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

Sunday, February 28, 2021

W Beach Gallipoli, 25 April 1915: Six VCs Before Breakfast

Marker at Lancashire Landing Cemetery, Gallipoli
for One of the Six

On the 25 April 1915, one of the most gallant actions in the history of the British Army took place at W Beach at Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula. A thousand men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers stormed the beach under withering fire from the Turkish defenders. During the course of this action six Victoria Crosses were won by the regiment. The Fusiliers took the beach but at horrendous cost. Of the first 200 men who landed only 21 survived. 600 men of the Battalion were killed or wounded. The beach was later re-named “Lancashire Landing” in honor of the Fusiliers. This action was later referred to as “Six VCs before breakfast." One of the recipients was killed that day, two fell later in the campaign, and three survived the Great War.

W Beach  is about 350 yards (320 m) long and varies between 15 and 40 yards (37 m) wide.  While it lacked the  strong defensive structures provided by the fort and  castle at V Beach, it was mined and had extensive barbed wire  entanglements including one extending for the length of the  shoreline and another entanglement just under the surface of the water offshore.  Trenches in high ground overlooking the beach provided good defensive positions, and the only exit was via a gully that could be easily defended.

View of W Beach from the Defenders' Position

The beach was protected by a single company of Ottoman troops, from the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Regiment; around 240 men, defending against a force of  around four times their number who were taking part in the initial landing. British accounts  say there was at least one machine gun, Ottoman accounts say there were none.

The 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers were embarked in the cruiser HMS Eurylus and the battleship HMS Implacable which took up positions off the beach. The  troops transferred to 32 cutters at around 4 a.m. Euryalus closed in on the beach at around 5 a.m., while Implacable moved off to land troops and provide covering fire at X  Beach and opened fire on the defenses. The cutters were towed toward the shore in groups of four by steam pinnaces, and at around 6:15 a.m., when they were about 50 yards (46 m) from the shore, the cutters were cast off to be rowed to the shore.

As at V Beach, the defenders held their fire until the boats were almost to the shore. When they opened fire they caused horrific casualties amongst the troops tightly packed into the boats. As the troops landed many leapt into deep water and sank under the weight of their equipment; others got caught on the barbed wire. However, unlike V Beach, the  Lancashires were able to get ashore and, although suffering horrendous losses, managed to break through the wire entanglements and reach the cliffs on either side of the beach where the companies were reformed before storming the defending trenches. The battalion suffered 533 casualties, over half its strength.

Survivors Settling in on W Beach After the Assault

In his account, Corporal John Grimsaw reported that, "In boats we got within 200 or 300 yards (270 m) from the shore when the Ottomans opened a terrible fire. Sailors were shot dead at their oars. With rifles held over our heads we struggled through the barbed wire in the water to the beach and fought a way to the foot of the cliffs leaving the biggest part of our men dead and wounded." 

Reinforcements started landing at 9:30 a.m., and by 10 a.m. the lines of trenches had been captured and the beach  was secured. By 12:30 p.m. the troops had linked up with the 2 Battalion, which had landed at X beach to the left with the capture of the defensive position called Hill 114. However, it was not until 4 p.m. that the more heavily defended position to the right, Hill 138, was captured following heavy naval bombardment and an assault by the Worcester Regiment. During the fighting many of the fusiliers distinguished themselves.  Here are the stories of the six men who received the Victoria Cross for their actions that day.

Captain Richard Raymond Willis, 1876–1966 Willis was in charge of "C" Company at Gallipoli, and it was from his company that four of the six VCs came. As the boats approached the beach, the slaughter began and Willis stood up in full view of the enemy to calm his men, famously holding his cane aloft and shouting the battle cry, "Come on Boys, Remember Minden". He died in a nursing home in Cheltenham in 1966, aged 89, having sold his VC due to financial difficulties.

Sgt Frank Edward Stubbs, 1888–1915 Awarded the VC for action during the landings at W Beach. His task on landing at Gallipoli was to lead his platoon up the south side of Hill 114 to the tree on top of the hill, where he was to join up with D company. He led his men through the heaviest fighting, and, though his platoon successfully reached its target, Stubbs fell just yards short of the solitary tree, receiving a bullet to the head which killed him instantly. He was the only one of the VC winners to die on the day of the landings. After the action his body was never identified and has no known grave. He is, though, listed on the Cape Helles Memorial.

Sgt Alfred Richards, 1879–1953 On reaching W beach he was shot so many times that his leg was almost severed. Constant movement was the only course of action and he crawled over the barbed wire to relative safety where ignoring his own injuries he continued to encourage others. He was evacuated to Egypt, where his leg was amputated. He served in the Home Guard in WWII and died in London in 1953.

Pte William Kenealy, 1886–1915 When his company was held up behind barbed wire he volunteered to crawl through the wire and attempt to cut it. Though unsuccessful—due to faulty cutters—he was promoted to L/Sgt. He was killed at Gully Ravine on 28 June.

Maj Cuthbert Bromley, 1878–1915 He was the adjutant to the commanding officer at Gallipoli and was shot in his back on the first day. He refused to leave his men, only reporting the wound three days later, after receiving a further wound in his knee. Promoted to major, he led his men during the battles of Krithia before being badly wounded in the foot at Gully ravine, refusing to leave his post until the battle was over. After a spell in hospital in Egypt he managed to get onto the troopship the Royal Edward to return to Gallipoli but was killed when the ship was sunk in the Aegean Sea. He was seen helping people, before being hit on the head with driftwood and drowning.

Cpl John Elisha Grimshaw, 189–1980 His role was to maintain contact between the HQ on board HMS Euryalus and the units on the ground. During the landing and the fighting on Hill 114, urging his fellow soldiers on when they faltered under fire. Grimshaw's water bottle and backpack were riddled with bullets and his cap badge was smashed—but he escaped any injury.

Sources:  Articles from the BBC and Lancashire Landing Charity, Paul Reed Website

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Radio Intercept & Radiogoniometry (Direction Finding)

U.S. Army Listening Post

By Terrence J. Finnegan

Radio intercept and radiogoniometry (direction finding) had a tremendous impact on key battles during the first weeks of mobile warfare. Both had evolved as intelligence disciplines before the war started. Intercepting open enemy radio transmissions played critical roles at Tannenberg in eastern Poland and the First Marne northeast of Paris. Tannenberg was the first battle in history where interception of enemy radio traffic played the decisive role.

Success came to the Germans when they intercepted Russian radio transmissions containing exact force disposition and locations. Aerial reconnaissance had reinforced German command decisions but was not as decisive as the radio intercept. Ironically for the Germans, Allied radio intercepts of transmissions describing German maneuvers led to successful analysis of German army intentions a few days later at the First Marne, due partly to the German army's "lack of discipline in radio operation." By September 4 French intelligence confirmed that "The German First Army, neglecting Paris and our Sixth Army, before which nothing has shown itself, continues its march toward the Marne." German fatigue and logistical shortfalls were also determined. Finally, the monitoring of German General von Kluck's order to withdraw was evidence to the French radio intercept analysts that the German retreat had commenced. 

The successes at Tannenberg and the Marne clearly illustrated radio intercept and radiogoniometric value to the combatants. The ensuing demand for intelligence from wireless intercepts for each headquarters required better organization. By 1917, the Germans established Army Wireless Detachments [Armee-Funkerabteilung] to conduct wireless intercepts for centralized units at Army and Corps Headquarters. Traffic analysis studied enemy radio procedures and call signs. (By the war's end, a large part of the interceptions were of signals in Morse code.) Radiogoniometric analysis was a highly favored method for confirming enemy order-of-battle and determining the depth of echelons in a given sector. It allowed Allied forces to position their own forces to provide effective counter against an enemy attack.

U.S. Army Mobile Directional Detection Station

By 1915, any telephone wires strung out along the trench connecting back to the communications hub at the front had been destroyed by artillery, requiring buried telegraphy to provide communications within the trenches. Electro-magnetic currents of comparatively low frequency could be detected directly by the telephone receiver. Wire-tapping sections intercepted ground telegraph lines (French term for this telegraphy through the ground operation was télégraphie par le sol [T.P.S.]). The normal range for transmissions was three kilometers, enough to support the average frontline unit sector.

Intercept stations working from the most forward trenches used the earth lines to listen in to the enemy telephone conversations in the opposite trenches. They were able to report when the enemy was relieved and to warn of imminent attacks. Radio discipline in the front lines was called for and enforced. Soldiers were warned that the enemy overheard all telephone conversations. Radio intercept operators not only monitored for enemy conversations but also kept track of communication violations by friendly forces at the front. One T.P.S. operator recalled one such violation. "It is the French Artillery observer, but he is not using code. It is against the rules. He should not spot gun fire from the front lines without code. He will be reported." 

One of the world's most beloved monuments, the Eiffel Tower, served as a collection site for enemy radio transmissions in the Great War. Recognition of its service in the war was introduced by General Clergerie, chief of staff to the French military commander of the Paris sector during the threatening times of the First Marne. Clergerie cited the German cavalry commander of the First Army, General von der Marwitz, violating radio discipline on September 9 by transmitting "Tell me exactly where you are and what you are doing. Hurry up, I am going to bolt." The next day, French intelligence discovered at the transmission site—as determined by triangulation—abandoned stacks of munitions, vehicles and a field kitchen with a great store of flour and dough half-kneaded. 

Source: Over the Top, February 2009

Friday, February 26, 2021

Richard Sorge: Soldier of the Kaiser, Master Spy of Stalin — A Roads Classic

Richard Sorge (1892-1944) was a disabled German war veteran, who became a communist and Soviet spy. He was ultimately hanged, but only after organizing the spy ring in Japan that revealed to Stalin Hitler's plans to launch Operation Barbarossa and the Japanese strategy to "Strike South", which would lead to war with the United States. His intelligence would free up Stalin to bring divisions from the East to help launch the counteroffensive before Moscow in 1941.

Richard Sorge (Left) with a Fellow Soldier, 1915

Sorge was an idealistic student in 1914 when the war broke out. He volunteered for the German Army on 11 August 1914 and was assigned to the Third Guards Field Artillery Regiment. After minimal training, he was rushed into action and sent to the Yser sector in Flanders – a member of the tragic "Student Battalions." He saw his first fighting by November. Soon began his alienation and hatred of war. During the summer of 1915 he was wounded by Belgian counterbattery fire and was evacuated to Berlin.

After convalescing, he was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was again wounded. After another cycle of hospital care and convalescence, he returned to action near Minsk and was wounded a third time, the most severe episode yet – shrapnel wounds almost costing him a leg. This would result in a fateful  hospital stay near Koningsberg during which he met and had a romance with a nurse whose father was an ardent communist. He eventually left the hospital and the military with an Iron Cross, 2nd Class, a permanent limp, and a totally radicalized political ideology.

Richard Sorge in 1917 had started down the road to becoming Joseph Stalin's greatest spy of the Second World War. He later wrote: "The World War from 1914 to 1918 exercised a profound influence upon my whole life. Had I been swayed by no other considerations, this war alone would have made me a Communist."

Sorge earned his doctorate in political science at the University of Hamburg. He joined Germany’s Communist Party in 1919, traveling to the USSR in 1924. His first major assignment for Soviet intelligence was in the late 1920s, when he was sent to China to organize a spy ring. Returning to Germany, he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 to perfect his cover as a loyal German. He proceeded to develop a reputation as a respected journalist working for the Frankfurter Zeitung, finally convincing his editors to send him to Tokyo as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1930s. Once in Japan, Sorge proceeded once again to create a spy ring, which included an adviser to the Japanese cabinet and an American communist, who was also working for Soviet intelligence as Sorge’s interpreter.

Sorge had so successfully ingratiated himself with the German diplomatic community in Japan that he was allowed to work out of the German embassy, giving him access to confidential files. At the same time, he also befriended Japanese government officials, attempting to convince them not to go to war with the Soviet Union.

A good summary of his ultimate capture and execution as the leader of the Tokyo Espionage Ring can be found here:

Sources: The Spy Museum; History Today

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Recommended: The Online Exhibitions of the National World War I Museum, Part II

In 2018 I presented an article on the wonderful material made available online by the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.  I decided to revisit their site and discovered that there is even more material, especially imagery—paintings, drawings, posters and photos then I'd appreciated previously.   Here are some that I saw for the first time on my recent exploration.  At the bottom of the page, you will find a link to the homepage for accessing their online, past, and present exhibits. 

Curtiney George Foote, 1919. Watercolor. A “40 or 8 box car”

Induction Center for Black Troops

Female Uniform Display at the National Museum

French Soldiers Manning Trench Mortar  at Verdun

Hungarian Corporal with a Kitten

French Trench, Somme Sector, 1914

French Trench, Somme Sector, 1914

Anne Morgan (second from right) and her friend Anna Dike with French politicians inspecting plowed land as part of the work of the American Fund for French Wounded

 “Der Angriff” (The Attack) by Otto Mack, 1918

American Soldiers and Sailors Touring Paris

Access the Museum's Online Collections


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Bob Reynolds's Excellent Adventure

Bob Reynolds (Center) Celebrating the 100th Anniversary
of the Royal Air Force

My friend Bob Reynolds passed away at age 99 last month. I got to know him through my battlefield tour work with the company he founded in 1977, Valor Tours, Ltd. He was highly esteemed, even beloved by many of us who had traveled with him over the years. When he started out, Bob was doubly qualified to organize such an enterprise.  He had long been an executive in the airline business with international responsibilities and knew the travel and accommodations part of the operation hands down. More important, though, Bob's WWII varied and fascinating service with the RAF gave him great credibility in attracting veterans,  their families, military service organizations, unit associations, reunion groups, historical societies and government institutions with an interest in the Pacific and Europe wartime theaters.

Flt. Lt. Reynolds on Left with His Lancaster Crew,
Naples, 1944

He joined the Royal Air Force on 4 September 1939 and entered active duty in July of 1940. He completed flight training and received his wings in March of 1941. Bob served as a flight instructor in Ontario, Canada, and returned to England in early 1943 as a pilot. He continued serving as an instructor to the U.S. 8th Air Force, training Yanks in map reading and how to navigate through cloudy, European skies. He later joined the 101st Squadron, piloting Wellington and Lancaster bombers. He and his Lancaster crew flew bombing missions over Germany and made several runs to retrieve British  prisoners of war for repatriation. He landed the first RAF aircraft in Berlin after VE day.

By the time of my involvement in 2006, his company, Valor Tours Ltd., was being managed by his daughter, Vicky.  Up to that point, despite being the largest operator of battlefield tours in America, Valor Tours had never run a First World War tour. Some of the regular customers, though, decided they wanted to visit the Western Front, and Vicky tracked me down. For the next two years, I had little contact with Bob, who had moved out of the Bay Area. However, he still led some of the tours, and by word of mouth had heard that the new World War I tours  were going well.  

Bob's Parents: Lt. George and Marcelle Reynolds
on Their Honeymoon

One day I got a call from Vicky, informing me that Bob and his wife Betty wanted to join my next tour, but they had a special place they wanted to visit—some specific place his father, Lt. George Reynolds of the  Royal Engineers, had served. This sort of request was always something I always tried to accommodate, but this one would prove to be one of the most challenging I'd faced. The Royal Engineers were everywhere on the Western Front, and George Reynolds moved all over the place in different assignments, surveying, construction, and so forth. How to identify with some certitude a place where Lt. Reynolds actually tread was a big problem.

British Troops Aboard a Light Rail (Narrow Gauge) Train

His son Bob, though, had one vivid memory of visiting a site in France where his dad said he had supervised the maintenance and operation of a light rail line for several months during the spring 1917 Battle of Arras. (In the interwar period the family owned a summer house in Normandy and traveled around France a lot, so his recollection was solid in a general sense, but not too specific about exactly where this took place.)  

The next step was to try to pin down the lines where George might have served. We called on every British Army expert we knew. U.K.-based researcher Sidney Clark networked with a chap named Kevin Horn, who had access to a library of war diaries  that included engineering units. His searching yielded  the decisive information we needed. Lt. George Reynolds was assigned to the 113th Company of the Royal Engineers between 17 March and 18 May 1917. The company was responsible for a long stretch of rail line from Doullens to Arras, and on 23 March Lt. Reynolds had been given responsibility for a 10-kilometer stretch around the village of Mondicourt. Toni and Valmai Holt of Holt's Tours were also very helpful. Toni was a Royal Engineer, himself, and was able to find the map shown here that displays the Mondicourt section.

As you can see, the map is an engineering map not a road map. I could only compare it in a rough way to my Michelin map. As of my departure for France that spring,  I didn't have a specific point I could direct our bus driver to, and I did not know if there would be any remnants of the rail line even if we were at the right point. The one thing I noticed in comparing the two maps was that for the stretch under Lt. Reynolds's command,  the rail line ran parallel to the Doullens-Arras roads (N25), just about 50 yards to its south side.  

Leaving Doullens, I decided to drive to Mondicourt and take the first right turn and see what I could see. If that didn't work, I would go back to the N25 and take every turn-off I could until I found a rail right-of-way. I had not informed the group (including Bob and Betty) of where we were headed.  I held my breath as we turned at Mondicourt, but immediately felt a great release when I realized the entire former rail line was still clearly delineated and had been converted to a regional trail. (The aerial view below shows the path.) 

After the bus was parked,  I just asked the group to dismount and join me for something interesting on the trail. We walked a bit, and when the group gathered, I told them the story of Lt. George Reynolds and his service during the Battle of Arras. Bob, as you can see below was bursting with joy and the group was thrilled for him.   

Bob in the Center with the Group
on His Father's Former Rail Line

That night at the hotel he shared his happiness at being able to appreciate for the first time exactly what it was that his dad had done in the War to End All Wars.

How I'll Remember Bob

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Historian Michael Neiberg Recommends Some WWI Fiction

Editor's Comment: Back when I was the editor for the Journal of the World War One Historical Association, I asked prolific military historian Michael Neiberg to contribute an article on the long-term impact of the war. He included some thoughts on the literature of the war.  Here are his comments and a list of his favorites. MH

French Author Henri Barbusse

We all know about the poets of the First World War, but for some odd reason the novelists and memoirists of the war have, with the exception of Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque, faded into relative obscurity. There are, however, a number of wonderful novels, many of them based on personal experience, that are well worth the time. The best of the group is probably Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We (published in the U.S. under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune), a Cockney slang-filled story of British soldiers on the Somme. Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, now in a new English translation with the title Under Firewas a sensational bestseller when published in 1916 and remains poignant today. Liam O’Flaherty’s The Return of the Brute deals with Irish soldiers stuck in an impossible situation. One of my favorites remains Jaroslav Hašek’s hilarious take on the ineptitude of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in The Good Soldier Švejk

The Books Can Be Ordered Here

Monday, February 22, 2021

The U.S. Navy Memorial at Gibraltar

The World War I Naval Monument in Gibraltar is located at the Straits of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. It is a masonry archway which leads to a British Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. Over the arch are two bronze seals of the United States and the Department of the Navy. This monument, constructed of the stone from the neighboring Rock of Gibraltar, commemorates the achievements of the U.S. Navy in the nearby waters and its comradeship with the British Royal Navy during World War I.

Steps lead downward from the south side of the Naval Monument to the busy harbor; thus its nickname of the “American Steps.” The inscription on the north side of the monument:

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) bound for combat in Europe relied upon sea transport. German submarines posed a major threat to the traffic. General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, summarized the menace thus:

In the five months ending June 30, 1917, German submarines had accomplished the destruction of more than three and one quarter million tons of Allied shipping.

Scout Cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2) was the flagship for the Atlantic Fleet Patrol Force operating from Gibraltar

The U.S. Navy cooperated with the Royal Navy and other navies in fighting the submarine menace. Gibraltar was one of its major bases. The Navy’s Patrol Force operated there from August 1917 until after the Armistice of 11 November 1918. Its ships included cruisers, destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, and submarine chasers.

The ships attacked German submarines and escorted convoys to and from ports in France and Great Britain. During July and August 1918, the Patrol Force escorted 25 percent of all Mediterranean convoys to French ports and 70 percent of all convoys to English ports from the vicinity of Gibraltar. General Pershing paid tribute to the Navy’s performance in his 1919 final report. He said:

To our sister service we owe the safe arrival of our armies and their supplies. It is most gratifying to record that there has never been such perfect understanding between these two branches of the service.

Sailors from the USS Raleigh at the 1937 dedication
of the monument 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

General Pershing's Letters Home to His Son Warren


General Pershing and His Son Warren Back in Lincoln, NE, in 1920—Warren Had Spent the Post-Armistice Period with His Father in France

Read more of Pershing's letters to his son and learn about the documentary film Black Jack Pershing: Love and War, here:

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Prisoners of War & Repatriated Civilians

By Terrence J. Finnegan

German Prisoners: Future Sources of Intelligence

The Importance of the Order of Battle

To the military commander, knowing which unit was on the other side of No Man's Land—known as the order of battle—was the priority. A British intelligence officer commented that, "If reliable information is to be afforded by troops in the front line, it is essential that they should have some idea of the organization of the German army." A senior British analyst explained, "As everyone knows, the basis (of intelligence work) is the building up of the enemy's order of battle, for when this has been done the identification of one unit is prima facie evidence of the presence of the division to which it belongs and possible also of the corps or even army."


The most predominant source of intelligence collection in positional war was interrogation of prisoners. Both sides made capture and retention of prisoners a primary objective. Not only did it reduce the threat by one soldier, prisoners were usually a treasure trove of  information providing a sole source of information covering many critical issues. One British intelligence chief described the process. "Most of the information which a prisoner has is information in detail regarding the enemy defensive works on his own immediate front.

To extract this information from him requires time. It is sometimes necessary to take the prisoner back in the frontline trenches or to Observation Posts and almost always necessary to examine him with the assistance of aeroplane photographs." Ludendorff's chief spy manager at the front, Oberstleutnant Walter Nicolai, gave testament to the value of prisoner interrogations: "Our greatest and most valuable source of news in the western theatre of war—and at the frontline the only one—was furnished by prisoners of war."

Repatriated Men

Civilians in Newly Liberated Territory Had Lots of Information

An additional source of human intelligence consisted of interrogating repatriated civilians as they made it to Allied lines from German-held territory. Interviews were normally conducted by intelligence personnel in the sector looking for information on German activity and intentions. Following confirmation from local French authorities that the repatriated men were authentic, subsequent intelligence interviews sought elaboration on whatever modifications were being observed by aerial photography or other observation sources. 

Here's an example of valuable  information gathered from repatriated civilians by the AEF Intelligence Branch:

The 2 French civilians who came into our lines near Pont-a-Mousson on Sept 2, have described in detail a water supply system by which water from the Fontaine du Soiron, 66.8-48.3, is pumped to reservoirs at 3 points, each about 1 km. distant (N.W., S.W and S.) whence it is to be piped to points on the Hindenburg line from Dommartin, S.E. to Mont Plaisir Farm, for use in concrete work. This system is partly visible on photos, where it has the appearance of buried cable trenches, and it has been so represented on maps. The civilian's statement is entirely consistent with the photographic evidence and indicates that the further strengthening of the Hindenburg line is to be looked for at the points indicated. 

Source: "Summary of Intelligence," 1st Army Corps, U.S. Second Section, G.S. 

From "Military Intelligence at the Front," Over the Top, February 2009

Friday, February 19, 2021

Trench Raiding à la Rommel, Part II

Typical No-Man's-Land in the Vosges Sector

Part I of this article appeared in yesterday's (18 February 2021) posting on Roads to the Great War.

Part II

Those were hours of strenuous work! Occasionally, a wire cracked and we stopped work and strained our ears to listen into the night. By midnight we had cut our way through the second wire belt and we were a hundred feet from the enemy trench. Unfortunately the rain and the storm abated somewhat, and it had become a bit lighter. Ahead of us lay high and continuous chevaux-de-frise [a defensive barrier, sometimes spiked].

Each separate framework was long and heavy and the innumerable wires were too heavy for our light wire cutters. We crawled a few yards to the right and tried to separate two of the chevaux-defrise. This effort merely made a lot of noise, which sounded to us like a thunderclap. If the hostile sentries, now a hundred or so feet away, failed to hear us, they were surely asleep.

The next few minutes were not pleasant, but all remained quiet on the southern front. I gave up trying to separate the chevaux-de-frise which were too firmly anchored and, after a brief search, we found a shell crater which gave us an opening. We wormed our way through and covered the few yards between us and the enemy position.

Rommel's Plan

Another shower started. The three of us were between the wire and the enemy trench where the water trickled down the trench bottom over some stone steps and on into the valley, Cautiously, the leading men of the assault detachment squeezed under the chevaux-de-frise. The remainder were farther back in the first and second wire belts. Suddenly we heard footsteps coming down the trench from our left. Several Frenchmen approached us coming downhill in the trench and their slow and even steps resounded in the night. They were unaware of our presence. I estimated their strength at three for four men. A trench patrol ? What were we to do ? Jump them or let them pass? The chances of jumping them without raising a ruckus were remote. It would be a man for man fight. Our own assault detachment could not take part for it was still out in the wire. We could have overpowered the trench patrol, but then the trench garrison would have gone into action and covered the barriers with fire. Our return would have cost us dearly and, under such conditions, we would have had little luck in bringing back a prisoner. I quickly weighed the pros and cons and decided to let the enemy pass unmolested.

My two companions, Schafferdt and Pfeiffer were informed and we took complete cover at the edge of the hostile trench for, above all, we had to hide our hands and faces. The chevaux-de-frise interfered with our crawling back. We would have been detected had the French patrol been on the job. In case they were, we got ready to jump them. With our dispositions made, we lay and waited.

Their footsteps were regular and they conversed softly. Anxious seconds crawled by. Without hesitation, the French trench patrol came abreast of us and went on. While the sound of footsteps died away, we heaved a sigh of relief and waited a few minutes to see if they would return. Then, one after the other, we dropped into the trench. The rain had stopped and only the wind whistled over the bare slope. As the wary men entered the trench, bits of earth and rock broke loose from the trench wall and tumbled noisily down onto the stone steps. Again anxious minutes passed. Finally the whole assault detachment was in the trench.

We divided and Lieutenant Schafferdt, with ten men, went down the slope while Staff Sergeant Schropp and his ten went in the opposite direction. I went with Schropp. We felt our way carefully up the steep trench. Only a few steps separated us from our objective, the sentry post on the rock ledge. We wondered if the enemy had noticed anything. We stopped and listened. Suddenly over on the left something smacked into the barrier, followed immediately by an explosion on the trench parapet on the right. Hand grenades exploded with a roar. The leading man of the assault detachment reeled back, and the whole detachment became jammed in the trench. The next hand grenade salvo struck among us. It was a question of attacking immediately or surrendering. "Let 'em have it!" We rushed the enemy and managed to pass under his hand-grenade fire. Stierle, my groom, who had come up forward for this party only, was hit on the larynx by a Frenchman, and Sergeant Nothacker dispatched the man with his pistol. A short time afterward, two other men of the sentry detachment were overpowered. One Frenchman managed to escape to the rear.

Typical Trench—Vosges Sector

With our flashlights, we made a hurried search for dugout entrances. We found one hole that was empty, but a second one was full of Frenchmen. With my pistol in my right hand and flashlight in my left, I crawled into the twenty-inch opening followed by Sergeant Quandte. Seven fully armed Frenchmen sat along the wall, but they threw down their arms after a brief argument. The safest course was to take care of these lads with a grenade or two, but this was contrary to our orders, which specified that prisoners were to be brought back.

Lieutenant Schafferdt reported two prisoners with no losses in his unit. While we were occupied with the job at hand, the wire-cutting detachments had been working like beavers and the paths through the wire were ready.

Since the coup had accomplished its purpose, I gave the order to withdraw. We had to break away before French reserves got into action. Without further annoyance from the enemy, we regained our position with a bag of eleven prisoners. Particularly pleasing was the fact that we suffered no real casualties. Lance Corporal Stierle had a slight scratch from a hand grenade fragment. Recognition by our superior officers for this fine operation was not long in coming.

Unfortunately, the next day brought retribution, for a French sniper picked off Staff Sergeant Kollman in a quiet sector of the company trench. This lamented loss dampened our joy over the successful Pinetree Knob affair.

Lt. Erwin Rommel

After this the days in the "Open Position" were numbered. The Supreme Army Command had other work for the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. Toward the end of October we moved east.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Trench Raiding à la Rommel, Part I

The Future "Desert Fox" with a WWI Friend

In the fall of 1916, that most industrious lieutenant, Erwin Rommel, found himself deployed with the Württemberg Mountain Battalion to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, about 25 miles north of the Swiss border.  In his 1937 somewhat self-promoting case study book known in some sources as Infantry Attacks, he discusses a successful trench raid  he had commanded while posted there. In the essay, which uniquely covers the attack from concept to its aftermath, he reveals the thoroughness, self-confidence, and determination to "lead from the front," that would serve him throughout his service in both World Wars. In his book, he heads this section, "Raid on 'Pinetree Knob' Sector." I've been unable to locate its exact location, so the  position shown on the map below is only approximate and the trench photos here are all from the general sector, not specifically Pine Tree Knob.

Part I

Early in October 1916, several units, among them the 2d Company, were ordered to prepare plans for raiding the enemy to take prisoners. My Argonne experience showed me that this type of work was dangerous, difficult to organize, and usually resulted in a high casualty list and, for this reason, I held my boys in check as far as raids were concerned. Once ordered, I pitched in and started planning. To begin with, in order to determine the feasibility of working into the enemy position, I went out on reconnaissance, accompanied by Staff Sergeants Büttler and Kollmar. We crept and crawled through the tall and fairly dense fir forest toward a French sentry post, established at the upper end of a forest path leading up toward the enemy. The path was overgrown with tall grass and weeds and we were most careful in crossing it some fifty yards from the enemy. Once across, we slipped into a ditch and wormed our way forward. 

Cutting through the mass of barbed wire with cutters was a back-breaking job requiring a maximum of caution. Night began to fall and we heard, but could not see, the French sentry move about his post. It was slow work getting through the wire, especially since we could only cut the lowest strand of wire. Eventually we reached the middle of the entanglement. At this point the French sentry exhibited a certain amount of restlessness and cleared his throat and coughed several times. Was he afraid or had he heard us? If he tossed a hand grenade into our ditch, it was curtains for the three of us. To make matters worse, we could not move, let alone defend ourselves. We held our breath and let the tense moments tick by. As soon as the sentry quieted down, I began to withdraw. By this time it was totally dark. In crawling back, we snapped a few twigs and this inadvertent act received immediate recognition. The enemy alerted his entire position and for minutes sprayed the entire landscape between positions with all varieties of small arms fire. We hugged the ground and let them pass over us. When silence fell, we resumed our journey and returned without suffering any casualties. Our reconnaissance proved conclusively the difficulty of raiding in those wooded sectors.

Next day, I proceeded to examine the possibilities of getting into a hostile position called Pinetree Knob, and found the situation more favorable. Under cover of darkness, the position entanglements could be reached silently by moving up a grass-covered glade. However, the barriers consisted of three separate belts of wire requiring hours to cut. Only five hundred feet separated our trenches from those of the enemy. It took several days and nights of careful reconnaissance before we were able to determine the exact location of two sentry posts on Pinetree Knob. One was located in the center of a glade in a concealed sentry box; the other was two hundred feet to the left on a rock ledge from which it was easy to cover the surrounding terrain with fire as well as with visual observation. Only on rare occasions did we receive machine gun fire from this part of the sector.

General Terrain in the Vosges

Any operation in this direction moving over grassy terrain totally devoid of cover required a moonless night. During the next few days and nights we studied the details of the approaches into the Pinetree Knob position and observed the personal habits of the garrisons of both outposts. In doing so, we carefully avoided drawing our opponent's attention to the impending expedition. I based my plans on the results obtained through our reconnaissance. This time I did not intend to sneak into the positions proper; I proposed to negotiate the wire field midway between the two posts, get in this trench and then strike them in flank or preferably in the rear. The raid required a force of twenty men, for we had to split up on arrival in the hostile trench. Also I had to plan to get my raiding parties out and I had to allow for a possible attack by the local trench garrison. A wire-cutting party was to be placed opposite each enemy outpost. They were to crawl up to the edge of the wire and remain there doing nothing until the raiders started cleaning out the trench with pistols and hand grenades or until signaled from within the captured outpost positions. Not until one or other happened were they to start cutting the wire and make a path for the raiders' escape. 

I discussed the raid with the subordinate leaders, using sketches and pointing out the terrain from the trench. The various detachments started their preparations by holding rehearsals close behind our positions. October 4 was a cold and nasty day. A strong northwest wind drove clouds through our 3500-foot position. Toward evening the wind changed into a storm, and a rain of cloudburst proportions beat down. This was weather I had been praying for. By that time the French sentries had their heads deep in their coat collars and had taken refuge in the most sheltered corner of their sentry holes, thus reducing their efficiency as guards. In addition, the wind would drown out most of the noise occasioned by our approach and wire cutting. I reported to Major Sproesser my intention to carry out the raid during the coming night and received approval.

French Position Similar to Rommel's Description

Three hours before midnight, in a pitch black, stormy and rainy night, I left our positions with my three detachments and crawled slowly toward the hostile position. Soon the wire-cutting detachments under Staff Sergeant Kollmar and Lance Corporal Stetter left us and moved off to the right and to the left. Lieutenant Schafferdt, Staff Sergeant Pfeiffer, and I went with the assault detachment and crawled behind our wire-cutters. The other twenty soldiers followed in single file at three-pace intervals. We crawled noiselessly toward the enemy. The wind howled and whipped rain into our faces, and soon soaked us to the skin. We listened anxiously into the night. Single shots rang out here and there and an occasional rocket flare flickered in the darkness, but the enemy remained quiet. The night was so dark that the silhouettes of the surrounding rocks were indistinguishable at more than sixteen feet.

We reached the first obstacle and the hard work began. One of our trio wrapped a rag around every strand before using the cutters. Another took the tension off the wires, and the third slowly cut the wire through. The ends of the cut wire were bent back carefully to prevent betrayal by the noise which would result were they allowed to fly back unimpeded. Every move had been tested beforehand.

We stopped work occasionally and listened intently into the night before starting our tiresome job again. In this manner, inch by inch, we cut our way through the high, wide and very finely lace French wire. We had to content ourselves with cutting a path through the lower strands only.

Continued tomorrow in Part II

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Isaac Rosenberg's "In the Trenches"

Isaac Rosenberg

By David F. Beer

Isaac Rosenberg’s roots were probably the humblest of all the war poets. He was born in 1890 to impoverished Jewish refugees from Lithuania and had to leave his London school at 14 to become an apprentice to an engraver. He found he was gifted in both painting and poetry, but eventually leaned toward poetry. In 1915 he enlisted in a Bantam Battalion since he was under the required height for a regular battalion. Although his background and feelings were strongly pacifist, he wrote “there is certainly a strong temptation to join up when you are making no money.” He was never a happy soldier, but his best poetry came out of the war. He was killed on 1 April 1918, and his body was never found.

In the Trenches

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast…
Down - a shell - O! Christ,
I am choked… safe… dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

Although not as popular as some of his other (and longer) poems, “In the Trenches” gives a brief and poignant vignette of what could happen at any time. The poet and companion are moving through a trench where nothing is gentle. He "snatches" two poppies (implying they are torn out) from where they were manifesting at least some temporary loveliness on the parapet. He playfully adorns himself with one and gives the other to his pal. We note that the poppies are "bright red" and "blood red."

Their momentary playfulness is interrupted by a narrow spot in the trench. Squeezing through, his friend’s poppy is torn off his chest by rubbing against the sandbags. Then comes the terrifying and fatal shell by which the friend is ‘smashed’ and to the horror of the poet, poppy and blood are strewn over the floor of the trench. No further comment is possible. What more could one say?