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

Monday, July 31, 2017

100 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Passchendaele Opens (A Roads Classic)

The name Passchendaele has become synonymous for waste of life and pointless orders to continue the attack irrespective of the ground conditions.
Tony Noyes, Battlefield Guide Par Excellence and Friend

Royal Mail: Lest We Forget Passchendaele

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The horrendous losses to the French in their part of the Allied offensive of April 1917 had led to widespread mutinies during the summer. As a result, the burden of continuing the attack on the Germans in the fall of 1917 fell to the British forces. Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, chose the Ypres salient as the site for his new offensive. He believed this area offered the greatest scope for a breakthrough, and the Royal Navy supported him, hoping that the army could capture the ports on the Belgian coast that the Germans were using as bases for their submarine offensive against Britain's seaborne trade.

The offensive began on 31 July 1917, but made disappointingly small gains. The British artillery bombardment, which was needed to shatter the enemy's defensive trench system, also wrecked the low-lying region's drainage system, and unusually rainy weather turned the ground into a wasteland of mud and water-filled craters. For three months, British troops suffered heavy casualties for limited gains.

Inside the Menin Gate: Partial View

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On 16 August the attack was resumed, to little effect. Stalemate reigned for another month until an improvement in the weather prompted another attack on 20 September. The Battle of Menin Road Ridge, along with the Battle of Polygon Wood fought by the Australians on 26 September and the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, established British possession of the ridge east of Ypres.

In October, the Canadian Corps, now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, took its place in the front lines. On 26 October the 3rd and 4th Divisions launched the first Canadian assault, in rain that made the mud worse than ever. Three days of fighting resulted in over 2,500 casualties, for a gain of only a thousand or so yards (1 km). A second attack went in on 30 October. In a single day, there were another 2,300 casualties—and only another thousand yards (1 km) gained. On 6 November, the 1st and 2nd Divisions launched a third attack that captured the village of Passchendaele, despite some troops having to advance through waist-deep water. A final assault on 10 November secured the rest of the high ground overlooking Ypres and held it despite heavy German shelling. This marked the end of the Passchendaele offensive.

After the Battle: Polygon Wood (Passchendaele Museum) 

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Passchendaele was one of the war's most futile battles. The unspeakable conditions led to terrible losses—nearly 260,000 British casualties, including over 15,000 Canadians killed and wounded. This suffering had produced no significant gains (though it did help wear down the German Army). Passchendaele has come, perhaps more than any other battle, to symbolize the horrors of the First World War.

Sources: Imperial War Museum, Library and Archives of Canada and BBC Website

Sunday, July 30, 2017

T.E. Lawrence on the Ethical in War

From:  The Evolution of a Revolt by T. E. Lawrence (Late Lt. Col., General Staff, EEF)

T.E. Lawrence

It was the ethical in war, and the process on which we mainly depended for victory on the Arab front. The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander, and we, being amateurs in the art of command, began our war in the atmosphere of the twentieth century, and thought of our weapons without prejudice, not distinguishing one from another socially. The regular officer has the tradition of forty generations of serving soldiers behind him, and to him the old weapons are the most honored. We had seldom to concern ourselves with what our men did, but much with what they thought, and to us the diathetic was more than half command. In Europe it was set a little aside and entrusted to men outside the General Staff.

In Asia we were so weak physically that we could not let the metaphysical weapon rust unused. We had won a province when we had taught the civilians in it to die for our ideal of freedom: the presence or absence of the enemy was a secondary matter.

These reasonings showed me that the idea of assaulting Medina, or even of starving it quickly into surrender was not in accord with our best strategy. We wanted the enemy to stay in Medina, and in every other harmless place, in the largest numbers. The factor of food would eventually confine him to the railways, but he was welcome to the Hejaz railway, and the Trans-Jordan railway, and the Palestine and Damascus and Aleppo railways for the duration of the war, so long as he gave us the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of the Arab world. If he showed a disposition to evacuate too soon, as a step to concentrating in the small area which his numbers could dominate effectively, then we would have to try and restore his confidence, not harshly, but by reducing our enterprises against him.  Our ideal was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort to him.

Turkish Guard Detail at a Hejaz Railroad Station

Accordingly, I put in a few damages to the line, enough to annoy the enemy without making him fear its final destruction, and then rode back to Wejh, to explain to my chiefs that the Arab war was geographical, and the Turkish Army for us an accident, not a target. Our aim was to seek its weakest link, and bear only on that till time made the mass of it fall. Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.  We must impose the longest possible passive defense on the Turks (this being the most materially expensive form of war) by extending our own front to its maximum. Tactically we must develop a highly mobile, highly e of army, of the smallest size, and use it successively at  distributed points of the Turkish line, to make the Turks reinforce their occupying posts beyond the economic minimum of twenty men. The power of this striking force of ours would not be reckoned merely by its strength. The ratio between number and area determined the character of the war, and by having five times the mobility of the Turks we could be on terms with them with one-fifth their number.

Our success was certain, to be proved by paper and pencil as soon as the proportion of space and number had been learned. The contest was not physical, but mineral, and so battles were a mistake. All  we won in a battle was the ammunition the enemy fired off. Our victory lay not in battles, but in occupying square miles of country.  Napoleon had said it was rare to find generals willing to fight battles.  The curse of this war was that so few could do anything else.  Napoleon had spoken in angry reaction against the excessive finesse of the eighteenth century, when men almost forgot that war gave licence to murder. We had been swinging out on his dictum for a hundred years, and it was time to go back a bit again. Battles are impositions on the side which believes itself weaker, made unavoidable either by lack of land-room, or by the need to defend a material property dearer than the lives of soldiers. We had nothing material to lose, so we were to defend nothing and to shoot nothing.  The precious element of our forces were the Bedouin irregulars, and not the regulars whose role would only be to occupy places to which the irregulars had already given access. Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power, and these gave us strategical rather than tactical strength. Range is more to strategy than force. The invention of bully-beef has modified land-war more profoundly than the invention of gunpowder.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Lt. Jimmy Higgs, DSC, 7th Balloon Company

Possibly this is Lt. Higgs on the Right Side in the Balloon

No one had a better view of the battlefields of France during the First World War than NC State civil engineering alum Jimmy Higgs.  And few people survived the danger he faced, as the leader of one of 17 U.S. balloon observation companies that served on the Western front.

James Allen Higgs Jr., a native of Raleigh and a two-time graduate of the North Carolina College for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (1906, ’10), signed up for duty at the mature age of 29, intent on going to war, just like his slightly younger classmate Frank Martin Thompson (1910).

Higgs was a slight fellow of 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches, weighing 120 pounds in a cold sweat. His greatest ambition, he said just before his graduation, was “to grow.” He knew that if he signed up as an infantryman, he likely would not survive more than a few days in the trenches that bisected the open fields of France, Belgium and Germany.

“I was a little guy, and I couldn’t fancy myself swapping bayonet thrusts with those big Germans,” Higgs told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1968 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the First World War. “When the call went out to be balloon observers, I volunteered.

“They took us to Washington and put us in a machine and spun us around until we were thoroughly dizzy, then measured the time it took to regain our equilibrium. I was one of the winners.”

Being a “balloon spy,” as he was often called, was a position unique to the Civil War and World War I. Every day, from sunrise to sunset, it was Higgs’s assignment to crawl into a two-man basket tethered by cable to the front of a truck. Armed with binoculars, topographical maps and a telephone, he would fly high (up to 5,000 feet) over the battlefield and report troop activity to his commanders on the ground. Usually, he was with a French observer who was relaying similar information to his superiors.

As if flying unprotected over the battlefield wasn’t dangerous enough, the sausage-shaped gasbags were filled with highly flammable hydrogen, making them susceptible to fires started by the hot rounds coming from guns below. They were also sitting-duck targets for the biplanes that attacked from behind the clouds overhead.  Four times over the course of four months, Higgs was shot down, jumping out of the basket and praying that the parachute stuffed on the outside of the balloon basket and harnessed to his back automatically deployed after he cleared 300 feet.

Each time, he went right back up.

Once, he was trying to coerce his partner to escape for his life and was met only with a blank stare from a non-English speaking partner. He quickly ran through his memory banks to find the French word for “jump.”

Jimmy Higgs Did This Four Times!

“We were supposed to stay in the balloon until our telephone man on the ground told us to jump,” Higgs told the AJC. “Noise carries upward much louder than along the surface. The guns were making such a racket I couldn’t hear over the phone.

“Finally, I made out the words ‘Jump! Jump!’”

When he relayed the order to the French sergeant, he got no response.

“I realized he didn’t understand English, and hollered, ‘Sautez! Sautez!’ and pointed the way he was to go. He went over the side and I followed him.”

It was anything but a peaceful trip to the ground.

“We were each wearing parachute harnesses with a rope attached to the ‘chute that was stuffed into a bag hanging outside the basket. Our weight would pull the ‘chutes out of the bags. They were supposed to open when we dropped 300 feet. It takes nearly five seconds to fall 300 feet from a standing start, and that is a long time to wonder whether you are going to live or die.

“The parachute opened with a considerable jolt, but it was a very pleasant feeling. I closed my eyes until the parachute popped, but I kept them open on subsequent jumps.”

Higgs’s only compensation for jumping out of a falling balloon on four occasions? Each time, he was awarded 48 hours of leave in Paris to “settle his nerves and get ready to go back up again.”

Which he did until 11 November 1918, when the bells of Paris signaled the pre-arranged armistice between the warring forces. Weather did not allow Higgs to go up at the time of the ceasefire, but the following day he did up to 5,000 feet—the limit of his balloon’s steel cable—to make sure German forces were pulling out as promised.

“The end was an amazing thing,” he said. “I had been hearing guns roaring around and under me, and sometimes, enemy shells and bombs bursting in our camp, for almost a year,” Higgs said. “Sharp at the stroke of 11, they all stopped. There were no birds or animals in the war zones to make the usual noises, and no machines moved.

“I found myself listening for just any sound, but there was none.”

Higgs chronicled his balloon exploits in detailed letters to his mother, Mattie A. Higgs, who lived on Raleigh’s North Blount Street from 1889 to 1964. They were retold many times through the years to his NC State brethren during his visits from Atlanta, where Higgs settled after the war, to Raleigh, where his family remained.

Jimmy Higgs in 1968
Higgs was a loyal and devoted NC State alum and served as the president of the Alumni Association in 1938. A vice president and regional manager of the Massey Concrete Products Corp., Higgs never missed an Atlanta-area alumni meeting.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor given by the U.S. Army, for extreme gallantry and risk of life during his daily work as a balloon observer. His citation reads:

1st Lieutenant James A. Higgs, Jr.–Distinguished Service Cross
Date of Action: July 31, August 21 and October 29, 1918

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to James Allen Higgs, Jr., First Lieutenant (Air Service), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Pont-a-Mousson, France, July 31, 1918. Lieutenant Higgs was carrying on a general surveillance of his sector from his balloon with a French soldier, when an enemy plane dived from a cloud and opened fire on the balloon. In imminent danger he remained in basket until he had helped his French comrade, after whom he himself jumped. On August 21, in the same sector, Lieutenant Higgs was performing an important mission regulating artillery fire. Enemy planes attacked, and with great gallantry Lieutenant Higgs remained in the basket until his assistant had jumped. On October 29, near Gesnes, Lieutenant Higgs was conducting a réglage from the basket with a student observer.  Attacked by enemy planes, after his balloon was burning, Lieutenant Higgs would not quit his post until he had assisted his companion to escape. In each of the foregoing instances, Lieutenant Higgs at once re-ascended in a new balloon.
General Orders No. 126, W.D., 1919 

While Higgs survived his 18-month service, unlike so many who are celebrated annually on Memorial Day, he did know the tragedy of war. His father and three uncles were part of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry in the Civil War.

And he and wife Mary Marbury—a descendant of North Carolina’s first governor, Richard Caswell—were the proud parents of two sons, James Allen Higgs III and Caswell Marbury Higgs. The younger son followed his father’s footsteps as a military hero, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942 as a second lieutenant, shortly after completely his sophomore year at the Citadel in Charleston.

A machine-gun platoon leader, Caswell Higgs was shipped overseas in 1944 and landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach two months after D-Day. Serving in the Army under Gen. George S. Patton, the younger Higgs was killed in action five months later, leading his men across the Rhine River. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery on the battlefield, making him a second-generation war hero.

Higgs’s grandson, James Allen Higgs IV, was an Army Ranger in Vietnam.

Higgs died on 30 June 1971, at the age of 83 and was buried in a private cemetery in Atlanta. He never forgot his Raleigh roots, his NC State education, or his fallen comrades.

In March 1919, just weeks after returning from France, Higgs was among the first alumni to donate to the proposed Memorial Tower to honor the NC State soldiers who perished in Europe’s Great War, by sending a check for $5 to director E.B. Owen in the Alumni Office.

This post was originally published in the NC State News.  Thanks to Jerry Hester for sharing it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Italy's Most Successful Advance on the Isonzo (A Roads Classic)

Today with my tour group, I'm starting a visit to the battlefields around Gorizia described here. In the grim campaign of attrition that were the 11 battles fought along the Isonzo River, the Sixth Battle of the Iszono was the greatest accomplishment of the Italian Army. MH


If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. . . then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.
            Sun Tsu—The Art of War 

Action on the Rocky, Barren Carso Plateau

When Italy entered the Great War in 1915, it hoped to tilt the balance of force against the Central Powers, ending the war quickly and allowing them to gain some long sought after territorial gains on the cheap. By the start of 1916, however, Italy found it was engaged in a protracted total war, placing undreamed-of social and economic strains on the nation. Italy's government and military had to justify this burden with some successes on the battlefield. Their new allies had also started placing demands on them to continue on the offensive to alleviate pressures on their fronts. Austria-Hungary, likewise, had mobilized its entire empire to support its war effort and needed to keep popular support. Also, to inhibit the disintegration threatened by the growth of ethnocentric nationalism, Austria-Hungary could not afford to surrender any territory. On the Isonzo, all of this meant that in 1916 Italy needed to continue attacking and Austria-Hungary needed to continue defending. The war of attrition would continue growing with both sides blind to the inevitable consequences. 

Fifth Battle of the Isonzo
9–17 March 1916

In February of 1916, on the Western Front the German Army launched a tremendous assault on the city of Verdun and its surrounding fortress zone in northeast France. At a conference at Chantilly, France Marshal Joffre requested that Italy and Russia take the offensive on their respective fronts to reduce pressure on the French forces. Cadorna ordered a broad, but half-hearted, offensive nearly immediately. 

Probes were made at Tolmino, Gorizia, and the Carso. In most cases they were more demonstrations than full assaults. These died out after about a week because of bad weather and some bracing counterattacks staged by the Austrians, most notably at Santa Maria near Tolmino. The Italian Army also still needed more guns and artillery shells. The Allies committed to sending Italy heavy artillery pieces, but further offensives were delayed until the new weapons and sufficient shells could be assembled. 

Meanwhile, in the Trentino, the Austrians were marshaling their own forces for an assault. If they could mount a successful attack down off of the mountains, cross the Asiago Plateau, then occupy the Venetian Plain, they could cut off all the Italian forces in the Carnic and Julian Alps and along the Isonzo. This major operation, called the Battle of Asiago by most and the Straffe [Punishment] Expedition by some began on 15 May 1916.

At first the Austrian attack in the Trentino looked dramatically successful. Comando Supremo delayed further its plans for offensive operations and moved troops to reduce the threat to their rear. The deployment from the Isonzo to the Asiago Plateau was done fairly quickly since the Italian forces were traveling over shorter, interior lines. By early June the Austrian offensive was grinding to a halt. The Italian situation was further helped by the Russian response to their call for pressure on the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front. The subsequent series of actions known as the Brusilov Offensive were so successful that Austrian Supreme Commander Conrad von Hötzendorf was forced to give up his Trentino Offensive and move troops to distant Galicia. Italy responded in turn by mounting a counteroffensive which ultimately regained part of the Asiago Plateau. 

Back on the Isonzo Front, Austro-Hungarian Fiftthe Army Commander General Borojevic had decided to strengthen some local positions, while the Italian Third Army was directed to mount attacks to discourage the Austrians shifting more men to the Trentino. Italian operations at Monfalcone were fairly low-scale, but the concurrent Austrian attack on the Carso marked a turning point for the Great War on the Italian Front. In their assaults on the Italian IX Corps at Mte San Michele and San Martino they introduced gases of the asphyxiant type leading to some quick local successes with heavy losses casualties among their opponents. The Italian killed, wounded, and gassed totaled 4,600 men in just a few days. 

Gorizia Castle Looking North
The Approaches to Gorizia Are Guarded by Mountains to Both the North and West

As the Italian counteroffensive on the Trentino slowed, the focus of Comando Supremo shifted back to the Isonzo. Now, they decided, the time was at hand to capture strategic Gorizia. Again, they used their shorter interior lines to shift troops, this time back to the Isonzo sector. In August they would be ready to mount what would turn out to be the most successful of their 11 Isonzo Offensives. 

Sixth Battle of the Isonzo 
4–17 August 1916

The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo is also known as the Battle of Gorizia, after Italy's sole objective for the operation. For once, by practicing the principle of mass or concentration and limiting the initial battlefield to an eight-mile-wide front, General Cadorna was able to align ten of his divisions against only two of his enemy's. This was made possible by the secrecy surrounding the preparations and his speed in switching back units from the Asiago sector.

The Isonzo, Where the Italian Army Crossed in Force

The battle began with what was intended to be a diversionary artillery barrage and an infantry feint by units of two corps against Monfalcone to the south. The fighting got out of control, though, resulting in over five days of tough combat. The diversion failed to draw any Austrian units around Gorizia south. 

The main advance began two days later from the towns of Oslavia and Padgora and featured the capture of Mte Sabatino and Mte Padgora despite strong resistance and heavy counterattacks. On 8 August, units of the 12th Italian Division were the first to enter Gorizia. The next day the Isonzo was crossed in force and the city secured. On the southern perimeter, the front broadened, growing to a width of 15 miles. The fierce fighting characteristic of the Carso was once again renewed. Mte San Michele and Mte Sei Busi were finally seized, but at tremendous loss of life. The Italian advance on the Carso continued several miles to the dry river bed of the Vallone.

Typical Brutal Terrain on the Carso Plateau, Just South of Gorizia

General Cadorna turned a bit cautious and Borojevic brought up reinforcements who dug in at strong locations, and the operation ended fairly quickly. The advance of three miles depth over the 15-mile front with the capture of several strategic targets was the first major offensive success by the Italian Army during the Great War. Italian morale temporarily soared and on 29 August the government finally declared war on Germany. For their gains, the Italian Army had suffered 50,000 killed and wounded; on the defense, Austria-Hungary lost 42,000. Planning was initiated by Comando Supremo to expand the Gorizia bridgehead as soon as sufficient ordnance could be collected.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

General Fox Conner: Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor
Reviewed by Ron Drees

General Fox Conner: Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor

by Steven Rabalais
Published by Casemate, 2016

Major General Fox Conner
This biography of Fox Conner brings to life a forgotten soldier who, albeit behind the scenes, was the most influential American officer of the first half of the 20th century. While Conner held few commands and no combat positions, he designed armies and trained leaders who had enormous impact beyond his own service.

Conner was born in Mississippi, the son of a Confederate soldier blinded in the war. Yet his father presided over an academy that gave Fox not only the rudiments of an education but a lifelong love of learning. His parents did have the influence to wangle an appointment to West Point, but he needed two attempts to pass the entrance exams before he was admitted. Once there, he earned more than his share of demerits for smoking and for crossing with a disciplinarian, John Pershing. The smoking would contribute to serious health issues and eventually his death, but Pershing would be a mentor and impetus to his career. Conner also became fluent in French, which, along with his War College background, made him an ideal staff officer for Pershing when America entered the Great War.

U.S. preparedness for war was laughable. Joffre requested that the U.S. send a division immediately. The U.S. did not have a division, only a few regiments. Secretary of War Baker wanted Pershing to depart quickly with a staff. There was no staff and only a few officers had received staff officer training. Eventually a few officers were rounded up, shipped to Paris and went to work. One thing Conner did was to design a division—four regiments, two brigades.

While initial forces were assigned to the French, Pershing and Conner eventually pried them loose to become the American Army. Conner as chief of ops directed their use in the war, where they would be deployed and attack. He also received a political education as some recommendations were refused. Along the way, Major Conner became BG Conner.

Intertwined in Conner's story are the tales of other future luminaries: Marshall, MacArthur, Patton, and the tanker Eisenhower. Due to the AEF's rush to ship thousands of troops to France, tanks and tankers remained stateside, much to the future regret of the war planners. Eisenhower sat out WWI, training tankers.

The decisive battles of 1918—and Conner's decisions—are described with numerous maps. I would have appreciated a book with a larger format so that the maps could be more easily read. There were controversial decisions regarding the race to Sedan and the relentless combat of 11 November, that Conner would have to defend to a dubious Congress in 1920.

No mention is made of Pershing relinquishing command of the First Army when the Second Army was formed nor of the Black Day of the German Army.

Conner During the Interwar Period
There were additional postwar assignments for Conner; plans to restructure the Army and its divisions, Patton's dinner introducing him to Dwight Eisenhower, planning for a future major war, and then assignment to the Panama Canal Zone with his invitation to Major Eisenhower to join him. Prior to that transfer, General Conner used his connections with Marshall to bail Eisenhower out of a potential court martial for claiming an unjustified financial housing reimbursement. If that court martial had progressed, Ike's career would have been over and American history from 1942–1960 would have been much different. Instead, the two would serve together in the Panama Canal Zone from 1921–1924, not only as commanding officer/subordinate but also as mentor/student.

Conner, with his extensive personal library, would tutor Eisenhower in military history, discussing what was done, why, and the results. He would also instruct the major in army procedures, preparing him for the advanced school at Leavenworth, where he received very high marks.

Conner went on to fight more battles with budgets and bureaucracies, mostly on the losing side, to better prepare the army for the next war. When given a command, he trained troops vigorously, but with bouts of ill health and a freakish accident, he was forced to retire early and did not serve during WWII, dying in 1951 asking for cigarettes. Obviously, his student Eisenhower did serve with a phenomenal record, which he attributed several times to Fox Conner.

Conner was a tactician, an intense student, instructor, theoretician, mentor, and far-reaching planner. He deserves more prominence than he has received and deserves attention from every Great War student.

Ron Drees

Monday, July 24, 2017

Ace Maker: The SE-5A

SE-5A at the USAF Museum

While flyers of the Sopwith Camel are credited in aggregate with the most victories associated with one aircraft design, the later arriving SE-5a (Scout Experimental 5, model A) of the Royal Aircraft Factory is considered by most experts, including our friend the late Javier Arango, to be a superior—certainly vastly more stable—fighter plane. Some of the greatest British ace of the war flew the aircraft and compile huge victory totals late in the war. Here are three legendary aces who flew the SE-5a.

 Capt. Albert Ball (1896–1917 [KIA])
44 victories
Was reluctant to give up his Nieuport 17 in favor of the new SE 5a
Within the period of three months over the Somme he accomplished his first 30 victories

Major Edward (Mick) Mannock (1887–1918 [KIA])
61 victories
Trained under McCudden
Scored 46 victories in the SE 5a
Won the Victoria Cross eight days before his death

Major James McCudden (1895–1918 [KIFA])
57 victories
By early April 1918 was the most decorated pilot in the RAF
Brother John (2nd Lt., MC; 8 victories; KIA, March 1918) also flew the SE 5a

Sunday, July 23, 2017

An Earlier Contribution of the AEF: Doctors and Nurses for the Allies

There was an unexpected windfall for the Allies when America joined the war—help with the enormous load of casualties in the 1917 campaign. The first American military installation in France during World War I was Base Hospital No.4 (Cleveland), which arrived to cheering French crowds on 25 May 1917, 19 days ahead of General Pershing and the nucleus of his American Expeditionary Force staff. Also known as the Lakeside Unit, the Cleveland unit served at Rouen throughout the war. American physicians, nurses, and enlisted men such as these would be the earliest AEF participants to face the possibility of death and destruction—actually months before the first American soldiers would see combat. 

The British relied heavily on these American units. By 1917 their Medical Department was having trouble handling the massive numbers of casualties. The numbers of casualties treated by the American base hospitals with the British demonstrates the heavy load of patients. 

Base Hospital No.4 treated 82,179; No. 10 treated 47,811; and No. 21 treated about 60,000. These numbers do not include the numbers of patients the Americans treated at the Casualty Clearing Stations or while working with British units. Overall, a daily average of approximately 800 officers, 600 nurses, and 1,100 soldiers was serving with the British. 

One of the hazards they faced was German night bomber raids, which attacked hospitals despite the Red Cross markings. Tragedy struck 4 September 1917, when the Germans bombed Base Hospital No. 5 at Camiers, killing Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimmons and Privates Oscar C. Tugo, Rudolph Rubino, Jr., and Leslie G. Woods, who became the first AEF casualties by enemy action..

Sources: U.S. Army Surgeon General Reports and Official History

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Chinese Labor Battalions on the Western Front

The Chinese Labor Corps (CLC) was a force of workers recruited by the British government in World War I to free troops for frontline duty by performing support work and manual labor. The French government also recruited a significant number of Chinese laborers, and although those laborers working for the French were recruited separately and not part of the CLC, they are often considered to be so. In all, some 140,000 men served for both British and French forces before the war ended, and most of the men were repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920. Below is an example of how an unnamed British war correspondent described his first encounter with these men.

CLC Workers on the Boulogne Docks

From: War Illustrated, 27 July 1918

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

The thought embodied in this hackneyed line of Kipling is but one of many accepted conventions which the Great War has challenged. They who talked rather vaguely at first about a "world war" have long since been able to talk definitely. In a way which they could not dimly have visioned, during the earlier months of the struggle, it has truly developed into a world war, wherein East and West have been fated to "meet."

On my first war-time crossing of the Channel, among the ships of the convoy were two steamers from whose upper decks multitudes of strange folk looked across at us. They were all dressed alike in long, loose-fitting cloaks of ruddy brown material, and they wore little caps with cat-flaps not unlike those donned by our airmen when aloft. Their hair was jet black, their strange, expressionless' faces berry brown. They were Manchurians nearing the land of war to give their labor to the cause of Britain – for a sound, commercial consideration be it premised. Figure what it means to sign a contract for three years' work at a place over six thousand miles away from your home! And those Chinamen, when I first saw them at a Channel port, might have been on a day's outing, if one could have judged by the unruffled calm of their faces.

CLC Workers at a Tank Repair Yard

At that time one had heard vaguely about "Chinese labor," but here was its embodiment in these two shiploads of grinning Orientals, who looked so curiously alike that one seemed to see the same man a hundred times over.  It is a success – one of our real war successes. These Chinamen can and do, work well, and thus augmenting the labor power behind the lines, release men for the fighting-front. They are not all mere unskilled laborers. Many of them are craftsmen, and these are carefully sorted out and put to superior work, receiving special pay. Most of all these Chinamen interested me. I felt that East and West had met, and, working as they were to a common end, though differently impelled, there would be some interfusion of thought which would in a future day help towards a kinship of humanity where Kipling saw only a cleavage.

Source: Wikipedia, Relevance

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Great War's 101 Defining Events: Numbers 81–90


(click on image to enlarge)

This series will run every Friday on Roads to the Great War through its completion.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tolkien's Unique View of the War

We recently re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy at home thanks to Netflix. It was a most rewarding experience and it reminded me of a piece that O'Brien Browne contributed to the journal Relevance when I was editing it back then. Here is the pertinent section:

The popular image of WWI "war literature" is exemplified by the sarcastic irony of writers like Siegfried Sassoon, or the tragic compassion of Wilfred Owen. Paul Fussell's powerful and immensely influential, brilliantly crystallized these themes. Fussell's subtle, multi-layered arguments have been grossly misconstrued by academics, modern novelists, and even film makers, but his ultimate point is that the romantic epic suffered a fatal wound in the "stupid" and "senseless" First World War.

J.R.R. Tolkien During the War
Tolkien, however, shows us that this is a misconception. In stark contrast to the disillusionment and anti-war sentiment of the post-war period, Tolkien unabashedly kept alive the tradition of war as a noble and romantic ideal. He not only rejected modernism but also revived the heroic epic along with concepts of Faërie and pastoral romanticism in English literature. In so doing, Tolkien—one of the most interesting and influential writers of the 20th century—has sold millions of copies of his books around the world, and he is easily the most widely read writer to emerge from the inferno of WWI. Despite what the poets and academics tell us, the romantic epic lives on with vigor and dash in Tolkien's cavalry charges, beautiful princesses, lush green vistas, and shimmering enchanted forests.

But creativity has its costs. Like many ex-soldiers, Tolkien downplayed, suppressed, ignored, and even outright denied the effects of the war on him. "One War is enough for any man," he told his son. Yet its affects stayed with him all his long life. In 1940, writing to his son Michael, who had volunteered to fight in WWII, Tolkien hinted at the things he had lost in the First War, "I was pitched into it all, just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn; and never picked it all up again." There is no real happy ending in Tolkien. His characters are put to great ordeals from which they emerge transformed. Frodo, for instance, is physically and mentally scarred, his life forever altered by what he has gone through, the things he has lost. 

He is one of the walking wounded. By not killing off Frodo, ex-soldier Tolkien is telling us that the pain of death is momentary, but the pain of life is long-lasting and cuts deep. The trick is not merely survival, then, but how one survives. Tolkien had experienced pain all his life—the early deaths of his parents, financial hardships, the war; his memories must have been awful at times. Thus, like many of us, he retreated into his mind and found there a land of heroes, beauty and great deeds. And when war came to his four Hobbit heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Tolkien could not bring himself to let them die; he had lost friends in a real war and he wasn't about to lose any more in a fictional one. But still, the memories remained. "I can see clearly now in my mind's eye," Tolkien recalled as an old man, "the old trenches and the squalid houses and the long roads of Artois, and I would visit them again if I could…" He never did, except in his books.

The war changed Tolkien. It injected loss and sadness and pain into his writing. It made his descriptions more poignant, more real. Mordor could not have existed had Tolkien not experienced it firsthand on the Somme. But the war taught him to value positive things as well, such as pity, heroism, loyalty, and the meaning of friendship—themes which run throughout all of his works. "May God bless you, my dear John Ronald," Rob Gilson had written Tolkien from the trenches shortly before he was killed, "and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them." Tolkien said them, and through his memories and through his words he paid homage to his little group of dreamy, ambitious friends who had gone off to fight in the Great War of their times. And his books have enriched all of our lives.

Source:  Relevance, Fall 2009

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Raptor Pilot on the 21st-Century Relevance of Boelcke's Dicta

Today at Langley AFB, Virginia, the 1st Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force operates and maintains the F-22A Raptor and F-15 Eagle. The wing is organized into two groups: an Operations Group and a Maintenance Group. Of three fighter squadrons in the Operations Group, the two that fly the state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor both distinguished themselves in the Great War: the 27th Fighter Squadron (FS), now known as the Fightin' Eagles, and the 94th FS, now known as the Hat-in-the-Ring Gang.

The Wing is a direct descendant of the famed 1st Pursuit Group from the war with both Raptor squadrons sharing that lineage. In World War I, when it was originally known as the 1st Pursuit Organization and Training Center, the Wing scored the first aerial victories of the U.S. Air Service in France by Lts. Alan Winslow (over an Albatros D.V) and Douglas Campbell (Pfalz D.III) from the 94th Aero Squadron. By the time the war ended, the unit's name had been changed to the 1st Pursuit Group and it had earned 202 confirmed kills. Its roster of pilots included Medal of Honor recipients Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to interview Major David "Zeke" Skalicky who then flew the Raptor demonstration missions for the Wing.  I was curious if modern fighter pilots, flying 5th generation aircraft consider Oswald Boelcke's rules of aerial combat–Boelcke's Dicta–still relevant. His answer's were surprising and interesting.

MH: The German aviator Oswald Boelcke developed a set of rules for fighter pilots known as Dicta Boelcke. Richthofen, for instance, swore by them. Are they still valid? Are there new rules for 21st-century fighter pilots?

DS: F-22 tactics are written in classified manuals known as TTP (tactics, techniques, and procedures). They provide general and specific guidance for how to effectively employ the aircraft in a wide variety of scenarios. While I can't discuss any Raptor specific details in this forum, I can comment on Boelcke's principles in general. Most of Boelcke's principles are still valid in modern
aerial combat. Let's step through them:

1: Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.

Absolutely! For the Raptor, stealth helps secure the advantage of surprise before attacking. Putting the sun at your back can make it hard for an enemy to find you with his eyes or infrared sensors.

2: Always carry through an attack when you started it.

At close range, in general, I'd say that's true. Aborting an attack at close range can potentially leave you defenseless to the enemy's weapons. Most attacks nowadays. however, start at very long range with beyond-visual-range (BVR) weapons. You may start an attack on an enemy who appears to be making a run at your territory but abort it if he turns around or doesn't show hostile intent (such as a defector).

3: Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.

Caveat: The gun was the only aerial weapon when Boelcke was flying. Shot range depends on an infinite number of variables; the type of adversary, his capabilities, your weapons available, number of follow-on enemies, proximity to friendly forces, etc. Only taking valid missiles and/or gun shots, however, is universally a good idea.

4: Always keep your eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.

There isn't a single fighter pilot alive today that hasn't heard, "…can't fight what you can't see" and "…lose sight, lose the fight". They remain as true today as they were back then. Stealth gives the Raptor a huge advantage in this area.

5: In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.

Agreed, the most stable gun shot is from the opponent's six o'clock. However, modern aerial weapons mean it is not always essential you attack from behind your opponent.

6: If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught but fly to meet him.

In a visual engagement, absolutely! Meet him head on and may the best man win. Turning to run will most likely leave you defensive from a diving opponent with more energy.

7: When over the enemy's line never forget your own line of retreat.

Always leave yourself an out. Getting outflanked or putting yourself into a situation where your only option is to continue attacking in one direction makes you very predictable and an easier target.

8: For the Squadron: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats take care that several do not go for one opponent.

To me, this addresses the concept of proportionality. Proportionality is a key concept for an aerial mission commander to consider. In Richthofen's era, a single attacker was proportional and effective against a single enemy. Today a single attacker may be effective against one, two, or ten enemies, depending on the type of adversary and capabilities of the weapons system. A mission commander must consider that sending four attackers against a single enemy is probably not an efficient use of his resources. He must also consider that dividing his forces into "raging singletons" may reduce their mutual support for one another and decrease survivability and effectiveness. An updated wording may be "commit forces in a proportional manner to the threat posed by your opponent."

MH:  Thank you, Major Skalicky

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The American Experience: The Great War
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

The American Experience: The Great War

Presented by PBS Television
10–12 April 2017

This documentary, premiering on 10 April on PBS, consists of three two-hour episodes. It follows the standard documentary format of showing period photos and film footage presented by a narrator, in this case Oliver Platt. Actors portray participants through voice-overs, and historians add their perspectives to carry forward the narrative.

Heading for France

The first episode covers the period from the start of the war in August 1914, down to the American declaration of war in April 1917. Woodrow Wilson is the central character of this episode, which traces the arc of Wilson's evolution from a neutral leader to an ambitious peace broker, to finally a reluctant belligerent. One of the key themes of this episode, and indeed the entire series, is how the United States in the early 20th century was such a diverse and divided nation. Due to several decades of high immigration from Europe, one third of the American population in 1917 was either foreign-born or first-generation American. Germans were the largest ethnic group. Other ethnic groups such as Jewish Americans and Irish Americans were very much against aid to the Allies due to their hostility to Russia and Britain. At the same time, many young men chose to go to France to fight or to otherwise help the French cause. There was a strong anti-war movement, and one of the largest was led by Jane Addams of settlement house fame. The biggest song hit of 1915 was "I Didn't Raise My Son to be a Solider."

The major story of Episode 2 is the mobilization of the United States both in terms of getting Americans to support the war at home and in organizing and training of the American Expeditionary Forces. Wilson is replaced as the central figure by General John Pershing. America, starting almost from scratch, drafted an army and began training it to fight on the Western Front. African Americans as well as immigrants were included, both groups hoping to gain respect and acceptance in return for their service. As Pershing went to France in the summer of 1917 to prepare the way for his American Army, George Creel built a government public relations empire designed to sell Americans on the war. On the home front, Creel was successful, but support for the war soon grew beyond enthusiasm into repression, acts of vigilantism and an anti-German hysteria. Episode 2 ends as American soldiers join the fight in the summer of 1918 to stop the last desperate German offensive designed to capture Paris.

Episode 3 opens with the Meuse Argonne Offensive and ends with the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in the U.S. Senate at the end of 1919. Wilson again becomes the central figure for most of this episode. In terms of the fighting, much time is given to the story of the Lost Battalion. Harry Truman, Alvin York, and Eddie Rickenbacker are some of the more famous participants whose war experiences are featured. Some new names are introduced as well. Solomon Lewis and his seven fellow Choctaw Doughboys became the first Indian code talkers. It is ironic that these men, who as children had their mouths washed out with soap when they spoke Choctaw, were called on to used their native language to confuse Germans who were tapping American phone lines. Back in the states, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the activity of suffragettes, as well as increasing repression are the major stories. When the war ended, Wilson was at the height of his influence, said to be the only Allied leader offering the promise of a better world. Most of the last quarter of this episode is spent retelling how Wilson failed in his attempt to make the U.S. the dominant power in the postwar world. His efforts resulted in his physical collapse and his single-minded stubbornness is blamed for killing the treaty and America's participation in the League of Nations.

War Protesters

In all, I enjoyed this program, but I have to give it a mixed review. On the positive side, it presents several stories that have not been told as well before. I have already mentioned the Choctaw code talkers. In addition, I thought they did a remarkable job presenting the African American experience during the war and after, highlighting the exploits of the Harlem Hell Fighters and then going on to described the brutal treatment of black Americans at the hands of white mobs during the Red Summer of 1919. Other very good vignettes include those on the Suffragettes and the Spanish Flu pandemic. For me, the best parts of the documentary are the interviews with various historians, including David M. Kennedy, Richard Slotkin, A. Scott Berg, Jay Winter, and around 20 more. While Kennedy and Winter represent an older generation of historians, the others are historians who, in the last decade, have written new and valuable books on various aspects of America's participation in the war. Much of this documentary appears to have been based on their work. The second time I watched this documentary I jotted down each of their names and then researched what they had written. As a result, I have what I believe is an excellent list of books on World War I for future reading.

Another positive is the visual quality of the documentary. I assume they must have spent time repairing and restoring old photos and film footage, because the detail and clarity of some of the images are stunning in HD. On the negative side, many aspects of the war are not covered in any detail, such as the mobilization of the economy, training and tactics of the AEF and the growth of government. Pershing, Truman, Whittlesey, and Rickenbacker are the only officers of the AEF to get any mention. The military narrative skips the period between the 2nd Battle of the Marne in July, and the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September.

One of the biggest gripes I had was that in spite of all the resources behind this production, there are many errors in the use of film and photos. For example, while describing fighting on the Western Front in 1914 and 1915, film clips are used showing soldiers wearing steel helmets and gas masks that were not put into service until 1916. In the last episode, describing the final days on the Western front in 1918, footage shows German troops wearing 1914-era Picklehauben, the spiked helmet which was replaced by the iconic Stahlhelm in 1916. Their worst error in my opinion takes place during an otherwise excellent segment about Eddie Rickenbacker and the growth of American air power, when a film clip is used of a squadron of British Hawker Hart biplanes from the 1930s. I really think they should have had someone on the payroll familiar enough with these things to catch any errors.

I'm sure this program will be shown on PBS again as we pass through the last year of the Centennial of World War I. The program can be purchased on DVD from PBS and Amazon, and it can be streamed on Amazon as well. It's well worth watching.

Clark Shilling

Monday, July 17, 2017

100 Years Ago: The British Royal Family Changes Its Name (A Roads Classic)


~ King George V, in response to H. G. Wells's criticism of his "alien” 
[i.e. German-descended] and uninspiring court

Contributed by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

Today in 1917 the British royal family changed its surname to Windsor from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The intertwining of the European royal families at the outbreak of war linked just about every one of them to Queen Victoria through her numerous progeny. Her grandchildren were consorts or rulers in five of the combatant countries — Russia, Germany, Rumania, Greece, and Great Britain — and numerous other princes and aristocrats throughout Europe were closely related. This proved especially difficult for the Empress of Russia (née a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt), who, in spite of her neuroses, was always a devout Russian patriot and had a true loathing for the Kaiser, her cousin. She became a natural target for discontent with the regime for this reason of her national origin alone.

Anti-German virulence in Great Britain had its own sad story, with long-naturalized German (or perceived as German) shopkeepers and tradesmen hounded from business and even dachshunds being attacked and vilified. Not a shining moment for a country defending liberty on the Continent. The British royal family itself bore a German name—Saxe [Sachsen]-Coburg-Gotha—the legacy of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. Of course, the royal family was “German” well before the surname became a triple threat; the Hanoverians became British sovereigns in the early 18th century when the last Protestant descendant of the Stuart dynasty died childless (Queen Anne) and the succession jumped sideways to the Protestant Hanoverian descendants of Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of King James I of Great Britain. 

George V and his queen, Mary of Teck, ruled Great Britain during the Great War and were faced personally with the increasing anti-German atmosphere. By 1917 it was clear that a strong message had to be proclaimed as to the patriotism of his court and family, and after some internal debate, the king’s private secretary Lord Stamfordham came up with “Windsor”, after the ancient English royal residence used since the 12th century—a stroke of marketing brilliance. In addition, Queen Mary’s family name was changed to Cambridge (and Athlone) and the Battenbergs (who joined the family through Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice’s marriage) became the illustrious Mountbattens.

[Note that upon the birth in June 1894 of the future Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor, Queen Victoria wrote to the baby's father, the future George V, that "this will be the Coburg line, like formerly the Plantegenet, the Tudor,...Stewart (sic), & the Brunswicks," always promoting the legacy of Prince Albert. Not to be.]*

Prince Louis of Battenberg, Soon to Become Mountbatten

One Battenberg suffered this xenophobia particularly strongly. Prince Louis of Battenberg was a German-born prince but also a naturalized British subject and career British naval officer who rose to the rank of First Sea Lord in 1912. His wife was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. But anti-German pressure early in the war pushed him to resign his post—a blow to the dedicated officer—and in 1917 he became the 1st Marquess of Milford Haven, relinquishing all German titles as well. His son, Lord Louis Mountbatten, became Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, and, among other things, the last viceroy of India as well as the granduncle and mentor of the present Prince of Wales. He vindicated his father's resignation as First Sea Lord by acquiring the post himself from 1954 to 1959.   

In spite of all this maneuvering to substantiate public Englishness for the royals, George V himself could not have lived or acted more English, as he himself alludes to in his response to Mr. Wells’s assessment. He was the epitome of the stolid English family man; he loved his career in the Royal Navy and would have been content to remain there in relative obscurity had his older brother Prince Arthur not died and catapulted George into the direct succession. He had no problem with being uninspiring. Alien, however, was deeply unjust.

*James Pope-Hennessey, Queen Mary, 1867–1953, George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1959. p. 301

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Loss of USS Jacob Jones

USS Jacob Jones

The first of three U.S. Navy ships named after Barbary Coast War Commodore Jacob Jones, Destroyer DD-61 was laid down 3 August 1914 by New York Shipbuilding Corp.. Camden, N.J. Launched on 29 May 1916, it was sponsored by Mrs. Jerome Parker Crittendon, great-granddaughter of Jacob Jones, and commissioned on 10 February 1917. It was destined to be the first American destroyer lost to enemy fire.

After shakedown, Jacob Jones and her crew of 102 officers and men began training exercises off the New England coast until entering the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repairs. Upon the outbreak of war between the United States and Germany on 6 April 1917, Jacob Jones patrolled off the Virginia coast before departing Boston for Europe on 7 May.

Arriving at Queenstown, Ireland, on 17 May, she immediately began patrol and convoy escort duty in waters of the United Kingdom. On 8 July she picked up 44 survivors of the British steamship Valetta, the victim of a German U-boat. Two weeks later, while escorting British steamship Dafila, Jacob Jones sighted a periscope, but the steamship was torpedoed before an attack on the submarine could be launched. Once again a rescue ship, Jacob Jones took on board 25 survivors of the stricken Dafila.  Throughout the summer the destroyer escorted supply laden convoys and continued rescue operations in submarine-infested waters. On 19 October she picked up 305 survivors of torpedoed British cruiser Orama

U-53 on an Earlier Visit to Newport, Rhode Island

After special escort duty between Ireland and France, she departed Brest, France, on 6 December on her return run to Queenstown. At 1621, as she steamed independently in the vicinity of the Isles of Scilly, her watch sighted a torpedo wake about a thousand yards distant. Although the destroyer maneuvered to escape, the high-speed torpedo struck her starboard side, rupturing her fuel oil tank. The crew worked courageously to save the ship, but as the stern sank, her depth charges exploded. Realizing the situation was hopeless, Comdr. Bagley reluctantly ordered the ship abandoned. Eight minutes after being torpedoed, Jacob Jones sank with 64 men still on board.

Survivors of the Sinking After Rescue

The 38 survivors huddled together on rafts and boats in frigid Atlantic waters off the southwest coast of England. Two of her crew were taken prisoner by attacking submarine U-53 commanded by Kapitän Hans Rose, who had visited America earlier in the war. In a humanitarian gesture rare in modern war, Rose radioed the American base at Queenstown the approximate location and drift of the survivors. He also took two severely injured American sailors aboard. Throughout the night of 6 to 7 December British sloop-of-war Camellia and British liner Catalina conducted rescue operations. By 0830 the following morning HMS Insolent picked up the last survivors of Jacob Jones

Photos:  NAVSource