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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Eve 1915

100 years ago today the war was dragging on. German attacks were mounted in the Vosges and north of Loos. The Royal Navy was recovering from the loss of the armored cruiser HMS Natal in a mysterious explosion the previous day. No one was imagining what was to come in 1916 at Verdun or the Somme. Tomorrow we will share some of the topics we will be including in our Centennial coverage of the Great War next year.

About our card: 
The image is a detail from the Panthéon de la Guerre at the National World War I Museum. Thanks to Mike Vietti and Mark Levitch.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy Birthday Rudyard: Kipling and the Imperial War Graves Commission

Today is the anniversary of Rudyard Kipling's birth in 1865.  Kipling wrote much about the Great War and, of course, suffered until the end of his life over the loss of his son John at Loos in 1915. However, his contributions to the Imperial War Graves Commission will live on as long as we remember the fallen of the war.  Here is a summary of his contributions I discovered from the Kipling Journal of the Kipling Society, March 2005 issue.

By Dr. Deborah E. Wiggins

A Contribution of Rudyard Kipling

Membership on the Imperial War Graves Commission was the first office Kipling ever assumed. He did have some involvement with the Boy Scout movement, including allowing Lord Baden-Powell to use the Jungle Book for preparation of The Wolf Cubs' Handbook. But he had refused the laureateship in 1895 and declined the Order of Merit three times on the grounds that whatever services he might perform for empire or king would be most effective out of the public eye.

The Imperial War Graves Commission was born of the need for proper burial for the thousands of dead in France and other theaters of war. In the first months of the war, the dead had been buried in the trenches, but the British stopped this practice by 1915. The British Army created a Graves Registration Unit in 1914. This group took over work that had been done up until that time by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1916 this unit was renamed the Directorate of the Graves Registration and Enquiries and worked with the National Committee for the Care of Soldiers Graves (whose president was the Prince of Wales). Eventually there were calls for a larger committee to look after all the graves of the empire, and the Imperial War Graves Commission was created in 1917.

Typical Memorial Panel Found in
Cathedrals in France and Flanders
While the Army recognized the necessity of handling burials, the early view was that the Graves Registration workers were simply a requirement that might detract from more important activities. In a letter from March of 1916, General Sir Douglas Haig discussed the request for more motor transports for use by this unit:

It is fully recognized that the work of this organisation is of purely sentimental value, and that it does not directly contribute to the successful termination of the War. It has, however, an extraordinary moral value to the Troops in the Field as well as to the relatives and friends of the dead, at home. . . Further, it should be borne in mind that on the termination of hostilities the nation will demand an account from the Government as to the steps which have been taken to make and classify the burial places of the dead, steps which can only be effectively taken at, or soon after burial. 

The first members of the commission included the Prince of Wales as president. The chairman was Secretary of State for War Lord Derby, who had recently lost his son-in-law in the war. Other members included the vice-chairman, Fabian Ware, who had spearheaded the British Red Cross involvement with registration of graves; General Sir Nevil Macready; Admiral Poe; Sir William Garstin of the Red Cross; Harry Gosling of the Transport and General Workers' Union; and Rudyard Kipling. Both Garstin and Kipling had lost sons in the war. 

At the start of the commission, the members decided that there would be three general concepts that would guide the development of all the cemeteries. All memorials would be permanent, the headstones would be uniform, and there would be no distinction as to rank. As Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, noted, "where the sacrifice had been common, the memorial should be common also." This was a departure from past practices, but the members of the commission decided that the task ahead of them required both innovation and precise planning. Seven architects were appointed to plan the cemeteries. Kenyon was also consulted as to design. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were in charge of the horticultural features.

To Kipling went the job of inscriptions for the memorials. It was his feeling that this was not the occasion for the invention of some new form of words, but that the idea which the stone intended to convey could be best expressed by the choice of some familiar phrase from the Bible. 

The commission considered several possibilities, including "You live and die, and die and live," and "All's Well" from J. M. Barrie.  Other suggestions included "To the Brave" and "Peace be with you." One of the architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens, suggested simply "Amen." But the choice was really Kipling's, for as Lutyens complained, "the question is coming to a head and if Kipling says the ukase, the Royal Commission will say yes." Kipling took his choice from the Apocrypha in Ecclesiasticus 44, verse 14, "Their name liveth for evermore."

Kipling was responsible for the composition of most of the inscriptions used in the British memorials located in French cathedrals, including the words placed on the headstones of unmarked graves, "A soldier of the Great War. . . Known unto God." He is also given credit for beginning the evening ceremony of playing of "The Last Post" at the Menin Gate Memorial. Kipling is also mentioned as being one of the originators of the idea of the Unknown British Soldier whose body was interred in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920. 

Two Highlanders "Known Unto God"

On one occasion soon after he joined the commission, Kipling was asked to assist in drafting a revision of the letter sent from the King to the bereaved family on the death of a member of the military. Lord Derby felt that the original letter was too brusque. "I cannot myself think of the right words," Derby wrote, "but I am sure in this respect you could very much help me." Kipling wrote back immediately with several suggestions, although as he commented, "It's a bit hard to combine the impression of national thanks with a personal letter from the King." As it turned out, Derby did not use Kipling's suggestions, but basically stayed with his own first draft. 

In September 1920 Kipling urged the commission to establish local enquiry offices in Britain to assist families in their searches. Many family members planned trips to France to visit the graveyards; Thomas Cook was advertising tours to the battlefields. On Kipling's frequent visits to France, he had seen "many bereaved relatives wandering, confused, distressed and helpless." The commission eventually allotted a budget of £4,500 for these local offices. 

Kipling was a determined traveler to the various cemeteries, viewing this oversight as a part of his work for the commission. . .He wrote to his close friend H. Rider Haggard that

One never gets over the shock of this Dead Sea of arrested lives — from V.C.'s and Hospital Nurses to coolies of the Chinese Labour Corps. By one grave of a coolie some pious old Frenchwoman (bet she was an old maid) had deposited a yellow porcelain crucifix!! Somehow that almost drew tears. 

In 1922 King George V made a visit to Belgium and France to tour the cemeteries and meet with the workers of the commission. The coastal cemetery of Terlincthun was the last location visited by this convoy of dignitaries, and here the King spoke to the crowd and the world, but his words were written by Kipling.

In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.

Inscription on the Menin Gate, Ypres
In the last few years of his life Kipling was bothered more and more frequently by recurrent digestive tract illnesses, and his trips for the commission were fewer. However, he was present on 4 August 1930 in an official capacity for the unveiling of a war memorial to commemorate the Battle of Loos. The memorial was designed to honor all those who had fallen in the battle but especially those whose bodies were never found. General Sir Nevil Macready addressed those assembled, and the buglers of the Irish Guards sounded the "Last Post." Kipling was to have spoken at the ceremony, but according to reports, he was "completely overcome by emotion." His work for the Imperial War Graves Commission was a painful labor of love and a public demonstration by a very private man. Above all, it was duty fulfilled.

Sources: Kipling Society, Cyril Mazansky

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Devil Dogs Chronicle: Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade in World War I
reviewed by Courtland Jindra

Devil Dogs Chronicle: Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade
in World War I
Edited by George B. Clark
University Press of Kansas, 2013

Marine Recruits 1918 – "First to Fight"

The first day at camp I was afraid I was going to die. My next two weeks my sole fear was that I wasn't going to die. And after that I knew I would never die because I had become so hard that nothing could kill me.

And so the main portion of George Clark's narrative begins. Devil Dogs Chronicle is an anthology of letters, remembrances, and diaries, with commentary by Clark thrown in from time to time. The Marines really made their name at Belleau Wood and arguably this unit is one of the most written about in the AEF. Because of the wealth of materials on the brigade, the author obviously thought it was best to let the men speak for themselves. This proved to be an excellent decision by and large, as most of these men were fantastic writers.

After a brief overview of the Marine Brigade's exploits in the Great War, Clark throws us right back into boot camp. Much to my surprise, this section was probably my favorite. There are some truly hilarious descriptions of the raw recruits at Paris Island. We follow new marine officers in their training shortly thereafter. This is where we meet Second Lieutenant James MacBrayer Sellers, who is probably the most described of all the men in the book. As one would expect, the journey to and arrival in France, combat, occupation, homecoming, and then a wrap-up on what happened to everyone after the war are also included.

The chapter on Belleau Wood is by far the longest (at nearly 80 pages), but every battle the Brigade was involved in gets special attention. The descriptions of combat themselves are often riveting. However, I wish Clark had included more commentary in these chapters as I had a hard time with what exactly was happening on the ground. Sometimes books that just focus on what divisions and corps are doing can be incredibly dry, but here I needed more of that to ground me in what was going on. The maps that were included were insufficient to be able to figure out where one regiment was versus the other, what one battalion was doing, or where the companies were spread out on the field.

Marines at Belleau Wood After the Battle

This got to be frustrating — especially in the Belleau Wood chapter. I remember in the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War there is an interview with a veteran of the battle who said “the difficulty with Belleau Wood was you never knew where the front was. Little groups of men, little groups of Americans, little groups of Germans got together to fight each other and while you were fighting in one direction, all of the sudden without any warning, you would find that there were some Germans to the rear of you.” For some readers, this confusion will not be a problem, but I really needed some clarity on how the battlefield was laid out. The chapters on later engagements had similar issues, but I was mostly able to follow the action. The best combat segment was First Lt. Cooke's portion on the opening of Soissons. That was an amazing read.

Order Now
Mr. Clark obviously did a huge amount of research. Not only are the sheer number of accounts he included impressive, but his footnotes are some of the most extensive I have seen. I think nearly everyone who is mentioned by name in the text gets some sort of notation in the back about their awards, citations, or death (often all three). It appears to me that this was a labor of love the author had been thinking about putting together for some time. I do have one related criticism however — for me Clark's commentary in the course of the book ranges from informational and helpful to borderline annoying. That said, I think military historians would for the most part love this book. It's an important piece for posterity, and I am very glad to own it.

Courtland Jindra

Monday, December 28, 2015

Unique AEF Photos from the Imperial War Museum

During an incredibly dismal TV football game (49ers vs. Browns, but I'll spare you any more details) I went exploring on the Internet.  I discovered that the Imperial War Museum has a substantial collection of American photos covering several categories, naval, home front, etc.  I managed to go through their entire "THE US ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917–1918" set and discovered several images I've never seen before.  Here they are:

Troops Arriving at Le Havre, France

Renault FT-17 Tanks Under Camouflage 

An Artillery Unit on the Move

General Pershing's Quarters at Chaumont

Delousing Hut

First American Prisoners of War; Captured at Cambrai, October 1917

American Soldiers Visiting a Belgian Fort Near Antwerp

King George V Decorating 33rd Division Soldiers After the Battle of Hamel

Armistice Day in Paris

Sunday, December 27, 2015

British Military Aviation in 1915, July – December

The Vickers Gunbus Became Operational in July 1915

12 July
Following an inconclusive exchange of fire on 6 July, the monitors HMS Severn and HMS Mersey re-engage the German Navy cruiser Königsberg, which had been trapped in the Rufiji Delta by blockships. A seaplane of the Royal Naval Air Service provided spotting for the monitors until forced to land due to a combination of engine trouble and damage from anti-aircraft shrapnel. The Königsberg was destroyed during the bombardment.

13 July
The British Armstrong Whitworth SS (Submarine Scout) airship with an extra fuel tank successfully completes trials at Kingsnorth in Kent.

24 July
Colonel F.H. Sykes is appointed to command all Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) air units in the eastern Mediterranean, effectively becoming the air commander for the Dardanelles operation.

25 July
No.11 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the first fighter squadron to be fully equipped with the Vickers Gunbus 2-seat fighter, arrives in St Omer, France.

25 July
The Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Lanoe G. Hawker of No.6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, for his actions during an offensive patrol over France and in recognition of the continuous courage he demonstrated while flying a Bristol Scout 1611, with a hastily fitted cavalry carbine.

31 July
The Victoria Cross is awarded to Captain J.A. Liddell of No.7 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, for his actions during a reconnaissance patrol over Ostend in Belgium. His observer was Second Lieutenant R.H. Peck and the aircraft a Royal Aircraft Factory RE5, 2457.

The first systematic scheme for training observers is introduced.

HMS Ben-My-Chree

12 August
Flight Commander C.H. Edmonds of the Royal Naval Air Service makes the first aerial torpedo attack as he sinks a Turkish supply ship in the Sea of Marmara, Dardenelles, flying a Short 184 seaplane from the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-My-Chree.

17 August
Flight Commander C.H. Edmonds sinks a second Turkish vessel with an aerial torpedo. While a Short 184 seaplane flown by Flight Lieutenant G.B. Dacre of the Royal Navy, sinks a Turkish tug. However, the plane was not airborne at the time and needed to release the torpedo in order to be able to take off from the water.

19 August
Colonel Hugh Trenchard assumes command of the Royal Flying Corps in France in succession to Sir David Henderson. Trenchard was promoted to brigadier general and quickly requested another squadron by the middle of September. He further suggested that one squadron be provided for each army corps for artillery work, photography and close reconnaissance, and one squadron for each army headquarters, for army reconnaissance.

Trenchard also suggested that there should be a headquarters squadron for General Headquarters (GHQ) work and that a further squadron be provided for each army for special work such as bombing raids.

23 August
Captain A.J. Liddell of the Royal Flying Corps is awarded the Victoria Cross for valour while flying a Royal Aircraft Factory RE5.

24 August
Major Lanoe G. Hawker of No.6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) is awarded the Victoria Cross for shooting down three German Albatros biplanes while flying a Bristol Scout C biplane and armed only with a bolt-action rifle mounted beside the cockpit.

The Royal Flying Corps Machine-Gun School is formed at Hythe to instruct students in air fighting.

23 September
No.2 and No.3 Wings of the Royal Flying Corps begin the first concentrated interdiction campaign aimed at disrupting German communications, in support of the Allied offensive at Loos. The attacks continued until 16 October. Rail lines were damaged in 16 places, five trains were destroyed, and a signal box and railways sheds at Valenciennes were wrecked.

Maj. General Hugh Trenchard Just After the War
(Corrected from Original Posting)

4 October
In a special order of the day, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force Field Marshal Sir John French expresses to Brigadier General H.M. Trenchard and all ranks of the Royal Flying Corps his appreciation of "the valuable work they have performed during the battle of Loos, he desires especially to thank pilots and observers for their plucky work in co-operation with the artillery, in photography and bomb attacks...Throughout these operations the RFC have gallantly maintained the splendid record they have achieved since the commencement of the campaign".

8 October
No.26 Squadron is formed at Netheravon from personnel of the South African Air Corps previously engaged in the campaign in German South-West Africa. The squadron subsequently embarked for East Africa in December 1915 to participate in operations against German forces in Tanganyika.

The Royal Flying Corps' 5th Wing, consisting of No.14 and No.17 Squadrons, supported by an Aircraft Park, arrives in the Middle East. The Wing was commander by Lieutenant Colonel W.G.H. Salmond.

3 November
The first land plane to be flown from an aircraft carrier is piloted by Flight Lieutenant H.F. Towler of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), when he flies a Bristol Scout C from the seaplane carrier HMS Vindex during launching experiments.

7 November
Lieutenant G.S.M. Insall of No.11 Squadron, Royal Flying  Corps, is awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during a fighting patrol across German lines. Air Mechanic T.H. Donald was observer-gunner in a Vickers FB5, 5074.

19 November
The Victoria Cross is awarded to Squadron Commander R. Bell-Davies of No.3 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, for rescuing a downed airman (Flight Sub-Lieutenant G.F. Smylie) after completing a bombing attack on Ferejik Junction in Bulgaria in a Nieuport 12, 3172.

Handley Page Bombers Operational Later in the War

18 December
The first British multi-engined aircraft is test flown. The Handley Page O/100 is piloted by Lieutenant Commanders Stedman and Babington.

Source:  RAF Museum

Saturday, December 26, 2015

British Military Aviation in 1915, January – June

The Fokker Eindecker Would Be the Bane of the RFC in 1915

Small numbers of Royal Flying Corps aeroplanes are kept at readiness to combat possible enemy airship raids.

The Experimental Photographic Section of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) is formed under the command of Lieutenant J.T.C. Moore Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara).

19–20 January 
The German Navy mounts the first airship raid on Britain. Three Zeppelins (L3, L4 and L6) were dispatched; one was forced to turn back with engine difficulties 90 miles from the English coast. The remaining airships bombed Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, killing two residents of Yarmouth and injuring three, and killing two and injuring 13 residents of King's Lynn. These were the first British casualties due to air attack.

The first night air defense sorties are flown by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Following the attack by Zeppelins L3 and L4, two Vickers FB5 Gunbuses of No.7 Squadron were ordered to take-off from Joyce Green and patrol over the southern outskirts of London, without result.

23 January 
British reconnaissance aircraft spot Turkish forces preparing to attack the Suez Canal area.

Headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) directs that one flight in each squadron is to specialize in bombing as well as normal duties.

17 February 
The seaplane carrier HMS Ark Royal arrives off the Island of Tenedos to conduct air operations in support of Royal Navy vessels attacking Turkish fortifications in the Dardanelles.

10 March 
The Battle of Neuve Chappelle opens. The assault on Neuve Chappelle is based, for the first time in the history of warfare, on maps prepared solely by photographic reconnaissance. The battle also included the first attempt at air interdiction, with bombing attacks on railways at Courtrai, Menin, Lille, Douai, and Don by Royal Flying Corps aircraft carrying 25 pound and 100 pound bombs in an effort to delay the progress of enemy reinforcements. However, Royal Flying Corps Headquarters judged only 3 out of 141 railway attacks to have been successful. The aircraft also bombed a divisional headquarters at Fournes.

24-26 March 
Elements of No.3 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, arrive at Tenedos aerodrome with 18 aircraft of varying types to support operations in the Dardanelles.

Royal Naval Air Service Henri Farman Floatplane at Gallipoli

28 March 
The first flight by an aircraft from Tenedos aerodrome takes place to reconnoiter Turkish positions.

The first German Fokker Eindecker enters service on the Western Front. The Eindecker was armed with a synchronised machine-gun firing through the propeller arc and as such, has often been described as the first true fighter aircraft. This marked the beginning of the "Fokker Scourge".

1 April 
No.9 Squadron is re-formed at Brooklands. This squadron would subsequently to form the basis of the Royal Flying Corps School of Wireless.

22 April 
During a gas attack at Ypres in Belgium, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft spot the gas cloud moving toward French troops and are able to warn them of the danger.

25 April 
British Commonwealth and French forces begin to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

26 April 
Second Lieutenant W.B. Rhodes-Moorhouse of No.2 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, is awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be won by an airman, for heroism displayed during a low-level bombing sortie against Courtrai railway station in Belgium. His successful attack, flying a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2, in the face of heavy ground fire was judged to have been the most important bombing sortie of the war to that point.

Lt. William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse, VC

The award was posthumous; although mortally wounded during the attack, Rhodes-Moorhouse successfully flew his damaged aircraft back to the Royal Flying Corps airfield at Merville in order to lodge a full report of the attack.

30 April 
Allied aeroplanes arrive in South West Africa for use against German forces.

The South African Aviation Corps begins to fly reconnaissance sorties in support of South African Army units during operations against German forces in German South-West Africa. The colony surrendered two months later.

4 May 
Kite balloons are used for artillery observation in France for the first time.

9 May 
The Battle of Aubers Ridge. After an initial failed attempt on 25 April, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) made the first concerted attempt to mount "contact patrols", consisting of low-flying aircraft seeking to identify for higher headquarters the exact whereabouts of friendly troops during an attack. Three aircraft of No.16 Squadron attempted to fulfill this role during assault on Aubers Ridge, sending down 42 wireless messages reporting on the progress of ground troops, who displayed white sheets measuring 7 feet by 2 feet. At this time troops did not have the benefit of portable radios and could only send back information on their progress by means of runners. Although perhaps better than nothing, contact patrols were never to prove a wholly reliable method of obtaining information on what would now be called the "Forward Line of Own Troops".

10 May 
Royal Flying Corps pilot Captain L.A. Strange manages to regain control of his Martinsyde S1 Scout after he falls out and hangs on when trying to free a jammed ammunition drum.

31 May 
German Army Zeppelin LZ38 carries out the first air raid on London. A house at 16 Alkham Road in Stoke Newington was hit. Seven members of the public were killed and a further 35 injured.

Zeppelin LZ38 at Its Home Base

26 May 
Following a request from the Indian Government for trained pilots for service in Mesopotamia, Australian Flying Corps air and ground personnel arrived at Basra to join Indian Flying Corps personnel serving in the theatre. Australian and Indian Army personnel flying Indian Flying Corps aircraft formed the "Mesopotamian Half-Flight", which supported the Indian Army during the opening round of the Mesopotamian Campaign.

7 June 
The Victoria Cross is awarded to Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford of No.1 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), for downing Zeppelin LZ37 (Oberleutnant von der Haegen) near Bruges in Belgium. He dropped six 9-kilo (20-pound) Hales bombs onto it from above in a Morane Saulnier Type L3253.

17 June 
Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford VC of No.1 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), is killed with his passenger, American journalist H.A. Needham, when his Henri Farman F27 two-seat reconnaissance bomber rolled over during a steep turn near Paris.

Source: RAF Museum

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Scenes at the Front

On a Hospital Ward

President Wilson Visiting AEF General HQ, Chaumont
Christmas Day 1918

French Prisoners of War with Their Tree

British Staff Christmas Dinner Menu

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Still on Duty: The Red Cross in Siberia, Christmas Eve 1919

Rosalie O'Donnell, American Red Cross
Some Americans were still serving overseas long after the Armistice.  Red Cross volunteer Rosalie O'Donnell had served on the Western Front, primarily helping with the repatriation of prisoners of war. She stayed in touch with her Red Cross friends afterward.  One of those – believed to be Helen Lillian (Bridge) Pohlman — was still serving in Russia at holiday season 1919. Here is her letter to Rosalie describing her adventures on Christmas Eve that year.

On Board the American Consul General's Train,
Irkutsk, Siberia, December 25, 1919

Dear Rosalie:

At home, I am sure, you are making calls today and perhaps feeling sorry for me away over here. I wonder if you would like to hear about our Christmas that even now seems years ago?

It will be difficult for you to imagine an atmosphere so filled with hate and ill-will that it almost bristles. We are on a side track in the railroad yards of Irkutsk, one of thirteen eschelons carrying that many nationalities out of Siberia. This partially accounts for the atmosphere. Where soldiers of so many nations are gathered in close quarters, in mid-winter, there is little good will. Omsk has been sacked and partially burned and everyone and everything is evacuating eastward. You will not be able to understand this either, for you have never seen a whole country moving eastward over one slender line of railroad over 6000 miles of territory. Alas! Alas! Last night we were so happy, all huddled together in our cold room, popping corn, cutting the only bright paper we could find in all Siberia (salvaged from our own trunks) into strips, roasting crazy Chinese peanuts and putting all the little trinkets we could find into Comfort Bags for the soldiers in our Hospital. Then it was so easy to forget that we are 6000 miles from home and plenty and that our food is cold fish and frozen black bread. Yes, that was last night.

At midnight an order came to evacuate. All our possessions, tinned food, etc. were packed into our bags and we were hurriedly huddled into ezvosticks [cabs] and taken under cover of darkness to the Angara River, where we were again hurried on to a shaky Russian river boat and transported across the river filled with floating blocks of ice, which made me think of the runaway slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin, to the other side where our train awaited us. All we know is that we have been compelled to leave our wounded and helpless men behind in a hospital that is soon to fall into the hands of the invading Reds. Sentinels are everywhere, stray firing is heard on every side. In this medieval city the midnight stillness is broken by racing motorcycle messengers tearing down the narrow cobbled streets and across the cathedral square. The city is under martial law. A band of Cossacks riding superbly kick up a cloud of drifted snow; church bells are ringing wildly, as they can only ring in Russia; the streets are filled with people. Excitement runs high, but why are we being taken away so hurriedly? Have we not seen rioting before? Is it possible that we are leaving old Irkutsk, once the capital city and once the last point of civilization touched by the exiles on their way to the far north? We are too tired, too disturbed, too discouraged to let the excitement take hold of us. We do not think of Christmas.

A Detachment of Red Cross Nurses Somewhere in Russia

It is the day before Christmas. A brilliant sunset lights up a snow covered waste. All day we have been prisoners on the train, not allowed to leave our narrow coupes; forbidden to go to the windows, but as evening draws nearer the firing is less and the day no doubt will end in peace. Night will soon be here, for we already hear the howling of Russia's hordes of stray dogs. We beg, we plead to be allowed to make one trip back to the hospital that has been the only home we have known. We cannot forget the Comfort Bags, all the little treasures we collected from our own meager store, just to make Christmas possible for the men. We had waited so long for an opportunity to hear the gay Czechs sing their Christmas songs, and perhaps, a Russian, if he be not too sick. It is Christmas Eve. We win. A guard is sent for. Into our heavy coats, hoods, valenkies [felt boots] we jump and soon we hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of the Russian Guards over the dry snow on their way to our train to conduct us back to the city and our Hospital. Does it matter that all Russia is at war? We have won; we are on our way to the hospital. We form into line, two abreast; on either side of us a line of tall Astrakan-capped Russian soldiers in long tunics, carrying crazy looking rifles with long bayonets across shoulders already stooped from long months of war without bread. Down the railroad yeard [sic] we go, between rows and rows of trains, past the station, across an open space, to the old pontoon bridge, three hundred years old. How amazingly bright the stars are, how crisp and clear the air! We are across the Angara, again in the old city, again we go through the narrow streets; this time not as one fleeing. On we go through the Chinese and Tartar quarters, up more narrow streets across the cathedral square and on to the hill, past the old monastery, and on to the hospital.

We cross the road and start to enter the gates. "Stoya!" A sharp command halts us. It is the military guard, Red no doubt, halting our White Guard. Is our venture going to end in sad disappointment? Quickly one of the girls draws back her cape, points to the Red Cross on her arm and says "Amerikansky Crosna Crest". "Zuda psalster?" ("May we pass?") Without another word the guard says "Mozna." (Forward) [sic]. We make our way to the door and our guard goes back to the barracks to return for us within an hour or so.

It is too good to be true! We are back in the old familiar corridors and the huge rooms of what was a technical school connected with the monastery, now the only hospital within three thousand miles. We run through the wards, doing our best to let the poor, sick Russian soldiers know and see that we have come back; that we have not deserted them in the face of danger. Too sick, too discouraged, they do not respond. Some one thinks of the Comfort Bags and we race off to get them. As we start down the corridor that leads to the big dormitory we are again halted. This time by our old Czech friend, with his kindly "Naznaia". He cannot believe his eyes. The "Sistras" are back! The news spreads throughout the Hospital. Perhaps the sisters have not gone? We load ourselves with bags and this time we go to our favorite Ward — the "Czech Ward" where we know we will have a hearty welcome. As we go up the stairs to what was once a chapel we hear a rustling in the corridor. To our amazement we see lined up against each wall a row of our old friends, the German War Prisoners, each with a great bundle of rushes in his hand. From each side they step forward, brush the floor before us, then make the sign of the cross over each of us as we proceed. They are back at home, carrying out an age old custom of chasing the evil spirits away so that the spirit of Christmas may pass unmolested. Old, war-worn men, many of them past fifty, but all at home tonight — boys. We rush to the door, throw it open, and as best we can, we greet the surprised men with 'NAZNAIA". Heads pop up. "Sistra; Sistra; Sistra! comes from a dozen at once. We pass between the rows of beds, giving each a Comfort Bag, and in broken German, English and Russian, wish them a Merry Christmas. One bright little fellow, much younger than the others, sits up in bed and begins to sing "Stulle [sic] Nacht". Through tears and laughter, in German, Czech and English we sing that old carol to the end. 

In the midst of our celebration a loud rap is heard and in strides an officer. He announces the arrival of the guard. Like a flash we are back to reality. Can it be that we are in Siberia? Can it be that the whole face of Russia is changing? A minute ago all was warmth and good cheer and peace and now guards, armoured trains, Siberian snows and black bread. Slowly we reach the door. A Red Guard! A Red Guard! All Russia has gone RED. What of it? We have had one hour of Peace on Earth Good Will to Men. Will it be the last Christian Christmas in Russia?



Rosalie O'Donnell's niece Julie Chitwood has compiled her letters in The World After WW1, 1918 - 1921 available on both Amazon and Amazon UK.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Was the World's First Armed Aircraft?

At the London air show of February 1913 the first-ever armed aeroplane, the EFB-1 "Destroyer", a two-seat biplane, was unveiled by Vickers, Ltd. The designers seemed to fully understand the significance of their new aircraft. 

From the event program: "This design makes it possible for the biplane to be used as a machine for offence purposes. On the machine that will appear at the show, it will be seen that Messrs. Vickers have mounted a Maxim [machine] gun, which can be swiveled through an angle of 30 degrees. . .arranged in the cockpit at the centre of gravity of the machine, will be stored 1,500 rounds of ammunition."

The aircraft was the developmental prototype of the Vickers FB.5 "Gunbus", which was deployed on the Western Front with 11 Squadron in July 1915.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915
reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915
by Prit Buttar
Osprey Publishing, 2015

This is Prit Buttar's second opus about the Eastern Front of World War I. Readers may remember that I had the privilege of reviewing the author's first book of this series, Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front 1914. I found that book to be a stunning addition to the ever-increasing lore about the Eastern Front. Moreover, I found this book just as rewarding as the first volume.

Confident-Looking German Troops, Eastern Front 1915

Buttar is a well known medical authority in the United Kingdom who has channeled his dedication to the task of chronicling the Great War on the Eastern Front. In his first work he minutely detailed the first four months of the war. Now this book picks up in January 1915 with the struggle to force the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians want to move into the Hungarian plains and force Austria-Hungary out of the war, while the Dual Monarchies' generals want to preclude the Russians' efforts and rescue the besieged garrison at Przemyśl. The author explores each of the antagonists' plans and their execution of those plans and unmasks the reasons for each side's failures to meet their goals.

In a word, the deciding factor was the weather. Men from both sides froze to death while advancing toward the enemy at such high altitudes. Many starved to death because blizzards kept food from them and survivors ran out of ammunition. This was not a battle in which tens of thousands of men died because generals failed to grasp how deadly the new weapons were. Because most generals didn't work in such frigid temperatures, it was a struggle in which generals expected superhuman feats from their soldiers under the most appalling conditions. And this is the theme that recurs throughout Germany Ascendant.

Nothing is more evident in the book than the fact that both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies were shells of themselves in 1915. The experienced and professional officers and NCOs of the prewar army lay dead in the Carpathians and in the fields of Poland, killed during the 1914 campaigns. They were replaced by inadequately trained and supplied soldiers who were thrown into perilous situations without regard to their unpreparedness or numbers. Corps strengths barely reached one half of their authorized levels yet the General Staff expected them to do the job of fully manned divisions. The savior of the Dual Monarchies' army was the transfusion of German divisions into their line. The spring offensive, centering on Gorlice-Tarnow, quickly showed that this transfusion turned a once equal ally into what Buttar calls the junior partner. (This is by far the strongest part of the book.) For the Russians there was no savior ally.

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The author presents a harrowing picture of a decimated Russian Army and the General Staff's efforts to forestall the Central Powers' offensives. Among these pages are not only an explanation of the internal feuds among members of the General Staff, the pro- and anti-Sukhomlinov factions, but also of its ineptitude in dealing with the dilemmas of supply. Some replacement units arrived at the front without weapons, so men going into attacks were armed with grenades and clubs only. Reports of the annihilation of divisions by German artillery never arrived at higher headquarters, nor did reports on the suffering of the peasant soldiers. This book deserves to be on the shelf of every World War I aficionado. It is a welcome and detailed reference book for orders of battle on the Eastern and Serbian front as well as a treasure chest of command and control issues. I look forward to reading the next volume, which deals with 1916.

Michael Kihntopf

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Spanish Influenza in America: the Civilian Impact

Commder David Thompson, who contributed an article in 2013 on the impact of the Spanish influenza pandemic on the U.S. Military effort in the war, has sent us some interesting details on the civilian homefront suffering.

His earlier article on Roads to the Great War can be seen here.

The Spanish Flu in America: the Civilian Impact

The Killer of 1918: Virus H1N1

Estimated American deaths due to the Spanish influenza pandemic: 675,000

Compare to:
     WWI:  116,000
     WWII:  418,000
     Multiple Polio Outbreaks: 13,000
     HIV/AIDS: 658,000 (1981–2012)

Three waves of the flu hit America.  The last in the spring of 1919 left far fewer casualties.

Severe cases showed the following development: bodily aches, temperatures spiking at 104 degrees, rapidly developing pneumonia accompanied by cyanosis (a lack of oxygen in the blood turned one's skin bluish-black), and a high probability of death.

Improvised Hospital for Flu Patients, Oakland, CA, Auditorium

The average age of the flu victims was 33.

The Actuarial Society of America determined that the average loss of active life for every flu victim was 25 years.

The flu virus had an incubation period of 24 to 72 hours, meaning that a person who showed no symptoms could  pass on the virus.

The flu virus could survive airborne for up to 24 hours. The lower the humidity, the longer the virus lived.

Seattle, WA, Police in 1918

In most cities, the epidemic lasted six to eight weeks. Researchers believe the virus simply ran out of susceptible victims.

Thanks to David Thompson for sending us the December 2006 issue of American History magazine, which contained this information

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Corporal Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Corporal Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a controversial French priest, paleontologist, and philosopher who attempted to reconcile original sin, evolution, and human consciousness in arguing that belief in evolution does not entail a rejection of Christian beliefs. During the war he served as an enlisted stretcher bearer with a Moroccan division and was decorated for his courage under fire, earning the deep respect of his mostly Islamic fellow soldiers.  He later wrote of his experience:

The unforgettable experience of the Front, in my opinion, is that of an immense liberty. Those who enter a sector first let drop at the entrance of the first trench bay, the burden of social conventions. At the moment civilian life ends, the difference ceases between day and night. In place of the banal getting up and going to bed, the man in the lines sees only before him one vast trench of unforeseen length where rest and sleep are taken according to circumstances and occasions without well-fixed relation between light and darkness. In the line, one washes when one can. One often sleeps no matter where. All the constraints and compartmentalizations collapse like a house of cards. It is curious to observe in oneself how this overthrow of day-to-day slavery can bring satisfaction to the spirit, a little rebellious perhaps, but just and noble if one understands it rightly. 

Corporal Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
4th (Mixed) Moroccan Rgt

Saturday, December 19, 2015

100 Years Ago: Douglas Haig Named Commander-in-Chief of British Forces, 19 December 1915

At the end of the Great War and into the 1920s, the reputation of Douglas Haig (1861–1928), commander-in-chief of the victorious British Army in Europe, was as high as Dwight Eisenhower's would be in 1945. No lesser figure than John J. Pershing called Haig the "man who won the war." Ardent pacifist and nurse Vera Brittain wrote of the inspiration Haig's Order of the Day gave her and everyone at  her hospital in the dark hours of April 1918. Two hundred thousand of his former troops passed by his coffin in tribute when he died in 1928. 

Then the legend was shattered. The memoirs and poems of the veterans started appearing, telling a different story from the official sources that had been used to shape public opinion about the war effort. The survivors of the trenches told of ill-considered strategy and mindless attritional war. David Lloyd George then skillfully applied what seemed to be the coup de grâce in his War Memoirs, when the former war leader accused Haig of being "a second-rate commander" lacking "imagination and vision."  Since then there has been no end to the critics of Douglas Haig. They focus especially on his conduct of the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

There have been others, however, including some highly respected historians — who take exception to much of the negative commentary about Haig's leadership. They point out that the Somme and Passchendaele are not the whole story, that the eventually victorious 1918 campaign must also be considered. Historians will probably re-fight this great "Haig Debate" as long as the war is remembered. However, at the time of his appointment to supreme command he was, undoubtedly, the best qualified man to replace Sir John French, who had been found wanting as commander of the BEF during the first year and a half of the Great War.

Some key points in Haig's career:

As a cavalry and staff officer he had distinguished himself in India, the Sudan Campaign, and the Boer War.

He was the key military adviser to War Minister Sir Richard Haldane, during the post-Boer War modernization of the British Army, which included the planning for the deployment of an expeditionary force to Europe.

He was given the plum assignment of the Aldershot army base, which included command of the 1st and 2nd divisions, the I Corps of the BEF, should it be deployed.

In the early actions his units successfully, if luckily, closed the gap and held the line at the First Battle of Ypres and had a minor success at Neuve Chapelle. The failure his First Army at the Battle of Loos was eventually (with Haig's help) laid on French's doorstep.


Other (not necessarily flattering) pertinent matters:

Connections: He was highly esteemed by both the late King Edward VII and his son, reigning King George V.  His wife, Vivian, had also been a lady-in-waiting to the queen.

Luck: Of his only two feasible rivals for succeeding Field Marshal French, James Grierson, had dropped dead in transit to France in 1914 and Horace Smith-Dorrien, something of hero in the 1914 campaign, had incurred the wrath of French in the spring of 1915 and was sent home.

Infighting: Haig proved skillful in letting his disappointments in his superiors, French and War Minister Kitchener, be known at the highest levels, without suffering much blowback himself.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Come On, Los Angeles, Give Us a Pershing Square Worthy of Its Namesake

A 2004 international survey of the best and worst public spaces in the world (the Piazza del Campo in Sienna was #1) described Pershing Square in Los Angeles as follows: 

"Two blocks by three blocks long, this ugly open space sits on top of an underground parking garage. This would be good use of the space, except that the square is rarely used. Office workers in the nearby building or guests at the Biltmore Hotel, one of the oldest and most prestigious hotels in LA, are the only people that you may find in the square, other than homeless people."

Overhead and Ground Level Views of the 
Current Configuration as Described Above

Today, 18 December 2015, three finalists will be chosen in the Pershing Square Renew Design Challenge. They will be chosen from ten semifinalists, who were named in October, that include not only some of Los Angeles’ most august architecture firms but also some of the most renowned international firms. The final selection will be announced on 1 April 2016. Let us pray – that in the spirit of the WWI Centennial – the winner creates something that honors General Pershing and the Americans who served under him. A big part of their challenge will be what to do with the on-site memorials, which include two plaques to General Pershing and a Doughboy statue.  (There is also a cannon from the USS Constitution, a Spanish American war memorial and a monument to Beethoven.)

Current Plaque to General Pershing

I have invited Los Angeleno and WWI Centennial Commission representative Courtland Jindra to share his concern about this important public space with our readers. Here are his comments:

In 1866 the initial city park in Los Angeles was founded as Plaza Abaja.  It immediately became a beloved fixture of the community. In the years that followed, the park's name was changed numerous times as the sleepy LA area started to grow around it.

In 1900 the first piece of public art in the city was erected. A precursor to its future Great War connection, this monument was dedicated to those lost from the 7th California Infantry Regiment (which in future years would become the 160th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "Los Angeles' Own") who were called into service in the Spanish-American War. For decades after, Memorial Day services at the Square led by veterans of '98 would occur. Originally a trophy cannon from the conflict was included nearby, but during one of the later re-dos of the park it was given to a museum,and never returned. In the 1950s, a large part of the pedestal was also removed due to the parking garage that was added underneath. The extreme weight of over 15 thousand pounds was deemed unsupportable by the underground structure. In the 1930s, a cannon from the USS Constitution was also given to the park to include as a centerpiece (a memorial to Beethoven was also added that decade when the LA Philharmonic was housed across the street).

Pedretti's Doughboy Statue
On 15 November 1918, Central Park, as it was then known, was renamed Pershing Square. It was the first of many WWI tributes and memorials that would soon blanket LA County.  By 1924, a monument designed by local artist Humberto Pedretti was erected, dedicated to the "Sons and Daughters of Los Angeles who served in the World War." The Doughboy statue avoids references to the horrors of war, depicting a soldier carrying his unit's colors forward into battle. The pedestal is surrounded by various inscriptions.  Also of note is the large victory medal that is included on the back side with all the countries that U.S. troops served in and a decorative French Poilu helmet sitting in an olive branch given by Veterans of France. In subsequent years the park became an important area for rallies, recruitment, and liberty bond drives during World War Two.

Surprisingly General Pershing did not get a statue or plaque in the park that bears his name for a few decades. In 1955 a plaque giving a short summary of his career was added. Then, in 1960, during Black Jack's 100th birthday celebration, a marker recognizing the commemoration was also put in the ground. To further memorialize the General of the Armies, a small sapling was flown in from Laclede, Missouri that was planted by nephews Frank and James Pershing, as well as grandson John Coghlan. Unfortunately, no one knows if the tree is still there, though it seems unlikely, given  that subsequent redesigns of the park razed most of the ground.

Pershing Square in the 1950s – The Doughboy Statue More Prominent Than Today

In 1992 the current, and most disliked, version of Pershing Square debuted. In an attempt to try and keep vagrants out of the park the design installed walls on the exterior. Grass was also largely removed to try and prevent people from sleeping there. Unfortunately, the new park was so uninviting that it soon became a ghost town other than the occasional worker who might lunch there. In the decades since it was unveiled, downtown Los Angeles has rejuvenated and the population has increased 500 percent.  Citizens have advocated for Pershing Square to be a centerpiece of the area once again.

Pershing Square Renew was set up as a public/private partnership to redesign the space once again. Given that we are in the centennial period of the Great War, I have advocated that more should be made about its military connection. All of the memorials should be spruced up, but the Doughboy is arguably in the worst shape. The pedestal has cracking and discoloration, and some of the ceremonial stars have fallen off through the decades. The current plan to is that the park will be completely redone by 2019, which seems almost perfect. Would not it be something to reopen it on the General's birthday?
Courtland Jindra