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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Kiffin Rockwell of the Lafayette Escadrille

Many North Carolinians served as aviators during the First World War. Tar Heel pilot Robert Opie Lindsay of Rockingham County earned the title ace by downing six enemy planes in combat. But the most famous North Carolina aviator during the war was Kiffin Rockwell, an original member of the Lafayette Escadrille, an American volunteer squadron formed in France in 1916, one year before the United States entered World War I. He was also the first American pilot to shoot down a German plane in combat.

Original Members of the Lafayette Escadrille
James McConnell, Kiffen Rockwell, Capt. Thenault, Norman Prince, Victor Chapman

Rockwell was born on 20 September 1892 in Newport, Tennessee. When he was 14, his family moved across the Appalachian Mountains to Asheville, North Carolina. Rockwell and his brother Paul spent a lot of time as children on their grandfather’s cotton farm. Enoch Shaw Ayres, a Confederate veteran, probably influenced his grandson’s decision to enter the military. Rockwell enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute in 1908 and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy and Washington and Lee University. He was working for an advertising agency in Atlanta when war broke out in Europe in 1914.

President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would remain neutral in World War I. But Rockwell wanted to fight for France, and on 3 August he wrote to the French Consulate in New Orleans to volunteer for the army. Without waiting for a reply, Rockwell sailed with his brother to France on 7August. The Rockwell brothers joined the French Foreign Legion, and in May 1915 both were injured in combat. Paul, a newspaperman by trade, became a correspondent for the remainder of the war. Kiffin joined the newly formed Escadrille Americaine [renamed the Lafayette Escadrille in December 1916 after German protests about neutrality violation]. Although he had no previous flying experience, Rockwell soon became adept at aerial combat. On 18 May 1916, only 28 days after formation of the escadrille, he shot down an enemy plane. He quickly earned a reputation as a fearless fighter for his habit of getting within feet of his enemy in the air before firing his machine gun. Rockwell’s fellow aviators admired his enthusiasm and recognized him as a leader in spirit if not in rank.

On 23 September 1916, Rockwell spotted an observation plane while he was flying cover for a bombing raid against Germany. He dived at great speed, closing the 11,000 feet separating the two planes, and fired his gun just before a collision seemed certain. Soldiers on the ground thought that the German Albatros plane had been struck, but it was Rockwell’s Nieuport that crashed into a field of flowers behind French lines. When news of Rockwell’s death reached the squadron, the men mourned deeply. 

Friend and fellow squadron member James McConnell of Carthage in Moore County later wrote, “No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille. Kiffin was its soul.” Rockwell’s grave in France stands as a memorial to the brave Americans who fought not only for an ally but also for “the
cause of humanity” in World War I.

Sources: North Carolina Museum of History; Photos from Steve Miller and Tony Langley

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Niall Ferguson, World War I Pot Stirrer

Professor Niall Ferguson

Professor Niall Ferguson, considered by many a "Revisionist" in his writings about the Great War stirred up a hornet's next last year in an interview published in the BBC's online history magazine.  The quote that caught everyone's attention was – in apparently referring to Britain’s entry into the war — it “the biggest error in modern history.” Since I had had a long discussion with Mr. Ferguson on this very point over coffee one day at Stanford University — and expressed my disagreement over this very point — I made the big mistake of not reading the article. I recently corrected my error and read the article. I recommend our readers also do so. The full piece can be found HERE.

I'd forgotten that he is both brilliant and provocative. I discovered he included some fascinating insights in his responses to the questions put before him.  Here are a few that have given me pause. It will take a long time for me to think through them, but I found them undeniably thought-provoking.

Germany's Miscalculations

The Germans made a series of miscalculations about what was in their own strategic interest, and one of those miscalculations was to believe that the summer of 1914 was the best available moment for a showdown with Russia. This was a mistake because it almost certainly exaggerated Russia’s future strength. After all, Russia had been in a revolution nine years before [the 1905 revolution which did not bring down the regime but greatly unsettled it] and it was hardly as powerful as the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg seems to have thought. 

The Austrians Were the Wronged Party

The heir to their throne had been assassinated and the terrorists had been sponsored by the intelligence service of Serbia. . . the Austrians were the ones in the right and those who lined up on the side of Serbia were essentially backing the sponsors of terrorism.

Politics and the Decision for War

The Liberal government on 2 August 1914 realized that if it did not go to war then it would fall from power, because Grey and Churchill would resign and Asquith would have felt obliged to go to the king and admit the government could not be continued.

British Troops on the Western Front

Did Britain Have a Moral Duty to Protect Belgium?

It had a legal obligation under the 1839 treaty to uphold Belgian neutrality, so would have had to renege on that commitment. But guess what? Realism in foreign policy has a long and distinguished tradition, not least in Britain — otherwise the French would never complain about ‘perfidious Albion’.

About the Costs

When you ask yourself what it was for, answers like the creation of a pan-Slav state in the Balkans or the upholding of Belgian neutrality seem ludicrously small compared with the cost in terms of human life and treasure.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Question: How Effective Was the American Air Service in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive?

Background:  A few years ago in my readings about the U.S. war effort, I noticed an interesting pattern regarding the descriptions about the air operations of the AEF. There was over-the-top emphasis on the St. Mihiel Offensive – a hugely successful effort, but over in less than a week – and little said about the subsequent Meuse-Argonne Offensive – that lasted 47 days. Mostly the authors emphasized the heroics of Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker. I decided to ask an expert about this.

Air and Ground Crew of a Salmson 2A2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, 12th Aero Squadron 

Billy Mitchell put together 1,485 aircraft — pursuit, bombardment, observation — for St. Mihiel. There Americans (there were many British and French aero squadrons as well as a few Italian ones) had air supremacy. During the Meuse-Argonne, however, Mitchell was not able to put that many aircraft into the skies. One must recall that the Meuse-Argonne was fought in dismal weather conditions which kept much of the Air Service on the ground. Mitchell did have a good air operations op-plan, and the Air Service moved from St. Mihiel to fields for the Meuse-Argonne with surprising quickness, but many planes were in bad need of maintenance, and many air pilot and air observers were in dire need of some rest. St. Mihiel rates an A+, Meuse-Argonne a C.

Response from Air Service Historian and Mitchell Biographer, Professor James Cooke

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mystery Solved: Celtic Wood, 9 October 1917

From a 2005 Australian Defence Department Document:

On this day LT Scott of 10 Bn led 84 men on a raid into enemy lines near Broodseinde. The main party was seen to enter Celtic Wood and were never seen again. Extensive investigations since that time have failed to fully account for the fate of LT Scott's party. A total of 37 soldiers are still not accounted for. This is the greatest mystery for the AIF in WW 1.

Dead and Exhausted Australian and German Soldiers After the Action of 9 October
(Australians from Another Battalion)
Subsequent work to solve this mystery is summarized in this 2011 news article I only recently discovered. MH

EVOCATIVE name, Celtic Wood. It conjures thoughts of ancient mysticism and pagan ritual. To many South Australian families last century, Celtic Wood was a place of haunting tragedy.

This speck on a Belgium map was where their husbands, sons, and brothers — including hardened veterans of Gallipoli — disappeared in 1917 as the Battle of Passchendaele reached its crescendo. Here the men of SA's Fighting 10th Battalion, AIF, charged into a little stand of trees in Flanders. Most were never seen again.

Of the 85 men to raid Celtic Wood, just 14 made it back to their lines. The rest vanished without a trace, as did any mention of the raid in the German official records, giving succour to talk of a covert German massacre.

One battlefield tour operator has described it thus: "The Germans had been raided at the same spot two nights before and probably took revenge on the 10th Battalion men by killing them and burying them in an unmarked grave."

There was even talk of a supernatural event swallowing up the Diggers in this mystically named place. How else could so many Diggers disappear? After all, this was the Terrible 10th, so named for its proud fighting reputation forged since landing at the spearpoint of the Gallipoli assault.

The battalion's glory grew in the epic defence of Anzac Cove, and again in the trenches of France and Belgium, where two of its number had earned Victoria Crosses. How could men of this fine unit, the fledgling state's first battalion to sail to the Empire's war, disappear into thin air?

Celtic Wood has lingered as the greatest mystery of Australia's Great War. It is the nation's wartime equivalent of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Only this time, men rather than schoolgirls disappeared into the ether.
Great story. But the trouble is, like Hanging Rock, it's not true. Yes, men did disappear on that crisp dawn 93 years ago in Flanders's sodden fields. But they were not massacred by the Germans or taken by some malevolent mist. Rather, the fog of war was to blame.

ADELAIDE authors Robert Kearney and Chris Henschke — both veterans of their own wars — have riffled through the sepia pages of war diaries and action reports to piece together the real story of Celtic Wood.

What emerges is not a mystery, just a plain, old, garden variety Australian war tragedy. A story of brave men sacrificed to divert attention from the main British attack. A feint, just like Gallipoli's murderous charge at The Nek as depicted in Peter Weir's film, or the butchery at Fromelles. To understand how the myth sprang from kernels of truth – as myths tend to do — we must put ourselves in the 10th's waterlogged trench lines on 9 October 1917. 

Down here in the slosh the men were shelled and shot at for a week leading up to the raid. Wearied but not unbowed, they understood and accepted the task at hand — to charge into the wood, fight like hell for 30 minutes to make the Germans think it was a full-scale attack, blow up dugouts, then withdraw upon a flare signal. Much was stacked against them. Unlike an earlier successful raid on the same stretch of the German line, there would be no protective box barrage around their advance to shield them from counterattacks.

Instead, the shelling would roll forward in lines to replicate the method used in full-scale advances. And, unlike the earlier raid, the 10th would go over the top at dawn rather than midnight. In a further harbinger of the looming carnage, Celtic Wood was bristling with extra machine guns sent into the line after the previous raid.

"It's quite possible the German commander would've been told by his commander — don't let this happen again," Henschke says. "The Germans knew there was going to be an attack and they knew it was going to be at dawn."

Just to the north the 10th's cobbers from the 2nd Division would mount a larger attack to protect the flanks of the main British advance still farther to the north. "I have no doubt that (the 10th men) would've looked at the raid with great trepidation," Henschke says. "But it was mateship. They knew they had to help out their mates of the 2nd Division." Out they went into No Man's Land in the pre-dawn murk, ready to creep as close as possible to the shell bursts when their own artillery opened up. The German lines lay about 180 meters away down a gentle rise.

The barrage erupted and up the South Australians sprang, tramping through the mud behind their commander, Lieutenant Frank Scott, a 22-year-old railway porter from Gawler. But something was wrong.
Henschke says rather than the "rolling curtain of death" laid down to shield an attack, the barrage was light and scattered. Still, they fought their way into the wood (which was a misnomer given that months of constant shelling had turned the trees into mere leafless stumps).

"There's tree stumps and rubbish everywhere, there's craters metres wide and there's mud that in some places would've been knee deep," Henschke says. "As soon as they came under effective small arms fire, the sound would've been overwhelming. At that point it would've been extremely difficult to retain any control using voice command." Despite realising his force was outnumbered two to one, Scott ordered a frontal attack on a trench bristling with Germans, while he led a group around to attack it from the rear. "A fierce struggle ensued," battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan reported.

"A temporary mastery was gained; the enemy commencing to retreat as soon as the fire from Lieutenant Scott's party was brought to bear from his rear. A desperate hand encounter followed, in which heavy casualties were inflicted upon the enemy."

Suddenly, the German artillery opened up, laying down a wall of explosions between the raiders and the Australian trenches. They were suddenly cut off.  German reinforcements joined the fray and the game was up.

With bullets buzzing all around, shells from both sides whistling past, and hand grenade explosions adding to the din, how Scott managed to arrange such a deft flanking maneuver is to his eternal credit.  "Once you start waving your hands around you become targets," Henschke says.

AND SO it came to pass. Soon all five Australian officers were dead or wounded. Survivors said Scott, a decorated veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front Battle of Pozières in 1916, was shot through the head.

"The last seen of Scott he was trying to fight his way out with his revolver," a survivor reported. Another recounted, "His belt and revolver were brought in by one man whose name I don't know, but his body was left in no man's land, and as far as I know was not buried." Like Scott, 2nd Lieutenant Albert Rae, 21, of Kilkenny, was an original Anzac who wrote a graphic account of the landing at Anzac Cove.

"We clicked the old bayonets on and there was such a yell, and off we went," Rae wrote of his hand-to-hand fight with the Turks. "Everybody was swearing. You never heard such language, but Mr. Turk did not wait for us. The few that did stay got a foot of steel through them."

Rae survived Gallipoli to be killed at Celtic Wood. In the confusion, 2nd Lieutenant Walter Wilsdon, of Farrant St., Prospect, was cut off from his men. "On our return Lt. Wilsdon was reported missing," a comrade reported. "I think that it is possible that he was wounded and captured."

It was a forlorn hope, for Wilsdon too was dead. With all the officers struck down, it was left to Sergeant William "Old King" Cole — another Gallipoli veteran — to fire the flare signaling the withdrawal. "Cole, just as he was firing the flare, was killed," Henschke says. With the situation hopeless, the survivors were left to run the gauntlet of the shell bursts to safety or lie doggo in craters to crawl back under the cover of night.

"I am only able to account for 14 unwounded members of the party," Wilder-Neligan wrote after the action. This one line sowed the seed for the myth. Historians both professional and amateur mistook it to mean only 14 men — full stop — made it out of the wood. This error laid the fertile ground for talk of mysteries and massacres. "I thought, 'Hang on, there's always wounded blokes'," Henschke says. Kearney and Henschke say a massacre was almost impossible.

They reason that after the raid the British gunners opened up with a heavy barrage to avenge the defeat, while the Germans continued to rain down shells on the battlefield.  So no organised party of Germans could have made it into the area where Scott made his stand, let alone shepherd a string of prisoners out of the wood.
The shelling blew the wounded and slain raiders to smithereens, rendering them "Known Unto God". As for the mystery, well, that is solved by rudimentary detective work.

By cross-referencing all the available records and building on Kearney's earlier research for his 10th Battalion history, the authors say they can account, beyond a reasonable level of doubt, for every one of Scott's party.

Looking West Toward Where Celtic Wood Once Stood

"We've pieced a story together from the after action reports, the war diaries and the eyewitness statements from the Red Cross files," Henschke says. "We've only used eyewitness accounts that are able to be verified. Anything that was hearsay we haven't used. We hope to change (the misconception) by showing the result of the raid wasn't a great mystery, but it was simply a raid with a very high proportion of casualties.

"And all the casualties were accounted for through the military system. So you're waiting for this big administrative machine to say 'He's in hospital in France', or 'He's in a hospital in England'. It is a story of a typical small unit action that went wrong."

At the end of the killing, the 10th's valour under fire was for nothing. The general advance stalled in the mud and the only objective captured by the British was a village on the far north of the line, for which the Battle of Poelcappelle is now called. As for Celtic Wood, a week later the Germans withdrew 500 meters and the area became No Man's Land. Today all the trees are gone.  Celtic Wood is no more, just like the myth.

Article from Sunday Mail (SA), 24 April 2011

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Septemberprogramm vs.Brest-Litovsk

Septemberprogramm (German for September Program) was a plan drafted by the German leadership in the early weeks of the First World War. It detailed Germany's ambitious gains should it win the war, as it expected. The plan was never officially adopted or put into practice and was only discovered long after the war by historian Fritz Fischer, who concluded the expansionary goals were Germany's motives for going to war in the first place. That interpretation has been very controversial. The modern consensus is that it was more of a discussion document and not a formally adopted government policy.  

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917

Its recommendations included:

  • France should cede to Belgium or Germany some northern territory such as steel-producing Briey and a coastal strip running from Dunkirk to Boulogne-sur-Mer . 
  • A war indemnity of 10 billion Reichsmarks for France, with further payments to cover veterans' funds and to pay off all Germany's existing national debt, and prevent French rearmament. 
  • The French economy would be dependent on Germany and all trade with the British Empire will cease. 
  • France will partially disarm by demolishing its northern forts.
  • Belgium should be annexed to Germany or, preferably, become a "vassal state", which should cede eastern parts and possibly Antwerp to Germany and give Germany military and naval bases.
  • Luxembourg should become a member state of the German Empire.
  • Creation of a Mitteleuropa economic association dominated by Germany but ostensibly egalitarian. Members would include newly created buffer states carved out of the Russian Empire's west such as Poland, which would remain under German sovereignty "for all time".
  • Expansion of the German colonial empire with, most important, the creation of a contiguous German colony across central Africa at the expense of the French and Belgian colonies, presumably leaving the option open for future negotiations with Britain. No British colonies were to be taken, but Britain's "intolerable hegemony" in world affairs was to end.
  • The Netherlands should be brought into a closer relationship to Germany while avoiding any semblance of force.

The September Program was drafted by Kurt Riezler, a staffer in the chancellor's office. It was a proposal that was under discussion but was strongly opposed by powerful political elements in Germany. It was never adopted and no movement of people was ever ordered. As historian Raffael Scheck concluded, "The government, finally, never committed itself to anything. It had ordered the September Program as an informal hearing in order to learn about the opinion of the economic and military elites."

Source: World Heritage Encyclopedia at


Well they didn't win the war, but they did defeat the Russians, then led by the Bolsheviks, in the east. Despite Trotsky's artful negotiations, the Germans imposed some terms that seem consistent with this section of the Septemberprogramm scheme described above: 

Creation of a Mitteleuropa economic association dominated by Germany but ostensibly egalitarian. Members would include newly created buffer states carved out of the Russian Empire's west such as Poland, which would remain under German sovereignty "for all time".

Signing of the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 9–10 February 1918

The actual terms imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk were harsher that what was suggested in the Septemberprogramm:
  • Russia gave up close to half its European territory. Russian Poland, Lithuania, and part of Latvia were ceded to Germany and Austria. 
  • The Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, and the rest of Latvia were transformed into independent states under German protection. 
  • Bessarabia was to go to Romania, and the Ottomans took the Armenian areas in the Caucasus. 
  • Russia lost huge areas of prime agricultural land, 80 per cent of her coal mines, and half her other industries. A follow-up agreement in August committed the country to pay six billion marks in reparations.  (Source:  History Today)

This approach suggests that had the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team triumphed on the decisive Western Front, the defeated Allies may have had terms imposed on them consistent with the Septemberprogramm, or worse. It's one of those questions that will forever remain unanswered.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Nine Villages Détruits (Destroyed) at Verdun

Nine villages were razed during the Battle of Verdun, swept away by the fearsome might of the battle. All that remain are markers symbolizing the outlines of the houses and public buildings. They serve as a reminder of the trades and work of these old village communities that have never been rebuilt. They are ghost villages, villages that laid down their lives for France, and they are a moving memorial thanks to the chapels and commemorative monument erected after the end of the war. While three of the villages were subsequently rebuilt on nearby land and are governed as normal communes, the other six are entirely unpopulated and are managed by a council of three members, appointed by the prefect of Meuse

Eight are on the east side of the Meuse. One, Cumières, is near the base of Mort Homme on the west side. Below are recent photos of each village. By their names are their populations in the most recent (1911) prewar census and an asterisk if they have been rebuilt.

Douaumont (288) *
Fleury-devant-Douaumont (422)
Louvemont-Côte-du-Poivre (183)

Beaumont-en-Verdunois (186)
Ornes (718) *
Bezonvaux (149)

Cumières-le-Mort-Homme (205)
Haumont-près-Samogneux (131)
Vaux-devant-Damloup (lost) *

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914–1917
reviewed by Ron Drees

The Russian Army in the Great War: 
The Eastern Front, 1914–1917
by David R. Stone
University Press of Kansas, 2015

Densely packed with text and information, this book narrates one battle after another, recounting the stupidity of numerous generals, a grand duke, and a tsar. The previously undescribed tenacity of the Russian Army is detailed here despite so many well-known difficulties, making this book worth the read. Finally the discipline of the Russian Army collapsed, the resilience of the people wore out and the 1917 revolution erupted with grave ramifications for the Western Front and the world in general.

Russian Soldiers in Galicia Early in the War

Stone begins his narrative with a summary of how Europe wandered and blundered its way into the war. An unstated question arises — didn't the Austro-Hungarian Empire understand its own lack of military readiness while insisting on a war of punishment against the Serbs? It would have been nice if Stone had spent a page or two explaining the political dysfunction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a direct impact upon its military readiness, leadership, and disastrous expeditions.

Russia went into the war unprepared, like many other nations, but in even worse condition. The army lacked shells, artillery, machine guns, airplanes, a viable railroad system, and officers, while the soldiers were illiterate. As the war raged on, some of the armament shortcomings were overcome, but the officer corps was depleted and replaced by ensigns, who were not even considered officers. The "90-day wonders" of the United States were much better.

The more competent Russian generals rose to the top, such as Brusilov, but there were not enough. Even those leaders overextended their army's capabilities, sometimes dragging defeats out of potential victories. What is needed next is a collection of short articles explaining how such incompetent officers — Russian, Austrian, and French — rose to such positions of importance with deadly consequences for millions of infantry.

Unfortunately, the maps in this book suffer from a dark gray background, rendering them almost incomprehensible. Cities are hard to locate and the names of nations are too faint to read. This is especially undesirable as much of this geography is unfamiliar to western readers.

Order Now
The author measures military strength in divisions, not actual numbers of men, ignoring the possibilities of loss of manpower, different staffing levels, and different compositions of divisions. As wars proceed, divisions are rarely at full strength, and their compositions change as machine guns and artillery are added. This makes comparisons between armies even more difficult.

The chief value of this book is the last chapter, "Conclusion". Despite the disintegration of the Russian army, Germany could not quickly move its divisions to the west. The Russian railroad may have contributed to this slow transfer. Even during the 1918 spring offensive, Germany had 47 divisions in the east, having reduced its armies from a peak of 89 divisions, while it had 146 divisions in the west. If Russia had collapsed more quickly, what would have been the ramifications for the Western Front? If the Russian Provisional Government had lasted longer, the German spring offensives might never have happened at all. So much of the 20th century hinged on these circumstances.

Ron Drees

Monday, November 23, 2015

End of the Year (1915) on the Italian Front

The 60-mile-long valley of the Isonzo [Soca] River running from the Julian Alps south to the Adriatic Sea bisected the only practical area for offensive operations by the Italian Army during the Great War. Throughout most of the rest of the mountainous 400-mile length of the S-shaped Italian Front the dominating positions almost everywhere were in the hands of the Austro-Hungarian forces. A Delimitation Commission following the War of 1866 had intentionally given Austria a highly defensible frontier. But by attacking across the coastal plain east of the lower end of the Isonzo River, they could, so judged Supreme Commander Luigi Cadorna, feasibly acquire a series of territorial objectives from Gorizia to Trieste down to the Dalmatian coast. Secondarily, farther to the north they believed they could leapfrog the mountains bracketing both sides of the river and strike a strategic blow against their opponent's rear. Two offensives were mounted in the summer of 1915, but heavy casualties and ammunition shortages doomed them. In the fall Cardona mounted new attacks.

Third Battle of the Isonzo
18 October–3 November 1915

The brutality of the fighting escalated even further with the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo. General Cadorna was now looking for the "big breakthrough," but continuing his neglect of the principle of mass he committed forces the length of the front once again. He did try to narrow his areas of attack in each region and raised his artillery count to 1,200 guns, but, once again, he spread his forces too thin for what he hoped of them. 

Trenches on Mte. Sei Busi, Carso Plateau
This Was One of the Worst Killing Grounds for the Italian Army in the War

Efforts to reduce his enemy's bridgeheads at Plezzo and Tolmino were ordered leading to innumerable, but indecisive, actions in those areas. Other attacks were mounted against Plava on the south edge of the Bainsizza Plateau. Also, the Carso heated up once more as St. Michele became the keystone to a flanking move on Gorizia. Nearby Monte Sei Busi, defended ferociously by the Austrian 106th Division, was the scene of at least four major assaults. Attacking on narrower fronts, though, meant the Austrians could focus more of their firepower over smaller sections. Borojevic also started receiving additional divisions from the Eastern and Balkan Fronts and staged some ferocious counterattacks against the Italians around St. Michele. In early November Italy's supreme commander ordered a temporary halt to reevaluate the situation.

Crossing a Foot Bridge on the Isonzo

Fourth Battle of the Isonzo
10 November–2 December 1915

The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo was really a second phase to the Third Battle. Fighting was more, but not exclusively, concentrated around Gorizia and on the Carso. In the first case, the Second Army mounted its greatest assault capturing Oslavia, but with not quite enough momentum left to gain Gorizia. South down to the Adriatic, the Third Army simply accumulated more and more casualties. Typical, was the fighting around Monte Sei Busi where five more assaults were mounted by the Italian Army. 

Looking South Down the Isonzo; Tolmino on Left
The Austrians Occupied the High Ground on Both Sides for the Entire War
This Was One of Two Breakthrough Points During the Battle of Caporetto

Toward the end of the Fourth Battle, action heated up again up and down the Isonzo Front from Tolmino down to Monte San Michele reaching a peak at the end of November. From the first of December to mid-month action shifted from major frontal assaults to small local actions. Halting for the winter, the troops on the Carso would learn they had achieved little since June except exchanging the pounding sun of the summer for a crushing northern winter wind off of the Alps known as the Bora.

Austro-Hungarian Defenders on the Carso

Political turmoil and the urgency to gain something for all the sacrifices of Italy and ethnic instabilities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire meant that in 1916 Italy needed to continue attacking and Austria-Hungary needed to continue defending. The war of attrition would continue growing with both sides blind to the inevitable consequences.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

First U-boat Sunk?

The British 5,400-ton light cruiser HMS Birmingham was responsible for sinking the first German submarine of the First World War.  Commanded by Captain Arthur Duff, HMS Birmingham — of the Chatham class — knocked out both the periscope and conning tower of German U-15 on 9 August 1914 with a salvo of six shots from the light cruiser's guns east of the Orkneys while the submarine was attempting to move in for an attack.

A Striking, but Probably Inaccurate, Depiction of the Encounter

Having done so, Duff issued instructions that the cruiser be directed at the U-boat at full speed. Turning Birmingham's helm the captain brought the cruiser around in order that her bows faced the crippled submarine. Thus Duff rammed the German submarine at 25 mph (40 kph), which quickly rolled over and sank, killing its crew of 23.

HMS Birmingham subsequently took part at both the Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of Jutland.

Sources: and Tony Langley Collection

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The British Home Front – a New Resource

A collaboration that includes the BBC and the Imperial War Museum has produced a fascinating  study of the British home front, assembled in a high quality 112-page PDF magazine. It can be read on smart phones of all makes in the UK, and on home and laptop computers anywhere.  And — it's free. Below is a sampling of the excellent selection of images the editors included. Honestly, you have to be a bit of an Anglophile to fully appreciate it, but since all our editors at are and many of you readers are, we wholeheartedly recommend that you download this publication HERE.

Gertie Is Known as the Vera Lynn of World War I

The "Preston Pals" Enlistment Parade Preston, Lancashire
Suffered Almost 50% Casualties in the First Two Weeks of the Somme

Testing a Mark Series Tank for Flotation

In Line for Food, Reading in Berkshire

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fateful Crossroads: Malancourt Village in the Argonne Sector

The before and after photos below feature a little village named Malancourt, which is about 8 miles northwest of Verdun.  As you can see it was almost pounded flat during the First World War – a fate shared by many villages of northern France.  However, Malancourt shows up in history books much more often than most of its sister communities because three memorable events occurred there.

Malancourt was the site of the first use of flamethrowers on  26 February 1915. Their successful deployment by German engineers in assisting with the capture of a French trench insured their expanded use by all the combatants, thus giving warfare one of its most frightful weapons.

The roadside memorial below is located just south of Malancourt.  Built around a machine gun pillbox, it commemorates the other two events for which the village is known.   In late March 1916, as part of their expansion of the Verdun offensive to the west side of the Meuse, German forces were attempting to capture the high ground in the area, including Hill 304, located just a couple of miles east of Malancourt. The 69th Regiment of Infantry was positioned around the village to defend the hill. In less than a week every  man of the regiment's six companies, over 1,300 in total, was lost.  By 5 April the village fell and was held by the Germans until 26 September 1918.

The plaque on the memorial also recognizes the third event, the capture of the village by the American 79th Division in the opening the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Malancourt was the division's first obstacle in their advance to their main target — the single most important objective in the opening of the battle — the enemy strong point and observation post at Montfaucon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Albert Ballin and the Haldane Mission

Albert Ballin (1857–1918, pronounced "balleen") was a German shipping magnate, who was the general director of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft or Hamburg-America Line, at times the world's largest shipping company. The Kaiser honored Ballin with his friendship, took a great interest in his work, and sought his advice frequently. Wilhelm visited his Jewish friend many times at Ballin's villa in Hamburg where they dined together. Ballin was also an Anglophile, temperamentally a compromiser, with hopes for peace between Germany and England.

Albert Ballin at the Height of His Influence, Visiting the Races in 1905

Up to 1908, Ballin was one of the main supporters of the ideas of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. [But by then] Ballin was increasingly concerned with the dangerous consequence of continued naval expansion: a further deterioration of German-British relations.

It is thus not surprising that Ballin’s “first major political action” took him to London in June 1908.  Ballin made the trip to meet Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the most influential bankers in London. Cassel, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism in 1881, originally came from Cologne. He had emigrated as a young man to England, where he had earned a great deal of money with clever financial transactions. In 1902 he was appointed private financial adviser to King Edward VII, with whom he was also friends. Cassel intended to discuss German-British relations with Ballin, who had become acquainted with him through Max Warburg. The discussion ended with Cassel proposing that Germany and England should try to resolve their differences via negotiations.

The Daily Telegraph Affair in October 1908 mentioned above led to a further deterioration in German-British relations. Negotiations were resumed at the initiative of Ballin, who met Cassel for the second time on 10 July 1909. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was appointed Reich Chancellor four days later, was also interested in good relations with Britain. He considered a fleet agreement between both countries to be desirable but was determined to conduct negotiations via normal diplomatic channels, as he mistrusted the semi-official link via Cassel and Ballin, who responded sensitively to this lack of confidence. From August 1909, Germany and Britain had their ambassadors discuss the fleet issue informally, without any results being achieved up to 1910.

The Kaiser Visting Ballin

Ballin again acted as an intermediary at the beginning of 1912. He resumed contact with Cassel and began to correspond with him. This led to Cassel traveling to Berlin on 29 January 1912 and, together with Ballin, holding a discussion with the Kaiser and the Reich Chancellor.  On 2 February, Cassel, who had meanwhile returned to Britain, sent a telegram drafted by him and by Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty), Lord Richard Burdon Haldane (the British minister of war) and Sir Edward Grey (the British foreign secretary) to Ballin, who passed it on to the Reich Chancellor. This stated: “Inform confidentially that intention is possibly to send ministre de la guerre Berlin, (…)”

Close on two weeks later, the secret discussions between Haldane and Bethmann-Hollweg (on 8 and 10 February) and between Haldane, the Kaiser, and Tirpitz (on 9 February) took place in the Reich capital. The latter was not prepared to renounce the just announced German Naval Amendment, which – going beyond the original planning – envisaged in particular the construction of three more battleships in the next six years. Tirpitz agreed merely to hold out the prospect of an extension of the construction times, a concession that seemed to satisfy Haldane. He in turn offered a political agreement, but not the neutrality agreement demanded by the “hawks” in the Imperial Naval Office, at court, in Parliament, and by the public at large. This would have obliged Britain to maintain a position of unconditional neutrality and thus enabled Germany to take a calculated risk in a war against France and Russia.

When he was back in Britain, Haldane soon met criticism, as the British naval experts reproached him for having overlooked the important point of crew strengthening that the Germans also planned. Although Ballin spoke several times with the Kaiser in the following weeks and was involved in further negotiations with Britain in mid-March, no settlement was reached, and in May 1912 the Reichstag accepted the Naval Amendment with the votes of the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Center.

Richard Haldane

Ballin attributed the failure of the Haldane Mission, which was a serious blow for him, to the fact that the Kaiser and Chancellor had undertaken to deal with the issue themselves from the beginning to the end. Tirpitz was only indirectly involved and could thus much more easily contest the attempted rapprochement with Britain. However, Ballin himself also made no efforts at all to persuade Tirpitz to drop the Naval Amendment Act, distancing himself clearly from Tirpitz. The most convincing reason for this is given by Ballin’s biographer, Cecil: “But what Tirpitz had and what Ballin admired in the man were characteristics that were completely lacking in the rest of Berlin: resolution and ability.” When Tirpitz resigned in March 1916 after disagreements with the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg concerning unrestricted submarine warfare, Ballin wrote “that one has now let Tirpitz go is the peak of stupidity!”

Ballin and Cassel continued to work for an agreement between Britain and Germany even after the failure of the Haldane Mission, but in vain. The scope for this – in any case limited – had again considerably narrowed. Then in August 1914 the lights went out throughout Europe.

Ballin advocated peaceful negotiations to end the war and opposed submarine warfare, but eventually lost his nerve and will. On 9 November 1918, seeing that Germany was defeated and that he was doomed to lose his shipping empire, Albert Ballin committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Source: Albert Ballin biography from the Hapag-Lloyd Foundation

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Canada's "Original 40"

Unit Patch of the 3rd Battalion
When war was declared in August 1914, a battalion from Toronto started mobilizing within days. The 3rd Battalion drew primarily from Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles regiment, reinforced by other local militias — the 10th Royal Grenadiers and the Governor General’s Body Guard. They trained at Valcartier and became the first Canadian troops to set sail for the Western Front in September 1914.

Designated the 3rd Battalion of the Toronto Regiment, the unit organized and trained at Camp Valcartier before sailing for England from Quebec City on board the SS Tunisian on 25 September 1914. They arrived in England on 16 October with a strength of 42 officers and 1123 men of other ranks. 

Men of the Battalion with Their Mascot in 1916

The battalion became part of the 1st Canadian Division, 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, where it saw action at Ypres and Vimy Ridge and was in every major action of the CEF along the Western Front. It was later reinforced by the 12th Canadian Reserve Battalion. During the war 286 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion were taken prisoner — all but 21 during the 2nd Battle of Ypres during April and May 1915.

The Battalion's Machine Gunners on the March 1918

The battalion returned to Canada from England on the SS Olympic, arriving in Halifax on 21 April 1919, then Toronto by train, demobilizing in the afternoon of 23 April 1919. Only 40 of the original contingent from 1914 arrived back at the end of the war. Although others had been demobilized or taken prisoners of war this group was honored as Canada's "Original 40".

Sources:  Toronto Star, 3rd Battalion History

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin
reviewed by David F. Beer

The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin
Edited by Jerry R.Tompkins. Foreword by Jay Winter
Resource Publications, 2015

Although plenty of personal WWI documents exist, we'll never know how many Doughboys' diaries and letters ever saw the light of day after 1918 and gradually disintegrated and disappeared. So it's exciting to discover material that might well have joined their ranks but instead was resurrected almost a century after being written. Lying in a trunk in family attics for decades, Private Eugene McLaurin's diary and letters could have eventually suffered the fate of so many similar documents long ignored and finally discarded had it not been for their editor, Jerry Tompkins, who discovered and brought them to life again.

U.S. Army Chaplain Conducting a Burial Service
Eugene William McLaurin is much better known for the academic distinction he achieved later in life than as a private and acting chaplain in the AEF's 90th Division during the war. However, we're now extremely fortunate to be able to read his diary from 9 September to 11 November and his letters to his fiancée during this time and through several months of occupation duty. Much took place in this time. Before enlisting, McLaurin was a 29-year-old Presbyterian pastor of a church in Edna, Texas. Surprisingly he entered the army as a private and remained one throughout his service. Nevertheless, he was soon made an acting chaplain whose main duties were to bury the dead and hold occasional services.

Although this book is relatively short at 157 pages, it is a rewarding read that gives us a unique and detailed insight into a tumultuous 14-month interruption in a man's life. The diary and letters are preceded by a foreword by Jay Winter and a preface and introduction which describe the discovery of the documents and the kind of man they reveal Eugene McLaurin to be. Then follows the editor's biography of McLaurin describing his family roots, youth, and education, plus his early ministry and military service. We also learn briefly of his later years as a scholar and professor, and finally his retirement, death, and burial in 1978. All this material, together with several black-and-white photos, provides a helpful and insightful backdrop to a life we now focus on for some critical months. With the diary, we meet the man.

His diary was kept daily and provides a vivid picture of Private McLaurin's war experiences. It also reveals his character and his ability to observe and record details of the action around him in a plain and honest way. Entries vary from one sentence (October 14: "I managed for new clothes today,") to by far the longest and most detailed entry of several pages for 1 November, beginning "This has been a long and a terrible day." This bleak day marked the start of the American advance between the Aisne and Meuse rivers in the Argonne Forest. Some entries are uncompromisingly laconic, depicting events that could hardly be described in gruesome detail:

I slept in trench with runner. I buried Clarence H. Braschel, and parts of an unidentified body. Only one leg and the head could be found. The head had been blown up into a tree, 40 feet away.

One thing that makes the diary particularly interesting is the unique situation McLaurin found himself in. Few privates acted as chaplains and also took such a physical part in stretcher-bearing and in searching for and burying the remains of both American and German soldiers. McLaurin does all this uncomplainingly, just as he also dodges shells, sleeps on the ground in a pup tent or less, painstakingly records the belongings of corpses, and humbly does his duty. Although others, especially the 90th Division senior chaplain, the Reverend Clarence Reese, are concerned that red tape holds up his commission, he carries no resentment with him and is content to end the war still a private.

Over 50 soldiers' names are mentioned in the diary, and their names are also listed toward the back of the book. Many were Texan friends of McLaurin and not all survived the war. But the most important name to him during this time was Myrtle Arthur, to whom he wrote frequent letters during the war and during the period of occupation in Germany. These letters comprise the second half of the book and give us many additional details about the war, the march into Germany, and the life he led as a soldier of occupation.

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The letters are also memorable in that they give us more intimate insights into Eugene McLaurin himself as he gently and politely conducts his courtship from afar with "my own dearest Myrtle". This is the woman he was to spend 51 happily married years with after the war. During these years he would also go on to become a teacher of systematic theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, and subsequently receive a PhD from the University of Texas to become a recognized scholar and professor of New Testament Greek.

As Jay Winter states in his foreword to this engaging book, more than twice as many American soldiers died in World War One than in Vietnam, and their voices deserve to be heard. Thus we owe our thanks to the editor of this book, Jerry R. Tompkins. Tompkins is also the author of D-Days at Dayton on the Scopes Trial of 1925, and his copious research and papers on that case and the late 1960s Epperson v. Arkansas case reside at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. As mentioned earlier in this review, a few years ago Tompkins met the elderly son of Private McLaurin and learned of McLaurin's long-neglected diary and letters. The Crossed Hands of God is the fascinating and informative result of that most fortuitous meeting.

David F. Beer

Monday, November 16, 2015

Command As a Form of Love: Herbert Read's "My Company"

By James S. Robbins

Some poets addressed the relationships that developed on the battlefield between the men who fought together. The relationship of the commander to his men, which in its finest expression is a sacred and indefinable bond, a form of love that will allow, even compel soldiers to follow officers into the maw of deathly peril, and do so willingly, happily, was the topic of many stirring poems. Herbert Read's "My Company" expresses the many moods of command, at times somber, other times manic. Read survived the war and became a pacifist in the 1930s.

My Company


You became 
In many acts and quiet observances 
A body and soul, entire. 

I cannot tell 
What time your life became mine: 
Perhaps when one summer night 
We halted on the roadside 
In the starlight only, 
And you sang your sad home-songs, 
Dirges which I standing outside you 
Coldly condemned. 

Perhaps, one night, descending cold, 
When rum was mighty acceptable, 
And my doling gave birth to sensual gratitude. 

And then our fights: we've fought together 
Compact, unanimous; 
And I have felt the pride of leadership. 

In many acts and quiet observances 
You absorbed me: 
Until one day I stood eminent 
And I saw you gathered round me, 
And about you a radiance that seemed to beat 
With variant glow and to give 
Grace to our unity. 

But, God! I know that I'll stand 
Someday in the loneliest wilderness, 
Someday my heart will cry 
For the soul that has been, but that now 
Is scatter'd with the winds, 
Deceased and devoid. 

I know that I'll wander with a cry: 
"O beautiful men, O men I loved, 
O whither are you gone, my company?' 


My men go wearily 
With their monstrous burdens. 
They bear wooden planks 
And iron sheeting 
Through the area of death. 

When a flare curves through the sky 
They rest immobile. 

Then on again, 
Sweating and blaspheming —
"Oh, bloody Christ!" 

My men, my modern Christs, 
Your bloody agony confronts the world. 


A man of mine 
          lies on the wire. 
It is death to fetch his soulless corpse. 

A man of mine 
          lies on the wire; And he will rot 
And first his lips 
The worms will eat. 

It is not thus I would have him kiss'd, 
But with the warm passionate lips 
Of his comrade here. 


I can assume 
A giant attitude and godlike mood, 
And then detachedly regard 
All riots, conflicts and collisions. 

The men I've lived with 
Lurch suddenly into a far perspective; 
They distantly gather like a dark cloud of birds 
In the autumn sky. 

Urged by some unanimous 
Volition or fate, 
Clouds clash in opposition; 
The sky quivers, the dead descend; 
Earth yawns. 

They are all of one species. 

From my giant attitude, 
In a godlike mood, 
I laugh till space is filled 
With hellish merriment. 

Then again I resume 
My human docility, 
Bow my head 
And share their doom.