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

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Belgium's Unknown Soldier

Belgium's impressive  tomb for its Unknown Soldier lies at the base of another national monument, the Congress Column in Brussels. The 47-meter column, which is modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome, commemorates the creation of the Belgian Constitution by the national congress of 1830–31.

The Column at Place du Congress

The bi-lingual plaque reads:

Here lies an unknown soldier who died for the Motherland (French)
Here lies an unknown soldier who died for the Fatherland (Dutch)

At the top of the column is a statue of Belgium's first monarch, King Leopold I, and the pedestal is surrounded by statues personifying the four freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.

1922 Interment

On 11 November 1922, exactly four years after the Armistice, King Albert inaugurated the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Blind former soldier, Raymond Haesebrouck, chose the body between five unidentifiable remains. After World War II, a second memorial plaque was added to the monument to honor the Belgian victims.

Photos from Steve Miller and Belgian History

PS:  As we were going to press, our translator Tony Langley informed me that France and Belgium also honored one another's Unknowns.  There is a French Unknown in Brussels, and a Belgian Unknown honored in Paris.  We will post an article on these sites in the future.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Bugs and Bullets: The True Story of an American Doctor on the Eastern Front during World War I

Romanian Peasants During the War (IWM)

by Joseph Breckinridge-Bayne and Ernest Latham
Center for Romanian Studies, 2018
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

Many accounts of the First World War suffer from two blind spots. All too often they pay scant attention to its Eastern Front. Also, histories of combat usually downplay the extraordinary medical service that sought to preserve so many veterans' lives. Bugs and Bullets addresses both of these shortfalls with an engaging, informative, and even inspiring story. 

The book is an American doctor's autobiographical account of his experiences in wartime Romania. Dr. J. Breckinridge-Bayne traveled to that country in 1916 when it joined the Allies and set up a hospital in Bucharest to handle injured soldiers (hence the title's bullets). Once Romania lost to the Central Powers and Germany occupied the nation, Bayne relocated to the countryside to establish another hospital. He then relocated to a series of small towns, helping with their medical and public health challenges (the titular bugs) until the war ended. 

Dr. J. Breckinridge-Bayne

Bugs and Bullets is a compelling read. There are several great scenes and mini-stories, such as the author's bare survival from successive diseases, accompanied by self-surgery in the dark (!) (174–5). Bayne's various efforts to mislead and oppose German military authorities are also exciting. 

The student of WWI will find many fascinating details throughout this book. We don't see the front lines of fighting, beyond a spectacular zeppelin attack on London (53). Instead the book shows what the war looked like in a city behind the lines and how rural folk experienced military occupation. Germany's short-lived Eastern European empire appears through the details of everyday life. We also read of war's terrible cost in the maimed bodies of survivors and the dead. The war's technological advances are there, counterpointed by the premodern condition of villages.

Readers interested in medicine and healthcare history should appreciate the book's stories of creative or desperate efforts to stave off illnesses and address injuries under appalling circumstances. Those mindful of COVID-19 will doubtless pay special attention to Bayne's campaigns against smallpox, cholera, and typhus.

The author has his biases, mostly centered around loving Romania. Bayne shares many fond observations of local life, from clothing and folklore to home construction and popular attitudes. That love deepens as Bayne leaves Bucharest and gradually goes native. He will not fault that country's conduct in WWI, blaming its losses on feckless allies, namely imperial Russia (99). In contrast Bayne is clearly opposed to Germans, finding them arrogant and inhumane. He even accuses them of planning biological warfare (79). He is rather disdainful of the Romani, or Roma, the country's gypsy population (244ff).

Bayne is also not one to showcase his emotions or mental state, beyond celebrating his cleverness or lucky escapes. Several times he starts to mention a feeling, only to draw a curtain across it (187–8, 209, 217).

This edition of Bugs and Bullets has much to add to the text. Many footnotes expand on points throughout the narrative. Several photographs are provided, apparently many from the author's collection. A biographical introduction gives us familial context. Two extra introductions and a series of letters add even more. Highly recommended for those interested in WWI, medical history, autobiography, or a mix of these.

Bryan Alexander

Monday, September 28, 2020

What Happened at Quinn's Post, Gallipoli

Anzac Second (Front) Line

Quinn's Post, named after Major Hugh Quinn, 15th Battalion (Queensland) AIF, was one of the most dangerous places at Anzac. "Men passing the fork in Monash Valley," wrote Charles Bean, "used to glance at the place (as one of them said) as a man looks at a haunted house." Quinn's was positioned on the northern edge of the front line along Second Ridge, and beyond was Deadman's Ridge, from which the enemy could fire into the side of the post. Other Turkish trenches lay opposite, and the Turks had only to advance a few meters, capture Quinn's, and the whole Anzac area could be lost.

The Most Forward Position at Quinn's Post

Until the end of June 1915, the struggles at Quinn's between Turk and Anzac were ferocious and intense. To raise one's head above the trench was to invite death from a sniper's bullet. The fighting was marked by bomb-throwing by both sides into the enemy trench, and, early on, the Turks had the better of this as the Anzacs lacked bombs. Eventually, a "jam tin" bomb factory was established and the Anzacs could hit back. 

On 19 May the Turks launched a major attack on the whole of the Anzac position.  At that time, B Squadron was part of the defense of Quinn’s Post. A total of 42,000 Turks took part in the attack but were successfully repulsed, suffering over 10,000 casualties.  

Quinn's Post Viewed from Monash Gully

During the armistice of 24 May, 2nd Light Horse supplied a burial party of 50 men. According to a statement of a Turk subsequently captured, Mustafa Kemal worked as a sergeant with one of the Turkish burial parties. He was impressed with the extraordinary opportunity the position at Quinn’s afforded, after having stood in front of that post and looked over the Australian trenches straight down the slope in the rear.

Tunnels were dug out from the post to intercept and destroy Turkish tunnels, but at 3:30 a.m. on 29 May 1915, an enemy mine exploded under a section of Quinn's and the Turks rushed into the post. Desperate fighting took place in the dark trenches, but a determined Australian assault broke through and captured 17 prisoners. Among the 33 Australians who died that morning were 11 men of the 13th Battalion, who were smothered in the initial Turkish explosion.

Reinforcements After the 29 May Mine Detonation

While the fighting at Quinn's was constant, after June its intensity lessened somewhat. On 9 June 1915, the New Zealand Wellington Battalion, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, took over at Quinn's and transformed it for the garrison into something which, if never safe, was moderately habitable. Charles Bean reported how he took tea with Malone on a little terrace in front of his dugout and that Malone told him that "the art of warfare is the cultivation of the domestic virtues."

Sources:  Australian Veterans Department;

Sunday, September 27, 2020

October 1914: German Intellectuals Make Their Nation's Case

Goethe & Beethoven Were Invoked


As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence — in a struggle that has been forced on her.

The iron mouth of events has proved the untruth of the fictitious German defeats; consequently misrepresentation and calumny are all the more eagerly at work. As heralds of truth we raise our voices against these.

It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the Government, nor the "Kaiser" wanted war. . . .

It is not true that we trespassed in neutral Belgium. It has been proved that France and England had resolved on such a trespass, and it has likewise been proved that Belgium had agreed to their doing so. It would have been suicide on our part not to have been beforehand.

It is not true that the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was injured by our soldiers without the bitterest defense having made it necessary. . . .

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town, as punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. . . .

It is not true that our warfare pays no respects to international laws. It knows no undisciplined cruelty. But in the east, the earth is saturated with the blood of women and children unmercifully butchered by the wild Russian troops, and in the west, dumdum bullets mutilate the breasts of our soldiers....

It is not true that the combat against our so-called militarism is not a combat against our civilization, as our enemies hypocritically pretend it is. Were it not for German militarism, German civilization would long since have been extirpated. . . .

We cannot wrest the poisonous weapon -- the lie -- out of the hands of our enemies. All we can do is proclaim to all the world, that our enemies are giving false witness against us....

Have faith in us! Believe that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant, is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.

Ninety-three signatories listed, some of the best known internationally were 
Max Planck, Wilhelm Roentgen, and Fritz Haber.

Source: The World War I Document Archive

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Fatal Flaw of Ludendorff's 1918 Offensives

Initial Assault

Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in their essay "What Manner of Victory? Reflections on the Termination of the First World War," Revue Internationale d'Histoire Militaire 72 (1990) provide this interesting insight on why Germany's offensives in the spring of 1918 began as smashing successes and then seemed to run out of gas.

Ludendorff's March offensive was launched on 21 March against the British on a 50-mile front between Arras and St Quentin. It was followed by a farther attack on the British in Flanders on 9 April and their offensives against the French in the Champagne and Chemin des Dames between May and June. 

Prodigious amounts of territory were gained—unprecedented in Western Front experience. Consequently, Ludendorff's efforts have received a good press. But the crucial question seems to be: why, after achieving such startling initial gains, did all his offensives fail to achieve decisive success? To answer this question we must look in more detail at the methods employed by Ludendorff that have so impressed generations of military historians. 

In short, Ludendorff's tactics can be reduced to two elements—force concentration and innovative infantry tactics. In all his offensives he used some troops brought back from the east to supplement his western forces in order to achieve a superiority over the defenders of about two to one. More important, by concentrating as much as three-quarters of all German heavy guns on the Western Front against an area of attack, he achieved an artillery superiority of three, four, or five to one. Then to maximize the impact of his infantry, Ludendorff developed new small-group tactics. 

To implement these tactics he divided his divisions into shock troops, attack troops, and follow-up formations. The most skilled were concentrated into spearhead units called storm troops. They were not to advance in coherent linear formations as of old, but were to penetrate deep into the British defenses wherever opportunity beckoned, bypassing centers of resistance without waiting for the protection of forces on their flanks. The areas thus bypassed would then be taken out by the follow-up units. 

German Mobile Artillery

The huge number of guns available to Ludendorff allowed for a short bombardment of incredible ferocity, which it was hoped would also provide a degree of surprise to the battle. Rear areas, headquarters, and the enemy artillery would first be deluged with shells in an attempt to disrupt the command and communication system and to eliminate the main weapon of response. Then the guns would be turned on the zone defenses of the defenders in an attempt to stun them just in advance of the main infantry assault.  

Historians ever since have been mightily impressed with these tactics. In some respects they were certainly novel. If the main defenses could be rapidly breached by this combination of overwhelming firepower and storm troopers, then the German infantry could reach open country and advance rapidly. There seems little doubt that a closer scrutiny reveals that Ludendorff's methods were reckless and desperately old-fashioned. To achieve the distant objective Ludendorff was specifying that there could be no question of full artillery participation beyond the opening stage. After the big guns had facilitated the initial rupture, they would soon be left well in the rear. Certainly Ludendorff enjoined his battery commanders to move their guns forward as swiftly as was practicable, but all experience had confirmed that this would not be very swift. Anyway, once the guns did get forward they would need time to establish the whereabouts of their own forces and of the targets they were required to engage. 

All this meant that in the aftermath of initial success, the storm troopers would have to exploit success with their own resources. It might be thought that the day had long since departed when a commander on the Western Front would seek to achieve his purposes largely by the actions of his infantry. Yet that, after the opening penetration, was what Ludendorff was contemplating. Unless his opponents were so unhinged by initial reverses as to prove incapable of a coherent response, Ludendorff would soon be offering up his last great reserve of manpower to heavy slaughter. 

This scenario is more or less what came to pass. On successive occasions Ludendorff's artillery blasted a hole in the British or French line, and employing the storm trooper tactics, his forces broke out into open country, occasionally securing advances of 40 or 50 miles. All this confirmed the value of the storm troop method in the opening phase of battle. Soon, though, the crucial shortcomings in the method revealed themselves. The German attackers would quickly approach exhaustion. Casualties, especially in the elite storm troop formations, had been heavy. The great mass of the artillery was still struggling to get forward. Increasingly, therefore, the infantry had only their light weapons to rely upon for fire support. On the other side of the line, the defenders would rush reserves and guns forward by rail. These came from the un-attacked portion of the front—be it British or French or even in one instance from Britain itself. 

Fresh British Defenders

The inevitable consequence was that successive German onrushes were successfully brought to a halt. There should be no surprise at this. Exhausted infantry supported only by the weapons they could carry had no chance of prevailing against fresh troops supported by an array of artillery and other weapons. The only surprise is that historians—determined, as they seem to be, to give the main role in modern mechanized conventional war to the infantry—have failed to notice the fatal flaw at the heart of Ludendorff's method.  

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Remembering a Veteran: Wing Commander Frank Brock, OBE, RNAS, RAF

By James Patton

Wing Cmdr. F.A. Brock
Frank A. Brock OBE (1884–1918) was the son and heir to the manufacturing firm headed by Arthur Brock, known as "the Fireworks King." Employing at its peak over 2,000 people, the C.T. Brock & Co. fireworks factory at Cheam, (then in) Surrey, was Britain’s largest of its kind and also produced a variety of devices for the military during the war, including over 30 million Mills bomb fuses.

Being experienced with explosives, in October 1914 Frank Brock volunteered for the artillery. A month later he was transferred to the navy, then became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in January 1915. Although he was a civilian pilot, he never flew for the RNAS; instead he founded and headed up the Royal Navy Experimental Station at Stratford, located in London’s East End. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) were combined to form the Royal Air Force, and Brock was appointed to the newly created rank of wing commander. 

During the First World War he is known for the invention of several devices and processes. Among these are:

The Dover or Deck flare, which was a one-million-candle-power incendiary device. These were used to protect cross-Channel steamers from U-boat attack by washing out a periscope’s field of vision. 

Colored glass filters, which improved clarity in cameras, binoculars, periscopes, and optical signaling devices by removing less useful colors. These were a sort of simple precursor to modern infrared devices. 

The Brock bullet, a standard SMLE .303 round-tipped with the contact explosive potassium chlorate, was developed by Brock at his family’s factory and at his own expense. In September 1916, the zeppelin SL11 was destroyed by RFC Lt. William Robinson (1895–1918), flying in a BE2c with Brock bullets in his Lewis gun, for which feat he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Later there were developed two alternative designs of anti-zeppelin ammunition, which were called the Buckingham bullet and the Pomeroy bullet, and the machine gun feeds thereafter contained a sequence of all three types.  

Brock is probably best known for his work in developing artificial smoke and fog. This research resulted in two different products. On the small scale he developed chlorosulfonic acid bombs, a substance which when discharged into the air, fuses with atmospheric water to form a dense, opaque, and highly acidic fog. Brock used this technology in the E-float device which could help a merchant ship screen itself from a following U-boat. Modern smoke grenades have also used Brock’s technology. 

Brock also developed a process for large-scale production of artificial fog for use by ships. A generator tube was attached to the exhaust of the ship’s engines or boilers. This device was partly filled with water, which was heated by surface contact with the exhaust pipe or stack. Into this water was discharged a steady flow of calcium phosphate, which the heat converted to phosphoric acid. This was injected into the exhaust plume where it combined with atmospheric water to produce a dense and highly corrosive fog. Like all forms of gas release, the atmospheric conditions had to be right to prevent the fog from enveloping the ship itself. 

Marines & Sailors Storm the Zeebrugge Mole from HMS Vindictive

This system was employed by the Navy at the raid on Zeebrugge, Belgium on 22–23 April 1918. Brock was present on the cruiser HMS Vindictive to supervise the fog production. Likely bored, he decided to go and find a German fire direction station so he could study their technology. Like one of Henry Morgan’s pirates, Brock went ashore armed with a Webley revolver (some say two) and a cutlass. He was never seen again. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Wartime Golf Rules

This list of rules was posted in England in 1940, but surely there must have been an equivalent set from the First World War.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Tip of the Hat to: DGW

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

“Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in 1915 and served on the Western Front. While convalescing from shell shock in early 1917 he met Siefried Sassoon, who had considerable effect upon him as a poet. Owen returned to the front in late 1917 and was soon awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. On 4 November 1918, a week before the Armistice, he was killed when his company was crossing the Sambre Canal.

This is one of the best-known poems to come out of the Great War. Sassoon considered it “a masterpiece…the finest elegy written by a soldier of that period.” Besides its riveting metaphors and imagery, the poem well illustrates Owen’s mastery of what is known as "pararhyme." This is a kind of half-rhyme where the vowels vary between the beginning and ending sounds of a word. We find it throughout this poem by the pairing of words such as groined/groaned; hall/Hell; spoiled/spilled; and friend/frowned. Here’s the poem, followed by some comments:

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.


With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;

Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”

“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world,

Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,

But mocks the steady running of the hour,

And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something had been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.



Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery;

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:

To miss the march of this retreating world

Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,

Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

I would have poured my spirit without stint

But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.

Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.



“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .”

Using the tradition of the dream poem, Owen escapes reality and has a vision of some sort of subterranean Hell. This vision soon becomes nightmarish because although no guns are firing there and no blood is being spilled (unlike on the ground above), many "encumbered sleepers" lie stuck in the reality of death. One springs up, and by his "piteous" look and motion the poet realizes he himself is in Hell—he has joined the dead.

The long passage that follows sums up the terrible pity and waste of war, “the undone years.” From the spectral German soldier we hear of the great potential and rich future that is taken forever from dead youth in war. Like countless others, this ghostly speaker might have lived to give so much to the world through talent and empathy. These losses are described in artistic imagery and poetic metaphors, which makes us think that Owen is to some extent writing about himself.

And here is the larger tragedy of war’s waste: “Now men will go content with what we spoiled.” The poem turns from war’s terrible individual loss to the dehumanizing effects it has on all of us as we become inured to any form of salvation. The powerful final lines bring us back to the "profound dull tunnel" and to war’s waste, pain, and hopelessness.

David F. Beer

Images from the Melos Ensemble presentation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

Monday, September 21, 2020

Surprise at Côte Dame Marie

Côte Dame Marie Viewed from the American Start Line

One of the more remarkable tactical victories of the Meuse-Argonne campaign was achieved by the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division of the AEF at a thickly forested and highly fortified half-mile-long curved ridge in the Romagne Heights named Côte Dame Marie. General Pershing and his chief of staff Hugh Drum believed it to be the key position during the middle phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 32nd division was a National Guard formation made up mostly of men from Michigan and Wisconsin, who had established a track record of success during the Second Battle of the Marne. Côte Dame Marie, however, would prove their greatest challenge of the war.

Signalmen of the 32nd Division

There is a good reason why the largest American cemetery in Europe is located at the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon just a mile and half east of Côte Dame Marie.  The battle for the surrounding high ground was the bloodiest AEF operation, with the highest rate of daily casualties. The German Army had concluded it was the best terrain in which to place their Hindenburg Line defenses. They called this section of defenses the Kriemhilde Stellung. Overlooking the open plains around it, Côte Dame Marie, the highest position in the region,  contained a honeycomb of deep concrete bunkers and machine gun nests with interlocking fields of fire for the German defenders. Plugged into the line at the end of September were three divisions from the opening attack—the 35th, 91st, and 37th had run out of gas, and the 32nd Division  found itself head-up on Côte Dame Marie, just over two miles to the north. The division began advancing on 3 October and a week later found itself at the base of the ridge. Tough fighting ensued, especially around Transvaal Farm and the approach to Romagne on the far right of the divisional sector.

Highest Point of Côte Dame Marie

As part of a three-division attack on 13 October 1918, the 32nd was ordered to assault Côte Dame Marie directly but was not expected to capture the ridge, only to keep the German defenders occupied while the 42nd Division on its left (west) and the 3rd Division on its right (east) outflanked the ridge. Unfortunately, both of the flanking movements failed in the initial assault. In the renewed attack on 14 October, the German defenders at first once again proved immovable. Then things broke perfectly for the division. On the far right, one regiment worked through a wall of barbed wire and began driving the enemy out of the village of Romagne. This opened a threat of encirclement that surely made the German command nervous. In the hills farther west, a rifle grenade team led by Captain Edward Strom first penetrated the wire in a location unobserved by the enemy and then proceeded to destroy a strategic cluster of ten machine guns.

Advancing Toward Romagne, 14 October 1918

Suddenly, the Kriemhilde Stellung had a gaping hole. The Doughboys began pushing through cautiously. Soon they also found success on the left. The rout was on. By nightfall, the crest of the ridge was in American hands, the last of the German forces had abandoned the position. 

The Advance to the Meuse Heights (Division History)

The Red Arrow Division had won a major victory at Côte Dame Marie. The best observation post in the Meuse-Argonne battlefield was in the hands of the Yanks. The division held off German counterattacks and a massive gas assault in the following days, keeping possession of the ridge. When the 32nd Division was finally relieved after three weeks in the line, it had suffered 5,833 casualties, including 1,179 dead, many of whom today lay buried in the nearby Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. By 22 October all of the heights around Romagne were in U.S. hands. The stage was set for the final act in the Meuse-Argonne drama, the advance to Sedan.

Sources: The Meuse-Argonne works and research of Mitch Yockelson, Bob Farrell,  Mac Coffman, and Ed Lengel.  (All recommended)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Over the Top: The War Illustrations of Norman Lindsay

Display at Australia's Norman Lindsay Gallery and Cottage

Norman Lindsay was born in Victoria, Australia, on 23 February 1879. After working as a sports illustrator in Melbourne he joined the Sydney Bulletin in 1901 and eventually became the newspaper's chief cartoonist. A painter, sculptor, and book illustrator, he produced a vast amount over seven decades of productivity.  Lindsay was asked on the outbreak of the First World War to produce a series of propaganda posters for the Allies.  During the First World War he produced a large body of recruiting posters and cartoons. Many of them were jingoistic and some, including some pro-conscription drawings, were highly controversial. He used an "ogre" figure in a number of his piece to represent Germany. Played by Sam Neill, Lindsay was portrayed as a unconventional libertine in the 1994 film Sirens  He is today recognized as one of Australia's greatest artists. Lindsay died on 21s November 1969. I've sorted the images below into two self-explanatory groups.  All are representative of Lindsay's war work.

Conventional Posters

And Now, Something Different

Now, Meet the Artist and a Friend

Friday, September 18, 2020

Operation Kill the Kaiser!

RAF Target

By  Guy Walters for the Mail on Sunday

Shortly before five o’clock on the morning of Sunday 2 June 2 1918—exactly a century ago this weekend—12 Airco DH.4 biplane bombers of the newly formed Royal Air Force fired up their 375hp Rolls-Royce Eagle engines and lumbered down a grass airfield near Boulogne in northern France.

Each aircraft was carrying two 20-lb Cooper Bombs, as well as one mighty 112-lb bomb. That was a heavy payload, and it meant that whatever 25 Squadron was targeting was going to take one hell of a pasting. The sortie was headed by the squadron’s 27-year-old leader, Major Chester Duffus, a tremendously experienced Canadian pilot who had been credited with five kills while flying flimsy British F.E.2 fighter planes in 1916.

Normally, squadron leaders did not fly on such missions, as they were considered too valuable to risk. However, this sortie was of the utmost importance, and it needed a man of Duffus’s calibre to make sure it went to plan.

At precisely 4.50 a.m., the aircraft were airborne, and climbed to a height of 14,000 ft. Their objective was 100 miles away, and, with a top speed of just over 140 mph, the crew hoped to reach the target near the French-Belgian border by 5.30 a.m.

The aircraft crossed the front lines without incident, and at Le Cateau, about 25 miles from the target, they started their descent to 500ft. Duffus and his pilots and observers knew that the danger was now really mounting, as there were bound to be anti-aircraft guns in the area.

The Kaiser's Presumed Location

At 5.25 a.m., the planes reached their target, or more specifically, their two targets. The first was the Chateau de Trelon, and the second was a train sitting on a newly laid siding off a branch line just half a mile northwest of the chateau. Built in the 18th century, the chateau was the property of the Merode family, who had owned the estate since 1580. 

However, during the war the building was occupied by the Germans, who used it as a military headquarters. That alone would have made it a juicy target, but on that Sunday morning, the Allies were hoping to bag a somewhat bigger prize than some top brass.

In fact, their mission was to kill none other than the German head of state—Kaiser Wilhelm II. If the sortie succeeded, the course of the war would undoubtedly change, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved. Those 12 aircraft and their 36 bombs had a big job to do.

The Allied mission to kill the Kaiser has never been revealed until now. Although there have been occasional hints that such a sortie may have taken place, the truth finally emerged last week in a novel based on the mission written by a former colonel in the British Army Intelligence Corps. At the beginning of his book, author John Hughes-Wilson presents the "smoking gun" that shows that the mission really did happen. It comes in the form of a facsimile of a page from a journal kept by Lieutenant Archibald Roy Watts—an observer in one of the DH.4s.


Hughes-Wilson says: "For a military historian this was the 'eureka' moment—with the smoking gun being the discovery of an indiscreet pilot’s entry that recorded full details of the secret attack."

In his journal on 2 June 2 1918, Watts writes: "Bomb raid on Kaiser’s chateau at Trelon." He goes on to briefly describe the mission.

Hughes-Wilson was given a copy of the journal by John Watts, the grandson of Archibald. In addition, John Watts also found in his grandfather’s papers a wartime map of Trelon, which clearly shows not only the chateau but also the location of the Kaiser’s train, captioned with the words "Train imperial." Together, the map and the journal entry are conclusive proof that the sortie that day was an assassination attempt.

This hitherto secret "hit" raises some historically important questions. How did the British know the Kaiser was staying at Trelon? Who authorised the attack? What was the thinking behind it? And what would have happened had it succeeded?

The answer to the first question comes in the form of Lieutenant Frederic de Merode, a member of the family that owned the chateau, and who worked as a translator for the French Army. One of his jobs was to interrogate German prisoners-of-war, and one told him the Kaiser was staying at the chateau.

The Allied mission to kill the Kaiser has never been revealed until now. Although there have been occasional hints that such a sortie may have taken place, the truth finally emerged last week in a novel based on the mission written by a former colonel in the British Army Intelligence Corps.

Merode naturally supplied this information to his superior officers. Research in French archives reveals that at some point in June one of them, General Maurice de Barescut, wrote to an attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel Leon de Cointet, informing him: "Merode has told me, from a reliable source, that the chateau owned by his parents in Trelon, in the north, was inhabited by the Kaiser. In a nearby siding there was a train always ready to go that could allow him to escape immediately."

This information was passed to the British. It is at this point that the story starts to get murky. There is no archival evidence to show who received this vital piece of intelligence, and neither is there any documentation to show who made the decision to attack the Kaiser.

"Any attempt to kill the Kaiser could only have been approved at the highest levels," says Hughes-Wilson, a former President of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. Responsibility for such an attack was way above the pay grade of even Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. In my view, all roads lead to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

If Lloyd George did indeed authorise the assassination attempt, he would have wanted his involvement to be kept absolutely secret. After all, he was ordering the killing of the first cousin of the King, George V.

If the raid was a success, Lloyd George presumably would have claimed that neither he nor the RAF knew that the Kaiser had been staying in the chateau. But, as it happened, the raid failed. The account in Watts’s journal is succinct. He writes: "Came down to 500ft and dropped bombs in turn and climbed up in formation again. Observers fired at village and train. One machine seen to land and burnt by pilot and observer. 1 A.A. [anti-aircraft] gun near Chateau and AA near Cambrai. Very active. No huns seen."

The baldness of the entry masks the fact that the target was missed.

"The bombing took place, but the castle was not hit,’ says Patrick-Charles Renaud, a French military historian and the author of a book called Through the Eyes of the Poilus (the French equivalent of "Tommy"). The pilots had been briefed that the Kaiser was either in the chateau or on the train, and Renaud says: "The planes preferred to attack the train station from where they thought the Kaiser was going to escape."

The reason the castle was not hit was that the smoke billowing from the explosions caused by the bombs dropped by the first aircraft obscured the building. Several cars in the courtyard were hit, and some 800 rounds of machine-gun fire were unleashed on the train. It needs to be appreciated that air raids in 1918 were hopelessly inaccurate. In fact, the whole idea of accuracy was dismissed. That year, William Weir, a member of the Cabinet and the president of the Air Council, told Major-General Trenchard of the RAF not to worry too much about accuracy when bombing Germany, as "all the pilots drop their eggs into the centre of town generally."

The idea of pinpointing a single building or a train was therefore almost absurdly ambitious, and it is hardly surprising the raid failed. One aircraft was lost, but the remaining 11 made it back to their airfield safely by 6.35 a.m.—just in time for a hearty Sunday breakfast. For 25 Squadron, it was just another day at work, as that summer they were flying some 29 bombing and observation sorties each month. But what of the Kaiser? If he had been in the Chateau de Trelon or on the train, he surely must have had a very lucky escape.

The truth is that the Kaiser was staying at the chateau but had left it—by car it is believed—just 19 hours before the raid. The British had been desperately unlucky and had only just missed their man. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened had the Kaiser indeed been blown to smithereens by a 112-pounder or sawn in half by a Lewis gun.

At the time of the attack, the Germans were mounting their Spring Offensive, sometimes known as the "Kaiser’s Battle." American troops had not yet been fully deployed in Europe, and the Germans were taking advantage. Since the offensive had started on 21 March, they had made huge advances of several miles into Allied territory—the biggest gains since 1914.

The British and the French were very worried, so the idea of killing the Kaiser might have looked an appealing way of halting the German advance or, indeed, of ending the war. Had the Kaiser’s death resulted in at least a halt in the Spring Offensive, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. The total figures for casualties and losses for both sides in the offensive alone was 1.5 million.

However, John Hughes-Wilson suspects that the killing of the Kaiser could have had the opposite effect. He says: You have to remember that Germany was in a terrible state at this stage. Four hundred thousand men were on strike in Berlin, and it looked as if revolution was around the corner.

"Had the Kaiser been assassinated, he would have been a martyr and people might have rallied around the monarchy, and this would have made things more stable—which in turn would have meant Germany may have carried on fighting the war for longer, and not sought an armistice later that year."

If that had happened, of course many more lives would have been lost, rather than saved. Although he did not lose his life 100 years ago, the Kaiser was to lose his throne in November 1918, in the wake of revolution in Germany. He lived until he was 82 and died in the German-occupied Netherlands in June 1941. Today, it is still not clear if he ever knew how close he came to death at the hands of the RAF in this most secret of wartime missions.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Outstanding Colorized Images from the Vimy Ridge Foundation

I've just discovered a Canadian project initiated during the centennial initiated by the Vimy Ridge Foundation called "World War I in Color." Drawing on Canadian sources solely, the project will be colorizing 150 photos. The effort is still under way. I would estimate that about 40 percent of the transformations have been completed, and they are available at the project's online album HERE. The photos  have a fresh feel to them. Here's a selection of images I've never seen before that I find to notch documentation of Canada's war effort.  Click on them to enlarge.

The Mayor of Toronto Greets Troops on Their Way to France

Ammunition Train

The Passchendaele Battlefield

 A Canadian Stretcher Team

Canadian Column on the Move

Kilted Soldier Cleaning His Rifle

General Arthur Currie at Vimy Ridge Describing the Battle to the Press

German Prisoners Carrying a Wounded Soldier

Nurses Visiting the Grave of a Canadian Soldier

Assembly Department, British Munitions Supply Company, Quebec