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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Battle of the Otranto Straits reviewed by James Thomas

The Battle of the Otranto Straits; Controlling the Gateway to the Adriatic in WWI
by Paul G. Halpern
Indiana University Press, 2004

Depiction of the Largest Battle in the Adriatic During World War I, 14-15 May 1917

This is an excellent book. Eminent naval historian Paul G. Halpern has done a wonderful job telling the story of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. The only potentially negative thing that might be said is that it will not appeal to most casual readers of Great War history or even basic naval history because of its very narrow focus. However, for those readers who are deeply interested in the naval elements of World War I, who love a thorough examination of a topic, and are especially hoping to fill in gaps in their understanding of all things navy, this is the book to read. It is well written, well researched, thought provoking, and outstanding in all other categories.

When most students of the Great War think about the war at sea, the North Atlantic with its U-Boats, blockades, transports and the Lusitania all jump to mind. The only major battle that tends to be common knowledge is Jutland and the great confrontation between the mighty British and German dreadnaughts. As Halpern points out, some readers may not realize there even was an Austrian Navy! This book tells of a battle that was both fascinating and significant, of a strategic dilemma and tactical action that should put Otranto Straits in the front ranks of naval studies.

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By 1917, Italy was moving from the Central to the Allied powers, the United States was about to join the fray, and supply difficulties were increasingly plaguing Germany and her Austro-Hungarian ally. The Adriatic Sea was quickly going from a Central Powers lake to a contentious battleground over supply from the Mediterranean. The Austrian navy, k. u. k. Kriegsmarine, was anxious not to confront the large but often feuding Italian or French avies or the British navy in any direct action, and the British were not willing to risk too many ships trying to maneuver in the narrow Adriatic. Instead, the British had established a blockade of the narrow Otranto Straits, combining a chain of small "drift" boats and larger patrolling ships. Submarines, submarine nets, and mines were also all part of the blockade. Unfortunately, Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign, which was very effective in the Atlantic, was also incredibly successful in the Mediterranean. Great loss of merchant tonnage in the Mediterranean and the complex difficulties of the adjoining Adriatic made the connecting Otranto Straits vital to the military and naval interests of the nations on both sides of the war.

The battle described in Halpern's book was the result of the Austrians' attempt to break apart the Allied blockade to allow freer access to the Mediterranean and the opening of the straits. The story is told in intricate detail with absolute mastery of the subject based upon thorough research and superb narrative. Ship against ship, ship against boat, submarines, mines, and even aircraft all contribute to this significant but largely unknown encounter in the Otranto Straits. While the results were not decisive for either side, many lessons were learned, not just for the blockade, but for naval warfare in the Great War and the future.

The Battle of the Otranto Straits is one of those books where the journey is as great as the destination. No, the book is not for everyone; it is for those readers who enjoy great naval history, great storytelling, and a thorough examination of the subject. The battle itself may have been overshadowed by the events of the "real war" of the Western Front and the North Atlantic, but the events leading up to it, the relations between Allied powers exhibited through it, the now non-existent Austrian Navy, and the lessons taught should reinvigorate interest in this other theatre of the war. Dr. Halpern's book goes a long way in doing that and more.

James Thomas

Monday, May 30, 2016

100 Years Ago: Setting Sail for the Battle of Jutland

Flagship HMS Lion and British Battlecruisers Opening Fire at Jutland
Tomorrow, it will be 100 years since the Battle of Jutland. This was the only major fleet vs. fleet naval battle of the First World War and took place between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet. Over 6,000 British and 2,500 German sailors lost their lives in the fighting.

In 1914 Britain had the biggest and strongest navy in the world. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) greatly expanded the size and quality of the Imperial German Navy, until the German Navy grew to become one of the greatest maritime forces in the world, second only to the British Royal Navy.

After the British success at Dogger Bank in holding back the German attack in January 1915, the German Imperial Navy chose not to confront the numerically superior British Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rely on its lethal U-boat fleet. However, in May 1916, with the majority of the British Grand Fleet anchored far away at Scapa Flow, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer believed the time was right to resume attacks on the British coastline. Scheer ordered 19 U-boats to position themselves for a raid on the northeast coastal town of Sunderland, using air reconnaissance craft to keep an eye on the British fleet. Bad weather hampered the airships, however, and Scheer called off the raid, instead ordering his fleet to head north, to the Skagerrak, a waterway located between Norway and Denmark off the Jutland Peninsula, where they could attack the Allied naval interests and, with luck, punch a hole in the stringent British blockade.

Unbeknownst to Scheer, however, a newly created intelligence unit in Britain had cracked the German communication codes and warned the British Grand Fleet’s commander, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, of Scheer’s intentions. Consequently, on the night of 30 May, a British fleet of 28 battleships, nine battle cruisers, 34 light cruisers and 80 destroyers set out from Scapa Flow, bound for positions off the Skagerrak.

On 31 May, a British naval force commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty spotted a German squadron of warships and confronted them some 75 miles off the Danish coast. The two squadrons opened fire on each other simultaneously. This lasted around 55 minutes, during which time two British battle cruisers (HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary) were destroyed with the loss of 2,000 sailors. The remainder of the German fleet then joined, so Beatty was forced to fight a delaying action for the next hour, until Jellicoe arrived with the rest of the Grand Fleet. Both fleets faced off in their entirety, and a great battle of naval strategy commenced. As sections of the two fleets continued to engage each other throughout the late evening and the early morning of 1 June, Jellicoe maneuvered 96 of the British ships into a V-shape surrounding 59 German ships. The German flagship, Lutzow, was disabled by 24 direct hits but was able, before it sank, to sink the British cruiser Invincible.

Post-Battle Damage to Battlecruiser SMS Defflinger
German Ships Demonstrated a Superior Ability to Absorb Damage at Jutland

The German fleet withdrew under cover of darkness at 18:30 on 1 June, thus ending the battle, and cheating the British of the major naval success they had envisioned. The Battle of Jutland engaged a total of 100,000 men aboard 251 ships over the course of 72 hours. The Germans claimed it as a victory for their High Seas Fleet. At first the British press agreed, but it was not so clear-cut. The German navy lost 11 ships, including a pre-Dreadnought battleship and a battle cruiser, and suffered 2,500 casualties; the British sustained heavier losses, with 14 ships sunk, including three battlecruisers, and 6,000 casualties.  

On 4 July, Vice Admiral Scheer advised the German high command that further fleet action was not an option and that submarine warfare was Germany’s best hope for victory at sea. This strategy when implemented fully would bring the United States into the war. Despite the heavy losses, the Battle of Jutland had left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact.

Article from the Jutland 100 History Project of the British Royal Legion

Sunday, May 29, 2016

100 Years Ago - a Pyrrhic Victory: German Forces Secure the Crest of Mort Homme

On 21 February 1916 the German Fifth Army, commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, sent eight divisions against the French army around Verdun, concentrated on the right (east) bank of the River Meuse. The operational concept was to pound  the French defenders with stupendous concentrations of artillery fire. Early successes for the attackers included the annihilation of the frontline defenses at the Bois des Caures and the capture of the world's most formidable fort, Douaumont.

There was, however, a great flaw in the German scheme. After earlier war games, the German General Staff concluded an assault to capture Verdun required an attack on both sides of the Meuse. But the intent in 1916 of supreme commander Erich von Falkenhayn was not to take Verdun, but to force the French to defend it. So, a somewhat deluded "doing it on the cheap" frame of mind had infected German planning for the operation and its opening phase. By the end of February they had discovered their mistake. As they advanced on the right bank, their flank became exposed to enfilade artillery fire from the left bank. Under intense shell fire, German blood began flowing as freely as French. 

Depiction of Fighting at Mort Homme

A major assault needed to be mounted on the left (west bank) to eliminate the French artillery positions. What happened next, when for three months a dual-crested hill with the evocative traditional name of Mort Homme (Dead Man's Hill) would capture the world's attention. During 1916 the German Army would mount 15 major attacks to capture and recapture Mort Homme against determined French defenders, turning its gentle slopes into one of the Great War's most notorious abattoirs. A major attack in April, attempting to flank another hill to the west, Cote 304 was the biggest  failure.

On 20 and 21 May three fresh German divisions were hurled against Mort Homme. They finally took the crest on the 23rd, but they could go no farther. The 23rd and 24th were terrible days; the Germans stormed the village of Cumières and their advance guard penetrated as far as Chattancourt. On the 26th, however, the French were again in possession of Cumières and the slopes of Mort Homme, and if the Germans, by means of violent counterattacks, were able to get a fresh foothold in theruins of Cumières, they made no attempt to progress farther. The battles of the left riverbank were now over; on this side of the Meuse there were to be only unimportant local engagements and the usual artillery fire.

On 29 May the Crown Prince's army finally gained control of the Mort Homme ridge, but only after turning it into a slaughterhouse. The Germans were still under fire from the French guns on the next line of hills to the south and would make no further advance against them. On 1 July the Battle of the Somme began and soon drew German reserves away. The focal point of Verdun would once again become the "hot zone" on the right bank with the recapture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux becoming a fixation for the French command. After their recapture (Douaumont in October and Vaux in November) the longest battle of the Great War would peter out in December — approximately 300 days after its start.

Mort Homme Monument Today

Like several other locations around Verdun, Mort Homme saw further fighting in 1917 when the Germans attacked several times between January and March, again taking both hills. They heavily fortified the position and added many tunnels. Mort Homme stayed in German hands until 20 August 1917, when a large French offensive led by the 31st Division and soldiers from the French Foreign Legion retook the hill. The area just north of Morte Homme and Hill 304 would be retaken by American forces in the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 26 September 1918.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"God Bless America": Written During WW1 – But Saved for Another Generation

By James Patton

Irving Berlin in Uniform
Irving Berlin was constantly writing songs and didn’t slow down even after he was drafted. While he was writing the revue Yip Yip Yaphank (more about that later), he turned out a song that he called "God Bless America." He had no specific need for a patriotic number in the show, plus the patriotic music of the era was up-tempo and stirring, music you could march to. He told his colleague Harry Ruby that the work felt “just a little bit sticky," and it went into his “trunk.”

Fast forward to the fall of 1938, when Berlin felt the times were right for a patriotic song. He wrote "Thanks America" and "Let’s Talk about Liberty," but neither satisfied him, so he retrieved the 1918 "God Bless America" and made a few changes, most notably the line "to the right with a light from above" became "through the night with a light from above."  He arranged it for radio star Kate Smith and she debuted the song on CBS on 11 November. Woody Guthrie later said that he wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a rebuttal to the religiosity of Berlin’s work.

Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline) was born in Russia and came to New York in 1893. With little formal education he began performing at age 14 and published his first song in 1907. In 1911 he hit the big time with "Alexander’s Ragtime Band".  In 1914, his Broadway show Watch Your Step (starring Vernon and Irene Castle) was the first production to include syncopated dance routines, which became the standard. He went on to become a mainstay of the music genre known as Tin Pan Alley, writing hundreds of songs, many of which were hits, some have been hits more than once. He also wrote and produced 20 Broadway shows and 16 movies in his 101 years.

Berlin was drafted in April 1918 and spent the war serving with the 152d Depot Brigade at Camp Upton, NY (near the village of Yaphank), which was the training camp for the 77th Division and later a transient embarkation center.

Berlin was used to late nights and late sleep-ins, so disliked the Army routine. He composed "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which he described later as “a protest written from the heart out, absolutely without the slightest thought that it would ever earn a cent.” The most famous part:

Someday I'm going to murder the bugler,
Someday they're going to find him dead;
I'll amputate his reveille
and step upon it heavily,
and spend the rest of my life in bed.

The CO wasn’t amused and placed Berlin in charge of the buglers. He later related that the colonel wanted the Camp Upton buglers to play George M. Cohan’s hit patriotic song "Over There," which is written outside the four-note range of the Army bugle. Disappointed at the result, the colonel ordered that "thin little sergeant" (Berlin) to have them practice until they could get the song right.

Kate Smith Will Be Forever
Associated with
"God Bless America"
At Camp Upton Berlin wrote the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank about life as a soldier in training camp, originally performed for the troops by a draftee cast of hundreds. In August strings were pulled and the revue moved to Broadway, where it was allowed to run for about two months. Familiar songs from the show include "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and "Mandy." At the conclusion of the run the entire cast (and an army band) formed up and dramatically marched off the stage and west to the Hudson River Piers, where they were ferried to a troop ship headed for France, although Berlin stayed in New York.

In 1942 Berlin revived Yip Yip Yaphank as a show called This Is the Army, with additional music, including Puttin’ on the Ritz.  He was allowed to use Camp Upton for his casting and rehearsals. After three months on Broadway and a 16 month national tour, Berlin had earned over $2 million for The Army Relief Fund. A reduced version also played with USO tours in the Pacific Theater.

Observing the runaway success of the Abbott and Costello musical comedy Buck Privates, Berlin re-worked This Is the Army as a Hollywood extravaganza, with 17 musical numbers. The cast included Berlin (as himself), future president Ronald Reagan and, of course, Kate Smith, who sang an extended "God Bless America" that ran for five minutes. The movie earned over $9.5 million for the Army Relief Fund.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Recruiting Poster Marines

Some of my favorite World War I posters were produced to recruit U.S. Marines. Here is a selection of some of the best Leatherneck posters..

Sources:  Library of Congress,, Wikipedia, USMC

Thursday, May 26, 2016

100 Years Ago at the Somme: A Brilliant Idea Not Implemented

By the spring of 1916 the staff of Germany's 2nd Army, deployed north and south of the River Somme, had concluded that a major Allied offensive was shaping up in the their sector and they developed a scheme for upsetting the Allies' apple cart.  

On 26 May 1916 the Army Commander Fritz von Below (not to be confused with his cousin, Otto von Below, the architect of Caporetto) submitted a recommendation to Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhyn for a spoiling attack.

General Fritz von Below
The plan was notable for its scope. It was intended to make a deep penetration over a  20 km front to interfere with supply lines and to knock out artillery positions. A one-two punch would hit the British north of the Somme first and then the French to the south. The attack was to take place in early June. With what we now know, it is easy to see that had the attack actually been made, it was perfectly timed to achieve at least some of its objectives. The Battle of the Somme might have been delayed, and, if the German maneuver had been highly successful, cancelled. In any case, the operations in the sector afterward would have been substantially different than what actually transpired in 1916.

Of course, the plan was never approved. Reserves needed to provide a margin of safety for the 2nd Army were tied up at Verdun, where a last-ditch effort in the Hot Zone to capture Fort Vaux and advance on the city from the Thiamont-Fleury-Souville line was gaining steam. Then, on 4 June, the Russians, with General Brusilov in command, launched their greatest attack of the war. New offensive efforts were out of the question. Second Army would have to hold on a strictly defensive posture until the Allies launched their attack. The staff spent the next month optimizing the deployment of their forces, strengthening key positions, and raiding trenches to capture prisoners for interrogation.

German Strongpoint, Somme Sector, 1916
Source:  The German Army on the Somme, 1914–16 by Jack Shelton

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Recommended: Drugs & Alcohol in World War I

Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society has published a fascinating series of five articles on their favorite subject vis-à-vis the Great War.  They have been written with wit and a fine eye for detail by contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson and are well illustrated. Below are Johnson's introduction to the series and a few of the images used in the articles.

World War I has often been associated with intoxication in popular culture. Cocktails like the French 75, so named for the kick of a common artillery piece, became popular during the interwar period. During the “Spirit of 1914” — a burst of popular enthusiasm upon the war’s outbreak – European intellectuals likened war hysteria to mass intoxication. After the war, Ernst Jünger depicted modern combat as an intoxicating rush (or Rausch) in his popular novelizations of his own experiences on the Western Front. More recently, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire explored drug abuse, alcoholism, and the rise of organized crime through the stories of traumatized World War I veterans Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow. This first entry explores how alcoholic intoxicants like wine and absinthe were used and depicted during the war. 

Rum for the British soldiers was shipped to the front in ceramic jugs
stamped 'SRD' (Service Rum Diluted). It was a joke among the
soldiers that it really meant, "Seldom Reaches Destination!"

I couldn't find a one-page index to all the articles without resorting to the search function, so here are the links to all five of them.

1: Poilu and His Wine

2: The British Rum Ration

3: The American Expeditionary Forces and Prohibition

4: The German Army and Intoxication

5:Tobacco in the Trenches

New Zealanders Receiving Their Rum Ration

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

1915, Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Writer at the Eastern Front reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

1915, Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Writer at the Eastern Front
Translated from Russian by Polly Zavadivker
Indiana University Press, 2016

Deportation of Jews in Galicia – 1915

Firsthand information about the Great War's Eastern Front from a Russian perspective has always been at a premium primarily because of the illiteracy of the vast majority of the Tsar's soldiers. For years researchers had only the writings of the various commanding officers such as Brusilov, Gurko, or Denikin to gain a picture of the hardships that existed from Riga to the Romanian border, but these works were a bit tainted by the sour grapes of defeat and revolution. Maria Bochkareva, commander of the famous Women's Battalion of Death, was one of the few front fighters with a view of the war, but it was still liberally salted with images that were too heroic. In this work we have something unique — excerpts from a diary of a Russian civilian engaged in dealing with the problems of civilians in the zones of war and occupation in 1915 Galicia when Tsarist battalions were dominating Austro-Hungarian forces. But before I can continue the review, there are a few facts that I have to make clear in order to give the reader a better understanding of the demeanor of the times as well as stimulate curiosity for the overall story. I strongly recommend a little research along the areas briefly covered below. The translator provides copious notes explaining who people are and defines certain events as they relate to the text, but you can get lost without a little knowledge in brief.

The Author as Red Cross Volunteer
First of all, there is the author. S. An-sky is a pen name for Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, a Jewish writer, ethnographer, and revolutionary who was born near Vilna in Lithuania in 1863. He was one of the few Jews afforded an education in tsarist Russia. He was exiled from Russia around 1899 during which time he traveled to Paris and Switzerland. In 1901 he was instrumental in establishing the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, or SR. In 1905, back in Russia, he began a lifelong project of recording and preserving Russian Jewish culture. He made numerous trips to the Jewish Pale during which he talked with residents about their lives and traditions. He was a proponent of establishing Yiddish as an official language, and, at a later date, he tried to gather support among the Russian Jewish leaders for the Jewish League, which was formed under British auspices to fight for the Allies in Palestine. He was exiled from Bolshevik Russia after the SR uprising in 1919.

Second, there is the Jewish Pale. As most know, tsarist Russia was very anti-Semitic. Starting with the reign of Catherine the Great, the tsars tried to drive the Jews out of Russia; however, the acquisition of portions of the kingdom of Poland in the 18th century vastly increased the Jewish population within the empire and made the task of exclusion nearly impossible. As a consequence, the tsars decided to limit the area in which Jews could live. This area was loosely defined as existing from the Black Sea on the south to the Gulf of Riga on the north and from the western Ukraine to the borders with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Within that area, Jews had no political rights and were excluded from living in most cities. Jews lived for the most part in small villages and were not allowed to move without special permission. This segregation from Russian society perpetuated Jewish culture, which remained somewhat unchanged for nearly 200 years; however, attitudes toward Jews began to change in the early 20th century. The old traditions were in danger of becoming tainted. The culture was disappearing because of forced deportations and the influx of non-Jewish colonists into the Pale who took the place of those who left. S. An-sky saw a need to document the age-old culture for future generations.

Third, in Austria-Hungary the Jewish population had equal rights with any other ethnic group, including owning property and government involvement. In Galicia nearly 11 percent of the population was Jewish with a third living in the cities engaged in various mercantile ventures. In addition, the Jewish population found a niche in government. Nearly 58 percent of the province's civil servants were Jewish. In September 1914, tsarist soldiers invaded Galicia and occupied the province as far as Gorlice-Tarnow. Those who did not flee with the Austro-Hungarian armies were stripped of citizenship rights and the right to engage in business under the Russian occupation laws. This meant that commerce between cities and villages came to an end and the civil government and all its facilities, which included aid to the poor, ceased to exist. Additionally, army commanders enforced a Russification of administration, schools, and commerce. Overnight, the Russian language replaced any other language. Now the book. S. An-sky kept a diary of the war years from 1914 until his death; however, only two small parts have survived. Those parts are from 1 January to 8 March 1915 and 9 September to 10 October 1915. These portions are held in the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art in Moscow. Polly Zavadivker has translated those pages.

S. An-sky was an observer and, above all else, he listened to those who spoke to him. In his diary are reports of atrocities committed by both sides during the conflict and occupation of Galicia but primarily by the Russians. He does not voice opinions nor philosophize about the abhorrent behaviors in his entries, although he does add the grains of salt to reports on occasion to show that there is some exaggeration on the part of the reporter. The reader also sees that the author is very nationalistic. What we can glean from the pages is how hard living from day to day was in the occupied area, especially for the Jewish populations who went from equal rights to none at all and became the subjects of government-directed suppression and Russian soldiers' discrimination.

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Examples are: under the orders of Russian area commanders Jews were not allowed any government jobs; Jewish shops and farms were looted and destroyed without compensation or criminal prosecution; Jewish men, women, and children were jailed, beaten, and murdered; whole Jewish villages were burned to the ground because of suspected spying activities. Rape was so rampant that funds were raised in Petrograd to open facilities to take care of victims; Jewish leaders were held as hostages even though there were equally patriotic Poles and Ruthenians; and, worst of all, the majority of the population became homeless because of the looting, murders, and burnings. The list goes on and on. The reader very clearly gets a picture of a countryside devoid of law, a real aftermath of an apocalypse. S. An-sky launched himself into this mess as a purveyor of charity from Jewish agencies, which had government patronage, in Russia. He distributed money and coordinated the shipment of necessary clothing, medical supplies, and food to destitute populations.

The book is short, not in the tradition of other Russian works of thousands of pages, and to the point. The first portion of the diary minutely portrays another level of the war that so many researchers and writers miss — the civilian experience. It also shows how the tsarist government was changing its attitude toward the Jewish population and the resistance to the changes by conservatives. It is well worth reading and considering in depth not only as a prelude to the Holocaust but for an understanding of the discrimination which existed in Eastern Europe. The second portion is less engaging since it deals with the author's time in Petrograd trying to raise awareness of the Jewish problems in the occupied area and in inserting Jews into the political arena of the war government.

The reader will have to do some research into political and literary personalities of 1915 Russia as well as understand the shift in the government's view on the Jewish question to follow some of these entries. As stated before, the translator does provide copious notes to help the reader navigate, but not all of them are conclusive. As an aside: S. An-sky's other book, The Enemy at His Pleasure, published in 1920 after the author's death as The Destruction of Galicia, is a more filled-in version of the diary. It also includes problems encountered as the Russians retreated in 1916–1917 and the results of the scorched earth policy perpetrated by the Russian Army.

Michael P. Kihntopf

Monday, May 23, 2016

Our World War I Centennial Magazine: OVER THE TOP

Click on Image to Enlarge

January-June 2016 Covers of
Over the Top: Magazine of the World War I Centennial

The staff of Roads to the Great War also produces a full-color, monthly subscription magazine titled Over the Top. Our first six issues for 2016 are pictured above. As you can see, we are paralleling the major events of 100 years ago with fresh looks that incorporate the latest research on them.

Annual subscriptions are $30, annual compilations are available on CDs with many extras, and individual downloads of any of our 108 2007–2015 issues can be purchased for $4.50 each. 

Click Here for a Sample Issue and Ordering Information:

(downloadable document)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Who Knew? The Massachusetts Historical Society Had a Great WWI Photo Exhibit

Here's another great exhibit that we missed when it was active last year, but the Massachusetts Historical Society kept the material accessible online.  As a member of the American Red Cross in France during World War I, Massachusetts-born Margaret Hall worked at a canteen at a railroad junction in the town of Châlons. On her return home she compiled a typescript narrative from the letters and diary passages that she wrote while overseas. Her words offer a firsthand account of life on the Western Front in the last months of the war. She also copiously illustrated the text with her own photographs, which depict soldiers, canteens, and the extensive destruction and ruin following the war.

The Society's website allows users to browse and search all 246 photographs taken by Margaret Hall and 29 additional illustrative items from her volume, part of the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 
Here is a sample of five of Margaret's photographs from the collection.

U.S. 42nd "Rainbow" Division at Chalons

Soldier Visiting Destroyed Village of Craonne, Immortalized in Song

Initial Monument at Bayonet Trench, Verdun Battlefield

Massive Column of German Prisoners of War

Lone German Prisoner of War Approaches Port Chaussée, Verdun

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Veteran of the Great War and Saint: Padre Pio

Great War veteran Francesco Pio of Pietrelcina (25 May 1887–23 September 1968), a Catholic priest from Italy, was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, but his saintly life began over  a century earlier.

Padre Pio in the Army
Saint Pio claimed that he began his devotion to God from the young age of just five! His mother claimed that the young Pio could see and speak with both Jesus and the Virgin Mary. As he grew into a man, Pio was eventually drafted into the Kingdom of Italy’s army to serve during World War I.  When the war started, four friars from this community were selected for military service. At that time, Padre Pio was a teacher at the seminary and a spiritual director. When one more friar was called into service, Padre Pio was put in charge of the community. On 15 November 1915, he was drafted into the Italian Army and on 6 December assigned to the 10th Medical Corps in Naples. Due to poor health, he was continually discharged and recalled until on 16 March 1918 he was declared unfit for military service and discharged. In all, his military service lasted 182 days. He then entered the monastery at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy,  never to leave until his death.

Indeed, throughout much of his life he suffered from a variety of ailments from arthritis to bronchitis. Yet, without any doubt, his most famous physical sufferings were reportedly supernatural in origin. In addition to bearing the stigmata (the wounds suffered by Christ in his torture and execution; notice Pio’s hands in the photograph below), Pio also experienced physical torments brought upon him by none other than the Devil, at least according to Pio’s followers.

These various spiritual afflictions date back to his World War I service. In July 1918, Pope Benedict XV, who had termed the World War "the suicide of Europe," appealed to all Christians urging them to pray for an end to the World War. On 27 July of the same year, Padre Pio offered himself as a victim for the end of the war. Days passed and between 5 August and 7 August , Padre Pio had a vision in which Christ appeared and pierced his side. As a result, Padre Pio had a physical wound in his side. This occurrence is considered as a "transverberation" or piercing of the heart, indicating the union of love with God.

Padre Pio Showing the Stigmata During Mass

On 20 September 1918, accounts state that the pains of the transverberation had ceased and Padre Pio was in "profound peace." On that day, as Padre Pio was engaged in prayer in the choir loft in the Church of Our Lady of Grace, the same being who had appeared to him and given him the transverberation, and who is believed to be the Wounded Christ, appeared again, and Padre Pio had another experience of religious ecstasy. When the ecstasy ended, Padre Pio had received the visible stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. This time, the stigmata were permanent. They stayed visible for the next 50 years of his life. From then and on throughout the remainder of his life and even afterward, they have been the subject of controversy with numerous commentators criticizing his claims as resting upon anecdotal evidence.

Despite the controversy, Pio remains a celebrated saint among Catholics. Indeed, today 23 September is recognized as the Feast of Padre Pio.

Other Catholic saints who served in the war include St. Ricardo Pampuri, Italian Army and Medical Corps, and  St. Pope John XXIII, medical corpsman and chaplain.

Sources: History Headlines and Wikipedia

Friday, May 20, 2016

Centennial Pilgrimage: A Visit to the Lafayette Escadrille's Airfield for the Battle of Verdun

Insignia of the Lafayette Escadrille

The American volunteers serving in the Lafayette Escadrille first caught the world's and America's attention during their four months service in the Battle of Verdun.

After an initial month of service at Luxeuil near the Swiss border, the new squadron was transferred into the Verdun sector to the Behonne Aerodrome near the village of Bar-le-Duc, about 25 miles southwest of Verdun. Furnished with some excellent reconnaissance photos from author Steve Ruffin, I decided to include a visit to the Behonne Aerodrome – still an open farm field – with some original buildings still existing as part of my recent 1916–2016 Verdun In-Depth battlefield tour I was leading on behalf of Valor Tours, Ltd.  I look back to the visit now as a pilgrimage. We made our visit in May, precisely 100 years after the squadron arrived at Behonne.

The Field Today: Everyone Was Surprised by the Slope

The first volunteers at Bar-le-Duc. L-R; Lt. DeLaage, Charles Johnson, Laurence 
Rumsey, James McConnell, William Thaw, Raoul Lufbery, Kiffin Rockwell, 
Didier Masson, Norman Prince, Bert Hall. (Again note the slope of the field.)

Our 2016 Group in About the Same Position as the Pilots

Some details about the service of the Lafayette Escadrille while they were stationed at Behonne: 

During this period, during which Raoul Lufbery and several others joined the squadron, it was very active, flying 146 sorties from the Behonne Airfield. Bert Hall scored the squadron’s second victory and his first on 23 May, and he scored his second on 23 July. Lufbery shot down a two-seater on 31 July.

During this tour, Rockwell and Thaw were wounded, and on 23 June Victor Chapman was shot down over the Verdun sector after being attacked by three German fighters. By mid-September when it was reassigned to Luxeuil, the squadron could claim 13 victories.

For a week in July, the French Air Force pilot Lieutenant Charles Nungesser flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. Nungesser went on to become one of France’s great aces with 45 victories.

Founding Escadrille member Bill Thaw on the left alongside legendary French ace Charles Nungesser. Nungesser was attached to the squadron for a short time while recuperating from injuries he received in a crash. Capitaine Georges Thenault (far right) was the commander 
of the squadron. In the background is the old Ferme Ste. Catherine farmhouse at Behonne 
Aérodrome, Bar-le-Duc, France in 1916.

Patrick Gregory of Centenary News, First World War, and Mike Hanlon, Editor/Publisher of, at Ste. Catherine farmhouse, 5 May 2016 

Thanks to Steve Ruffin and the New England Air Museum

Thursday, May 19, 2016

General Sir John Monash

Sir John Monash (1865–1931) commanded Australian troops during some of World War One's most famous battles. He gained a reputation as a great military planner and strategist, which led to battlefield victories in France and Belgium and a knighthood. These successes, however, were preceded by the terrible defeat suffered by the Australian and New Zealand forces under British command at Gallipoli, Turkey. 

Monash: General to Be
Monash was a most unlikely Digger hero. Of Prussian-Jewish extraction, cultured, fussy, an organized and methodical disciplinarian to the point of obsessive, he was a middle-aged, overweight citizen soldier with no active war experience when hostilities broke out in 1914. Yet he was the leader Australian soldiers needed both during and after the war. At Gallipoli he commanded the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade. 

During the initial Gallipoli landing, the 4th Brigade was in reserve. Monash did not land until the morning of 26 April and was given the left-centre sector to organize, including Pope's Hill and Quinn's Post, while the Turks counterattacked. His brigade was still not fully gathered by the 30th, but Monash had an orderly conference of his battalion commanders that day. The night offensive on Baby 700 of 2 May, which Monash had opposed, was disastrous; according to Charles Bean it left him "unstrung, as well it might." The brigade played its part in withstanding the Turkish offensive of 19 May and the break-in to Quinn's on the 29th and was relieved from the line at the end of the month. 

In July Monash learned of his tardy promotion to brigadier general at a time when wild rumors were circulating in Cairo, London, and Melbourne that he had been shot as a German spy and traitor; there had been a similar vicious whispering campaign in Melbourne the previous October. The brigade now prepared for the battle of Sari Bair and its part in the left hook on Hill 971. Their night march of 6 August was delayed and a vital wrong turning made. Monash forced himself to the front, punched his battalions into position, and made good progress against moderate resistance. But the maps were faulty, the men were lost and exhausted, and next morning they could only dig in. On the 8th, after attacking, they had to withdraw. Most of the men were sick, many had paratyphoid. The remnants then took part in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60, before being withdrawn to Lemnos. Monash had three weeks leave in Egypt. 

Monash Gully: Anzac Sector, Gallipoli; Sandbag Barricades
Are Protection Against Turkish Snipers on the Ridge

The brigade returned to a quiet sector on Gallipoli. On the final night of the evacuation Monash was not one of the last to leave, but rashly sent home an illegal diary-letter implying that he had been. Gallipoli had given him a devastating education. Bean, Birdwood, and others left an impression that his performance had been mediocre; but his brigade had performed at least as well as any of the other three and he had little or no part in the battle plans he had to attempt to carry out. His performance on 7–8 August is open to criticism, but it came to be recognized that the attack on Hill 971 was totally impossible to accomplish. Bean reported the saying that Monash "would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division." 

Monash found out many lessons the hard way—in battle. For one thing, he was very overweight, and this wasn't a war in which to be overweight. He found he could not fit through some of the trench tunnels. With the withdrawal from the Turkish peninsula, Monash and most of the Australian forces were sent to France. After arriving, he reflected on the differences of the Western Front from Gallipoli: 

The question of getting hurt [on the Western Front] is in no sense a question of taking any special precautions. At Anzac the principal danger was from sharpshooters, and one had to learn the dangerous spots and how to circumvent them. Shellfire was of little danger only because it was so little in quantity, not because it did not reach every part of the area of one's perambulations. Here, there is practically no danger at all from rifle or machine-gun fire. The danger from artillery fire is greater only because there is more of it, and one can say with definiteness that there is no spot within the area of one's daily movements which is really safe. It is merely a question of coincidence of a shell and oneself being simultaneously at one and the same spot. Experience has shown that it is quite futile to try and dodge shellfire; one is just as likely to run into a beaten zone as out of it. There is no spot in the whole sector which may not, conceivably, be shelled. 

Consummate Commander
They thought after Gallipoli the fields of France would be a picnic. They were wrong. The reality of industrialized warfare became apparent — mile upon mile of trenches, barbed wire, mud, and extraordinarily heavy artillery. Monash would be given command of the Australian 3rd Division, which performed superbly in the 1917 Battle of Messines, and in 1918 he would lead the entire Australian Corps. Through many trials and errors, the Australian divisions became the hardened, intelligent fighting force that played a crucial role in defeating Germany on the Western Front. 

After the war, when Monash and the AIF returned home to relative neglect, Monash strived to ensure soldiers received due honor, recognition, and assistance. As part of his campaign he played a pivotal role in creating Anzac Day commemorations. Without Monash, this annual commemoration would most likely have faded into obscurity.

Sources: Australian Biography, Australian War Memorial, Australian History Websites

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

100 Years Ago: Sykes-Picot Agreement Approved

Marina Ottaway, Woodrow Wilson International Center

The first of a long series of agreements that defined the post-Ottoman Levant was one reached by a British and a French diplomat, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, in 1916. It was approved by their respective governments on 16 May 1916.  Today, the “end of Sykes-Picot” has become the short hand for speculation about a possible reconfiguration of the states of the Levant.

Mark Sykes
Very little of the Sykes-Picot agreement was implemented, and the borders that were eventually established bear almost no resemblance to the lines drawn—in exquisite imperial fashion—by the two diplomats whose main concern was to decide how Britain and France would divide among themselves the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Paradoxically, it is the failure of the agreement that makes it relevant to understanding the forces currently threatening the disintegration of Levant states and possibly reconfiguring the region. If Britain and France had succeeded in shaping the Levant as they liked, the agreement could be dismissed as the product of a bygone colonial era with little relevance to the present. But they were not. The actions of Arab and Turkish nationalists, the demands of minorities, the ambitions of politicians, the collapse of czarist Russia, and the bankruptcy of Britain and France in aftermaths of the war shaped a Levant quite different from the one the two diplomats had envisaged.

And that is the relevance of Sykes-Picot to the present. The United States, Russia, and to some extent the European Union—the new international powers who have replaced Britain and France in trying to shape the region—have their own ideas of how the region should evolve and have invested lives and treasure to realize their goals. Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—the major regional powers—have their own plans for the future of the region. But once again it is the ever changing array of local, state, and non-state actors that will shape the final outcome.  

The Actors Sykes and Picot Forgot:

Several factors explain why, once the dust settled over the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had become largely irrelevant: the upsurge of nationalism in the region; the rise of modern Turkey; the Bolshevik revolution that turned Russia from an ally into an enemy of France and Britain, to be contained rather than awarded territory; and the bankruptcy of the two major colonial powers—France and Britain—in the wake of the war, which kept them from devoting to the region resources commensurate with their original aspirations. Ultimately, France and Britain could not realize their goals, despite their superior power and the League of Nations mandates over the Levant they had awarded themselves. They succeeded in drawing the borders of the new countries, but they had limited capacity to shape the states contained within those borders.

François Georges-Picot
Going into the war, France and Britain were convinced that the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were not ready for self-government and would not be ready for a  long time—statesmen in both countries were in total agreement on that point. The  issue they wanted to settle was not whether these areas would be under foreign supervision, because that was a foregone conclusion, but which areas would be supervised by France and which by Britain. The Sykes-Picot Agreement provided the answer. Britain would get complete control over an area of “Mesopotamia” starting north of Baghdad and extending through Basra all the way down the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. France would get complete control over an area extending along the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to southern Turkey and inland to a part of Anatolia. Britain and France could do what they wanted: putting these areas under direct administration by colonial officials or indirect control through local rulers of their own choosing. In addition, France and Britain also awarded themselves their respective zones of influence, where they would set up independent Arab states, or a confederation of states, under their supervision. Finally, an area comprising roughly today’s Israel and the West Bank, would be declared an international zone controlled jointly by Britain, France, and Russia. The Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of the east coast claimed by Britain, would be left under Arab control. The text of the agreement and British-French correspondence around it show clearly that the main concern of both France and Britain was to protect their interests against the other—there is much discussion about access to ports and the impositions of tariffs, none about the interests of the local population. 

In negotiating the agreement, Britain and France had ignored not only the issue of the rights of the Arabs whose territories they were disposing of, but also their probable reaction. Convinced that Arabs were not ready to govern themselves, the colonial powers also seemed to believe that they would remain passive. Instead, the  high-handed approach of the European powers stirred nationalist reactions through the region, where currents of Arab nationalism had been evident for a long time. With the weakening of the Ottoman grip, nationalists gained prominence in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, among others. The British themselves contributed to stirring up Arab nationalism by dangling in front of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, the vision of an independent Arab state under his rule when they were trying to enlist his support against the Ottomans and stir the Arab Revolt. Finally, the issuing by Britain of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, which declared support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, encouraged the Zionist movement and inevitably an Arab nationalist reaction. Additionally, after the defeat of the Ottomans, Turkish nationalists under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk fought fiercely against attempts to dismantle the Turkish core of the Ottoman Empire and formed a new strong Turkish state that had not been part of the Sykes-Picot plan. Local actors, in other words, had no intention of remaining passive and allowing Britain and France to design a post-Ottoman Levant as they saw fit.  

The outcome of the war also made Sykes-Picot impossible to implement in the original form. Syria, including Damascus, was supposed to fall in the French zone of Influence, but it was the British, not the French, that entered Damascus and expelled the Turks. The British also expelled the Turks from Palestine and remained there, although Palestine was supposed to be put under international administration.  Furthermore, U.S. intervention toward the end of the conflict changed the dynamics of peace negotiations, and the formation of the League of Nations meant that the Arab territories Britain and France had viewed essentially as colonies or protectorates to remain under their control indefinitely became instead League of Nations mandates. The mandates, on  the other hand, were temporary and carried the obligation for the mandatory powers to prepare the countries under their care for independence. The difficult economic situation both Britain and France faced at the end of the war, furthermore, made them unwilling to invest much in the new territories. Both countries were under pressure to demobilize the troops and return men to civilian  and to reduce the cost of controlling and administering the new territories. 

Original Sykes-Picot Agreement Map

Britain under the leadership of Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill pioneered in Mesopotamia the idea of reducing the number of ground troops by relying on the air force for control—a tantalizing antecedent to current U.S. policy in Iraq.  

In conclusion, when the Ottomans surrendered in October 1918, Sykes-Picot could no longer provide an answer for the future of the Arab territories.  Instead, it took until 1925, repeated rounds of negotiations and several treaties for the map of the Levant to take the familiar shape commonly identified with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Little survived of the Sykes-Picot Agreement: Syria, including what is today Lebanon, remained in a French zone of influence but as a League of Nations mandate and with boundaries that bore little similarity to those envisaged by the two diplomats in 1916.  Similarly, Mesopotamia stayed in the British zone but as a mandate that did not include the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula but included the former Ottoman province of Mosul that Sykes and Picot had given to France. Everything else was different: Palestine had not become an international zone but a British mandate, which included Transjordan but not the much larger zone of influence, extending well into the Arabian Peninsula, designed by the two diplomats. And while an Arab state had indeed arisen in the Arabian Peninsula, as envisaged in the original agreement, it was not the one centered on the Hejaz that Britain had dangled in front of Sharif Hussein’s eyes but one dominated by Ibn Saud, who had brought much of the peninsula under his control starting from the Najd. Turkey had lost the empire, but it had successfully fought against dismemberment of its core and had become an independent, fiercely nationalistic, and secular republic. And Egypt, from where Britain had plotted the war in the Levant and directed military operations, had also become independent, although the Suez Canal zone was still controlled by Britain and France.