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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin

by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Ron Drees, Reviewer

An American-Russian Group Examines Evidence of Starvation and Cannibalism 
in the Soviet Union, 1921

The Russian Job begins in the spring of 1920, perhaps 16 months after the end of the Great War, with a drought in the Volga River Basin resulting in crop failures and famine affecting tens of thousands of square miles occupied by millions of peasants. This calamity aggravated the earlier seizure by the Communist government of almost all grain from previous harvests. The results were over 100,000 peasants left their homes in search of food, while parents and others committed murder and then cannibalized the victims. Guesstimates, literally educated guesses, placed the final death toll in excess of six million. As to the role of the United States, that is the story that Smith tells.

While the U. S. government chipped in $20 million, it was a private organization, the American Relief Administration, headed by a former and bored mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, along with several hundred Americans, who organized and administered the relief efforts. Hoover was already famous for fighting hunger in Belgium. To overcome the famine in the Ukraine and elsewhere, the ARA had to fight the nonstop paranoia of Communist authorities who suspected them of plotting to overthrow the government, a decrepit railroad system, intransigent bureaucracy, unbelievably brutal winters, disease, and the lawlessness of many Soviet cities and towns.

The ARA succeeded, feeding perhaps ten million adults and children between 1921 and 1923 while also delivering large scale medical and clothing relief, and saving the Communist revolution, which denied American assistance. But there were casualties. Several Americans disappeared into the abyss of starving Russian towns. Several love affairs were unrequited, one way or the other. Several of those who returned to the U.S. were never satisfied with anything they ever did in normality, compared to the challenges and satisfaction of feeding a starving nation. One even placed an ad in the ARA alumni publication, looking for a starving nation or some natural disaster needing long-term assistance. Hoover went on to organize assistance to victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flooding (another forgotten chapter in American history) and, unfortunately for him, was elected president.

Smith's book has only one map, but that was sufficient to diagram the vastness of the disaster. The book is well illustrated with photographs of the victims, ARA volunteers, and Russian authorities. We are all familiar with wartime photos of suffering, but these of the starved children are worse. Smith should have spent more text in explaining how ARA set up and ran kitchens to feed the starving. Read this book to learn what a great nation does and what makes a nation great, helping those who cannot help themselves.

Ron Drees

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Importance of the St. Mihiel Salient, Then and Now

The German Observation Post Atop Montsec Dominated the Southern Face of the Salient.
Today It Is the Site of an American Monument.

The reduction of the St. Mihiel Salient, on the southeast flank of Verdun was the first victory of  a full American Army during the Great War. This is how four years of battling in this unique feature of the Western Front  is encapsulated in most histories of the war. However, it was back in 1914, when the sector—neglected by the French which was advancing farther north in the Ardennes and south  of Nancy and, thus, was freely occupied by German forces—began playing a  significant role in how all the fighting unfolded from the English Channel to the Swiss border.  

On the Left Is the Location of the Salient and Its Approximate Shape for Most of the War.

Fort de Troyon, Overlooking the Meuse River Played a Critical Role in the
1914 Battle of the Marne.

The struggle in the salient would be a critical aspect of the Battles of the Marne, the most important battle of the First World War. Subsequently, the salient would be the site of intense fighting for the rest of the war, much of which is neglected in English-language sources on the war. The thrust into the Western Front, however, presented both an ongoing threat to Verdun, a potential sally port for a deeper penetration into the French rear, while almost fully disabling the French rail system in eastern France. Also, occupation of the salient allowed Germany to exploit one of France's leading steel-producing areas around the town of Briey.

This constant struggling for advantage in the salient turned it into something of an open space museum to WWI-style warfare, with forts, trenches, bunkers, mining craters, sites of trench raids, and countless cemeteries and memorials. Furthermore, thanks to the work of the American Battle Monuments Commission staff (which included a Major Dwight D. Eisenhower),  visitors with a car or bicycle can follow the post-trench, open warfare of 1918. (I always took my tour groups along the path of the George Patton-led first tank attack in American history.)

German Trench at Bois Brûlé Near Apremont Defended Against 
the U.S. 1st and 26th Divisions During 1918.
 It Can Still be Visited Today.

When the AEF arrived in 1917, it was no accident that General Pershing saw this was the singular area in France that his forces could play a major, possibly decisive, role. Your editor has come to believe through his research and site visits that this mostly forgotten 150-square-mile section of the Western Front was—from its creation in the fall of 1914—the overlooked key for the Allies to drive the invading German forces out of France and Belgium. It offered the Allies the best opportunity for breaking the German Army's communication, supply, and rail networks, and for directly and more immediately threatening the German homeland. Advances launched from the Flanders-Somme or the Champagne-Verdun lines allowed the Germans too much territory for defense-in-depth for a strategic withdrawal as they did at the Somme in 1917. By 1918, both Pétain, commander of the French Army, and American commander Pershing had both come to understand the opportunity the Lorraine region offered. Generalissimo Foch, chief strategist for the Allies, however, was surprisingly late in grasping the opportunity. Until the very last month he preferred to pursue a broad advance across the entirety of the Western Front.

American Forces Advancing, September 1918

Things clarified toward the end, however. Had the Armistice not come, the Allied revised plan was for a three-army (two American, one French) attack on 14 November, centered out of the Woëvre Plain (the former St. Mihiel Salient). This was simply a shorter route to Germany for the Allies to take (American forces were already just 50 miles from the Rhine, while the British, in the west, were near Mons, triple the distance) and gave them opportunities for completely severing the enemy's communications at its hinge, cutting off his forces in the west. Fortunately, for those who might have died in that cancelled attack, it was not needed.

M. Hanlon

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Off to France with John J. Pershing by Major General Merritt Ireland

Major General Merritt Ireland

Major General Merritt  Ireland (1867–1952) was the highly respected Surgeon General of the American Expeditionary Corps. In 1931, just before his retirement as Surgeon General of the Army,  he wrote a 24-page autobiographical sketch on his service. One of the interesting episodes he covers is how, as a colonel, he was abruptly called from his job as the hospital commander at Fort Sam Houston outside San Antonio and soon chosen by General Pershing to be among the small group of officers who would travel with him to France aboard the RMS Baltic to lay the groundwork for the American Expeditionary Force. The "Baltic Group" of about 50 officers and 100 enlisted men would create the multi-million-man deployment from almost nothing. Although Ireland's responsibilities were solely in the medical area, his account captures the urgency and overwhelming challenge facing the United States. Here is General Ireland's account.

My service at Fort Sam Houston was very very interesting. Thousands of National Guard troops were camped on the reservation, and it gave me a great insight into the handling of troops in the field. This splendid service continued until May 1917. I was made a medical member of the board of which General Charles Morton was President, to select camp sites in Texas for the National Army.  This board was on a trip visiting Austin, Waco, Dallas, and McAlester, Oklahoma. We returned to  Fort Sam Houston the night of May 17th. When I went to the house things were in disorder as though the people were moving out, and the colored servant remarked to me that she was sorry I was going to Washington. Mrs. Ireland had gone to the wrong [railroad] depot in San Antonio to meet me. I found out very shortly that a telegram was been at the post for two days directing me to proceed at once to Washington and report to the Adjutant General. 

With the usual hunch that has gotten me through life I understood at once what the telegram meant, in spite of the fact that it had not been published in any way that we were going to send troops to France. I spent the next day in turning my hospital over to Major Raymond F. Metcalfe and left San Antonio the morning of May 19th for Washington. It seemed to me that the train ran slower and slower and that I would never get there. I had the fear all the time that the two days delay in transmitting to me the telegram to report to the Adjutant General would result in my arriving in Washington after General Pershing and his staff had left.  

I arrived in Washington the morning of May 21st, and when I reported to the Adjutant General I was told to report to General Pershing, who had an office in the War Department. General Pershing told me at once that he had asked for me as his Chief Surgeon, and that Birmingham, who was the Acting Surgeon General during the absence of General Gorgas, was enthusiastic that I should be assigned to that duty. But, as soon as General Gorgas returned, he made several trips to see General Pershing, insisting that I was too junior an officer to receive such a responsible assignment, and moreover Colonel Alfred E. Bradley, M.C., was an observer with the British forces in Europe and was my senior. 

Rather than start with a misunderstanding with one of the principal bureau chiefs of the War Department, General Pershing acceded to General Gorgas’ plan but said he wanted me to go along as he had use for me. Needless to say, I was only too glad to go in any capacity. I spent a hectic week in Washington, about as hectic a week as I ever spent in my life, trying to get an understanding with the Surgeon General’s Office with reference to personnel and supplies, the necessary force to start an office, etc. 

Secret orders were passed to us to meet the Commander in Chief at Governors Island the morning of May 28th, where we were to embark for France. I left Washington the night of the 27th with Major Henry Beeuwkes, one of the medical officers assigned to General Pershing’s staff, and we met in New York Major James R. Mount and Major George P. Peed, the two other officers assigned to me. We were also met there by Master Sergeant Robert A. Dickson and Corporal Aylor, Medical Department, who were on duty with me at Fort Sam Houston and for whom I had asked to be assigned to me. 

I never saw it rain harder than it rained in New York on May 28th. We were taken on a tug about noon, and after long maneuvering were placed on the Baltic about four o’clock, and put to sea that evening. The Baltic was a 22,000 ton boat and it was loaded to the waterline with supplies. Comparatively speaking there were few passengers. There was nothing exciting about the trip. There were no submarine alarms. The last three days before landing at Liverpool the sea was as smooth as it could possibly be. 

We went into the harbor at Liverpool about ten o’clock the night of the 8th and disembarked the next day. General Pershing was met by a guard of honor. After the necessary ceremonies we were put on a special train and proceeded to   London, where we arrived about five o’clock in the afternoon. We were put up at the Savoy Hotel. That night Lord Brooke gave a dinner to the officers of General Pershing’s party. We met very many interesting officers and learned a good deal about what was going on in France, but not a single soul intimated to us that things were in a bad way over there and that the French and British had been whipped to a standstill. The fact of it is two or three days before the British had blown up some very important positions occupied by the Germans, and had accomplished one of the greatest surprises since the beginning of the war. Their talk was all about that. 

Colonel A.E. Bradley met us at the depot and became General Pershing’s principal [medical] adviser. Saturday, June 9th, was spent in getting some uniforms and a few things necessary to take with us to France, and on Sunday, June 10th, I proceeded to Paris with the so-called “Port Board.” This board consisted of Taylor of the Engineers, McCarthy and Moore, Q.M.C., Drum of the Infantry, Porges of the [Quartermaster Corps] National Army, and Ireland. We were supposed to visit the different ports in France to ascertain where we could land our troops and the necessary dock construction that would have to take place to facilitate the work. 

General Pershing and the "Baltic Group" Arrive in Boulogne

We were royally received at Boulogne by the French. We arrived in Paris early the morning of June 11th and were met by the Military Commission headed by Colonel James Logan. Colonel S.H. Wadhams, M.C., was a member of this commission. He had been in France for several months as a military observer, and spoke French well, had gained the entire confidence of the French Sanitary Service, and was to become in my opinion one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, medical officers in the American Expeditionary Force.  We spent June 11th in making official calls and making our arrangements to proceed with our duties the next morning.

When we called upon our Minister, Mr. Sharp, we were told in very plain language that we had not come too soon and that maybe America had entered the war too late, as the French had been bled white. I remember what a shock that was to me, as the newspapers had told us all the time the fine spirit of the French Army. Colonel Wadhams told us in detail of the terrible misfortune of General Nivelle’s April drive and how they had mutinied in many sections of the French Army.

We started on our mission the next morning, visiting Nantes, Savenay, St. Nazaire, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and La Pallice. I was particularly struck with the primitive conditions that existed at all of these ports as compared with the facilities at our own ports. We returned to Paris on Monday, June 18th, and found that General Pershing had arrived the afternoon of June 13th and had established his headquarters on Rue Constantine, where the Chief Surgeon found small and inadequate offices even for our small force. Later on, the Chief Surgeon’s Office was moved to Rue St. Anne, where we continued our work until the 1st of September when we moved our permanent headquarters to Chaumont.

It is needless for me to repeat here that as far as our organization and equipment were concerned we started at zero. With this statement it can be well understood the hectic time we had in completing an organization that would fit in with the Army organization, which made it possible for us to have 192,000 patients in our hospitals when the armistice was signed seventeen months later, and which were being taken care of in a most acceptable way by the cream of the profession of America that had been sent over to France. 

MG Merritt Ireland, Medical Corps

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Communications Intercept Capabilities at the Start of the Great War

Wireless Intercept Station Near Hunstanton, England, 1915

By Wilhelm F. Flicke

[Note:  The author of this piece was a German scientist and intercept officer during the Second World War. This article is a selection from his longer 1945 memorandum "War Secrets in the Ether," which fell into the hands of  American forces after the war. It was eventually declassified and released to the public in 2014.]

To endeavor to learn what is in the opponent's mind and to draw advantage from it has always been very important in the history of mankind in peacetime and particularly in wartime.

During thousands of years only the methods have changed. In the days when there was no technical medium for conveying thought over great distances, the only existing possibility was either to overhear the spoken word or to intercept — or at least have a look at — messages transmitted in writing. To guard against this latter possibility, secret writing was invented. The history of the last three thousand years is full of examples of great successes in statesmanship or in military enterprises which were due solely to the fact that the statesman or general concerned was able to organize cleverly and to maintain for a considerable period of time a method of spying on the transmitted thoughts of his opponents. Cleopatra, Alexander of Macedonia, Caesar, Napoleon, Metternich, and many others owed their successes to the extensive use or this type or

However, the practical possibilities were narrowly limited, and great individual cleverness was necessary in this work in order to arrive at the goal. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Morse telegraph came into use, soon followed by the telephone, new technical possibilities of attack resulted by switching—in and listening—this quickly produced a new situation. The invention and use of radiotelegraphy, with the possibility of picking up anywhere at any time the radiations of a transmitter working at any point whatsoever, increased the possibility of interception in a way hitherto undreamed of. The hour when radiotelegraphy was born was also the hour of birth of illegal listening-in, i.e., of the so-called intercept service.

There were two countries in Europe in which the espionage service had been especially cultivated for centuries: France and Austria-Hungary. Consequently, these were the two countries which first recognized the importance of technical means of intercepting communications and took corresponding action.

Prior to World War I Austria had several occasions to test out this new means of gaining information.  During the crises which arose in 1908 between Austria and Italy in connection with the annexation by Austria of Bosnia and Herzegovina all Italian radio traffic on the continent and at sea was intercepted by the Austrians. At that time Austria began regular cryptanalytic work, and in this way was able to get valuable insight into Italian's attitude; this proved of great value for Austrian foreign policy.

In 1911 when war broke out between Italy and Turkey over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the Austrian intercept service had an opportunity for the first time to prove its worth in the military as wall as in the political field. Since the Italians had set up several relay stations for traffic between Rome and Tripoli, where the first Italian landings were made, the Austrians had a fine opportunity to intercept all transmissions more than once—therefore very completely. The radiograms with military dispositions from t.he homeland, and the reports from the theater of war were all intercepted and deciphered so that the course of the operations in Libya could be followed day by day by the Austrian intercept service.

This was the first time in history that the course of military operations between two opponents could be followed move by move by a neutral third party using technical means at a distance of hundreds of kilometers.

When the war in Tripoli took an unfavorable turn and Turkey lost its last possession in Africa and therewith its dominant position in the Mediterranean, an opportunity was offered the nations in the Balkans to shake off Turkish rule. This resulted in breaking up Turkey in Europe. The Balkan League, consisting of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, which had been formed meanwhile, declared war on Turkey in October, 1912. The Bulgarians were victorious at Kirk-Kilisse and Lule Burgas; the Serbians at Kumanovo; the Greeks occupied Salonika. On 3 December, a truce was made.

For the Danube Monarchy the course and outcome of the military actions and of the entire development in the Balkans were of interest. Therefore, Austria followed the radio traffic with close attention and again had opportunity to make successful use of this new means of gaining information, this time, to be sure, working to some extent with Italy. Austria and Italy put through the formation of an independent Albania. At the preliminary Peace of London, 30 May 1913, Turkey ceded to the allies all territory west of the Enos–Midia Line.

But a quarrel arose among the allies respecting the conquered territories. The Balkan League broke up. In bloody battles the Bulgarians were driven out of Macedonia by the Greeks and Serbs. Romania and even Turkey, which won back Adrianople under Enver Pascha, took the field against Bulgaria. A redistribution of territory took place in the Balkans's.  And once more Austria had the keenest interest in following the course of diplomatic and military events in this area. For the fourth time within five years.

Austria had a chance to get practice in interception and in cryptanalysis. At the peace conferences of Bucharest and Constantinople the new map of the Balkans was drawn. Prior to World War I France had less occasion to engage in radio interception, but it watched all wire lines leading into foreign countries and particularly the exchange of foreign diplomatic telegrams passing over these lines. In the French Foreign Ministry· there was a cryptanalytic section which worked with good success on the solution of the secret writings used by foreign governments and their representatives. For instance, even before the outbreak of World War I the French had solved the cryptographic system in which messages were exchanged between the Foreign Office in Berlin and the German Ambassador in Paris. When the long telegram containing the declaration of war on France was transmitted to the German Ambassador by the Foreign Office in Berlin, the French first deciphered the dispatch and, after they had taken cognizance of the content, so garbled important passages in the original that the Ge man Ambassador could at first make nothing out of the telegram he received. Only after divers inquiries was he able to get matters straight. In this way the French gained valuable time.

In the Deuxieme Bureau of the French General Staff there was, even before World War I, a desk charged with following all foreign radio traffic (especially German and Italian)  in order to have an idea or the normal radio situation and or the changes occurring in case of military complications. The use of radiotelegraphy in the armies of Europe had even then assumed considerable proportions and would probably increase considerably in any coming war. But this raised the question of the extent to which it would be possible to gain insight into the situation on the enemy side by observing his radio traffic. A prerequisite was to watch this traffic in peacetime, to recognize the types of traffic, the use of ciphers, and any methods of camouflage, and by so doing to maintain contact, so to speak.

These chances and possibilities had been recognized both in France and in Austria before the beginning of World War I. And both countries had made preparations in time. As in the French  Deuxieme Bureau, there was in Vienna in the Evidenzbuero a desk for watching foreign army radio traffic, while in the Foreign Ministry in Vienna and in Paris, bureaus had already been set up which were engaged in the decipherment of the cryptograms which I were customary in the diplomatic correspondence of other states.

In Germany to be sure, the General Staff thought or such possibilities, but down to the outbreak of World War I had undertaken practically nothing. Even in the Foreign Office nothing had been done in this direction which was worthy of mention. In England at the Foreign Office the decipherment of cryptograms had been attempted some years before the beginning of World War I,  and good results had been achieved. In Russia, on the other hand, no attention had been paid to this matter.

This then was the situation respecting, the intercept service and cryptanalysis at the beginning of World War I. At that time people did not suspect the proportions which interception would assume during the course of this struggle.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Canadian Bugler Monument at Vimy Ridge

At Vimy Ridge

Even a year after the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, I'm discovering information on some of the commemorative events that took place at that time. The image above is of a statue of a Canadian bugler that was dedicated at Vimy Ridge on 9 November 2018. It is a duplicate of a statue standing at Camp Borden, now known as Canadian Forces Borden, near the city of Barrie in Ontario.The statues are products of the Borden Legacy Project.  Here is the story of their endeavor in their own words.

Camp Borden was founded in 1916, training nearly 50,000 soldiers for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. For many of those soldiers, their first action was during the Battle of Arras (1917) and specifically the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

In 2016 CFB Borden celebrated its centennial year, and through the enduring partnership of the Base, the City of Barrie and the surrounding communities, the Borden Legacy Monument, the first bugler, was erected to mark the occasion. Unveiled on 9 June  by PM Trudeau, with Mayor Leturque, the mayor of Arras, contributing to our ceremony.

The Borden Legacy Project began in 2014, and in June 2015 sacred soil was removed from the battlefield at Vimy Ridge and repatriated to Canada. This soil symbolically holds the DNA of all those fallen and wounded in the 1917 battle.

This was one of the important steps that saw the creation of Borden Legacy Park—three distinct pieces that serve to commemorate our past and inspire the future. First, a white-and-black granite wall, a tribute and inspiration to each and every member of the Canadian Armed Forces that passes through our gates. Etched into the main wall is a powerful tribute to all past and current serving Canadian Armed Forces members: Through these gates the sons a daughters of a grateful nation pass – serving Canada with Honour, Duty, and Courage, so that all may live with Freedom, Democracy, and Justice.

The wall also encases an urn, in which the sacred soil is held. The promise of General Sir Arthur Currie to his troops is etched into the wall that holds the soil and reads: To those who fall I say: you will not die, but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have borne such sons. Your names will be revered forever and ever by your grateful country, and God will take you unto himself.

At Borden Legacy Park

The second piece of the park is the restored WWI trenches that were used to train infantry soldiers before their departure to the Western Front. Connected to the Legacy Wall via a short wooded trail, these trenches are a reminder of the importance of training, and the conditions of the First World War.

Finally, a bronze bugler stands in the park, calling to his companions, calling visitors to the monument, and calling to the now-empty trenches that once trained soldiers before they left for battle overseas.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a second bugler was created, and was donated to the Vimy Foundation, to stand in the shadow of Walter Allward’s magnificent monument. The Twin Bugler stood in the Hotel de Ville in the city of Arras until the 2018 Armistice commemoration at Vimy Ridge..

Sources: Information and photos provided by CFB Borden

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Song of the Mud by Mary Borden

Contributed by David F. Beer

Although Mary Borden (1886–1968) is largely forgotten today, her essays and poems resulting from her experiences as a nurse in a French hospital just behind the trenches are no less than riveting. She published several books, but her World War One work is collected in a haunting volume well worth reading, The Forbidden Zone. In the following poem, notice her vivid description of the mud, especially in her use of verbs and adjectives, and how her fluid lines seem to expand and contract, reflecting the flowing and the sucking of the mud.

The Song of the Mud
by Mary Borden

This is the song of the mud, 
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys; 
The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds; 
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the 
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone. 

This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu. 
His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy; 
His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it. 
This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud, 
And his skin is of mud; 
And there is mud in his beard. 
His head is crowned with a helmet of mud. 
He wears it well. 
He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him. 
He has set a new style in clothing; 
He has introduced the chic of mud. 

This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle. 
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome, 
The slimy inveterate nuisance, 
That fills the trenches, 
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers, 
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts, 
That spreads itself over the guns, 
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips, 
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells; 
And slowly, softly, easily, 
Soaks up the fire, the noise; soaks up the energy and the courage; 
Soaks up the power of armies; 
Soaks up the battle. 
Just soaks it up and thus stops it. 

This is the hymn of mud--the obscene, the filthy, the putrid, 
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men.  
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead. 
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing. 
Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men; 
Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men. 
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it, 
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence. 
Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down, 
And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud. 
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them! 
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly. 
There is not a trace of them. 
There is no mark where they went down.
The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.

This is the song of the mud,
The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys. 
Mud, the disguise of the war zone; 
Mud, the mantle of battles; 
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers: 
This is the song of the mud.

If you’ve read this far, excellent! I know I felt somewhat "muddy" after reading the poem—and more important, I was significantly more aware of this aspect of the misery all soldiers went through. The inevitability and tragedy of the mud could hardly be described more effectively.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Truce of 1914 Depicted in Joyeux Noël

Amid the Ruins: Damon Runyon, World War I Reports from the Trenches, October 1918–March 1919

by Alan D. Gaff and Donald H. Gaff
Schiffer Books, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Damon Runyon
Embedded reporters and battlefield news coverage are nothing new. Scores of reporters accompanied the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) as it fought through France in 1917 and 1918. Damon Runyon was one of the well-known members of this small army of combat correspondents, and Amid the Ruins presents Runyon's wartime dispatches along with poems he wrote during the war. The editors are Alan D. Gaff, an award-winning military historian with several other books to his credit, and Donald H. Gaff, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa who has co-edited two other books with Alan Gaff.

In this book, the editors hope to show "that World War I was not a minor diversion from sportswriting [sic] and Broadway but that it was a vital part of his development as a writer…" (p. 19). Without the full context of Runyon's writing, it's hard to know how well they succeed in their stated goal, but the book does provide a detailed look at the wartime work of an important correspondent and news figure. It thus sheds light on the way American forces were covered and reported upon during the war.

The editors' 1-page introduction gives Runyon's background and sets his dispatches in perspective. It's interesting to note that, as the editors concede, all correspondents' dispatches were reviewed and censored by Army press censors. Thus, Runyon's "World War I dispatches should also be considered similarly censored and read with that critical fact in mind." (p. 15) Runyon, in addition to writing newspaper sports columns, war reports, and fiction, also wrote poetry, and this volume contains those poems that have the war as their subject. Runyon was also a war veteran, having served during the Philippine Insurrection, and he was thus no stranger to soldiers and their world.

The Reportage section, containing Runyon's wartime and postwar dispatches, runs to 148 pages while the Poetry section is 45 pages long. All of the dispatches are reproduced as they appeared in newspapers.

Since Runyon arrived at the front comparatively late (October 1918), his combat reporting was about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His coverage of battle is not of the kind to evoke the feeling of combat in the minds of newspaper readers. It is more akin to a general reporting of American forces. He wrote dispatches that touch upon the Lost Battalion and its commander, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, and about the fighting around Sedan and Stenay in the last few days of the war. His reports of the Lost Battalion and of American forces crossing the Meuse River at Dun-sur-Meuse are the closest to actual combat reporting in these dispatches.

In his reports, Runyon sometimes shows his irreverent humor. Speaking of the vast number of politicians, entertainers, reporters, and other personalities clogging the roads behind the advancing American army during the Meuse-Argonne, Runyon writes: "It will be seen a rather mixed aggregation cluttered the road to the Argonne. Celebrities could be picked out of the welter of traffic like flies out of a boarding house soup." (p. 29)

Runyon returned to the U.S. aboard the USS Leviathan along with part of the 27th Division and a large number of wounded men and "casuals." His dispatches covering the trip are longer and more detailed than his dispatches from France. Noticing the cheerfulness and bravery of the wounded men, Runyon wrote an almost off-hand comment that won't surprise students of the AEF: "What men they are-God, what men!" (p. 156)

Runyon Helped Build Two of the Legends of the Great War—
Captain Eddie and the Lost Battalion

The poems recorded here were written between June 1917 and March 1919. In them, Runyon writes of soldiers and veterans, sports, and politics. Poetry, of course, is largely a matter of taste, and Runyon's poems are a mixed bag. No doubt the poems reproduced here rang true to soldiers, veterans, and the home folks of a century ago. The first stanza of "Song of a Drafted Man (The First Night at Camp Devens)" will suffice to give the reader an idea of Runyon's verse:

I'm here with two thin blankets,
      As thin as a slice of ham.
A German spy was likely the guy
      Who made 'em for Uncle Sam.

How did I sleep? Don't kid me!
      My bedtick is filled with straw,
And the lumps and humps and big fat humps
      That punched me 'till I'm raw.

There are several photographs and illustrations and a few basic maps. The editors' prodigious endnotes—486 of them—provide amazing biographical and background details of the people and events mentioned in Runyon's dispatches. These end notes are almost a separate book unto themselves; the editors put in an appreciable amount of research to provide this supplemental data. The four-page bibliography, understandably heavy in periodicals, will help readers find additional information on Runyon and the Great War.

Amid the Ruins will appeal to readers who are interested in learning about how an accredited war correspondent reported on the U.S. military during the final days of the war and during the American occupation of Germany.

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, December 23, 2019

A Christmas Letter from Nurse Helen Fairchild—A Roads Classic

Nurse Helen Fairchild's Last Christmas Letter from the Front
contributed by Nelle Rote

[Editor's Comment:  We introduced our readers to Helen Fairchild, who died during her service on the Western Front, in our 9 September 2013 entry, which can be viewed by clicking here. We thought, though, our readers might also like to read her last Christmas letter home today.  Helen was already ill from her wounds when she wrote this letter and would pass away the following month. One of the saddest and most revealing details in the letter is that she was not able to attend the Christmas party on the ward.]

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Helen Fairchild

LeTreport, France
Saturday morning, December 29, 1917 

Dearest Mother, 

Just received at long, long last, a letter from you, the first in three weeks, so you can just imagine how awful glad I was to get it. . . 

Well, must tell you about Xmas. Unfortunately most of the things we had counted on having didn't come in time (that's what usually happens), and among the things that didn't come in time was the turkey for the Xmas dinner, but we substituted chicken for the nurses and the quarter master succeeded in getting goose for the patients, but we were rather disappointed not to have turkey for the patients, as the nurses, officers and men had given the money to buy the turkey, and we wanted them to have it. 

The Christmas bags that had been packed in Phila. didn't come, but we managed to have a nice Xmas. It was a fairly nice day and we had a party for the whole unit on Xmas eve.

I did not go, but they said it was very nice and a choir of our nurses and some of the English men went all around the wards, and even came over to the officers and nurses mess and sang Xmas carols Xmas eve. Then the nurses got up at 5:30 a.m. Xmas morn and made rounds in all the wards, singing Xmas songs. Of course, all the wards were decorated and we managed to find some little thing for each one of the patients. Then Xmas p.m. the officers gave a tea for the nurses and had real ice cream, which wasn't exactly like home, but tasted mighty good even at that. 

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Patients and Nurses Celebrate Christmas on the Ward of a
British Army Hospital

But I was a lucky girl. I hadn't touched either of the boxes Edna sent me so I had them to enjoy Xmas day, and there were such nice things in them. A pair of the warmest slippers, pale blue, and a pair of white silk stockings and a little electric candle that will be so useful here. Then in the other box she had a perfect fruit cake and a big tin of home made candy and salted peanuts. In spite of the fact that I had kept those things for over two months, they were just as soft and fresh as could be. Everybody raved about that candy. Part of the fruit cake I gave to Miss Dunlop and the rest I wrapped up in a dandy cloth and am going to keep it a while longer. Miss Dunlop and several of the girls each gave me very pretty handkerchiefs, Major Harte gave me fruit, and Wagner gave me perfume, so I had a very nice day. 

The remarks you made about ____ sounds just like her, but I admire the rest for their attitude because what the Red Cross and the Y.M.C.A. are doing for us over here means so much to us. Really, it would be awful to get along without the things they send us and most of the pleasure that the troops get are the ones provided for them by the Y.M.C.A., and if you could see what these boys have to go through sometimes I think even she might be willing to do without a banquet to help, as we share to give them any comfort possible. 

If the time ever comes when some of our own are sent over here I guess she would be glad to have them taken care of when they are wounded, and without the supplies sent by the Red Cross Society, we could not do half as much for them as we are. . . 

With heaps of love and thanks,
from your own Helen

All of Helen's letters home, her full story, and much information about the work of nurses on the Western Front have been gathered and commemorated by Helen's niece, Nelle Rote, in Nurse Helen Fairchild: WWI, 1917-1918.  It can be purchased at this website, and we highly recommend it:

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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Extreme Propaganda on the Allied Side: Kultur Cartoons by Will Dyson with Foreword by H.G. Wells

This 1915 book from  Australian and soon-to-be war artist Will Dyson and the well-known Mr. Wells speaks for itself.  I present the full foreword by Wells and a representative sample of the cartoons drawn by Dyson.


It is one of the curious facts one learns at the beginning of one's physiological studies, that when the optic nerve is pressed or injured it records not pain, but visions, and that the auditory nerve protests by sounds and voices. So it is with Mr. Dyson, who responds to all the fearful pressure of this war in cartoons. He perceives in militaristic monarchy and national pride a threat to the world, to civilization, and all that he holds dear, and straightway he sets about to slay it with his pencil, as I, if I could, would kill it with my pen. He turns his passionate gift against Berlin.  

For some years now many of us have followed the inexhaustible comment of this  extraordinary  artist with increasing admiration; we have come to realize the consistency of his attitude and the peculiar conventions he has established for himself. He has an extreme distinction of personality, a  simplicity and cleanness of mind to a rare degree; he believes so in the good and generous things in  life that he cannot realize anyone adhering to mean and squalid ways when once the truth of their meanness has been asserted.   

Though his work has been published mostly in a daily “labour” paper, its direction and appeal have been steadfastly to the ruler, the employer, the responsible men. Don’t you see, he has said in a thousand cartoons, how disgusting it is to be a “fat man” in a world of ignoble advantages? Can you really keep on as you are keeping on after I have drawn you like this? And his rendering of the devil is intensely characteristic of him. None of your high-browed Satans for him. His devil is a gross beast, with a small brain-case and huge belly and loins—a disgusting beast of a devil. If it had a big brain then Mr. Dyson would be certain—very eagerly do I subscribe myself his adherent—that it would stop being a devil and regulate loins and hoof and belly into a tolerable seemliness. The enemy of mankind is lumpishness and foolishness sustained by the universal fool.  

So in this issue of the war Mr. Dyson takes a figure based on the Kaiser, but essentially a symbol, on which to concentrate his hatred of the foolish assumptions, the cruel vanities, the vile waste of opportunity, the perversion and destruction, which is his case against militant monarchy. I could wish he were given the task of the Kaiser's court painter, for indeed he would make a record that would kill regal ambition to the very end of time. And supporting the Dysonised Kaiser is a German figure of fat foolishness. You may argue that it libels the dignity and intelligence of the loyal and able staff at Berlin and the nature of German loyalty, but Mr.Dyson will never believe you. He has penetrated deeper. The folly and the dullness of spirit must be there; loyalty to evil things is the revelation of a kindred evil. "What business had you Germans with loyalty and obedience ?” he would say. “Your business under this stuff was revolution.” And as the work of this clumsy devil to whom Europe has given herself over, look at his caricature of apes in an aeroplane dropping bombs, or of Kultur being told to fetch the warriors boots. Was there ever a completer and juster repudiation of the belligerent theory of life?  


Saturday, December 21, 2019

The War in 1916

Manufacturing Coffins, 1916

By Editor/Publisher Mike Hanlon

One of the most fascinating aspects of the First World War is how it evolved from year to year. It started out as a sort of European civil war between two large coalitions that quickly expanded to other continents and most of the world's oceans, making it a world war. Concurrently, as the initial war plans failed, what all the belligerents hoped would be a quickly resolved war of movement surprisingly got locked into a positional, attritional war.

Trench warfare—or rather, breaking through the trenches—required stupendous amounts of artillery and shells. Industrial production quickly became a critical element of each nation's war-making capability. Those civilians who worked in those factories were understood by the war leaders to be collectively as important as the soldiers on the battlefields. So, weren't they, also, legitimate targets? Thus were blockades, aerial bombardment of cities, and starvation of populations justified. It was a very logical slide into what is called "Total War."

This was the arc of the Great War through, say, the start of 1916. But the evolutionary process did not cease then. In World War II, Marshal Stalin had a quote pertinent to the 1916 campaign, "Quantity has a quality all of its own." The chapters on the year 1916 in some histories have a title something like: "The Year of the Big Battles." Well, here's a quantity/quality of big battles—they kill lots of people. The greatest strategic and human disaster of 1916 was that by its end, the combatants were starting to run out of able-bodied men. New drafts of the unwilling, teenagers, and geezers made out of desperation were no long-term solution. Besides, they would run out of these bodies, too, soon enough.

By the end of 1916 it was dawning on the various war leaders that defeat through sheer exhaustion of manpower—and willpower—was a real possibility. The life and death of nations and empires were at stake now. The answer to "What had happened in 1916?"—the war afterward became a more intense and desperate matter of survival for the belligerents, leading them in 1917 to double down on their bets (even bigger battles or unrestricted submarine warfare) or to collapse from within as in Russia. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Eyewitness: Lt. Emilio Lussu, Sassari Brigade

Lt. Emilio Lussu
Emilio Lussu was an Italian Alpini officer  during WWI, later a writer and staunchly antifascist politician. Born in Sardinia, he was assigned to the Sassari, or Sardinian, Brigade of the Italian Army. His memoir, Un anno sull’Altipiano (A Soldier on the Southern Front), 1938, captures the experience of of the war on the Italian Front in a way very similar to Henri Barbusse's Under Fire does for the Western Front.  Here are some of the passages that impressed me. The book covers the period in which Lussu's unit was redeployed from the Isonzo River sector to the Asiago Plateau to blunt the Austrian spring offensive of 1916.

We would finally be liberated from that miserable life, lived fifty or a hundred yards from the enemy trenches, in that ferocious promiscuity […]. We would stop killing each other, every day, without hate. The war of maneuver would be something else. A successful maneuver, two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand prisoners, just like that, in a single day, without that horrific, generalized slaughter; just the success of an ingenious strategic encirclement. 

Of course, I consciously waged war and justified it morally and politically. My conscience as a man and a citizen did not conflict with my military duties. For me, war was a harsh necessity, a terrible necessity, but to which I obeyed, as one of the many needs, ungrateful but inevitable, of life. Therefore I was making war and I had the command of soldiers. I did it therefore, morally, twice.

On the edge of the plateau, at thirty-five hundred feet, it was pure chaos. We’d arrived there on June 5 via Val Frenzela from Valstagna, under the tightest security measures, because it wasn’t clear where our guys were and where the Austrians were. 

It’s more than a year now that I’ve been fighting in this war, on just about every front, and I’ve yet to look a single Austrian in the face. Yet we go on killing each other every day. Killing each other without even knowing each other, without even seeing each other! It’s horrible! That’s why we’re all drunk all the time, on one side and the other. 

Quite often, our own artillery pounds us into the ground, shelling us instead of the enemy. . . The Austrians artillery fires on its infantry all the time, too

Italian Troops in the Asiago Sector

At one point, as Italian soldiers continue to be mowed down during an already failed attack, the enemy makes a surprising gesture:

Suddenly, the Austrians stopped shooting. I saw the ones who were in front of us, their eyes thrust open with a terrified look, almost as though it were they and not us who were under fire. One of them, who didn’t have a rifle, cried out in Italian, “Basta! Basta!” “Basta!” the others repeated from the parapets. The one who was unarmed looked like a chaplain.  “Enough, brave soldiers, don’t get yourselves killed like this!” We came to a halt for an instant. We weren’t shooting, they weren’t shooting. The one who seemed to be a chaplain was leaning out so close to us that if I had reached out my arm I could have touched him. He had his eyes fixed on us, and I looked back at him. From our trench a harsh voice cried out, “Forward! Men of my glorious division, forward! Forward against the enemy!” It was General Leone [a notoriously aggressive and reckless commander.]

The experience serves to evaluate life for what it is and not for what one would like it to be.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

"Four Brothers" by Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg, 6th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (Center)

Carl Sandburg, poet, biographer and veteran of the Spanish-American War, covered the Great War in neutral Sweden for the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1918. He wrote several anti-war poems during this time. "Four Brothers," however, seems to be his singular pro-war piece.

MAKE war songs out of these;
Make chants that repeat and weave.
Make rhythms up to the ragtime chatter of the machine guns;
Make slow-booming psalms up to the boom of the big guns.
Make a marching song of swinging arms and swinging legs,
Going along,
Going along,
On the roads from San Antonio to Athens, from Seattle to Bagdad-
The boys and men in winding lines of khaki, the circling squares of bayonet points.

Cowpunchers, cornhuskers, shopmen, ready in khaki;
Ballplayers, lumberjacks, ironworkers, ready in khaki;
A million, ten million, singing, 'I am ready.'
This the sun looks on between two seaboards,
In the land of Lincoln, in the land of Grant and Lee.

I heard one say, 'I am ready to be killed.'
I heard another say, 'I am ready to be killed.'
O sunburned clear-eyed boys!
I stand on sidewalks and you go by with drums and guns and bugles,
You-and the flag!
And my heart tightens, a fist of something feels my throat
When you go by,
You on the kaiser hunt, you and your faces saying, 'I am ready to be killed.'

They are hunting death,
Death for the one-armed mastoid kaiser.
They are after a Hohenzollern head:
There is no man-hunt of men remembered like this.

The four big brothers are out to kill.
France, Russia, Britain, America-
The four republics are sworn brothers to kill the kaiser.

Yes, this is the great man-hunt;
And the sun has never seen till now
Such a line of toothed and tusked man-killers,
In the blue of the upper sky,
In the green of the undersea,
In the red of winter dawns.
Eating to kill,
Sleeping to kill,
Asked by their mothers to kill,
Wished by four-fifths of the world to kill-
To cut the kaiser's throat,
To hack the kaiser's head,
To hang the kaiser on a high-horizon gibbet.

And is it nothing else than this?
Three times ten million men thirsting the blood
Of a half-cracked one-armed child of the German kings?
Three times ten million men asking the blood
Of a child born with his head wrong-shaped,
The blood of rotted kings in his veins?
If this were all, O God,
I would go to the far timbers
And look on the gray wolves
Tearing the throats of moose:
I would ask a wilder drunk of blood.

Look! It is four brothers in joined hands together.
The people of bleeding France,
The people of bleeding Russia,
The people of Britain, the people of America-
These are the four brothers, these are the four republics.

At first I said it in anger as one who clenches his fist in wrath to fling his knuckles into the face of some one taunting;
Now I say it calmly as one who has thought it over and over again at night, among the mountains, by the seacombers in storm.
I say now, by God, only fighters to-day will save the world, nothing but fighters will keep alive the names of those who left red prints of bleeding feet at Valley Forge in Christmas snow.
On the cross of Jesus, the sword of Napoleon, the skull of Shakespeare, the pen of Tom Jefferson, the ashes of Abraham Lincoln, or any sign of the red and running life poured out by the mothers of the world,
By the God of morning glories climbing blue the doors of quiet homes, by the God of tall hollyhocks laughing glad to children in peaceful valleys, by the God of new mothers wishing peace to sit at windows nursing babies,
I swear only reckless men, ready to throw away their lives by hunger, deprivation, desperate clinging to a single purpose imperturbable and undaunted, men with the primitive guts of rebellion,
Only fighters gaunt with the red brand of labor's sorrow on their brows and labor's terrible pride in their blood, men with souls asking danger-only these will save and keep the four big brothers.

Good-night is the word, good-night to the kings, to the czars,
Good-night to the kaiser.
The breakdown and the fade-away begins.
The shadow of a great broom, ready to sweep out the trash, is here.

One finger is raised that counts the czar,
The ghost who beckoned men who come no more-
The czar gone to the winds on God's great dustpan,
The czar a pinch of nothing,
The last of the gibbering Romanoffs.

Out and good-night-
The ghosts of the summer palaces
And the ghosts of the winter palaces!
Out and out, good-night to the kings, the czars, the kaisers.

Another finger will speak,
And the kaiser, the ghost who gestures a hundred million sleeping-waking ghosts,
The kaiser will go onto God's great dustpan-
The last of the gibbering Hohenzollerns.
Look! God pities this trash, God waits with a broom and a dustpan,
God knows a finger will speak and count them out.

It is written in the stars;
It is spoken on the walls;
It clicks in the fire-white zigzag of the Atlantic wireless;
It mutters in the bastions of thousand-mile continents;
It sings in a whistle on the midnight winds from Walla Walla to Mesopotamia:
Out and good-night.

The millions slow in khaki,
The millions learning Turkey in the Straw and John Brown's Body,
The millions remembering windrows of dead at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Spottsylvania Court House,
The millions dreaming of the morning star of Appomattox,
The millions easy and calm with guns and steel, planes and prows:
There is a hammering, drumming hell to come.
The killing gangs are on the way.

God takes one year for a job.
God takes ten years or a million.
God knows when a doom is written.
God knows this job will be done and the words spoken:
Out and good-night.
The red tubes will run,
And the great price be paid,
And the homes empty,
And the wives wishing,
And the mothers wishing.

There is only one way now, only the way of the red tubes and the great price.

Maybe the morning sun is a five-cent yellow balloon,
And the evening stars the joke of a God gone crazy.
Maybe the mothers of the world,
And the life that pours from their torsal folds-
Maybe it's all a lie sworn by liars,
And a God with a cackling laughter says:
'I, the Almighty God,
I have made all this,
I have made it for kaisers, czars, and kings.'

Three times ten million men say: No.
Three times ten million men say:
God is a God of the People.
And the God who made the world
And fixed the morning sun,
And flung the evening stars,
And shaped the baby hands of life,
This is the God of the Four Brothers;
This is the God of bleeding France and bleeding Russia;
This is the God of the people of Britain and America.

The graves from the Irish Sea to the Caucasus peaks are ten times a million.
The stubs and stumps of arms and legs, the eyesockets empty, the cripples, ten times a million.
The crimson thumb-print of this anathema is on the door panels of a hundred million homes.
Cows gone, mothers on sick-beds, children cry a hunger and no milk comes in the noon-time or at night.
The death-yells of it all, the torn throats of men in ditches calling for water, the shadows and the hacking lungs in dugouts, the steel paws that clutch and squeeze a scarlet drain day by day-the storm of it is hell.
But look! child! the storm is blowing for a clean air.

Look! the four brothers march
And hurl their big shoulders
And swear the job shall be done.

Out of the wild finger-writing north and south, east and west, over the blood-crossed, blood-dusty ball of earth,
Out of it all a God who knows is sweeping clean,
Out of it all a God who sees and pierces through, is breaking and cleaning out an old thousand years, is making ready for a new thousand years.
The four brothers shall be five and more.

Under the chimneys of the winter time the children of the world shall sing new songs.
Among the rocking restless cradles the mothers of the world shall sing new sleepy-time songs.