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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Recommended: A Primer on Trench Warfare

What was it really like in the trenches?  Here's a typical day for the troops.

This is from a BBC production by historian Dan Snow. It is simply the best description and educational presentation I've run into on what trench warfare was all about. Starting with the question "How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?" its debunking style and reality therapy is utterly refreshing and informative. It reminded me of my favorite WWI air war novel, Goshawk Squadron (also recommended). The website uses video, slides, and PDFs to convey the information.

The image below shows the host and historian Dan Snow with an eight-part full program. Under that we have included the story about the photograph he is describing for the viewers, along with a link to the site..

This is Second Lieutenant Percy Boswell. On 1 July 1916 he was gunned down as he crossed No Man’s Land. He was just 22 years old when he was killed. Percy was one of the unlucky ones to charge over the top at the Battle of the Somme.

A young man travels from his home in South London. He fights bravely in foreign fields only to lose his life. Percy's story might convince us that most soldiers in the trenches met a similar fate.

So how was it that 88 per cent of British trench-fighting soldiers actually survived?We shouldn’t forget the sacrifice of those that didn’t. But why did so many avoid Percy’s fate? British soldiers constantly moved around the trench system – meaning more often than not they were kept from the dangers of enemy fire.

Being up here in the firing line was rare. Being up here and being asked to go over the top was even rarer. In many ways Percy was one of the unlucky few. The more typical experience for the British Tommy would have been a life of boredom and regular routine.

Enjoy the entire program at:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Roland Garros — The Man Who Put Wings on War

By Stephen Miller

Prewar Photo of Garros

Just about 100 years ago, on 1 April 1915, French aviator Roland Garros shot down his first German airplane. The importance of the event is the manner in which he did it — firing a machine gun through the propeller arc. Garros used a wedge-shaped device mounted on each of the two propeller blades. The sides of the wedge included a grooved channel to catch the bullet tip and deflect it along the groove to miss the blade.

Full Propeller Assembly 
The device might best be described as crude but effective. Aside from requiring balancing the propeller blades to prevent vibration, the width of the propeller blade had been reduced to accommodate the mechanism, thereby reducing its aerodynamic efficiency.  Accounts of the percentage of bullets deflected by the wedges differ. I have read as many as 1 in 4. Whatever the number, I suspect the off-center hammering of the bullets against the deflector must have caused some strain on the engine crankshaft. [Note: French bullets were copper, so comparatively soft and therefore less damaging to the propeller; when Fokker and his team inspected this mechanism it became clear that their harder, chrome-tipped bullets would not work with Garros's system. So Fokker returned to the "synchronizer" concept and perfected it to great success. ~ KW]

The Garros method was replaced by a synchronizer or interrupter which achieved significant efficiency, interrupting the machine gun's fire when bullets could damage the propeller blades. Some of these mechanisms would not see widespread service until 1916. Garros had achieved fame as a prewar tennis player, a racing pilot, and as the first aviator to fly across the Mediterranean (France to Tunisia, 1913).

Garros downed three German airplanes before either combat damage or a mechanical difficulty caused him to force-land behind German lines on 18 April 1915. After several unsuccessful attempts, he escaped captivity on 14 February 1918. Rejoining the French Air Service, he was shot down and killed on 5 October 1918, one day before his 30th birthday.
Detail of a Deflector

Garros is  buried in Vouziers, France. A sign in the town square bearing his name directs you to the cemetery, and a similar sign is on the main gate.  Garros's name lives on in the French Open Tennis Tournament.

Burial Site Northeast of Reims

Marker at Vouziers Cemetery

His efforts to escape prisoner-of-war status are commemorated on his tombstone.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War
Reviewed by David Beer

The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War
By Rex Passion, with drawings by Edward Shenton
Komatik Press, 2014

It's no accident that The Lost Sketchbooks is the shape and size of half a standard sketchbook. By choosing this shape, the author and publisher adopted the size of the book's subject — sketches drawn by a young combat engineer who found standard drawing books too large to carry. Thus he cut them in half to more easily fit into his kit. Periodically he would send the filled books back to his father in Philadelphia.

Even with this limited size, author Rex Passion is able to give us in 150 pages a fascinating account of the WWI experiences and artwork of Harry Edward Shenton, Jr. Shenton, a native of Pennsylvania, served in the 103rd Engineers, 28th Division, AEF. He was already accomplished at drawing when he went to war, and after the war he had a notable career spanning some 50 years as an editor, novelist, poet, and illustrator. His many later accomplishments included the cover art for Scribner's magazine and illustrating the covers of novels by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and other noted American authors. Among his best known drawings were those he provided for Marjorie Rawlings's The Yearling. He died in 1977, having among other successes produced two 20-by-12-foot murals for the Chapel of the War Memorial Cemetery at Saint-James in Brittany, France, portraying the WWII invasion of Normandy.

Order Now
The Lost Sketchbooks is an apt title for this volume because the 150 sketches it contains are from a collection of some 500 produced by Shenton during two years of war service, then put aside when he returned home in 1919. They were lost to the light of day until 2009 when Rex Passion found them in the possession of Shenton's son Ned. Passion was also fortunate to find an out-of-print copy of a history of the engineering company Shenton served in, and was thus able to coordinate much of the artwork with actual events and places that inspired it.

Every page of this absorbing little book contains one or two of Shenton's sketches. The first chapter covers his early years, long before he enlisted, and shows that at an early age he was already accomplished at sketching. Drawings at this time include depictions of knights, frontier soldiers, automobiles, and illustrations for a school magazine to which he also contributed stories. Sometimes he added poetry to his sketches. In the spring of 1917 he produced a booklet of short poems entitled "The Mug-Wamp and Similar Spasms". By then he had enlisted in the National Guard, knowing that America would soon be at war. I can't resist including one of his delightful handwritten poems from this time. Besides echoing Lewis Carroll, it hints at the potential he had for his later successes not only in illustration but also in poetry and fiction:

A MUG-WAMP MOME:  Recording Emotions of Departure.  A True Study.
Hang all the flags at quarter-mast
The Mug-Wamp’s going away to war
Oh drop a tear within the soup
And fan the cabbages once more
Stand up and drink a silent toast
Of India-Ink and shaving-soap
And wipe your chin upon your plate
And watch the macaroons elope
Come! Turn the butter upside down
And heave the chicken out the door
Then clamber in the gravy bowl
The Mug-Wamp’s going away to war.

The Lost Sketchbooks proceeds chronologically with sections titled "Learning to be a Soldier", with sub-sections on Camp Meade and Camp Hancock; "Going to War", which is divided into seven sections based on where Shenton was and what campaigns he was involved in; and a final section titled "Fini le Guerre". Every page contains sketches (often done on the fly) of almost every conceivable experience a soldier could have in his situation. One striking message we get from his work is that being an engineer in the 103rd Engineers in WWI was a lot different than that of today's engineer. As we see from the sketches, life was often lived in pup tents, and "engineering" consisted of building roads, digging wells and trenches, and constructing bombproof dugouts— all using a pick and shovel.

Artillery Control (detail)
Shenton's war took him to Saint Agnan, Fismes, the Meuse-Argonne, and on to Metz. Each experience is faithfully recorded in the sketches he made. We find portraits of friends, views of trenches and ruins, corpses and burying details, gas and barbed wire, ambulances and tanks, company kitchens, bridge-building, and road repairs. The final drawing, "Soldiers in the Mud", is evocative of what the Doughboys went through and how they felt, and reminds one of "Gassed" by John Singer Sargent. Rex Passion's narrative throughout the book greatly adds to our understanding of Shenton, his sketches, and his experiences, as do Passion's helpful notes on each sketch at the end of the book.

Tragically, Ed Shenton's brother Don, who had also enlisted in an engineering company back in 1917, was killed with four others nine days after the Armistice while clearing mines. In spite of this loss, a later photo of Edward Shenton at the back of the book shows the face of a pleasant and accomplished man, a man who always claimed to be an illustrator rather than an artist. He survived the war and was widely recognized for his work in his lifetime. The Lost Sketchbooks will give you an absorbing insight into his life and WWI drawings —work that had remained unknown to anyone for some 90 or more years.

David Beer

Monday, April 27, 2015

Paderewski: Internationally Renowned Pianist and Polish Patriot

Jan Paderewski at the Piano

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941) was a world-renowned pianist who used his fame to campaign in the service of Polish nationalism. By 1917 he was established in Washington as the representative of the Paris-based Polish National Committee. He played an important role in securing President Wilson's support for the cause.  Wilson made Polish independence the 13th of the Fourteen Points.

Piłsudski and Paderewski
After the war the provisional head of state, Józef Piłsudski, asked Paderewski to form in Warsaw a government of experts free from party tendencies. This was formed on 17 January 1919. Paderewski reserved the portfolio of foreign affairs for himself, but his premiership was not a success. As a virtuoso, Paderewski was accustomed to flattery, and he resented sharp criticism. On 27 November 1919 he resigned the premiership and returned to Riond Bosson; his ambitions to become the president of the revived Poland had been shattered. He never revisited the country. In 1921 he resumed his musical career, giving concerts in Europe and the United States, mainly for war victims.

At the beginning of World War II, in October 1939, a Polish government-in-exile, formed in Paris with General Władysław Sikorski as prime minister, offered Paderewski the chairmanship of the Polish National Council. After the French capitulation in 1940, he went to the United States. He died soon after and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. His body was temporarily placed in the Maine Mast Memorial on 5 July 1941, with the stipulation of the Polish National Council that they would be returned only to a free Poland. President John F. Kennedy dedicated a plaque on the interior of the memorial in May 1963, honoring Paderewski's memory. Paderewski's remains were taken back to Poland in July 1992, 51 years after his death and two years after the collapse of the Polish communist dictatorship.  

Interment at Arlington, 1941

Sources:  Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia

Sunday, April 26, 2015

100 Years Ago: The Treaty of London Brings Italy to the Allies

A hundred years ago today Italian representatives signed up to join the Allied side by executing the document known as the Treaty of London. In my experience, most people find the most significant thing about the Italian Front of the Great War was that it inspired Ernest Hemingway to write a novel. As it turned out, it shifted the balance of power in the long run by constantly draining the resources of the junior member of the Central Powers alliance, Austria-Hungary, for the next  three-and-a-half years. The three men who pushed Italy into the war — Prime Minister Antonio Salandra, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino, and King Victor Emmanuel III — probably never contemplated their efforts at territorial land-grabbing, would yield such a stupendous butcher's bill. Unlike most of the major participants in the war, Italy's reasons for joining hostilities were unambiguous, they wanted more territory. Specifically, they wanted the Trentino (Tyrol), Trieste, and areas on the Dalmatian coast.

Here is a summary of the casualties on the Italian Front we presented at our La Grande Guerra website.

Visit La Grande Guerra at

Friday, April 24, 2015

100 Years Ago: Landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula

25 April 1915, Early morning: Almighty God, Watchman of the
Milky Way, Shepherd of the Golden Stars, have mercy upon us …
Thy will be done. En avant [forward] — at all costs — en avant.
Expedition Commander General Sir Ian Hamilton

Sunrise Service, North Beach, Anzac Sector with Sphinx in the Background
25 April 2015

In September 2009 with one of my tour groups, I visited all seven invasion beaches of 25 April 1915 (Anzac Day), all from the land, and also viewed all of them, except Kumkale, the French landing site on the Asian side, from the water. Fortuitously, I had taken another group to Normandy the preceding June for the 65th Anniversary of D-Day. I still had the scale, lessons, and mistakes of that 1944 operation in mind when we toured Gallipoli.

On invasion day the French site was a diversion, and those troops would be moved to the European side two days later, so I won't deal with them here. The five beaches at Cape Helles: S, V, W, X, and Y will be discussed as a group first. (See map) The 29th British Division (reinforced) was given the job of landing forces on all five beaches, moving inland, consolidating all its units, and moving six miles farther inland to capture the village of Krithia and the nearby heights of Achi Baba — in the first day. As it turned out, the Allies would never reach those objectives in the whole campaign.

V Beach from the Defenders' Position

S Beach: Ideal Access, Few Defenders, Not Exploited

What went wrong? Historian Tim Travers says succinctly: "The reason the Allied campaign did not succeed at Gallipoli, [was] that most senior officers lacked experience of modern industrial war and thought that the attack was simpler than it actually was in 1915." A visit to the actual invasion beaches inclines one to nominate Professor Travers for some international trophy for understatement. Consider the accompanying photos. On V Beach, where the principal landing craft was the River Clyde, defenders could command the beach with machine gun fire. On Y Beach and X Beach (not shown), the formidable terrain made just exiting the beach a challenge. W Beach, destined to be the most important of the beaches at Helles, had both factors to deal with, difficult terrain and advantageous positions for defenders.  Only S Beach offered the best of both worlds — it was easy to exit and was overlooked by the Turkish defenders. Unfortunately, the forces that landed there on 25 April just sat there, unsure of what to do next.

Y Beach: Difficult to Exit, No?

W Beach (Lancashire Landing): Difficult to Exit and Well Defended
Captured by Incredible Heroism and Sacrifice on 25 April 1915

Another problem at Helles was that the beaches were so distantly separated and the intervening land forms so irregular around the Cape with cliffs, gullies, and plateaus that there was little way they could mutually support each other or even communicate. When one actually walks the ground it appears that even had there been zero opposition at all of the landing sites, the units of the 29th Division would have had trouble finding each other, let alone consolidating and organizing an overland advance. Of course, there was opposition and these Turkish troops — for the first time in the war — were fighting for their homeland. The landing at Helles is a case study of compound military failure: failure to concentrate forces, failure to take a close look at the field of battle, failure to anticipate a determined enemy's actions. The Helles fiasco, however, pales before the mistreatment of the Anzac Corps by the generals and the planning staff  15 miles to the north of Cape Helles.

On 6 June 1944 the U.S. 1st and 29th Divisions were confronted by the formidable bluffs above Omaha Beach, and it took every ounce of heroism the soldiers could muster to get off the beach that day. On 25 April 1915 an equally brave but much smaller collection of Aussies and New Zealanders were confronted by the even more imposing geography shown below. From the first day's landing, there was never a chance for the Anzacs to receive support from other beaches at Helles. They would be isolated in this awful landscape until August, facing the most competent of the Turkish commanders, Lt. Col. Mustafa Kemal, a man who knew the value of keeping the high ground, which he won on the first day and kept for the entire campaign.

North Beach at Anzac
(Actually It Gets a Lot Higher Farther Inland)

The tactical disadvantages, however awful they were, are secondary in importance to the strategic misuse of the Anzacs. What exactly were they to accomplish on 25 April, and subsequently? As I understand the original thinking, they were given a series of unachievable aims:

1. Capture the high ground. (Not if the Turks were awake and got there first. See the deployment of Turkish divisions in the map above.)

2. Advance down the back slopes of the Saribair Ridge (triangle on map) across rolling ground to a heavily wooded plateau, the Kilid Bahr, which is reminiscent of the Ardennes or Argonne Forests in France, i.e. supremely good ground for the defense.

3. Join up there with the advancing forces from Helles to descend on the Turkish forts along the straits. (Yes, I know the Helles forces never got past Krithia, so they could never had joined up even if #1 and #2 were feasible, which they were not.)

The more we drove around Anzac the more my upset grew over the lads who died there in this ill-conceived venture. Once I heard of a professional football quarterback described as "just good enough to lose". The planners of the landings at Anzac were just competent enough to create certain defeat.

Note:  I wrote most of the above article in December 2009 and made a second visit with a group the next year. I must say that my position about the ill-considered nature of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign hardened afterward. It was never a magic solution for breaking the deadlock. It was a venture doomed from its inception.

Nevertheless, today is the 100th anniversary of the landings, and I think this entry should conclude with a remembrance of those who fought, sacrificed, and fell at Gallipoli.  MH

Anzac Bridge, Sydney

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon

24 April: Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

The 24th of April, which marks the day in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals and leaders were rounded up and imprisoned in Constantinople (Istanbul), is commemorated by Armenians around the world as Genocide Remembrance Day. Today is the 100th Anniversary of that event.

Memorial to the Genocide, Place de la Concorde, Paris

The Armenian people living in the Ottoman provinces of eastern Anatolia, like other non-Turkish and non-Muslim subjects of the Empire, had long suffered from systematic discrimination and, at times, harsh persecution. For them the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War was to have particularly devastating consequences. Indeed, it is widely claimed that the Armenians were victims of a deliberate genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman authorities – an accusation that continues to be strongly denied by Turkey.

When war broke out the sympathies of many Armenians, particularly Orthodox Christians, lay with the neighboring Orthodox Christian-majority Russian Empire, not the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire by which they were ruled. While many Armenian men served in the Ottoman Army, some crossed the border to join the Russian Army, and others formed guerrilla bands to fight Ottoman forces behind the front lines. The Ottoman authorities responded by imposing ever more repressive measures to try to stamp out this activity, setting in motion a pattern of attacks and reprisals that led to full-blown conflict in the Armenian city of Van and other eastern Anatolian towns in early 1915. Vicious fighting followed and each side accused the other of atrocities against civilians and combatants alike. 

Armenian Refugees Undergoing Deportation

After crushing this resistance, the Ottoman leadership accelerated plans to deport the entire Armenian population of eastern Anatolia to what they considered less strategically vulnerable areas of the empire. The deportations took more than a year to complete. The numbers involved are still a matter of bitter controversy, but some estimate that up to one million Armenian civilians were forcibly deported, of whom between 200,000 and 800,000 died. Armenian survivors’ accounts are full of reports of large-scale massacres, deliberate starvation, beatings, rape, torture, and, in the case of children and young women, abduction and forced conversion to Islam. Some atrocities were independently confirmed by American, Swiss, and other neutral Western observers. A small number of German military personnel attached to the Ottoman Army, outraged at what they had seen or heard, also spoke out.

To the Armenians, and to many foreign observers, the deportation order amounted to much more than a series of atrocities, no matter how individually shocking each was. To them the order was seen as instigating a deliberate policy of genocide. The leaders who ordered the deportations and the local Ottoman police, Jendarma paramilitaries, and Kurdish auxiliaries who carried the orders out therefore stand accused of crimes against humanity. This assessment of the deportations remains the official position of the modern-day Republic of Armenia, the Armenian diaspora all over the world, and at least a dozen other countries, including Canada, Russia and France. As of now, the United States has not officially recognized these events as genocide.

Source: The New Zealand History Site (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: War Poet Sub-Lt. Rupert Brooke, Royal Naval Division, Died 100 Years Ago Today

By David F. Beer
Rupert Brooke
3 August 1887— 23 April 1915

Rupert Brooke as a New Officer

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.           Sonnet 5, 1914

Rupert Brooke should have died a different death.

He was admired and loved by so many, idolized and adored for his poetry and good looks, and often placed on a pedestal worthy of a Greek god. The Irish poet W B. Yeats called him “the most handsome man in Britain". His poems published under the title 1914 and Other Poems included a photo of him with bare shoulders and flowing hair, designed to make many a woman (and man) sigh. His six ‘1914’ sonnets, written a few months before he died, included his best-known one, “The Soldier". This poem was read from the pulpit by Dean Inge in St. Paul’s on Easter Sunday 1915, with the comment that “such enthusiasm of a pure and elevated patriotism had never found a nobler expression". When both poem and comment were repeated in The Times, Rupert Brooke’s image as Britain’s ideal handsome young warrior was sealed.  A week or so later he was dead.

To conform to his image Brooke should have died heroically, perhaps leading his men in overtaking an impossible enemy gun emplacement or as the last man standing as their trench gave way to overwhelming odds. Instead, Rupert Brooke died on his way to Gallipoli aboard a French hospital ship anchored off the island of Skyros. He had been taken there from the transport ship Grantully Castle due to the severe swelling of an infected mosquito bite on his lip, and the official cause of death was septicemia, or blood poisoning.  His friends buried him in an olive grove on Skyros.

This tragic but scarcely heroic death nevertheless not only brought grief and mourning to his many admirers, but also gave birth to a mythos which quickly grew up around Rupert Brooke. His early wartime poems were found to express exactly what the public wanted to hear as the war began: idealism, patriotic fervor, and romantic sacrifice. As the first of the war poets, Brooke was seen in the words of Bernard Bergonzi, author of Heroes’ Twilight, as “a quintessential young Englishman; one of the fairest of the nation’s sons; a ritual sacrifice offered as evidence of the justice of the cause for which England fought”.  (p. 41)

Brooke was born in 1887 into a privileged family and was adored by his mother. He attended Rugby where he became a head prefect and captain of the rugby team. At Cambridge University he studied Classics and moved in intellectual circles. In spite of some active homosexual leanings he became temporarily engaged to one woman and later had a turbulent love affair with another. He was increasingly infatuated with socialism and paganism, showed signs of some emotional instability, and on occasion came close to a nervous breakdown. He became increasingly narcissistic, even petulant, but his looks often saved him. One friend declared of Brooke that “This is exactly what Adonis must have looked like in the eyes of Aphrodite". He traveled to America and the South Seas and spent a year in Germany trying to learn German, but when war broke out in August 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve and saw some brief action at Antwerp in October 1914. With the start of the Gallipoli offensive he transferred to the Hood Battalion and was shipped out. He died on St George’s Day, 23 April 23 1915.

His first book of poems, simply entitled Poems, had been published in London in 1911. Although showing some promise, Brooke remained noted more for his good looks than for his poetry. While in Germany however, in 1912, he wrote "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", which later became one of his best-known works. It’s a long poem of a homesick exile which concludes with this couplet:

“Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”

Apart from ‘Grantchester,’ much of Brooke’s poetry was considered somewhat lacking in skill and maturity. He himself admitted that the five sonnets that finally gave him his fame were “in the rough…five camp-children". Yet they were the opening poems in 1914 and Other Poems, published by his friend Edward Marsh and rushed into print a month after his death, eventually selling some 250,000 copies. The five sonnets, which soon became famous, are as follows:  1. "Peace" (Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour); 2. "Safety" (Dear! Of all happy in the hour, most blest); 3. "The Dead" (Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead); 4. "The Dead" (These hearts were woven of human joys and cares); and 5. "The Soldier"—quoted in full above. All five are well worth reading, both for the sentiment expressed and for an understanding of why Brooke was so popular and adored in the opening months of the war. Had he lived longer and experienced some of the horrors other war poets did, it’s likely that he would have come to see the war as they did. A Rupert Brooke in 1918 might also have regretted the welcoming words he had written on the outbreak of war in 1914:

Now God be thanked Who has matched us with his Hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping…                          ("Peace" ll. 1-4)

Brooke's Lonely Grave on Skyros

The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke was published in 1915, with the sonnets finally in their rightful chronological position following his early poems. The book was issued again in 1920, 1924, 1932, and as recently as 2008, with The Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke appearing in 1932. Several excellent biographies have been written, including Paul Delaney’s Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert  Brooke, published in March of this year. As with Diana, Princess of Wales, the legend still lives, and an active Rupert Brooke Society exists in the UK ( The society organizes tours to Brooke’s grave on Skyros and to the old vicarage at Grantchester. Today they will be visiting Skyros.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

100 Years Ago: Gas Attack at Ypres

The salient had been under fairly heavy shelling since 19 April, the German fire being directed mainly on roads and bridges north and east of Ypres. There was a lull during the afternoons, but soon after four o'clock the French front line on the north of the salient came under a violent bombardment, which gradually shifted to the Canadian sector. At five o'clock the Germans opened the valves of the gas cylinders for from six to eight minutes, releasing more than 160 tons of chlorine into a light northeast wind.
Canadian Official History

June 1915 Artist Conception of the Attack

Here is a  short description of  what followed in Ypres in 1915 by British reporter Philip Gibbs from his 1920 book Now It Can Be Told, which is a sort of memoir of his war years.

The city of Ypres was the capital of our battlefields in Flanders from the beginning to the end of the war, and the ground on which it stands, whether a new city rises there or its remnants of ruin stay as a memorial of dreadful things, will be forever haunted by the spirit of those men of ours who passed through its gates to fight in the fields beyond or to fall within its ramparts.

I went through Ypres so many times in early days and late days of the war that I think I could find my way about it blindfold, even now. I saw it first in March of 1915, before the battle when the Germans first used poison-gas and bombarded its choking people, and French and British soldiers, until the city fell into a chaos of masonry. On that first visit I found it scarred by shell--fire, and its great Cloth Hall was roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but most of the buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with customers in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths served by the women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish lace and fancy cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about without a thought of what might happen here in this city, so close to the enemy's lines, so close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop, crowded with young officers, who were served by two Flemish girls, buxom, smiling, glad of all the English money they were making.

Map Showing the Location of the Initial Gas Release

A few weeks later the devil came to Ypres. The first sign of his work was when a mass of French soldiers and colored troops, and English, Irish, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers came staggering through the Lille and Menin gates with panic in their look, and some foul spell upon them. They were gasping for breath, vomiting, falling into unconsciousness, and, as they lay, their lungs were struggling desperately against some stifling thing. A whitish cloud crept up to the gates of Ypres, with a sweet smell of violets, and women and girls smelled it and then gasped and lurched as they ran and fell. It was after that when shells came in hurricane flights over Ypres, smashing the houses and setting them on fire, until they toppled and fell inside themselves. Hundreds of civilians hid in their cellars, and many were buried there. Others crawled into a big drain-pipe--there were wounded women and children among them, and a young French interpreter, the Baron de Rosen, who tried to help them--and they stayed there three days and nights, in their vomit and excrement and blood, until the bombardment ceased. Ypres was a city of ruin, with a red fire in its heart where the Cloth Hall and cathedral smoldered below their broken arches and high ribs of masonry that had been their buttresses and towers.

When I went there two months later I saw Ypres as it stood through the years of the war that followed, changing only in the disintegration of its ruin as broken walls became more broken and fallen houses were raked into smaller fragments by new bombardments, for there was never a day for years in which Ypres was not shelled.

Sources:  Tony Langley Collection

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
By T. G. Otte
Cambridge University Press, 2014

Cartoon of the Period

This volume is one of the latest of several excellent new books attempting to explain why the Great War broke out in 1914. Thomas Otte is a professor of diplomatic history at the University of East Anglia. He feels that over the years, historians have tended to ascribe the war to large, immutable causes such as competing alliance systems, arms races, and national rivalries. He says that by concentrating on these causes, historians have gotten away from the real story, which is to be found in the primary sources of diplomatic exchanges, meeting notes, and diaries.

Otte contends that the July Crisis ended in war not because war was inevitable or that statesmen conspired to bring it about, but rather because of blunders and miscalculations. Governance was poor, and decision making, in the hands of old, exhausted elites, was often casual, distracted, and flawed. Statesmen failed to consider the consequences of their actions, they failed to question their assumptions, and they failed to hold open discussions among themselves where alternative policies could be developed. In many cases, information was incorrect or sometimes withheld from key decision makers.

Otte apportions the blame as follows:

A. Austria by 1914 had become the most reckless of the major powers and had developed tunnel vision. It viewed the Balkans as the only remaining venue for it to act as a great power. The murder of the royal couple in Sarajevo gave Austria the excuse it needed to crush its rival Serbia once and for all. That this action would have wider consequences for world peace was of no concern to the Austrians. That was her ally Germany's problem. Once assured of Germany's support, Austria blindly prepared for war.

B. Germany's leaders made a fatal error based on two miscalculations. The fatal error was giving Austria the infamous "blanque cheque" on 5 July and approving Austria's plan to wage war against Serbia. Germany's pledge of support removed any restraint from Austria, and Germany conceded control of its foreign policy to the hapless Hapsburgs. The first key miscalculation by Germany was that Austria would strike quickly against Serbia while public opinion was still outraged at the royal murder. Instead, Austria would proceed with the speed of an "arthritic snail". The second miscalculation was that Russia would stand aside as it had in past Balkan crises. Otte describes the German government as "a giant with a brain of clay".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov
C. Russia was in the hands of a weak tsar and a weak foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov. Sazonov did not accept Austrian claims of Serbian complicity in the murder and was convinced that Russia had to stand fast against what it saw as Austrian aggression against Serbia. He attempted to deter the Austrians, using the threat of partial military mobilization against them. He hoped Germany would not feel threatened by this limited action. Only after Russia had begun to take preliminary military steps did the Russian military leadership disclose that partial mobilization was not practical and would fatally compromise general mobilization should that become necessary later. Compounding this error, Sazonov jumped the gun by agreeing to general mobilization upon the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia. According to Otte, this move by Russia was an unnecessary escalation of the crisis. Austria was still a couple of weeks away from being able to attack Serbia. The Russian government's lack of patience undercut diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution and started the clock ticking in Germany. The success of Germany's war plans depended on defeating France before Russia could fully mobilize. To allow Russia a head start in mobilization would threaten Germany's key strategy to avoid a two-front war.

D. Germany has been criticized over the years for giving Austria a "blanque cheque", but France did the same thing for Russia. Instead of cautioning restraint, French leaders encouraged Russia to take a strong stand against Austria by assurances of French support against Germany. French actions are a mirror image of Germany's, yet France has received little criticism over the years. This is one more proof that it is indeed the victors who write the history. At the height of the crisis, the French president and foreign minister were out of touch, traveling on a French warship while leaving French diplomacy in the hands of their ambassador to Russia. Otte contends that the ambassador overstepped by encouraging strong Russian action while at the same time withholding information about Russian military measures from his own government.

E. Serbian officials, as we now know, were the source of arms and training for the assassins that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When called to account by the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia gave a reply that in Otte's opinion was "a clever concoction of acceptance and equivocation, evasion and rejections, and all dressed up in accommodating language".

British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey

If there is a hero in July Crisis, it is Sir Edward Grey. Otte believes that Grey, at first distracted by the crisis over Home Rule in Ireland, did not start paying close attention to the looming crisis until Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. Once engaged, Otte portrays Grey as working tirelessly to find some diplomatic solution that would satisfy Austrian honor while at the same time averting a general war. Grey is often criticized for not giving Germany firm notice that Britain would support France in any conflict against Germany. Otte disagrees with this and contends that Grey had to appear non-committal in order to maintain influence in both camps while attempting to find some diplomatic common ground as a basis to support his mediation efforts.

July Crisis is a well written, witty, and convincing account of the events of July 1914. It is meticulously researched and thoroughly documented with extensive footnotes at the end of each chapter, making them a valuable part of the book. This is a very timely book in the sense that it points out the need for clearheaded statesmanship in a world filled with daily crises involving major powers. Flexibility, patience, and willingness to compromise and question were qualities sadly lacking among statesmen during that fateful July in 1914. We should heed the lessons of this history.

I must add a word of caution to those who want to successfully navigate this book. The crisis in the summer of 1914 involved intense diplomatic activity between seven European countries. Each nation had its head of state, prime minister, foreign minister, various assistants, generals, cabinet ministers, and a network of ambassadors at each other's capitals. The cast of characters is immense. At the very beginning of the book, Otte lists some 160 of the principal dramatis personae who play a part in the story. It would be a good idea to bookmark this list in order to be able to refer back to it when confronted with some of the more obscure players. I found this difficult using a Kindle and often found myself confused as to who a particular actor was and what country he was from.

Clark Shilling

Monday, April 20, 2015

100 Years Ago: Four French Soldiers Executed As Examples at Flirey

Contributed by Terrence Finnegan

On 18 March Général Joffre informed Général Dubail that he wanted IVe armée to undertake the operation to reduce the St. Mihiel salient as soon as possible, employing all means at his disposal in this attack. Unfortunately for the French, the April weather turned to rain. At first sight it seemed to Général Joffre that the weather supported the French thanks to the lack of effective German aerial reconnaissance. The Woëvre became a quagmire and the trenches within flooded. The artillery found it difficult to take up position, observation of fire was almost impossible, and the shells buried themselves in the spongy ground. A feeling of uneasiness spread to both troops and staffs.

Général Auguste Dubail, Commander IVe armée 

In an attempt to salvage the failing offensive, Général Dubail ordered his armée to change its tactics of intense assault to “methodical progression”. The new directive did not include the previous advantage of surprise. The result of the campaign was disastrous.  From 26 March to 30 April 1915, the French lost 65,200 officers and men. In comparison, German losses suffered in the same period throughout the entire Western Front were slightly over 80,000.

The abortive effort by a single company of poilus (infantrymen), the 5e compagnie du 63e régiment d’infanterie, on 19 April 1915, was the last act of a failed offensive.  At at 0600 only 40 of the 250 men in the 5e compagnie left the trench and advanced toward the German lines.  After a few metres they were devastated by German heavy artillery.

French commanders in the southern Woëvre front immediately took extreme measures. Lieutenant Colonel Paulmier, battalion commander, was ordered to make an example and have the entire 5e compagnie executed. After complaints and quibbling amongst the generals, it was decided that five soldiers were to be shot on the spot for refusing orders to advance. Adding to the misery, Général Joffre, just passing through the area, learned of what had transpired and refused to grant clemency to any of the convicted. In the same breath Joffre threatened the 63e régiment d’infanterie with dishonour and loss of their battle flag.

Lieutenant Mesnieux, 5e compagnie officer in charge, was tasked to come up with the list of five to be executed. Mesnieux’s counterpart in charge of the 4e Section, Sous-lieutenant Boulant, refused to accuse any of his men. Mesnieux then came up with a cowardly methodology. Two men were chosen by lot, the other three were nominated by their superiors, arrested, and charged with the capital offence of cowardice under fire. Lieutenant Mesnieux turned to a nearby soldier and asked for a random number. The soldier responded “17.” 

Unlucky Number 17,  Soldat François Fontanaud

Soldat François Fontanaud, the 17th soldier on Mesnieux’s roster, was immediately arrested and charged. Mesnieux’s enlisted senior sergent Chaufriasse selected the name of caporal Antoine Morange randomly from a personnel roster. Soldat Félix François Louis Baudy was a stonemason working the roads in Lyon prior to enlisting in the armée. He belonged to la Confédération Générale du travail (CGT), a union organization that was believed to be socialist. The association was enough to condemn him. Soldat Henri-Jean Présbot was also a CGT member from Villeurbanne. A fifth soldier, Caporal Coulon, was also chosen by lot. He was spared execution for being labelled simple d’esprit (a simpleton) when in fact he was able to bribe his way out of the mess.  

A conseil de guerre (court martial) was held with Capitaine Minot chosen to defend the accused. Minot was not a lawyer and had only  five minutes to talk with the accused before the conseil commenced. The next day, on 20 April 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Paulmier carried out the execution order on the edge of Bois de Manonville. He did not order comrades in the 5e compagnie to complete the task. New recruits to the unit who had just arrived and did not know the victims manned the firing squad. After the execution, Paulmier told Capitaine Minot that he had done everything he could to prevent this travesty. Bois de Mort-Mare would haunt the French military leadership for the remainder of the war.

From Terrence Finnegan's new work:  A "Delicate Affair" on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches

Click here to see our review of his full work:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How Did That Plan to Punish Serbia Work Out for Austria-Hungary?

The Plans: General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff, was delighted in 1914 at the opportunity to punish the Serbs; it was something he had long advocated. He was far less enthusiastic about fighting Russia. This led to indecision at the start of hostilities. His heart was in his Balkan strategy that involved invading Serbia with the three of his armies while placing the remainder of his forces on guard against the feared Russians. However, when the Russians declared war, Conrad was presented with an immediate threat of invasion through Galicia and Poland. The Russia-centered alternate strategy involved a stronger defense in Galicia and a thrust to cut off enemy forces in Russian Poland.

Serbian Troops Dug In on the Danube

What Happened: Belatedly shifting his forces to the north for these tasks, Conrad weakened his advance into Serbia. Poor railroads ensured that the tardy shift of units northward was a confused mess and boded ill for the ensuing operations against the Russians. Serbia — fighting for its homeland and experienced from the earlier Balkan Wars — repelled three invasions. They used the mountainous terrain cut by numerous rivers to great advantage, winning decisive victories in August and in December pushing their opponents out of their temporarily occupied capital, Belgrade, and then beyond the frontiers. Austria-Hungary would need help from both Germany and Bulgaria to rout the Serbs in October 1915. The empire would never regain its footing as a major power after the fiascoes of the early war.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Potpourri of Great War Quotes

Stop passerby!
The ground you tread on, unawares, once witnessed the end of a generation.
Listen, in this quiet earth beats the heart of a nation.
Turkish Monument, Gallipoli Peninsula 

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. 
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman

I am obliged to report that, at the present moment, the Russian Empire is run by lunatics.
French  Ambassador Paleologue, 14 January 1917

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justness of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. 
Field Marshal Haig, 11 April 1918

Greater forces were needed in 1918 to collect the plunder of Brest-Litovsk than had been needed in 1917 to destroy the Russian armies. . .a million soldiers who might have turned the scale of the war in the west.
AJP Taylor

"Knight Errant",  Oskar Kokoshka (Self-Portrait)

. . .I had a tiny round hole in my head. My horse, lying on top of me, had lashed out one last time before dying, and that had brought me to my senses. I tried to say something, but my mouth was stiff with blood, which was beginning to congeal. The shadows all round me were growing huger and huger, and I wanted to ask how it was that the sun and moon were both shining simultaneously. I wanted to point to the sky, but my arm wouldn't move. 
      Cavalryman and Artist Oskar Kokoshka, wounded on the Eastern Front, August 1915

Like the planet Neptune, the discovery of the dreadnought was inevitable, but luckily we saw her in the heavens before the other chaps and got our unparalleled lead! Thank God!
Admiral Jacky Fisher, 1910

[In 1915,] Joffre promised to complete the miracle [of the Marne] by achieving a percée, a rupture of the German position in France. But when this failed to occur despite two major offensives. . ., he insisted that France was still winning the war, through gignotage, "nibbling" of the enemy forces through attrition.
from France and the Great War, 1914–1918, Smith, Audoin-Rouzeau, and Becker

But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.
In Parenthesis, David Jones

Advice from a WWI Survivor

  • Chew your food. It's more important than anything else. If you don't chew your food well, your digestive system won't be able to get all the nutrients out of it.

  • Exercise the mind and body.

  • Wake up every day. 

Col Frank Steer, U.S. Army on His 102nd Birthday

Friday, April 17, 2015

Albertina Memorials of Flanders

At Essex Farm Cemetery, North of Ypres

A series of diamond-shaped stone markers known as "Albertina Memorials" was erected in Flanders during 1984 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of King Albert I and the 70th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Each of the two dozen markers note a significant event during the course of the war. Their designs are similar with each bearing the monogram of the king and the shield of the province of West Flanders.  The markers are confined to Western Belgium and — unlike our example above — mostly emphasize Belgian accomplishments.

Belgian battlefields along the Yser and north of Ypres are well represented, but there are some surprising selections. Jardin Marie-José School in Wulveringem was a section of the "queen's schools" created by Queen Elisabeth for the children of families living in or near the front, received an Albertina, as did  L’Océan Military Hospital where Flemish painter and soldier Joseph, who designed the Belgian tombstones seen in their military cemeteries, died. 

One of the Display Options

Stumbling across one of the Albertinas is a pleasant surprise for battlefield visitors, but they are notoriously sometimes  hard to spot. The enterprising souls at "French Battlefields"  have adapted Google Maps to provide a helpful virtual guide to the markers. It includes a comprehensive list of the memorials, a map to help locate the markers precisely, and a pop-up that describes the event commemorated.

Access the Virtual tour at: