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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Critical Period in Pétain's Ascendancy

by Leslie Anders

At the outbreak of World War I, Colonel Philippe Pétain took up his mobilization assignment as commander of the 4th Brigade of the 51st Reserve Infantry. Division. His new command at Vervins was a part of General Charles Louis Lanrezac's Fifth Army, then preparing for its share in the execution of Plan XVII. Action came quickly, as Lanrezac drove forward to meet the oncoming Germans "somewhere" in Belgium. Doubtless with misgivings, Pétain double-timed his brigade down the Meuse Valley to Dinant, where he ordered quick preparation of field fortifications. On 23 August his patrols began exchanging shots with the advance guard of the German XII Corps.

Pétain As a New General

Entrenchments Bypassed
The Germans did not get to make a fair test of Pétain's entrenchments, however. A high-level misunderstanding between Lanrezac and the commander of the British Expeditionary Force led to the precipitate withdrawal of the British and the uncovering of the Fifth Army's left flank. Instead of fighting it out at Dinant, therefore, Colonel  Pétain was ordered to abandon his lines and join in the great strategic retreat of General Louis Felix Franchet d'Esperey's I Corps

Plan XVII Fails
By this time, Plan XVII had been revealed in all its futility. Rushing across the fields and along the roads that led to Dieuze, Morhange, Altkirch, and Mulhouse, the red-trousered French infantrymen were cut down in long bloody swaths. Machine guns, barbed wire, and the entire armory of modern weapons had created an age of military technology in which Pickett's Charges were out of place. When the front stabilized, a few weeks later, nearly half the French Regular Army had been killed, wounded, or captured.

On the bleak morrow of Plan XVII's downfall,  Pétain hurried his troops southward along roads clouded with late-summer dust. At sundown, 24 August, the 4th Brigade marched into the little Belgian town of Mariembourg. The next day Pétain passed through Scourmont, France, at the head of his haggard rearguard battalion. At this point, however, Fifth Army ordered his unit to detached service with the III Corps to bolster a deteriorating front south of Guise. The evening of 29 August found  Pétain's force entrenched between the 1st and 5th Infantry Divisions, 2.5 miles south of Guise on the road to Marle.

Retreat Resumed
The German X Corps (Second Army) immediately charged the French positions in this area. Although  Pétain's gunners offered the invader a torrid reception, the French III Corps was unable to pull itself together sufficiently to make a stand. Retreat resumed, eventually pulling back across the Serre River toward Laon.

In this situation there was plenty of work for cool heads. On 31 August 1914, orders were published at Fifth Army promoting Colonel  Pétain to general de brigade and assigning him to command the demoralized 6th Division, then engaged in falling back toward the line Laon-Soissons.

Collecting the division after some exertions,  Pétain managed on 2 September to construct a 2.5-mile position on the south side of Mont-sur-Courville. Attacked here by the German IX Corps, the 6th division yielded and, by sundown on 3 September, had beaten an orderly retreat of 12 miles, crossing the Aisne at Verneuil. On the evening of 5 September, the division reached Louan, about 9 miles from the Seine.

Path of Pétain's 1914 Retreat

The Tide Turns
General  Pétain's long retreat ended, for on the morning of 6 September Joffre issued his celebrated "die on the spot" order to the armies of France. The generalissimo—who had been gathering divisions from the shattered eastern sectors to create a local numerical superiority along the decisive Marne front—was ready to try conclusions with the invader. Doing its part, the 6th Division wheeled about to face the onward rush of the Germans. Then, all of a sudden, the troops of the German right wing above Paris found themselves facing a dangerous flank-thrust from a newly formed French army north of Paris. Consternation reigned at the field headquarters of the Germans, and urgent orders for a general retreat were soon forthcoming for the units in the overextended sectors along the Marne.

Under a curtain of shell fire,  Pétain's division almost painlessly recaptured a village east of Provins. Now the chase was on, with the French cavalry leading the way. Spearheads of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth and Ninth Armies swept back into Chalons, Epernay, and Chateau-Thierry. Abandoning the Marne, the Germans relaxed their grip on the line Reims-Soissons-Compiegne and retreated to new trench positions on the high ridges north of the Aisne on 14 September. The Battle of the Marne, which saved France, passed into history as  Pétain's men started digging in along the Aisne north of Reims.

Pétain Vindicated 
Joffre, the imperturbable author of Plan XVII, reacted to his disillusioning experience with a relentless purge of the French officer corps. Those who had been the most conspicuous in their adherence to the doctrine of the offensive à outrance but the slowest to readjust to reality were quick to pay for their shortcomings. Two of the five original army commanders were removed from their posts, and seven of the 21 corps commanders were relieved. Scores of lesser officers who survived their foolhardiness joined their, seniors in Joffre's limbo.

Prestige Increased 
Simultaneously, the prestige of the colorless leader of the 6th Division was increasing. The elderly brigadier was earning a name for his personal gallantry, efficiency, and economy in lives. Recognized as a tough and skilled master of the strange new art of modern position warfare,  Pétain became on 15 September a major general (general de division). In mid-October he succeeded to command of the XXXIII Corps of General Louis de Maud'huy's Tenth Army and was proclaimed an officer of the Legion of Honor. The following spring he rose to command of the Second Army.

The rest of  Pétain's career being rather well known, it remains to us here to ponder briefly the causes for his swift rush from obscurity across the threshold of everlasting fame. Part of the secret lies, of course, in certain qualities of his character, praised in great detail on 27 September 1914, in an Order of the Day, which otherwise made scant mention of general officers. The commanding general of the 6th Division, in the words of the citation:

"...has by his tenacity, his calmness under fire, his constant foresight, his constant intervention at difficult moments, obtained from his division a magnificent effort during fourteen days, resisting repeated  attacks by day and night, and, the fourteenth day, in spite of losses sustained, repulsing victoriously a furious enemy attack."

Joffre and Pétain at Souilly During the Battle of Verdun

But this scarcely tells us the entire story. The fact is that, in spite of the obsession of his more brilliant colleagues with offensive doctrines,  Pétain had seen clearly for himself that massive and heedless infantry charges on the modern battlefield necessitated an intolerable wastage of life. In his common-sense way he had perceived what James Longstreet saw at Fredericksburg: "...the advantages conferred on the defensive by entrenchments and by nineteenth-century developments in fire power." 

His capacity for reducing military realities to simple terms, his ability to thrust off those delusions captivating more sophisticated French officers, and the bitter courage he habitually displayed in defense of his unpopular teachings—these constitute at once the core of  Pétain's distinctive contributions to French military history and the sure basis for his swift ascent to fame when the occasion arrived in 1914.

Source:  Military Review, June 1954

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The View from Opposing Sides at Vimy Ridge

Canadian Troops Advancing on Vimy Ridge

Lt. C.F.B. Jones,  First Canadian Division at Vimy Ridge

Sharp on time, 5:30 am. Easter Monday, there came one big crash, the whole  weight of our artillery swept the Hun line and we walked out following under our barrage. It was a wonderful sight and I shall never forget it. Dawn was just breaking, the sky was bright with Hun fireworks, his infantry frantically sending up SOS to his artillery, but he could do little against our stuff...The noise was terrific, but above all the din of the big guns could be heard the rattle of the Hun machine-guns as they endeavored to stop the rush of the Canadians.  Men dropped out here and there but nothing could stop us, and we reached our first objective in record time. Here there was a pause while our guns played on the Hun back trenches, and here I ran across young Archie Cornell, bright as a button, still leading his men...

All day and until the next night,  we remained at our last objective while other troops passed through us and drove the Hun back. It was beautifully worked and by the afternoon we had taken prisoners galore, officers and generals, guns and all sorts of stuff...

We have had to pay for it, but not too heavily. Poor Mac was killed early in the fight...Poor Archie Cornell, the brightest little sport in the battalion, was killed fifty yards from the final objective. Campbell, who played tennis in Calgary, a friend of Sheffield’s, was killed early in the day; Kirkham was wounded. When the final objective was reached, two of us [officers] were left in our company—the O[fficer] C[ommanding] and myself. He had been wounded twice but carried on until the next morning, when he went back to the [Casualty] Clearing Station, and I assumed command of the company—the only one left without a scratch.

Observers Atop Newly Captured Hill 145

Otto Schröder, 262nd Reserve Regiment. Near Hill 145 (Site of the Memorial)

...In the morning, tired and black from night duty, we lay down with the words: ‘Now let us pull the blankets over our heads and sleep.’ Suddenly there was heavy drumfire. The day-sentries shouted: ‘Outside! the British are coming!’

...While I was handing out hand grenades, in the trench the shooting had already started. The English—they were Canadian troops—had broken through on our left, in the sector of the 3rd Bavarian Reserve Regiment, and, advancing from the road, were already rolling up our position. My corporal told me to go down into the dug-out and fetch the box with the egg-shaped grenades.... But on the way back, when I had gone up half of the thirty-eight rungs, the corporal suddenly shouted: ‘Come up, to the left the British have already passed the trench.’ So I dropped the grenades back into the dug-out and went up into the trench...I noted that I was alone...only a dead comrade was lying on the edge, in a grotesque way....his name I had forgotten.

Now I had to act, but how? I pulled the dead soldier into the trench and lay down beside him, as if dead too. Meanwhile the assault waves were passing over us.This was going on for quite a time. Suddenly a strapping big Canadian appeared and curiously stuck his fixed bayonet into my dead comrade.

This was the worst moment of my life. I moved and the Tommy shouted: ‘Come on.’  With that I climbed out of the hole (silently saying good bye to my dead comrade). Immediately he held his bayonet against my chest and said: You blässiert, no?’ [Are you wounded?].*  I did not know what he meant, and shrugged my shoulders. Then, as suddenly as he had come, he disappeared. 

[Otto Schröder wandered around for a bit in Canadian territory and was eventually taken prisoner.]

Friday, April 28, 2017

100 Years Ago: The Great Gaza Cock-Up

The Terrain Around Gaza

The Well-Equipped Turkish Defenders
The coastal city of Gaza was the heart of the main Turkish defensive position in southern Palestine. Two major offensives were launched in 1917 by British and Dominion forces under the command of General Archibald Murray to capture Gaza.

The first battle of Gaza took place on 26 March 1917. Two British infantry divisions were to attack it from the south, while the mounted troops of the Desert Column would attack from the flanks and north. When the attack was launched, the infantry made slow progress, but the mounted troops succeeded in capturing high ground to the north of the city and advancing into it. Concerned by the lack of progress made by the infantry, and fearing the water supplies vital for the mounted troops would not be captured that night, Lieutenant General Dobell, the British officer commanding the operation, ordered a withdrawal at dusk. The next morning, after realizing his mistake, Dobell attempted to resume the battle with the infantry, but with the troops exhausted and the Turks having received reinforcements, the attack foundered.

A Destroyed British Tank
The second battle of Gaza took place three weeks later, beginning on 17 April 1917. In the interim the Turks had extended and improved their defenses. Dobell launched another frontal assault on the Turkish defenses, which was supported by gas shells and six tanks. The tanks and the gas were both dismal failures and the attacking forces could make little headway against well-sited Turkish redoubts. After three days of fighting the attack was called off, having not gained any significant ground. 

Prisoners Taken After the Second Battle of Gaza 

In the Gaza battles and the fights around Jerusalem, the Turks  had deployed well-trained artillerymen, had revealed that they had more machine guns than the EEF, had shown a fine eye for terrain, and had proved their skill in planning and entrenching a position. The biggest advantage the Turks had in the spring, however, was at the high command level. General Murray's skills were more in organizational aspects than in fighting—more a McClellan than a Grant. That would change on 1 June 1917, when General Edmund Allenby would arrive in theater to replace Murray. He would reinvigorate the command and launch a successful offensive in the fall. The Third Battle of Gaza would be a major victory for the British forces and open the door to Jerusalem.

Source:  The Australian War Memorial

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Parris Island USMC and the Great War

By 1914, the world was in crisis. War had broken out in Europe, and closer to home, Marines saw action at Vera Cruz and Haiti. As a response to the impending peril, in October 1915 Parris Island’s naval facilities were turned over to the Marine Corps for recruit training. The installation was officially designated “Marine Barracks, Port Royal, SC.”

With the passing of the National Defense Act in 1916, recruiting efforts were amplified. Included in this act was the creation of the Marine Corps Reserve. The depot quickly grew to meet the challenges of an expanding role in preparing the nation for war. After 1915, most recruits received training at Parris Island or Mare Island, California. During World War I, about 80 percent of all recruits trained at Parris Island. West Coast training was expanded in 1923 by moving Mare Island’s operations to San Diego.

Recruiting standards required all applicants to be unmarried, English educated, male citizens, with no dependents, of good health, have a strong constitution, and "sound as to senses and limbs." All arriving new recruits were processed by marching through the post to the quarantine station for evaluation before finally taking the oath of enlistment.

The course of instruction at Parris Island lasted eight weeks. The first three weeks were devoted to instruction and practice of close-order drill, physical exercise, swimming, bayonet fighting, personal combat, wall scaling, and rope climbing. During the fourth and fifth weeks, recruits perfected their drills, learned boxing and wrestling, and were taught interior guard duties. The last three weeks were dedicated to marksmanship.

Graduates of Parris Island in France

Parris Island also hosted a variety of other skill-based schools including non-commissioned officer, field music, radio, signal, clerical, pay, and cooks’ and bakers’ schools. On 1 July 1918, a presidential proclamation ordered possession to be taken of the entire island not already owned by the United States Government, comprising 6,000 total acres.

Source: Parris Island's Centennial Website

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman
Reviewed by Terrence Finnegan

Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman: 1914–15

by Robert Forczyk
Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2015

Russian Infantry

Robert Forczyk's book on combat in East Prussia in the opening months of the war is a thorough and illuminating work on a subject commonly misinterpreted or ignored. For example, public awareness on the significance of the battle of Gumbinnen is virtually nil. However, the war on the Eastern Front in the first weeks of 1914 in many ways decided the outcome of the entire war. This book describes in as much detail available on the open market the tactical role of forces in combat in this theater. The sources for the descriptions from the author and contacts through Osprey reveal never-before-seen photos, detailed battlefield maps very professionally portrayed, and artist renditions for the casual reader to see what the combatants looked like in the battlefield.

Forczyk provides a superb analysis of tactics and combat performance of both sides fighting three battles: at Gumbinnen (20 August 1914), Göritten (7 November 1914) and Mahartse (16 February 1915). He examines execution and results which helps the reader better understand the evolving nature of infantry warfare on the Eastern Front during World War I. Of interest and central to the tactical portrayal of the battles fought is access to Konstantin Pahalyuk's The 27th Division in the Battles in East Prussia, 1914–15. The fact that this book is Russian and published in Kaliningrad shows attention to detail very rarely seen in the West. The accounts on the battle of Gumbinnen alone make reading the book worthwhile.

Published works to date, including Winston Churchill's The Unknown War, mostly provide the strategic view. Forczyk provides further elaboration on how Gumbinnen was fought tactically. Gumbinnen set in motion several chains of causation, violently and even decisively affecting the whole course of the Great War. Russian artillery proved accurate and the German's attack dissolved, some even panicking and retreating. German commanders held the line, but the first major engagement appeared a Russian victory. The Germans readied for another attack but were called off by Generaloberst von Prittwitz, 8th Armee commander, who assessed the situation to be so dangerous as to warrant withdrawal, yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned. He then took steps to retreat to the safety of the other western shore of the Vistula River.

Gumbinnen aroused personal anxieties for the Prussian military aristocracy whose families residing in the region were threatened. This conviction seems to have dominated Generaloberst von Moltke's (Chef der Grosser Generalstab der Armee) mind during the five- or six-day convulsion which followed in France, and he made two decisive actions. First, Moltke ordered General der Infanterie von Hindenburg and his new chief of staff Generalmajor Ludendorff to proceed to the Eastern Front. Their presence in the coming days shaped Germany's military leadership for the remainder of the war. Second, Moltke's Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) made the critical decision to remove two German Armee-Korps and a kavalerie division already advancing on Paris through the Schlieffen Plan and have them quickly transported via rail to the Eastern Front. The ongoing victorious German army fighting on the Western Front raised no objectives against the parting of the two Armee-Korps; ironically, those very forces could have filled the fatal gap at the Marne.

Gumbinnen imparted to the Russian command a confidence which was in no way justified. It gave them an utterly false conception of the character, condition, and intentions of the German enemy. It lured General ot kavalerii Zhilinsky, Northwest Front commander, to spur on General ot kavalerii Samsonov's Russian Second Army. The battle's results lured Samsonov to deflect his advance more to the west and less to the north, farther away from General ot kavalerii Rennenkampf's Russian First Army, who in turn dawdled for nearly three days on the battlefield to let Samsonov's more ambitious movement gain its greatest effect. In many ways Gumbinnen was one of the most critical battles fought in the First World War.

German Infantry

Forczyk's approach to describing both Russian and German ranks and units in the original text adds to the credibility of his work. At the beginning of the book, ranks are spelled out and provided equivalency in translation. A footnote needs to be applied regarding the Generalleutnant (German)–general-leytenant (Russian)–lieutenant general (U.S.) and Generalmajor (German)–general-mayor (Russian)–major general (U.S.). Generalleutnant is the equivalent of a U.S. major general (despite the Generalleutnant spelling) and Generalmajor is a U.S. brigadier general (despite the Generalmajor spelling) equivalent. That understanding lends credibility to the discussion on the level of seniority being applied to the ongoing battle.

Osprey has done a favor to military historians who try to make sense of the contribution of the Eastern Front to the total picture of the Great War by publishing Forczyk's Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman and providing a snapshot of what occurred at this critical time.

Terrence Finnegan

Terrence Finnegan is the author of two fine works on the First World War:

  • Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, and

  • Delicate Affair on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches

Visit the author's website to purchase an autographed copy of his works.

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's Elementary: Conan Doyle on the Coming Danger of U-boats

Conan Doyle at Work

The most accurate prewar prognosticator of the threat presented to England by German U-boats was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.  After visiting Germany in 1911, Conan Doyle began to study German war literature. He saw that the submarine and the airplane were going to be important factors in the next war. He was particularly concerned about the threat of submarines blockading food shipments to Britain. 

Convinced that this was a vital precaution, Conan Doyle eventually took his idea to the public in the form of a story, "Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius" that originally appeared in the July 1914 edition of The Strand Magazine. The story dealt with a conflict between Britain and a fictional country called Norland.  In the story, Norland is able to bring Britain to its knees by the use of a small submarine fleet. Its opening passage was an eye-opener:

“It is an amazing thing that the English, who have the reputation of being a practical nation, never saw the danger to why they were exposed. For many years they had been spending nearly a hundred millions a year upon their army and their fleet…Yet when the day of trial came, all this imposing force was of no use whatever, and might as well have not existed.”  
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Danger!” (The Strand Magazine, July 1914)

Doyle’s proposals, given voice in the imagined Times leader, included: reformation of agriculture and trade policies to provide “sufficient food to at least keep life in her [Britain’s] population;” construction of “two double-lined railways under the Channel” to facilitate movement of goods and, presumably, armies; and “the building of large fleets of merchant submarines for the carriage of food.” Clearly, Doyle’s major concern was with having enough food to feed the nation during hostile times.

Sadly, Conan Doyle's warnings were ignored, at least by the British. German officials were later quoted as saying that the idea of the submarine blockade came to them after hearing Conan Doyle's warnings against such an event. How much of that statement was truth and how much was propaganda designed to cause conflict within Britain is not known.

From: and Continuum, Newsletter of the University of Minnesota Libraries

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Henry Kissinger Reflects on the Great War

Henry Kissinger, U.S. Army

Oppressed by the vulnerability of of its domestic structure in an age of nationalism, the polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire insisted on a generalized right of interference to defeat social unrest where it occurred. Because Britain was threatened only if Europe fell under the domination of a single power, Castlereagh was primarily concerned with constructing a balance of forces. Because the balance of power only limits the scope of aggression but does not prevent it, Metternich sought to buttress the equilibrium by developing a doctrine of legitimacy and establishing himself as its custodian.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

Each failed as he succeeded: Castlereagh in making Britain a permanent part of the concert of Europe; Metternich in preserving the principle of legitimacy he had striven so hard to establish. But their achievements were not inconsiderable: a period of peace lasting almost a hundred years, a stability so pervasive that it may have contributed to disaster. For in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable, that fear could become the means of social cohesion. 

Klemens von Metternich

The hysteria of joy which swept over Europe at the outbreak of the First World War was the symptom of a fatuous age, but also of a secure one. It revealed a millennial faith; a hope for a world which had all the blessings of the Edwardian age made all the more agreeable by the absence of armament races and of the fear of war. What minister who declared war in August 1914 would not have recoiled with horror had he known the shape of the world in 1918, not to speak of the present? One who had such an intuition and did so recoil was, of course, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey.

That such a world was inconceivable in 1914 is a testimony to the work of the statesmen with whom this book deals. 

Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Bloody April 1917

Contributed by Steve Miller

In April 1917 the British began the  battle for Arras. Aerial reconnaissance had become an essential on all fronts, and the British Royal Flying Corps made a maximum effort. Unfortunately, so did the German fighter squadrons. To the RFC it would be known as "Bloody April," with 245 aircraft down, 211 aircrew killed or missing, and 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Service lost 66 aircraft from all causes.

Many of the RFC losses were of the B.E.2 type. A reconnaissance airplane in service since 1914, it was designed to be very stable in flight, an asset for observation and photography. By 1917 it was totally obsolete, under-powered, and suffering poor maneuverability to escape contemporary German fighters.

Under the leadership of Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen (the Red Baron), the German Air Service's Jasta 11 accounted for 89 victories, more than a third of the British losses.

For more information on Bloody April, Steve recommends:

Friday, April 21, 2017

La Grande Illusion

Of all the best films  that were inspired by World War One, Jean Renoir's La Grand Illusion ranks the highest in any list of all-time great movies. It is also considered the finest anti-war movie ever made.  Here are some memorable visual aspects of the classic.

The Film Showed Worldwide and Generated Many Posters  
This Is My Favorite

Prisoner of War Status Did Not Eliminate the Class System

Jean Gabin As the Central character, Working-Class Lt.  Maréchal, 
Displays an Amazing Range of Emotions

French Captive Captain  de Boeldieu  Forms a Congenial Aristocratic Bond with the 
Prison Commandant  Captain von Rauffenstein, Played by Otto von Stroheim

The Cheerful Mood of a Prisoners' Stage Show Is Broken with the Announcement That Fort Douaumont Has Been Recaptured by the French—
Nationalism Reigns As the Performers Break Out  "La Marseillaise!"

As de Boeldieu Lies Dying, von Rauffenstein Apologizes to Him for Shooting Him During
the Successful Breakout and Escape by Lts. Maréchal and Rosenthal

The Stunning Final Scene—Maréchal and Rosenthal Escape into Switzerland

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Notable Weapon of the Great War: The French Hotchkiss Model 1914 Heavy Machine Gun

The Hotchkiss Model 1914 was the standard French Army heavy machine gun during World War I. Heavy but rugged and dependable, the Hotchkiss Model 1914 saw continuous service along the entire line of the Western Front for the full duration of the war. The gun and mount weighed 88 pounds, fired 8mm Lebel Mle 1886 rounds from a 30-round metal strip, and had a rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute. It was gas operated and air cooled and had a maximum effective range of 3800 meters. The Hotchkiss served in both ground combat support and anti-aircraft roles.

Many machine gun units of the AEF entered combat with the 1914 model of the French-made Hotchkiss machine gun. Machine guns were used by the Yanks for both indirect and direct fire missions. When in the former role, the guns were placed to cooperate with the field artillery units in neutralizing suspected enemy observation posts and machine guns during the attack and to sweep the approaches for possible enemy counterattacks after the capture of the final objective. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Who Was Živojin Mišić?

General Živojin Mišić (1855–1921) was Serbia's greatest military commander of the First World War. Called from retirement, he led the Serbian forces in defeating the two initial Austrian invasions of his homeland. An opponent of the great retreat across the Albanian mountains to Corfu, he nonetheless accompanied the troops. He later resumed command of the Serbian forces on the Salonika Front that helped decisively defeat Bulgaria and opened back doors into both Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

In the weeks immediately prior to the cessation of hostilities Mišić led his troops deep into Austro-Hungarian territory, both ensuring its collapse but also—more important for him—greatly assisting the creation of the postwar southern Slav state which he had long advocated (ultimately named Yugoslavia).

Appointed chief of general staff with the end of the war, Mišić died on 20 January 1921 at the age of 66.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beneath the Killing Fields
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Beneath the Killing Fields: 
Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front

by Matthew Leonard
Pen and Sword, 2017

Tunnel Entrance
Butte de Vauquois
When I first received this book I noticed that it was short at 170 pages; heavy and expensive at $40; printed on glossy paper; and profusely illustrated with photographs of craters, tunnels, monuments, and soldiers plus a few maps. Not the usual Great War volume as it doesn't concentrate on a specific battle but describes how subterranean activities affected men and how they were used to wage war. The author has a PhD in archaeology and has contributed extensively to the field of modern conflict archaeology, a new and interdisciplinary approach to the study of post-1900 conflicts. This approach uses every kind of information available, from graffiti and artwork to leftover armaments and gas curtains, in order to understand underground conflict.

The book begins with a glossary, vital to readers not familiar with camouflets, kinaesthesia, and souterraine. The first chapter is an overview of underground warfare from Alexander the Great through the American Civil War and the tunneling by Japanese defenders on many Pacific islands. Vietnam and drug smuggling tunnels receive notice and, more important, how the military coped with tunnels. During the Great War, hundreds of troops were staged underground to attack the enemy. The author stated in an email to me that the yardage of tunneling almost equaled the yardage of trenches. What varied between the combatants was the approach to tunneling.

Tunnelers Quarters
Butte de Vauquois
The Germans viewed tunneling and the construction of dugouts as a defensive matter so that their troops could survive shelling and emerge to defeat Allied attackers as they did in the battle of the Somme. The furnishings of destroyed villages outfitted German dugouts comfortably while the Allies did not want their men to be comfortable so as to encourage them to evict the Germans from France. The Allies considered underground work useful for offensive purposes. Before the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, hundreds of troops had to wait in cramped quarters with no sanitary facilities except their immediate position. The stench, severely cramped quarters, and pre-battle tension did nothing for morale.

One chapter is devoted to the senses—how each can be used underground to compensate for vision which no longer functions in the dark. When one side would break into the tunnel of the other, soldiers would identify friend from foe by feeling for epaulets on German shoulders in the dark. Then hand-to-hand combat would break out in spaces too small for standing. Yet the tunnelers left a human quality behind through graffiti, instructions on walls to suppress conversation, and even a few works of art.

Dr. Leonard also discusses the beginning of underground archaeology, studying a mine left underground decades earlier that had been defused. The group took the name Durand from a mine in the Vimy Ridge area and remained together to study other tunnels, enhancing knowledge about the skills and innovation necessary to wage war underground. Throughout the book are color photographs of the Durand group working underground, and the difficulties are obvious: very tight quarters, uneven surfaces, knee-deep water, leftover grenades from both sides, and collapses in farm fields from heavy rainfall. One member of the group died when the chalk overhead collapsed.

There is more to this book than the pain of digging tunnels; we also get descriptions of disastrous battles, monuments listing the missing by the tens of thousands, illustrations of the ossuary and the interdisciplinary approach of archaeology and anthropology. The latter quality makes this book particularly worthwhile as the reader learns about an aspect of the war previously untouched: the extent of tunneling, the learning curve of using tunnels to advantage, and the various effects of them upon soldiers including the nerve-wracking silence required to prevent discovery by the enemy digging—and listening—just a few feet away.

Read Beneath the Killing Fields to develop a very different perspective of the war, how it was fought, and its effects upon the combatants. The war was even more wretched than we thought.

Ron Drees

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Price of Vimy Ridge

The Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties capturing Vimy Ridge, including 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. German casualties from the attack are unknown, but over 4,000 of the defenders were taken prisoner.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

100 Years Ago Today: Lenin Arrives at Finland Station

On 16 April 16 1917 Vladimir Lenin returned to Petrograd (now, again, St. Petersburg) from exile after the tsar’s abdication. Lenin had departed Zurich, his latest place of exile, a week earlier and with the help of the German government and army, made his way back to Russia in the now famous "sealed train."

Lenin's Favorite Haunt in Zurich

He was met by his followers at Finland Station and climbed onto an armored car where he made his famous impassioned speech. With searchlights pointed at him and his followers standing to attention Lenin pronounced on his arrival:

“I greet you without knowing yet whether or not you have believed in all the promises of the Provisional Government. But I am convinced that when they talk to you sweetly, when they promise you a lot, they are deceiving you and the whole Russian people. The people need peace; the people need bread; the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread—leave the landlords still on the land...We must fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, until the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!"

This was probably the most important moment in Lenin’s career, after which he took into his own hands the direction of the revolution.

By the time Lenin returned to his homeland the government had been weakened. Russia’s involvement in World War One led to the February Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II was eventually forced to hand over his power to the Provisional Government. Almost immediately after his arrival, Lenin published the April Theses, in which he argued that the Bolshevik Party must fight to overthrow the Provisional Government. Lenin’s objective was to seize power by force and he demanded for an armed uprising.

He was successful in convincing the Bolshevik Party. In October that same year, armed workers and soldiers stormed the headquarters of the Provisional Government, arresting its members. This became known as the October Revolution. Lenin came to power as the head of the new Soviet government and became the leader of the USSR in 1922 and ruled until his death in 1924.

In memory of the speech he made on this day, a statue outside Finland Station was erected in 1926 depicting him in the midst of his address. The monument that became one of the most famous statues of Lenin was bombed by vandals on 1 April 2009, leaving a huge hole in the lower part of Lenin’s bronze coat. No one was hurt in the blast, and it is not known who was responsible. 

Source: Content from Russiapedia, Photos by Steve Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Death of Edward Thomas, Author of the Title for Roads to the Great War

At the top of this page, you will see a quote from poet Edward Thomas from his poem "Roads." His is one of the names on a slate stone in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, which commemorates the sixteen “Great War Poets." It is alongside the likes of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, so Thomas’s name will therefore be immortalized as a war poet although most of his work was written before he ever went to war.  In fact, his time at the front was tragically short—he was killed at the Battle of Arras very soon after arriving in France in 1917 on 9 April 1917.

Edward Thomas During Training
Like so many men of the time he felt compelled to enlist in the Army even though, as a married man of 37, he was not obliged to do so. Thus he joined the Artists Rifles in July 1915.  It is generally regarded that he came to his decision having read fellow poet Robert Frost’s great poem "The Road Not Taken."

He went to France as a commissioned officer of the Royal Garrison Artillery and met his end in curiously tragic circumstances on Easter Monday, April 1917.  Having survived the bloody Battle of Arras he stood casually in his trench to light his pipe.  A late, random shell burst near to him and the concussive blast wave from it was so strong that the force of it killed him where he stood.

Edward Thomas’s body was taken to the Military Cemetery at Agny in France and here he lies among the many rows of fallen soldiers. He left behind his wife Helen and two daughters and so consumed by grief was Helen that she sought solace in writings of her own. She published an account of their early years together called As it Was (1926) with a second volume following in 1931 called World Without End.

This poem was one of the last Edward Thomas Wrote before he left his training camp for France.:

By Edward Thomas

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain 
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me 
Remembering again that I shall die 
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks 
For washing me cleaner than I have been 
Since I was born into this solitude. 
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: 
But here I pray that none whom once I loved 
Is dying tonight or lying still awake 
Solitary, listening to the rain, 
Either in pain or thus in sympathy 
Helpless among the living and the dead, 
Like a cold water among broken reeds, 
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, 
Like me who have no love which this wild rain 
Has not dissolved except the love of death, 
If love it be for what is perfect and 
Cannot, the tempest tells me,  

7 January, 1916 


Friday, April 14, 2017

When Was the Conspiracy to Assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand Hatched?

Answer: April 1914

That month Gavrilo Princip was in Belgrade, where he associated with a number of Serbian students in town cafes and conceived a plan for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He shared the plan with his acquaintance Nedeljko Čabrinović, also in Belgrade, who held similar views and agreed at once to participate in the attempt.

The Conspirators in Court, Princip Circled

Attempts on the archduke's life were a frequent topic of conversation in the circles in which Princip and Čabrinović moved, as the archduke seen as a dangerous enemy of the Serbian people.

Princip and Čabrinović desired at first to procure the necessary bombs and weapons from Serbian Major Milan Pribićević or from the Narodna Odbrana, [the Black Hand] as they lacked the money to purchase the weapons. Since both Pribićević and Živojin Dačić, a leading member of the Black Hand, were absent from Belgrade, they then tried to get the weapons from their acquaintance Milan Ciganović, a former Komitadji [nationalist rebels originally working against the Ottomans] currently working for the state railways. 

Princip contacted Ciganović though a friend and discussed the assassination plan with him. Ciganović endorsed the plan and indicated he would consider providing weapons. Čabrinović also talked with Ciganović about the weapons.

At Easter Princip took Trifko Grabež, also in Belgrade, into his confidence. In his later confession, Grabež admitted his willingness to take part in the attempt. In the following weeks Princip repeatedly discussed the plans with Ciganović, who meanwhile had reached an understanding with his close friend Serbian Major Voja Tankosić to provide the Browning pistols Princip used on 28 June to kill the archduke and his wife, Sophie. 

Sources: Austrian Court District of Sarajevo Record

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Roads Classic: Ten Quotes About the Battle of the Somme

(This is the most viewed entry I've ever made in Roads to the Great War.  MH)

With the 99th anniversary of the famous battle coming in two weeks on 1 July, I've dug through the files and found some of the more memorable things said of the event. I found it hard, though, to find anything matching Kipling's poignant, "A Garden called Gethsemane, in Picardy it was... 

The River Somme

1. Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel. It watered a country of simple beauty...Then came the pestilence.
A.D. Gristwood

2.  Every Englishman has a picture of the Somme in his mind, and I will not try to enlarge it.
A.P. Herbert

3.  The literature of 1 July 1916 is endless. Salutary at first, a proper corrective to the streams of propaganda claptrap about "laughing heroes" and "the Great Adventure" which had previously gushed forth, after a time it developed into a most mischievous mythology.
John Terraine 

Depiction of the 1 July 1916 Attack

4.  Devonshires Held This Trench, the Devonshires Hold It Still
Marker, Devonshire Cemetery

5.  South of the Ancre was a broad-backed high ground, and on that ground a black vapour of smoke and naked tree trunks or charcoal, an apparition which I found was called Thiepval Wood. The Somme indeed!
Edmund Blunden

6.  During my whole life I have not found a happier hunting ground than in the course of the Somme Battle. In the morning, as soon as I had got up, the first Englishmen arrived, and the last did not disappear until long after sunset.  Boelcke once said that this was the El Dorado of the flying men.
Manfred von Richthofen

7.  It seemed all over, hardly 20 minutes from the start. It was a strong point and still was, even with reinforcements it would be hopeless, with those sodding machine guns still in action. Behind we could see where we started from, in front, the Jerry lines on slightly rising ground. We could see the shape of the Quadrilateral, like a squashed diamond, behind the bank. Judging by the damned chatter when we were going over, a hidden machine gun at every point. Quiet enough now, they had already done all the damage, not giving their position away now, leaving the Jerries in the line to do the odd firing.
Harry Leedham

8.  Idealism perished on the Somme.
A.J. P. Taylor

9.  The tragedy of the Somme battle was that the best soldiers, the stoutest-hearted men were lost; their numbers were replaceable, their spiritual worth never could be.
Unidentified German Soldier

10.  It's the end of the 1916 winter and the conditions are almost unbelievable. We live in a world of Somme mud. We sleep in it, work in it, fight in it, wade in it and many of us die in it. We see it, feel it, eat it and curse it, but we can't escape it, not even by dying.
Edward Lynch

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

British Cavalry Help Capture Monchy-le-Preux–11 April 1917

By Stephen Barker @ Oxford University's World War I Centenary Website

Monchy-le-Preux was one of the keys to the northern end of the Hindenburg Line, giving the Germans ideal observation over any advance from the British trenches in front of Arras five miles away. Third Army’s commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, ordered the capture of the village and surrounding high ground, as objectives for the first day of the offensive—9 April. In the eventuality that VI Corps infantry broke through the "Green Line" just east of Monchy, Allenby ordered the Cavalry Corps, in conjunction with the infantry, to exploit the gains further, a distance of eight miles in total toward Cambrai.  However, he made it clear that the cavalry was not to be used unless the infantry achieved their first day objectives.

This is important, reflecting Sir Douglas Haig’s order that cavalry be ready to deliver significant advances, yet also be handled carefully. Seemingly contradictory—any such unprecedented breakthrough would inevitably lead to heavy casualties—it also revealed the fundamental tension between those senior officers who believed that a comprehensive "breakthrough" with cavalry was yet possible and those who subscribed to a "bite and hold" doctrine. Yet Haig had recognized the limitations of the use of cavalry early in 1916, when a revision of the existing prewar policy was undertaken. This stressed the value of close cooperation between cavalry and other arms, its ability to perform attacking and defensive duties and to operate in both mounted and dismounted roles.

British Cavalry and a Mark I Tank During the Arras Battle. Image Is Author's Own.

Cavalry was viewed increasingly as one of several mobile elements, including tanks, armored cars, aeroplanes, and bicycle-mounted troops, working with the infantry. If a breakthrough of the enemy line was not possible, horsemen were expected to use their mobility and dismounted firepower to enable the infantry to establish and broaden gaps at critical times in the battle. They were to be capable of an effectual dismounted role, sophisticated fire, and movement tactics, including the taking and holding of ground using speed and mobility.

In the context of trench warfare, the first day at Arras was a success, with ground up to a depth of three-and-a-half miles taken, but the gains fell short of Monchy-le-Preux. Its capture was planned again for the morning of 11 April, when four regiments from 3rd Cavalry Division supported the infantry attack. 3rd Dragoon Guards reached the Monchy-La Bergère road south of the village. Here they dismounted and took up firing positions with their Hotchkiss machine guns, joining up a defensive line between 111 and 112 Infantry Brigades. They endured heavy artillery fire and were strafed by low-flying aircraft, fighting as infantry to repel potential counterattacks.

North of the village, Essex Yeomanry and 10th Hussars, supported by the Royal Horse Guards, galloped eastward, looking to exploit any breakthrough. Meeting machine gun fire, they veered into its streets, as ordered, and then ventured out once more to escape shelling this time, only to be driven back. The arrival of the cavalry in the village enabled the struggling infantry to establish a defensive firing line. By deepening shell holes, deploying machine guns, and establishing two dressing stations, the dismounted cavalry stiffened the infantry’s resolve. They provided rapid reinforcements, leadership, and organizational proficiency at a crucial time, before the arrival of tanks and infantry secured the village.  Six hundred cavalrymen were casualties, and many more horses died. The animals were tethered in the open, as their riders took cover, while attempts to take them to the rear during a box barrage only increased the killing.

Monchy Has Two Memorials to Infantry Units That Helped Capture the Village in 1917:
The Newfoundland Regiment on the Left and the 37th Division on the Right.
No Mention Is Given to the Cavalry Units Discussed in This Article

Today, the apparent folly of employing horses during the Great War belies that fact that cavalry were the only mobile force capable of exploiting any breakthrough in the trench stalemate. For Allied commanders searching for ways to return to "open warfare" and to liberate French soil, there was no alternative—fast, dependable tanks were not yet available. Yet at Arras, although the possibility of a decisive breakthrough was planned for, so too was it acknowledged by GHQ that the task of the mounted arm had changed.

Source:   ‘War Horse’ at Monchy-le-Preux – 11 April 1917 (