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

Friday, December 6, 2019

Doughboy Memories: Deploying "Over There"

Camp Dix, NJ, Ready to Ship Out

We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over over there.

After the April declaration of war, the American deployments to Europe were minimal, but for October 1917 the numbers jumped to over 30,000 for that single month. That level would be maintained over the winter months and would then begin growing exponentially through the summer, peaking at 10,000 men per day in July 1918. During the 19 months of U.S. involvement over 7.5 million tons of supplies also accompanied the troops.

Four Canadian and six American embarkation ports were used for transporting the AEF. Nearly 83 percent of the Doughboys (1,656,000), however, departed from New York area ports, including Hoboken, NJ.

At four o'clock we started down the main road leading to the railroad station. As we passed the other barracks, heads appeared at the windows to wave farewell to some comrade or to wish the men good luck and "God's Speed." The hour being early, there were no people at the station with the exception of the regular force and a former member of our company. He had been transferred two days previous to another organization that was to remain in the United States. There were tears in his eyes as he wished us good luck.

News of our coming had evidently preceded us for whistles and sirens blew and along the way workmen waved to us from various buildings. At Jersey City a crowd of people had gathered. We passed through the crowd in a lane made by soldiers with fixed bayonets. A ferry was waiting for us that took us to the "Bush Terminal" at Brooklyn. A few minutes wait on the pier and the battalion filed up the gangplank, receiving a final checking as they did so, to board HMS Kia Ora.
Albert Haas, 78th Division

Doughboys Embarking onto a Navy Warship

Fully half of the AEF was transported by British-controlled vessels. The American share constituted another 45 percent, although a good part of this work was accomplished by German vessels seized by the government. Allies Italy and France provided the remaining 2 to 3 percent of the shipping needs.

The most popular debarkation sites were Brest (791,000) and Liverpool (844,000). A surprising detail is that almost 50 percent of the men initially landed in England rather than France and then traveled across Britain and the Channel to the continent.

Each man was given a cloth tag which was to serve as his meal ticket besides showing the number of his hatch, letter of his deck, number of his bunk and [life] raft or boat number. This tag was to be worn at all times and to be punched at each meal.
Al Burns, 113th Engineers

In Transit to France—Lifeboat Drill

The trip Over There was both exciting and boring for the soldiers. Lifeboat drills and the sounding of U-boat alarms livened things up. Troop losses in transit were low but not non-existent, as some sources claim. Most notably the sinking of SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto led to multiple American fatalities.

The torpedo had struck us [aboard the SS Tuscania] squarely amidships on the starboard side. A great hole was torn in the hull. . . These ten or fifteen minutes elapsing from the moment we were struck were filled with action. With all indications of a speedy sinking staring us in the face, we worked feverishly to lower the lifeboats and cut away the rafts. . .
Henry J. Askew, 20th Engineers Aboard Tuscania

4th Infantry Arriving at Brest, France

All in all, and despite the somewhat helter-skelter rapid mobilization of the nation, the transport of the AEF to Europe was a tremendous success, given that the German Admiralty had boasted that not a single American soldier would ever set foot in France. By Armistice Day, 2,057,675 members of the military had been transported to Europe.

A Frenchman raised his cap and waved to the soldiers leaning over the rail and cried, "Vive l'Amerique? Vive les Americaines!" A Doughboy on the deck called back through his hands, "Vive yourself, you damned frog!"
Charles M. DuPuy, 79th Division

American Troops Parade in Liverpool, England

Had the war continued into 1919, 2 million more Doughboys were to be sent Over There during the first half of the year. Fortunately, they were not to be needed.

Dear Wife,
Will write you a few lines to let you know that I am all OK and doing fine. . . The place we are in now is sure fine, and the people treat the U.S. boys like kings and they sure cheer us when we go marching by.
Wayne Wills, 28th Division

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Under Fire at Jutland

By a Midshipman from the Fore-top of the Battleship HMS Neptune

My action station was in the control top, some 60 or 70 feet above the upper deck, access to which could be gained either by ascending an interminably long iron ladder running up the interior of the mast, or by climbing up outside the tripod by means of iron rungs riveted  on the struts. Experience of the difficulties of ascent had induced me some time ago to have made a blue jean bag, in whose capacious interior I always kept the thousand and one gadgets so essential for the proper and comfortable fighting of an action,  ear protectors, binoculars, a stop watch, a pistol, a camera, a respirator, sundry scarves, woolen helmet, and so forth. It was armed with this weighty 'battle-bag’ that I clambered up the starboard strut of the foremast, past the steam siren (which sizzled ominously as one approached it;  (it is an abominable experience to have a siren actually siren when you are near to it !), through a belt of hot acrid funnel smoke, and finally into the top through the "lubber’s" hole. . .

It is a curious sensation being under heavy fire at  a long range. The time of flight seems more like 30 minutes than the 30 or so seconds that it actually is.  A great rippling gush of flame breaks out from the enemy’s guns some miles away, and then follows a pause, during which one can reflect that somewhere in that great ‘no man’s land’ 2 or 3 tons of metal and explosive are hurtling towards one. 

The mountainous splashes which announce the arrival of each successive  salvo rise simultaneously in bunches of four or five to  an immense height. One or two salvos fell short of  us early in the action, and the remainder, I suppose, must have gone over as I did not see them. The Hercules, four ships astern of us, had been straddled on deployment, a feat which had greatly impressed me with the capabilities of the German gunnery, but, with the exception of the Colossus, which received a 12-inch shell in the fore-superstructure and sundry small stuff  round about her fo’c’sle, no single battleship suffered any real damage from the German’s gunfire. 

The  enemy, however, clearly received some punishment as two battle cruisers, which were rather closer than were their other ships, were engaged by us and by most ships of the rear squadron at one time or another, and we  saw at least two of our salvos hit, after which the two enemy battle cruisers dropped astern, to all appearances badly damaged. The warm, red glow of a ‘hit' is easily distinguishable from the flash of a salvo, and  is extremely pleasant to look upon. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Machine Gun Lessons from the Somme

Despite heavy reinforcement, the 1st and 2nd German Armies at the Somme continued to suffer from a shortage of artillery and munitions throughout the 1916 battle. Consequently, with limited artillery support, German infantry at the Somme was often left to its own devices for defense. Hand grenades, once a specialist weapon, were used extensively to aid in  defense, as were a growing range of small-caliber mortars. Both types of weapons gave the infantry some much-needed close support.

However, it was the machine gun that really provided the fire support so required by the defending infantry. "Lessons-learned" reports recognized the centrality of the machine gun to the success of the defense on the Somme. The 1st Battalion, Reserve Infantry Regiment 28 wrote: “The infantry battle was always supported by our machine guns. As long as the machine guns and their crews were intact, every English attack was bound to be beaten back.”

As machine guns became more and more important, German units quickly found that they could never have enough of these. Most regiments had an establishment of 15 machine guns at the beginning of the battle. The 1st Army was successful in finding enough guns to bring this up to 25 or 30 over the course of the battle.

Prior to the battle, German defensive doctrine maintained that machine guns should be employed in the forward-most trench. However, the battle showed that guns deployed forward would quickly be destroyed. Instead, units deployed their machine guns in depth in shell holes with instructions to fire only at the last minute to avoid being spotted by enemy aircraft. The 183rd Infantry Division wrote:“Single machine guns deployed outside of trenches proved themselves to be especially  worthwhile in the battle, since they were not discovered by enemy artillery, which concentrated mainly on the trenches. Repeatedly, enemy breakthrough attempts were brought to a halt by machine guns deployed like this.”

The battle showed once again the importance of flanking gunfire, which had a great moral effect on the enemy and helped keep guns hidden. Indeed, some units even took to using a barrage of fire from machine guns firing over the heads of the frontline infantry. Of course, the importance of machine guns was also recognized by the Entente, and every effort was made to put them out of service. Consequently, gun crews suffered high casualties. Based on previous experience, the machine gun company of Infantry Regiment 65 went into the line with more crews than needed and asked for additional infantrymen to be assigned as the battle wore on.

This company also recommended that once a gun fired, it should change position, as the enemy focused his artillery on German machine guns. Reports after report stressed the need for more men to be trained to use machine guns, both German and enemy, to take the place of the gun teams when they were wounded or killed. Consequently, one of the key recommendations to come out of the battle was that training on machine guns be extended to ordinary infantry men as well.

Indeed, the battle of the Somme proved once and for all that the days of a uniformly armed infantry were well and truly over. From this point on, infantry units would be armed with a wide array of weapons, from rifles to hand grenades to small mortars and to ever increasing numbers of machine guns.

Source: "Learning War’s Lessons: The German Army and the Battle of the Somme 1916," Robert T. Foley, University of Liverpool

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Blanc Mont Ridge 1918: America's Forgotten Victory

by Romain Cansière and Ed Gilbert
Osprey Publishing, 2018
Courtland Jindra, Reviewer

Depiction of the Fighting on Blanc Mont by George Harding

Though I've lived in California for many years, I am a native Texan. For that reason, the Battle for and around Blanc Mont fought by the Army and Marine 2nd Division and the Texas-Oklahoma National Guard 36th Division, has interested me ever since I really started diving into WWI history. The 36th Division's exploits around St. Etienne are highly visible in the Texas Military Museum at Camp Mabry, Austin. However, when one reads about the AEF the battle is rarely brought up, and then it is only in passing. This is even more surprising given the involvement of the Marine Brigade, arguably the most famous single American military unit in the war. When I visited France in 2018, one of the things I wanted to see most was the Blanc Mont Memorial and it was one of my favorites. For these reasons, I was extremely eager to finally sit down and read Blanc Mont Ridge 1918: America's Forgotten Victory.

The book is very short but provides some in-depth information. The volume is broken down into a few short introductory chapters where backstory is given on the war, the position itself, the opposing forces, and the respective commanders. I especially enjoyed the different Order of Battle breakdowns.

A fairly lengthy chapter summarizes the month-long engagement on an almost day by day basis. There are some fantastic maps included to help the reader figure out exactly what happened on the ground. Though I still got turned around a few times, these are by far the best maps I've seen in a book on the Great War as far as orienting me on the battlefield. It's often one of my main criticisms with these books that I get lost with who is where (not to mention that often places that are named in the text aren't even included on the maps). In this case, I mostly knew exactly where everyone was. Also, bravo to the illustrations by Graham Turner, which were all excellent and should be hanging on someone's wall at home.

There's a small summary section where the authors attempt to explore the legacy of the battle. They explore what happened to the 2nd and 36th Divisions after the fighting, the monuments and memorials to be seen in the area today, and why exactly the struggle, one that Phillipe Pétain called "the single greatest achievement of the year 1918 campaign" is now little more than a footnote. They suggest that General Lejeune himself might have been to blame, thinking he was outfoxed by the French in how he deployed his forces in the battle.

While at times the book is a little on the dry side, overall it reads quickly. Not only are there numerous maps but it is also filled to the brim with photographs, both from the era and of the region today. These also help bring alive the text, even if things occasionally bog down with unit movements.

I have been told there is at least one other book on the battle coming down the pipeline. Perhaps the battle will not be forgotten much longer.

Courtland Jindra

Monday, December 2, 2019

Redemption: British Forces Recapture Kut-el-Amara, 24 February 1917

British Forces on the March in Mesopotamia

Almost exactly ten months after the surrender of General Townshend to the Turks in Kut-el-Amara, British, troops have again entered this squalid little town on the left bank of the Tigris. It has been clear from General Stanley Maude's recent messages that the British could have reduced Kut to a heap of mud bricks at any time during the past month or so. The actual entry into Kut could also have been effected much earlier than has been the case, but the urgency of the operations had disappeared after it was seen that they had failed to effect the relief of General Townsend's force.

General Stanley Maude (1864–1917)
After that event the British were able to devote more time to the important matter of communications and supplies, and the capture of the town of Kut became a secondary consideration to that of preparing to break the military power of the Turk in this region. The encircling movement on the southern side of the Tigris, the advance along the Shatt-el-Hai, and the crossing of the Tigris, westward of Kut at the Shumrou bend, combined with the simultaneous attacks on the Sannalyat positions farther eastward have had a far-reaching effect upon the Mesopotamian operations. Not only have the British secured what remains of the town of Kut, but they have caused the collapse of the whole of the strong Turkish defensive positions eastward of that town, which previously baffled all attempts of the British relief forces to advance on the northern side of the Tigris. In addition to this, they have secured 1730 prisoners, inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, and forced him to retreat in the direction of Baghela, a town lying on the southern bank of the Tigris, about 25 miles west of Kut.

While all this was very satisfactory, it must not be forgotten that the British here are fighting in difficult country, and that a distance of over 100 miles still separates them from Baghdad, while the journey by river is over twice that distance. In any further British advance which is made in this direction the matter of communications will have to receive additional attention, and by this factor the rate of progress will probably be governed. The river above Kut, however, does not offer so many difficulties to navigation as it does lower down, and the current between Baghdad and Kut is not so severe as it is between the latter town and Basra. [Baghdad, in fact, would fall quickly, on 11 March 1917.]

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 1917