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

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Scenic Battlefield: The Isonzo Sector of the Italian Front — Part 1, the North

Having led battlefield tours to Western Europe, Gallipoli, Italy, and Slovenia, I can say that the most dramatic scenery can be found on the Italian Front.  The Isonzo Sector, on both sides of a 60-mile leg of the Isonzo [today Soca] River involved the bulk of the fighting, featuring 11 Italian offensives and the German-Austrian victory in the Battle of Caporetto. Today we highlight the northern half of the sector, best known for the October 1917 Battle of Caporetto.

The Italian Charnel House (Ossuary) at Kobarid (Formerly Caporetto)

An Austrian Position Overlooks the Northern Breakthrough
Point for the Battle of Caporetto 

Higher Up There Was Continual Fighting,  1915–1917

Lt. Erwin Rommel's Unit Captured This Outpost on 25 October 1917

After the Breakthrough,  German and Austrian Troops
Advanced Down the River Toward Caporetto

Austro-Hungarian Fort Kluze Held Out Throughout the War

Monument to Austrian and Bosnian Soldiers
Overlooks the High Battlefields

Chapel Constructed by Russian Prisoners of War

Italian Third-Line Position

Overlooking the Town of Tolmino, Launch Pad for the Southern Breakthrough 
During the Battle of Caporetto

Source:  The photos were found at the website and Facebook pages of Pot Miru, the International Walk of Peace Foundation (Link).

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

May 1917: U.S. Congress Passes the Selective Service Act

Click on Image to Enlarge

Draft Registration Card for the Editor's Grandfather,
John Benjamin Hanlon

Six weeks after the declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. Initially, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress had hoped the needed one million men would volunteer for the army. But when by May only about 73,000 men had signed up, it was clear other measures needed to be taken.

The United States had experimented with conscription laws during the Civil War. The Confederacy had passed the first such law (S.32) on 16 April 1862. The Union followed by passing a conscription law on 3 March 1863, ch. 75, 12 Stat. 731. Both Union and Confederate subscription laws allowed for a number of exemptions as well as including the very unpopular measure of “substitutes,” which allowed wealthy men to pay for someone to serve in their stead.

However, the World War I Selective Service Act specifically forbade the use of substitutes. This law, which was passed on 18 May 1917, applied to all “male citizens, or male persons…who have declared their intention to become citizens, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.” The law directed that quotas for each state should be established based on the state’s population. The law also addressed the issue of exemptions based on moral objections, as well as occupation. Those exempted from the draft included federal and state officials and judges, religious ministers, seminary students and any person who was found to be a “member of a well-recognized religious sect or organization…whose existing creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form.”

Secretary of War Newton Baker Draws the First Draft Number
on 20 July 1917

However, as the law went on to state, “no person so exempted shall be exempted from service in any capacity that the President shall declare to be noncombatant.” The law also exempted persons in certain classes or industries, including workmen in armories and those in agriculture whose work was “necessary to the maintenance of the Military Establishment.”

Ultimately the regulations issued by the president divided up the men subject to conscription into five classes. This law directed the president to create local draft boards in each county that were to consist of three or more members who were to determine all questions of exemption in their jurisdiction. The law further set up district boards that could hear appeals from the county draft boards.

Conscripted New Soldiers Arrive at Camp Upton, NY

Between 6 and 19 August 1918, the House Committee on Military Affairs held hearings to consider expanding the ages between which men should be drafted. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker testified at the hearing that, “There are two ways of fighting this war. One is to make every possible effort and win it soon, and the other is to proceed in a somewhat more leisurely fashion and win it late.” Congress appears to have preferred the first method, and a little less than two weeks later amended the Selective Service Act. This law made all men between the ages of 18 and 45 subject to the draft. The penalties for evading the draft remained the same. The evader would be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to a year of imprisonment unless the evader was subject to military law, in which case they would be tried by a court-martial. Congress anticipated a shortage of “manpower” and directed that soldiers’ wives should not be disqualified from working for the government because they were married women. Indeed, ten years after the war, Congress held hearings about the effect of the universal draft and conscription in times of war.

Source: Library of Congress Blog

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Escape Artists

By Neal Bascomb
Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018
James M. Gallen, Reviewer

Captain David Gray, Lead Tunneler 
The Escape Artists is a true story with novelesque qualities. It more than "reads like a novel" with engaging WWI characters and a plot that keeps you turning the page to learn how they plan their escape, whether they succeed, how far they get, and how their captors respond. Novels have all this suspense, but because they are fiction, they are inconsequential. Although the escape artists in this book are actual people who performed real daredevil deeds, their efforts had only an ephemeral impact on the larger story of the Great War.

The artists are generally British pilots and soldiers held in German POW camps. Escape was their duty. To attempt this the prisoners played a cat-and-mouse game with their guards, most prominently Captain Niemeyer, the brutal buffoon who keeps showing up to torment men who organize breakouts under his eyes despite his oafish efforts to foil them.

Pilots were not issued parachutes, and those who carried emergency kits with rations, maps, and tools were chastised as unwilling to fight to the bitter end. Prospects for a surrendering British soldier or airman were bleak. One in five were shot or bayoneted in the act. The wounded often died without treatment. Those who survived to be taken prisoner were robbed of everything of value before being marched off to spare and overcrowded camps where food was short, clothes threadbare, sanitation poor, and disease cut a broad swath. Officers had it better than enlisted men, but is it any wonder all ranks longed to escape?

Escapees Blain, Gray, and Kennard in Their  Disguises

As harsh as conditions are depicted, they strike me as more benign than accounts of Andersonville or World War II, especially Japanese camps. Reprisals were generally periods of solitary confinement rather than arbitrary executions. Many escapees were returned to try multiple times. Some walls were low enough to be scaled. Men had sufficient privacy and energy to be able to tunnel for weeks before trying their breakouts. Scarce as food was, a few could save some for their journeys. As ill clad as they were, some designed outfits that mimicked German uniforms.

Those who got away from the camps hid by day and crawled through fields in darkness, snuck through the towns that could not be avoided, and purchased and used railway tickets. Camps were situated close enough to the Dutch border to provide fugitives with a fighting chance of reaching neutral territory. The Kaiser was not the first to seek refuge in the Netherlands.

The history lessons are edifying, but the lure of this tome is its adventure. The limitations of the numbers of plotters to preserve secrecy, the schemes to avoid capture by joining a German speaker to an alleged lunatic, and the stories to explain their travels buoy the readers' spirits only to break their hearts when their friends—and that is what the prisoners become as we progress through the book—are captured by border patrol, or in a town that, alas, is in Germany, not the Dutch one of the same name.

In The Escape Artists author Neal Bascomb has crafted a history, an adventure, an inspiring tribute to the human spirit of freedom. I'd better stop. More could be a spoiler and you do not want that. Pick up and enjoy!

James M. Gallen

Monday, February 25, 2019

Remembering a Veteran: Alfred Wegener, German Army – Scientist-Explorer Extraordinaire

Alfred Lothar Wegener (1880–1930) earned a PhD in astronomy from the University of Berlin in 1905. He had meanwhile become interested in paleo-climatology, and from 1906–08 he took part in an expedition to Greenland to study polar air circulation. He would make three more expeditions to Greenland, in 1912–13, 1929, and 1930. 

In 1914, however, he put his brilliant scientific career aside to serve as an infantry officer.  Deployed to the Western Front, he was wounded twice, the second time so seriously he was deemed unfit for further front line combat  Nevertheless, Wegener stayed in the army with its meteorological service for the duration of the war.

Arctic Explorer
Wegener is best known for his theory of Continental Drift, which was opposed by much of the scientific community while he was alive. He had written about the phenomenon before the First World War and fleshed out the idea while he was recuperating from his wounds in 1915.  Out of his work eventually evolved the theory of Plate Tectonics, which is today universally accepted. As a meteorologist he did ground breaking work on the use of weather balloons, gathering atmospheric data, climatology, the ice ages, and ice-crystal formation.

After the war, he taught meteorology at Marburg and Hamburg and was a professor of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Graz from 1924 to 1930. Meanwhile, his enthusiasm for arctic exploration continued. Alfred Wegener died during his last expedition to Greenland in 1930. His remains were never found.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Unknown Warrior Is Laid to Rest

At the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France, buried there on 11th November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster: 


Below is an account of that day he was laid to rest.

From:  The Soul of a Nation, by Sir Phillip Gibbs

It did not seem an unknown warrior whose body came on a gun carriage down Whitehall, where we were waiting for him. He was known to us all. It was one of "our boys" (not warriors), as we called them in the days of darkness lit by faith.

To some women, weeping a little in the crowd after an all-night vigil, he was their boy who went missing one day and was never found till now, though their souls went searching for him through the dreadful places in the night.

To many men among those packed densely on each side of the empty street wearing ribbons and badges on civil clothes, he was a familiar figure, one of their comrades, the one they liked best, perhaps, in the old crowd who into the fields of death went and stayed there with a great companionship.

Arriving Back on British Soil

It was a steel helmet, an old "tin hat," lying there on the crimson of the flag, which revealed him instantly, not as a mythical warrior, aloof from common humanity, a shadowy type of national pride and martial glory, but as one of those fellows, dressed in the drab of khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into dirty ditches with this steel hat on his head, and in his heart unspoken things which made him one of us in courage and in fear, with some kind of faith, not clear, full of perplexities, often dim in the watchwords of those years of war.

So it seemed to me, at least, as I looked down Whitehall and listened to the music which told us that the Unknown was coming down the road. The band was playing the old "Dead March in Saul" with heavy drumming, but as yet the roadway was clear where it led up to that altar of sacrifice, as it looked, covered by two flags hanging in long folds of scarlet and white.

About that altar-cenotaph there were little groups of strange people, all waiting for the dead soldier. Why were they there, these people? There were great folk to greet the dust of a simple soldier. There was the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and other clergy in gowns and hoods. What had they to do with the body of the soldier who had gone trudging through the mud and muck like one ant in a legion of ants, unknown to fame, not more heroic, perhaps, than all his pals about him, not missed much when he fell dead between the tangled wire and shell holes? There were great generals and admirals, Lord Haig himself, Commander-in-Chief of our armies in France, and Admiral Beatty, who held the seas; Lord French of Ypres, with Horne of the First Army, and Byng of the Third, and Air Marshal Trenchard, who had commanded all the birds that flew above the lines on mornings of enormous battle.

These were high powers, infinitely remote, perhaps, in the imagination of the man whose dust was now being brought toward them. It was their brains that had directed his movements down the long roads which galled his feet, over ground churned up by gunfire, up the duckboards, from which he slipped under his heavy pack, if he were a foot-slogger, and, whatever his class as a soldier, ordained at last the end of his journey, which finished in the grave marked by the metal disc. Unknown in life, he had looked upon these generals as terrifying in their power "for the likes of him." Sometimes, perhaps, he had saluted them as they rode past. Now they stood in Whitehall to salute him, to keep silence in his presence, to render him homage more wonderful, with deeper reverence, than any general of them all has had.

The Coffin Passes by the Cenotaph

There were princes there about the cenotaph, not only of England, but of the Indian Empire. These Indian rajahs, that old white-bearded, white-turbaned man, with the face of an Eastern prophet, was it possible they, too, were out to pay homage to the unknown British soldier? There was something of the light of Flanders in Whitehall—the strange light that the tattered ruins of the Cloth Hall at Ypres used to shine with through the mist—suffused a little by wan sunlight, white as the walls and turrets of the War Office in the mist of London. The tower of Big Ben was dim through the mist like the tower of Albert Church until it fell into a heap of dust under the fury of gunfire. Presently the sun shone brighter, so that the picture of Whitehall was etched with deeper lines. On all the buildings flags were flying at half-mast.

The people who kept moving about the cenotaph were there for mourning, not for mere pageantry. Grenadier officers who walked about with drawn swords wore crepe on their arms. Presently they passed the word along "Reverse arms!" and all along the line of route soldiers turned over their rifles and bent their heads over the butts. It was when the music of the Dead March came louder up the street.

A number of black figures stood in a separate group, apart from the Admirals and Generals, people of importance, to whom the eyes of the crowd turned, while men and women tiptoed to get a glimpse of them. The prime minister and the ministers and ex-ministers of Britain were there. Asquith, Lord Curzon and other statesmen, who, in those years of conflict, were responsible for all the mighty effort of the nation, who stirred up its passions and emotions, who organized its labor and service, who won that victory and this peace. I thought the people about me stared at them as though conscious of the task that is theirs, now that peace is the test of victory.

But it was one figure who stood alone as the symbol of the nation in this tribute to the spirit of our dead. As Big Ben struck three-quarters after 10, the King advanced toward the cenotaph, followed by the Prince of Wales, the prince's two brothers, and the Duke of Connaught, and while others stood in line looking toward the top of Whitehall, the King was a few paces ahead of them, alone, waiting, motionless, for the body of the Unknown Warrior who had died in his service.

It was very silent in Whitehall, and before this ordered silence the dense lines of people kept their places without movement, only spoke little in their long time of waiting, and then, as they caught their first glimpse of the gun carriage, were utterly quiet. All heads were bared and bent. Their emotion was as though a little cold breeze were passing. One seemed to feel the spirit of the crowd. Above all this mass of plain people something touched one with a sharp yet softening touch.

The massed bands passed with their noble music and their drums thumping at the hearts of men and women, the Guards with their reversed arms, and then the gun carriage, with its team of horses, halted in front of the cenotaph, where the King stood, and the Royal hand was raised to salute the soldier who had died that we might live, chosen by fate for this honor, which is in remembrance of that great army of comrades who went out with him to No Man's Land. The King laid a wreath on his coffin and then stepped back again.

Crowded behind the gun carriage in one long vista was an immense column of men of all branches of the navy and army, moving up slowly before coming to a halt, and behind again other men in civil clothes, and everywhere among them and above them were flowers in the form of wreaths and crosses. Then all was still, and the picture was complete, framing in that coffin, where the steel hat and the King's sword lay upon the flag which draped it. The soul of the nation at its best, purified at this moment by this emotion, was there, in silence, about the dust of that Unknown.

Guns were being fired somewhere in the distance. They were not loud, but like the distant thumping of the guns on a misty day in Flanders when there was "nothing to report," though on such a day, perhaps, this man had died.

Presently there was a far-off wailing, like the cry of a banshee. It was a siren giving the warning of silence in some place by the river. The deep notes of Big Ben struck 11, and then the King turned quickly to the lever behind him, touched it, and let fall the great flags which had draped it. A grim, hard thing, like a pagan altar, as it seems to me, the cenotaph stood revealed, utterly austere, except for three standards, with their gilt wreaths.

It was a time of silence. What thoughts were in the minds of all the people only God knows, as they stood there for those two minutes, which were very long. There was a dead stillness in Whitehall, only broken here and there by the coughing of a man or a woman, quickly hushed.

The Unknown Warrior! Was it young Jack, perhaps, who had never been found? Was it one of those fellows in the battalion that moved up through Ypres before the height of the battle in the bogs? Men were smoking, this side of Ypres. One could see the glow of their cigarette ends as they were halted round the old mill house at Vlamertinghe. It rained after that, beating sharply on the tin hats, pouring in spouts down waterproof capes. They went out through Menin Gate. The shelling began along the duckboards by Westhoek Ridge, gas shelling, every old thing. Fellows dropped into shell holes, full of water. They had their packs on, all their fighting kit. Some of them lay there in the pits, where the water was reddish.

There were a lot of unknown warriors in the bogs by Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse. They lay by upturned tanks and sank in the slime. Queer how the fellows used to drop and never give a sound, so that their pals passed on without knowing. In all sorts of places the unknown warrior lay down and was not quickly found. In Bourlon Wood they were lying after the battle among the river trees. On the fields of the Somme they lay in the churned-up earth, in High Wood and Delville Wood and this side of Loupart Wood. It was queer, one day, how the sun shone on Loupart Wood, which was red with autumn tints. The old Boche was there then, and the wood seemed to have a thousand eyes staring at our lines, newly dug. An airplane came through the fleecy sky, wonderfully careless of the black shrapnel bursting about it. Wonderful chaps, those airmen! For a man afoot it wasn't good to stumble in that ground. Barbed wire tore one's hands damnably. There was a boy lying in a tangle of barbed wire. He looked as though he were asleep, but he was dead, all right. The airplane passed overhead with a loud humming song.

What is this long silence, all this crowd in London streets, two years after the armistice and peace? Yes, those were the old dreams that have passed, old ghosts passing down Whitehall among the living.

The silence ended. Some word rang out; the bugles were blowing. They were sounding the "Last Post" to the Unknown Warrior of the great war in which many men died without record or renown. Farther than Whitehall sounded the "Last Post" to the dead. Did the whole army of the dead hear that call to them from the living? In the crowd below me women were weeping quietly. It was the cry from their hearts that was heard farthest, perhaps. The men's faces were hard, like masks, hiding all they thought and felt.

The King stepped forward again and took the wreath from Lord Haig and laid it at the base of the cenotaph. It was the first of the world of flowers brought as a tribute of living hearts to this altar of the dead. Admirals and Generals and statesmen came with wreaths, and battalions of police following, bearing great trophies of flowers, on behalf of fighting men and all their comrades, and presently, when the gun carriage passed on toward the Abbey, with the King following behind it on foot with his sons and soldiers, there was a moving tide of men and women advancing ceaselessly with floral tributes. They waited until the escort of the coffin had passed, the bluejackets and marines, the air force and infantry, and then took their turn to file past the cenotaph and lay their flowers upon the bed of lilies and chrysanthemums which rose above the base.

As the columns passed, they turned eyes left or eyes right to that tall symbol of death, if they had eyes to see, but there were blind men there, who saw only by the light of the Spirit and saluted when their guides touched them and said "Now." It is two years after "Cease fire!" on the front, but in the crowds of Whitehall there were men in hospital blue who are still casualties, not too well remembered by those in health. Two of them were legless men, but they rode on wheels, and with a fine gesture gave the salute as they passed the memorial of those who fought with them and suffered less perhaps than they now do.

The Procession Arrives at Westminster Abbey

After the ceremony at the cenotaph the procession reformed and the Unknown Warrior was borne to Westminster Abbey. There awaited him a great congregation of mourners. They came from every class and every part of the Empire. They sat without the distinction of rank as lot had arranged them places, titled ladies next to charwomen, artisans by city merchants, for all had equal title to be there, the gift of a son or brother to the country.

At the door leading to Parliament Square, Bishop Ryle, Dean of Westminster, in a purple and gold embroidered cape, with his Canons and choir, met the body. It was carried shoulder-high by eight tall Guardsmen, and on the war-worn Union Jack that covered it lay a shrapnel helmet, a crusader's sword and a wreath of laurel. Through the transept lined with statues of statesmen, and past the high altar the Unknown Warrior was borne, and then through the choir into the nave, where already many famous fighting men slept. Just within the west door, a great purple square, bordered with white, marked the site of the grave.

The Coffin at Westminster Abbey

It is in the pathway of Kings, for not a Monarch can ever again go up to the altar to be crowned but must step over the resting place of the man who died that his kingdom might endure. Four ladies sat apart and rose to greet this great Unknown, Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra of England, Queen Maud of Denmark, and Queen Victoria of Spain, and behind them were grouped Princess Mary and other women of Royal blood. Waiting, too, near his grave, were men of the Warrior's own kind. He passed through ranks of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians in mufti, strangely mixed; Captains stood next to seamen. Colonels by enlisted men, for all wore the Victoria Cross, and that earned them the right to attend.

The mournful strains of the Croft Purcell setting of the funeral sentences were chanted, unaccompanied, as the procession passed through the Abbey, and as the grave was reached, the King, as the chief mourner, stepped to its head. Behind him stood the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught and other members of the Royal family, and ranked in the rear were Lloyd George and Asquith, the two war Premiers, and the members of their Cabinets, three or four Princes from India and a score or more of the leaders of British life. The pall-bearers, chiefs of the army and navy, Haig, French, Beatty and Jackson among them, took their stand on either side of the coffin, and the service began.

It was as simple as in any village church in the land.

Visiting the Grave Before Its Final Sealing

The Twenty-third Psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd," was sung to the familiar chant, and then came the account read by the Dean from Revelations of the "great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation, and of all tribes, and of all peoples and tongues, standing before the Throne."

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Last Shot of World War One

Click on Image to Enlarge

The doughboys of Battery E, 11th Field Artillery carefully loaded the 95-pound shell into Calamity Jane, the name of their favorite 155mm artillery piece. With the round in place, the men locked it into the breech and prepared to pull the lanyard. An officer, looking at his watch, stepped forward. Raising his hand, he kept his eye on his watch, waiting for the second hand to reach twelve. When it did he dropped his hand. A soldier yanked the lanyard. Calamity Jane was fired one at 1100 hrs, 11 November 1918. World War I was over.

There is no explanation why the 11th was chosen, but it is possible some enterprising officer in the American high command noticed the succession of elevens in the cease-fire order and picked the 11th to play along with the consistency. 

Source: Army History, 20 January 2015

Friday, February 22, 2019

Tactical Radios of the AEF

Truck-mounted SCR-50 Radio Station

The U.S. Signal Corps was far behind other nations in radio or wireless technology when arriving on the battlefields in France. The Allies had been using radios in combat since 1914 and were in the process of replacing their quenched-spark radios with more reliable and rugged systems incorporating triode tubes. Nevertheless, during the war the U.S. Army Signal Corps was blessed to have the services of two of the greatest radio innovators of the 20th century.  General George Squiers, already an internationally recognized scientist and inventor, was the AEF's Chief Signals Officer and Edwin Armstrong led the effort of the AEF's Paris laboratory to equip aircraft with radio capability.  

The radio was a significantly new piece of technology in modern armies of the twentieth century. The Signal Corps had two radio systems on hand when America entered the war, the pack radio set, SCR-49 and the wagon radio set, SCR-50. Both radios were large, cumbersome, high power quenched-spark transmitters with crystal receivers.  Due to the early technology of these radios, they were used as radiotelegraphs, transmitting Morse code rather than voice.  

Pack or "Mule" SCR-49 Radio Set (Signal Corps Museum)

The pack radio consisted of the radio, cables, antenna, mast, and hand generator. It was broken down and transported using two or three mules (or horses) and unpacked and operated within two-and-a-half minutes. It had a range of 20 to 30 miles, depending on the terrain and atmospheric conditions.  The wagon radio set consisted of the radio, cables, engine, dynamo, antenna, mast, guy ropes, and counterpoise. Due to its weight and bulky size, the wagon radio set required a truck or tractor for transportation. It had a range of 150 to 250 miles and could be unpacked and begin operation within ten minutes. A tactical radio capable of transmitting voice was fielded only after the war had ended in November 1918.  Consequently during the main fighting period of the AEF, May to November 1918, The Signal Corps relied primarily on French and some British radio equipment due to the U.S. Army’s slow development in radio technology.

However, in the field of radio, the Signal Corps made its greatest gains during the Great War.. Crucial to the improvements in radio was the use of vacuum tubes, replacing the earlier spark-gap radios. Although spark-gap radios were useful, the vacuum tubes allowed continuous wave (CW) to be practical in battle. By war's end, the Signal Corps had four improved T.P.S. (earth telegraphy) sets, three types of CW sets, a radiotelegraph set for tanks, and radio operating and repair trucks. 

The More Advanced SCR-54 Developed and Operated During the War

Another critical improvement in battlefield radio communications was the invention of the SCR-77; a two-way radio loop set (spark-gap). A common problem with radios during the war was that their antennas made great targets for the enemy (and therefore made it dangerous to be an operator). This new radio set, which was send-and-receive radiotelegraphy, laid the receiving antenna on the ground, while the transmitting antenna used a small loop connected to the spark-gap transmitter. This radio had a range of six miles, could transmit on two wavelengths, and was transported in three sections, each weighing less than 30 pounds.  The SCR-77 radio demonstrated great improvements in both survival of the operator and usefulness in close ground combat. The great leaps made in radio technology during the war paid dividends when America entered her next war 23 years later


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Jutland's Shadow Over the Royal Navy

Selections from:  "Emerging from the Shadow of Jutland,"  Corbett Paper #18 
Rear Admiral James Goldrick, Royal Australian Navy, Ret.

Queen Mary Exploding at Jutland

The Royal Navy mourned over Jutland. Whatever the pride felt from individual actions during the engagements, or from the realization that the Grand Fleet’s strategic advantage had been fully confirmed through its effective possession of the North Sea after the enemy had fled, at every level the legacy of the battle was "never again." There was regret for tactical and material failures and the catastrophic losses they caused, regret for the deficiencies of reporting and communications, and, above all, an even deeper regret for the absence of enterprise and initiative on the part of so many who should have known better. . .it is also clear that the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 functioned in relation to the battle as a "learning organization’"and consciously so. While there was attention to the mechanics, what may have proved even more important—and much more valuable between 1939 and 1945—was the accompanying focus on restoring the spirit of the tactical offensive.

To suggest that the command and control of the fleet moved to a looser and more flexible regime, particularly after Beatty took over as C-in-C from Jellicoe in November 1916, would be to over-simplify what happened. Many of the practical problems remained and had to be endured. The action seems to have confirmed that the battle fleet was too big—Jellicoe himself had decided that 16 units was the maximum practicable for one man to command.  A 24-ship line six miles long was certainly too extended for the limited visibility of the North Sea and not much better elsewhere. But, given the forces available on either side, the battle fleets of the First World War would always be larger than tactically desirable because a smaller formation was always at risk of being overwhelmed. Arguably, the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922 may have been settled in part by recognition of the ideal size for a battle fleet.

There was certainly a new emphasis on squadron and divisional tactics and a greater understanding that subordinate flag officers needed the authority to respond individually to an emerging situation. But it is notable that the drive within squadrons and divisions was to an even greater degree of coordinated maneuver, not less. The reason for this was that concentration of fire became the new focus of gunnery innovation, first with two ships and then with up to four as a single gunnery "unit." Much effort was devoted to developing the new techniques and proving both the system and the required components of spotting, communications (special wireless sets were rapidly produced and distributed to the capital ships) and information exchange to allow effective control of fire.

Night fighting was the subject of new attention, with the realization that the uncertainty of combat in the darkness could only be mitigated by the systematic development and equally systematic practice of procedures and tactics that were understood by all. Before Jutland, the Grand Fleet’s purely reactive attitude to action in the dark, and the doctrine and training which resulted, had been based on the assessment that a night encounter with no warning in the open sea was a practical impossibility. This was because detection and counter-detection ranges were severely limited, even on the clearest of moonlit nights. It had been demonstrated time and again during the prewar Grand Maneuvers that torpedo craft dispatched to attack the opposition at night rarely succeeded in finding them.  At least part of the German interest and expertise in night fighting derived from their earlier expectation that they would be fighting defensively in the Heligoland Bight, with limited sea room and a very clear idea of their own position—as well as that of other friendly forces. However, given the extent to which Jellicoe had worked out the realities of a likely encounter with the High Seas Fleet in the conditions which prevailed in the North Sea and the speed-time-distance factors involved, it is surprising that he and others had not also realized before Jutland that a major fleet encounter that started after noon would inevitably involve night action, particularly when it was not high summer. After June 1916, the Grand Fleet understood this.

However, there was more to this process than greater control and precision. There was also the slow regeneration of a spirit of enterprise. There were several causes for its frequent absence on 31 May and 1 June. The Navy’s culture of obedience to the senior officer present was one, particularly as the full implications of the "virtual unreality" created by the assumption that radio contact equated to such presence had not been worked through. Nevertheless, Jellicoe must bear a considerable part of the blame for his subordinate’s apparent inability to exercise their initiative. Practically every piece of direction, instruction, and advice that he had issued as C-in-C between 1914 and 1916 was founded in good sense and a clear-eyed recognition of the operational realities, but it is undeniable that much was written in a way that could only dampen enthusiasm and erode √©lan.

HMS Warspite After the Battle

Some of the Jutland veterans, such as Tovey of the Onslow, earned immediate recognition for their bravery, but there were many others—only two First Sea Lords between 1916 and 1943 were not at Jutland (and one, Roger Backhouse, was commanding a light cruiser in the Harwich Force). The statistics for the other naval members of the Board of Admiralty are almost as telling. Many had their individual regrets about failures to act during the battle—Guy Royle, later to serve as Fifth Sea Lord and then head the Royal Australian Navy, always felt that he should have engaged the target that he saw at night from the control position of the battleship Marlborough rather than seeking permission from his captain. The latter assumed that the ship looming up in the darkness was friendly—but it was a German battle cruiser.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Germany's Artillery Trump Card in the Early War

Say what you will about Big Bertha or the French 75, one artillery weapon dominated the battlefield during the first half of the Great War.

A Battery of German 5.9-inch Howitzers on Prewar Maneuvers

In 1914, all Allied artillery weapons were outclassed by the German 5.9-inch howitzer,  the 15cm schwere Feldhaubitze 13. As the majority of these were guns, their flat trajectories severely curtailed their deployment in reverse slope positions. This resulted in the Allied gun positions being placed either on forward slopes in view of the enemy, or well to the rear, which hampered communication between observer and gun position and the range to which targets could be engaged.*

Krupp, Rheinmetall and Spandau factories manufactured 3,400 pieces during the war.  Each fired a 93-lb. shell up to 9,600 yards at a rate of 3 rounds per minute. The Allies did not field a comparable weapon until the British deployed their 6-inch howitzer in late 1915 and the French 155 Schneider appeared in 1917.

Siegfried Sassoon paid tribute to the German howitzer in his poem "Counter-Attack"

He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell. . . 

* "The Changing Face of Australian Field Artillery in World War One," the Royal Australian Artillery History Company

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army During the Great Depression

By Jerome Tuccille
Potomac Books, 2018
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

Bonus Marchers on Their Way to Washington

The aftermath of war rarely interests audiences so much as the conflict itself. The centennial of World War One is bearing this out, as most books, films, and stories in other media concern themselves with events up to November 1918. This lack of attention is a woeful mistake, since the impact of WWI reverberated around the world, transforming civilization and helping create our present day.

A case in point is how America treated its First World War veterans. As partial reward for their service Congress in 1924 offered each soldier a bonus, which could be redeemed in 1945 (20). However, the Great Depression hit in 1929, the economy fell apart, many veterans were rendered destitute, and some conceived the idea of getting their bonus right away. Perhaps inspired by Coxey's Army of unemployed men marching on Washington for economic relief in 1894 as well as Cox's similar 1932 march of the unemployed, individuals and groups started planning on taking their argument to the very seat of power.

In The War Against the Vets Jerome Tuccille narrates the story of how the veterans' campaign proceeded. Several attempts were made to bring veterans to Washington, culminating in an occupation of part of the capital area by nearly 40,000 people during the summer of 1932. Veterans and their families, sometimes called the Bonus Expeditionary Force in an echo of their Western Front designation, camped in and around the Anacostia area, demanding that Congress and the Hoover administration award them their bonuses. Congressman Wright Patman of Texas, one of Tuccille's few heroes, introduced a payment bill and lobbied for its success, while Hoover argued against it.

Tensions between the government and the vets grew, despite the best efforts of police superintendent Pelham Glassford, a WWI general and someone who genuinely sought to placate both vets and the government. Radical groups sought (and failed) to turn the vets into an insurgent, left-wing army; despite this, rumors and what we could call today fake news linking the bonus marchers to Moscow persists. Various veterans sought to lead the group, notably the vain and openly fascistic Walter Waters, who organized a would-be disciplinary unit called the Khaki Shirts. Waters struggled for supremacy with Royal Waterson, a navy vet who organized his own separate marches and events, but no single stable organization ever emerged (52, 67, 84, 91).

Meanwhile, rumors flew. Politicians and industrial titans publicly criticized the marchers, characterizing them variously as layabouts, criminals, and communist revolutionaries. For example, Pierre Du Pont dubbed the vets "the most favored class in the United States, having health, youth, and opportunity," while president Hoover claimed that "vets were likely to spend any money they received on 'wasteful expenditures'" (30, 33). Even the American Legion's leader turned against the BEF (50). Some in government feared the Bonus Army was a criminal and/or revolutionary group about to assault the White House. On Bastille Day vice president Curtis, suspecting a Bonus uprising, managed to station sixty Marines on the Capitol grounds (94).

U.S. Army Tanks and Cavalry Move on the Marchers

In July 1932 President Hoover, proclaiming the Bonus Army to be a communist insurgency, ordered the vets expelled from the capital area, while Glassford and Waters were negotiating for a peaceful withdrawal. A military force led by veteran Douglas MacArthur and including cavalry, infantry, tanks, and one George S. Patton (another WWI veteran) attacked the Bonus Army, killing several, wounding more, and setting the area ablaze. In a foreshadowing of his Korean career, MacArthur repeatedly disobeyed orders from commander in chief Hoover to pause his attack; instead, the general finished what Tuccille calls "a blitzkrieg" according to his own strategy.

The attack proved unpopular with both Washingtonians and Americans at large, contributing to Hoover's reelection defeat the following November. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, pursued a different strategy. Like Hoover, FDR consistently opposed paying the veterans their bonus, but he was better at handling both the marchers and public relations. He asked Eleanor Roosevelt to meet with the vets and their families, defusing some tensions, and leading one participant to famously observe that "Hoover sent the Army, [while] Roosevelt sent his wife." (139) He arranged for better quarters and soup kitchens for vets who remained in the Washington area.

The War Against the Vets doesn't end with MacArthur's assault and FDR's election. Instead, Tuccille follows the veterans as they scattered across the United States. Many were resettled by the Roosevelt administration into various types of work camps, including the nascent Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (138, 144). One camp in the Florida Keys was nearly wiped out by a hurricane in 1935, killing 259 veterans; official negligence magnified the number of deaths, then covered up the event. Meanwhile, Representative Patman kept reintroducing bonus payment bills and lobbying for their passage. By 1936 supporters of paying the bonus managed to win large enough Congressional majorities in both the House and Senate to override FDR's veto, leading to a $2 billion payout in the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act.

Tuccille links the Bonus Army's saga to subsequent history by pointing out successive administrations' desire to not experience a similar debacle. Instead World World II led to the GI Bill, and later wars saw their veterans much more fully rewarded for their service than the soldiers of the First World War.

The War Against the Vets is a clearly and passionately written account. Tuccille writes with a keen eye for character and a fiery sense of justice. The book is a welcome addition to any library dedicated to America in World War I.

Bryan Alexander

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Canadian Conscription Crisis of 1917

Canadian Recruiting Poster

Canada's federal government decided in 1917 to conscript young men for overseas military service. Voluntary recruitment was failing to maintain troop numbers, and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden believed in the military value, and potential postwar influence, of a strong Canadian contribution to the war.

The 1917 conscription debate was one of the fiercest and most divisive in Canadian political history. French-Canadians, as well as many farmers, unionized workers, non-British immigrants, and other Canadians, generally opposed the measure. English-speaking Canadians, led by Prime Minister Borden and senior members of his Cabinet, as well as British immigrants, the families of soldiers, and older Canadians, generally supported it.

The conscription debate echoed public divisions on many other contemporary issues, including language education, agriculture, religion, and the political rights of women and immigrants. It also grew into a test of one’s support for, or opposition to, the war as a whole. Charges of disloyalty, cowardice, and immorality from avid pro-conscription advocates were matched by cries of imperialism, stupidity, and blood-lust by the anti-conscription camp.

The campaign’s viciousness sometimes obscured the debate’s complexity. Many anti-conscription advocates fully supported the war, for example, while not all pro-conscription voices argued their case by using linguistic or racial smears to diminish their opponents.

A Vote Against

The conscription debate raged through most of 1917 and into 1918. The required legislation, the Military Service Act, worked its way through Parliament during the summer to be passed in late August. It made all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45 subject to military service, if called, for the duration of the war.

Conscription was the main issue in the federal election that followed in December, a bitter contest between Conservative/Unionist Sir Robert Borden and Liberal Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Borden, running on a "Unionist" pro-conscription ticket that attracted many English-speaking Liberals, won decisively but lost heavily in Francophone areas of Quebec.

The government had helped pave the way for electoral victory with legislation in the fall that enfranchised likely allies and disenfranchised likely opponents.

The Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to the wives, mothers, and sisters of soldiers, the first women permitted to vote in Canadian federal elections. These groups tended to favor conscription because it supported their men in the field.

A Soldier Votes in the 1917 Election

The act then denied the vote to many recent immigrants from enemy countries (“enemy aliens”), unless they had a family member in military service. At the same time, the Military Voters Act extended the vote to all military personnel and nurses, including women, regardless of their period of residence in Canada.

Borden’s margin of victory in December was greater than the votes delivered by either of these controversial measures, but each had been highly successful. More than 90 percent of military votes, for example, were Unionist.

A broadly popular but divisive measure, conscription polarized provinces, ethnic and linguistic groups, communities, and families, and had lasting political effects on the country as a whole. For many Canadians, it was an important and necessary contribution to a faltering war effort; for others, it was an oppressive act passed dishonestly by a government more British than Canadian.

Farmers sought agricultural exemptions from compulsory service until the end of the war. Borden’s government, anxious for farmers’ votes, agreed to limited exemptions, largely for farmers’ laboring sons, but broke the promise after the election. The bitterness among farmers, many of them in the West, led to the development of new federal and provincial parties.

French-speaking Canadians continued their protests as well, and young men by the tens of thousands joined others from across Canada in refusing to register for the selection process. Of those that did register, 93 percent applied for an exemption. An effort to arrest suspected draft dodgers was highly unpopular across the province and, at its worst, resulted in several days of rioting and street battles in Quebec City at Easter, 1918. The violence left four civilians dead and dozens injured, and shocked supporters on both sides.

Conscription Enforced

Conscription would have minimal impact on Canada’s war effort. By the Armistice in November 1918, only 48,000 conscripts had been sent overseas, half of which ultimately served at the front. More than 50,000 more conscripts remained in Canada. These would have been required had the war continued into 1919.

Source: Website of the Canadian War Museum