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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Cossacks and the Great War

The Cossacks are an interesting aspect of Russian imperialism as well as the war, revolution, and Russian Civil War. They were originally refugees from the Turkic states of Central Asia, who preferred a nomadic life on the steppes to serfdom. The Cossacks accepted anyone who was considered a worthy warrior, but eventually members had to believe in Christ. Their cultural inclinations made them perfect for fighting along the rough borderlands. After a centuries-long process they were co-opted into Russian service, becoming the vanguards of expansion and the protectors of the frontier. They were found by the tsars to be so loyal and trustworthy that they were given the additional  mission of internal security, which included cracking down on dissidents and participating in pogroms against Jewish settlements.

Cossack Cavalry Patrol

The Cossacks had specific customs and traditions. A child was taught the warrior-ways of the Cossacks from birth. When a male child was born, the parents would take his hand and place it on a weapon. The Cossacks were superior horsemen. By the time a Cossack was three years old he was riding horses. As children, Cossack males would stage pretend battles complete with horses and sabers. The ataman, or army chief, would praise the children who exhibited bravery in these mock battles. The Cossack life was also based on simplicity. Members shared land and lived in communes. 

One of the greatest triumphs in Cossack history was the annexation of Siberia. In September 1581, Timofeyevich led 840 troops to wrest the Siberian city of Sibir from Tartar control. With the use of firearms, the Cossacks easily defeated Kuchum's forces. The Cossacks lost a subsequent 1584 battle against Kuchum, but, despite the loss, Siberia came under complete control of the Russian Empire in 1586. 

In the late 19th century, Cossacks were deployed in border patrols and garrisons in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. They contributed tens of thousands of troops for the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and the ill-fated conflict with Japan in 1904–05. An enduring popular image of the Cossacks, however, is as fearsome mounted police, suppressing disorder in the Russian heartland. Large numbers were assigned to internal security as revolutionary unrest escalated from the 1880s and spread across the country in 1905. Eyewitness accounts recall the terror of charges by Cossacks wielding whips on crowds of protesting peasants and workers.

Shane O’Rourke noted, though, that the 1905 Revolution was also a traumatic experience for the Cossacks. Thousands of men were taken from farms facing ruin to conduct a vicious campaign of repression that they personally found revolting. Mutinies broke out within Cossack regiments and spread to their home territories. Cossack deputies to the new Russian parliament, the Duma, complained bitterly about police service.

1914: Mobilized Cossacks Heading to the Front

There was no such objection to mobilization for the First World War, but it took a heavy toll. Cossacks supplied a disproportionately high number of soldiers who, with little use for cavalry, fought alongside peasant soldiers in the misery of the trenches. Casualties reached 12 percent of those mobilized. Women left behind struggled to feed their families. During the overthrow of the monarchy in the February Revolution of 1917, war-weary and impoverished Cossacks surprised everyone by siding with workers and ordinary soldiers against the regime. Almost immediately, though, divisions erupted between Cossack and non-Cossack populations on host territories, between Cossacks of different faith, generation, and gender and between radicalized rank-and-file Cossacks and more conservative elites, who in August 1917 supported the coup attempt by General Lavr G. Kornilov (1870–1918).

The Civil War resulting from the Bolshevik takeover devastated Cossack homelands, transforming them into battlefields on which more than 1 million men, women, and children perished, making the losses of the First World War pale into insignificance. Rifts within Cossack society meant that few initially rallied to their government's calls to defend their territories against Bolshevik forces. Many, especially those who had been at the front, welcomed slogans of peace and Soviet power, while others were concerned with local conflicts between Cossacks and non-Cossacks.

Kerensky Visiting a Cossack Unit Prior to the October Revolution

Disillusionment with the one-party dictatorship and horror at the violence of Bolshevik punitive expeditions by spring 1918, however, sparked armed resistance, although Cossacks fought alongside both the Red and White armies. In Siberia and the Far East, individual settlements were fiercely defended and brutal reigns of atamans established, while identification with an overarching Cossack community evaporated. In longer-standing hosts of European Russia, such as the Don, hostilities were accompanied by the creation of regular armies mobilized in the name of Cossack independence.

The concept of a separate Cossack people also shaped the Bolsheviks’ shift in early 1919 from a policy of removing Cossack estate privileges and punishing counterrevolutionary action to indiscriminate terror against Cossacks as a suspect population. As Red Army regiments pressed into Cossack territory, thousands of Cossacks were executed by revolutionary tribunals. The policy of physical extermination of the Cossacks was renounced as the Red Army retreated toward Moscow. Eventual Bolshevik victory, however, sparked the emigration of tens of thousands of Cossacks, the dismantling of collective Cossack legal and administrative structures, famine on Cossack territory, and the targeting of Cossacks for deportation as part of Stalin’s dekulakization and collectivization campaigns, breaking surviving Cossack communities through the loss of farms and people.

Sources: History Magazine, Oct/Nov 2001; Over the Top, March 2014; Wikipedia

Friday, September 29, 2017

Some Fresh World War I Images from the Library of Congress

These sets of images I've discovered online seem popular with the readers, so here is another set I've dug up on the various outlets of the Library of Congress.

An Italian Officer: Double Amputee, New Appliances, and Back in Uniform

Ensign  Lucius Byron Nash, USN, and Mascot, USS Roanoke

Cartoon: War Profiteer Meets Former War Booster

"September 13th, 1918, Saint-Mihiel," Kerr Erby

Dept. of Labor Poster by Gerrit A. Beneker, 1918

Chart of Mine Fields Around British Isles, Late War

"And the fool, he called her his lady fair" Charles Dana Gibson, 1917

Film Still: American Peace Activist Jane Addams in Berlin, 1915

Locomotives for the War Effort, Joseph Pennell, 1917

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Martin van Creveld on the Fall and Rise of History

I discovered this article on the blog of provocative Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. Yes, the same Dr. van Creveld who is the last cranky hold-out on earth who still believes it might not be the best idea ever conceived by the mind of man to include females in frontline combat units. Nevertheless, I am lowering our usual high standards of political correctness to present this interesting commentary from him. It's not a World War One article as such, but it explains a lot of what I'm observing about the recent centennial commemorations and spate of books on the war.  MH

The Fall and Rise of History

16 JULY 2014

Dr. van Creveld at the Podium
I well remember the time when I fell in love with history. This was 1956 and I was ten years old, living with my parents in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. While rummaging in a storage room, I came across a book with the title (in Dutch), World-History in a Nutshell. Greatly impressed by the story of the small, but brave, ancient Greek people fighting and defeating the far more numerous Persian army, I quickly read it from cover to cover. Much later I learnt that the volume was part of a series issued by the Dutch ministry of education and updated every few years. To the best of my memory the one in my hands did mention World War I but not Hitler; hence it must have dated to the 1920s when my parents went to school.

It was World-History in a Nutshell and the wonderful tales it contained that made me decide I wanted to study history. [It was Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels that had the same effect on me. MH]

In 1964 this wish took me to the Hebrew University, where I started thinking seriously about what I was trying to do. From beginning to end, my aim was always to understand what happened and why it happened. Though it took me a long time to realize the fact, in doing so I, like countless other modern historians, was following in the footsteps of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).

Hegel—Old School
Hegel’s most important propositions, as I came to understand them, could be summed up as follows. First, the past had a real, objective existence. It was, so to speak, solidified present, more or less covered by the sands of time; which meant that, given sufficient effort was devoted to removing the sand, “the truth” about it could be discovered. Second, in the main it consisted not of the more or less accidental, more or less cranky deeds of individuals but was pushed ever onward by vast, mostly anonymous, spiritual, economic—this was Marx’s particular contribution—social and technological forces none could control. Men and women were carried along by it like corks floating on a stream; now using it to swim in the right direction, now vainly trying to resist it and being overwhelmed by it. Third, the past mattered. It was only by studying the past that both individuals and groups of every kind could gain an understanding as to who they were, where they had come from, and where they wanted to go and might be going.

Starting around the time of Hegel’s death, these assumptions were widely shared. All three of the most important ideologies of the period 1830–1945, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism, and fascism subscribed to it. None more so than Winston Churchill, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The last-named once said that a person who did not know history was like a person without a face. As religion declined in front of secularism, history, with Hegel as its high priest, became the source of truth, no less.

To be sure, there were always those who cast doubt on the enterprise. Whether seriously and out of ignorance, as when Henry Ford famously said that history was bunk, or only half-so, as in Walter Sellar’s hilariously funny 1931 best-seller, 1066 and All That. The outcome was a vast outpouring of written works—later, movies as well—and an ever greater increase in the number of students both in and outside academia.

Foucault—New Wave Leader
At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926–84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians—and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes—were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process, or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted—“read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this—each text, process, event, and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto. The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

Since then this view has been eating up the study of history like a worm eating up an apple from within. Previously people had written learned tomes about, say, Greek antiquity, how it came into being, what its main characteristics were, how it unfolded, expanded, passed away, and so on. Now they did the same about the way historians had “discovered” or “invented” that antiquity. The same applies to “the Middle Ages,” “the Renaissance,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Industrial Revolution,” and so on and so on. This came dangerously close to saying that history was but a fairy tale and any attempt to write about it was not “science” but fiction—good or bad.

The implications of this view were tremendous. If all the study of history was capable of yielding was some kind of subjective tale, then of what use could it be in establishing “the truth”? And if it could not help in establishing “the truth”, then what could be the purpose of engaging in it? And how about the remaining social sciences such as political science, international relations, sociology, and so on? Weren’t they, too, based on the assumption that an “objective” past did exist and could be used to understand the present?

For a century and a half it had been assumed that a firm grasp of these subjects would qualify those who had it for many kinds of work not only in academia but also in both the public and the private sphere. Now, increasingly degrees in these fields were seen as useless. The more useless they appeared to be, the less capable they were of providing their owners with a reasonable income as well as an acceptable position in society. The less capable they were of providing their owners with an acceptable position in society and a reasonable income, the smaller their perceived usefulness.

And so began the decline of the humanities and many of the social sciences that we see all around us. The lives of an entire generation of young academics have been blighted, given that nobody any more is interested in whatever they may have to say. Finding work outside the universities is even harder; instead of degrees, prospective employers demand “experience” above everything else.

Does that mean that books and movies that deal with the past will soon disappear? Of course not. Rather, it means that the purpose of reading those works has shifted. Instead of analyzing underlying factors and trying to extract “lessons,” people started looking for stories with heroes and villains in them. Instead of looking for the general picture they took an interest in the details; often, needless to say, the juicier the better. Instead of asking, “how we got to where we are now,” they wanted to know what life in the past had felt like. Nowhere was this more true than in my own field, military history, the reason, presumably, being that the vast majority of people in advanced countries no longer had any personal experience of warfare.

Where the demand exists supply will follow. Contrary to the situation as it existed a few decades ago, the most important historians writing today are not academics. They are popular writers, with his difference that the adjective “popular” is now as likely to be used in a complimentary way as in a derogatory one. By and large they do not reflect on underlying theoretical principles, create frameworks, or provide deep analysis. Yet from Antony Beevor in Stalingrad through Max Hastings in Catastrophe to Keith Lowe in Savage Continent, they have a vivid sense for detail and know how to spin a tale. Those tales may be useless in the classroom—having tried to use them there, I know. Yet judging by sales they seem to be filling the psychological needs of many people.

The king is dead; long live the king.

Dr van Creveld's blog can be found at  It's well worth a visit.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Louisiana and the Great War: Then and Now

From Know Louisiana

World War I, known as the "Great War,” has long been acknowledged as a major turning point in American history, as much for the social forces it unleashed at home as for the nation’s military efforts abroad. In fact, the U.S. direct involvement extended for only a year and a half and required a minimum of sacrifice from most of its citizens. Nevertheless, the war shaped a whole generation of Americans in a profound way. During this time the federal government expanded its power and reach, while spontaneous social and cultural movements transformed the world in which most Americans, including Louisianans, lived.

Prosperity and Patriotism

The shock of the Great War first came to Louisiana in the form of an economic panic in the late summer and fall of 1914. Because of the disruption in worldwide commodities markets, small farmers and planters in the state faced depressed prices for agricultural goods and limited access to credit. Despite this initial turmoil, it quickly became apparent that Great Britain and France would need tremendous amounts of war material in their fight against Germany and that America would supply much of this demand. Farm prices gradually began to tick upward throughout 1915 and 1916; they skyrocketed once the United States officially entered the conflict in April 1917. Cotton tripled in price to almost 40 cents per pound in spot markets throughout 1918, while sugar doubled to seven cents or more per pound. Other Louisiana products, such as timber and petroleum, saw similar gains. America’s entry into the war signaled the beginning of one of Louisiana’s characteristic economic booms, a period of unprecedented prosperity to be followed, as was often the case, by a postwar depression that wiped out most of the monetary gains.

In 1917 and 1918, however, working men in Louisiana enjoyed a distinct advantage as the draft pulled away thousands of young, employable men for military service. In addition to the abundance of work in forest and field, the federal government employed thousands more in the expansion or creation of 11 major military installations in the state. For example, Camp Beauregard, just north of Alexandria, which had been a National Guard facility before the war, soon swelled to include more than 1,300 buildings on 15 square miles of former timberland. At its peak enrollment in the summer and fall of 1918, more than 22,000 men received military instruction on Camp Beauregard’s ranges and training grounds. In New Orleans, the government underwrote major expansions in the maritime infrastructure: three new shipyards, a $2.5 million repair yard, and a massive warehousing terminal that could accommodate 700 rail cars and more than 178,000 tons of shipping, which previously represented ten days worth of commerce on all of the city’s wharves combined. With all this available work and a yawning gap in the state’s labor pool, wages reached the unheard-of levels of $1.50 or $2 a day and sometimes more in urban areas. Awash in cash, agricultural and industrial laborers paid off old debts, indulged in luxury items, and even put deposits down on automobiles, houses, and small farms. Banks saw their credits double and even triple.

Red Cross Nurses Parade on Canal Street, New Orleans, 1917

With money in their pockets, Louisianans overwhelmingly supported the war effort, often going “over the top” with subscriptions to various fundraising campaigns. The Red Cross, YMCA, and a host of lesser-known organizations sponsored such efforts. In addition, many Louisianans participated in one or more of the five Liberty Bond drives initiated at the national level. New Orleans raised more than $103 million for these assorted campaigns, while Shreveport alone contributed more than $15 million to the Liberty Bond drives. Federally organized Councils of Defense, including 64 parish councils and hundreds of community councils, facilitated many of these fundraising activities. Although limited in their authority, they circulated government edicts on production, conservation, and labor and worked closely with the Justice Department and local draft boards to enforce Selective Service registration. Local women’s auxiliaries collected food and clothing for distribution and organized educational seminars on family welfare, nutrition, and health, among other pursuits. Less creditably, the councils and other “vigilant” citizens maintained social conformity by aggressively confronting dissenters and foreign-born citizens, especially German Jews, about any offhand or public comments that might be construed as supportive of anything less than “100 percent Americanism.” To the outside observer, it appeared that most Louisianans, black and white, wholeheartedly embraced the hyper-patriotism of the time.

Beneath this veneer of unity, however, deep divisions within Louisiana society found ample opportunities for expression. In particular, the so-called “great migration” of African Americans from the state evidenced a powerful dissatisfaction with the economic and social conditions of Louisiana in the era of Jim Crow. With massive war contracts piling up and the flow of European immigrants to America cut off by the fighting, northern industries looked to the South to fill their labor needs. High wages, signing bonuses, and reimbursements for travel and relocation lured many African American workers and their families to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities.

For many, though, the major incentive to relocate proved to be simply escaping segregation itself. In a letter to the Chicago Defender, one New Orleans man explained that he was anxious to relieve himself “of the burden of the South. I indeed wish very much to come north[,] anywhere in [Illinois] will do since I am away from the Lynchman’s noose and torchman’s fire.”Another wrote that he was “now looking to the North of this benighted land for hope . . . that if once there that I may be granted the [opportunities] of peacefully working out my mission on earth[,] without fear of molestation.”

The appeal of the North proved so great, in fact, that Louisiana’s total African American population actually declined between 1910 and 1920. Incredibly, some rural plantation areas saw upwards of a third or more of local African Americans abandon their homes for points north. Eventually, the cumulative effects of this exodus and the draft on the state’s labor force became so worrisome to white planters that Governor Ruffin Pleasant issued a “work or fight” order in 1918. Local authorities used this order, often unsuccessfully, to force supposedly underemployed African Americans into menial, underpaying jobs in households and businesses.

Louisiana Veterans of the 42nd Rainbow Division Returning Home, 1919

The apparent ambivalence of some groups to the call for military service also suggests the simmering social conflicts within Louisiana during the war years. The state could scarcely have been labeled unpatriotic, as it sent more than 71,000 officers and enlisted men into the armed forces. But the vast majority of these men were draftees, not volunteers. For a state only some 20 years removed from the extremely partisan, class-driven discord apparent in populism, lingering political and economic resentments often morphed into a vague but nonetheless real rejection of what came to be seen as another “rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”

Such feelings sometimes translated into an individual’s refusal to register for the draft or even report for induction when called. Indeed, Louisiana had more than 8,000 cases of draft desertion, putting the state’s rate at almost a full percentage point higher than the national average. State officials were quick to blame this elevated number on the large African American population, which, they claimed, was mostly ignorant or illiterate and therefore could hardly be expected to comply with the demands of service registration. Certainly, the migration of many blacks caused considerable confusion when it came to locating eligible men to serve. Yet, the fact that middle-class African American leaders sometimes resorted to public chastisements of antiwar sentiment in their communities belied the conviction that patriotism ran rampant in all quarters of the state and especially among those subject to the daily humiliations of life under Jim Crow. Such antiwar feeling proved just as strong, if not stronger, among many of the state’s poor whites, a group already politicized by populist and socialist rhetoric in the preceding decades.


Huey Long
Some Louisianans’ resistance to serve in the armed forces hardly affected the overall mobilization efforts for America’s rather limited military involvement in the war. However, military service did remain a key social marker in Louisiana for a generation or more after the conflict ended. Indeed, Huey Long’s avoidance of wartime service (he received a deferment) and his defense of antiwar state Senator S. J. Harper of Winnfield, who was brought up on sedition charges, provided a point of attack for many of his opponents during the 1920s and 1930s. Carrie Moore Davidson, a society lady from northeast Louisiana whose only son was killed in action during the war, framed her opposition to Long thus: “When I come to total the final score, I cannot forget that when my boy was fighting in France to make it safe for the Longs they were dodging the draft over here.” Yet the fact that many of his most political bitter rivals had served as officers rather than enlisted men only validated Long’s class-infused criticisms of Louisiana’s upper crust.

In later years, these officers, many of whom were Louisiana State and Tulane University graduates, became influential members of the state’s business and political establishment, almost all in vehement opposition to Long. Many also found their way into the American Legion, a veterans’ organization created after the war that, while disavowing political aims, nonetheless drew men of a more reactionary stripe. Rising from its ranks was Sam Houston Jones, a district attorney and good-government type from DeRidder, who eventually became the figure around whom the conservative forces of the state rallied to defeat Earl Long in the 1940 gubernatorial election. Like his brother, Earl Long missed out on military service during the war. Meanwhile, Jones’s World War I record was featured prominently in his political biography, and Legion posts around the state received him enthusiastically on his campaign tour. Even some 20 years later, the conflict continued to cast its shadow across the cultural panorama of Louisiana. That influence, though, was soon to be eclipsed by another war that would demand a far greater sacrifice from the American people.

Remembering Louisiana's WWI Service

A trio of exhibits about Louisiana's part in World War I are opening on 28 September around state capital, Baton Rouge. The Louisiana State Museum's Capitol Park Museum, the Old State Capitol Museum and the USS Kidd Veterans Museum all will hold free public receptions on 28 September to open exhibits marking the centennial of the year that the United States entered the war.

"Campaigning for Victory: Poster Art of the Great War" will be shown at the castle-shaped Old State Capitol through 17 December. There's a wider variety of artifacts at the USS Kidd Museum's, "Voices from the Lost Generation: Louisiana in the Great War, 1917–18", about four blocks south of the old Capitol, and at the Capitol Park Museum's, "For Home and Country: Louisiana in the Great War," about eight blocks north. Both exhibits will continue well into next year.


Reonas, Matthew "World War I" Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 16 Nov 2011. Web. 18 Sep 2017;  6 September 2018, Miami Herald.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers
Reviewed by James Thomas

World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers

by Mark Lardas
Osprey Publishing, 2016

HMS Ark Royal

The modern United States Navy, like all of today's major navies, is built primarily around air power and the aircraft carrier. These massive ships, with all their support vessels surrounding them, exhibit the nation's strength through their ability to launch aircraft to deliver ordnance anywhere in the world. Even today's newest class addition, USS America, LHA-6, is designed to deliver marine amphibious forces entirely by aircraft without landing craft. As fundamental as this naval philosophy is today, however, prior to the Great War aviation was still a novelty. Few, if any, in the naval establishment believed little airplanes could do any damage to great big warships. As with so many other types of technology and thinking, World War I began the process of changing that notion.

Mark Lardas takes on one element of naval transformation in his excellent little book, World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers. As with most Osprey publications, it is brief, concise, and heavily illustrated. It is a bit simplistic, with the occasional grammatical imperfections, yet it is also a very fine examination of the topic. Lardas describes both general naval aviation development and the differences in development by the principal belligerents of the Great War.

Sopwith Camel Taking-Off HMS  Pegasus

As military aviation evolved, navies developed two basic types of aircraft and thus two means of transporting those aircraft. Seaplanes are those craft that have flotation devices so they can land and take off from the water, rather than having wheels and skids for the usual airfield runway use. These seaplanes can be hoisted onto and off ships with cranes and simply carried on board. Without floats, planes with landing gear require ships with either catapults to launch them off short platforms or ocean-going flight decks, allowing them to land on and take off directly from ships.

Initially, as no ships were designed with aviation in mind, the first aircraft transports were conversions from other types of vessels. Sections of deck were cleared and platforms built or large portions redesigned so that flight decks could be fitted. Later ships would be designed specifically to handle aircraft of all types. Each nation had a different view about what aviation meant to naval operations and as aircraft evolved, so did the development of ships to carry them. Britain led the way, and earlier than the other countries built the first seaplane carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and through design evolution, by the end of the war had a ship designed as a true aircraft carrier for transport, landings and takeoffs of airplanes, HMS Argus.

None of the other nations devoted as much energy in the development of naval aviation, though all made some efforts. France was advancing very well until the necessities of national survival in the trenches shifted her efforts away from naval aviation. France's land-based aircraft, of course, were exceptional. Without global empires as large as Britain's, other countries did not need navies as big or as technologically advanced. Still, the work of all the nations and especially the developments in the years following the war, set the stage for World War II, when navies and especially aircraft carriers played such a fundamental role.

Mr. Lardas's book is a very fine study of this extremely important foundational stage in naval aviation development. Because it is also an Osprey publication, the reader can expect outstanding illustrations, including both photographs and colorful drawings. World War I Seaplane and Aircraft Carriers should be on the shelves of anyone interested in naval aviation.

James Thomas

Monday, September 25, 2017

100 Years Ago Tomorrow: The Battle for Polygon Wood Opens

Shells Screamed Through the Air!

Australian Pioneers Building a Plank Road to Bring Up 
Supplies and Ordnance for the Coming Assault

In the days leading up to 26 September 1917 the men of the Fifth Australian Division prepared for their first major battle in Belgium. In the shattered countryside to the west beyond Polygon Wood engineers and pioneers struggled to extend the plank road and other tracks to the new front line won by the First and Second Australian Divisions at the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September. Medical details established regimental aid posts close to the line to which the badly wounded could be brought quickly from the battlefield for attention before being carried back by field ambulance stretcher bearers to horse-drawn and motor ambulance collecting points along the Menin Road. And up the Menin Road to various dumps came supplies of food, water, engineering stores, and ammunition.

Polygon Wood Located Middle Right on This Map

Artillerymen and their horses fought the mud and shell craters to bring up the guns to support the attack. The guns assembled for the barrage to support the Fifth Division infantry was an awesome force: 205 pieces of heavy artillery, one gun for every nine meters of front. In addition, there would be the usual array of lighter 18-pounder guns of the field artillery brigades. Assembled forward of the artillery were the heavy Vickers machine guns of the machine gun companies. A number of these would provide emergency barrages if the attacking infantry needed defense against a sudden enemy counterattack. Others, along with the artillery, would lay down a curtain of bullets in front of the advance.

Many other elaborate preparations were in hand. Planes of the Royal Flying Corps would fly over the infantry as a "contact patrol". These planes were distinguished by black streamers on the rear edge of their left wings and were to call for signals from the ground by sounding a klaxon horn or dropping lights. The infantry would respond with red flares and, the position being noted, the pilot would hurry back to drop this intelligence to divisional headquarters. There were even so-called "Intelligence Policemen", German speakers whose job it was to interview prisoners and gain tactical information about the battlefield for relaying back to the divisional intelligence officer at Hooge Crater

Then slowly, between 20 and 24 September the 12 infantry battalions, some 10 000 men, of the division came forward. Some took over frontline positions while others were held back as reserves. All of this assembly was done under daily German artillery bombardment of the approach area, causing about 100 casualties a day. A significant German attack on 25 September on the British division to the south, in which the Australians became involved, threatened the plan for 26 September, but as the line was stabilized, at some cost to Australian units, it was decided to continue with the planned attack.

The Butte Within the Wood Was a Major Objective; 
the Division's Memorial Was Placed There, Soon After the War

During the night of 25–26 September the men of the assaulting battalions reached taped lines laid across the southwestern third of the blasted tree stumps of Polygon Wood. At this point it was vital not to alert the watching Germans by unusual noise or the lighting of cigarettes, which would bring down an enemy artillery barrage. At 5:50 a.m. on 26 September the guns opened up in front of the Australian infantry, who immediately moved forward behind its protecting wall of shells. If one had been on the butte, where the Fifth Division Memorial now stands, the sound of battle would have been overpowering. Captain Alexander Ellis, wrote a vivid description of the scene:

Our artillery opened in a single magnificent crash and thousands of shells screamed through the air and burst in a long, straight line of flame and destruction about 200 yards [180 meters] ahead of the waiting infantry…the 4,000 men of the six attacking battalions dashed forward at a run. Somewhere behind the line of destruction lay their victims, shuddering in their pill-boxes, staggered by the sudden commotion, dazed by the concussion of the shells…then, slowly, very slowly it [the barrage] crept forward. A long line of skirmishers disengaged itself from the dense mass of men and followed the advancing screen of shells…Above their heads thousands of machine gun bullets cut the air as they whistled shrilly past on their destined way, and the strident din of many Vickers guns throbbed through the troubled morning air. But these were but the tinkling wood-wind notes in the hell's orchestra that played about them. For the deafening crash of the rapid firing 18-pounders, the hoarser roar of the scores of heavy guns behind them and the stupefying concussion of shrapnel and high explosive shells in the barrage in front were by now all mingled in the hideous rhythmical clamour of the perfect drum-fire barrage. Thus, at 5.50 a.m. on the 26 September 1917, was the Division launched into the Battle of Polygon Wood.

Gathered Around a Captured Pillbox, Artillery Craters Apparent

The infantry's main obstacles on the battlefield were the dozens of German concrete pillboxes which protected the enemy machine gunners. They had to get to the pillboxes just as the barrage lifted from them and the occupants still dazed by explosions. At some pillboxes there was resistance, but many German soldiers surrendered when they found themselves so rapidly surrounded. The butte itself was soon rushed and found to be full of German dugouts. The entrances were blocked and bombers with grenades worked their way through the underground positions, finally pushing the occupants into surrender. German planes came over and machine gunned the butte area while enemy artillery began pounding the rear areas behind the Australian advance, causing many casualties.

At 7:30 a.m. another protective barrage began and the Australians pushed on to their final objective for the day a few hundred meters beyond Polygon Wood. By 8 a.m. the required ground had been gained and the advance was over. During the rest of the day German counterattacks came to nothing, and the Battle of Polygon Wood was declared a great success for the AIF.

This clean-cut success suggests the reason the Fifth Division picked the butte at Polygon Wood for their memorial on the Western Front. Divisional historian, Captain Ellis, described it as a "fine success" and Charles Bean wrote of this "clean, strong blow". Bean attributed it, however, to the "most perfect barrage that had ever protected Australian troops" rolling ahead of them like a "Gippsland bushfire". However, like all success on the Western Front, Polygon Wood was won at great cost.

Today, from the 5th Division Memorial on the Butte, 
Looking Toward the Aussies' Approach Route

Source:  Australian Department of Veteran Affairs

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Beginning a New Series: Doughboy Basics—The Things You Should Understand About the AEF

For the next 12 Sundays, I am going to present some essential information on the American effort in the Great War. I've spent 25 years gathering this material, mostly from a vast variety of sources.  In some cases, however, I've found the accepted wisdom to be wrong,  so some of the material in the series will be my own, but I stand by it.  Today we begin with a graphic overview.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fall 1917: 11th Engineers Take Earliest U.S. Combat Casualties

By the end of summer 1917, American soldiers were in France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). While mobilization had been rapid, American military leaders were not ready to send American divisions to the front lines. AEF infantry and artillery needed more time to prepare, sending officers and small groups to experience the front. Most American combat troops went into training with British and French armies.  A few AEF units went straight to work at the front. The 11th U. S. Engineers was one of these.

Men of the 11th U.S. Engineers

The 11th Engineers arrived in England on 27 July. It was the first American volunteer unit to receive the salute of a British monarch. By late August 1917 they were in France at Boulogne and shortly began railroad repair and construction in the British III Army sector. Many of the men had been in the army only a few months.

By September their responsibility included almost 120 miles of track behind British lines in Flanders. They took turns at training for gas warfare while working. Serving under British command, American soldiers adapted quickly. American cooks received British Army cooks’ training to adapt to English rations and special arrangements were made to provide coffee instead of tea.

American engineer support at the front proved critical at this point in the war. Advances were measured in hundreds of yards or a few miles. The density of men and equipment under regular bombardment strained the road system. Successful defense often hinged on the ability to relocate men, equipment, and supplies. Railroad construction engineers were needed constantly.

On 5 September, Company F of the 11th Engineers came under shellfire as they worked in Gouzeaucourt. Sgt. M. Calderwood and Pvt. W. Brannigan were wounded, becoming the first casualties among combat troops of the AEF. Several noncombatant AEF medical staff had been wounded in British lines earlier, but Calderwood and Brannigan were the first combatant casualties.

Combat Engineer Recruiting Poster
Later that year, in November 1917, 11th Engineers displayed great bravery and fortitude in the face of an intense German counterattack. On 20 November, the British Army attacked toward Cambrai with over 300 tanks in the lead. The Germans counterattacked and penetrated toward Gouzeaucout, where the 11th Engineers were building a rail yard.

Engineers working on the rail yard joined British forces, took up rifles, or helped dig foxholes. Some engineers were captured and others scattered into nearby fields. Seven officers and 265 engineers armed with rifles reported to the headquarters of the British 20th Division. They acted as a reserve and dug in new positions.  When the British attacked the Germans in the afternoon engineers from the work site went with them and helped free a number of their comrades captured earlier.  The British army recognized their contribution in an official communication to the AEF. 

“I desire to express to you my thanks and that of the British forces engaged for the prompt and valuable assistance rendered, and I trust that you will be good enough to Colonel Hoffman and his gallant men how much we all appreciate his and the prompt and soldierly readiness to assist in what for a time was a difficult situation,” wrote Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in a letter to General of the Armies John J. Pershing regarding the 11th Engineers.

Source:  ABMC Website

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Foch-Hindenburg Armistice Telegrams

Probably most of readers have heard of the Willy-Nicky (Kaiser-Tsar) telegrams exchanged at the start of the war, but might not know the matching set at the end of the war between Generals Foch and Hindenburg to set up the Armistice negotiations.  They're rather proforma, lacking entirely the intimacy of the Imperial cousins in the earlier set. They do, however, have an certain tone about them. Hindenburg in the opening document indicates he has been in communication with President Wilson but is apparently not aware there would not be American representation at the meeting.

Telegraph from Paul von Hindenburg to Ferdinand Foch, 12.30 a.m., 7 November 1918

German General Headquarters to the Allies' General Headquarters; the German Commander-in-Chief to Marshal Foch:

The German Government, having been informed through the President of the United States that Marshal Foch had received powers to receive accredited representatives of the German Government and communicate to them conditions of an armistice, the following plenipotentiaries have been named by it:

Mathias Erzberger, General H. K. A. von Winterfeld, Count Alfred von Oberndorff, General von Gruennel, and Naval Captain von Salow.

The plenipotentiaries request that they be informed by wireless of the place where they can meet Marshal Foch.  They will proceed by automobile, with subordinates of the staff, to the place thus appointed.

Telegraph from Ferdinand Foch to Paul von Hindenburg, 1.30 a.m., 7 November 1918

To the German Commander-in-Chief:

If the German plenipotentiaries desire to meet Marshal Foch and ask him for an armistice, they will present themselves to the French outposts by the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle-Guise road.

Orders have been given to receive them and conduct them to the spot fixed for the meeting.

Telegraph from Paul von Hindenburg to Ferdinand Foch, 1 p.m.,  
7 November 1918

The German plenipotentiaries for an armistice leave Spa today.  They will leave here at noon and reach at 5 o'clock this afternoon the French outposts by the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle-Guise road.

They will be ten persons in all, headed by Secretary of State Erzberger.

Telegraph from Paul von Hindenburg to Ferdinand Foch, 1.50 p.m., 7 November 1918

German General Headquarters to the Allied General Headquarters:

The Supreme German Command to Marshal Foch:

From the German outposts to the French outposts our delegation will be accompanied by a road-mending company to enable automobiles to pass the La Capelle road, which has been destroyed.

Telegraph from Paul von Hindenburg to Ferdinand Foch, 6 p.m., 7 November 1918

The German Supreme Command to Marshal Foch:

By reason of delay the German delegation will not be able to cross the outpost line until between 8 and 10 o'clock tonight at Haudroy, two kilometres northeast of La Capelle.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Traumatic Birth of Kaiser Wilhelm II

On 27 January 1859, the first child of the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife Victoria was born in Berlin. One of the doctors present noted that the royal baby was born "seemingly dead" after long and painful hours of labor endured by his (then only 18-year-old) mother. It was a complicated and unexpected breech birth, and for the attendant physicians, both English and German, the struggle to save the baby's life was made more difficult by the fact that royal etiquette forced them to work under the long skirts of the princess. The young mother had been heavily sedated with chloroform, a recent medical discovery whose risks were yet unknown. It was an invention that Queen Victoria had found to be so useful herself that she had personally ensured her eldest daughter Vicky received it for her first labor.

Only later did it become apparent to the proud mother and those close to her that all was not well with the newborn. The forceful intervention of the physicians had caused injury to the prince's neck and had severed some nerves leading to the left arm, leaving him permanently disabled, although the full extent of the damage was not apparent at the time and would be revealed only gradually.

Despite the many cruel and imaginative ways the best doctors of the time attempted to cure the unhappy child's disability—with the application of electric currents, with so-called "animal baths" in which a freshly slaughtered hare was wrapped around the lifeless arm, by strapping the "good" arm to the boy's body, thus forcing him to attempt to use the useless one—the child that was destined to rule the most powerful military state of the late 19th century was unable even to get dressed by himself or cut up his own food. His mother was barely able to conceal her disappointment in her child, and the son, aware of the rejection, developed a strained love-hate relationship with his mother. Later in his life, these ambivalent feelings toward his English-born mother turned into a similarly strained relationship with England—with disastrous consequences.

Why should the birth of a baby—albeit a royal one—attract the attention of historians? There is the obvious reason that the child in question was predestined to become Prussian King and German Kaiser. The Prince, named Wilhelm, like his grandfather, who was King of Prussia and would become German Emperor in 1871, was to rule Germany for 30 years, from 1888 until his abdication and flight to the Netherlands in November 1918.

The baby who had suffered such a traumatic start grew up to be a troubled, hyperactive, and difficult child and later a disturbed, cruel, and sometimes even dangerous man. For some commentators the reasons for this lie not only in the horrific "cures" for his physical disability, his harsh upbringing with an exaggerated emphasis on discipline and Prussian-style militarism, and the strained relationship with his mother, but also to some extent in the traumatic events surrounding the birth itself. Specifically, side effects from the use of chloroform, together with prolonged oxygen starvation in the child, have led to speculations about possible brain damage, although it is impossible to prove such a thesis beyond doubt.

Dr. Annika Mombauer,  January 2008, Over the Top