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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Recommended: The Minnesota Military Museum's Traveling Trunk Program

The Minnesota Military Museum offers a Traveling Trunk Program to help bring history to life in schools, libraries, other museums, or youth groups.  Each trunk focuses on a specific war and contains an assortment of items—original or reproduction—that would have been commonly used by soldiers during that time in our nation’s history. The contents of these trunks are loaned to be used for research, exhibition, or as a hands-on educational resource that piques student interest in history by engaging them in object-based learning. These are available to use for the Civil War, First World War, Second World War, and Vietnam War.

Below are the two WWI trunks.  Learn more about the program HERE.

Each trunk contains representative examples of field gear and a uniform commonly worn by U.S. Doughboys in France during WWI. Unless noted, all items are original and not reproductions. Click on the images to enlarge.

Trunk 1

  • M-1917 U.S. steel helmet with reproduction liner/chinstrap
  • U.S. gas mask bag with foam filler (for shape), complete with all straps and fasteners
  • Service coat, U.S. enlisted, wool
  • Ration tin containing Fray Bentos Prepared Beef (bully beef reproduction)
  • Breeches, U.S. enlisted, wool
  • Leggings, spiral wrap, wool
  • Overseas cap, U.S. enlisted, wool
  • Cartridge belt (reproduction)
  • Overcoat, U.S. enlisted, wool
  • First Aid packet pouch (reproduction)
  • M-1910 canteen
  • M-1910 canteen cup
  • M-1910 canteen cover
  • M-1910 field pack
  • M-1910 pack “tail”
  • M-1910 shovel and cover (reproduction)

The trunk also includes posters, newspapers, and illustrations of uniforms of the WWI era, as well as a field pack layout.

Trunk 2

  • M-1917 U.S. enlisted coat. Engineer collar insignia. A nice sample of the typical coat worn by a Doughboy in France
  • Enlisted overseas cap with Engineer device on front
  • M-1917 Steel helmet as worn by U.S. soldiers in France
  • Gas mask bag. Bag only, no mask, but has foam filler to give it shape
  • M-1910 Canteen cover (reproduction)
  • M-1910 Cup, with canteen
  • M-1910 Cartridge belt (reproduction)
  • M-1910 Haversack field pack (reproduction)
  • M-1910 Entrenching tool cover (reproduction)
  • M-1910 Entrenching tool
  • M-1904 First-aid pouch (reproduction)
  • First-aid packet in metal tin (reproduction)
  • M-1910 mess kit
  • Knife-fork-spoon
  • “Fray Bentos” bully beef tin with edible contents
  • Condiment can
  • M-1916 Bacon tin
  • German enlisted man's field coat (reproduction)
  • M-1916 steel helmet (reproduction)
  • Belt buckle
  • 2 Ammunition pouches

Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Dozen Random Quotes from the Great War

French Troops Heading for the Front

On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.
Virginia Woolf, 1924 Essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

We left the schoolrooms, the school desks and benches, and the few short weeks of instruction had bonded us into one great body burning with enthusiasm. Having grown up in an age of security, we all had a nostalgia for the unusual great perils. The war thus seized hold of us like strong liquor. It was under a hail of flowers that we left, drunk on roses and blood. Without a doubt, the war offered us grandeur, strength and gravity. It seemed to us like a virile exploit: the joyous combats of infantrymen in the meadows where blood fell like dew on the flowers. 
Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

The Europeans, "torch bearers of civilization," are eating at each other, trampling down civilization, ruining Europe; and who will be the better? It is like an avalanche, growing ever more ravaging, as it falls sweeping away trees, woods, homesteads, farms. The catastrophe gets greater and greater. All know the avalanche will consume the valley but no force can stop it . . . European civilization has failed—it was rotten to the core. 
Future Nobel Laureate Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, 1916

(a) Combat power, with a rapid advance, becomes weaker and, on reaching the combat-power change-about point [where the balance shifts to favor the opponent], comes to a standstill.
(b) Confusion produced by the first impact of attack calms down with the passage of time, and the terror effect decreases with the passage of time. 
(c) The fighting spirit of the attacker is heightened by the intensity of power, being highest at the time of initial impact, and gradually weakens from enemy resistance. 
From an Imperial Japanese Army Critique of the Schlieffen Plan

When we tumbled in, I fell on top of some of the enemy, and one put his teeth in my cheek and held on. I was dragged close to him, but my arms were free, and I tried to get my thumbs into his eyes and push out his eyes, but found his throat instead, and squeezed his windpipe. I felt my cheek being released, and my enemy struggled no more. Immediately I grabbed my rifle and clubbed him with the butt. 
R.M. Luther, RFA, 20th Division, Memoir, The Poppies Are Blood Red

The Price of Glory

    Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
      Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
        Lest he should hear again the mad alarms.
          Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath
From "A Soldier's Grave" by Francis Ledwidge

A. E. F.
There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And so hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point absently and casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, wished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you're doing good work. 
 Carl Sandburg, Smoke and Steel

A mixture of contradictories which never were—perhaps could never have been—harmonized. 
John Buchan on T.E. Lawrence

We have discovered that the scheme of 'outlawing war' has made war more like an outlaw without making it less frequent and that to banish the knight does not alleviate the suffering of the peasant.
C. S. Lewis, 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry

Our troops are more or less finished.
Quartermaster General Erich von Ludendorff, After the Amiens Offensive of 8 August 1918

Paris Victory Parade, 14 July 1919

At the Paris Victory Parade: 14 July 1919
Bitterness! Disgust! I have recognized the crowd. . . It is the brutish elemental crowd which does not change, which slavishly acclaims Caesar or Boulanger, which yells at the vanquished, which chooses indifferently its heroes among boxers, gladiators and captains. 
Marcel Cachin, Editor, L'Humanité

The War Summarized
It is enough, if not too much, to say that there was a great and dreadful war in Europe, and that nightmare and chaos and the abomination of desolation held sway for four horrid years. . . Men and Women acted blindly, according to their kind. . . They went to the war, they stayed home. . . they got rich, they got poor, they died, were maimed, medaled, frost-bitten, tortured, imprisoned, bored, embittered, enthusiastic, cheerful, hopeless, patient, or matter-of-fact, according to circumstances and temperament. 
Rose Macaulay, Told by an Idiot, 1923

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Memorable Anti-Wilson Political Ad from the 1916 Presidential Election

I recently ran across this ad from the fateful presidential election of 1916 in which the Hughes camp catches the president and the Democrats out of school. Believe me, if Charles Evans Hughes had won that election, we would be living in a different world—although I'm not sure it would be a better one—today.

Click to Enlarge Image

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Forgotten Front: The Eastern Theater of World War I, 1914-1915

Gerard P. Gross, ed.
University Press of Kentucky, 2018
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Russian Troops on the Eastern Front

The Forgotten Front was originally published under the title Vergessene Front—der Osten 1914,1915 in 2006. This English translation is part of a series about notable military campaigns and exceptional leaders and theorists by the Association of the United States Army with series editor Joseph Craig. The purpose behind the original work was to stimulate interest in the study of World War One's Russo-German Front. The translation's intention was to add another aspect to the study of international military theory and practice. The book contains 20 articles/essays by German and other academics, of which both Hew Strachen and Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius are prominent, arranged in three parts.

Part One's essays revolve around the reasons why there is a lack of works in German literature about the East, while there is a never-ending supply about the Western Front. Part Two attempts to look at the individual's experience in the East both from the German and Russian standpoint, while the final part concentrates on how the East is remembered in literature immediately after the war on through to the Internet of 2004.

None of the essays depend on the others to continue a line of thought other than the purpose of the part in which they have been categorized, so the reader can pick and choose which article might hold information of interest. Part Two's articles attracted me the most and my curiosity was rewarded with some new insights although none of the articles contained first-person accounts other than in paraphrasing. Prominent in one essay was a critique of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1914, while in another work myths about the conditions of the Russian soldier of 1914 and 1915 were exposed. I was surprised to find Ivan described as well fed, well equipped, and well clothed, sometimes better than his German counterpart, but I was not surprised to hear of the incompetence of the Russian leadership and supply trains.

Parts One and Three really have a lot to do with one another in that they talk about creating the image of an enemy in the Russian. Part one establishes that there was little animosity between German and Russian before the war. The government, amply aided by the media, created the savage of the East through stereotypes and innuendos. The Slav became someone who would destroy the civilized Germanic culture even though Germans enjoyed and admired Russian composers and writers. It wasn't an easy task to get the populace to buy into the image, but it succeeded through spectacular posters and atrocity stories. Part Three capitalizes on this mind-set by showing how the Nazis dramatized the manipulation and created the Untermenschen ("less than humans" Nazi designation) and launched the War of Annihilation in the east from 1939 to 1943.

From a study of social interactions, this book explores many new aspects of the Eastern Front and is well worth reading. Its essays clearly show the impact that the Forgotten East had on the history thereafter. However, much to my displeasure there was no consolidated bibliography. I had to rely on essay end notes for sources.

Michael P. Kihntopf

Monday, March 25, 2019

From the U.S. Navy's WWI Collections — Artifacts

The U.S. Navy has done a terrific job of documenting its service during the Great War. In this series, we will be giving examples from their collection of naval art, artifacts, and photography.  Today we feature some artifacts from the Navy's collection. Much of the material of all three categories can be found at the online sites of two institutions: the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Links to the two sites can be found at the bottom of this page.

Click on the Images to Enlarge

Flag Flown by USS Olympia at the Battle of Manila Bay

USS Olympia Transported America's Unknown Soldier
Home from France

Four-Stack Destroyer, USS Sampson

Medal Mocking President Wilson's Efforts
at the Paris Peace Conference

Model of USS Corsair,Yacht Owned by J.P. Morgan, Jr., 
 Chartered as a Wartime Patrol Boat

Y-Gun Depth Charge Projector

Model Battleship USS Arizona, Commissioned 1914

German Naval Commemorative Streamers

The Ships of Germany's High Seas Fleet

Ship's Bell of Cruiser USS San Diego, Sunk by a Mine off of
Long Island, the Largest USN Warship Lost in the Great War

German Medal Celebrating the Sinking of RMS Lusitania

3-Pounder Mark 15 Slide Gun


National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Naval History and Heritage Command

Saturday, March 23, 2019

WWI Photography: A Valuable Historical Resource

Italian Armored Cars at Gorizia

By Stephen Badsey
Originally Published in the British Library Website, 29 Jan 2014

Photography in the First World War was made possible by earlier developments in chemistry and in the manufacture of glass lenses, established as a practical process from the 1850s onwards. The first commercially successful mass produced cameras, for which the user took the photographs and then sent the film to a developer to be processed, appeared in the 1880s. Photography was a growing popular hobby by 1914, chiefly among the middle classes. Some mass-circulation newspapers printed photographs as part of their news coverage, for which they employed professional photographers. Many soldiers going off to the war had a photograph taken of themselves in uniform, often a studio portrait taken by a professional; many also carried a photograph of a loved one with them. But most people were still rather formal and camera conscious, and smiling for the camera was not usual.

German Officer and Noted Author Walter Flex
KIA, Eastern Front, 1917

There were obvious security risks for any country that photographs taken in a war zone could give information to the enemy. A small number of amateur photographers, usually officers, took their cameras with them to war, using them to make a private record. Stories circulated that any soldier owning a camera or taking a photograph in the front lines would be court-martialed and shot. Although this was quite untrue, the possession or use of a camera by a fighting soldier in the early part of the war depended on the tolerance of his superiors. On the Western Front, press photographers were excluded by all sides early in the war, although some found a way round this. 

An Indian Veterinary Hospital on the Western Front 

The Canadian professional photographer Charles Hilton De Witt Girdwood managed to reach an agreement with the British government’s India Office to film and photograph Indian troops on the Western Front in 1915. From 1916 onward, official restrictions on taking private photographs were increasingly enforced, and a few soldiers were court-martialed for owning cameras in a war zone. Photography also had many military applications, and most armies and navies had specialist units dealing with reconnaissance or topographical photographs, some of which were released to the public and the newspapers. On the Western Front, from early 1916 the British, French and German armies all employed official photographers subject to military control, to take photographs for release to the newspapers and for other propaganda purposes including photographic exhibitions, and to provide a historical record of the war. Away from the Western Front a more relaxed attitude often prevailed, with commercial or press photographers reaching agreements similar to Girdwood’s with the military authorities of various countries. On the Home Fronts, where photography was much easier than in a war zone, newspapers and government propaganda organizations made photographic records of the civilian contribution to the war.

Indian Troops Manning a Newly Built Firing Trench

Literally millions of photographs have survived from the First World War, ranging from those used for official propaganda purposes to those preserved in private albums, forming a considerable historical record. The camera could not lie, in the sense that it would record what was in front of it; but all photographs were the product of a selection process, starting with what the cameraman thought was appropriate and technically possible.Photographers practiced self-censorship, mostly on grounds of culture and propriety, but also security and belief in a cause. A photograph could also be highly misleading if its caption gave a false provenance or location, so that it seemed to show something that it did not: a training exercise could be misrepresented as a real battle. Captions for photographs published during the war were also censored. But photographs also automatically recorded social history: how people dressed, what they wore, what their buildings and streets looked like. Often, a photograph provides the critical evidence for a moment that has otherwise been missed from the history of the war. Taken together, the photographic record tells a very important part of the war’s story.

British and Italian Officers Consulting During the
Second Battle of the Marne

Stephen Badsey is Professor of Conflict Studies at Wolverhampton University, where he specializes in wartime propaganda, military-media issues, and military ideas and doctrines.

Friday, March 22, 2019

"The Kingdom of the Guns"—French Artillery at Verdun

Early in the Battle of Verdun: A French Howitzer Firing

From: The Royal Australian Artillery Historical Company

On 21 January, French Général de Corps d’Armée Paul Chrétien arrived to take command of XXX Corps, part of the garrison of the Région Fortifiée de Verdun or RFV (Fortified Region of Verdun). He was appalled by the state of the defences on the 65 kilometre front: artillery batteries were not dug in, telephone wires not buried, and barbed wire obstacles were flimsy to non-existent. 

Surprisingly, the forts that ostensibly were the principal defences of the entire zone were not under his command: perhaps just as well for his state of mind as they were undermanned with poor quality reservists and had been stripped of many of their guns. Chrétien took little comfort from, and did not share, the views of his Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, that the Verdun region was a strategic backwater, unlikely to be the target of a major German attack as it was of little strategic value to the Germans.

On 21 February 1916, General Chrétien was proved right to be worried. A German artillery barrage of unprecedented volume and intensity began at 0715 and continued until 1600 hrs, heralding the attack by three German Corps against the single understrength French XXX Corps, along the twelve kilometre northern and eastern part of the front: two Corps attacking two understrength French Divisions, the 51st and the 72nd. The Germans had amassed over nine hundred heavy guns and over six hundred field guns for the attack.

Given they were attacking a known fortified position, the Germans had included a number of ‘super heavy’ guns, designed from the start to eliminate fortresses: seventeen 305mm and thirteen 420mm howitzers and three 380 mm guns for long range counter-battery and interdiction work. (French intelligence failed to notice their arrival in the area!) Ammunition supply would not be an issue as the Germans had stockpiled over two and a half million shells and planned to expend half of that in the first nine hours of the barrage. The French were outgunned almost four to one and the problem was to be exacerbated when the German’s over-ran some of the immobile French heavy guns in the initial advances.

There is much heated debate between historians about (the German Commander) Erich von Falkenhayn’s intended strategy at Verdun but many believe he planned a largely attritional battle in which the numerically and technically superior German artillery was to keep killing French infantrymen until the French Army was broken.  If so, then Verdun was one of the few battles designed specifically around the killing power of artillery: arguably the antecedent of the air power theorists of today.  Compelling evidence for this is the failure of the German artillery and air force to interdict the single supply line into Verdun. It would have been easily achieved, would have rendered further defence impossible yet it was not done. Either German planners were incompetent or the idea was to allow the French to continue funnelling troops into the killing zone

Mid-Battle: Larger Pieces Arrive on the Verdun Battlefield

Initially, the German attack was devastating. The rate of fire was so great it added a new word to the military lexicon: Trommelfeuer (drum fire) where the sounds of individual guns and separate exploding shells were lost in one overwhelming noise. Leading the assault were assault pioneers, armed with flamethrowers in addition to their usual weapons. Supporting the theory that the objective was the French Army rather than territorial gain, the attack didn’t involve all available troops: many of the line infantry units remained in their own defenses. However, the French defenders in the forward trenches were often simply obliterated by the ferocity of the artillery and the Germans had little trouble capturing their original objectives.

Unfortunately for them, however, that familiar problem for artillery of both sides in this war —poor and unreliable communications—meant rigid attack timetables had to be followed, leaving little room for initiative and exploitation. The French, faced with impending disaster, quickly adapted new techniques. Instead of occupying predictable defensive lines, their infantry spread out to occupy shell holes or folds in the ground, making them more difficult to kill or neutralize by artillery alone. The defense gradually thickened and, while France paid a huge price for it, after six months on the defensive, they began to drive the enemy back. Eventually, in October, the symbol of Verdun, Fort Douaumont, was recaptured and by December the enemy were back to their February start line.

Although both sides made the usual extravagant claims of success, the battle could best be described as a draw. Initial German success could not be maintained and German tactical mistakes provided sufficient breathing room for the French Army to completely rethink its tactical doctrine, especially on defense and counter-attack, and to develop a new organizational structure more suited to the type of warfare it faced. While the story of Verdun resonates with stories of French infantry heroism and indeed of German gallantry, it was not just the modern-day Poilu who eventually defeated the attack. A rejuvenated French artillery, utilizing new techniques, old and new technology weapons in innovative ways and buoyed by the promises of new, modern weapons, also played a part.

The French started the battle at a huge disadvantage in artillery. Some of this was due to decisions early in the war but the more significant reasons had their origins prewar. As is well known, the prewar period was one where the tactics of élan and attaque à outrance predominated in all armies but was adopted with almost religious fervor by the French Army (and indeed the French government). For the artillery, this meant a heavy focus on mobile field artillery—guns that could keep up with a rapidly changing battlespace. The technical limitations of the day, both in steel quality and transport systems, meant that for larger-calibre guns to function, they had to be very heavy which then meant they were simply too heavy for horse or oxen to move quickly or efficiently. The heaviest guns that could be moved tactically were limited to about 150mm or smaller. As all sides anticipated a war of maneuver, large-calibre guns lagged in both production and development, the notable exception being the German specialized heavy howitzers intended to overcome  French and Belgian forts—and even the Germans believed that once they had achieved that purpose, they would be relegated to a static defensive role. The Germans discovered, however, that in the changed nature of warfare when the trench system prevented mobility, these large-calibre weapons provided effective means of overcoming an entrenched enemy. Although aware that the Germans had, before the war, developed 105 and 150mm field pieces,  practically everyone in France was surprised by the tactical versatility of these larger, more capable artillery pieces.

Two other factors combined to ensure that, when war broke out, France was much less well prepared to deploy and employ larger-calibre artillery than the Germans. In 1897, in a major technical advance, the French Army introduced a radically new field gun—the famous Mademoiselle soixante-quinze or 75mm fast-firing field gun. Light, and equipped with an advanced recoil system, the 75 seemed to fit every artillery role the strategists and tacticians could think of for artillery in a field army. Consequently, there was little appetite within the Army or within French government to invest in larger-calibre guns. Even when German developments with their larger-calibre field guns suggested the 75 might need larger-calibre support, squabbling over designs and suppliers between the Army technical branches, Army headquarters, the government and the various industry groups offering solutions meant the French went to war with only 544 guns heavier than the 75, and the most modern of these was a 155mm howitzer designed and built in 1904! Practically all the heavier pieces were relegated to fortress duties.

Late Battle: Railroad-Mounted Guns Give the
French Firepower Dominance

Nor was the 75 as perfect as the French believed. Limited elevation and light shell weight proved to be severe handicaps, especially after trench warfare replaced manoeuvre. Instead of immediately looking to develop larger calibres as a solution for the 75’s shortcomings, the French invested an inordinate amount of scientific and engineering effort early in the war into improving the 75’s shells to correct its problems. This was perhaps understandable, given there were over 4000 75s in service in 1914 and the number rapidly escalated, reaching 21,000 by the end of the war. These improvements did help, but after two years of war, the French were forced to acknowledge the limitations of a light gun and institute a crash program to develop and produce heavier calibres of guns. Their enthusiastic adoption of mortars of differing calibres also augmented the venerable 75. Somewhat unexpectedly, the 75 did prove very versatile, being quickly adapted as an effective anti-aircraft gun and ending the war as France’s premier platform for delivering gas: where explosive weight was arguably less of an issue than volume of fire.

By the time the war came to Verdun, another problem arose for its defenders. Joffre, who was later criticised for this move, had recognized that fortresses were "death traps" in the face of modern artillery. Having observed the fate of fortresses in both Belgium and on the eastern front, he abandoned fixed fortifications as the core of his defense strategy, preferring trenches and barbed wire. Nor did he consider heavy-calibre guns tied up in fortresses a useful employment of these weapons, so removed most of them to support his field armies (54 artillery batteries and 128,000 rounds of ammunition were removed from Verdun alone after August 1915.) Given that the Germans had, in 1914, achieved artillery domination in the field, this was both reasonable and probably essential to avoid defeat. It did, however, severely reduce the defensive value of the Verdun fortresses. The whole point of a fortress was to provide the artillery with superior protection from infantry attack while positioning the guns to dominate the surrounding areas. Even the much-maligned Maginot Line in World War Two did dreadful execution among German troops trying to capture sections of it. Without guns, even old-fashioned slow-firing ones, Verdun had little hope of resisting a determined German attack. But many of the guns, especially the better ones, had been removed in late 1914. 

In addition to the valor of the infantry, Verdun was saved for the French by the complete reappraisal of their artillery tactics and a complete about-face on the priority afforded the development and production of heavy guns. Early in the German offensive, in March, Joffre ordered the immediate production of 960 medium and 440 heavy guns! French General Henri Philippe Pétain, who had opposed the prevailing prewar French cult of the offensive and argued for heavy artillery to the point of ruining his career,  was appointed commander of the RFV on 26 February. Having an infantryman with a deep appreciation of how to employ artillery in command dramatically improved the French position, and Pétain quickly instituted several critical modifications of organization and doctrine. Divisions received additional medium howitzers, while the 155s and larger guns, together with the heavy mortars, were grouped at corps and army level to ensure fire dominance at critical points. The number of artillery regiments was increased from 115 to 247, even though France was running out of military-aged males. 

Recognizing the importance of aerial observation, Pétain directed French military aviation to obtain air control over the battlefield so that artillery spotters, in aircraft and balloons, could operate unimpeded. The French assembled what became the world’s first dedicated fighter squadrons, continually improved their aircraft, and achieved Pétain’s objectives by May. French gunnery accuracy improved dramatically as the battle proceeded. Contrary to Joffre’s view, Pétain used the existing fort system as the basis for a defense line. The remaining fortress artillery was heavily reinforced, and they became the support for local tactical attacks. He so recognized the need for heavy artillery that on 6 March, he asked GQG (French General Headquarters) to stop sending large infantry formation reinforcements—that clogged up the roads—and concentrate on sending heavy artillery instead.

His major achievement was, however, to re-establish the infantry’s confidence in their artillery. Pétain took close personal interest, every day, in what the artillery was doing. He ensured it had both sufficient ammunition and sufficient incentive to fire both offensive and defensive barrages. He personally reviewed the actions and effects of batteries and made his staff focus on the tactical employment of the guns, especially coordination between infantry and artillery in counter-attacks. Those staff he found wanting or who failed to demonstrate the expected degree of enthusiasm for the new techniques were quickly and ruthlessly removed. Recognizing also the serious effect of German artillery on the French infantry morale, Pétain focused closely on counter-battery work and on the tracking and locating of all German artillery. His attention to the artillery also carried though to its logistics support and he ensured that the flow of shells and spares was never interrupted. By the time he left in June, over 2000 tons of ammunition a day was being delivered to the fortress zone

The Germans, through another tactical mistake, also provided Pétain with an early opportunity to use his artillery effectively in the offensive. By failing to clear the west bank of the Meuse and its existing batteries of emplaced obsolete 155mm guns, Pétain was able to use these to fire into the flanks of the advancing infantry and, arguably more importantly, interdict German logistics assets, including forward dumps and bridgeheads. The German VII Korps suffered very heavy casualties from these guns during an attempt in March to clear the east bank of the Meuse. The Germans recognized the threat and launched a series of attacks to clear the west bank but this brought them into range of massed French guns from reserve forces such as the French Third Army (farther to the west) and they paid a heavy price for limited gains. This also saw the Germans reacting to French initiatives for the first time since the battle had begun.

100 Years Later: The Results of the Great Artillery Battle
Can Still Be Seen

In June, Pétain was promoted and General Robert Nivelle took command of the Verdun defense. However, by then Pétain’s re-invigoration and reorganization of the French artillery was well entrenched. Although Nivelle faced several more massive German attacks, his experienced and confident gunners largely broke them up or were able to provide effective support to retake lost ground. Even the first mass use by the Germans of phosgene gas failed to win the battle, largely because French artillery was able to break up the exploiting infantry formations. The Battle of Verdun was the longest single battle of the First World War, lasting from 21 February to 18 December 1916. It was one of the first in which Allied artillery made the greatest contribution to the outcome. It is a battle worthy of study for all gunners.

Source:  Presented by permission of the Royal Australian Artillery Historical Company. This was a seminar paper originally presented and published as part of the "Firepower: Lessons from the Great War" Seminar Series (including a link to the Series page:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Map Series #4 St. Mihiel Offensive

I can't fathom all the criteria that Google uses to rank websites, so I can't explain why this is so, but if you type in "St. Mihiel Offensive" + map in the Google search box, at the top of the results list you will get (at least I got) two links to this map from Library of Congress pages.  You can click on the image to expand it, but I think—that unless you have read a helluva lot about the operation—you will be utterly mystified as to what happened there in September 1918 when Pershing's First Army launched its initial offensive.

On the other hand, if you connect to the third entry on the list, which is the Wikipedia article on the St. Mihiel Offensive,  you will find it uses the map below.  If you were to spend an afternoon browsing the Web, you would discover  that this simpler map is used on numerous  sites (sometimes in modified form) by historians, bloggers, genealogists, and others with various levels  of insight on the battle.  On the other hand, you will find the usage by others of the Library of Congress recommended map is approximately zero.

Why do World War I researchers find the lower map handier? Primarily, this is because the cartographer's intention was that it would help readers understand the battle.  I can say this categorically, because I was the designer of this map.  In 1998—that other century, long past—I was putting together my first WWI website, The Doughboy Center.  The St. Mihiel map is one of a series I did to accompany the articles on the major AEF battles. There was a photo/editing program bundled into an early version of Windows that I used to draw this.  If you think it looks a little shaky, that's because the mouse was shaking as I dragged it along the mouse pad. 

In looking at it today, frankly, I'm a little embarrassed about how amateurish it seems and with the inaccuracies with the exact placement of the units and towns. But it seems to have taken a life of its own and it's out of my hands now. The People have spoken. Nonetheless, the map still gives a generally accurate depiction of the opening and culmination, and what happened in between. It clearly conveys this information: On  12 September 1918, three American corps and one French attacked an enemy salient located east of the Meuse River and and southwest of the Woevre Plain, reducing it in five days. Details include a scale, directions of the advances, and  locations of key features, towns, and  the final front line.  Pershing had to stop the troops there to re-focus his First Army on the coming Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Even though some of folks who have borrowed my map have forgotten to mention where they found it, I'm very gratified that so many have found it useful over the years. By the way,  I'm spending some time updating The Doughboy Center so you're invited to visit it.  You'll see some of the other maps by my alter-ego, that internationally recognized  cartographer.  LINK

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Forgotten Struggle of the Italian Front

By Richard Galli

Over the Agnelizza Valley, chock full of the dead—the skeletons of last year's battle, and the swollen corpses of this year's battle that has lasted a fortnight. And a shining skull grins next to the livid mask of a man killed yesterday.
      Paolo Monelli's description of the Ortigara battlefield

The Battle of Ortigara was not the largest or most costly battle on the Italian Front, but for 19 days in June 1917 it was a microcosm of mountain front's warfare and the terrible attrition of the Great War. Ortigara is often called "the Calvary of the Alpini" with its useless sacrifice of Italy's finest troops. In a determined offensive on the Trentino Plateau, Italian General Ettore Mambretti seized strategic Monte Ortigara. However it was quickly retaken by Austrian General Artur von Mecenseffy in some of the bloodiest alpine fighting of the war. Austria lost 9,000 casualties, and the Italians sacrificed over 23,000 men (2,800 killed).

The reality of two years of warfare on the Altipiano [starting in May 1915] had seen endless Italian and Austrian raids, artillery duels, and several pitched battles, primarily around Monte Pasubio. Little or no change occurred in the existing line, the old frontier, including the mighty Austrian Strafexpedition in the spring of 1916. Most of the Altipiano had been captured in this offensive, which very nearly broke out onto the vulnerable Venetian Plains. The Italian Army eventually halted the attack and immediately counterattacked; again back to the old lines. 

Ortigara Today

The Battle of Ortigara took place on a cluster of barren windswept mountains, soaring cliffs, boulder fields, and sparse rocky meadows—the highest and northernmost ridge of the Trentino Plateau, the Altipiano. In 1917 the Italian High Command considered the strategic position of these peaks a dangerous bulge in the front, an area where Austria could break through and flank the Italian bastions of Monte Pasubio to the west or Monte Grappa in the east. Control of the Brenta River Valley or the capture the entire plateau were additional concerns for the Italians. Indeed all of these fears came true in late 1917, although Pasubio and Grappa held on, barely. The Ortigara area also controlled the vital Passo dell'Agnella, which led into the strategic Val Sugana, the primary Austro-Hungarian supply route to their entire Altipiano line and a direct road to the city of Trento. The Italian commanders knew this as well as the Austrians, who had fortified the area with Germanic tenacity and depth. 

Straightforward and well designed, the Italian attack seemed worthy of success, at least in theory. The focus would be along the northernmost three kilometers of the Altipiano front line–Monte Ortigara. The Italian 20th Corps attacking force was made up of the 52nd Alpini Mountain Infantry Division and the 9th Bersaglieri Light Infantry Regiment, with the 29th Infantry Division—the combined Piedmonte and Regina [Queen's] Regiments, in reserve. These 52 battalions were all experienced troops, having fought across this mountain front, including the Isonzo River area, whose Carso and Bainsizza Plateaus were as harsh and rocky as this great northern spine of the Altipiano. 

Ortigara Is Located in the Center of This Map

Facing the Italians was the 6th Austro-Hungarian Infantry Division. The 24 battalions of this division were the numerical equivalent of 32 Italian battalions. These men were also seasoned veterans of mountain warfare, including two regiments from the Third (or Eiserne) Korps [Iron Corps] of elite Kaiserjäger mountain infantry and Feldjäger light infantry, who held the heights of Monte Ortigara. Supporting the infantry deployments were 428 Italian artillery pieces and 220 mortars facing 150 Austrian cannons and 75 mortars. These odds seem one sided, but it must be noted that the Italians had a terrible supply route of twisting mountain roads, and many of their cannons were light, mule-packed alpine guns. Most of the Austrian mortars were heavy 305mm Škodas, and all their artillery had a rapid supply line of valley railroad and mountain teleferiques. To make matters worse, two Italian deserters had informed Austrian intelligence of the planned attack. On the evening of 9 June 1917 both sides were on high alert.

On 10 June the opening Italian barrage began at 0515 hours and finished at 1500. Following dangerously close to the explosions, Bersaglieri and Alpini rapidly overtook many Austrian positions. Only speed could capture these fortifications; once manned they were a deathtrap of wire entanglements and machine gun bunkers. The Austrian trenches and tunnels were deep, often with three meters of solid rock overhead. On the highest peaks, the Alpini continued the attack. Their battalions captured the summits of Monte Chiesa, Corno de Segala, Peak 2003, as well as Peak 2101 of Monte Ortigara. Many points in this wilderness were known only by their elevation. As with the entire front, their new, often tragic names would appear after the war. Passo del'Agnella was tenuously captured, with the front line running directly through its center.

Alpini Preparing for the Assault

On the second day [11 June] mountain clouds and heavy rain turning to snow engulfed the area. The Italian commanders were forced to delay the offensive, but fighting continued to rage between platoon and patrol within the clouds. Artillery was for the most part useless. On 15 June the fog cleared. Earlier that morning, at 0230, three battalions of Kaiserjäger retook Peak 2101 despite the fresh snow and ice. Four days later the Alpini once more held its heights, in a similar lightening raid. 

Hidden in caverns or behind ridges, the enemy artillery  made existence hell. The very nature of these bare stone mountains worked against the attackers. If your forces did not capture or recover established defensive positions, digging new trenches was an industrial effort, near impossible with infantry hand tools. Ricocheting shrapnel, rock, and bullets would take their additional toll. 

The Italians attempted counter-battery with aerial bombardment. On the morning of 18 June 145 Italian aircraft, including 26 Caproni heavy bombers, attacked Austrian batteries, teleferiques, ammunition, and supply dumps to the west of Monte Ortigara and in Val Sugana. Several large explosions were observed, but once again the Austrians hunkered in their caverns and waited for the inevitable Italian attack.

Italian Observers Watching the Battle

As is often said of this war's battles, Ortigara began to "take on a life of its own." With two elite corps of mountain troops facing each other there was no letdown in the fighting. Every attack was immediately countered; the resulting casualties surpassed what was typical of this war's terrible attrition—in the sardonic humor of the Italian soldati, "meat for the cannons." The Austrians, meantime, were perfecting the recent Germanic concept of "storm troops," heavily armed infantry infiltrating the enemy's weaker areas, however scarce these places were on Ortigara. The Alpini were not so tactically advanced, but relied on their traditional courage and pride, wheeling their mountain artillery pieces into repeated attacks as direct fire weapons against Austrian strong points.

The crux of this fight occurred when the Italians captured the primary and highest point of Monte Ortigara, Peak 2105, on 19 June 1917. In 45 minutes seven battalions of Alpini, led by the local men of Battalione Sette Comuni, captured over 1000 Austrians, five cannons, and 14 machine guns. In brilliant sunshine and calm morning atmosphere this was the high tide of the Italian offensive.

It did not take long for the Austrians to retaliate. On the 22 June Austrian artillery, including new batteries brought up from other parts of the front, began a nonstop pounding of the Italian positions. Two hundred and fifty tons of high explosive shells were dropped into these two square kilometers. In the last hour of fire, 90 tons of artillery and mortar rounds were focused on the Italian stronghold—Peak 2105. The effect of airburst shrapnel, delayed high explosive shells, stone splinters, and ricochet on the solid rock was murderous. High-angle mortar fire hit the Alpini fortunate enough to escape gunfire on the leeward slopes. At 0230 hours on 25 June, the darkness was hideously illuminated by Austrian flamethrowers, leading seven battalions of Austrian Kaiserschützen mountain troop reservists and regular infantry. The remaining reserves of the 52nd Alpini and the Queen's Own Regiment were thrown into the battle. 

Victorious Austrian Defenders

Unit histories from both sides report fierce hand to hand combat with club, pick-mattock, knife, and rocks. By morning the battle was over, with 1000 Italians wounded and/or captured, a similar number killed and Monte Ortigara in Austrian hands. In the morning calm, gas shells were fired onto Peaks 2101, 2003, and Passo del'Agnella accompanied by a creeping barrage of high explosive and waves of Austro-Hungarian infantry, the Eiserne Korps final reserves. The smoke of numerous brush fires compounded the deadly situation. Italians were unaware of the deadly gas until it was too late. This was only the second time poison gas had been used on this entire Alpine Front, where both sides had abstained from using it, due to either [arguably] chivalry or [more likely] the unpredictable mountain atmosphere. The Austrians captured the pass and all four peaks. The next day [26 June] a valiant counterattack by the remains of two Alpini battalions reinforced by regular infantry survivors [in total numbering little more than 200 men] recaptured Peak 2003 and the old trenches at Passo dell'Agnella. These troops, considered a rear guard, were withdrawn to what must have seemed ancient starting lines on 29 June 1917. The Battle of Ortigara was over, nothing had changed. 

Paolo Monelli summarized it thus—

In an incredibly narrow space, men by the tens of thousands were nailed to the rock under artillery fire hitting them from every inch on the horizon, and under avalanches of fire, clouds of gas, and torrents of liquid flame, the three peaks were won, lost, retaken and finally abandoned when we no longer had a single battalion with which to continue the struggle. 

Italian Prisoner Column After the Battle

The losses on Ortigara devastated the Italian Alpine Corps. The 52nd Alpini Division suffered 12,633 casualties of their 15,000 men. Total Italian casualties were 2,865 killed in action or died of wounds, 16,734 seriously wounded, 2,600 captured and 3000 missing in action—totaling 25,199. In this narrow area of three peaks and three kilometers the Austrian Third Corps lost 992 killed, 6,321 wounded, and 1,515 missing or captured—totaling 8,828. The Iron Corps report to the Austrian High Command read, "the battalions returning from the Ortigara inferno are dross." To the Italian Alpini, Army and people these peaks will forever be known as la tomba degli alpini [the tomb of the Alpini] or il Calvario degli Alpini [the Calvary of the Alpini]. 

The Altipiano front line would eventually be breached by a combined Austrian and German offensive in October 1917, known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, or Caporetto. Few returned to the area of Ortigara until after the war, when the remains of those lost were recovered. Italian soldiers and Austrian POWs performed initial searches. Soon the loved ones of the fallen took up the search. Memorials were put up for both sides in the early 1920s. To this day bodies are found.

Austrian (L) and Italian (R) Monuments

Today, Ortigara is a sparse wilderness surrounded by rich meadows and deep forests. Only at the height of summer will one find hardy mountain flowers and tufts of grass between the rocks or see the occasional shepherd and his flock. Despite the scavenging for brass by locals during the impoverished Depression, underfoot the Ortigara battlefield remains half stone, half iron artillery fragments. (This statement is more realistic than poetic.) Few come to these lonely peaks except on the second Sunday of each July, when local Altipiani, veterans of both sides and relatives of the dead make a pilgrimage, to pay their respects at graveyards and a memorial atop Monte Ortigara, whose inscriptions appeals, per non dimenticare [do not forget].

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mr. Punch's History of the Great War

Charles L. Graves, ed.
Cassell and Company, Ltd, 1919 
 (Current reprints available)
David F. Beer, Reviewer

26 April 1916 Cover, Featuring Mr. Punch

One of the best-known humor and satire magazines in Britain was Punch, or, The London Charivari. It ran from 1841 until 1992, with a brief resurrection from 1996 to 2002. In its heyday it helped coin the term "cartoon" with its clever and sometimes scathing illustrations. Its prose style was informal for the times and could happily rip apart pretense and hypocrisy. The title was taken from the "Punch and Judy" puppet or marionette shows dating back to the 1600s, and Mr. Punch, the hook-nosed curmudgeon of those shows, is also the main character in the magazine. Often including poetry, John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" was first published anonymously in the 8 December 1915 edition of Punch.

Punch flourished during the Great War, and the magazine was more than ready to cover the conflict:

Though a lover of peace, Mr. Punch from his earliest days has not been unfamiliar with war. He was born during the Afghan campaign; in his youth England fought side by side with the French in the Crimea; he saw the old Queen bestow the first Victoria Crosses in 1857. . .Later on again he had watched, not without grave misgiving, the growth of the great Prussian war machine which crushed Denmark, overthrew Austria, and having isolated France, overwhelmed her heroic resistance by superior numbers and science, and stripped her of Alsace- Lorraine (vii).

This prologue introduces almost 300 pages of month-by-month commentary, including cartoons and poetry, summing up events for each month in Punch's unique and patriotic style. August 1914 opens thus:

Four weeks ago we stood on the verge of the great upheaval and knew it not. We were thinking of holidays; of cricket and golf and bathing, and then were plunged in the deep waters of the greatest of all Wars (1).

The month includes a one-page cartoon of a small, defiant boy with a small stick defending a gate marked "No Thoroughfare" being threatened by a large man with a huge cudgel, curved pipe in his mouth, and large sausages dangling from one pocket—obviously Germany—with the caption "Bravo, Belgium!"

Each month through November 1918 is similarly dealt with in four or five pages, with some three to five cartoons plus verse, and the book concludes with a retrospective epilogue that also looks forward to the year ahead. You could get a lot of enjoyment just browsing through the cartoons,but be warned that some of them contain a distinctly British sense of humor.

Typical of Punch's commentary as it follows the war's events is that of December 1915:

Things have not been going well in the East. The Allies have been unable to save Serbia, Monastir has fallen, and our lines have been withdrawn to Salonika. The experts are now divided into two camps, the Westerners and the Easterners, and the former, pointing to the evacuation of Gallipoli, are loud in their denunciations of costly "side-shows"(66).

Yet the fortitude of the British soldier must also be emphasized, or in the words of Mr. Punch "The 'philosophy of Thomas' is inscrutable…and he derives satisfaction from comparisons:"

If we're standin' in two feet o' water, you see
Quite likely the Boches are standin' in three;
An' though the keen frost may be ticklin' our toes,
'Oo doubts that the Boches' 'ole bodies is froze?

An accompanying cartoon shows a wounded and bandaged (but ever-generous) Tommy berating a German prisoner with "Look what you done to me, you blighters! 'Ere-'ave a cigarette?" (68). The beginning of the Somme battle is treated in the same phlegmatic manner in July's entry for 1916:

. . . July has brought us a new experience-the sound fifty or sixty miles inland in peaceful, rural England, amid glorious midsummer weather, of the continual throbbing night and day of the great guns on the Somme, where our first great offensive opened on the 1st, and has continued with solid and substantial gains, some set-backs, heavy losses for the Allies, still heavier for the enemy (97).

A full-page cartoon for the same month shows a laughing Tommy bandaging his own wrist wound with his rifle in the crook of his arm and a German helmet pinned on the bayonet, the caption below stating in all capitals: WELL DONE, THE NEW ARMY. The following month, August, includes a short poem "from an R.F.C. man":

Returning from my morning fly
I met a Fokker in the sky,
And, judging from its swift descent,
It had a nasty accident.
On thinking further on the same
I rather fear I was to blame

Back in August 1915 the magazine had complained that “The war of Notes goes on with unabated energy between Germany and the U.S.A.” and also recorded that “Mr. Winston Churchill, the greatest of our quick-change political artists, is said to be devoting his leisure to landscape painting. The school that he favors is not publicly stated.” (50). However, April 1917 finds Mr. Punch less tongue-in-cheek when he reports that

Once more the rulers of Germany have failed to read the soul of another nation. They thought there was no limit to America’s forbearance, and they thought wrong. America is now ‘all in’ on the side of the Allies. The Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are flying side by side over the Houses of Parliament. On the motion introduced in both Houses to welcome our new ally, Mr. Bonar Law…declared that the New World had stepped in to redress the balance of the old; Mr. Asquith…lauded the patience which had enabled President Wilson to carry with him a untied nation; and Lord Curzon quoted Bret Harte (145).

A drawing of a huge eagle, talons outstretched and swooping away from the Statue of Liberty, accompanies this month’s entry.

Thus it goes with Mr. Punch, as this engaging volume follows the course of the Great War with popular historical analysis, humor, irony, many telling cartoons and plenty of poetry—much of it moving and clever. I can recommend Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War to anyone who would enjoy a chronicle of the War laced with the wit and wisdom that was available to the British reader on the home front.

David F. Beer