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

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

War Poet Edgell Rickword

By David Beer

Edgell Rickword (1898–1982) enlisted in the Artists' Rifles straight from school in 1916. Soon he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and eventually won a Military Cross. He was invalided out of the army in 1918, consequently losing an eye. He devoted most of his long life to editing, translation (of French authors), and political journalism. His limited but notable war poetry, first published in Behind the Eyes (1921), includes the much-anthologized "Trench Poets," "Winter Warfare," and "The Soldier Addresses His Body," This sonnet, less well known, is an interesting juxtaposition of movingly disparate images.


War and Peace

In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death's pulleys creak;

And seeing cool nurses move on tireless feet
To do abominable things with grace,
Deemed them sweet sisters in that haunted place
Where, with child's voices, strong men howl or bleat.

Yet now those men lay stubborn courage by,
Riding dull-eyed and silent in the train
To old men's stools; or sell gay-coloured socks
And listen fearfully for Death; so I
Love the low-laughing girls, who now again
Go daintily, in thin and flowery frocks

Blind WWI Veteran
Here we have contrasting vignettes of a number of Rickword's memories. (The poem was written after the war.) He admiringly recalls the toughness of men living in intolerable conditions—even if their laughter is perhaps prolonged by a nervousness while living under the shadow of death. If you've ever heard an old wooden pulley creak when lifting a load, this image will be particularly effective. You never know when you will be the load. "Death's pulleys" indeed, hauling us up from life.

Then a change of scene—efficiently calm nurses doing their jobs in a hospital full of wounded and mangled men. It's a place haunted by blood and pain, yet the nurses go about their work, seemingly kind and tireless, moving to the accompaniment of anguished soldiers who now don't utter "wise and witty things."

Then the sestet jumps to the "Peace" part of the poem's title. For many an ex-soldier, peacetime is not going to be bright, as they well know even while being invalided home. They face an uncertain future of disability and poverty (not even a chair to sit in?) or at best degrading work—with nothing on their horizon but the creaking pulley.

The narrator isn't one of them, however. He is alive and well and so can delight in the sight of girls now far from pain and death, still walking confidently, and not in uniform but in colorful and sexy dresses. Before and after floods this poem.

Monday, March 30, 2020

New Life for the WWI Battleship USS Texas

Supporters of the Battleship

From Bloomberg News, 4 March 2020 

It isn’t every day that a national historic landmark looks for a new home.

The Battleship Texas Foundation has put out a request for proposals from municipalities interested in hosting the USS Texas. This is not your average battleship. Once dubbed the world’s greatest battleship, the dreadnought was commissioned in 1914 and served in both World War I and II. It achieved landmark status in 1976 and today is the only one of its kind in existence.

As a tourist attraction, however, the Texas has been struggling, which brings us to MuniLand and public finance.

The state of Texas plans to refurbish the ship, replacing its hull below the waterline along with other renovations. The state will provide $35 million for this but no more. Admission fees will have to cover future costs, which helps explain the foundation’s search for a new location.

"About 80,000 people a year visit the ship now, but it needs 250,000 to 300,000 to become self supporting," says Bruce Bramlett, executive director of the foundation. The location now is part of the problem—the Houston Ship Channel at San Jacinto Battlefield park, about 25 miles east of downtown Houston and, judging from photographs, surrounded by refineries and tank farms.

“The ship in its current location—it just doesn’t work,” Bramlett said.

The municipalities that wish to host the Texas will no doubt have to spend a bit of money. Bids are due on 10 April. The winner will need to set up facilities, such as parking and perhaps a visitors center, and then of course some sort of berth—the battleship is almost two football fields in length, has a draft of 28 feet, and is 107 feet at its widest point.

Under Construction, 1912

I have to think the winning municipality will borrow the money to construct these accommodations. The foundation is a nonprofit, so I wouldn’t also be surprised to see Battleship Texas bonds at some point. (The ship is expected to re-open for visitors in 2022.)

Getting more visitors doesn’t seem out of the question. The USS Lexington aircraft carrier, which opened in 1992 as a ship museum located in Corpus Christi, 200 miles down the coast, has 300,000 visitors a year and is entirely self supporting, according to executive director Steve Banta.

The battleship Texas is more than 100 years old, but its adventures in MuniLand are just beginning.

Update: 26 March 2020 from the Battleship Texas Foundation

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has approved three permits enabling major work to begin on the relocation and restoration of the Battleship Texas
In a special posted meeting conducted by teleconference, the THC’s executive committee took actions enabling the Battleship Texas Foundation to prepare the ship for relocation to a shipyard for restoration. 

“We are grateful for the assistance and support we have received from the THC, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and all our partners and donors from across the state,” said Bruce Bramlett, the Battleship Texas Foundation’s chief operating officer and executive director. “We have a lot to do now, and we can’t wait to get started.”

In New York Harbor, 1919

The permits also authorize restoration work on the vessel’s hull and “blister” – twin compartments that helped protect it from torpedoes or other assaults – and projects involving the removal and restoration of large deck pieces, like cannons and searchlights.  The 86th Texas Legislature approved funding to move and restore the Battleship Texas.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Identity Politics and the Great War

Turin Factory Strike, 1919

World War I called into question expressions of identity on a number of levels around the world. National or colonial allegiance, racial and sexual identity, age, ethnicity, personal loyalty—all these concepts were tested as millions of civilians were mobilized to serve the needs of states at war. Some of the first tensions regarding identity emerged at the personal level as families and individuals sought to cope with the demands of the state for their sacrifices.

These personal identity struggles played out in a variety of private and public situations, in the form of pension applications, conscientious objectors' entreaties, and drawing-room battles. For families with divided loyalties regarding the war, assertion of a united identity was often impossible, and this led to cleavages. Even in families or communities with the same surface loyalty, different interpretations of war, sacrifice, and patriotism could spark tensions or even violence. War meant choosing sides and taking stands, and for individuals, the expression of individual loyalties was often the first hard task.

As for larger-scale identity politics, communities at war fragmented along a number of lines; most commonly, the fractures appeared over civil war and revolution questions of class, race, ethnicity, language, nation, gender, and religion. As war made demands on society, the fragile bonds connecting people together often were severed, and differences became a focal point for the violence and bitterness of war.

In France, for example, the importation of colonial and foreign workers led to workplace violence, escalating personal attacks in the streets, and, in some cases, collective violence or rioting. As historian Tyler Stovall has written about these attacks, the patterns of racial violence suggest a close correspondence with "the crisis of morale and the rise of war weariness in France" but also with a wave of strikes and working-class agitation after 1917. In this case, race might have served as a visible marker of other anxieties surrounding class status or gender issues such as protection of French women, who had entered the workplace in larger numbers by 1917. Uncertainty over jobs certainly fueled much fear in the minds of male workers at the front and behind the lines.

Indeed, workers' agitation and strikes, along with subsistence riots, were a staple of the latter years of the war in almost all nations involved in the conflict, even those on the periphery, such as Argentina, Chile, and Peru. In Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Britain, industrial strikes undermined the war effort, and bread riots also contributed to a dangerous atmosphere in cities. 

Unemployment was a significant problem in many urban areas in 1919, and strikes were common occurrences in large cities such as Paris and London in the latter years of the war and into the early postwar period. Even combatant countries far from the physical damage of the war, such as the United States and Australia, faced significant labor unrest. For instance, a general strike in Sydney shut down much of the city for the month of August in 1917, while in the United States a civilian "Protective League" deported and interned an estimated 1200 men, women, and children in New Mexico in order to stop a mining strike in Bisbee, AZ, in 1917.

A Black Veteran and an Illinois Militia Man Facing Off
During the Chicago Riots of 1919

Those on the margins of society—foreigners, Jews, gypsies, and refugees—were often most at risk in the violence that sometimes ensued from labor agitation or civil war. As historian Christopher Capozzola has observed, sometimes the line between national defense or patriotic vigilance and vigilante violence was blurred. War's emphasis on sacrifice and vigilance fed the flames of extra-legal justice. In the United States the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and a wave of anti-German sentiment led to lynchings and other violence against minority groups and perceived internal enemies. Such mob violence was only exacerbated with conscription in 1917, when African Americans and recent immigrants were called to national service alongside "white Americans." The concentration of young men of all races in training camps around the country led to clashes with civilian populations near the camps. This violence did not stop with the end of the war, and, in fact, it escalated in the immediate aftermath with race riots throughout the country between 1919 and 1922. In 1919 alone, there were more than 25 documented race riots in U.S. cities, from Chicago to Washington, DC, to Tulsa and to Omaha. 

Racial, religious, and ethnic violence became particularly severe and prolonged in regions where order had completely collapsed, such as the Russian/Austro-Hungarian borderlands. In East Galicia, which had suffered through occupations by more than one army over the course of the war, violence followed in 1918 amidst terrible economic hardships and lack of effective leadership. Armed bands of looters, army deserters, and criminals terrorized villages and towns, while quickly formed paramilitaries sought to regain control. 

In the Polish-Ukrainian border wars that plagued the region in late 1918, Jews tried to remain "neutral," but this policy was a dismal failure, with Jews targeted again and again by both sides in the conflict. In one of the most egregious episodes of the conflict, Polish forces attacked the Jewish community in L'viv over several days in November 1918. The pogrom resulted in hundreds of
casualties, including more than 100 dead.

Aftermath of the 1918 L'viv Pogrom

In addition to the human casualties, the pogrom led to property damage and the loss of irreplaceable historical buildings and artifacts (including a 17th-century synagogue). A prominent scholar of the event, Carol Fink, called the 1918 attack on L'viv "the most prolonged and extensive carnage against civilians in Eastern Europe since 1906." Despite an international investigation of this incident, violence against Jews continued, especially as a feature of the Soviet war with Poland and Ukraine between 1919 and 1921. 

From:  "World Uprising! Civilians, the Great War, and the Coming of Civil War and Revolution," by Tammy M. Proctor,  Relevance, Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society, Summer 2011

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Face of Battle: Spring 1917

German Field Gun Firing, Western Front, 1917

The face of battle, as the historian John Keegan famously called it, is well known, hence three diary entries—,one Canadian, one French and one German—might well serve our purpose [of showing what the fighting was like during the Nivelle/Arras offensive of spring 1917.] 

Private Adelbert F. Brayman, 50th Battalion (Calgary) of the 4th Canadian
Division, was wounded storming Hill 145 at Vimy. He remembered the ferocity of the battle:

From the very first minute of the attack we came under murderous and hellish fire from the machine guns . . . we lost about 30 per cent of the fighting forces before we got into [the enemy’s] green line of trenches and went into hand-to-hand fighting. . . . As we looked back up that ridge in the early dawn we witnessed a scene never to be forgotten. The entire face of the hill was covered with German green and Canadian khaki. Men lay out there in that blood-soaked field, some dead, some dying.

A young French baker from Burgundy named René Jacob wrote his parents from the battlefield near Soissons as follows:

How can one describe it? What words to use? Corpses everywhere. Black and green corpses. Corpses in strange positions: a knee jutting up into the air, or an arm resting against a trench wall. Corpses that one has to cover with chalk or straw, or dirt and sand. The ground covered with their entrails. Corpses that one buries or burns. A terrible smell, a smell as from a charnel house, rises up and chokes us. . . . I spoke to you earlier of a battlefield; no, it is more like a slaughter yard. Not even the wind that blows across the Ridge can disperse the stench of death.

A Lone Poilu atop Plateau de Californie, East of Soissons

On the German side of [Vimy]  Ridge at Giessler Heights, Hermann Bauer with 14th Bavarian Infantry Regiment wrote home in much the same vein:

Has all hell broke loose? An ear-splitting din and roar goes on unabated, and already the first 15mm shell bursts into the south wall of the [sand] pit. A trench wall collapses, but there is no time to think. . . . And the [snow] flakes fall much like shell splinters. They tear all life into shreds. We all suck in our breaths. . . . The Tommys have broken through. 

Now, come on you Canadians! Suddenly they burst forth from Sand Pit 2; they disdain any ground cover, these Canadian storm troops. They seem to believe that their hellish [artillery] fire has demoralized and buried us.

From: Herwig, Holger (2016) "“The Battle-Fortune of Marshal Hindenburg Is Not Bound Up with the Possession of a Hill: The Germans and Vimy Ridge, April 1917," Canadian Military History: Vol. 25

Friday, March 27, 2020

The U.S. Navy's Razzle Dazzle Exhibition

All the Slides Can Be Enlarged for Better Viewing
Just Click on the Image

During the WWI Centennial an  exhibition on razzle dazzle camouflage was created by the National Museum of the United States Navy and the Great Lakes Naval Museum to commemorate the navy's effort during the conflict. Here are some of the graphics used for the program.

The Theory

A Large Variety of Schemes

In Practice

A WWII Example

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Our March Issue of the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire

Don't Miss Our March 2020 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire

Special Focus:  Reflecting on the Gas War

  • Gas Warfare Begins
  • The Gas at Second Ypres: 22 April 1915
  • The Four Types of Gasses
  • The American Experience with Chemical Warfare

Soldiers of the U.S. 366th Infantry Receiving Gas Mask Instruction

  • "Gas! GAS! Quick Boys!"
  • The Worst: Mustard Gas
  • Different Perspectives on Chemical & Biological Warfare
  • The Future of Chemical-Biological Weapons on the Battlefield

Other Topics:

Three Senatorial Opponents to the Treaty
William Borah (ID), Henry Cabot Lodge (MA), and Reed Smoot (UT)
  • 100 Years Ago: The Senate Votes Down the Versailles Treaty for the Final Time
  • WWI Film Classic: Many Wars Ago
  • Plus all our regular updates and features

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Main Problem with War Horses: Feeding Them

Editors Comment:  Until I found this article, I never contemplated the idea that dependence on animal transport brings strategic limitations. The authors of this article point out how the need to feed its huge number of horses hindered the German Army in its execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914.

The period between the American Civil War and World War I was filled with advances in technology, which were not fully taken advantage of by the European powers. Furthermore, the dominant powers in Europe (France, Prussia, England, and Russia) failed to truly understand the lessons that could have been learned from the Civil War. Cavalry charges and long baggage trains of horse-drawn wagons persisted, and with that returned the age-old need to feed the livestock. In many ways, the First World War resembled all past wars. However, its rapid consumption of supplies, especially ammunition, dictated that the times and ways of war were changing. But for the moment, it was remarkably similar to the past, in that during the war, Great Britain shipped 5,253,538 tons of ammunition to France as well as the greatest single item shipped, which was 5,438,602 tons of oats and hay. Fuel for horses continued to be a dominant factor.

Regardless of the lessons the Germans should have learned from the past, during World War I, they placed a huge emphasis on cavalry and did not prepare for their maintenance in the field. The German high command ordered commanders to feed their horses off the land as a result of the army’s sheer numbers of horses. Martin van Creveld relates that any attempt to supply the army from home bases would have been impossible. As the Germans moved into France early in the war, luck appeared to be with them, as the land was rich and the grain had just been harvested. However, much of the grain was still green, causing many of the horses to become sick and die very early in the campaign. A critical shortage in fodder resulted, and by the time of the Battle of the Marne, where French and British forces engaged and halted the German advance, most of the horses were too weak to keep up the pace.

The German invasion plan, known as the Schlieffen Plan, depended on the speed of the invasion, yet the horses employed in reconnaissance and pulling the heavy artillery were so poorly fed that they could not keep up the pace. Many died before the Germans crossed the border into Belgium. By 11 August 1914, preceding the Battle of the Marne, cavalry forces ordered a four-day halt to find food for the mounts. By the Battle of the Marne, the starved horses pulling the German artillery, which was the only arm that had a distinct advantage over French forces, could not keep up the pace. “By this time, too, one German army at least was finding that the state of the cavalry seriously interfered with operations.”

The German high command’s severe lack of oversight of properly feeding the horses proved to be a decisive factor in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. Following the offensive stall after the Battle of the Marne, the consumption of supplies reached proportions unmatched by any previous war. However, this consumption rate could not have been maintained if the front had not stalled and remained stationary throughout the war.  Supply movement via horses would have been inadequate given the war’s immense scale. Toward the end of the war, both sides began to introduce motorized transport on a very small scale and argued that “complete motorization of local transportation and the widespread use of combat vehicles would restore mobility to the battlefield.

Source: The Air Force Journal of Logistics, Vol XXXIV

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Division During World War I

by Leonard V. Smith
Princeton University Press; First Edition, 1994
Ron Drees, Reviewer

Unhappy French Soldiers

This work follows the French Fifth Infantry Division (DI) through the entire Great War, not so much as a historical record but analyzed as a social scientist would. The primary thesis is that soldiers' behavior was a function not only of the command structure itself but also of what soldiers negotiated with the command structure.

As the war raged on, the enlisted men gained ever-increasing control from the officers as to when attacks would cease. This "control" was illustrated by the disciplinary measures invoked as punishment for the eventual mutinies as commanders wanted to reestablish a semblance of control but without punishing everyone.

Between Mutiny and Obedience is well illustrated with photographs of significant participants and places: General Mangin, Fort Douaumont of Verdun infamy, and trenches and schematic maps showing the battles of the Fifth. Numerous French words and phrases are used, making me wish the author included a glossary so monolingual readers could understand the author's text.

The first example of the infantry "making their own decisions" was at the Battle of Charleroi in August 1914.  Four attacks failed with 3,940 casualties (20 percent of the Fifth).  The Division believed they had suffered enough and verbally expressed their dissatisfaction.  Fifth DI Commander Gen. Verrier ordered a retreat.   Many of the other French forces had departed for the rear already, thus avoiding encirclement and annihilation of the French army which would have given Germany a war-ending victory.

The attempted recapture of Fort Douaumont during the battle of Verdun was even worse. The 12,000-man division suffered over 5,300 casualties: killed, wounded, missing in action, for no gain at all. Soldiers from one battalion successfully persuaded the commander to surrender rather than fight to a certain death.

Yet the pitched battles may not have been the worst. Trench warfare with its occasional shellings and artillery barrages left men feeling trapped in a prison of mud for extended periods of time. The soldiers' sentiments began to resemble those when fighting a pitched battle. The futility of combat put soldiers into a conflict: military uselessness versus losing the war.

Author Leonard V. Smith contends that until the mutinies, soldiers manipulated formal authority by refusing to pursue an attack when no military value would result, but then matters degenerated until troops openly rejected authority by mutinying. The mutiny for the Fifth DI began on 28 May 1917, when the division was ordered to return to trenches instead of meeting relatives for the Pentecost holiday. The soldiers protested to officers who did not respond with force, resulting in no injuries to either side. More discussion followed the next , the demonstration gradually faded away. Over the next two days, two protesting regiments were trucked away from the front lines and placed under another corps. There were more protests during 5–7 June, with the battalions eventually moving into the trenches. What is curious about these protests is that the division had been in a quiet sector for three months.

French Court Martial

Now a comment on the word "mutiny." My dictionary defines it as "revolt against and often forcible resistance to constituted authority." Over 3,500 soldiers expressed their reluctance, verbally, to return to the trenches. Sometimes they refused to march in the direction ordered by their commanding officers. The commanding officers did not use force, such as calling in other "loyal" troops, but tried to reason with their subordinates. The result was that the troops eventually returned to a state of military order. No one was shot during the "mutiny"—or struck or battered by any means. In one instance, order was restored before an officer could complete his report of the incident. There simply was no violence, and, thus, this was not a mutiny where force was used to overcome command. Instead, what the Fifth DI did was once described by another historian as a sit-down strike.

Pétain, who had replaced Nivelle as army commander, responded by reforming leave policy, frontline rotations, and food distributions—but conducted a series of courts martial. The results army-wide were 3,427 convictions, 554 death sentences, and 49 executions. The aftermath of the mutinies ended with only a fraction of men being court-martialed and an even smaller fraction executed. The command structure had reinstated its authority, yet tacitly admitted that there was justification for the difficulties.

The social science jargon in Between Mutiny and Obedience increased the difficulty of comprehension, making the experience a bit of a slog. While the futility of the Great War battles and the constant "wastage" certainly increased the frustration and futility of the regular soldier, the author does not link how many of the soldiers from 1914 could have survived in the Fifth DI until May 1917. Certainly not all troops had the same level of frustration.

Reading the book will increase one's understanding of what the Poilu endured, whether in the trenches or attacking a fortified position. This along with the mutinous events and court martial process give considerable insight into the thinking of the French command structure. An understanding of this is compensation for clambering through the social science jargon and French phraseology.

Ron Drees

Monday, March 23, 2020

Becoming a Doughboy

The Doughboy's military training set him apart from others. In less obvious ways as well, life in the Army contributed to the creation of the Doughboy folk. The Army issued each man one of the newfangled safety razors. The Army taught the Doughboy to stand naked in line to be deloused and to submit to its relentless curiosity about the condition of his private parts. The cigarette came into vogue. The wristwatch, long considered an effeminate device, became a popular item, partly because there was no place on the uniform for the old pocket watch and fob and because a famous war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, wore one. 

The Army prescribed for sexual behavior by declaring unreported venereal disease an unlawful affliction and by training men in the use of the prophylaxis station. Basic training shaped the soldier's ideas of what the correct pose of the accomplished warrior should be. It served to blur all former social attachments—"knifing off" the old associations which interfere with group assimilation. The severe haircut and the many personal indignities jarred loose the civilian outlook and rearranged it into an army outlook in a process which Robert Jay Lifton described for men of a later war as "a form of symbolic death and rebirth."

Robert Sandels
Essay, "The Doughboy as Folk"

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Recommended: Battle of the Somme Video

This 2014 documentary on the Somme presents a fairly conventional interpretation of the battle, but it has a number of unique features. Most important is the great selection the producers made for the film's expert "talking heads."  The host, Royal Marine Major General Julian Thompson commanded a British brigade in the Falklands War and does an outstanding job of describing the strategic situation and providing a smooth transition to experts on the geology of the Somme, artillery fuses, machine gunnery, pigeon communications, mining operations, and a host other specialties.  More than the story of the Battle of the Somme, this documentary is an introduction to the realities of battle on the Western Front, circa 1916.

Thanks to Paul Albright  for recommending this video.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Hindenburg Line

The irreplaceable losses in the "big battles" of 1916 raised awareness of a looming manpower crisis for all the war's original participants. None, however, more deeply felt the urgency of the hour than did Germany, the most capable and driven of the Central Powers. The Kaiser and his allies were now engaged in a desperate war of attrition with a more populous coalition. Trading casualties at the same rate meant—with mathematical certainty—inevitable defeat. In other postings, we have discussed how the German Navy successfully argued for unrestricted U-boat warfare to shift the odds. Germany's army, that is to say Hindenburg and Ludendorff, eventually supported the scheme but were not as confident of its success as were the admirals. They still had to deal with a wearing, multi-front ground war that seemed to be turning against them. Being more experienced on the Eastern Front, they decided their best hope for final victory lay in focusing on knocking Russia out of the war in 1917.

Click on Images to Enlarge
Hindenburg Line Southwest of Bullecourt
Barbed Wire Belts on Left, Trenches, Tank Traps, Bunkers to the Right

What to do in the west, though? After many pronouncements of "No Retreat!" Ludendorff analyzed the numbers and concluded he did not have a enough divisions to secure the the Western Front as it was configured in late 1916. The line needed to be shortened and strengthened. What grew out of subsequent staff studies was the almost incredible complex of reinforced concrete bunkers, deep zigzagging trenches, massive belts of barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles known as the "Hindenburg Line." 

The Hindenburg Line  was the strongest defensive system built during the First World War. Its reputation for impregnability was matched only by its ambitious design. Jagging across most of the Western Front in Belgium and northern France, nothing like it had ever been seen before. Requiring an enormous amount of labor and material, its extensive fortifications included deep zigzagging trench lines fortified with reinforced concrete shelters, heavily armed strong points, and wide belts of barbed wire combined to form an intimidating barrier for any attacking army and to maximize the firepower of war's two greatest killers—artillery and machine guns. The fortifications also skillfully integrated natural topographic features such as ravines, villages, and waterways to afford every possible advantage to the defending troops and make any Allied advance as difficult and dangerous as possible. Perhaps its most ingenious use of terrain was creating the world's longest anti-tank ditch from the St. Quentin Canal. 

Reinforced Concrete Bunker Under Construction

In 1917 the system lived up to its promise, as this chronology suggests:


16–20 March: Operation Alberich: the German Army withdraws to the Siegfried-Stellung in anticipation of an Allied spring offensive.

9 April–7 May: During the Battles of Arras and Bullecourt, the German Army's new defensive doctrine is put to the test against the British Expeditionary Force.

16 April–9 May: The German Seventh Army employs the army's new defensive doctrine to defeat a massive French offensive during the Second Battle of the Aisne (Nivelle Offensive).

31 July–10 November: In response to the British offensive during the Third Battle of Ypres, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht deepens the defenses of the Flandern-Stellung.

11 November (Ironic date, no?): The German High Command decides to launch a major offensive to defeat the British Army before American forces arrive on the Western Front in strength. 

In the Argonne Sector, American Troops Breaking the Hindenburg Line

To drive the Germans from French soil, the Allies knew they had to overcome these obstacles — and it was a deadly task requiring new weapons and tactics. Ludendorff's decision to renew the offensive in early 1918, however, depleted his forces for the coming crisis when the Americans were present in strength and the Allies were prepared to implement their own improved offensive schemes. The 1918 spring offensives had some success, bringing the German Army within artillery range of Paris, but fresh American divisions arrived on the battlefield, denying victory and sapping German morale. By the time it became necessary for the German Army to fall back to the Siegfried, Wotan, and the other withdrawal positions, it was too weak and demoralized to properly defend them. The Allies, employing new combined arms tactics and weapons, supported by a substantial logistics train, were able to nullify any advantages the fortifications provided to the German Army. Germany's last line of defense proved a forlorn hope.

Source: Over the Top, January 2017

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Commemorating the Battle of the Marne

France's victory in the 1914 Battle of the Marne brought out a powerful emotional upsurge in the nation. The combination of relief and a restored confidence that victory could be found resulted in many publications commemorating the battle, its anniversary, and the commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre.  This surge mostly lasted until 1916's Battle of Verdun and the grimmer times of the late war.  Afterward, however, the Marne would be remembered as France's greatest victory of the Great War.

Joffre: Forever the Architect and Victor of the Marne

Joffre's Message to the Army

Where the Battle Was Fought

The British Contribution Wasn't Forgotten

Victory Medallion

One-Year Anniversary on the Battlefield Near Villeroy

Postwar Children's Book Remembers the Battle

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

How Press Flack Douglas MacArthur Created the Rainbow Division

MacArthur of the Rainbow
After returning from the Vera Cruz expedition, for which he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, Douglas MacArthur was assigned to the War Department as a staff officer, where he was promoted to major on 11 December 1915. In June 1916 he was assigned as head of the Bureau of Information at the office of the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. MacArthur has since been regarded as the Army's first press officer or, as it's now known, public affairs officer. It was in this position that MacArthur learned many of the "public relations" skills for which he later became known: how to ingratiate himself with reporters, plant stories, justify the decisions of his superiors, and make sure he was frequently photographed.

Following the declaration of war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard, with 122,000 members on 12 July 1917, but getting those troops into fighting shape would also take time. The New York and Pennsylvania National Guards had division-sized units, and New York's soldiers had just served on the Mexican Border in 1916, so these units could probably be readied to deploy relatively quickly.

But the War Department was concerned that if one of these state divisions went to France first it would look like favoritism and anger other sections of the country.

So Major Douglas MacArthur (later five-star general Douglas MacArthur during World War II and the Korean War) had a good idea—take National Guard units from across the country and combine them into one division. That division could then be deployed to France without slighting any particular state or region.

In describing the division, first to his superiors and then later to newspaper reporters (MacArthur was then also acting as the War Department's press person), MacArthur said the division would stretch across the United States "like a rainbow." So the division, still without a number, quickly became known as the "Rainbow" Division and MacArthur would soon be promoted to colonel and made the division's first chief of staff.

The "Fighting 69th" Regiment Departing Their New York City Armory
for Service with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division

Eventually, 26 states and the District of Columbia would be tapped for troops to comprise the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. The units were told to report to Camp Mills just outside Garden City, Long Island, on 20 August. The Rainbow Division would go on to attain one of the finest fighting records of any division—regular, volunteer, or National Guard—in the American Expeditionary Force. From its activation in August 1917 through the Armistice in November 1918, the 42nd was in combat longer than any other American division and suffered more than 50 percent casualties.

Sources: MacArthur Memorial; U.S. Army website

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

From Marne to Verdun: The War Diary of Captain Charles Delvert

by Charles Delvert
Translated by Ian Sumner
Pen & Sword, 2016
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Charles Laurent Delvert (1879–1940) entered the French Army in 1899 as a one-year volunteer in an effort to complete his military obligation early and decrease the time spent in the army from three years. After the year, he was released to the reserves for a period of 12 years followed by seven years in the territorials. He maintained his association, rising through the reserve ranks and receiving a commission in 1912. Between 1900 and 1914 he attended two autumn maneuvers, one in 1902 the other in 1912. When the war started, Delvert was called to command the 2nd Platoon, 4th Company, 101 Infantry Regiment, 7th Division. He began his diary on the train platform as his regiment left Paris and kept it until demobilization in March 1919. The diaries are extensive and produced three books of his authorship and a number of books by others whom Delvert accused of adding dramatization when none existed. This work covers 7 August 1914 to June 1916.

From Marne to Verdun is an infantry soldier's diary arranged in daily fashion. There are descriptions of duties and the problems in dealing with the men, but most illuminating are the personal notations. Those notations are highlighted by footnotes written after the war which go into detail about the event or persons and offers scathing criticism in a spirit of anti-war. First encounters with the Germans in Belgium are of interest. The entries show how the attitude of à outrance resulted in needlessly high casualties. Of note was an incident where two battalions of the 130th Infantry Regiment were nearly annihilated in just a few minutes. One battalion was caught eating a midday meal while the other was ordered to charge entrenched machine guns without artillery preparation.

Delvert lamented the fact that the battalions had no idea of whom or what they were facing. In his early entries he complained about the lack of reconnaissance and heavy artillery, noting that the Germans were far better prepared for war. Cavalry, the source of information, was nowhere to be found, hence the unpreparedness of one battalion, while heavy artillery had been eschewed in favor of the more mobile 75mms during the previous years. The 75s had a flat trajectory which made them nearly useless for indirect fire or in dealing with fortifications. The Germans could stand off hidden behind hills with their howitzers and pound both soldiers and artillery without risk to themselves.

There are also comments about morale. French Army regulations required that territorial and reserve units had to be commanded by line officers. Those line officers looked down on their reserve fellow officers as inferior (Delvert also mentions that his peacetime training was totally inadequate) lacking a clear sense of any military situation and telling them numerous times just how inferior they were. Consequently, decisions were reached not by consensus but by the will of the commander.

Additionally, reserve officers were not considered for decorations or promotions until the line officers received theirs. The attitude was that the war would be short and line officers would have a career after. This attitude did not change as the war progressed and the line officers were killed off. Delvert also states that the soldier was considered merely as a means to an end. Line officers very rarely consider their needs. These themes repeat themselves throughout the diary. Verdun, where Delvert commanded a company on the west of Fort Vaux, is a real eye-opener.

Capt. Delvert
French artillery shooting was blind. The artillery commanders refused to send forward observers to direct shots, and the areas occupied by French forces were unknown because of the constant attacks and counterattacks. The result was that French artillery was more deadly to Delvert's men than were the German cannons. He was constantly shooting up green flares to tell the artillery to lengthen their range. Within a day he ran out of green flares. Delvert had had no idea just how precarious his company's existence had been until he reported to the battalion after relief where he found out that he and his men had been written off. The commander hugged him and treated him like a long-lost son, marveling at his survival.

From Marne to Verdun is an excellent book. We have very few translated French experience books available and this is one of the best, as evidenced by the many works which used Delvert's entries to their own purposes. I can find little fault in his entries, although those which are made while not under fire do get a little flowery. One of the things I found most interesting was his description of the men commanding him and the men he commanded. A reader could almost draw composites of the soldiers, it is so complete with heights, physical stature, eye and hair colors, and foibles. I cannot list all the things that I found so interesting.

Michael Kihntopf

Monday, March 16, 2020

Behind the Lines: Belfort and Its Lion at War

The View of Belfort from Atop the Citadel

The Citadel of Belfort, France, and the surrounding system of forts, formed the first line of defense in the Séré de Rivières system of fortifications in the Belfort Gap. Located in northeastern France between Épinal and Besançon, the primary line was built in the late 19th century to deal with advances in artillery that had made older defensive systems obsolete. 

The Lion of Belfort is a monumental statue by Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, that is situated against the cliff underneath the castle of Belfort. Completed in 1880, it symbolizes the heroic resistance of the French army besieged in Belfort during the French-Prussian War (1870–71). Prussian forces assailed the city of Belfort for 103 days. The invading force numbered around 40,000 strong against the mere 17,000 French forces, but the Prussian siege was defeated. The defenders were eventually ordered by French authorities to cease their defensive efforts. All of France, nevertheless, considered the defense  a lone victory in an otherwise disastrous war. 

The Lion of Belfort

The statue is made entirely of red sandstone from the Vosges and evokes the sphinxes from ancient Egypt. The lion is 70 feet long, 37 feet high, and watches over the old town with a combative look on its face. It was initially planned to face toward Germany until the sculpture was finally set westward after German protests in the 1870s.

Because of its heroic status, and possibly because of the fame of the statue, Belfort was considered an option to Verdun as the site of an attritional battle that the French nation and army could never abandon.

The Lion Up Close

Smaller copies in bronze stands in the center of Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris and in Dorchester Square, Montreal, Quebec.

Belfort was the anchor for Joffre's opening diversionary attack as part of Plan XVII, known as the Battle of Mulhouse.  Afterward, despite the setback, Belfort remained in French hands for the entire war. In 1918 American intelligence officers, assisted by the French, planted disinformation documents in a Belfort hotel indicating U.S. forces were planning to attack through the Belfort Gap to capture Mulhouse, rather than against the St. Mihiel Salient as was actually the impending offensive. The effort was later called the "Belfort Ruse." Long after the Armistice, it was discovered the ruse had been successful and had allowed Pershing's First Army to achieve tactical success in the opening of the St. Mihiel Offensive on 12 September 1918.

Sources: France's Monuments, Atlas Obscura, and Wiki Commons