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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Kaiser Willhelm II Sends Bismarck Packing

"Dropping the Pilot," British Cartoon, 1890

Incompatible in temperament, aspirations, and methods for conducting diplomacy, Bismarck and the Kaiser worked together for two years before the "Iron Chancellor" was sent packing. Wilhelm subsequently played a more personal and often destructive role in shaping policy, with the Russian-German relationship quickly withering.

After Kaiser Wilhelm II's accession to the throne in June 1888, conflict between the old chancellor Bismarck and the 29-year-old emperor was almost inevitable. Tensions came to a head over the workers' question and how to deal with the Social Democrats. Germany had experienced a wave of strikes in 1889, and opinion was divided on how to meet the challenge. Wilhelm II did not want to start his reign with bloodshed. His Royal Decree of February 1890 promised social reform and workers' protection. But Bismarck was more inclined toward a collision course with the Social Democrats, who had emerged from the Reichstag elections of February 1890 with more votes than any other party. He hoped to provoke a domestic crisis that would make him indispensable. On 15 March 1890, Bismarck was awoken at 9 a.m. with the news that the Kaiser wished to see him in the Foreign Office in half an hour's time. At last the break between the two men could no longer be postponed, and a rancorous, awkward scene resulted, leaving Bismarck no choice but to offer his resignation. As it happened, more than two days ensued before he did so, during which time both men tried to seize the tactical advantage (Bismarck wanted to draw up a letter of resignation that could be published later).

Source: German History in Documents and Images

Friday, November 29, 2019

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Newly Arrived Doughboy Aviator Appreciates Thanksgiving

Dated 22 December 1917,  this letter was written by Alabamian Penrose Vass Stout while stationed in France to his sister, Rebecca Stout, in Hartsville, South Carolina. In the letter, Stout reports

Then Thanksgiving came along and we had a real good American dinner, turkey, pumpking pie and all the rest.  It was your birthday, too, Tooks, and of all the things to be thankful for I found you at the head of the list.

The letter goes on to give detailed descriptions of camp  life, flight training, and the soldiers' preparations to celebrate Christmas.

Source: The Alabama Centennial Site

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Remembering a Veteran: Father Anthony Cecil Pollen
Ship's Chaplain, HMS Warspite

In the midst of the greatest naval battle of the Great War, Catholic chaplain Father A.C. Pollen (1860–1940) proved his courage. He was wounded at Jutland, mentioned in despatches, and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Gallantry in Action, the only chaplain to receive this decoration.

The worst cases we had sent down to us forward were of burns, due to a cordite fire breaking out in the starboard 6-inch battery.  Eleven cases, including Father Pollen, the RC Chaplain, were brought down suffering from very severe and extensive burns of the face, body and limbs. They were so badly burnt that one could do very little to relieve them or their pain and shock, injections of morphine seeming to have little, if any, effect on them. Father Pollen sustained his burns (face, hands and legs) through helping to rescue the men of the guns' crews who were on fire from the cordite.
Surgeon Gordon Ellis

Father Anthony had a great wit; when he reported to the captain of the Warspite, the captain said, "I hope we shall get on, but I think it fair to tell you that I don’t like Catholics," to which F. Anthony replied, "I am sure, Sir, that we shall get on, as, to be candid, I detest Protestants." They did become friends and played golf together during the short intervals at Scapa when they could get ashore.

HMS Warspite Absorbed More Large Shells Than Any Other Ship at Jutland. 
She Would Survive and Serve at Normandy 28 Years Later

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Pershing's Tankers: Personal Accounts of the AEF Tank Corps in World War I

Edited by Lawrence M. Kaplan. 
Forward by Dale E. Wilson
University Press of Kentucky, 2018
Bruce G. Sloan, Reviewer

Dear Beatrice:
One year ago today we reached Paris full of desire to kill Germans. We are still full of desire but so far as I am concerned there are just as many Germans as there were then. Sometimes I deeply regret that I did not take the infantry last November instead of the tanks.
George S. Patton, Letter, 13 June 1918

Probably the best explanation of Pershing's Tankers is a long quote from the Forword by Dale E. Wilson, who also wrote Treat 'Em Rough, which I previously reviewed for this blog on 30 July 2019. He describes how:

The cornerstone of this collection is the narratives American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Tank Corps commander Brigadier General Samuel D. Rockenbach ordered his officers to write while their experience was fresh in their minds. Hoping to capture the essence of armored warfare and the important place it had on the modern battlefield, he instructed them to write in the first person and to avoid the dull language characteristic of most after-action reports.

Col. Wilson goes on to explain sources and processes further, but the foregoing should give you the gist. Both unexpected and refreshing is the humor included in many of the reports. As an example, Col. George Patton's combat report was humorously self-deprecating—NOT what I would have expected.

After a short summary of the Tank Corps operations, plus the Congressional testimony given by General Rockenbach and his January 1920 article in Infantry Journal, all of which set the historical and administrative basis for the Corps, we jump right into the Official Tank Corps Personal-Experience Reports.

These reports all start when the particular officer (or enlisted personnel, many of whom became an officer) joined the AEF, and especially when they got involved with the Tank Corps. They typically end when the officer was wounded, the Armistice was signed, or when the officer finally was allowed to go home.

The reports are organized by unit and by action, which can be followed on the maps in the back of the book. Unfortunately, as with most narratives of combat I read, the maps are barely sufficient, and I was left with my head spinning from time to time. (I understand this is normally caused by the publisher being too damn cheap, NOT by the author/editor.)

The two types of units, those with light tanks (the French Renault), and those with heavy tanks (the British Mark V, Mark V*, male, female, & composite), were in separate actions or sectors of the same battle. After some very nice representative photos, we read the Unofficial Personal Accounts, including personal correspondence to wives, fathers, and relatives of those "gone west," newspapers, books, and so on. The Tank Corps Organization Charts, Order of Battle, are included, as is a chart highlighting the type and number of tanks the U.S. Army planned to procure during an extended war.

I recommend Pershing's Tankers highly, as it includes both dry and colorful reporting. By the end the reader has a much better idea of who these young (and sometimes older) pioneers were.

Bruce G. Sloan

Monday, November 25, 2019

North Carolina's Breaking of the Hindenburg Line Commemorated

In a remarkably executed one-year effort—conceived of by proud North Carolinians John Merritt, David Sneeden, and Jerry  Hester—the Tar Heel State has seen that the greatest achievement of its sons during the First World War will be remembered. In late September 1918 the 60th Brigade (National Guardsmen from North Carolina) of the 30th AEF Division broke through the "impregnable" Hindenburg Line at the village of Nauroy, France.  On 10 November 2019, 364 days after the project was conceived, the monument shown below was dedicated on the site of the division's fighting at Nauroy.

Click on Images to Enlarge


The monument, designed by Jeff Allen Associates of Winston-Salem, NC, features an obelisk on a large base with informational panel and was carved from North Carolina white granite.  The sculpture is topped with a  Doughboy helmet mounted at a resting angle.  The division patch is conspicuous on both the monument and the division flag carried by the color guard for the dedication.  It superimposes "O" and "H" for "Old Hickory" and XXX representing 30th Division.  Along the top of the flag can be seen the battle streamer for the 1918 victory.

Nauroy was on the front line for the last two years of the war and was fortified and incorporated into the German defensive network. The village lost many men in the war who are remembered at the community's war memorial.  The North Carolina memorial could not have been built without the wholehearted support of  the village's citizens.

The Mayor of Nauroy (center) hosted a groundbreaking ceremony in May 2019.  Susi Hamilton, NC Secretary of the Dept. of Cultural Affairs (left),  represented her state, and Jerry Hester (yellow shirt), one of the three initiators of the project, represented the National World War One Centennial Commission.  The site was designated the Place Caroline du Nord. 

10 November 2019

The North Carolina delegation at the dedication ceremony:  BG Todd Hunt, NC National Guard; Susi Hamilton, NC Sec. Dept. of Cultural Resources; Erich Hooks, NC Sec. of Public Safety; Martin Falls, NC Asst. Sec. of Veterans Affairs

After the unveiling.  On the home front the funding the effort was made possible through the generosity of the private citizens and counties of North Carolina, with the support of the state's National Guard.

North Carolina presented a plaque with a Doughboy helmet matching the one topping the monument to Nauroy mayor Jean-Jacques Froment

Three officers of the NC National Guard had grandfathers who fought at Nauroy.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Beautiful Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery

Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery at Fleurbaix (3 miles NW of Fromelles) is one of the most pleasant-looking and -feeling cemeteries I've visited on the Western Front.  

It contains more than 350 British burials from the time of the First Battle of Ypres to about the time of the Battle of the Somme. It was designed by the British and South African architect Sir Richard Baker, who also designed the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle.

Le Trou exemplifies the "English country garden" approach to the design of many of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.

Sources:  CWGC; Wikicommons

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Map Series #12: Where the War Stood in August 1916

This map illustrates where the battle lines stood on 1 August 1916, exactly two years into the war and after the launching of the Verdun, Somme, and Brusilov offenses but before their conclusions.  Only the European theaters are shown.

Russia fared poorly, losing control of territory in what is now Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics, while Serbia had been overrun. Fighting on the Western Front and in Italy had accomplished essentially nothing beyond what the Germans had managed to achieve before the Battle of the Marne.  The tiny blue line near Salonika in Greece represents a small Allied force that had seized the city to try to maintain a token force in the Balkans. Their presence embroiled Greek politics in crisis but had little military significance until the Central Powers were on their last legs.

The map was presented in the February 2016 issue of Carrying the Torch from the Friends of the Canadian War Museum.  The original source was not cited.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Friday, November 22, 2019

World War One Is Not Forgotten at Arlington

Our resident documentarian and my fellow Air Force (SAC) veteran Steve Miller visited Arlington National Cemetery on this past Veterans/Armistice Day. Since his last pilgrimage there he discovered that several measures have been taken to insure the nation's sacrifices during the Great War are remembered.

The visitors center has added a nicely done informational kiosk—

The standard tour program includes a stop at General Pershing's grave, which is in the midst of the section set aside for his fellow WWI vets.

Unfortunately, the crowd and security considerations prevented the tram from operating on 11 November.  Steve, though, promises to send photos of the graves of Great War notables such as General Pershing's above (an earlier photo from Steve) and Last Doughboy Frank Buckles (Wikipedia photo below).

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Story Behind the Famous Photo
The 55th West Lancashire Division at Givenchy

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by mustard
gas await treatment at an Advanced Dressing Station near
Bethune, 10 April 1918 (IWM)

The above photograph, said to be the inspiration for Sargent's famous Gassed painting, was taken to the rear of a desperate stand by the British First Army, during the second of Ludendorff's Offensive in the spring of 1918, Operation Georgette.  While the photo of the wounded men is still well circulated in World War I publications and websites, the story of the raging battle that produced the casualties has been mostly forgotten.  This is unfortunate, because in that fighting the 55th Division made one of the most stalwart  stands of the war and succeeded in compromising the enemy's strategic aims.

On 9 April 1918, the German Sixth Army attacked north of the La Bassée Canal. Anchoring the southern end of the Allied defenses was the 55th Division commanded by Major General  Sir Hugh Jeudwine. To the division's left was the Portuguese 2nd Division. Behind was the critical rail center of  Hazebrouck, the loss of which would make the entire British deployment in Flanders untenable.

Major General  Sir Hugh Jeudwine

When the attack came the Portuguese division on the left, which had been packing up, preparing to be rotated out of the line for a rest, was quickly shattered. For the next week, with especially intense fighting over the first three days, continuous attacks were mounted by three German divisions. Their principal initial objective was to capture the village of Givenchy. At times German troops entered the town but were never able to secure it. By preserving the integrity of the rail network, the defense of Givenchy allowed Generalissimo Foch to support the defenders rapidly with reinforcements and supplies. One of Germany's great, and maybe last, opportunities of the war was foiled by the 55th Division.

In his despatches Sir Douglas Haig later wrote:

This most gallant defense, the importance of which it would be hard to overestimate.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Why Did You Enlist?
by Alan Seeger

In June 2016 we presented a 1914 report to the New York Sun by American French Foreign Legionnaire Alan Seeger HERE. Below is a selection from a longer article he wrote in May of 1915 for the progressive magazine New Republic, which would later champion America's joining the war.

I have talked with so many of the young volunteers here. Their case is little known, even by the French, yet altogether interesting and appealing. They are foreigners on whom the outbreak of war laid no formal compulsion. But they had stood on the butte in springtime perhaps, as Julian and Louise stood, and looked out; over the myriad twinkling lights of the beautiful city. Paris—mystic, maternal, personified, to whom they owed the happiest moments of their lives—Paris was in peril. Were they not under a moral obligation, no less binding than their comrades were bound legally, to put their breasts between her and destruction? Without renouncing their nationality they had yet chosen, to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world. Did not the benefits and blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny?

"Why did you enlist?" In every case the answer was the same. That memorable day in August came. Suddenly the old haunts were desolate, the boom companions had gone. It was unthinkable to leave the danger to them and accept only the pleasures oneself, to go on enjoying the sweet things of life in defense of which they were perhaps even then shedding their blood in the north. Some day they would return, and with honor—not all, but some. The old order of things would have irrevocably vanished. There would be a new comradeship whose bond would be the common danger run, the common sufferings borne, the common glory shared. "And where have you been all the time, and what have you been doing?" The very question would be a reproach, though none were intended. How could they endure it?

Face to face with a situation like that a man becomes reconciled, justifies easily the part he is playing, and comes to understand, in a universe where logic counts for so little and sentiment and the impulses of the heart for so much, the inevitableness and naturalness of war. Suddenly the world is up in arms. All mankind takes sides. The same faith that made him surrender himself to the impulses of normal living and of love forces him now to make himself the instrument through which a greater force works out its inscrutable ends through the impulses of terror and repulsion. And with no less a sense of moving in harmony with a universe where masses are in continual conflict and new combinations are engendered out of eternal collisions, he shoulders arms and marches forth with haste.

If no more serious argument can be brought against war than those inconveniences and sacrifices resulting to a man from his break with merely comfortable living, I confess I cannot see the contention of the pacifist, nor am I able to understand how war can be any more reasonably objected to than parturition, for example. That too, is painful; only, being a phenomenon of common occurrence and one to which no alternative has ever been imagined even by the visionary, its inevitableness is universally accepted. It would be Well if war were equally so—the supreme demand that nature makes upon the male, as the other is the supreme demand made up on the female. Wars are the birth-pangs of new era? And he who, ready to assume the burden and share the anguish, makes himself the instrument through which this vast power operates, is playing the largest part a man can play. Though he perish while the sweetness of youth is still in him and his capacities for earthly happiness are still unexhausted, I imagine that he does so with infinitely more assurance than any hypothetical reward of a supernatural religion can afford its votary. For his comfort is the sense of his life's blood flowing close to the heart of that cosmic entity of which he feels himself a fraction, and in whose movements it is his measure of his life's success to play the most essential, the most intimate part.

This view of war in its sublimity is one that will not easily occur to the distant spectator. It takes long nights at the outposts, nights such as the last we have been spending half way up the hillside to the enemy's trenches, when the cannon thundered all along the line down toward Rheims, and, mounting toward the meteors that fell out of the morning skies, the slow-curving rockets marked the course of the battlefront across the vast, misty lowlands and into the starlit distances. Not the sense of the bestiality and inutility of it all, but rather of its entire harmoniousness in a universe properly understood is the emotion that possesses the spectator of such a scene. The easy-going pacifist will continue to talk of the horrors of militarism and the clock of civilization being set back a hundred years. This is because he is unable to conceive of evolution except as an orderly progress toward the realization of some arbitrary ideal based upon considerations of individual human well being. The philosophic mind, on the other hand, does not think of evolution in terms of anything so relative as the principles of human morality at all, but rather as an increasing complexity of phenomena—of the possibilities for happiness as well as of all else—-a process which works out through destructive influences quite as much as through inventive and creative.

Source: The New Republic, 22 May 1915

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Comments on the Film War Horse from Author Jacqueline Winspear

Conscripting a War Horse from the Film

I had already read War Horse by Michael Morpugo years ago and thought it excellent, as the story seemed to be pitch perfect for the age range it was intended for—children/young adult. Morpugo wrote the book for younger readers to give a sense of what war is all about and chose to do it through the story of a horse who was conscripted. Of those requisitioned for battle duties during the 1914–18 war, almost 500,000 from Britain alone were killed, one for every two men lost in the combined British and Commonwealth armies. It was an edgy book with a grand tale well told—and without being sappy.

Two years ago I went to see the stage production in London, and I was just amazed. Within seconds you forgot the horses were really very sophisticated puppets and you believed them to be real—again, every aspect of the production was pitch perfect. Audience attention never faltered, and the play gave a sense of the cost of the Great War and never slipped into gratuitous emotional string pulling. The lighter moments were not so light as to be flippant and distracting, which happened in the movie. I had great hopes for the film, but I have to say I was so very disappointed.

Much was lost in the film in order to gain the greater audience offered by a PG13 designation—one hardly had a sense that this was a war that cost the lives of some ten million men (historian Niall Ferguson puts combined military and civilian losses at approximately 18 million). There were several potentially very poignant moments that were spoiled by overwrought emotion in dialogue, cinematography, and musical soundtrack. One of the most significant scenes—when the British soldier met a German in no-mans-land to free the horse entangled in barbed wire—was diminished by the addition of humor—after German called for another wire cutter, about half a dozen came flying over the parapet. This slapstick to elicit laughs from the audience was a real waste of a pivotal point in the story.

Horse "Puppets" from the Stage Production

For those unfamiliar with the book and, especially, the stage production, the film will be touching and perhaps heart-wrenching. A few early reviewers thought Steven Spielberg had rushed the film production, to meet the deadline for release to be an Oscar contender. If that's so, it's a shame, though to be fair, Spielberg cannot tell a bad story. Years ago I asked a friend if she'd enjoyed the movie adaptation of The Horse Whisperer, which had just been released; at that point I had yet to see it. She was thoughtful then said, "You know, it was a good movie—but it could have been a great movie." I feel the same way about War Horse—especially as I am both a horse-lover and deeply interested in the social history of the Great War. It was a good movie—but it could have been a really great movie.

This is a photo I took at the Lochnagar Crater during one of my visits to the battlefields of the Western Front. As you know the crater is generally festooned with poppies and wreaths left by visitors. This wreath was dedicated to the horses and animals who gave their lives in the Great War and to the Royal Veterinary Corps who cared for them. That was another thing about the movie—a cameo appearance by members of the corps would have been nice. After all, if my memory serves me well, they were in the book. For those interested to read about a real equine hero of the war, I can recommend Warrior, by General Jack Seely. It has recently been published in a new edition, and tells the story of "The horse the Germans could not kill." It's a pretty amazing story about a brave—and morale-boosting—war horse. And though it means skipping over a war or two, there is always that true American war horse heroine, Reckless, whose courage under fire led to the mare being promoted to staff sergeant after the Korean War. 

Jackie Winspear (Originally Presented in the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire)

(Readers are probably aware that Jackie is the author of the best-selling series of WWI mysteries featuring that V.A.D. nurse turned sleuth, Maisie Dobbs.Learn more about Maisie HERE.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Images from the Poppy Patch at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

With the dry, warm weather this autumn the annual poppy, Papaver rhoeas, has produced a timely show of flowers to add color in the lead-up to Armistice Day which remembers, among many others, former members of RBGE who lost their lives during the 1914–1918 war.

The longevity of the seed held buried in the soil heralds a reminder of conflict and the need to remember those lost. Papaver rhoeas known as an agricultural weed yet giving life and beauty to cultivated land, gardens and often barren landscapes throughout Europe.

The poppy was chosen to remember all those who gave their lives during the Great War of 1914–18 as the seeds germinated following the disturbance caused by bomb damage and other combative action through the soil of Flanders fields. John McCrae noticed this and used it in his poem "In Flanders Fields," written in 1915 after he’d presided over the funeral of a friend who’d been killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. It became one of the most quoted poems during the war, was used in campaigns to recruit soldiers and raise money, and the reference to the poppies growing on the battlefields led to that flower being used as our symbol of remembrance.

Click on Images to Enlarge

Source: The Websites of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Future Great War Allies Clash at Kirk Kilisse

A Turkish Artillery Unit Fleeing the Battlefield

A resounding Bulgarian victory over Turkish forces at Kirk Kilisse opened the First Balkan War. Immediately after declaring war on 17 October, Bulgarian forces invaded Ottoman territory in Thrace. After turning back an ill-conceived spoiling offensive, the Bulgarians mounted a major attack before Turkish reinforcements could arrive from Anatolia. The ensuing fight on 22–24 October is known as the Battle of Kirk Kilisse or the Battle of Lozengrad. It involved a successful flanking operation against a 36-mile front stretching easterly from Lozengrad to Adrianople.

Retreating Turkish Infantry
During the battles around Lozengrad, Bulgarian infantry were supported by artillery and often attacked in poor light, at dawn, or even at night. The Ottomans were unable to withstand the Bulgarian charges, which were supported by artillery and machine gun fire, and by 24 October were in an ill-disciplined retreat all along the line between Adrianople and Lozengrad. Six days into the war the Bulgarians had won a major victory and the Ottoman forces had suffered a strategic and demoralizing defeat.

After the victory, the French minister of war, Alexandre Millerand, stated that the Bulgarian Army was the best in Europe and that he would prefer 100,000 Bulgarians for allies than any other European army. During the two Balkan Wars, Ottoman and Bulgarian forces would face off in 11 battles. The Bulgarians would decisively win nine, while two were indecisive. Nevertheless, a French-led coalition would sweep away the exhausted and abandoned. Bulgarian Army in the last days of  the Great War on the Balkan Front.

Source:  A War Photographer in Thrace by Herbert Baldwin

Friday, November 15, 2019

How Did Your Community Deal with the Great War

A lot of work was done about the American homefront leading up to and during the recent Centennial commemoration. Some publishers turned out WWI titles focusing on states, regions, towns, and military installations. Here I'd like to single out just one publishing collaboration: Arcadia Publishing and The History Press headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. Together they are the largest and most comprehensive publishers of local and regional books in the United States with a library of more than 12,000 titles. The two imprints publish a combined 900 books each year. Their full collection can be searched at:

Click on Images to Enlarge

Here are examples of two categories of their superbly illustrated World War I monographs. The first image above shows their great selection on the training camps built for the Doughboys and were later used for WWII's GIs. While the authors take different approaches, they all cover the building of the camps, the sudden impact of tens of thousands of young men arriving in the area, and details about the particular units that trained on the bases.

This second set below shows some of their volumes on how states, sections, and towns experienced the war. You own local library or historical society may already have published similar works on your area.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

SMS Königsberg's Last Fight at Rufiji Delta

SMS Königsberg at Dar es Salaam

SMS Königsberg was the lead ship of her class of light cruisers built by the Imperial German Navy and was launched in December 1905. In April 1914 Fregattenkapitän Max Looff took command and the ship was sent on what was to have been a two-year deployment to German East Africa, but this was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in August of that year.

Königsberg initially attempted to raid British and French commercial traffic in the region but  destroyed only one merchant ship in the course of her career. Coal shortages hampered her ability to attack shipping. On 20 September 1914 she surprised and sank the British cruiser HMS Pegasus in the Battle of Zanzibar. She then retreated into the Rufiji River to repair her engines.

The Trapped Königsberg Engaging the Monitors

During this time, the British reinforced the ships tasked with tracking down the elusive German raider and placed the ships under the command of Captain Sidney R. Drury-Lowe. On 19 October the cruiser Chatham found the German East Africa Line ship Präsident at Lindi. A boarding party searched the ship and discovered documents indicating she had supplied Königsberg with coal the previous month. On 30 October the cruiser Dartmouth located Königsberg and Somalia in the delta. Chatham, Dartmouth, and Weymouth blockaded the Rufiji Delta to ensure Königsberg could not escape. However, the shallow draft of the river also ensured that large Royal Naval ships could not get within firing range of the Königsberg.

Königsberg Scuttled

After several attempts to sink the ship including bringing in an obsolete battleship to attempt to reach the cruiser with longer range guns, the British sent two monitors, Mersey and Severn, to destroy the German cruiser. They were driven off, however, in a three-hour fight on 6 July. On the 11th, the two monitors got close enough to severely damage Königsberg, forcing her crew to scuttle the ship. The surviving crew salvaged all ten of her main guns and joined Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's guerrilla campaign. The 10.5cm guns played especially prominent roles for the Germans for the rest of the war, acting as the theater's heaviest field artillery, used in harbor fortifications, and even remounted on the converted ferry Gützen, the German "capital ship" of the inland Lake Tanganyika fleet. The rusting remains of the wreck disappeared into the river bed in 1966.

Source: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The U-boat Sinking of SS Athos I Brings China into the War

After the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917,  the United States demanded that other neutral powers, including China, follow their lead by likewise rupturing ties with the German Reich. . .  Further figuring into China’s decision to sever relations with Germany and enter into the war was Japan’s promise to extend much needed loans (the so-called Nishihara loans) to the government of Duan Qirui (1865–1936), which had been in power since 1916. All the same, apart from Duan Qirui, there was generally no stomach for taking a stand in the war against Germany. 

SS Athos I

A momentous event, however, led to a change in China’s position: The sinking of a ship with Chinese workers, en route to France, by a German U-boat became known at end of February 1917. The ship was the "SS Athos I," a steamship of the French shipping company Messageries Maritimes that had been put into service in 1915 and served as a troop carrier during the war. The vessel was torpedoed at 12:27 p.m. on 17 February 1917, 180 nautical miles south-east of Malta, by the German submarine U-65. On board, there was a total of 1,950 people, including 900 Chinese workers, a large contingent of Senegalese soldiers, along with civilian passengers. The ship sank at a near vertical angle within 14 minutes. The captain, 112 crew members and 642 soldiers and workers and passengers (including 543 Chinese) were killed—a total of 754 people. The Athos I  was the biggest ship ever to have been sunk by U-65. Germany’s breach of international law through its unrestricted submarine warfare damaged the positive image of the country that had otherwise existed in China. At the same time, the attack was an unjustified act of aggression. In March 1917, China broke off its diplomatic ties with Germany. Germans, however, still continued to largely enjoy free movement in China.

Over the pending question of China’s entry into the war, an intense debate was ignited that involved almost every influential personality. It constituted an unprecedented episode in Chinese history, for never before had China taken an active role in a global event being played out far away from its own national borders. By participating in the war, the government hoped to regain its sovereign rights to Shandong in the event of a German defeat. . . Due to the ongoing domestic political resistance, Duan Qirui did not succeed in pushing through the declaration of war against Germany in the National Assembly until August 1917.

A Contingent Arrives in Boulogne 

China's contribution to the war in Europe consisted in its deployment of workers to Western Europe and Russia. [See our previous articles HERE and HERE.] This, too, was an event without parallel in Chinese history, as the Qing dynasty had long attempted to keep the Chinese from going abroad. It was not until the mid-19th century that the government began to change its policy and allow emigration.

Beginning already in the summer of 1916, negotiations were being carried out with France and England regarding the deployment of Chinese workers. Chinese officials hoped that the workers in Western Europe would learn valuable technical skills. Above all, the progressive social and intellectual elite of China .  . .  was involved in planning the migration of Chinese workers to Europe. They harbored the hope that the workers would not only enhance their knowledge and skills by living in the West, but also widen their horizons and consciousness.

As a consequence, they would be able to contribute to the reform of Chinese society and thus to the formation of a new national identity. In short, "working was the means and learning was the end.". . . The workers from northern China (mainly Shandong) were not meant to serve as combatants in any campaign, but to provide the Western troops with necessary additional personnel. In turn, this would allow the Allies to continue fighting ("laborers in the place of soldiers").

A Contingent with the French Army

They were active behind the front but quite close nonetheless to the combat. The workers’ tasks consisted in unloading military goods in ports and stations, digging trenches, constructing barracks and field hospitals, burying victims of war, and working in armament factories. They worked seven days a week, ten hours a day. Their activity was also not free of danger. Although the Chinese were assured they would not have to work while under fire, they were actually deployed in or near military combat zones. In France alone, approximately 2,000 workers were killed. China would eventually mourn around 3,000 victims in total.

Source:  Selection from Mühlhahn, Klaus: "China" in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Artists and Authors Describe War
(A Roads Classic)

Otto Dix, Self Portrait, 1915

We gingerly crossed the valley of Paddebeek through a hail of bullets, hiding behind the foliage of black poplar trees felled in the bombardment, and using their trunks as bridges. From time to time one of us disappeared up to their waist in the mud, and if our comrades had not come to their rescue, holding out their rifle butt, they would certainly have gone under. We ran along the rims of the shell-holes as if we were on the thin edge of a honeycomb. Traces of blood on the surface of some heavy shell-holes told us that several men had already been swallowed up. 
Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

I climbed up to the top of the gully I am in. Behind me was Fleury, and in front of me Vaux and Douaumont. I could see out over an area of ten square kilometres that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth. The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them. A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded - the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind. They were no bigger than ants down there. The artillery dominates everything. A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency.
Fernand Léger, Verdun, 7 November 1916

The rumbling of the artillery became more and more frequent and ended up forming a single rumbling of the whole earth. From all sides, outgoing bursts and explosions threw forth their flashing beams which lit up the dark sky over our heads with strips of light in all directions. Then the bombing grew so heavy that the flashes became continuous. In the midst of the uninterrupted chain of thunder claps we could see each other directly, helmets streaming like the bodies of fish, gleaming black iron shovels, and the whitish drops of the endless rain, truly it was like moonlight created by cannon fire.
Henri Barbusse, Artois Front in 1915

The plain, which stretched as far as the eye could see, seemed to have been churned up by a mad plough. The entanglement of trenches formed in the grass a huge white net with much of the mesh gnawed away. In the middle, there was a pile of stones and beams from which emerged, here and there, a house and a tree with all its leaves: La Targette. Further on, some charred tree trunks and a few white stones: Neuville-Saint-Vaast (...) There were thousands of men on this plain and I could only see one of them. He was lying face down with his nose in the grass; he was dead
Jean Hugo, Le regard de la mémoire 1914–1945 (The Look of Memory)

A great movement of earth and sky through our burning eyelids, wet and cold; things you find in the pale dawn, one after another and all of them; nobody killed in the darkness, nobody even buried despite the relentless shell attack, the same earth and the same corpses, all this flesh that trembles as if from internal spasms, which dances, deep and hot, and hurts; no more pictures even, just this burning fatigue frozen skin-deep by the rain; another day dawning over the ridge while the Boche's batteries carry on firing on it and on what remains of us up there, mixed with the mud, the bodies, with the once fertile field, now polluted with poison, dead flesh, incurably affected by our hellish torture. 
Maurice Genevoix, Ceux de 14 (The Men of 1914)

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1934–36

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Rhymes of a Red Cross Man

by Robert Service
Barse and Hopkins, 1916
(Still published in modern editions)
David F. Beer, Reviewer

One of Many Editions of the Work

 I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,
As seas of ink I spatter.
Ye gods, forgive my ‘literary’ sins—
The other kind don’t matter.

Already immensely popular and prosperous as a poet of the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush, Robert William Service was living in Paris when the Great War began.  At 41 he was unable to enlist but got a job as a war correspondent. A few months later he volunteered as a stretcher bearer for an American Red Cross ambulance corps, where he served for several months. In 1916 he published Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, a collection of over 50 poems based on his experiences on the Western Front.

Service’s poems have often been dismissed as mere "verse" or "doggerel" by literary scholars—who frequently say the same of Kipling’s poetry. In my humble opinion this is what makes them readable and enjoyable and at times quite moving. They’re accessible to the ordinary reader who, like me, finds much modern poetry opaque. Often their rhythm sings along like a concert hall song, and the working-class dialect Service frequently employs connects them tellingly to the real world. Rhymes opens with a poetic FOREWORD that explains the circumstances under which he initially composed and "tinkered:"

I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,
By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

Four stanzas later this foreword ends by telling the reader to take or leave these “songs from out the slaughter mill.” But inveterate traveler and adventurer that he was, it’s hard to believe Service was completely turned off by the prospect of war. On 1 August 1914 he wrote "The Call," four stanzas long and conjuring up some of the enthusiasm and excitement felt by many before reality set in:

Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!

High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!

Soon the horror of war did set in, of course, and Robert Service was thrust into all the destruction and bloodshed involved. Perhaps one of his best poems describing his work with the ambulance corps is "The Stretcher-Bearer," where rhythm, rhyme scheme, and homespun dialect all reinforce a sense not of excitement but of inner turmoil and sorrowful questioning:

Service in Uniform in France

My stretcher is one scarlet stain,
And as I tries to scrape it clean,
I tell you wot — I'm sick with pain
For all I've 'eard, for all I've seen;
Around me is the 'ellish night,
And as the war's red rim I trace,
I wonder if in 'Eaven's height,
Our God don't turn away 'Is Face.

I don't care 'oose the Crime may be;
I 'olds no brief for kin or clan;
I 'ymns no 'ate: I only see

As man destroys his brother man;
I waves no flag: I only know,
As 'ere beside the dead I wait,
A million 'earts is weighed with woe,
A million 'omes is desolate.

In drippin' darkness, far and near,
All night I've sought them woeful ones.
Dawn shudders up and still I 'ear
The crimson chorus of the guns.
Look! like a ball of blood the sun
'Angs o'er the scene of wrath and wrong. . . .
"Quick! Stretcher-bearers on the run!"
O Prince of Peace! 'ow long, 'ow long? 

The poems in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man cover many more topics than Service could have possibly experienced in his months at the front, but this diversity only shows that he had a vivid imagination (as his Klondike poems attest) and that he was a keen observer and listener. Terribly wounded soldiers, maimed and blind, are often his subject. The heartbreak of leaving wife and family at home, their sorrow at hearing bad news, sympathy for wounded Germans, village girls, and bars, calls to carry on no matter what, the various personalities that were to be found in the army, all are grist for his mill. A eulogy to "A Pot of Tea" includes a nice refrain:

In back rooms of estaminays I've gurgled pints of cham;
I've swilled down mugs of cider till I've felt a bloomin' dam;
But 'struth! they all ain't in it with the vintage of Assam:
God bless the man that first invented Tea!

Several poems are reminiscent of Service’s most popular earlier poems, such as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." In Rhymes we find, for example, "The Whistle of Sandy McGraw," a long and sad poem in Scots dialect that begins with:

You may talk o' your lutes and your dulcimers  fine,
Your harps and your tabors and cymbals and a',
But here in the trenches jist gie me for mine
The wee penny whistle o' Sandy McGraw.

A common theme in a lot of war poetry is the soldier on sentry duty or at other idle moments pondering about the enemy. I call this the "empathy poem," and one of Service’s pieces does this well. ‘A Song of the Sandbags’ is a relatively long poem. Here’s the beginning, but it’s worth reading the whole poem to get its full effect:

No, Bill, I'm not a-spooning out no patriotic tosh 
(The cove be'ind the sandbags ain't a death-or-glory cuss).
And though I strafes 'em good and 'ard I doesn't 'ate the Boch
 I guess they're mostly decent, just the same as most of us.
I guess they loves their 'omes and kids as much as you or me;
And just the same as you or me they'd rather shake than fight;
And if we'd 'appened to be born at Berlin-on-the-Spree
We'd be out there with 'Ans and Fritz, dead sure that we was right.

A-standin' up to the sandbags
    It's funny the thoughts wot come;
Starin' into the darkness,
    'Earin' the bullets 'um;
(Zing! Zip! Ping! Rip!
    'ark 'ow the bullets 'um!)
A-leanin' against the sandbags
    Wiv me rifle under me ear,
Oh, I've 'ad more thoughts on a sentry-go
    Than I used to 'ave in a year.

Perhaps not as polished as the lines of Keats or Shelley or as mighty as Milton’s work, the war poetry of Robert Service, like that of Kipling, Woodbine Willie, Owen Rutter, Laurence Binyon, and a host of others, speaks to us clearly and without pretense. They give us down-to-earth insights and responses. Such poetry can constantly be appreciated by all readers.