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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Images of Wales and the Welsh at War

Editor's Note: We have published numerous articles about the contributions and sacrifices of Wales and the Welsh people on Roads to the Great War in the past. To see a list of those postings click HERE.  In this article, I'm presenting some of the interesting images I've come across over the years.  MH

Departing Wales

To the Trenches

Back Home

Famous Battlefields

Mametz Wood, Somme 1916

Ypres Salient, 1917

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Recommended: The Canary Girls and the WWI Poisons That Turned Them Yellow

By Messy Nessy

Originally Presented 17 February 2016

At lunchtime, the women had to be separated in the cafeteria because everything they touched turned yellow. They were called the “Canary Girls” because of their bright yellow skin and green or ginger-coloured hair. With the nation’s men at war and male labour in short supply, Britain’s women had been recruited to ramp up production ammunition and were paid on average less than half of what the men were paid. By the end of the war, roughly 80% of the weaponry used by the British army was being made by women who were in fact paying very dearly to “do their bit”.

They had gone from working as housemaids, cooks and nannies to being employed in munitions factories where became known as munitionettes. They performed both heavy-duty and delicate tasks that require more skill than brute force; handling detonators and explosives, machining shell cases etc. 

 But the women also worked with hazardous chemicals on a daily basis without adequate protection, such as trinitrotoluene (TNT). Prolonged exposure to the sulfuric acid caused depigmentation, turning their skin yellow. It was believed that the canary with blue eyes were particularly adept calibration work.

Other strange symptoms included hair turning green or falling out altogether, chest pain, breast deformation, weakening of the immune system, vomiting, anemia, migraines and fertility problems. Cases were even reported of munitionettes giving birth to yellow children. One “baby canary” whose mother worked in a munitions factory in Banbury, remembered that in her town, most children were simply born that way. Doctors said that only time would fade the discolouration. . . 

TNT poisoning became such a common problem that it was frequently mentioned in early 20th century medical journals. They stated that only 24% of the workers (male and female) showed no symptons of TNT poisoning (based on blood tests). 

The body’s reaction to to the TNT usually began with sneezing fits, a bad cough, severe sore throat and profound digestive woes. Some women said the worst of it was the constant metallic taste in their mouth. While some simply couldn’t tolerate it, most munitionettes only left after their health failed. 

But turning yellow, falling ill from the poisons lurking in the air and unfair pay weren’t the only concerns for these women. The risk of exploitation was actually much less than the explosion. Blasts occurred relatively frequently and were another ever-present hazard. The explosives the munitionettes were working with ignited on several occasions, injuring or killing the workers.

Thanks to Reader David Schleeter for suggesting an article on the Canary Girls.

Don't Miss Your December 2020 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire!


Our December 2020 issue of tthe St. Mihiel Trip-Wire focuses on the War in Wintertime.

Main Focus: 

  • From Your Editor: The Suffering of Soldiers
  • Carpathian Winter Fiasco by Graydon A. Tunstall
  • Cold on the Somme: Winter 1916–17
  • Front Line on a Glacier: The Marmolada by Richard Galli

French Mountain Artillery on the Move

  • The Polar Bears' Biggest Challenge
  • Winter Avalanches
  • Winter Warfare, by Edgell Rickword
  • Different Perspectives of Winter Warfare

79th Division, Christmas 1918 in Occupied Germany

Other Topics:

  • 100 Years Ago: "Bloody Christmas" Brings D'Annunzio's Fiume Extravaganza to a Close
  • Remembering Those Oklahoma Doughboys
  • The National Museum of the U.S. Army to Open
  • WWI Film Classic: Joyeux Noel! (1938)
  • Plus all our regular updates and features

Next Month:  The Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Vigilantes


By Keith Muchowski

One Sunday afternoon in November 1916, the same month incumbent Woodrow Wilson defeated challenger Charles Evans Hughes under the banner “He kept us out of war,” German-American poet Hermann Hagedorn visited the home of playwright Porter Emerson Browne and posed a question: how might they and others convey to Americans the urgency for readiness in case of conflict? The two immediately broached the question to a few friends when the inspiration came; as Browne noted in a May 8, 1918 piece for The Outlook magazine, “Being writers, naturally writing was our field . . . It is the written and the printed word that weld a nation into a single entity.” Thus was born the idea of the Vigilantes, a consortium of journalists, poets, novelists, playwrights, and others in the creative space who during the Great War took it upon themselves to prod, cajole, educate, and outrage the American people into readiness and action.

That late autumn a yet larger group convened at the Players Club, the Gramercy Park watering hole and theater founded in the 1880s by Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth for the purpose of bringing together those within the artistic fields. Present too were stakeholders from the business, political, and national security realms. Five days before Christmas 1916 almost three dozen individuals met yet again for the first so-called Vigilantes Dinner to hammer out their plans for the coming year. The men—and women—who comprised the Vigilantes wasted no time; magazine and newspaper articles with Vigilante by-lines appeared in various outlets across the country continuously throughout the winter of 1917.

On 29 March, just one week before Congress declared war on Germany, there was a Vigilantes Dinner at the Harvard Club of New York City’s 44th Street clubhouse. While pleased overall with their progress, they wanted to expand their voice, which meant inclusion of their work not just in individual newspapers but also within the many news syndicates and press associations across the country. Soon the group articulated what would today be called a mission statement, which they laid out plainly on their stationary and letterhead. They also established a Manhattan headquarters.

The Vigilantes saw themselves as part of an intellectual tradition and as writers and artists who understood the power of words and iconography. The group’s name itself connoted the spirit of the Old West, which was fitting, given Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister’s participation in the movement. Their logo alluded to the American Revolution, the rider holding his lantern aloft with a steeple behind him clearly meant to conjure Paul Revere and his warning that the enemy was approaching. As literary figures most if not all of the Vigilantes would have known of the influence of pamphleteering during the Revolution and early years of the Republic. They considered themselves to be working within the spirit of this heritage.

They published monographs as well. In 1917 Executive Committee member Charles Hanson Towne edited a 400-plus page anthology entitled For France containing speeches, cartoons, paintings, poetry, and prose with contributions from the like of the late Alan Seeger, William Dean Howells, Booth Tarkington, John Singer Sargent, James Montgomery Flagg, and Ida M. Tarbell, to name just a few. Former President Roosevelt authored a forward. That same year the Vigilantes published Fifes and Drums: A Collection of Poems of America at War with many of the same authors and themes. These endeavors were hardly unique. The American public’s desire for anything relating to the war was so insatiable. The New York Times in October 1917 listed no less than 200 war-related titles released in just the six months since the United States entered the conflict. The Vigilantes were also among the many groups that organized a tribute to France in recognition of Bastille Day held in New York City on Monday 15 July 1918. 

And, of course, there was the ongoing journalism. During the war, approximately 300 to 400 writers, cartoonists, and others committed to contributing at least occasionally to the cause. Once the United States officially joined the fight, the Vigilantes’ emphasis shifted from warning to assistance. Writers wrote in support of George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, Herbert Hoover’s U. S. Food Administration, the various loan drives, and other causes central to the war effort. The New York Times noted on 25 August 25 1918 that over the past year and a half “Authors provided most of the slogans for the Liberty bond and war savings campaigns. Writers whose works occasionally caused the turning up of the fastidious nose may [now] be found aiding the Y.M.C.A.” While the Vigilantes' editorializing could be overly strident and jingoistic, they tried to create a distinction, or at least the appearance of a distinction, between themselves and those scapegoating or encouraging the violence becoming commonplace against ethnic Americans, especially German-Americans. Vigilantes' managing editor Charles J. Rosebault wrote in the September 16, 1917 Brooklyn Daily Eagle that “The organization has taken no part in lynching, in interrupting street meetings, in organizing boycotts, or in the various other activities undertaken by individuals or associations of somewhat similar names. I state this not in criticism of others, but merely to draw public attention to the fact that the Vigilantes mean to continue to agitate for patriotism and to fight pacifism and pro-Germanism entirely through their pens, leaving other forms of action severely alone.”

The Vigilantes were nothing if not passionate and prolific. By one estimate the fair market value of their pro bono contributions would have cost news outlets $20,000 per month in commissions, more than $355,000 in today’s dollars. Their work was crucial in this era just prior to mass radio, let alone television or social media. The Vigilantes certainly moved the needle and steered the narrative of American discourse. Most cities had at minimum a morning and afternoon paper; New York City alone had nearly a dozen dailies. The syndicates reached deep into the isolationist South and West. Venues for the Vigilantes' work included the American Press Association, the Wheeler Syndicate, Western Newspaper Service, the extensive foreign language press that served the country’s many “hyphenated-American” communities, and even agricultural journals, which is probably less surprising than it might appear, given the centrality of American foodstuffs to the Allied war effort. Millions read the Vigilantes' work.

So why is their story not better known today? The answers are manifold. For one thing, little of the Vigilantes' journalism is in one place. Besides the two monographs mentioned above, the editorial pieces are scattered in isolated newspaper morgues and databases across the country. Many of the periodicals for which the Vigilantes wrote no longer even exist. No one seems to have been keeping track of the total output at the time, and no scholar has apparently ever attempted an anthology. In the Roaring Twenties, the stridency of the writing already seemed jingoistic and anachronistic to jaded Americans. While literary critics over the past century have written extensively about Great War poetry, their emphasis has largely been on the anti-war poets, not those who advocated for militarism. This is all unfortunate. While the majority of the Vigilantes' work may be of greater historical than literary merit, it is an important cultural legacy of American involvement in the Great War.

Keith Muchowski is a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn. He is currently writing a book about Civil War Era New York City. He blogs at

Monday, January 18, 2021

Flanders After War

The Flanders Battlefield in 1919

For thousands of Belgian people, the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 marked the beginning of another grim struggle that was to last for decades.

It’s easy to think of the relief and optimism sweeping across Europe that the signing of the peace treaty must have brought. Perhaps we have visions of people returning to their homes in previously occupied territories, greeting loved ones, restocking the shops, and getting “back to normal.” Or we imagine citizens and soldiers dancing in the streets of villages and towns, to the pealing of church bells.

But for thousands of Flemish people returning to Flanders Fields, the reality was totally different–and brutal. For them, there were no bells pealing from village churches. There was no dancing in the streets. There was no restocking of shop shelves.

Why? Because there were no churches, no shops, no streets. In fact, there were no villages, or towns.

There was absolutely nothing remaining of the land they used to know. In Flanders the front line extended from Nieuport on the coast, along the banks of the previously picturesque River Iser, past Diksmuide, around the medieval town of Ypres and past Mesen to the French border. Its width varied between two and ten kilometers. On a clear day, a Belgian soldier would have been able to stand in relative safety behind the front line and see the German army moving in relative peace on the other side.

The land in between, however, was a monstrous hell of death and destruction. In this long, narrow stretch of West Flanders, more than half a million soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee for their lives. Towns, villages, farms, woods, and fields were totally devastated. The area became known as the Verwoeste Gewesten–the Devastated Lands. What happened next and how the landscape was restored to its previous state is a remarkable story of the perseverance and opportunism of the Flemish people.

Ypres Immediately After the War (In Flanders Field Museum)

The towns in the battle zone suffered massive damage. Ypres—having been utterly leveled and being the location of the world-famous Cloth Hall, was especially a challenge. The idea of not reconstructing the city and leaving Ypres in ruins as a memorial had been suggested during the war. It was thought that a new city could be built nearby and not on the rubble of the destroyed city.

In July 1919 the British government succeeded in getting agreement from the Belgian government to create a “Zone of Silence” in the area of the destroyed Cloth Hall, belfry, and St. Martin's cathedral. However, this was not willingly accepted by all of the local people in Ypres, and after two years it was agreed that the British would be able to build a monument in Ypres instead. The location was agreed for the construction of a large memorial, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, to be built on the old eastern access route in and out of Ypres.

By 1920 the number of people living in Ypres was about 6,000. The population grew significantly during the 1920s, and there were already about 15,000 people in the city by 1930. More than half of the 15,000 inhabitants were, however, people who had moved there after the war and had not been born and brought up in the city before 1914. Many of the families who had lived in and around Ypres for generations had decided not to go back.

After the Armistice, two action plans for rehabilitating Flanders were hastily formulated and implemented. The first was to retrieve, identify if possible, and bury the bodies of the soldiers who had died on the front. Many of these had lain unburied for years and all clues to their identity had been lost. Others had been buried in temporary graves. These were exhumed and laid to rest in permanent cemeteries.

The second task was to level the ground. The British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps played a key role in this work. Initially shipped over from China to dig trenches and latrines and provide other support to the fighting soldiers, they stayed in Flanders after 1918 to help clean up the war zone. They did not return to China until 1920. German prisoners of war were also used. Trenches, craters, and shell holes were filled in, and at some point it was declared that civilians could be allowed to re-enter the war zone. They were told to expect the worst.

It would have been an extremely traumatic return–a nightmare scenario. One farmer returned to his farm, found absolutely nothing recognizable, and committed suicide. Another man from Ypres couldn’t find a trace of his farm until he found a tap to an underground water pipe that he had installed in 1914. It was the only thing remaining of his property.

Their first priority was to build temporary accommodation, and the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Flemings came to the fore. Scattered around the battlefields were huge dumps of wood and scrap iron. Using such materials, basic huts and sheds were constructed.

Author and British Veteran Henry Williamson Discovered a Destroyed Tank Still Sitting on the Battlefield Near Zonnebeke During His 1925 Honeymoon
(Henry Williamson Society)

Other families took over abandoned Nissen huts. These were prefabricated, portable multi-purpose huts developed by Major Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers in 1916. At least 100,000 of them were produced in World War One as temporary barracks for soldiers. The Belgian government also provided their people with temporary wooden huts.

The availability of clean drinking water was a problem. The River Iser and the two lakes that provided water to Ypres were totally contaminated and unfit to drink. Local breweries came to the rescue. They drilled deep boreholes and pumped up clean water. They used it for their own brewing processes and to provide potable water to local inhabitants.

The next task was to redevelop and re-stock the land. This was necessary not only in the war zone itself but up to ten kilometers on either side. One of the reasons was the extensive use of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases in the region. These poisonous gases were not only fatal to humans but also killed everything living in their path, including livestock as well as vegetation. The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture provided new seeds and plants, while farmers in the Netherlands–particularly from the province of Limburg–donated cattle, horses and even chickens. Slowly but surely, new life began to return to the Devastated Lands.

However, working in Flanders Fields in the early 1920s was a dangerous occupation. It has been estimated that a quarter of the failed to explode but remained live. Flanders farm laborers were constantly being maimed or killed by unexploded ordnance. It was apparent that the initial clean-up operation had been too superficial.

Around this time some clever opportunists appeared on the scene. They would perform a service of “deep digging.” For a fee they would thoroughly dig out a hectare of land, remove all the shells, and proclaim it as clean land. A number of family fortunes were made in this way.

Also amassing great personal wealth were the scrap metal merchants who went from battlefield to battlefield collecting shells and selling the iron and copper. Both jobs were fraught with danger and frequently led to workers losing limbs, if not their lives. Unbelievably, the so-called Period of Reconstruction of the Verwoeste Gewesten lasted until 1967, when the final annex to the Cloth Hall in Ypres was finished.

Sources: Discovering Belgium, The Great War, 1914–1918 Website, the Henry Williamson Society, Wikipedia

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Tirpitz Danger Zone

In 1897, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) was named Germany's Secretary of State for the Navy. The next year he introduced the first of four "Fleet Acts" to authorize construction of a fleet capable of challenging Britain's Royal Navy. not world-wide since  German lacked overseas coaling stations, but in the zone between Heligoland and the Thames. The Kaiser endorsed the program. Over the next two years, Tirpitz and his staff refined their plans and in 1900 a 17 year program was set for  building a fleet of capital ships.  

Naturally, the British government recognized the threat to their interest and eventually the famous "Battleship Race" ensued. Tirpitz eventually realized that given the lead the Royal Navy enjoyed in number of battleships, Germany would be vulnerable to a preemptive attack. In 1909 Tirpitz recognized a “Danger Zone”  of  about five years before Germany would have sufficient ships, and the infrastructure to support operations to meet  a British challenge. 

Facing the Threat

Tirpitz listed the five major works that had to be completed if any hostilities would begin:

1)  The construction of sufficient dreadnoughts to be within 60 percent of the Royal Navy

2)  The construction of sufficient submarines for supremacy over the Royal Navy

3)  The construction of the required harbor facilities for the increased number of dreadnought-type battleships of the High Seas fleet on Germany’s North Sea coast.

4)  The construction of adequate forts and shore batteries in Heligoland to prevent destruction by the Royal Navy of the expanded harbors of the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea

5)  And the most required, to assure rapid connection with the Baltic Sea and the threat of Russian naval operations, the completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal scheduled for June 1914

Battleship SMS Lothringen Passing the Kiel Canal


Most of the objectives were met. By the start of the First World War, Britain had 20 commissioned dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers, compared with Germany's 15 commissioned dreadnoughts and seven battlecruisers. The infrastructure was mostly completed with the expanded Kiel Canal opening on schedule. However, Tirpitz neglected U-boat construction, and this worked to Germany's disadvantage both in 1914 and when unlimited submarine warfare—which he strongly supported—was resumed in 1917.

Thanks to Bob Denison for much of the detail in this article.

Friday, January 15, 2021

General Pershing's Tumultuous Welcome in Paris: 13 June 1917

French Honor Guard

Described by War Correspondent Floyd Gibbons

[That afternoon] the sooty girders of the Gare du Nord shook with cheers when the special train pulled in. The aisles of the great terminal were carpeted with red plush. A battalion of bearded poilus of the Two Hundred and Thirty-seventh Colonial Regiment was lined up on the platform like a wall of silent grey, bristling with bayonets and shiny trench helmets.

General Pershing stepped from his private car. Flashlights boomed and batteries of camera men maneuvered into positions for the lens barrage. The band of the Garde Républicaine blared forth the strains of the "Star Spangled Banner," bringing all the military to a halt and a long standing salute. It was followed by the "Marseillaise."

At the conclusion of the train-side greetings and introductions, Marshal Joffre and General Pershing walked down the platform together. The tops of the cars of every train in the station were crowded with workmen. As the tall, slender American commander stepped into view, the privileged observers on the car-tops began to cheer.

A minute later, there was a terrific roar from beyond the walls of the station. The crowds outside had heard the cheering within. They took it up with thousands of throats. They made their welcome a ringing one. Paris took Pershing by storm. . .

A Young Girl Presents a Smiling Pershing
with a Bouquet

The crowds overflowed the sidewalks. They extended from the building walls out beyond the curbs and into the streets, leaving but a narrow lane through which the motors pressed their way slowly and with the exercise of much care. From the crowded balconies and windows overlooking the route, women and children tossed down showers of flowers and bits of colored paper. . .

Old grey-haired fathers of French fighting men bared their heads and with tears streaming down their cheeks shouted greetings to the tall, thin, grey mustached American commander who was leading new armies to the support of their sons. Women heaped armfuls of roses into the General’s car and into the cars of other American officers that followed him. Paris street gamins climbed the lamp-posts and waved their caps and wooden shoes and shouted shrilly. . .

Paris was not backward in displaying its knowledge of English. Gay Parisiennes were eager to make use of all the English at their command, that they might welcome the new arrivals in their native tongue. Some of these women shouted "Hello," "Heep, heep, hourrah," "Good morning," "How are you, keed?" and "Cocktails for two." Some of the expressions were not so inappropriate as they sounded.

Occasionally there came from the crowds a good old genuine American whoop-em-up yell. This happened when the procession passed groups of American ambulance workers and other sons of Uncle Sam, wearing the uniforms of the French, Canadian and English Corps.

They joined with Australians and South African soldiers on leave to cheer on the new-coming Americans with such spontaneous expressions as "Come on, you Yanks," "Now let’s get ’em," and "Eat ’em up, Uncle Sam." . . .

Through such scenes as these, the procession reached the great Place de la Concorde. In this wide, paved, open space an enormous crowd had assembled. As the autos appeared the cheering, the flower throwing, the tumultuous kiss blowing began. It increased in intensity as the motors stopped in front of the Hôtel Crillon into which General Pershing disappeared, followed by his staff. Immediately the cheering changed to a tremendous clamorous demand for the General's appearance on the balcony in front of his apartments. "Au balcon, au balcon," were the cries that filled the Place. The crowd would not be denied.

Pershing on the Balcony of the Hôtel Crillon 
"Pair-shang, Pair-shang," Cried the Crowd

General Pershing stepped forth on the balcony. . . A soft breeze from the Champs Elysées touched the cluster of flags on the General's right and from all the Allied emblems fastened there it selected one flag.

The breeze tenderly caught the folds of this flag and wafted them across the balcony on which the General bowed. He saw and recognized that flag. He extended his hand, caught the flag in his fingers and pressed it to his lips. All France and all America represented in that vast throng that day cheered to the mighty echo when Pershing kissed the tricolor of France. It was a tremendous, unforgettable incident. . .

Source: Chicago Tribune Archives

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Recommended: How Should World War I Be Taught in American Schools?

Seattle, Washington, at War

By Kyle Greenwalt, Michigan State University

From: The Conversation, 9 November 2018

The centennial of the end of World War I is reminding Americans of a conflict that is rarely mentioned these days.

In Hungary, for example, World War I is often remembered for the Treaty of Trianon, a peace treaty that ended Hungarian involvement in the war and cost Hungary two-thirds of its territory. The treaty continues to be a source of outrage for Hungarian nationalists.

In the United States, by contrast, the war is primarily remembered in a positive light. President Woodrow Wilson intervened on the side of the victors, using idealistic language about making the world “safe for democracy.” The United States lost relatively few soldiers in comparison to other nations.

As a professor of social studies education, I’ve noticed that the way in which “the war to end war” is taught in American classrooms has a lot to do with what we think it means to be an American today.

As one of the first wars fought on a truly global scale, World War I is taught in two different courses, with two different missions: U.S. history courses and world history courses. Two versions of World War I emerge in these two courses—and they tell us as much about the present as they do about the past.

WWI: National history

In an academic sense, history is not simply the past but the tools we use to study it—it is the process of historical inquiry. Over the course of the discipline’s development, the study of history became deeply entangled with the study of nations. It became “partitioned:” American history, French history, Chinese history.

This way of dividing the past reinforces ideas of who a people are and what they stand for. In the U.S., our national historical narrative has often been taught to schoolchildren as one where more and more Americans gain more and more rights and opportunities. The goal of teaching American history has long been the creation of citizens who are loyal to this narrative and are willing to take action to support it.

When history is taught in this way, teachers and students can easily draw boundaries between “us” and “them.” There is a clear line between domestic and foreign policy. Some historians have criticized this view of the nation as a natural container for the events of the past.

When students are taught this nationalist view of the past, it’s possible to see the United States and its relationship to World War I in a particular light. Initially an outsider to World War I, the United States would join only when provoked by Germany. U.S. intervention was justified in terms of making the world safe for democracy. American demands for peace were largely based on altruistic motives.

When taught in this manner, World War I signals the arrival of the United States on the global stage—as defenders of democracy and agents for global peace.

World War I as World History. . .

Continue reading the article 


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Emperor Karl I's Failed Peace Year

Karl I was the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (21 November 1916 -11 November 1918). A grandnephew of the emperor Franz Joseph, Karl became heir presumptive to the Habsburg throne upon the assassination of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand. After his accession, he made a series of attempts to take Austria- Hungary out of World War I through secret overtures to the Allied powers. His effort was the first in a series of ill-fated peace initiatives and gestures in 1917.

As early as 1915, in uniform on the Eastern Front and still heir to the throne, Karl was losing his earlier enthusiasm for the war. He let it be known he would be happy if Austria-Hungary concluded a separate peace with Russia status quo ante bellum. On the eve of his succession he expressed doubts about the endurance of his own army and that peace would have to be concluded in any case when it soon ran out of men. He enthusiastically endorsed a German peace feeler, but knew it was doomed because it was “too demanding regarding territorial conquests.” Karl ascended to the throne determined to use his new powers to seek peace. Soon after, he learned of impending food shortages, especially for cereals and potatoes, due to poor harvests, the turmoil in Galicia, and domestic distribution issues. Shortages of all kinds were especially bad in his capital, Vienna. Buried in his accession manifesto is this revealing sentence: “I want to do everything to banish the horrors and sacrifices of the war as soon as possible, and to win back for my peoples the sorely missed blessings of peace.”

With this determination to pursue peace, he chose to act in secret using his own brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus von Bourbon-Parma, a serving officer in the Belgian Army, as the lead intermediary. The core points of the Emperor's proposal were a peace based on the restoration and compensation of Belgium, a peace with Russia in return for Russia's declaration that it held no claim to Constantinople, the re-establishment of Serbia with an outlet on the Adriatic, and support of the "just" claims of France in Alsace-Lorraine.

All of Karl's efforts failed because Germany effectively held veto power over any military settlement, resistance from his foreign ministry, and his own refusal to cede the Sud Tyrol (Trentino) to Italy. His secretive effort blew up in the spring of 1918, when French prime minister Clemenceau publicly confirmed the substance of the discussions, much to Karl's embarrassment. Nonetheless, all the would-be peace efforts of 1917 were doomed. The belligerents were not ready for it.

Source:  Over the Top, December 2017

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Masters of Mayhem: Lawrence of Arabia and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz

The Hejaz Railway, Then and Now

by James Stejskal.
Casemate Publishers, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Filling the hole with 15 pounds of explosives, [Herbert] Garland looked up to see a locomotive 200 yards away approaching at a fast clip. He told the guards to run and finished laying the charge. But having taken his boots off to prevent tell-tale tracks in the sand, he painfully hobbled over the rock-strewn ground to escape. He was only 50 yards from the tracks when the train hit the mine. Garland turned just in time to see the blast and the train roll off the track. At around 7,000 feet per second, the blast knocked him to the ground. It was the first train derailed during the revolt (p. 28)

Although his subtitle indicates a focus on Lawrence of Arabia, the author quickly tells us that Lawrence is not his primary subject—it’s just that you can’t write about the Arab Revolt without including this legendary character. The impetus for the book stems from the author’s work with the 2012 Great Arab Revolt Project, which involved "conflict archaeology" and the exploration of the World War I operations of the British Military Mission in the Hejaz, an unforgiving region in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia. These operations were to be known by their telegraphic code name “Hedgehog” (p. 85).

Damaged Rail Bridge

Unconventional warfare played a large part in the war against the Turks and their railroad in the Hejaz, and certainly T. E. Lawrence was one of the leading practitioners of this kind of guerilla activity. He was far from the only one, however. Masters of Mayhem introduces us to several other British officers and men also active in the campaign in the Hejaz. Names such as Dawnay, Joyce, Pascoe, Gilman, Young and Dowsett may have disappeared into the sands of military history, but they were vital players in Field Marshal Allenby’s push against the Ottomans, and many were also interesting characters, to say the least. They generally worked well with Lawrence and learned from his experience.

Detailing the plans and operations of Hedgehog, the author in nine chapters and numerous black and white photographs covers the origins of the Arab Revolt through Lawrence’s taking of Akaba, to the end of hostilities. We’re introduced to little-recognized groups such as the EEF (Egyptian Expeditionary Force), LAMB (Light Armoured Motor Battery), LRDG (Long Range Desert Group), and the ICC (Imperial Camel Corps), all of which, together with the Royal Flying Corps and the navy’s Red Sea fleet, played vital roles in the campaign.

Much attention is paid to demolition techniques using gelignite, guncotton, electrical devices, and "tulip mines," which are described thus:

Tulips, so called because of the shape of the railway track after the explosion, were small 30-ounce guncotton charges laid under the centre of the railway sleepers (cross-ties) so when they exploded, the upward force carried the sleepers and the attached rails upwards and inwards, twisting and rending them into a flower shape and that made repair difficult and reuse impossible (p. 121).

One gets the impression that the men involved in blowing up the Turkish railroad often got quite a kick from the explosions they caused. 

Besides difficulties encountered with terrain and weather, the teams of the British mission found working with the Bedu tribesmen challenging. Irregular nomadic Bedouin were notoriously tribal, often unwilling to work with other tribes that they regarded with suspicion or even hatred. They primarily fought for loot or money, and they kept their own schedules. Sometimes an important supply dump was found to be thoroughly pilfered, and even wooden stakes used to hold down wire netting on road surfaces would disappear for firewood. 

The final third of this highly informative book is a six-part appendix containing much information on the Hejaz armored cars and "tenders," even listing their histories and names. “Blue Mist,” a 1909 Rolls-Royce, gets a short chapter of its own with a photograph showing it finally in Damascus with Lawrence as passenger. The challenges of driving and maintaining these vehicles are considered in the main chapters of the book. 

Armored Car at One of Lawrence's Advance Bases

Demolitions and weaponry are discussed more fully in the appendix. A copy of Lawrence’s Memorandum of August 1917, the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” is also included. These provide a considerable insight into the thinking and attitude that made him so successful in working with the Bedu. His guerilla techniques, together with the liaison of organized military forces and equipment, did indeed sow the seeds of British Special Operations and provided a blueprint for other revolutionaries of the 20th century. 

Masters of Mayhem is a detailed and thoughtful book that I can certainly recommend.

David F. Beer

Monday, January 11, 2021

Map Series #17: Brest-Litovsk

Terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

• Independence of Ukraine, Georgia, and Finland recognized

• Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to Germany and Austria-Hungary

• Kars, Ardahan, and Batumi to Turkey

• The total losses constituted 1 million square miles of Russia's former territory (See map below)

• Later, Russia agreed to pay a large indemnity

Subsequently, however:

• In the general Armistice of November 1918, the Central Powers were forced to renounce the treaty

• Ukraine was recovered in 1919, during the Russian Civil War 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

General Cordonnier's Timeless Quote

General Cordonnier After the War

General Victor Louis Émilien Cordonnier (1858–1936) served France during World War I and commanded a brigade and division in 1914 with distinction in the Battles of the Frontiers and the Marne and later in the trench fighting of the Argonne Forest, where he was wounded.  On the Macedonian Front he commanded the French forces under General Sarrail, who eventually relieved him over their differences. Returning to France, he was diagnosed with cancer and eventually retired from the army. In his postwar writings he contributed this wisdom, which sounds positively Napoleonic:

The instruction given by leaders to their troops, by professors of military schools, by historical and tactical volumes, no matter how varied it may be, will never furnish a model that need only be reproduced in order to beat the enemy. 

It is with the muscles of the intellect, with something like cerebral reflexes that the man of war decides, and it is with his qualities of character that he maintains the decision taken.

He who remains in abstractions falls into formula; he concretes his brain; he is beaten in advance.

General Cordonnier (front, left) with His Staff
in Macedonia

Source: The Infantry in Battle, 1939

Friday, January 8, 2021

Germany's View of Russia on the Eve of War

Tsar and Kaiser in Happier Times

. . . During the Bosnian annexation crisis in 1908/9, the operative assessment in Berlin was that no rational Russian would risk war in view of the country's unpreparedness and weak internal condition. Chancellor Bülow affirmed to the Austrian foreign minister, Count Aerenthal, "Concerning Russia, I am in agreement with you that she is at present hardly in a position to inaugurate an active policy." Moltke wrote his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf, that the opportunity for war was "unlikely to reappear under such favorable conditions." 

The operative perception of Russian power remained the same in 1912, when the First Balkan War raised the possibility of a Russo-Austrian war. The St. Petersburg embassy, as well as the foreign minister, chancellor, war minister, general staff, and the kaiser, all thought Russia too weak to take action. Moltke's 1912 memorandum to the chancellor on the Russian situation concluded: "At the moment Russia is behind in the reorganization of her army and its equipment and weaponry...." The chief of staff wrote to Conrad that "war is unavoidable, and the sooner the better." In October 1913, Berchtold reported on a long discussion with the kaiser. He related that, in the midst of an extended diatribe on Russia's irredeemably hostile intentions, the kaiser maintained that: 

[F]or the time being Russia does not inspire [him] with any worry: for the  next six years one can be certain on that account. He had discovered this in March when, after a war council at Tsarskoe Selo, a German from the Baltic provinces known to him repeated Tsar Nicholas's pronouncement: Dieu soit lofe nous neferons pas de guerre, avant six ans c'est impossible. [Thank God we won’t go to war, for six years it’s impossible] Until then the army will not be ready for action, and furthermore [Russia will be] haunted by the specter of revolution.  

Although most German officials in 1914 retained their disdainful view of existing Russian power, Russia's seemingly strong financial position and growing economy, and the adoption of the four-year "Great Program" of rearmament, did make Moltke and other military leaders increasingly pessimistic about the future. In May, Moltke told Conrad that "to wait meant to lessen our chances; it was impossible to compete with Russia as regards quantity."  Secretary of State Jagow reported a conversation with Moltke that same month: 

The prospects for the future weighed heavily upon him. In two or three years Russia would have finished arming. Our enemies' military power would then be so great that he did not know how he could deal with it. Now we were still more or less a match for it. In his view there was no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle. The Chief of Staff therefore put it to me that our policy should be geared to bringing about an early war.

Source:  Wohlforth, William, "The Perception of Power: Russia in the Pre-1914 Balance,"  World Politics, April 1987.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Roots of Disaster: Why Grand Duke Nicholas Was Forced to Go

Grand Duke Nicholas

By Daniel W. Graf

One of the few military policy questions which had not been decided prior to the outbreak of the war was who would assume the awesome responsibility of commanding the army and hence governing the western borderlands. Jealous as ever of his imperial prerogatives, Nicholas II had shied away from designating anyone for the post of supreme commander-in-chief, although at least some of his generals were adamant in insisting that this decision too had to be made well in advance of any war if mobilization was to run smoothly. There is no doubt but that the tsar toyed with the idea of assuming the post himself in the event of a European war. He almost did. Only after vigorous protestations by members of the Council of Ministers, who argued that the tsar was needed in St. Petersburg, did Nicholas reverse himself and appoint Grand Duke Nicholas to command the operational army. According to General Polivanov, the grand duke, a man of great emotion, wept bitterly on receiving word of his new appointment, realizing how unprepared he was for it.

It must be admitted that the grand duke's position could have been properly filled only by a genius of superhuman abilities. After all, he was responsible not only for the conduct of military operations on both land and sea but for the government of a good part of European Russia as well. More specific, Grand Duke Nicholas became a virtually independent viceroy presiding—at least theoretically—over all aspects of the civil administration of the theater of operations. The regulations granted him unlimited "extraordinary authority" subject only to his ultimate responsibility to the tsar himself. When things turned out badly, as they did in 1915, the Grand Duke was thus placed to bear all responsibility and receive all criticism for the declining fortunes of the nations.

The mounting disillusionment and ultimate despair of the members of the government during the summer of 1915 are compellingly documented in the records of the ministerial sessions. The situation deteriorated so rapidly that already on 8 July, at a meeting of the Council of Ministers chaired by the tsar, the ministers were insisting on the need to convene another general meeting with the senior military commanders. As the dimensions of the military disaster and the adverse effects of the policies being pursued in the theater of operations grew, the ministers continued to insist on "an urgent and immediate conference of the tsar with his generals and ministers."

The story is an ironic one. The emotional attacks on Stavka which the ministers launched during the demoralizing summer of 1915, when thrown into the balance alongside the empress's violent hatred of the Grand Duke Nicholas, the emperor's scarcely suppressed urge to lead the army, and the disastrous showing of the Russians during the great retreat, tipped the scales against the supreme commander. Nicholas II decided, at the end of July or the beginning of August, to assume personal command of the armed forces.

The Tsar and the Grand Duke

The ministers, whose verbal blasts at Stavka were in part a spontaneous expression of frustration and in part a hopeless attempt to precipitate some reform of Stavka's ways, including the removal of Nicholas's key assistant, General Nikolai Ianushkevich if possible, neither foresaw nor desired the grand duke's dismissal. Once they learned of the tsar's decision on 6 August, almost all of the ministers engaged in persistent and increasingly desperate attempts to save the grand duke his command. Some of the more liberal ministers apparently continued to hope that the grand duke, once secured in his position at Stavka and freed from the pernicious influence of Ianushkevich, would resume his role as their political ally. All of the ministers feared the psychological consequences of the assumption of command by the tsar at a time when the army was in headlong flight and hopes of slowing the Germany advance appeared nonexistent. The ministers' complaints about headquarters, by themselves, need not have led to the dismissal of the grand duke, even though the members of the government frequently failed in their frustration to make it clear that Ianushkevich, and not the grand duke, was the real subject of their displeasure. However, in persistently criticizing Stavka, the ministers unwittingly added their support to the fevered denunciations of the grand duke to which Empress Alexandra continually subjected the tsar.

The hostility between Empress Alexandra and Grand Duke Nicholas was rooted in their respective views of the self-styled holy man, Rasputin. An early enthusiast, the grand duke had become one of the most outspoken critics of the starets. From that point on, the empress viewed the grand duke both as a personal enemy and as an "enemy of God." Her suspicions of the grand duke were greatly intensified by persistent rumors emanating from Stavka in 1915 that the supreme commander-in-chief was discussing the possibility of a palace coup with the chief of His Imperial Majesty's Field-Chancery, Prince V. N. Orlov. The preponderance of evidence suggests that Grand Duke Nicholas and Prince Orlov, a man of little discretion, did indeed discuss the desirability of freeing the tsar from the pernicious influence of his wife and Rasputin. However, the discussions apparently remained highly theoretical as neither the grand duke nor the prince was willing to contemplate the use of force.

Whether by design or from fears and presentiments honestly held, the empress managed to strike a responsive chord in her insecure husband by reiterating in later letters the belief that the grand duke was plotting to upstage the tsar and usurp his prerogatives. She put her case strongly: he meddles in civil affairs, gives orders to members of the tsar's own suite, and even "words his telegrams, answers to governors, etc. in your style—his ought to be more simple and humble and other things." Another recurring theme in the tsaritsa's correspondence is that as a person who has turned against a man of God, Grand Duke Nicholas's advice must be bad and his plans doomed.

The Imperial Family, Absent the Tsar, with Rasputin

On 23 August 1915, Nicholas II assumed the supreme command from Grand Duke Nicholas, and the opportunity was taken to rid the tsar of two other perceived liabilities as well. At the request of the grand duke, General Ianushkevich was assigned to him as military assistant to the viceroy of the Caucasus, and Prince Orlov, that avowed opponent of Rasputin, was dispatched to the Caucasus as the new viceroy's civil assistant In any case, the tsar's assumption of supreme command presumably relieved the empress' more immediate anxieties while at the same time putting her in a position to assume a much more active role in politics in Petrograd. Nicholas wrote from Stavka on 25 August giving her leave to assume political leadership.

Source: Relevance, Winter 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A Coward If I Return, a Hero If I Fall: Irishmen in World War I

by by Neil Richardson
Stackpole Books, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Irish Soldiers Send a Message Home from France

Somewhere around 200,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the First World War; between 35,000 and 50,000 of them failed to return home, victims of the war’s industrialized horror. Author Neil Richardson wanted to tell their story, and this book is the result of his tireless effort. It’s important to remember that the Irish were a deeply divided people, split between those who wanted to remain a part of Britain and those who desired more independence, including complete severance from the British. Because of this, many Irish citizens looked down upon those Irishmen who served in the British forces. Author Neil Richardson manages to tell the Irish veterans’ stories using archival records, diaries, letters, and interviews with family members.

This book encompasses men who served in all branches of the military and in a variety of units. These men saw action in almost every theater of war in which British soldiers and sailors fought. Although most of the men encountered came from Ireland to serve in the British forces, the author also covers Irishmen who served in the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and American forces, a testimonial to the Irish diaspora.

There is no specific framework of arrangement to the stories presented here, but they seem to flow well. One interesting and poignant topic is the discussion of brothers who served together. Two cases deserve to be mentioned here: brothers John, Hugh, and James Shine were all killed in action, and the same fate befell brothers Jeremiah, Patrick, Edward, and Richard Lonergan. Of the latter case, Richardson writes “By 1917—three short years—John and Mary Lonergan no longer had any sons.” (p. 190) This type of sacrifice sheds light on the mothers, fathers, and siblings at home.

Maurice Dease, an Irish-Catholic Officer
of the Royal Fusiliers

There are all types of stories in the book. Richardson includes men who survived, whether wounded or not, men who were gassed, men who suffered shell shock, men who became prisoners of war, men who were decorated for bravery, and men who deserted, including one man executed for that offense.

While Irishmen fought in the British Army, Ireland itself suffered political and social turmoil. The Easter Rising in 1916 and the Military Service Bill, which sought to bring conscription to Ireland in 1918, both served to provoke anger among Irish citizens of all persuasions. Irishmen fighting in the British forces had to come to grips with this at the time or as soon as they returned home. Perhaps the most tragic thing about these men is that many of them were rejected and shunned when they returned—they were symbols of British rule and oppression. In this regard, they shared a fate similar to Indian soldiers who served in the British Army during the war. It is difficult to read about how some of these men were treated, and Richardson handles the sticky issue forthrightly and compassionately. According to him, the men “deserved to be welcomed home to their families.” (p. 350)

In addition to many wonderful photographs of some of the men, the book includes illustrations of all kinds—medals, Irish regimental cap badges, documents, weapons, etc. Richardson’s robust biblio-graphy includes a list of primary and secondary sources, plus dozens of service records, war diaries, and interviews. For those unfamiliar with Irish history, this book will provide a brief overview of the drama as it played out in the early 20th century. This is a wonderful collection of stories that brings to light the deeds of Irishmen during the war; anyone interested in the human aspect of the war, and those in particular of Irish ancestry, will find this a fine addition to their library.

Peter L. Belmonte