and feelings were strongly pacifist, he wrote “there is certainly a strong temptation to join up when you are making no money.” He was never a happy soldier, but his best poetry came out of the war. He was killed on 1 April 1918, and his body was never found.

In the Trenches

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast…
Down - a shell - O! Christ,
I am choked… safe… dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

Although not as popular as some of his other (and longer) poems, “In the Trenches” gives a brief and poignant vignette of what could happen at any time. The poet and companion are moving through a trench where nothing is gentle. He "snatches" two poppies (implying they are torn out) from where they were manifesting at least some temporary loveliness on the parapet. He playfully adorns himself with one and gives the other to his pal. We note that the poppies are "bright red" and "blood red."

Their momentary playfulness is interrupted by a narrow spot in the trench. Squeezing through, his friend’s poppy is torn off his chest by rubbing against the sandbags. Then comes the terrifying and fatal shell by which the friend is ‘smashed’ and to the horror of the poet, poppy and blood are strewn over the floor of the trench. No further comment is possible. What more could one say?

Monday, February 15, 2021

Hemingway Was Wounded Here

Hemingway on the Italian Front

Ernest Hemingway was wounded  by a mortar shell on 8 July 1918  at Fossalta di Piave in a trench on a levee overlooking the Piave River. At the site, located 17 miles northeast of Venice, is a memorial kiosk remembering the event. Also located there is a monument to the “Ragazzi of ’99” (The Boys of ’99) which commemorates the Italian soldiers born in 1899 who were thrown into the Piave defense at a young age in 1917/18.

Hemingway Panel

The Piave River sector is the most forgotten sector of the Italian Front. It was the barrier behind which the retreating Italian Army reorganized after the disaster at Caporetto. In June 1918 it became the sector where the Austro-Hungarian Empire launched the last offensive in its history. That failed, and in October 1918 the Piave line was the launching position for the opening of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the last act  of the Great War on the Italian Front.    

Side View of Hemingway & Boys of '99 Memorials

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Remembering a Veteran: Medal of Honor Recipient PFC George Dilboy, 103rd Infantry, 26th Division, AEF


Originally presented at Gregory Pappas's Blog, The Pappas Post; Contributed by Darden Livesay.

George Dilboy (Giorgos Dilbois) was born on 5 February 1896 in the Greek town of Alatsata near Smyrna in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).  In his short life, he was destined to serve in the armed forces of both his native and adopted nations, and to be  awarded America's  Medal of Honor, to be interred at last at Arlington Cemetery.

Dilboy and his family immigrated to New Hampshire in the United States in 1908. In 1912, at the age of 16, he returned and fought for Greece in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13. After serving his ethnic homeland, he returned to the U.S, where he joined the New Hampshire National Guard and served in the Mexican Border Campaign. But after World War I broke out—and when the U.S declared war against Germany in 1917—Dilboy's National Guard unit was called up for the U.S Army and joined the 103rd infantry regiment, 26th Division.

In the photo below, Dilboy lies reclined in front with his fellow soldiers at Camp Keyes in Concord, New Hampshire. (Photo/The Story of George Dilboy by Richard Rozakis) Before turning 22 years old, Dilboy had already fought in four wars on three continents. In 1918, the Asia Minor native fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in France.

George Dilboy Up Front

The following excerpt is from his U.S. Army Medal of Honor citation:

After his platoon had gained its objective along a railroad embankment, Private First Class Dilboy, accompanying his platoon leader to reconnoiter the ground beyond, was suddenly fired upon by an enemy machine gun from 100 yards. From a standing position on the railroad track, fully exposed to view, he opened fire at once, but failing to silence the gun, rushed forward with his bayonet fixed, through a wheat field toward the gun emplacement, falling within 25 yards of the gun with his right leg nearly severed above the knee and with several bullet holes in his body. With undaunted courage he continued to fire into the emplacement from a prone position, killing two of the enemy and dispersing the rest of the crew.

Dilboy died on 18 July 1918 due to his wounds. He was initially buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France, but at the request of his father he was later buried at his birthplace of Alatsata in Turkey, where thousands attended his funeral. 

In January 1919 the Commanding General of the Northeastern Department presented his Medal of Honor to his father, Antonios. The distinction made him the first Greek-American to earn America’s highest decoration for valor.

"Under other circumstances I would have shed tears because of my son’s death,” his father said. “But when I learned of the manner in which he died, I was proud that he had given his life with honor the cause of his adopted country, the United States. . . We came to this country from Smyrna, where my boy and other children were born. . . We know and have felt the persecutions of Turkey."

In 1922 when Turkey’s Kemalist army occupied Alatsata, Turkish soldiers broke open Dilboy’s coffin entombed in the Church of the Theotokos, desecrating Dilboy’s remains and the U.S flag.  President Warren G. Harding became outraged and ordered a U.S warship to recover the remains and return them to the U.S. Harding also demanded and received a formal apology from the Turkish government. Following their return, Dilboy's remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on 12 November 1923. 

George Dilboy received honors from three U.S presidents: Woodrow Wilson, who signed the authorization awarding him the Medal of Honor; Warren Harding, who brought him back; and Calvin Coolidge, who presided at his final military burial.

Dilboy Memorial, Hines Veterans Hospital

He is remembered at a number of sites in the U.S. A bronze monument of Dilboy was built outside the Somerville City Hall in Massachusetts. The monument consists of a bronze bust standing on a granite base and was created in 1930 by the Boston-based Grenier Studio. The Order of AHEPA presented it to the city. Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium was also named in the fallen soldier’s honor. On 24 May 1942, the George Dilboy Memorial Foundation erected a memorial to Dilboy at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. In 2009, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services facility in Detroit was named in his honor.

Thanks to Demos Lamprinakis for bringing this article to our attention.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Captured Documents


A Valuable Document for the Enemy
British Trench Map for the Somme Sector

By Terrence J. Finnegan

Captured documents such as maps, aerial photography and written orders were ideal intelligence sources. Sometimes sketches contained within such documents included notes regarding machine guns, Minenwerfer (trench mortars), dummy complexes, and other projects of interest. Captured documents were forwarded to the photographic interpreter for in-depth examination. His initial tactical approach attempted to unlock the key to enemy intentions. This was followed by a broader strategic analysis accomplished by the staff. 

A Valuable Document for the Enemy
German Intelligence Summary, Argonne Sector, Sept. 1918

The interpreter's art required a perfect knowledge of the details of the trench organization, such as that found in the published regulations. French instructional manuals reminded their readers that the commander's responsibilities included reviewing captured documents to provide for every possible phase of attack, studying for successive lines of defense and all enemy lines of approach.

Knowing enemy intentions intimately from these sources best positioned the defense to counterattack and eject the enemy rapidly from any captured territory. Based on captured documents, General Ludendorff adjusted his directives to the forces in final preparation for the March 1918 Michael Offensive in the Somme Sector. 

From "Military Intelligence at the Front," Over the Top, February 2009

Friday, February 12, 2021

Augustus John's Unfinished WWI Mural


Augustus John (1878–1961)

The specimen of celebrated Welsh artist Augustus August John's work that might be most recognizable to our readers is the portrait below of Lawrence of Arabia.  That was probably done about the time of the Paris Peace Conference. During the war, however, John had a brief, but memorable,  tour of duty as a war artist. During his five-month service he had worked mostly around the areas of Lens, Liévin and Hill 70 near Vimy Ridge, the centre of important Canadian action in France in 1917. His most important war work, though, was unfinished and remained forgotten for almost a century.

Lawrence of Arabia

In 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the Canadian War Museum to meet veterans and their families and to unveil The Canadians Opposite Lens, a remarkable painting by John (1878–1961). Twelve metres (40 feet) wide and 3.7 metres (12 feet) high, the unfinished First World War canvas depicts Canadian troops, refugees and prisoners of war against the battle-scarred landscape near Vimy Ridge, in the area of the French town of Lens. Although the most significant Canadian-commissioned painting from the conflict, it had never before been on public view.

John was already recognized as one of the great artists of his time. A notoriously difficult character, after a number of rebuffs and through the patronage of newspaper publisher Max Aiken, he managed to gain a commission as a war artist with the Canadian forces, including a waiver that allowed him to keep his flowing beard. He quickly wore out his welcome, however, barely escaping court martial for his participation in a drunken brawl. He completed only one minor painting of three Canadian soldiers titled Fraternity" before his dismissal.  He would continue working on The Canadians Opposite Lens for almost his entire life.

The Canadians Opposite Lens — Canadian War Museum
(Display width=580px, Rt Click for 1,500px version)

Based on drawings he made in this sector, the massive image depicts more than 50 carefully delineated individuals set against a backdrop of trucks, ruins, an observation balloon, bursting shells, and the mining landscape to the west of Vimy Ridge. Although John sketched in all of these elements, about one-third of the work remains unpainted.

The Canadians Opposite Lens was intended to be the centrepiece for a war memorial art gallery in Canada that was never built. Due to a lack of permanent exhibition space, the painting remained in the artist’s studio in London, England, where he worked on it sporadically until a year before his death. In 1962, it was sold at auction and disappeared into a private collection and remained in that status until the Canadian War Museum acquired it.  It's not clear whether the full mural is on permanent display there.  However, the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick holds an interesting piece that shows in small scale a charcoal cartoon displaying the concept of the 40x12 foot final oil painting.

Cartoon Study — Beaverbrook Museum
(Display width=580px, Rt Click for 1,500px version)

Sources: Canadian War and Beaverbrook Museums, Wiki Commons

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Story of the Nissen Hut

Hospital at St. Omer Incorporating Nissen Huts

Britain's "New Army" would need  a massive number of buildings for barracks, warehousing, and offices  that could be built quickly. An American-born  Canadian officer serving in the Royal Engineers found the solution. In April 1916, Lt. Col. Peter Nissen of 29 Company, RE, came up with the idea of a prefabricated steel structure made from a half-cylindrical skin of  corrugated steel. The cross-section was not precisely semi-circular, as the bottom of the hut curved in slightly.

Lt. Col. Peter Nissen on Left Before One of His Huts

Two factors influenced the design of the hut. First, the building had to be economical in its use of materials, especially considering wartime shortages of building supplies. Second, the un-assembled building had to be portable. This was particularly important in view of the wartime shortages of shipping space. This led to a simple form that was prefabricated for ease of erection and removal. Eventually, Nissen huts could be constructed in any of three widths: 16, 24, or 30 feet wide, and any length, in multiples of 6 ft. The Nissen hut could be packed in a standard Army wagon and erected by six men in four hours. The world record for erection was one hour 27 minutes.   


There were some shortcomings with  the original  designs. The early huts had dirt floors, no electricity, no insulation, and had only a potbelly stove for heating. These problems were addressed in later upgrades. According to some sources, over 100,000 Nissen huts were built in World War I. (I'm suspicious this figure may include those of improved design that were built for the Second World War.)

The U.S. Purchased Nissen Huts When It Entered the War;
Camouflaged Huts at Ourches Airfield

The U.S.-made Quonset hut of the World War II, of course, was inspired by the Nissesn Hut. In the spring of 1941 the U.S. Navy established a Temporary Advance Facilities compound at West Davisville, Rhode Island. It was here that the design and manufacturing concepts for prefabricated Quonset huts was developed by a team from the George A. Fuller Co of New York, led by engineer Peter Dejongh and architect Otto Brandenberger. Before war's end, 153,200 Quonset huts had been produced. Tens of thousands of surplus units were sold after the war for civilian  use. They can still be spotted across America.

Nissen Huts Utilized by the U.S.
North Russia Transportation Corps
(Brooke Anderson Collection)

Sources:  Military Wiki; "Nissen and Quonset Huts" by J. David Rogers, Wiki Commons

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Two Days in the Rain at the Tranchée de Calonne

Fighting in the Rain

From Maurice Genevoix's Under Verdun

Saturday, 19 September 1914

Forty hours we pass in a ditch full of water. The improvised roof of branches and straw soon lets all the rain through. Since then we live in the midst of a torrent.

Motionless, and packed tight together in cramped and painful attitudes, we shiver in silence. Our sodden clothes freeze our skin; our saturated caps bear down on our temples with slow and painful pressure. We raise our feet as high as we can before us, but often it occurs that our frozen fingers give way, letting our feet slip down into the muddy torrent rushing along the bottom of the trench. Already our knapsacks have slipped into the water, while the tails of our greatcoats trail in it.

The slightest movement causes pain. I couldn't get up if I wanted to. A short while ago the adjutant attempted to do so; the effort wrung a cry from him, so keen were the pains in his knees and back; and then he sank down on top of us before slipping back into the hole in the mud his body had made, and resuming his former huddled attitude, which had caused his ankles to stiffen.

Nowadays I find it difficult to recall all that befell in the course of those two days; memory is veiled and dim. It is as though I had lived in an atmosphere of numbness in which all light and beauty were but dead things. An intense pain about my heart, never moving, rendered me almost delirious.

I remember that we remained for a long time hidden in a large thicket. My section was stationed near the battalion horses, which had been picketed together. Every time they moved, branches broke and fell. And most certainly it was raining, there could be no doubt of that; for long afterwards the eternal pitter-patter of rain on the leaves remained in my ears. Afterwards, I do not know how long, we set out on the march.

Marching in the Rain

Almost insensibly a depressing evening settled down over fields and woods. Before us were extended the columns of infantry, clinging like ants on the side of the bare slope. Above us, the smoke balls of shrapnel, soft and pale, hung in the air. This shrapnel gave no warning of its approach, and shells burst with an abrupt snap which found no echo over the dull countryside. A deserted farm to the left had been stripped of its reddish tiles, which lay smashed to pieces on the earth. A horseman was moving slowly towards this farm, his head covered by the hood of his cloak; his horse seemed merely to glide onwards, strangely silent. The stillness was portentous, almost tangible.

We passed a night in another trench in reserve, where we are at present. Five or six of us in a bunch hung over a few damp pieces of wood we had collected in the hope of being able to make a fire; the sticks smoked but refused to burst into flame. I recollect that I was obsessed by a feverish and loquacious gaiety; I scorned my own sad condition and laboured tremendously to prevent myself giving way to the fever running riot in my veins. This lasted some time, and so nervous was I, so disordered was my speech, that those about me watched me queerly and significantly. The moment came when my ill-timed jests became an insult to the general depression. I fell silent then, and resignedly delivered myself up to that dumb despair which had been dogging my heels for days, waiting only the opportunity to enter into its kingdom.

The monotonous, incessant tapping of the rain on the leaves of the trees was in itself maddening. The sticks in the brazier hissed and spluttered. There was a single spark, a faint glow among the cinders, which I watched desperately.

In the morning firing was heard in the direction of the outposts. The Captain sent me with two sections to reinforce them. We marched in single file, slipping on the greasy clay, falling every few steps; laboriously climbing on hands and knees a little ascent which, but for the mud, I could have taken in a couple of strides.

Lt. Maurice Genevoix

Arriving at our destination, we were compelled to seek shelter behind the trunks of trees, for all along the edge of the wood bullets were whistling. There were no trenches and the men were lining a ditch, standing in the water with their knapsacks before them.

The rain did not cease. It flooded the vast ploughed lands, where here and there groups of walnut trees seemed to huddle shiveringly together. Two German vedettes posted before a wood facing ours seemed like two stone statues. Shortly afterwards infantry emerged from the wood and advanced over open ground, as dark as the soil itself, and scarcely visible. We killed several of them and they went back hastily, abandoning their dead.

Still the bullets continued to whistle. From time to time a cry burst from one of the men in the ditch, and he would come into the wood towards us, both hands pressed against his chest or staring at the blood dripping from his fingertips with wide, terrified eyes. At last the firing ceased and calmness reigned.

We returned into reserve, carrying one of my corporals who was wounded in the groin by a bullet that had passed right through it. That was a difficult journey over the muddy roads! The wounded man groaned feebly, his arms passed around the necks of two of his comrades, his head swaying, his face livid. Once the men carrying him slipped and fell to their knees, and the agonized cry which broke from the sufferer echoed in my ears long after it had died to silence.