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

Monday, October 19, 2020

Battle Buses

London Double-Deckers on the Way to the Western Front

A Bus for London 

Developed by the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the B-type was the first successful mass-produced motor bus. Introduced in 1910, it was designed and built in London. Within 18 months the LGOC had replaced its entire fleet of horse-drawn omnibuses. By 1913 there were 2,500 B-type buses in service, each carrying 340,000 passengers a year along the capital’s busy roads. 

View from the Top

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, buses were commandeered for the war effort. Over 1,000 LGOC buses, one third of their fleet, were sent to the front. Most went to France and Belgium, some even as far as Greece. The buses served various roles. Many were used for transporting troops to and from the front lines. They were fitted with protective boarding and painted khaki. Each vehicle could carry 25 soldiers and their equipment, compared to 34 seated passengers in London. Some buses were converted into lorries, others served as ambulances or even mobile pigeon lofts. After the war, surviving buses that could be repaired returned to the streets of London. 

Note the Side Protection Added in 1915

Impact on the Home Front

Many drivers and mechanics were recruited for war service along with their vehicles. This resulted in shortages of both buses and staff on the home front. For the first time women were employed as conductorettes and mechanics to keep London moving.

Home Front Tram and Battle Bus

Between 2014 and 2018 an authentically restored Battle Bus took part in events in the UK, France, and Belgium. London Transport Museum’s restored B-type bus, fleet number B2737, served Route 9 between Barnes and Liverpool Street from January 1914. When war broke out, it was commandeered by the War Department. Returning to London after the war still in khaki livery, about 250 of B2737 was used as a "Traffic Emergency Bus" —an austere solution to postwar bus shortages. In 1922 it was sold to the National Omnibus & Transport Company for use outside London. The restoration was completed in June 2014. After a busy 2014 summer attending events in original red and cream LGOC livery, the bus was converted into a military troop carrier and taken on a commemorative tour of the Western Front.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

1914: Not Bismarck's Dual Alliance

[During his tenure] Bismarck did not intend to enter into war against Russia for Austria-Hungary’s interest on the Balkan Peninsula. The German chancellor professed that the stronger party of the alliance must set the pace, noting “within an alliance, there is always a horse and a rider.” Bismarck openly declared that for Germany the casus foederis [for the Dual Alliance] would not extend over the Balkans, and he did not urge cooperation between the German and Austro-Hungarian general staffs or a synchronizing of operative planning.

In his interpretation, the Dual Alliance served to keep Austria-Hungary at a distance from Russia and restrained the czarist empire from either confronting or embracing the Dual Monarchy. Backing up aggressive anti-Russian plans did not fit into this framework at all. Without Bismarck’s approval, any promises on behalf of the German military leadership toward their Austrian colleagues concerning the modalities of a future joint action against Russia were meaningless.When William II was enthroned as emperor of Germany and king of Prussia in 1888, things changed significantly. Two years later, Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, had to go, and a new German foreign policy was inaugurated. Austria-Hungary’s position in the Dual Alliance had been modified as well. Unlike the Bismarckian era, the Dual Monarchy could perceive distinct evidence of support from Berlin concerning the Balkan affairs. Germany seriously worried about its doomed ally, whose fate seemed to be similar to that of the Ottoman Empire. An active Balkan policy would be needed against this threatening outcome, and Berlin promised full support for such a new course. Germany’s backing up was efficient during the crisis of annexation, and later, to Vienna’s great surprise, its alliance partner declared acceptance of the casus foederis for the Balkans and initiated intense cooperation between the chiefs of the two general staffs. Despite the constant urging of the Austro-Hungarian chief General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, however, again there was no elaboration of a synchronized common deployment. Although the two military leaders agreed to accept the principles of a common strategy based on the plan devised by Alfred von Schlieffen, the Germans refused to tell the Austrians that in all probability they would have to hold off the mighty Russian army without any significant German contribution.

On the other hand, the deployment of the necessary Austro-Hungarian divisions in Galicia would make it impossible for the Dual Monarchy to realize its most important war aim—defeating Serbia. In fact, war aims of the two allies not only differed from each other but, to some extent, also could be achieved against each other. The mutual distrust may be explained by this, as well as from the different military strengths of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, as the international relations grew more unfavorable for the participants of the Dual Alliance, their inter-dependency deepened. Anglo-German antagonism prevented the powers from loosening their bonds to the alliances and seeking connections with members of other coalitions. 

On the eve of the First World War, the Dual Alliance—established as a defensive pact—mutated after 1909 into a bloc, had similarity to the classic movie titled The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play fugitives shackled together and trying to survive. Each step they take demands cooperation, and this causes serious difficulties for each man. As their inter-dependency increased, it was hardly possible for the stronger party to set the pace, especially when temporarily ceding power to the weaker member, as happened when William II gave Austria-Hungary a blank check of support in July 1914. As Günther Kronenbitter, one of the best German experts on the history of German–Austro-Hungarian relations of the time, has written, “despite the fact that it was Austria-Hungary that triggered the Third Balkan War and thereby provoked the outbreak of the Great War, historians interested in the origins of World War I have tended to focus on the system of international relations or on Germany’s role before and during the July crisis. Even today, it seems to be received wisdom among scholars in Germany and elsewhere to consider the Habsburg monarchy as the weak-willed appendix of the powerful German Reich.”

Kronenbitter considers the hesitation of the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff to abandon the Serbian campaign and transfer the bulk of the Dual Monarchy’s army to the Galician theater before receiving reliable reports on the Russian general mobilization to be evidence of an attempt to exploit the given situation for setting the pace and carrying out his own war, no matter what happened with the Schlieffen Plan. To be sure, Conrad von Hötzendorf was rather pressed by Austro-Hungarian policymakers to achieve quick military success on the Balkan Peninsula and restore the prestige of the Habsburg Monarchy as a great power. On the other hand, it is true that after writing out the blank check, the German government and the Kaiser showed signs of uncertainty and kept their ally in the dark about unconditional support for an Austro-Hungarian war against Serbia. In Vienna, therefore, one could not know whom to believe—the Kaiser of 5 July or the Kaiser of 30 July, chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke or Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Source: "The Dual Alliance and Austria-Hungary's Balkan Policy," Ferenc Pollmann, Multinational Operations, Alliances, and International Military Cooperation: Past and Future, 2005

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Great War's Olympiad: Antwerp 1920

This month's ST. MIHIEL TRIP-WIRE is dedicated to the story of the 1920 Olympiad, held in Antwerp, which had been occupied for nearly the entire war.

Visit at:

Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Schoolboy's Account of a Zeppelin Raid to His Father

This letter from schoolboy Patrick Blundstone to his father contains a fascinating eye-witness account of the destruction in September 1916 of a Zeppelin airship near Cuffley in Hertfordshire by William Leefe-Robinson, VC.

Dear Daddy, 

I hope you are not alarmed, you should not be, unless you know where one of the Zepps went. I have heard that it raided London (up the Strand) and caused heavy causalities. But this I know because I saw, and so did everyone else in the house.

Here is my story: I heard the clock strike 11 o'clock. I was in bed and just going to sleep. Between 2 'clock and 2.30 o'clock, Lily (the servant) woke Miss Willy and told her she could hear the guns. Miss Willy woke Poolman and told him to wake me. He did so. Miss Willy helped Mrs Willy downstairs. We were all awake by now, we had a Miss Blair staying with us for the weekend. We saw flashes and then heard "Bangs" and "Pops".

Suddenly a bright yellow light appeared and died down again. "Oh! It's alright" said Poolman. "It's only a star shell". That light appeared again and we Miss Blair, Poolman and I rushed to the window and looked out and there right above us was the Zepp! It had broken in half, and was like this: it was in flames, roaring, and crackling. It went slightly to the right, and crashed down into a field!! It was about a 100 yards away from the house and directly opposite us!!! It nearly burnt itself out, when it was finished by the Cheshunt Fire Brigade.

I would rather not describe the condition of the crew, of course they were dead - burnt to death. They were roasted, there is absolutely no other word for it. They were brown, like the outside of Roast Beef. One had his legs off at the knees, and you could see the joint!

The Zepp was bombed from an aeroplane above, with an incendiary bomb by a Lieutenany Robertson (Johnson?). We have some relics some wire and wood framework.

The weather is beastly but Mrs and Miss Willy are jolly people, hoping you are all well, love to all. Your loving son Patrick.

Please don't be alarmed, all is well that ends well (and this did for us). We are all quite safe.

Source:  The Imperial War Museum Website

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Falkenhayn, Verdun, and the Will to Fight


World War I German chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn is a testament to the ability of Western military officers to understand, appreciate, and incorporate will to fight into the planning and execution of military operations. Falkenhayn interpreted every move through the lens of moral force: attack would most likely succeed when enemy will to fight was low and stood a good chance of failure if enemy will to fight was high. Falkenhayn also provides a case study in the failure of tactical-operational intelligence to accurately assess opponent will to fight and a testament to military hubris. While he tried to put Clausewitz’s theories of will to fight into practice, he erred badly at Verdun.

In late 1915 Falkenhayn and the rest of the general staff planned a large offensive near the Meuse River. Their intent was to break French state's will to fight. According to Falkenhayn’s plan, French military defeat would be so terrible and irrecoverable that France would quit the war. This would leave the British at the mercy of what would be a correspondingly larger German Army. Falkenhayn selected the French position at Verdun as the focal point of the offensive. Here the French had unintentionally extended their lines in a broad salient centered on the Meuse heights. This position left the French flanks exposed, and only narrow routes for reinforcement and counterattack. The figure below depicts the battle lines at Verdun between the beginning of the German offensive in 1916 and the limit of German advance. The general direction of the German attack was north to south, or top to bottom in the map. The German plan called for massive artillery bombardments followed by a multi-division ground assault intended to trigger a crushing rout. 

Click on Image to Enlarge

German intelligence backed Falkenhayn’s assessment of French will to fight:

Many French deserters spoke of the war-weariness of the French soldiers and particularly of the adverse effect on French morale of the failure of and the high casualties suffered during the offensives in [1915]. . . . When the French began instituting a defense in depth and leaving their first trench line only lightly defended,  German intelligence interpreted this to mean that the French command feared that their troops would break under the German Trommelfeuer [drum fire].

While French will to fight was indeed suffering, the German assessment of French tactical-operational will to fight at Verdun was dangerously exaggerated and arguably wrong. German intelligence officers made two mistakes. First, they failed to account for the French noria system.  French Général de Division Philippe Pétain, then commander of the Second Army’s Verdun salient, recognized that French soldiers were suffering from exhaustion. His noria reserve rotation plan was designed to provide soldiers rest, to rebuild their will to fight, and to ensure the Germans would face only fresh troops with strong will to fight.vTo the German intelligence officers, this rotation—designed to improve French will to fight—gave the appearance of thinned lines and weak will.

Second, the Germans assessed that the poor morale (or temporary feelings) of captured French troops amounted to poor will to fight among all French troops. It is generally unwise to extrapolate the unsurprisingly sour disposition of prisoners to the will to fight of active, armed soldiers, at least not without solid corroboration. More important, the Germans took poor individual morale to be an indicator of weak unit cohesion and the unwillingness of the Second Army to hold the line or counterattack. Yet it is possible—even common—to have poor individual will and strong collective, unit-level will to fight. Despite the external appearances given by poor prisoner morale, the French at Verdun were more than ready to hold the line against withering German artillery fire and bayonets. Falkenhayn’s entire plan rested on a false assumption about French will to fight, and the plan failed.

French Poilus at Verdun

Both sides suffered tremendous losses. French casualties exceeded 300,000. But the Second Army held and Falkenhayn’s plan cost the Germans an equivalent number of casualties: over 300,000.  German casualties over ten months at Verdun may have amounted to approximately two-thirds of the entire U.S. Army’s active duty force in early 2018. Many other factors contributed to German failure, including bad weather that bogged down German artillery. Whatever the proximate cause of their tactical defeat, the Germans did not achieve their objectives: Falkenhayn failed to seize Verdun, failed to break French tactical-operational will to fight in 1916, and failed to break French state will to fight. The war went on for another two years, and the losses at Verdun contributed to Germany’s strategic defeat.

Writing about Verdun in his 1919 memoirs, Falkenhayn describes “powerful German thrusts” that had “shaken the whole enemy front in the West very severely” and that had placed doubt in the minds of the Entente partners. French counterattacks were “desperate,” made up of troops collected in “extreme haste.” He estimated German to French casualties at an unrealistic 2:5 ratio. He follows with paeans to German will to fight, and it is abundantly clear throughout his memoir that he had little respect for French fighting spirit. Falkenhayn is to be commended for his genuine appreciation for will to fight as a central factor in war. If he had had a better analysis method to help him understand French will to fight, he might have altered his plans. His hubris and jingoistic vision of Teutonic will to fight made the defeat at Verdun far more likely. Nothing can be done about hubris. Much can be done about will-to-fight analysis.

Source: Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units, The Rand Corporation 2018

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It

[Editor's note:  The work reviewed here is a little off our usual World War I focus, but it is an important work on military matters that I believe has been grossly neglected because: a) it violates numerous dogmas of political correctness, and b) the author or publisher chose an unfortunate title. MH]

by Martin van Creveld
DLVC Enterprises, 2016
Jan van Tol, Reviewer

Martin van Creveld is one of the foremost—and most controversial— contemporary students of warfare. He has authored over two dozen books exploring various facets of strategy, the future of warfare, and military operations and organization, including such works as The Rise and Decline of the State, The Transformation of War, Technology and War, Command in War, Supplying War, and The Training of Officers.

In Pussycats, van Creveld notes that, despite their overwhelming superiority in virtually every facet of military power, Western militaries since 1953 deployed abroad to fight non-Westerners almost always have been defeated and forced to withdraw. He poses the question, “How did the world’s best and most ferocious soldiers, who for centuries fought and defeated anybody and everybody until they dominated the entire world, turn into pussycats?” Van Creveld suggests five broad categories of causes that individually and collectively over time have eroded greatly the basis for effective Western military superiority: 

• Subduing the young
• Defanging the troops
• Feminizing the forces
• Constructing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
• Delegitimizing war

The first refers to the ever-growing restrictions most Western countries have placed on young people, ostensibly on grounds of their safety and welfare. The author declares that “the move to impose more and more restrictions on young people is a manifestation, if not to say disease, typical of modern life in general and Western life in particular.” The entry into adulthood becomes ever more extended, reinforced by phenomena such as “helicopter parenting,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings” on campus, and strict limits on work that minors are permitted to do. This is complemented by an excessive emphasis on unearned “self-esteem,” a strong desire to avoid “traumatizing” the young by criticizing or reprimanding them, a de-emphasis on assuming individual responsibility, and the devaluation of competition for fear of hurting those who do not perform as well as others. The cumulative effect, van Creveld argues, is to infantilize the young, undercut the motivation to excel, and steadily reduce individual and societal willingness to take risks—thus, “scant wonder that a great many young people no longer know how to cope with anything.” Yet this is the pool from which Western militaries must draw their troops.

Van Creveld asserts that many factors have contributed to “defanging the troops.” He notes the vast increase since Vietnam in the proportion of senior officers in the U.S. military. This rank inflation has resulted in ever more decisions being pushed to higher levels, with a seriously negative impact on the speed of decision making and a mounting risk aversion at all levels. Another problem is the spread of civilian attitudes into and imposition of civilian norms on the military. War is a deadly business, yet Western, especially U.S., military forces have been hobbled by “exquisite” rules of engagement that often impede mission accomplishment at excessive risk to friendly forces. One side cannot play by “Marquess of Queensberry rules” alone. At the same time, there is a growing trend of senior officers “treating their troops as if they were rowdies and/or babies unable to look after themselves, and/or ‘pussycats.’” The recurrent bouts of drastic liberty restrictions on U.S. forces in Japan are a prime example. The author writes that “in today’s politically correct world it is no longer enough to kill those who would kill you;” the enemy must not be disrespected, let alone humiliated after his defeat—no battlefield souvenirs taken. Male aggressiveness, historically quintessential to battlefield success, is now a problem for leadership to deal with, particularly with regard to matters such as pornography and allegedly rampant sexual misconduct in the military, which have nothing to do with combat effectiveness. The proliferation of military lawyers on staffs means that commanders or squad leaders now must keep potential legal ramifications constantly in mind, on top of all the other battlefield imperatives.

But even worse, posits van Creveld, is the “de-Militarized Military.” While it is undeniable that “war is the most terrible of all activities we humans engage in,” there always has been a sense of satisfaction, even enjoyment, in it. But “in the prevailing attitude of political correctness [to proclaim that] invites attack.” For example, when Marine general Jim Mattis noted that shooting some people who merited it was “a hell of a lot of fun,” he was roundly condemned and “counseled” to shut up. Similarly, the notions of “hero” and “heroism” that traditionally underpinned a military’s fighting spirit and its “culture of war” have been devalued systematically in Western societies as they pertain to combat, whereas they once were associated closely with pride. But the author warns that “any attempt to tamper with [the culture of war], even if laudable in terms of a progressive country’s instincts, is dangerous and should only be undertaken with the greatest caution. What has been demolished can never be restored.” Thus, he concludes, “scant wonder that . . . the willingness to serve has been declining for decades.”

Van Creveld’s third category, “feminizing the forces,” is no doubt the most controversial. He starts by stating flatly that “currently Western countries are embarked on a social experiment that has no precedent in history.” He further asserts that “whatever feminists may claim and the statute books may say, women and men are only equal in certain respects but not in others. Hence the attempt to treat them as if they were was bound to cause as many problems as it solved.” There are two principal physical differences between the two sexes, namely, physical strength/endurance and pregnancy/motherhood. The author goes into some detail on how these impact individual and unit performance.
U.S. Marines on the March

More important, van Creveld notes that the sustained, intensive effort to create a “unisex” military has had serious second-order consequences. Measures such as putting men and women through separate courses with different physical performance requirements and “gender norming” are inherently suspect from a combat-effectiveness perspective. The problem is that fair treatment implies equality, meaning that unit members essentially must be interchangeable, because “cohesion, the ability to stick together and stay together even when—particularly when—things go disastrously wrong, is the most important quality any military formation must have.” Writes van Creveld, “since men and women are not identical, treating them as if they were is unfair. But treating them as if they were not is also unfair, though in a different way.”

The contribution to a climate of intellectual dishonesty within the U.S. military is a more serious second-order effect. Van Creveld suggests that female service members actually receive preferential treatment, including higher promotion rates and more lenient treatment during disciplinary proceedings, and in connection with pregnancy. What is more dishonest is that “service personnel are prohibited from saying that such privileges exist,” or, for that matter, from writing or commenting in any way that might suggest there are problems or challenges associated with full integration of women into all military fields. “The accusation of being ‘hostile to women’ will follow almost automatically,” and being branded as such “can easily bring about the end of one’s career.” One other form of dishonesty concerns charges of sexual harassment; as one female U.S. pilot told the author, “sexual harassment is what I decide to report to my superiors.” Whether that is an accurate reflection of reality or not, it is widely perceived that way among many men in the U.S. military. As a result, van Creveld notes that “to avoid trouble, men, military men more than most, are expected to believe—or at least conceal their disbelief in—two contradictory things. The first is that military women can serve and fight just as well as men can and that they therefore deserve the kind of equality they and their supporters are demanding. The second is that, being equal, they do not enjoy privileges of any kind.” These contradictory ideas are “precisely the kind of thing that George Orwell in 1984 called ‘double-think.’”

The author concludes this discussion with one final point. “Feminizing the forces and having women take an active part in war and combat threatens to take away one of the most important reasons, sometimes even the most important reason, why many men enlist and fight: namely, to prove their masculinity to themselves and to others.” The “end of masculinity” as a desideratum for a military force is bound to undermine its “culture of war.”

With regard to “constructing PTSD,” historically there is little record of it as a widespread phenomenon. Van Creveld suggests that this was in part because war from ancient times had been associated with notions of arete (excellence) and virtus (prowess), and more recently with “honor” and “pride,” all of which helped to forestall or suppress it. But over the last century, “what changed was the way [war] was perceived and understood. From a revelatory experience akin to a religious one, it was turned into a thoroughly rotten business [that] was without either virtue or honor or knowledge of any sort, merely a process whereby obtuse generals sent millions to be slaughtered. . . . As a result, almost anybody who spent enough time fighting was bound to suffer psychological damage.” Or so it was claimed.

Western militaries in the world wars came to accept notions of “shell shock” and “combat fatigue.” What is notable, however, is that U.S. forces suffered proportionately ten times the rate of such psychiatric casualties as did the German Wehrmacht, which was accepted generally as having displayed far greater cohesion and fighting power than its Western counterparts throughout the second war. Interestingly, postwar East Germany saw far lower rates of such conditions than West Germany, although both were treating the same ex-soldiers. This suggests that “there can be no doubt that social factors—politics, culture, organization, leadership, what have you—do much to determine the way PTSD is treated. The same seems to apply to its frequency and, perhaps, even to its very existence.”

Psychiatric cases spiked in Vietnam and PTSD claims remain at high levels. Various causes are postulated: concussion; “the sheer terror of modern war;” guilt feelings from surviving while comrades died; guilt feelings from killing others, especially in close combat. But as van Creveld demonstrates, many of those factors were always present in war, yet did not manifest themselves in large-scale PTSD. In more-recent conflicts, van Creveld notes that there was a far lower incidence of PTSD among North Vietnamese than among U.S. veterans, suggesting that “victory is the best cure for the soul.” Nor is defeat linked to widespread PTSD, as evidenced by the German experience in two world wars or, more recently, that of Serbs after the Yugoslav wars—a Serbian attaché informed the author that “PTSD is not a hot topic” in Serbia.

So why is the PTSD rate in the United States so high today? “Is it really war that is generating PTSD? Or is it present-day society’s idée fixe that war is bad both in itself and for the soul of those who participate in it, so that over enough time anybody who does so must break down,” in which case there is no disgrace involved? Van Creveld suggests that the cure may be driving the disease; there may be perverse incentives to over-diagnose PTSD, with the fear of liability at the societal level driving the process. There are large numbers of claims and claimants, and medical specialists, mental health workers, and lawyers all have strong incentives to keep the process going at full speed. Van Creveld poses the difficult question: “Is it conceivable that the compensations and pensions are providing at least some soldiers with an incentive to invent or exaggerate symptoms and retain them for as long as they can?” He concludes by quoting a speech by General Mattis: “I would just say there is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods. I don’t buy it. If we tell our veterans enough that this is what is wrong with them they may actually start believing it. While victim-hood in America is exalted, I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.”

Van Creveld then segues to his fifth category, “delegitimizing war,” by noting that “to wage war two things are indispensable: armed force and legitimacy.” He briefly reviews various notions of legitimacy, including war as civic duty in ancient times, defense of the sovereign power of the state, doctrines such as jus ad bellum and jus in bello, war as the “school of the nation,” and finally the linking of war to Darwinian theories regarding natural selection, survival of the fittest, and nations’ “will to live.” The rise of powerful anti-militarist feelings after the world wars deeply eroded the idea of duty to the nation, even while “the language of rights now dominates political debate in the United States.” The post-Vietnam shift to an all-volunteer force further diminished the sense of individual obligation to the whole, while military service often came to be seen as being only for those with no better prospects. Van Creveld notes darkly that “where rights reign supreme and duty has become an object of neglect, suspicion, and even derision—as it has in most Western societies—whether, if and when the test comes, they will be sufficient is anybody’s guess.”

The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions initiated the idea that there were, or should be, better ways to settle international disputes than by war. This trend was reinforced strongly after the ruinous world wars by numerous subsequent conventions and treaties and the establishment of the United Nations. In parallel, concepts of “war guilt” and rejections of the national use of force except strictly in self-defense supplanted older notions of “the right of conquest” and have tended increasingly to delegitimize war, at least in the West. Thus, for many Western thinkers, the search for a replacement for war ought to favor nonmilitary alternatives, such as police training teams, mediators, and “dialogs.” In van Creveld’s view, “both intellectuals and politicians keep promising their audiences security without sacrifice, privilege without responsibility. But what if terrorists/guerrillas/ insurgents/freedom fighters refuse to answer empathy with empathy?”

In van Creveld’s view, these five trends collectively have deeply undermined Western military effectiveness and societal resilience, aggravated by the inability or unwillingness to examine the underlying causal factors rigorously and honestly. He closes by asserting that the bedrock cause is that “large parts of both European and American societies, each in its own way, have come to see war not simply as an evil that is sometimes made absolutely necessary by circumstances but as the ultimate one that almost nothing can justify. This will have to change. Or else.”

Many readers will reject various of the author’s arguments as anachronistic or, in any event, “overcome by events,” hence not of interest or worthy of further debate or assessment. However, that at least some of them represent significant threats to contemporary policies or agendas is suggested by the ruthless de facto suppression of vigorous debate on sensitive topics by senior officers and top civilian leaders (which invariably leads to self-censorship, particularly among ambitious officers). Such intimidation is pure intellectual thuggery, which in itself is a great institutional danger, especially in the military profession, where free thinking, combined with robust debate, is the essential prerequisite for not being out-thought and out-fought by future foes.

Almost as dangerous as intellectual thuggery is willful ignorance of “unpleasant truths” or empirical evidence. This was illustrated most notoriously by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’s recent a priori policy decision, made in the fashion of Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen (“Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”), to open all ground combat positions to women regardless of any data that might result subsequently from the Marine Corps’s rigorous year-long study regarding the performance of mixed-gender units. That sort of thing corrosively undermines the institutional trust essential to the success of any military organization.

Pussycats doubtless is controversial. However, van Creveld’s arguments are coherent and intellectually substantive, even if one may disagree with some of the assumptions he makes to support them. Because they explicitly address the most fundamental criterion for assessing military forces—their combat effectiveness—they are very worth pondering by serving military officers and civilian policy makers, especially those more senior. Certainly the question of why Western military might, in conjunction with the other elements of state power, has not been more effective during the past half-century is a crucial one, given the multiple dangerous challenges the West confronts both today and over the longer term.

Jan van Tol, the original article appeared in the Naval War College Review, Winter, 2017

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Legacy of the War on Fiorello La Guardia, Italian-American

Keith Muchowski

This past April we highlighted the Great War experience of New York’s “flying congressman” Fiorello La Guardia (Here). Today, in recognition of Italian-American Heritage Month, we thought we would return to La Guardia and examine the legacy of the war on his life and work. Major Fiorello Henry La Guardia had a distinguished career in the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps and returned just before the war’s end to retake his seat in the United States House of Representatives. For much of the next decade he held a number of prestigious positions, including a return to Congress after a brief stint in local affairs. The Roaring Twenties were a frustrating time for La Guardia, the political mood of the nation not yet having caught up to his sensibilities. His stances against Prohibition, immigration restriction, and laissez-faire economics were just three issues on which he found himself stymied and on the outside looking in.

La Guardia in Pre-Flight Training

Through it all the war was never far removed from his mind or duties. La Guardia was president of the New York City Board of Alderman when on 3 July 1921 he spoke in Englewood, New Jersey, at the re-interment of Lieutenant De Witt F. Coleman. A fighter pilot shot down above Vittorio Veneto on 27 October 1918, Lieutenant Coleman was the only American to be awarded the Gold Medal of Valor from King Victor Emmanuel III. Lieutenant Coleman’s stateside funeral was personal to La Guardia, who had once been the young airman’s commander. Emotions aside, La Guardia was a keen aviator who understood the risks inherent in combat and flight itself. Before the war, La Guardia had been a student at the Mineola, Long Island, flying school run by Giuseppe Mario Bellanca. Not surprisingly, La Guardia hit it off well with Bellanca, a Sicilian who had emigrated to the United States in 1911 and opened his Bellanca Airplane School the following year. Intrigued by the possibilities of the still rickety early flying machines, La Guardia even served as attorney and on the board of directors of Bellanca’s concern. He also taught the airplane engineer Bellanca how to drive an automobile.

Fiorello La Guardia was sworn in as New York’s 99th mayor at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression. Complicating the economic crisis was the rising threat of fascism in Europe. La Guardia was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of Hitler and Mussolini, and, as he had been two decades earlier during the previous world crisis, La Guardia became an early advocate of American readiness. He was so strident that the mere mention of the mayor’s name at a 1938 Columbus Day event in Manhattan drew boos from some of the 35,000 gathered. There were even shouts from the crowd of “Viva Mussolini” at the mention of Il Duce. La Guardia had been too ill to attend that event, and his absence would have been conspicuous given that he rarely missed such public commemorations. This was especially true not just for Columbus Days but also for annual Memorial and Armistice Day observations, which usually found him crisscrossing the city at the Mayor John Purroy Mitchel Memorial, commemorating the life of his predecessor killed in a flight training exercise in 1918 or in Riverside Park, overseeing a parades featuring not just Spanish-American and Great War veterans but also the ever-dwindling number of survivors of the Grand Army of the Republic.

La Guardia Speaking in Italy

The second global war that La Guardia so feared came to Europe soon enough. With Europe in conflict once more two hundred veterans of various American wars turned out at City Hall Park on 30 October 1941, days before the mayor’s successful re-election bid for a third term to give La Guardia an American flag and model of the Caproni aircraft he had flown in Italy during World War One. (Lieutenant Coleman had been shot down while flying a Caproni.) After Pearl Harbor La Guardia hoped for a military commission from President Roosevelt, with whom he had worked closely on various New Deal initiatives, but a commission was never forthcoming. Still mayor of New York, La Guardia served unhappily in various national civil defense positions. He found his contribution and voice in broadcasting weekly pro-Allied radio transmissions to the Italian people through the clandestine efforts of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) from July 1942 through V-E Day. It was a job to which he was well suited, having occasionally broadcast similar messages—again, in Italian—during his time as an officer in the First World War.

On 17 March 1945 Mayor La Guardia met in City Hall with Alberto Tarchiani, the Italian journalist, Great War veteran, and longtime antifascist forced from Europe into exile in the United States in 1940. Now, near the war’s end, Tarchiani was the first Italian ambassador to the United States since 1941. The two talked about the relations between the two countries, and Tarchiani gave La Guardia a photograph taken in Italy in 1918 of La Guardia and other airmen when the two countries had been allies. The end of the Second World War was a turning point. After a dozen years of confronting economic depression and war, a tired Fiorello La Guardia declined to run for a fourth term and left City Hall at twenty minutes before noon on 1 January 1946.

La Guardia: Statesman and Humanitarian

That spring he was given another formidable task when on 29 March he was appointed Director-General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Determined to avoid the mistakes of Versailles, Allied leaders extended an olive branch to the defeated in the Second World War. The work was urgent: millions around the world were facing displacement and food insecurity. President Truman had written to La Guardia’s predecessor, Herbert H. Lehman, on 8 November 1945 that UNRRA’s work was “the greatest and most difficult humanitarian effort ever undertaken.” Humanitarianism aside, it was also good policy in the emerging Cold War. La Guardia worked with his renewed vigor, even leaving his stateside desk, and visiting Europe with a special extended stop in Italy that July and August. He found the graft and political machinations frustrating, but La Guardia helped save countless live. He stepped down later that year. Though just 64, La Guardia was in increasingly poor health from a lifetime of hard work. After a long struggle he died of pancreatic cancer at his home in the Bronx on 20 September 1947 and rests today in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Keith Muchowski, a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, writes occasionally for Roads to the Great War. He blogs at

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Front Line on Mountaintops: The Krn-Batognica Massif

Towering over the village of Kobarid (formerly Caporetto) is the Krn Massif, shown above, dominated by two peaks. The shark fin-shaped formation is 2224-meter Mte Krn. To its right is the near-plateau-shape of Mte Batognica, which today is 2164 meters, blunted by mines dug and detonated by Austro-Hungarian forces during the war. Krn was fully captured from its Hungarian defenders by Italian Alpini troops in June 1915. However, Batognica was only partially secured, and for the next 28 months was the site of the sector's front line. Austro-Hungarian troops occupied the eastern part of the mountain while Italian troops were located in the western part. The advance trenches were only 10 meters apart. The attrition of trench warfare and the aforementioned mining operations resulted in enormous casualties. When the combined German-Austrian assault came on 24 October 1917, the entire 43rd Italian Division was surrounded and captured en masse on the Krn-Batognica Ridge, and the entire front was pushed south, eventually to the Piave River line.

Closer View of the Massif

Today, the position is very difficult to access—one needs to be at least a moderately experienced climber—but the war remains to be seen on the site, including bunkers, chiseled staircases, and tunnels, are dramatic, and the views of the Soca River valley and surrounding Julian Alps are spectacular. Luckily, the Kobarid war museum and various hiking organizations have made many images available online.

The Barbed Wire Survives

Stairway to Observation Post

Battlefield Debris and a Monument

Italian Alpini in a Cave

Remains of an Italian Trench

Site of the September 1917 Mine Explosion

Gallery Entrance

Hungarian (?) Troops

A Small Memorial Overlooks the Soca Valley

Friday, October 9, 2020

Recommended: "Voices of Mesopotamia" from the Imperial War Museum

Click on Image to Enlarge

The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War in October 1914 threatened British interests in the Middle East. The British government decided to send troops to Mesopotamia —present-day Iraq—to protect the valuable oil fields near Basra. A British and Indian assault force landed there in November and achieved early successes against the Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire, capturing first Basra and then Qurna. British gunner Jack Callaway described the Battle of Qurna, which took place in December 1914.

Well we opened up and cleared the village of course and it was burned down. The Turks were cleared back but we withdrew, because there was no intention to hold it at that time. And they were 15-pounder guns they had, the Turks, very old type and not much of a worry really! It was all sort of excitement really, in a sense; I don’t know, not knowing what was to happen, of course. Infantry would be a bit different for them, especially advancing in open desert which is not very funny.

The Battle of Nasiriya in July 1915 was another defeat for the Turks. British officer George Channer was in command of eight machine guns during his battalion’s advance.

We’d had to advance – the men had had to advance – through fairly good cover, through long grass, and by 12 o’clock they’d advance about 400 yards. At the end of that I remember seeing a small body of Ghurkhas – about seven being led by another – making for a trench which was about 300 yards in front of me. So I gave them covering fire, and at that moment the whole of our front became alive; the Hampshires on the right I could see in the palm trees. They advanced to the enemy position and these got out of their trenches and bolted backwards, back to Nasiriya. And that was the end of the battle.

Henry Shortt was a medical officer attached to the 33rd Indian Cavalry Regiment who arrived in Mesopotamia in late 1914. He remembered an early encounter with Turkish troops, and the surprising ease of fighting them.

I saw one Turk firing at us from behind a bush. I jumped off my horse, threw the reigns to my orderly and seized hold of this man’s rifle. And we had a tug of war; I was only using one hand as I had a revolver in the other! And suddenly a blinding flash in my face, didn’t know what it was – temporarily blinded. As soon as I could see, I had a hold of the Turk’s rifle; he was lying on the ground. I could’ve shot him but I didn’t because he was unarmed, then we let him go. Major Anderson, when I re-joined the rest, he said he was astonished how easily his sword had gone through a Turk. He said it was just like going through butter! He was so astonished.

The Allies were lulled into a false sense of security by their early victories and thought themselves militarily superior to the Turks. Spurred on by this, they overstretched their already precarious supply lines by pushing on towards the Mesopotamian capital, Baghdad. Near the ancient city of Ctesiphon in November 1915, the 6th Indian Division—which included Private F Finch—suffered a sobering defeat.

At about 20 November, we had orders to advance onto Ctesiphon. Our brigade was on the left of the division. We marched along in ordinary formation – fours – I suppose, until about eight o’clock in the morning. We’d had a very cold, horrible night, frozen; I don’t think anybody had a sleep because it was so cold. We was very pleased when the reveille or the sound to come and we started on the march. We went along, we opened out, we couldn’t see anybody but we opened out, I suppose the forces that be, the generals, might have seen the enemy, or thought they did, but we opened out in platoon formation, opened but not in battle formation. At about eight o’clock we halted. Had an idea that the enemy had gone; he wasn’t occupying any position at all there. They sent a reconnoitring patrol out in the front and all of a sudden bang! bang! guns and everything they started to fire; those people, well they was mowed down.

The Allies sustained heavy casualties at Ctesiphon. They were forced to retreat to Kut, a town they had previously captured. George Channer was among them.

The casualties at Ctesiphon were very heavy. In my battalion we had over 35%; but in some regiments they had over 60; and we had not calculated for such heavy casualties. And so resources were very severely strained and were very inadequate. I remember seeing the wounded coming onto one of the steamers; they were coming along in army transport carts, they’d had rough field dressings put on them the night before and they were laid on the deck as we went down the river. General Townshend realised that his troops had been fought to a standstill during these three days. And so the retirement to Kut began.

Private R Hockaday of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment also took part in the retreat to Kut.

We had to turn around and make tracks over the same ground that we’d just come up. We had to retire on the flank which was very orderly at first, but the Turks were pushing us on very quickly and as we came on they were advancing more and more and we were getting a little bit out of disorder. Eventually we arrived at Kut. Kut was a very flat place, just like a table and we had to start digging in. The next day they were there shelling us and we had to dig our trenches everything under their shell fire and artillery fire and rifle fire and machine-gun fire. And I can tell you it made us work because the more you got down under the shelter the safer you were.

The exhausted 6th Division, commanded by Major General Charles Townshend, dug in at Kut and waited for reinforcements. From 7 December 1915, they were placed under siege by the Turks. Conditions in Kut steadily worsened, as British officer Henry Rich recalled.

We had seven weeks of plenty, followed by ten weeks of adequacy, gradually getting less and less, then finally we had four weeks of starvation which was complete hell. Townshend always thought he was going to be relieved within six weeks and he just used up his rations in that six weeks. And then after the relieving force had failed to get through he suddenly found out that by commandeering all the Arab food and piles of grain and using the mules he could hold out for another 84 days. But you hadn’t got enough in your stomach and you get very tired of meat by itself, it tastes like a bit of chewed tin in the end. And four ounces of bread is about three small slices and that’s got to last you twenty-four hours. By the time we got to the end, the bread was all barley with a lot of sweepings from where it had been stored and quite a bit of the stone grindstones in it. The meat was good; there’s no doubt that mule is quite good – better than horse.

Private Hockaday witnessed first-hand the effect inadequate rationing had on his comrades.

And as time went on we had to reduce our rations. Well, as time went on people began to get weak and dying a bit, you know. You couldn’t do anything while they were living, you know. After they were dead, you carried them out and buried them. But while they were living they had to just stay amongst you in the trenches.

Read more here at the Imperial War Museum Website:

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Armentières: A Gem of Postwar Reconstruction

Town Square Armentières

When the belligerents established their lines in October 1914, the town of Armentières found itself near the front. For the remainder of the war it was a key logistical center for the British Army and soldiers from across the Empire would be stationed there as they moved up and down the line. Their presence inspired the popular song "Mademoiselle from Armentieres." Death was ever present in the makeshift hospitals and the town suffered greatly from big German artillery. By 1917 poison gas shells had come into use, and the civilian population had to be evacuated. Occupied by the German Army during the Lys Offensive in April 1918, Armentières was totally destroyed in their retreat just a few weeks before the Armistice. Reconstruction was remarkably swift, and, in the process, the town gained a new visual identity inspired by Flemish architecture. 

In October 1914 the front line stabilized, and nearby Armentières, just 2 km distant, became a target for the fury of the German guns. Situated a good dozen miles south of Ypres, the main theater of operations, Armentières gained the nickname "The Nursery" because it was a quiet sector where newly arrived soldiers of the British Imperial Army were sent to familiarize themselves with trench warfare.

Factories in the town continued to produce for another two years until the increasing shelling, and the use of poison gas forced the inhabitants to gradually abandon the town. The remaining civilians were evacuated on 13 August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres.

The Town After the Fighting of 1918

On 9 April 1918 the German Army launched Operation Georgette, also known as the Battle of the Lys, in an attempt to take control of the ports used by the British on the north coast of France. The Germans entered Armentières on 11 April. During their subsequent retreat on 2 October, they destroyed everything in the town that could be of use to the Allies. They even blew up the belfry which, after four years of war, had come to symbolize the town’s resistance.

By the end of the war three-quarters of Armentières was in ruins: 4,800 houses had been totally destroyed, another 2,400 severely damaged, and all the churches and public buildings were rubble and dust.

Architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier was selected to supervise reconstruction. He drew up plans for the town hall, Saint Vedast Church and the covered market (today the cultural venue Le Vivat). These buildings border the town square, or Grand Place, where stands the war memorial. In choosing for his designs a regional approach, characterized by red brickwork and high gables, Cordonnier sparked a "Flemish Renaissance" in Armentières. He had a similar influence in neighboring Bailleul, Comines, Merville, and Laventie. 

Town Hall

Modern town planning in France was born in the reconstruction of the towns and cities destroyed in the war. A law passed in 1919 required all councils responsible for more than 10,000 inhabitants to draw up plans describing the layout, decoration, and enlargement of their town with particular attention to be paid to main routes, water supply, and the sewer system. With the return of the townsfolk, who had had to leave their homes because of the fighting, reconstruction was not only urgent, it was also highly symbolic. People returned to Armentières at the rate of about 1,000 a month and were willing to invest their energy in the revival of the town.

Source: Remembrance Trails

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Germany Gets a New National Anthem

By James Patton

In the legends and traditions of the Great War there is a popularized event known as the Kindermord von Ypern, during the German "student battalions" rashly attacked en masse, supposedly singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," the first verse of "Das Lied der Deutschen" (“The Song of the Germans”), a rowdy Pan-German song favored by students in beer halls. Long after the Christian symbolism of the inspirational sacrifice of beloved youth had grown old, the song was still on everyone’s lips.

The words were written in 1841 by the linguist, poet, and Pan-Germanist August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798–1874) and set to the tune now known as "Austria," composed by Franz Josef Haydn (1732–1809) for the 1797 birthday party of Austrian Emperor Francis II (1768–1835), along with lyrics by Lorenz Leopold Haschka (1749–1827), and simply entitled "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" ("God Save Emperor Francis").

The rulers of the many German states of the day regarded Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s message as seditious, as they were against unification, particularly a unification dominated by Prussia. Mischievously juxtaposing lyrics extolling Pan-Germanism to the tune of a paean to an absolute monarch was revolutionary satire, the song became symbolic of the March Revolutions of 1848, which were sparked by the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe of France and repressed by a combination of force and guile.

For the entire 47 years of its history, the national anthem of the German Empire was "Heil dir im Siegerkranz" (“Hail to Thee wearing the Victor’s Wreath”), which had been the royal anthem of Prussia since 1795. Like "Das Lied der Deutschen," it was also a borrowed work; the lyrics were written by Heinrich Harries (1762–1802), originally for the King of Denmark, and the melody was derived from the 1745 British national anthem “God Save the King” (composer unknown but likely English plainsong).

Never popular, after the downfall of the Empire it was quickly replaced by—you’re right—"Das Lied der Deutschland," which the Weimar government re-titled "Deutschlandlied" (“Song of Germany”) in 1922. This has remained a German national anthem ever since, except in East Germany (1949–90), whose anthem was "Auferstanden aus Ruinen" (“Risen from Ruins”).

From 1933 to 1945 the official national anthem was actually the "Horst Wessel Lied" (“Horst Wessel Song”), also known by its opening words, Die Fahne hoch (“The Flag on High”), although the first verse of "Deutschlandlied" was often played or sung before it. As a result, since 1952 the first verse of "Deutschlandlied" is not sung at public performances in Germany. Also, after the European union movement took hold, the verse became politically incorrect, as the boundaries that were claimed for Germany by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841 were the Meuse (in France and Belgium), the Nemen (in Lithuania), the Adige (in Italy), and the Belt (in Denmark).

Today the official anthem of Germany is just the third stanza, often called by the first line “Unity and justice and freedom, For the German fatherland!”

This article originally appeared in Kansas WW1, 13 June 2018

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"On Leave"—A World War One Story from H.M. Tomlinson

Leave Train Arriving at Victoria Station

by H. M. Tomlinson, 1922

Coming out of Victoria Station into of London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know. It is a surprising and providential wakening into a world which long ago went dark. That world is strangely loud, bright, and alive. Plainly it did not stop when, somehow, it vanished once upon a time. There its vivid circulation moves, and the buses are so usual, the people so brisk and intent on their own concerns, the signs so startlingly familiar, that the man who is home again begins to doubt that he has been absent, that he has been dead. But his uniform must surely mean something, and its stains something more!

And there can be no doubt about it, as you stand there a trifle dizzy in London once more. You really have come back from another world; and you have the curious idea that you may be invisible in this old world. In a sense you know you are unseen. These people will never know what you know. There they gossip in the hall, and leisurely survey the bookstall, and they would never guess it, but you have just returned from hell. What could they say if you told them? They would be embarrassed, polite, forbearing, kindly, and smiling, and they would mention the matter afterwards as a queer adventure with a poor devil who was evidently a little overwrought; shell shock, of course. Beastly thing, shell shock. Seems to affect the nerves.

They would not understand. They will never understand. What is the use of standing in veritable daylight, and telling the living, who have never been dead, of the other place?

I know now how Rip Van Winkle felt about it. But his was a minor trouble. All he lost was some years. He had not changed, except that his beard was longer. But the man who comes back from the line has lost more than years. He has lost his original self. People failed to recognise Rip because they did not know his beard. Our friends do recognise us when they greet us on our return from the front, but they do not know us because we are not the men they remember. They are the same as ever; but when they address us, they talk to a mind which is not there, though the eyes betray nothing of the difference. They talk to those who have come back to life to see them again, but who cannot tell them what has happened, and dare not try.

Between that old self and the man they see, there is an abyss of dread. He has passed through it. To them the war is official communiqués, the amplifying dispatches of war correspondents, the silence of absent friends in danger, the shock of a telegram, and rather interesting food-rationing. They think it is the same war which the leave-man knows. He will tell them all about it, and they will learn the truth at last.

All about it! If an apparition of the battle-line in eruption were to form over London, over Paris, over Berlin, a sinister mirage, near, unfading, and admonitory, with spectral figures moving in its reflected fires and its gloom, and the echoes of their cries were heard, and murmurs of convulsive shocks, and the wind over the roofs brought ghostly and abominable smells into our streets; and if that were to haunt us by day and night, a phantom from which there was no escape, to remain till the sins of Europe were expiated, we should soon forget politics and arguments, and be in sackcloth and ashes, positive no longer, but down on our knees before Heaven in awe at this revelation of social guilt, asking simply what we must do to be saved.

Your revival at home, when on leave, is full of wonderful commonplaces, especially now, with summer ripening. The yellow-hammer is heard on the telegraph wire, and the voices of children in the wood, and the dust of white English country roads is smelled at evening. All that is a delight which is miraculous in its intensity. But it is very lonesome and far. It is curious to feel that you are really there, delighting in the vividness of this recollection of the past, and yet balked by the knowledge that you are, nevertheless, outside this world of home, though it looks and smells and sounds so close; and that you may never enter it again. It is like the landscape in a mirror, the luminous projection of what is behind you. But you are not there. It is recognised, but viewed now apart and aloof, a chance glimpse at the secure and enduring place from which you came, vouchsafed to one who must soon return to the secret darkness in his mind.

The home folk do not know this, and may not be told--I mean they may not be told why it is so. The youngster who is home on leave, though he may not have reasoned it out, knows that what he wants to say, often prompted by indignation, cannot be said. He feels intuitively that this is beyond his power to express. Besides, if he were to begin, where would he end? He cannot trust himself. What would happen if he uncovered, in a sunny and innocent breakfast-room, the horror he knows.? If he spoke out? His people would not understand him. They would think he was mad. They would be sorry, dammit. Sorry for him! Why, he is not sorry for himself. He can stand it now he knows what it is like. He can stand it--if they can. And he realises they can stand it, and are merely anxious about his welfare, the welfare which does not trouble him in the least, for he has looked into the depth of evil, and for him the earth has changed; and he rather despises it. He has seen all he wants to see of it. Let it go, dammit. If they don't mind the change, and don't kick, why should he? What a hell of a world to be born into and once it did look so jolly good, too! He is shy, cheery, but inexorably silent on what he knows. Some old fool said to him once, "It must be pretty bad out there?" Pretty bad! What a lark!

But for his senior, who also knows, though the feeling is the same, the nature of the combative adult male is less shy, and not merely negatively contemptuous, but aggressive. It is difficult for him to endure hearing the home folk speak with the confidence of special revelation of the war they have not seen, when he, who has been in it, has contradictory minds about it. They are so assured that they think there can be no other view; and they bear out their mathematical arguments with maps and figures. It might be a chess tournament. He feels at last his anger beginning to smoulder. He feels a bleak and impalpable alienation from those who are all the world to him. He understands at last that they also are in the mirror, projected from his world that was, and that now he cannot come near them. Yet though he knows it, they do not. The greatest evil of war--this is what staggers you when you come home, feeling you know the worst of it--is the unconscious indifference to war's obscene blasphemy against life of the men and women who have the assurance that they will never be called on to experience it. Out there, comrades in a common and unlightened affliction shake, a fist humorously at the disregarding stars, and mock them. Let the Fates do their worst. The sooner it is over, the better and, while waiting, they will take it out of Old Jerry. He is the only one out of whom they can take it. They are to throw away their world and die, so they must take it out of somebody. Therefore Jerry "gets it in the neck." Men under the irrefragable compulsion of a common spell, who are selected for sacrifice in the fervour of a general obsession, but who are coolly awake to the unreason which locks the minds of their fellows, will burst into fury at the bond they feel. The obvious obstruction is the obstinate "blighter" with a machine-gun in front of them. At least, they are free to "strafe" him.

But what is the matter with London? The men on leave, when they meet each other, always ask that question without hope, in the seclusion of their confidence and special knowledge. They feel perversely they would sooner be amid the hated filth and smells of the battle-ground than at home. Out there, though possibly mischance may suddenly extinguish the day for them, they will be with those who understand, with comrades who rarely discuss the war except obliquely and with quiet and bitter jesting. Seeing the world has gone wrong, how much better and easier it is to take the likelihood of extinction with men who have the same mental disgust as your own, and can endure it till they die, but who, while they live in the same torment with you, have the unspoken but certain conviction that Europe is a decadent old beast eating her young with insatiable appetite, than to sit in sunny breakfast-rooms with the newspaper maps and positive arguments of the unsaved!

Selected from Old Junk H.M. Tomlinson, 1922

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Death of Wilfred Owen


On 1 April 1917, near the town of St. Quentin, budding war poet Wilfred Owen led his platoon through an artillery barrage to the German trenches, only to discover when they arrived that the enemy had already withdrawn. Severely shaken and disoriented by the bombardment, Owen barely avoided being hit by an exploding shell, and returned to his base camp confused and stammering. A doctor diagnosed shell shock, a new term used to describe the physical and/or psychological damage suffered by soldiers in combat. Though his commanding officer was skeptical, Owen was sent to a French hospital and subsequently returned to Britain, where he was checked into the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, in Scotland.

Owen’s time at Craiglockhart—one of the most famous hospitals used to treat victims of shell shock—coincided with that of his great friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who became a major influence on his work. After their treatment, both men returned to active service in France, though only Sassoon would survive the war. Owen came close, but on 4 November 1918, he was shot by a German machine gunner during an unsuccessful British attempt to bridge the Sambre Canal, near the French village of Ors. In his hometown of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border, his mother did not receive the telegraphed news of her son’s death until after the fighting had ended. Because of his prominence as war poet, Own is well commemorated at the site of his death with a plaque dedicated by the Western Front Association (WFA) and is buried close by at the communal cemetery. Regular contributor Steve Miller has made the pilgrimage to the site and has provided the set of photos below.