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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

My Battle of the Somme Slide Show, Part I

On the Centennial of the Battle of the Somme, I presented a program on the struggle to the World War One Historical Association.  Over the next two days, I'm going to present a selection of the slides, mainly to give a feel for the battle and its importance historically. We have presented dozens of articles on the Battle of the Somme on Roads to the Great War. If you would like more detailed information on it, just enter "Somme" in the search box at the top of the page.

Click on Images to Enlarge Slides

Part II Tomorrow

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The U.S. Coast Guard's Service in the Great War

The outbreak of World War I (WWI) in 1914 saw cutters become responsible for enforcing U.S. neutrality laws. Soon after, in January 1915, these cutters and their officers and crews merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to become the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard was specifically created as an armed service of the U.S. and was directed to transfer to the Navy in the event of war or upon direction by the president. Plans were immediately put into place to work carefully with the Navy in determining what roles the Coast Guard might play in any future conflict. Those plans were implemented quickly with the U.S. declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917. At that time, a coded dispatch was transmitted from Washington, D.C., via the Navy radio station in Alexandria, VA, to every Coast Guard cutter and shore station. Officers, enlisted men, vessels, and units were transferred to the operational control of the Department of the Navy. The Coast Guard augmented the Navy with its 223 commissioned officers, more than 4,500 enlisted men, 47 vessels of all types, and 279 stations scattered along the entire U.S. coastline.

Men of the Port of New York Detachment Drilling

During WWI, the Coast Guard continued to enforce rules and regulations that governed the anchorage and movements of vessels in American harbors. The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the Coast Guard further power to protect merchant shipping from sabotage. This act included the safeguarding of waterfront property, supervision of vessel movements, establishment of anchorages and restricted areas, and the right to control and remove people aboard ships. The tremendous increase in munitions shipments, particularly in New York, required an increase in personnel to oversee this activity. The term “captain of the port” (COTP) was first used in New York, and Captain Godfrey L. Carden was the first to hold that title. As COTP, he was charged with supervising the safe loading of explosives. During the war, a similar post was established in other U.S. ports. However, the majority of the nation’s munitions shipments abroad left through New York. For a period of one-and-a-half years, more than 1,600 vessels, carrying more than 345 million tons of explosives, sailed from this port. In 1918, Carden’s division was the largest single command in the Coast Guard. It consisted of more than 1,400 officers and men, four Corps of Engineers tugboats, and five harbor cutters.


Cutter Yamacraw Was Assigned to Convoy Duty

In August and September 1917, six U.S. Coast Guard Cutters (USCGC), Ossipee, Seneca, Yamacraw, Algonquin, Manning, and Tampa, left the United States to join U.S. naval forces in European waters. They constituted Squadron 2 of Division 6 of the patrol forces of the Atlantic Fleet and were based in Gibraltar. Throughout the war they escorted hundreds of vessels between Gibraltar and the British Isles. The other large cutters performed similar duties in home waters, off Bermuda, in the Azores, in the Caribbean, and off the coast of Nova Scotia. They operated either under the orders of the commandants of the various naval districts or under the direct orders of the Chief of Naval Operations. One cutter, Tampa, was lost in combat with all 115 crew and 15 passengers aboard, a dreadful loss for such a small service.

The Crew of the USS Tampa — All Were Lost at Sea, 26 Sept. 1918
(Major Roads Article)

A large number of Coast Guard officers held important commands during WWI. Twenty-four commanded naval warships in the war zone, five commanded warships attached to the American Patrol detachment in the Caribbean Sea, twenty-three commanded warships attached to naval districts, and five Coast Guard officers commanded large training camps. Six were assigned to aviation duty, two of whom commanded important air stations including one in France. Shortly after the Armistice, four Coast Guard officers were assigned to command large naval transports engaged in bringing the troops home from France. Officers not assigned to command served in practically every phase of naval activity: on transports, cruisers, cutters, patrol vessels, in naval districts, as inspectors, and at training camps. Of the 223 commissioned officers of the Coast Guard, seven met their deaths as a result of enemy action.

Besides those lost aboard USCGC Tampa, eleven were lost from USCGC Seneca on a combat search-and-rescue mission, and another 70 lost their lives due to accident or illness. Two cutters were lost due to collisions, USCGC McCulloch off San Francisco and USCGC Mohawk off Sandy Hook. Heroism was common among Coast Guardsmen as they were awarded two Distinguished Service Medals, eight Gold Life-Saving Medals, 49 Navy Crosses, and 11 foreign awards.

USCGC McCulloch Sinking Off of San Francisco

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Historian Scott Price described what happened to the service after the Armistice. "The biggest challenge was to get the Coast Guard back under the Treasury Department—many of the Coast Guard officers liked serving with the Navy, since there were better chances at promotion, etc. so that was one hurdle that had to be surmounted. And before they had a chance to really incorporate the lessons they learned during the war, the nation undertook the great experiment that was Prohibition and so once again we were thrust into a huge new task, one unlike anything we had done to that time, and that consumed the Coast Guard for the next decade or so. But lessons were learned and by the time World War II came around, our escort-of-convoy and port security duties were still paramount—as well as our coastal defense responsibilities."

Sources: United States Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914: How Faulty Reconnaissance Exposed the Weakness of the Schlieffen Plan

By Joseph P. Robinson & Janet A. Robinson, and Dennis Showalter
McFarland, 2019.
David F. Beer, Reviewer

German Cavalry Entering Belgium, August 1914

If wars were wagered on like pro sports or horse races, the German military in August 1914 would have been a clear front-runner, with a century-long record of impressive victories and a general staff the envy of its rivals. Germany's overall failure in the first year of World War I was surprising and remains a frequent subject of analysis, mostly focused on deficiencies in strategy and policy. But there were institutional weaknesses as well. . . (book cover)

This well-organized and clearly written book may contain interpretations and conclusions that not every historian of Germany's August 1914 invasion of Belgium will agree with. However, the authors' argument is solidly stated and represents a great deal of research and thought. Disputes still abound regarding the Schlieffen Plan, its intended implementation, its actual modifications, and indeed whether, "if it existed at all, was anything but a recipe and a template for victory" (p. 2). Whatever one's opinions, it's difficult to find fault with this book's contention that poor preparation, planning, and reconnaissance were responsible for considerable confusion and delays that would have far-reaching consequences.

Belgian Infantry Moving to the Front

After reading The German Failure in Belgium, I was almost inclined to see the German invasion as somewhat of a comedy of errors—except there was decidedly nothing comic about it. Given the times and the level of technology available, what happened is not all that surprising. Much depended on the German cavalry, ironically when the cavalry charge was soon to face obsolescence in the face of the machine gun (p. 144). Horses could be used for reconnaissance and communications, however, but as this book shows, much could still go wrong.

The study of communication systems in World War One is a fascinating one, and naturally communication was a critical component of the German invasion of Belgium. Knowledge of where the enemy was, where he was headed, whether to prepare for attack or defense, where to place reserves and supplies, all depended on reliable recon and communication. Unfortunately, this was frequently unavailable, or at best, muddled. Although the invading army had some 21,000 carrier pigeons and some battalions used messenger dogs (p. 40), horse and dispatch riders were more practical, and with the early evolution of electronic communication the wireless and telephone were—despite being rudimentary—coming into their own. Additionally, aircraft and airships (dirigibles) were employed for aerial reconnaissance. One of the strong points of this book is showing how all these assets had weaknesses, pitfalls, and limitations and were often misused. Thus, efficient reconnaissance was considerably diminished.

Not only does The German Failure in Belgium show us multiple ways in which communication and reconnaissance efforts could fall short—or in some cases utterly fail at the practical level—but the authors also delve into the ingrained structural and operational considerations that frequently exacerbated problems. Top brass personalities and preferences also came into play here. Due to author Joe Robinson's professional military experience in operations and planning, the first three chapters of the book provide an excellent analysis of these levels. Chapters 4 to 9 then take a day-by-day look at the progression of the German army through Belgium, showing in detail how the advance was characterized by a lack of preparation and considerable faltering and stumbling. All towns, villages, forts, rivers, and roads that played a part in holding up the advance are discussed, as is the ongoing organization and liaison of cavalry, regiments, brigades, and divisions.

German Troops Pausing During the Advance into Belgium

This review can't possibly do justice to the meticulously detailed material in Dennis Showalter's and the Robinsons' book. For me, it opened perspectives on the German invasion of Belgium that I had previously lacked. The final chapter, when the authors' explain why things happened the way they did, was also enlightening. Helpful back material consists of the outline of the German Staff in May 1914, a glossary of terms and abbreviations, chapter notes, an impressive bibliography, and an index. Maps and photographs are included in the text. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

David F. Beer

Monday, September 16, 2019

Don't Miss the September 2019 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire!

This month we present our usual dozen articles in our monthly newsletter, plus all our usual features. This month we pay particular attention to the air war.

A testament to the technological leap of  Russian's Il’ya Muromets in 1914—the aircrew could walk around on top of the cabin while the aeroplane flew

  • Commentary: Three of Your Editor's Unpopular Views
  • Aerial Reconnaissance Over Germany: 1914
  • The Aces Speak
  • Richthofen's Triplane

This Month's WWI Classic Film Recommendation

  • New—Then and Now Feature: Madeleine Farm, Meuse-Argonne Sector
  • France’s Air Force jets mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. joining World War One
  • Looking Back at WWI Aviation: Nine Valuable Online Sources
  • Coming Events and Battlefield Tours

The Khyber Pass During the 1919 Afghan War

  • A Selection from: Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis  
  • Creating an American Air Force: Raynal Bolling (1877–1918)
  • HMS Furious: From Battlecruiser to Aircraft Carrier
  • 100 Years Ago: Airpower and the Third Afghan War


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Recommended: Sarajevo's Memories

A month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead on this spot, the First World War began. How has Sarajevo coped down the decades?

By Tim Judah
Originally Presented in the Economist, Jan–Feb 2014

BUILDERS ARE CRASHING about, foremen are barking down their phones, a lorry is disgorging building materials and no one seems to be noticing two men trespassing on their site. Security seems to be a little lax. But then it was on June 28th 1914 too. I am standing on the steps of Sarajevo's old town hall with Osman Topcagic, Bosnia's former ambassador to London and Brussels. If it had not been for what took place in this city in 1914, almost exactly a hundred years ago, who among us would be where we are today, or perhaps even have been born? 

Trams clank by as Topcagic looks out from the top of the steps. For a moment he is quite still, staring across the river to where he grew up, perhaps thinking of how different things could have been. In 1914 his grandfather was a member of the city council. He would have been somewhere here as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie came up the stairs, one of the crush of local dignitaries welcoming the heir to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian throne. In 2006 Topcagic showed the building to Otto von Habsburg, the pretender to the imperial crown, and then they went for lunch nearby; in 2011, Otto died peacefully in his sleep, aged 98. His great-uncle Franz Ferdinand's visit ended rather more memorably when he was shot dead by Gavrilo Princip. The rest is the history of the past hundred years. Here, on this street, we are at the ground zero of the 20th century.

The building, known as the Vijecnica, stands at the tip of the old Ottoman part of town. It is a fanciful Austro-Hungarian Moorish confection, built in 1892–94 in the course of the Habsburg-era redevelopment of Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarians seized Bosnia and Hercegovina from the Ottomans in 1878 and ruled it until 1918. In 1914 the Vijecnica was the town hall; later it became the national library. As a student in the 1970s, in the heyday of Tito's Yugoslavia, Topcagic liked to come and study here with his friends. In 1980 Tito died and the country began to unravel. Then came the war, and in Bosnia, when they say "the war", they mean the one that began in March 1992. Five months later, struck by shells fired by Bosnian Serbs from the hills just above us, the Vijecnica went up in flames. 

Soon afterwards it played host to an unforgettable scene when a cellist, Vedran Smailovic, led an anti-war protest by dressing up in white tie and tails, finding a perch in the rubble and playing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. The siege of Sarajevo and the war ground on nonetheless until 1995. For years afterwards the building remained an ugly reminder of the past, but the Sarajevo authorities slowly found the money to rebuild it, and while they were about it, install stone memorials noting that it had been burned down in 1992 by "Serbian criminals". But then the question began to creep up of how to handle 2014. What should the city do? 

Years ago an idea circulated that all the western Balkan countries could celebrate joining the European Union on the centenary of the assassination, thus bringing Europe's long 20th century to a symbolic close. It was not to be, and especially not for Bosnia, because its people and politicians are divided by ethnicity today as in 1914. Its Serb, Croat and Bosniak (as Bosnian Muslims are now called) leaders cannot agree on what needs to be done to join the EU, let alone on the Princip question: was he a terrorist or a freedom fighter.

LIKE THE BUILDERS, the diplomats, city officials, artists and historians began running around planning something. But what? As one friend put it, "what exactly are we supposed to celebrate?" Then someone had a brainwave. Sarajevo could be a European Capital of Culture for 2014. Friends were called in to lobby on its behalf. At the end of an interview with a senior European official, I said I just wanted to raise something else. He clapped his hand to his forehead. "Not you as well! We have already told them a thousand times it can't be done." Not being an EU member, Bosnia was ineligible for this coveted title and besides, when the Bosnians came up with the idea, it was already far too late for next year. 

But in the end all was not lost. A momentum had built up, and now, with French help in particular, all sorts of events are going to be held to commemorate what happened here, which is why the builders are too busy to bother with us. They are in a rush because on June 28th 2014, in a nice touch, the Vienna Philharmonic will give a concert at the Vijecnica to mark its official reopening. It will also host an exhibition about the period. Roland Gilles, the French ambassador and a cycling enthusiast, tells me that the Tour de France of 1914 began on the day of the assassination. So this year he has fixed it for former champions, including Eddy Merckx, to come and race round Sarajevo and then lead a massive procession of yellow-jerseyed cyclists from the now-Serbian east of town to the now largely Bosniak centre. The event, like the concert, will be televised. "The whole world will see Sarajevo," Gilles says. "The idea is a message of peace and reconciliation which can come from here." Sarajevo is remembered for 1914 and the 1990s war, so now "the idea is to look ahead."

Yet within Bosnia, anything to do with Franz Ferdinand's assassination can be politicised, linked and related to both the second world war here and the war of the 1990s. When I meet Amra Madzarevic, the director of Sarajevo's museums, she talks about how Princip, his group and their sponsors in Serbia, "had similar ideas to Radovan Karadzic [the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs] and Slobodan Milosevic [then president of Serbia] who wanted to have a Greater Serbia". Karadzic is on trial for genocide and war crimes in The Hague now, and Milosevic died during his trial there in 2006. Still, Madzarevic wants to use the anniversary to change minds. "To show that we are known for other, good things, to prove we are not nationalistic. Some people in Europe have a very wrong picture of us. We don't want to interpret history, just to show it happened."

Read the full article at:

Friday, September 13, 2019

The 14-Inch Railway Gun, the Queen Elizabeth, Shoots Up Conflans

The Queen Elizabeth

By Major J. K. Meneely, United States Coastal Artillery Corps

This is an account of the work done during the St. Mihiel offensive by one 340mm, 14-inch French Rifle, Railroad Mount, manned by Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, C.A.C. Captain (now Major) John K. Meneely, C.A.C., Commanding. Conflans, with its immense railway yards and the enormous round house capable of holding any number of locomotives and trains, was the main German base of supplies and operations in the St. Mihiel Sector. Hence, in the St. Mihiel offensive, it was very necessary to fire on Conflans to destroy these railway communications and to the stop the movement of all the trains bringing up supplies, reserves, and ammunition for the German defensive. Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, assigned to the task of destroying Conflans, fired continuous fire for destruction and harassing fire from 2:14 a.m. on 12 September 1918 to 5:00 p.m. on 16 September 1918. During this time a total of 101 340mm projectiles were sent over. The pictures taken after the offensive, show the terrible destruction wrought by these big shells, each of which weighs 465 kg (1,023 lbs.), 87 kg (191 lbs.) of this total weight being high explosives, leaving the muzzle of the gun with a velocity of 847 meters per second. 

The range from the guns to Conflans was 17.5 miles, or 28.2 kilometers. According to report of the French yardman, who had been forced to work here by the Germans, the very first shot was a clean hit in the yards, while the third shot dropped right into the Round House. The daily report of operation during this period included the same remark each day. "Battery B, 53rd Artillery, 20 rounds (or 36 rounds as the case might be); target Conflans; results excellent." But behind such crisp, dry official phrases are hidden many hardships, heroism, and achievements.

Late in the afternoon of 2 September 1918, Battery B received telephone orders to proceed to the front at 4:00 p.m. on 3 September. The Battery promptly entrained and left Haussimont at 4:00 p.m. and proceeded to Sommedieue. The whole trip was uneventful except for the views obtained of the forts around Verdun, which were under heavy shellfire. Allied troops were on the road moving up to new positions through a heavy barrage, which was in progress on all roads.

Sommedieue was the garage for our train. The garage itself was well covered with overhanging trees but it was also well known to the Germans, who continually harassed it with high explosive shrapnel, making it necessary for the battery to leave the cars and sleep in immense dugouts practically our whole stay there.

Aerial Photo of Conflans Rail Yard and Round House

The Firing Position
The firing position, number 956, was at the head of a huge ravine some mile-and-a-half from the Germans. It was a perfect gas trap, and as gas was looked for at any time, every spare moment was taken up with gas precautions. A survey of Sommedieue showed it to be badly shelled, well known to the Germans, filled with French Senegalese troops and certain small living insects too well known to this battery. It was decided, after looking the situation over, to encamp on the top
of the hill near the battery; so shelters were dug three feet deep, for every two men, and a double shelter tent spread over these shelters. The idea was that a shell striking in the battery would have to be a direct hit to do any damage. As it rained practically every day of the 19 that the battery was in this position, it is easy to imagine the condition of the shelter holes at the expiration of that time. Unhealthy, unsanitary, fine for pneumonia or worse, yet the remarkable feature of this is that during the whole time, not a single man was on sick report. The position itself had been constructed by the French, but the dugouts were inadequate and poor. It was rather laughable to discover some of the tricks of these dugouts, especially in regards to gas. Every possible precaution known to civilized warfare was taken in regard to gas defense, but on the second day, it was discovered, in the battalion command station, that the roof of the dugout leaked like a sieve. Where water can penetrate, gas will penetrate as well. Another queer feature of this place was the water situation. There was water everywhere, in the form of rain, but nary a drop to drink. For miles from this chosen site, there was no source of drinking water, and this was the greatest hardship of the whole trip. For days at a time, the battery went unwashed. However, we quenched our thirst with vin rouge. After heaps of digging, shoveling and toiling, the powder dugouts, fuse dugouts and strong-shelters for the men were all constructed and on the night of the 11th of September the battery was ready to fire.

Firing Range

The Battery's Mission
The mission of the battery was to fire harassing fire on Conflans en Jarny which was a main detraining and transfer point for the loads of supplies, reserves and ammunition which arrived from Metz, destined for the St.-Mihiel front. The shelling of the battery was to destroy the yards, thus stopping the trains from passing through, and stem the flood of reserves that might interfere with the successful completion of the task which General Pershing had assumed when all the allied generals had refused to take the same chance for the past four years; namely, that of a clean cutting off of the St. Mihiel salient by drawing in from both sides rather than a frontal attack. Everyone knows the result of this plan, with its striking effect on the outcome of the Great War.

The night of 11 September at 8:00 p.m. orders were received to send a representative to Group Headquarters to await the firing orders. Twelve hours previous to our firing, our panel and radio stations had been set up on the reverse slopes of the hill two-and-a-half miles from the battery and telephone communications had been established to Group Headquarters and the Army Central at Dieu. All was apparently well at 10:00 on the night before the firing was to start; communications were given a final test and all found satisfactory. At 10:15 p.m. the Germans dropped a barrage on the road leading from Sommedieue to the position, and at 10:30 communications were again tested and found completely destroyed. And yet firing was to start at 2:00 a.m. An investigation showed that a German 150mm shell had fallen on a whole mess of wires and that every communication between our battery and hundreds of other batteries, supplied throughout these lines was broken. Very hasty repairs were made and communication was reestablished by midnight.

The Powder
There is a peculiarity in the difference of opinion entertained by the French and by the American Coast Artillery, in regards to powder. The French do not seem to worry about powder getting damp. They ship it in the ammunition cars, merely under the same shelter as the projectiles, not as we do, in carefully sealed metal containers. As is generally the case, the top of the ammunition car leaks, rain pours down upon the precious stuff. I have seen powder practically soaked with water, and yet it appeared to fire as well as dry powder.

An American Surveyor Checking the Damage to the Round House

The Shoot Opens
The first shot was fired at about 2:00 a.m., in the midst of a heavy rain. The pouring streams of rain of course rendered observation impossible, and there was great doubt in the minds of us all, as to the fate of that first shot and the possibility of its being a hit. However, it was after the signing of the Armistice, while on a trip up to see our target that we learned of the fate of this shot. A French yard man, who had been retained in his position during the German occupation, stated that the very first shot we sent over was a clean hit right in the center of the yard; the third shot, he declared, entered the Round House, destroying everything that was inside. You can imagine the consternation those big shells must have caused in the yards. The scurrying of yard engines, the yelling of switchmen, and the turmoil and confusion of it all. It was one of those scenes which many an artilleryman has dreamt of causing, a thing that the fortunate that battery never tire of telling about.

They flew in all directions—full speed. The French Officer is Lt. Boutellier, the celebrated liaison officer for Col. McMillan and later for the 40th Brigade. Firing was continued throughout the night and the dawn broke cloudy and with a light rain falling. At 11:00 a.m., however, the sky cleared for a moment and aerial observation was requested of the 219th French Observation Squadron. This squadron was unable to leave their hangar before 3:00 p.m. due to lack of protection planes. However, at 3:00 p.m., seven observation planes went up without protection, having decided that the mission of observation was so important that they could not wait longer for chase planes. The bravery of these observers needs no further mention. Now as to their fate. The seven planes went up over the lines toward Conflans en Jarny. After the test messages, which were exchanged between the planes and the ground radio station, no further messages, were received. At 7:00 p.m., I was informed by Headquarters that of the seven planes, which went on this mission, three only returned, the other for having been brought down in flames behind the German lines. The three had at the time been forced to return without observation. This fatal attempt, with its drain on the resources of the squadron, cut us off from any observation until the night of the 14th, when the commander of the French squadron himself, who in company with two other observation planes and four chase planes, proceeded to within 15 kilometers of Conflans and made observation from the most extreme heights possible to be obtained by an observation plane. Due to the great angle on which they were observing and also due to the fact that Conflans lies in the valley, this observation proved unsatisfactory

Destroyed Passenger Car in the Conflans Rail Yard

The Work
During the entire firing, 109,965 lbs. of high explosive was sent into Conflans, with good results. After the shoot was apparently over, two new cars of ammunition were rushed up, and we received instructions to destroy the viaducts, which crossed the roads just north of Conflans. The powder furnished with the 40 shells was of four distinct lots, varying in manufacture and age from one year to seven years and in muzzle velocity from minus 5 meters per second to plus 25 meters per second, and its qualities were completely unknown. It was a case where the battery commander had nothing to do but shoot "By Guess and by God" and hope for the best. Corrections for firing in this case were made on a combination of the bracket and successive approximation systems, has devised by Colonel E. J. Cullen, C.A.C. This method is considered by many to be the best of any in use at the present. Each shot was also plotted and corrected on a grid system, on which the reports of the planes, or the, coordinates sent in by the S. R. O. T. were plotted rapidly and accurately.

Finally, at 5:00 p.m. on 15 September, the battery was given its first rest—a 24-hour one— after four days of continuous work in rain and mud. Through the courtesy of a French hospital we got our first bath and rest since leaving the concentration camp. On the night of the 15th, when we ceased firing, it seemed to us that the Germans must have retreated at least as far as Metz, yet as we lay in our train later in the night, preparing to move to a new position in the Argonne, we were harassed all night by 240mm shrapnel.  At 6:30 a.m., on the morning of the 17th, we pulled out of Sommedieue, to the accompaniment of shrapnel and high explosives, with the shells bursting on both sides and in the rear of our train.

Source:  12 April 1919 edition of Liaison, The Courier of The Big Gun Corps, official newsletter of the Coast Artillery Corps. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Occupation of Constantinople

British Warships in the Bosphorus: HMS Ajax and
HMS Ramillies and Three Destroyers

The Occupation of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the occupation of the capital of the Ottoman Empire, following the Armistice of Mudros by the Triple Entente of World War I. The first French troops entered the city on 12 November 1918, followed by British troops the next day. The occupation had two stages: the de facto stage from 13 November 1918 to 20 March 1920, and the de jure stage from 20 March 1920 to the days following the Treaty of Lausanne. 

Scottish Soldiers of the 28th Division in Constantinople

The city was divided into zones of occupation: the Galata and Pera districts were under British responsibility, the old city and southwest under French, and Üsküdar (Scutari) on the Anatolian side was under Italian control.  The occupation along with the occupation of İzmir, mobilized the establishment of the Turkish national movement and the Turkish War of Independence.

Sources: The World History Project

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The House-Grey Memorandum

The House-Grey Memorandum was originated by President of the United States Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic emissary to Europe, "Colonel" Edward M. House, and the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. In the late summer of 1915, in the midst of the Arabic crisis, Grey and House were regularly corresponding.  Grey, to House's mind, seemed to be hinting that the Allies would welcome American mediation in the conflict, if the U.S. was willing to seriously commit to play a role in defending a postwar international structure. On 8 October, House broached the plan with the president, who seemed receptive to it. 

From Col. House's Diary

October 8, 1915:

Col. Edward House
I outlined [to President Wilson this date] very briefly a plan which has occurred to me and which seems of much value. I thought we had lost our opportunity to break with Germany, and it looked as if she had a better chance than ever of winning and if she did win our turn would come next; and we were not only unprepared, but there would be no one to help us stand the first shock. Therefore, we should do something decisive now — something that would either end the war in a way to abolish militarism or that would bring us in with the Allies to help them do it. My suggestion is to ask the Allies unofficially, to let me know whether or not it would be agreeable to them to have us demand that hostilities cease. We would put it upon the high ground that the neutral world was suffering along with the belligerents and that we had rights as well as they, and that peace parleys should begin upon the broad basis of both military and naval disarmament. . . 

If the Allies understood our purpose, we could be as severe in our language concerning them as we were with the Central Powers. The Allies, after some hesitation, could accept our offer or demand and the Central Powers accepted, we would then have accomplished a master-stroke of diplomacy. If the Central Powers refused to acquiesce, we could then push our insistence to a point where diplomatic relations would first be broken off, and later the whole force of our Government — and perhaps the force of every neutral — might be brought against them.

The President was startled by this plan. He seemed to acquiesce by silence. I had not time to push it further, for our entire conversation did not last longer than twenty minutes.

October 11, 1915: 
Frank Polk took lunch with me. I told him something of the plan I had outlined to the President, concerning our enforcing peace before the Allies reached a position where they could not be of assistance in the event we had war with the Central Powers. I am looking at the matter from the American viewpoint and also from the broader viewpoint of humanity in general. It will not do for the United States to let the Allies go down and leave Germany the dominant military factor in the world. We would certainly be the next object of attack, and the Monroe Doctrine would be less indeed than a scrap of paper. . . . Polk thought the idea was good from every standpoint, and he hoped the President would finally put it through. . . .

House quickly gained the support of Secretary of State Robert Lansing for the scheme. Much back and forth discussion ensued, which led to Wilson sending House on a diplomatic mission to Paris, Berlin, and London. After further detailed discussions, reached an understanding on the major points to be addressed in the American initiative.

The final proposal, drafted in memo form by Grey, was an invitation from the U.S. to all those involved in the First World War to participation in a U.S.-mediated peace convention. President Wilson aimed to have a role at the peace conference in order to curb [vague] the big European powers' ambitions. If Germany declined to attend, the U.S. would probably become militarily involved in the European conflict. The final draft originally state should German rejection occur, “the United States would leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies." Wilson "approved the whole of the agreement", but added the word "probably."

Memorandum of Sir Edward Grey
22 February 1916
(Confidential )

Sir Edward Grey
Colonel House told me that President Wilson was ready, on hearing from France and England that the moment was opportune, to propose that a Conference should be summoned to put an end to the war. Should the Allies accept this proposal, and should Germany refuse it, the United States would probably [inserted by President Wilson] enter the war against Germany. Colonel House expressed the opinion that, if such a Conference met, it would secure peace on terms not unfavourable to the Allies; and, if it failed to secure peace, the United States would [probably] leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable. 

Colonel House expressed an opinion decidedly favourable to the restoration of Belgium, the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, and the acquisition by Russia of an outlet to the sea, though he thought that the loss of territory incurred by Germany in one place would have to be compensated to her by concessions to her in other places outside Europe. If the Allies delayed accepting the offer of President Wilson, and if, later on, the course of the war was so unfavourable to them that the intervention of the United States would not be effective, the United States would probably disinterest themselves in Europe and look to their own protection in their own way. 

I said that I felt the statement, coming from the President of the United States, to be a matter of such importance that I must inform the Prime Minister and my colleagues; but that I could say nothing until it had received their consideration. The British Government could, under no circumstances accept or make any proposal except in consultation and agreement with the Allies.... 

(initialed) E. G.
Foreign Office
22 February 1916

Grey showed the memorandum to the French ambassador Paul Cambon. Cambon believed that the memorandum was just an election tactic for Wilson who would be standing again for president that year.  In March 1916, the British government, led by Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, tacitly  vetoed the proposal as neither they, nor their French ally, wanted a return to the status quo antebellum but a victory over the German Empire.

Sources: Wikipedia and The World War I Document Archive.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Best World War I Story I Know: On the Point in the Argonne, September 26–October 16, 1918

By Nimrod Frazer
Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation, 2018
Editor/Publisher Michael Hanlon, Reviewer

Machine Gunners of the 35th Missouri-Kansas Division in the
Opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Korean War veteran and banking executive Nimrod (Rod) Frazer has turned into a crackerjack military historian during the World War I Centennial. His father Will had served in the war with the 167th Infantry (formerly 4th Alabama) Regiment of the AEF's 42nd Rainbow Division. Convinced that his dad and his mates were slowly fading out of the nation's collective memory, about a decade ago Frazer initiated a multi-prong effort to commemorate the service of the 167th. He acquired the property on which the unit fought one of its early, defining battles, Croix Rouge Farm, located just north of the River Marne. Then he commissioned a memorial for the site by British sculptor James Butler. Today that "Rainbow Soldier" statue is a pilgrimage site for all Americans visiting the Western Front. Concurrently, he enthusiastically and successfully embraced the challenge of becoming a military historian, researching and writing a history of the 167th Infantry, Send the Alabamians, to which we gave a very positive review on 16 September 2014.

With one success under his belt, Frazer took on a bigger historical project, an examination of a major sub-campaign of the Doughboys' greatest and costliest battle of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In The Best World War I Story I Know: On the Point in the Argonne, September 26–October 16, 1918, the author examines the effort to break the Hindenburg Line on the west side of Pershing's broad advance to Sedan. The key defensive position of the German Army was along the third of four defensive positions in the sector, the Kriemhilde Stellung, located in a hilly area know as the Romagne Heights. Among these hills, Hill 260, or the Côte de Châtillon, provided the best observation post for the enemy, and consequently, was the most highly fortified. 

Click on Map to Enlarge

This Map from the New Trail System in the Region Shows the
Progression of the Three-Division Attack, and the Insert Shows
Its Position in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In advancing the 12 miles to Côte de Châtillon and succeeding in capturing it, the U.S. First Army would exhaust three of its 28,000-man divisions: the 35th Missouri-Kansas National Guard, General Pershing's showcase 1st Division, and the 42nd Rainbow Division composed of select National Guardsmen from across the country. In telling us, "The history of how these three divisions managed such a feat is the best story I know from WWI," the author reveals to us the inspiration for his title.

The story proceeds chronologically, beginning on 26 September with the utterly inexperienced 35th National Guard Division, accompanied by Lt. Col. George Patton's tanks, advancing fairly well—three miles—over open rolling countryside on the battle's first day. But trouble soon arises as the enemy shows more resistance. The division's communications and logistics quickly break down—the generals don't know what's happening up front, artillery and infantry are out of sync, and incoming gas, the management of casualties, and the provision of ammunition become major problems. By day three, the division had lost the capability to sustain its attack. Pershing quickly realized he had no choice but to relieve the 35th and send it to a quiet sector.

One of the Most Famous Photos of the War Shows 1st Division Doughboys Fighting in Exermont Ravine During This Action

Next up was the highly experienced 1st Division, made up mostly of army regulars and commanded by future Chief of Staff, Major General Charles Summerall. As they resumed the offensive on 4 October, General Pershing had every reason for optimism, having thrown into the fight possibly his very best division. These men, however, were being deployed before some of the most readily defensible territory on the Western Front, the heavily wooded hills of the Romagne Heights. Here their enemy had lived for four years and had studied every hill, gully, and field of fire. The 1st Division, indeed, was up to the challenge, advancing systematically over every hill and stream until they were in sight of Côte de Châtillon. But by then, the division had, in a very literal sense, bled out. Its fighting units lacked sufficient manpower and officers to continue attacking. As Frazer recounts: "In closing out its part. . . the 18th Infantry [one of the division's four infantry regiments] reported 8 officers and 332 men present, having lost 38 officers and 1,384 men killed, wounded or missing. Not one of the officers who entered the battle with the regiment on October 1 would come out of it with the unit when it was relieved on October 11; all had died or been evacuated." [102].

The final assignment for capturing Côte de Châtillon would be given to another storied formation of the AEF, the 42nd Rainbow Division. It, too, struggled to gain ground on the heavily contested hill until General Douglas MacArthur’s determined 84th Brigade of “Alabama cotton pickers and Iowa corn growers” with both ingenuity and raw courage forced their way past the Germans. Those men who first reached the summit had a thrilling view. Looking north there were no more hills to assault, the rolling countryside had returned, and the road to Sedan was wide open. Victory was in sight and closer than anyone would have believed that day.

There's much I liked about The Best World War I Story I Know and much I learned. Rod Frazer has done a terrific job tying together a three-division campaign in a coherent fashion, but the thoroughness of his work doesn't stop at this overview level. There are excellent discussions of small unit actions—his discourse on the work of the 151st [Georgia] Machine Battalion in the last action is a classic, for example. More than any comparable military history works I can remember, he also remembers to honor the contributions of the individual Doughboys, and, in one case, a brave French liaison officer, Capitaine Maurice Drouhin. Let me not forget either, GREAT MAPS.

After the Victory
The 151st Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Rainbow Division

I strongly recommend The Best World War I Story I Know to anyone interested in the AEF, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, or well-researched and written military history.

Michael Hanlon

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Roads Classic: Navigating the Italian Front

One area that has been neglected so far in the Centennial commemorations is the Italian Front of the Great War.  I am hoping that will pick up soon, and I'll be doing as much as I can to correct that in our publications. However, since I've given a number of talks on the fighting there and led tours there, I know there is quite a bit of confusion about the location and character of the geography in its various sectors. Here is a little primer so you can understand which areas are being discussed when you see articles or TV programs on the war on the Italian Front. The are five sectors, five kinds of battlefields, to be mindful of. Since the terrain was different in each, the character of the fighting there was different as well.

Here Is Your Editor and Guide Atop the Italian Bastion of Monte Grappa (Sector 5) with the Dolomite Alps in the Distance (Sector 3A)
This key map locates the different sectors show on the subsequent slides. The S-shaped front was about 400 miles long from the spring of 1915 until the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917.

Here are slides showing the features and terrain of the five sectors.

This area is also known as the Lower Isonzo.  It was the main location of Isonzo Battles #1–11 and the site of the greatest casualties on the Italian Front.  The Carso Plateau, the city of Gorizia,  and a second rocky plateau, the Bainsezza, were the main obstacles to the Italian advance on Trieste.

The Upper Isonzo, on the edge of the Julian Alps was the location of the most famous battle on the Italian Front and one of the most lopsided military engagements of the 20th century.

The mountaintop warfare in the High Alps was the most dramatic element of the war in Italy. It featured mine warfare on mountains, incredible engineering feats, and some unique ways to die not seen on the Western Front  – Avalanches, Freezing, Starving, and Falling off Cliffs. The Adamello-Presanella Alps in the west were strategically less important and less active than the Dolomite Alps to the East.

This lovely transition zone between the Lower Tyrol/Trentino and the Venetian Plain was the site of Austria-Hungary's forgotten, but important, 1916 offensive and the desperate fighting post-Caporetto. The war opened in 1915 on the north edge in the Fortress Zone marking the prewar borders between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. 

After the Battle of Caporetto, the German and Austrian pursuit drove the Italians far south, from the Adriatic to the Asiago Plateau. However, the Italians with Allied reinforcements were able to hold onto a strong (and shorter) defensive line. The marker above shows where Ernest Hemingway was wounded.  Please remember, though — Ernest Hemingway was NOT at Caporetto.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Map Series #9 The First Division at Cantigny

This map is section from the "Battle of Cantigny Map"  published in 1944 by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  It not only clearly shows the advance against the village of Cantigny in late May 1918 but also shows the sector occupation of the 1st Division of the AEF until 7 July, when it was redeployed for the 18 July assault south of Soissons.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Friday, September 6, 2019

A Dozen Revealing Photos of Day-to-Day Life in the Trenches

Hundred-Year-Old Barbed Wire, Western Front

Click on the Images to Enlarge

These Canadian Troops Appear Ready for Anything

German Work Party, Probably Pioneers, Constructing a Trench

Italian Soldiers Intensely Observing the Enemy, Carso Sector

Rank Has Its Privileges: French Officers at Lunch  

German Soldiers Under Bombardment in a Underground Bunker

American Medics in a Quiet Sector, Winter of 1917–18

Bored Austrian Troops, Eastern Front

Flooded Communications Trench, Probably Flanders

French Troops Observing German-Occupied Territory

British Soldiers Baiting a Turkish Sniper, Cape Helles, Gallipoli

Check the Eyes: These Tommies Have Seen a Lot of Action