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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Symbolic Death at the Sphinx

The Sphinx Above Anzac Cove, Gallipoli

Slightly to the north of Anzac Cove is a towering, geographical feature for which the newly arrived Anzacs — fresh from their training camps in Egypt — found a name naturally perfect for it — The Sphinx.  Soon they would discover what was waiting for them would keep them trapped on the shoreline for nine months and would take 8709 Australian lives. In the end, the entire campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula would see the deaths of more than 100,000.

Prewar Photo of Lt. Col. Clarke

On the 25th April 1915, 57 year old Lt Col Lancelot Fox Clarke of the 12th Battalion AIF landed at Gallipoli a little south of Ari Burnu point at dawn on the 25th April 1915. They could see the Sphinx in profile in the morning dawn. He urged some men, who had not been able to advance over the ground from the beach to the cliff slopes due to the Turks fire, to move forward, leading the way himself.  He somehow managed to scale the Sphinx’ near-vertical sides — a difficult enough feat for someone 30 years his junior.

Grave Marker at Beach Cemetery

At the top, he found the Turks in a trench. Clarke called for a signaller. He sat down and started to write a report to Brigade Headquarters, but was shot through the heart by a sniper and died at once.  The Colonel’s batman, who was ready to take the message, fell dead with another bullet. He rests today at Beach Cemetery from where you can view the Sphinx.

Source: Anzac Biographies

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Russian Nurse in War and Revolution: Memoirs, 1912-1922

by Tatiana Varnek 
translated by Kimball Worcester
Blurb, 2021
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Unidentified Frontline Nurse with Drozdovite Volunteer Army Unit, January 1918

This book opens with a full-page photograph of Tatiana Aleksandrovna Varnek, probably taken when she was in her early fifties. I was immediately struck by her face: that of an attractive woman who had seen much that was terrible but who had endured due to an innate strength, compassion, resilience, and sense of duty. Later in life she wrote down in Russian a detailed account of her experiences from 1912 to 1922, and fortunately for us these memoirs are now available in English through a very readable translation by Kimball Worcester.

Born in 1892 to an upper-class family, Tatiana Varnek enjoyed all the comforts and privileges of her pedigree in prewar Russia. Summers were spent in the Caucasus at her family’s estate and she was educated at a Women’s Gymnasium, finishing there in 1912. She might have continued to enjoy a relatively comfortable life while following her interest in drawing, but at the urging of a friend she “got carried away” and entered training to become a reservist nurse at the highly regarded and demanding Kaufman Community nursing school.

The 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War had revealed how the country might need professional nurses in the future, and 1914 was to prove how apt this foresight was. The demands of nursing school soon tested Tatiana’s resilience to the full, but she persisted—even persuading a younger brother at home to let her practice on him—and she was among the 50 percent of students who passed the final exams. Then began her hospital practicum, which weeded out even more would-be nurses:

In the first few days, many just couldn’t take it and left. We worked in the horrible Obukhovskaya Municipal Hospital. It was huge and so old it seemed that the walls had absorbed all the smells. The air was vile, poverty all around: the linens and blankets were old and grey, no comforts at all; it was impossible to get anything we needed. There weren’t even enough thermometers… After my first day at work, I went home and washed myself relentlessly, gargled cologne, and just couldn’t get rid of the disgusting hospital smell. I couldn’t even eat dinner [p. 3].

But her next sentence reveals the inner strength that was to serve her so well in the future: “Nevertheless, I kept on working.” Then she enjoyed a family vacation, was tempted to return to her drawing skills, yet as soon as war broke out and mass mobilization occurred, she decided without hesitation to serve as a nurse.

We now become almost breathless as we follow Tatiana’s adventures. Her nursing application is answered by “Come immediately.” From then on much of her life is spent around trains, either as a traveler or as a working nurse. Translator Kimball Worcester provides a helpful note (p. xi) on the "Railway War" carried out by the Russian Army. These were armored trains deployed to carry out warfare over the extensive railway system of the country. Such units necessitated care for the wounded and some trains were devoted to hospital work. Medical units also existed at some stations where doctors and nurses were posted. This system continued to some extent after the Revolution during the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Army—the latter being commonly referred to as the "Volunteer Army. "

At times we find Tatiana posted to a field hospital or an infirmary. With the retreat from Galicia many wounded were evacuated and what was sadly to become a common situation developed:

Suddenly an order came in…to come to the station for bandaging: the wounded had been hurriedly evacuated from all the frontline hospitals, infirmaries, and detachments in Galicia. There weren’t enough hospital trains, so they loaded them in freight trains and sent them off to the Lvov station, one train after another…As we bandaged the wounded from one train, another pulled up or was already waiting behind [p. 22].

At one point during the Brusilov Offensive she and another nurse are ordered to report immediately to Riga, not to a field hospital but to a huge Red Cross office building being used to accommodate casualties. This is what they faced:

. . . the casualties in the recent battles were terrible. All the hospitals were overflowing, and there weren’t enough medical trains, so the offices were littered with the wounded… There were so many wounded that they filled not just the corridors but also the wide staircase landings…mostly just lying on the floor, a few on stretchers [p. 35].

Conditions are even worse on the medical trains as the Russian front collapses. The nurses are assigned to a hospital train with shattered windows, no heat, and no washroom. An icy frost descends as they leave the station, and they find the train full of wounded lying on the floor. But, typical of her marvelous spirit, Tatiana tells us how they got to work right way with a "good attitude" and first separated the dead from the wounded and frostbitten. She then describes this arduous journey in detail (pp. 41-42).

The abdication of the tsar on 3 March 1917 caused considerable grief for these loyal nurses. The political situation reversed and the enemy became the Bolsheviks, but the need for nursing the wounded was as great as ever. Retreating trains are bombarded and attacked, no one is safe. Tatiana survives illness and bullets and continues her work. On 6 September 1918, she is assigned to a medical train which she is delighted to find is equipped like a hospital, with a "wonderful operating room" and a good surgeon (p. 135). But dying patients, terrible wounds, lice, and typhus will keep the nurses more than busy.

Tatiana, c. 1950 (?)

Civilian refugees now join the trains crammed with wounded fighters as the Red Army advances, and sick refugees make conditions inconceivably worse. Four patients are loaded into every two-person bunk and some nurses themselves become sick. On arrival at one station. . .

There were so many sick people that we could not unload our train… We tried to unload our patients at several Caucasus rail stations but were met everywhere with refusal… At one place they took a few. Many died on the way. We weren’t allowed into Mineralnye Vody, and we went back through the Caucasus, returning to Stavropol…The whole time we had to lock the cars so the delirious wouldn’t escape [p. 143-144].

Like so many, Tatiana finds herself joining family and others fleeing from the Communists. She eventually escapes through Constantinople and gets to Bulgaria. Even in retreat however, including a sea journey on an overcrowded ship, she does her best to take care of those in need. In exile she continues nursing, and her final entry in this amazing account simply states:

We went to Sofia and finally began to work on 20 August 1922. A grey, aimless life started, a battle for a piece of bread and nothing in our future. We were again refugees. It’s true, however, that we had the consolation of having stayed true to the army to the end and left only when it ceased to exist [p. 224].

She was true indeed, to her country and to her nursing profession. More than that—and this is frequently evident in her memoir—she had an energetic strength of character, an abiding concern for others, and the ability to always see good where good exists. Happily, after her war experiences she was to have a long life, marriage, and a son (p. 224).

She died in 1990, having left a gift to all of us through her memoirs of a terrible time, now available in English. I would love to have met her.

David F. Beer 


[The publication of Tatiana Varnek's memoir in English is with the gracious permission of the  Alexander Solzhenitsyn Russian Charitable Foundation (Moscow) and Russian Way Publishers (Moscow)

© Русский благотворительный фонд Александра Солженицына

© Издательство "Русский путь"]

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Gurkhas at Gallipoli–A Roads Classic

By James Patton

Gurkha Soldiers in a Trench at Gallipoli (Cap Badge Shown)

When organizing the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton lobbied hard to get a Gurkha Brigade included. Hamilton was an old India hand and appreciated the Gurkha’s ability to fight in hilly terrain. When he offered to leave four cavalry brigades, he was to get an Indian brigade, to be all Gurkhas when available, as there was only one Gurkha battalion in Egypt, the 1/6th. Adding three other Indian battalions on hand (14th Sikhs, 69th and 89th Punjabis), the 29th (Indian) Brigade was formed. Due to delays in formation, the new 29th didn’t arrive at the front behind V Beach until 9 May. The ability of the 1/6th was quickly proven by the capture of a highland subsequently known as "Gurkha Bluff". Two previous assaults by British troops had failed, and this secured the left flank of the British line all the way to the sea. 

Two days later Hamilton decided to remove the Punjabis because of concern about the loyalty of their Muslim companies, even though they had already been engaged and sustained casualties. The brigade was at half strength until 2 June, when the 1/5th and 2/10th Gurkhas arrived from India. Hamilton had his Gurkha brigade at last. 

The 29th fought in the Third Battle of Krithia and specifically the action at Gully Ravine, where the 14th Sikhs were decimated in a brave but futile attack. On 5 July, after heavy casualties (only eight British officers remained in the entire brigade, including the staff) the 29th had to be pulled back to Imbros. 

Gully Ravine Today — A Horrible Place to Fight

It was difficult to replace officers who could not only speak the language of the men but were often deeply respected and implicitly trusted by the ranks. It was thought important that officers set a high standard of élan. One frequently mentioned example was Capt. W.K. Brown of the 1/5th Gurkhas, who drew his sword — he was probably the only officer on the peninsula who wore one –— and led his men in a gallant, though doomed, charge. 

The battalions were brought back up to strength, and the brigade was to be augmented by the 1/4th Gurkhas and detachments from 2/5th and 1/9th Gurkhas sent from France, but they were delayed and didn't arrive until 25 August, so the 6th S Lancs and the 9th Warwicks (which included the young Lt. W.J. Slim, much later Field Marshal and Viscount) were temporarily attached. This reconstituted 29th became part of the new Indian Expeditionary Force “G”, landed on 6 August, and immediately moved to the northern flank of Anzac and joined in what would be last major attempt to break the stalemate.

Part of the left assaulting column, Force “G” were continuously engaged in action, with little rest or sleep, till the 10th. Despite this, they rose magnificently to the occasion and played a vital role in the battle for the Sari Bair Ridge. 

The climax of this action occurred on the morning of the 9th when the ridge was crested at Hill Q by an ad hoc force led by Major C.J.L.Allanson, the CO of 1/6th Gurkhas, which included his 1/6th, elements from the British battalions, and a party from the 1/5th that had been separated from their battalion, charged at dawn, and overcame the enemy defenders.  

Major (Later Lt. Col.) Allanson

Allanson, who was wounded but survived, later wrote:

Then off we dashed, all hand in hand, most perfect and a wonderful sight. At the top we met the Turks; Le Marchant was down, a bayonet through the heart. I got one through the leg, and then for about what appeared to be to be ten minutes we fought hand to hand, we hit and fisted, we used rifles and pistols as clubs and then the Turks turned and fled, and I felt a very proud man: the key of the whole peninsula was ours, and our losses had not been so very great for such a result. Below I saw the strait, motor s and wheeled transport on the road leading to Achi Baba. As I looked around I saw that we were not going to be supported and thought that I could help best by going after those who had retreated in front of us. We dashed down towards Maidos but only about two hundred feet when suddenly our Navy put six twelve inch monitor shells into us and all was terrible confusion. It was a deplorable disaster; we were obviously mistaken for Turks and we had to go back … We all flew back to the summit and took our old positions just below. I remained on the crest with about fifteen men; it was a wonderful sight.

John North added in his book Gallipoli: The Fading Vision

The lonely advance of these British and Gurkha skirmishers to the crest of the ridge, when the battle was already lost must always remain one of the most gallant episodes in the whole campaign.
As the Gurkhas pursued the enemy down the opposite slope, they were hit by a salvo of naval gunfire which, combined with heavy enemy fire from the directions of Abdel Rehman Bair and a subsequent counterattack, drove them back from the summit. They were able to rally on the line held the previous night, but all of the British officers of 1/6th except the medical officer were casualties and in command was a subhadar-major who spoke no English.

The battle for Sari Bair was now lost, and strong enemy counterattacks on the 10th pushed the Allies to a line along the lower slopes of the ridge, which was entrenched and held till the end of the campaign. 

Hill Q in the Middle Distance from Chunuk Bair, Hill 971 Farther Back

The Indian Brigade was actively involved in the assault on Hill 60, the last battle of any magnitude to be undertaken. After the capture of Hill 60 on 28 August, the entire line settled down to the routine of trench war. Force “G” held a front on the extreme left flank of the Anzac defenses, extending northward from Hill 60 and joining up with the right of IX Corps at Suvla, and elements remained in these positions till the final evacuation on 20 December.  

Indian casualties for the campaign were 4,130, with 1,300 dead.

When the historic Indian Army was divided in 1947, four Gurkha regiments went to the British Army. Although not one of the distinguished regiments, one was the 6th Gurkhas. Designated "Queen Elizabeth’s Own" in 1959, in 1994 the 6th was combined with the 2nd to form today’s 1st Bn, Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Sources: United Services Institute (India), Byron Farwell, The Gurkhas, 1984

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Recommended: The Fable of the Fourteen Points


By  Matthew Wills 

Originally Presented in JSTOR Daily, 14 January 2019

On 19 January 1919 the Paris Peace Conference got underway. It was an effort to formally end the Great War and remake the world. Waiting in the wings of the conference were representatives from around the world eagerly awaiting the manifestation of Woodrow Wilson’s supposedly ringing endorsement of “self-determination,” the ability of groups of people to form their own states and choose their own governments.

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June of 1919, it was clear that Wilsonian self-determination wasn’t actually all that real. All of the colonial powers except for defeated Germany remained. Hopes for independence in Ireland, India, Asia, and Africa were dashed. The Ottoman Empire, brought down in part by promises of independence to the Arabs, would be chopped up into “mandates” of Britain and France.

Many felt betrayed by Wilson. Others blamed him for helping set the stage for WWII, particularly with the new map of Europe that resulted from the treaty. Historian Trygve Throntveit, however, argues that Woodrow Wilson’s legendary support for “self-determination” is indeed just a legend:

National self determination—the principle that groups bound by common language or lines of descent have a right to political and territorial independence—was not one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and was never central to his peace program.

The Fourteen Points were a framework for peace Wilson articulated to Congress in January 1918, ten months before the war was over. The points were adopted at Paris as the basis for peace negotiations after hostilities ceased.

Throntveit writes that in this framework, Wilson never supported “ethnic nation-states.” Instead, Wilson’s dream was an “integrative internationalism,” epitomized by the League of Nations. This body, in Wilson’s mind, was something akin to a global European Union, with “significant concessions of sovereignty from its members.” Throntveit calls Wilson’s idea of world government radical for its time. It was also misunderstood and misinterpreted, not least because Wilson was so vague about it all, “quietly ignoring the false ascription of ‘self-determination’ to him.”

That ascription is writ large in history. Even the National Archives’ introduction to the Fourteen Points speech refers to the “promise of ‘self-determination’ for those oppressed minorities.” The phrase “self-determination,” however, isn’t even in the speech itself. The fifth “point” does refer to colonialism, arguing that “the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the Government whose title is to be determined.” Giving colonial subjects equal weight to their colonial rulers was a challenge to imperialism, but it wasn’t exactly a call for self-determination.

Throntveit suggests that Wilson’s “failure of leadership” combined with general confusion about the notions of self-determination voiced by both Prime Minister Lloyd George and Russia’s V.I. Lenin. Still, even members of his own government credited Wilson with the notion of self-determination. One of of Wilson’s Paris Peace commissioners, William C. Bullitt, publicly resigned in dismay after reading the draft of the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson—acting, in Throntviet’s phrase, as “lone-wolf”—negotiated without the help of his own commissioners. Bullitt charged Wilson with betraying what he thought Wilson’s notion of self-determination was. The treaty, argued Bullitt, instead delivered “the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, subjections, and dismemberments.”

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Aerial Observation from Airplanes


A Sopwith 1A2 aerial reconnaissance sortie is about to take off. The U.S. Aero Squadron's photography officer hands over the 26cm aerial camera to the aircrew. When the sortie returns, the motorcycle will deliver the exposed photo plates to the photo lab.

By Terrence J. Finnegan

"Aerial observation" describes the many roles of aviation in the Great War. The value of aerial reconnaissance was clearly demonstrated during the first months of the mobile campaigns on both Eastern and Western Fronts.

Aerial cameras, a new phenomenon of warfare proved to be decisive in shaping the battlefield throughout the war. Furthermore, subordinate observational roles such as infantry contact missions (German writings referred to this as tactical reconnaissance) also provided the battlefield commander with timely location updates of both enemy and friendly forces in contact.

One of the lasting legacies of the Great War is the role of the airplane. Amazingly enough, the aerial reconnaissance inventory on both sides of the front has been ignored or forgotten-a remarkable oversight especially when the first priority for the battlefield commander in considering the role of aviation was to what extent the airplane could acquire information to successfully support the battle. Airplanes such as the Maurice Farman (MF) 11, Farman Experimental (FE) 2b, Albatros C-I, Reconnaissance Experimental (RE) 8, Breguet 14 A2, Halberstadt C-V, and Salmson 2A2, to name a few, were incredibly important to battlefield commanders because they delivered the information necessary to make critical decisions. It is also noteworthy to mention that many airplanes of this era were specifically designed to house a camera internally within the fuselage. French and German airplanes were structured to accommodate the requirement. For most of the war the British had to rely on smaller cameras attached to the outside of their airframes. 

Aerial photography interpretation was a team effort. The intelligence officer usually inspected one set of photographs, while a draftsman compared a duplicate set of the photographs with earlier photographs of the same area to detect any new works or defenses created in the meantime. The comparison process was accomplished by attaching a piece of tracing paper to the photograph and highlighting objects that required further attention.

This British Photo Shows Important Elements
Identifiable from the Air

The sketches were promptly completed and delivered  along with the prints, so new work by the enemy discovered by the interpreter was quickly introduced to the participants. The draftsman accelerated the interpretation by duplicating the features of new positions and points of interest. This was accomplished sketches were promptly completed and delivered in coordination with the aerial observer who flew the mission. These "short notes" attached to the maps also included impressions of the enemy's organization gained from the study of photographs and of the ground.

From 1915 to 1918, aerial photography was the cornerstone of military intelligence at the front. In cases of conflicting data, the photograph was acknowledged by the French as the one source that settled the discrepancy. As one American instructor summed up all things intelligence, "Under the conditions of modern warfare, no army can long exist without using every possible means of gathering information; and of all these means aerial photographs present probably the best medium." It provided the viewer with a concise portrayal of the threat that existed at a particular moment and the interpreted information could be effectively and accurately applied to the most important medium of the Great War, the targeting map. Photographs provided all combatants with the ability to wage positional war in the most effective and devastating manner

Source: Over the Top, February 2009

Friday, March 26, 2021

An Aspiring Aviator in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, Part II

By Lt. Camillo Viglino


The constant occurrence of disasters, and the knowledge that they could happen to you at any moment, left you feeling indifferent to the fate of others. When someone died or was injured, the authorities immediately removed him and quickly made us fly again so that we wouldn't have time to mull over the dangers.

On that particular evening, we all went to a small restaurant that we frequented often and ordered steak. Someone in our group noticed that the smell of the steaks resembled that of the charred bodies of the two men and he said so out loud. The rest of us just continued to eat our steak without comment. Today it happens to you; tomorrow it happens to me. It's all part of the game.

But don't think for a minute that we didn't have respect for our classmates killed in flight. When the field truck passed in front of the cemetery, we all saluted. And when we passed over the cemetery in flight, again we all saluted. We were saluting the friends that we could be joining at any moment. When we attended the funeral of our friends who died flying, the women would look at us all with eyes full of pity. But we were no more deserving of their pity than the infantrymen who died hungry, in dirty trenches filled with lice. I guess in contrast to them, we risked a cold death, often foreseen, all alone, without the excitement of the hand-to-hand combat to distract us from its approach.

The Author in His Damaged Maurice Farman After a Near-Fatal Accident


The short run taught us how to maintain a straight flight path and how to land. Next, we began practicing our fourth exercise, the "long run". On the long run, we flew about 150 feet above the ground for a distance of about 1.5 miles. The long run made landing more difficult because at the higher altitude, we had to begin to deal with air turbulence. Standing on the ground, you can't imagine the vertical air currents which rise (updrafts) and descend (downdrafts) constantly even when the air is relatively calm. The ground, heated by the sun, warms the air immediately above it which, being lighter, rises in vertical currents. Simultaneously, the warm, lighter air is replaced by colder air in descending currents. The airplane is caught in the middle of these two opposing currents. Under these conditions, a very strong, stiff wind coming head-on can literally stop the plane. (This happened to me during my training for the second license. I will give the details of this adventure later on in the book). To avoid the most violent air currents, in the summer the students didn't fly from 10 am to 4 pm, the hottest part of the day.

Those student pilots who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of air currents without having been forewarned, could become petrified. While I was attending the funeral of someone in our air field, I met up with Ruggerone, who had made the first flight around the Cathedral of Milano in 1910. He told me that prior to his first encounter with air currents, he had flown only in the winter in the mountains. He encountered air currents for the first time while flying over a relatively large town where the roof tiles produced large air currents. This first taste of air currents scared him so much that he could do nothing but recite every prayer that he could think of, keeping his eyes on the locket of the Madonna around his neck, as if to say, "Help me." He ended up overcoming his fear and surviving the flight. But then, if only those without fear flew, no one would fly. When you got a good handle on them, air currents could be lived with, and talking about our experiences with them was a great pastime. What took us off guard was encountering them by surprise. Thank God that nowadays students are forewarned of them by their instructors.


Having mastered the long run, we began our fifth exercise, called the tour of the field. We would circle around the entire field, both clockwise and counter clockwise, just to get used to going both ways. At the end of the flight, we would be at an altitude of about 600 to 900 feet and we would try to land at our point of departure by throttling down the engine and gliding down in a straight line with the wings level. After we learned how to make a straight glide, we had to learn how to make descending turns. First a quarter turn to the left and to the right, then a half turn—also called a "one-eighty," then a complete turn—called a "three-sixty."

I was still working on my tours of the field and trying to master the landing with a straight glide, when I was ordered, by mistake, to make the "half-hour flight" which normally came much later in our training. In the half-hour flight the pilot climbed to about 3,600 to 4,500 feet and went farther from the field. I'll describe the half-hour flight in more detail in another section. Anyway, instead of calling attention to the fact that I wasn't really trained for the half-hour flight, I snatched the opportunity to go on it. I guess the outcome was predictable. I found myself unable to bring the plane down because landing with a straight glide from that altitude required experience, and I had not yet mastered descending with turns. I could have glided straight down to about 600 feet, throttled up the engine to bring the plane closer to my landing destination and then glided straight to Malpensa from the lower altitude—but that would have been too humiliating. I remembered having heard that from 3000 feet above the Oleggio Bridge it was possible to make a straight glide all the way to Malpensa. I therefore went to the Oleggio Bridge and started the glide. Unfortunately, I mistook the hangars at Vizzola, which were close, for those at Malpensa and made such a steep glide that my ears were ringing from the speed of the descent. Finally, I landed at Vizzola and from there flew on to Malpensa.

Author's Photograph


What an emotional experience that flight was. It was the first time that I had climbed to such an altitude. The month was September and it was sundown. I found myself in the middle of an immense cylinder of light, white and golden higher up, and darker lower down until it became violet. Above me was the clearest blue sky. In front of me, far away, the massif Monte Rosa, solemn and joyful, like a huge, friendly giant. Closer to me on the right, resembling an emerald goblet, was Lake Maggiore, and my home town, Intra. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes and evoked in me a sudden urge to praise God.

After that memorable flight, I got into the habit of reciting my morning prayers on the plane. I enjoyed them more that way. In the future, when flying becomes more routine, it should be possible to celebrate Mass on it. After all, where can you find a church more beautiful than the sky? . . .

Source: Venite a Volare Con Me, 1934, trans 1998 (by permission of the Viglino family)

Thursday, March 25, 2021

An Aspiring Aviator in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, Part I

By Lt. Camillo Viglino

The full course for becoming a pilot during the war consisted of two parts. First we had to obtain the First License, which bestowed on us the title of Cadet Pilot Aviator. . .


I began my training for the First License at the Malpensa Field near Somma Lombardo toward the end of July 1915. At that time, heroics were an everyday part of aviation. That's why everyone stared in awe at the insignia of Golden Eagles imbedded on the shirt sleeve of those who had completed their first license. And just to make sure it was visible, it wasn't unusual to see a young pilot walking with his coat over his arm in the dead of winter. The risk of getting pneumonia seemed like a small price to pay for the admiration gained by the insignia. The pilot who succeeded in flying his plane over his own home town was written up in the local newspaper. In fact, every once in a while, a plane would disappear from the field for a time followed by an excited telephone call from the police of someone's home town thirty miles away informing us that the plane had been spotted overhead.

While we were working on our first license, we were called "Aspiring Pilot Aviators" and were given a metal propeller to wear on our hats. But of course, no "hazardous duty" pay to accompany it. To top it off, we had to contribute regularly to the purchase of funeral wreaths for our classmates killed in the training course. Once we completed the first license, we did receive a hazardous duty pay of about four lira per day. And after we completed the second license, we received an additional hazardous duty pay of about three lira per day.

Lt. Camillo Viglino

In those days only men from the engineering, artillery, and cavalry units were permitted to volunteer for pilot training. Ordinary infantrymen were not. Pilot trainees, such as myself, who generally came from upper class families, had therefore willingly left a relatively safe environment for one full of risk—the term "risk of luxury" was the way it was sometimes described.

At Malpensa, we flew the Maurice Farman Model 1912 planes. The Model 1912 had the cockpit in front of the wings and the steering board, or as we called it, the stabilizer, in front of the cockpit. The plane was so easy to fly that in honor of the inventor, we named it Maurizio: "It will kill you only if you have a death wish". We also called it "Father of the Family."

Within a 100-square-mile area of flat marshland there were four aviation fields—Busto Arsizio, Malpensa, and Cascina Costa for training the pilots, and Vizzola for testing the Caproni planes. The sky was therefore always full of airplanes crossing over and under each other in every which way. When the big Caproni bomber planes went by, the Farmans veered off and gave them the right of way out of respect.

At Malpensa there was a single road which, starting at the barracks, circled the field. Because it was the only road wide enough to accommodate the planes, it was also used as the runway and planes all lined up along it in preparation for take-off. Each plane was assigned to an instructor and a group of students. One by one they flew a few feet above the ground, ascending and descending in turn making very sure to stay on the road. The importance of staying on the road was to teach us precision landing and to avoid the damage to the plane and ourselves that could result from veering off the road. If you did veer off the road, you were suspended from flying for a day without flight pay.

First in line—farthest from the barracks—were the students who were making their first flight alongside an instructor. It was standard practice for the survivors of the "flight of terror" to pay for drinks all around immediately afterwards. First the student would fly as a passenger for about five minutes just to see if he could hack it. Often, he came back without having seen or understood anything because his goggles were never properly adjusted and the wind was so strong that he had to keep his eyes shut most of the time. If the first trip indicated that the student had what it took to fly, the training started. He and the instructor boarded a plane with dual controls. The instructor sat in front and handled the set of controls which could override those in the rear being used by the student. The student learned by imitating the actions of the instructor. The aviation lingo between them was full of idiomatic expressions created earlier by French pilots. These expressions included taxi, take off, climb, dive, glide, and land. Let's hope this foreign lingo will soon disappear.

When the instructor felt that the student was ready, he let him switch to the front controls and he would sit in the back correcting any mistakes the student was making. The controls were actually very intuitive and easily learned. A single lever was used for all directions. You pulled it toward you to climb, pushed it away from you to descend, tilted it left to roll to the left, and tilted it right to roll to the right. To conduct a full turn left or right, you simply stepped on the left or right pedal.

Unfortunately, not everything was easy. For example, it wasn't so easy to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of the plane, and without equilibrium, you quickly found yourself spiraling downwards like a falling leaf. Nor was it easy to determine from up high how to maneuver the plane so that you could land in a specific location. It wasn't so easy to land the plane upright at just the right time—a little too late and you slammed into the ground; a little too soon and the plane dropped downward from its own weight. In other words, you had to straighten the plane just as you touched the ground and at just the right speed to avoid nosing down or yawing. With all these problems, it wasn't at all unusual for us to end up slamming against houses or trees particularly if the landing area was unsuitable, which it often was.

Italian Pursuit Squadron


After about twenty flights with the instructor, each lasting from five to ten minutes, we went on to the next exercise, called "taxiing". For taxiing we were alone in the plane and we stayed on the ground. The purpose of the exercise was to learn how to take off without yawing. If you weaved just a little, the plane could easily start to spin around itself and, at those take-off speeds, the carriage of the plane would detach and the plane would fall on its side, smashing against the ground.

Next we went on to the third exercise called the "short run." In the short run the student really flew alone for the first time. In this exercise, the student had to fly for a distance of about 300 feet, at about 9 to 12 feet above the ground, and land. A classmate helped him turn the plane around at the end of each lap. On an average, a student would make anywhere from two to four short runs per day.

In the first few laps, the minimum damage was likely to be the breaking of the tension wires. There was one mechanic who was particularly good at repairing them and he would charge the students two cents per wire. From the sidelines the students urged him to hurry up complaining that they were wasting time that they wanted to spend making short runs.

What happened one day will help the reader understand the intensity of the mania which I had for flying. A burning plane fell quite close to me while I was in the process of practicing my short runs. Everyone else ran toward the plane. I, however, saw it as an opportunity to make more short runs than I would normally be able to make. Because even the classmate assigned to help me turn the plane around had run toward the burning plane, it took some heroic strength to turn the plane around by myself. Finally, I felt guilty for making short runs while others may have been dying—in fact, two men in the plane had been burned to death—and belatedly ran toward the wrecked plane.

Source: Venite a Volare Con Me, 1934, transl. 1998 (by permission of the Viglino family)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How the 35th Division's Artillery Broke Down in the Argonne


35th Division Artillery at Varennes 

Editor's Introduction: The 35th Division of the AEF got into trouble—the division collapsed and had to be taken out of the line—during the first days of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in 1918. The final tally of casualties was 7,300 with 1,126 killed or died of wounds. In his book, Professor Ferrell lists many causes; one of the most important was the breakdown of the divisional artillery. As a typical AEF division, the 35th was manned with a full artillery brigade which included two regiments of 75mm field pieces and one regiment equipped with larger, 155mm howitzers.

By Robert H. Ferrell

For the [AEF] there was the continuing problem of artillery support. During these opening days in the Meuse-Argonne, the U.S. Army commanders could not quite grasp what was necessary. Going into the Meuse Argonne the AEF had known of the gigantic preparation fire and barrages of [German] Lieutenant Colonel Georg Bruchmueller. Some of the American commanders appreciated the need of infantry for fire that would destroy or hold down opponents. Artillery had long been a specialty of the U.S. Army. At Gettysburg, the classic battle of the Civil War, Union artillery decimated General George Pickett's line. The army could hardly ignore its achievement in 1863, and its experts kept in touch with developments abroad. The army's three-inch field gun was as good as the French 75. But the other arms appear to have taken priority. The army's three-inch gun could not be produced rapidly enough, once war was declared, and it was necessary to use French guns.

The army's artillery organization in 1917–1918, which designated one artillery brigade for each division, with two regiments of light three-inch guns and one regiment of heavy 155s, tended to persuade each division commander that one artillery brigade was enough and, moreover, if another division desired two, that was its problem. When a division went into the line for the first time it often found its artillery brigade unready, in which case it could lay claim to another division's brigade. Normally, however, each kept its own and felt satisfied.

35th Division Sector in Meuse-Argonne Attack

As the Meuse-Argonne developed, it became evident that for an attack division more artillery could easily be used, and this became clear during the final attack on 1 November, in which the point divisions were both in Fifth Corps, at that moment fighting only those two divisions. Each had two brigades of artillery, not one. It would be possible to lay the artillery support of the Fifth Corps's divisions on November 1 to its then commander, Summerall, whom Pershing promoted from the First Division. There can be no question that the forceful Summerall, who started with the AEF as artillery brigade commander of the 42nd Division and believed artillery could do anything, was at least in part the architect of the attack on 1 November, an artillery bombardment that in sheer fury and thoroughness surpassed anything the AEF had previously produced. For November 1st, responsibility also lay with, among others, the army's artillery commander, Major General Edward C. McGlachlin. But, essentially, the result was due to experience. Neither [divisional commander MG Peter] Traub nor [artillery brigade commander BG Lucien] Berry understood the need of the infantrymen for artillery support. They did not have experience on 29 September, when the artillery scheme for the division's last attack failed. One artillery brigade was not enough.

It is saddening, too, that experience was to teach the AEF artillerists to vary the nature of the shells, so that when they were trying to take out the enemy's artillery the shells would be full of high explosive, while if enemy troops were the target the necessity was shrapnel. If they could get guns close enough, flat trajectory with its ricochet was the thing, rather than hole-digging. In the early days commanders fired what they had on hand. It is true that there were supply problems in obtaining stocks for special purposes, but there was no imagination in asking for the right sort of shells at supply dumps nor in bringing up the guns.

During the action of the 35th Division on 29 September, as on the four days that preceded, the artillery brigade used no gas shells, and there again, as in the general use of artillery, it and the other divisions learned by experience. The Germans had employed gas shells from the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne. Colonel Wieczorek was gassed the first day. It was possible to contend that a good soldier would avoid gas, and there was some truth in that argument. When the Germans were attacking American troops in Montrebeau Woods they drenched the place; all low areas, especially ravines, were dangerous, and a good infantryman could keep that point in mind. Luck, as well as care, could save men. A member of the 110th Engineer Regiment manning the hastily improvised engineers' line that would save the division on 29 September remarked in his memoir of many years later that at the time he was so glad the weather turned cold, for it kept down the gas. But gas, even if controlled by the men who had to live close to it, was a terrible nuisance, and this was a part of the calculation of the German enemy that employed it. Troops in the woods were forced to stay there with masks, which were difficult to use because of trouble with breathing, and also because the circled eyeglasses fogged up.

Artillery Brigade Command Staff BG Berry, with Mustache

As with artillery, AEF commanders began the Meuse-Argonne in ignorance of the need for gas to counter German gas and learned by experience. At the outset, division commanders to a man did not want any gas and flame troops in their lines sending gas, for they believed, somewhat quaintly since on the German side the genie was out of the bottle, that if they used it there would be retaliation. Sad experience taught its lesson. When Summerall's 1st Division relieved the 35th on the night of 30 September 30-1 October, one of the first things the Germans did was fill the ravines, in particular those that ran east-west and afforded shelter from artillery and most (unless well aimed) machine-gun fire. Casualties were heavy. So when Summerall in the final First Army attack beginning on 1 November commanded the Fifth Corps, he asked for and obtained gas in support of his infantry. Even then, one of the 89th Division's brigade commanders pleaded at the last minute that there be no gas. In the same attack, the First Corps to the left, needing to rid itself of enemy artillery in the large woods ahead of the attacking 78th Division, put thousands of rounds of gas into that woods and silenced the opposing batteries.

On the morning of 29 September it was too soon in the AEF's developing understanding of gas warfare to use gas against the 1st and 5th Guards divisions and the arriving German 52nd Division and avoid defeat of the U.S. 35th Division. Of the quarter-million Americans killed and wounded in the war, gas shells caused one-third of the casualties (shell and shrapnel half, and rifle and machine gun fire one-tenth).

In the artillery fire that accompanied the attack on 29 September, and despite the need for artillery brigadiers to have experience, Berry made several miscalculations that seem inexcusable. One was to assign the 130th Artillery Regiment of heavy howitzers a fire by the map that would stand one kilometer north of Exermont until the rolling barrage, to be fired by the 128th and 129th regiments of light guns, moved up to that line, whereupon the 130th was to lift its fire to the German batteries at Chatel-Chéhéry. A standing fire north of Exermont might have prevented the Germans from reinforcing their defenses in Exermont, on Hill 240, known as Montrefagne, and in the Bois de Boon on top of it. Fire on the flanking batteries in Chatel-Chéhéry might have cut down on their fire during the infantry attack, but the division's infantry available for the attack was not strong on the righthand side of the division sector, what with the 138th weakened by stretching to the right to cover the four-kilometer gap. On the lefthand side of the 35th's sector, the 137th had disintegrated and the 139th was starting to go. Both sides were in trouble and needed every artillery piece firing in the barrage, including the heavy howitzers of the 130th.

Reducing the barrage of his brigade by one regiment, Berry assigned the 128th and 129th light regiments each 1,500 meters. The 128th, supporting the right side of the line, involving the 140th and 138th, had only a single battalion in action. That meant that, on the right 1,500 meters, the three batteries in the 128th's battalion each covered 500 meters. With four guns to a battery, each gun had 125 meters, or 400 feet. This coverage was utterly inadequate. On the left side, the 129th had two battalions firing for 1,500 meters, so that each battalion had to cover 750 meters, or 250 meters per battery, which came to 60meters, or 200 feet, per gun. Even that was none too dense a coverage.

Battery D, 129th Field Artillery in Action (Detail)
This Was Harry Truman's Outfit

There was a third miscalculation on Berry's part. This, as one would have expected, was his guns' rate of fire. Jacobs believed they fired two shots per minute or less. The War College study says that each battery rested one gun while the others fired four shots per minute. Its estimate seems to be based on figures for shells fired that day, and those figures are not altogether clear, for they may well have been for shells on hand—in any event, to start with the number of shells and move back to the number of guns firing and the firing rate appears to be an uncertain way of calculation. After the war Colonel Klemm of the 129th told the newspaper that the guns were firing two shots per minute. That rate of fire, or four shots (one gun resting), was hardly what the 155mm might have done. And there is no evidence in the War College study that there was any shortage of ammunition, despite Berry's explanation to Jacobs that he was running out.

A final miscalculation in Berry's barrage was that he began it 200 meters south of Exermont. The distance from the top of Montrebeau Woods to Exermont was 1000 meters. This meant that the area in between, 800 meters, was not covered. During the night of 28–29 September, the Germans sent machine gunners down from Exermont and covered it against the attacking troops of the 35th Division.

Some sort of confusion occurred in the failure to place the starting point of the barrage closer to Montrebeau. It might have been the illness of the division's operations officer, Colonel Gallagher. He had contracted pneumonia, from which he would die on 4 October. It is possible that he was not thinking at all straight in stipulating in the division field order, number A8 that the barrage should start just south of Exermont. It is barely possible, for he was at Cheppy, that he did not know the troops had taken Montrebeau, although this seems unlikely. He may have felt that it was better not to start a barrage closer to the troops and chose 200 meters south of Exermont (800 north of Montrebeau) as a safer distance, so there would be no short fire.

It is possible that General Berry, at Cheppy with Gallagher, let the latter do what he wished, not calling his attention to the fact that his artillery was good enough to fire 200 meters above the troops' starting line. Berry might have been observing his habit of keeping out of division (that is, Traub's) business. It is a curious fact that when the division orders came out at 10:00 p.m. on 28 September, Berry misread them and set his barrage 200 meters north of Montrebeau, at 8o.o. He then sent a correction, two-and-a-half hours later, putting the opening of the barrage 200 meters south of Exermont, at 8o.6, as the division order read.

In this last regard one might say, again, that because Berry had good wire and was in easy contact with his regiments, he could have known better than Traub where the front line was on the morning of 29 September. Perhaps he did not wish to know.

Excerpted from: Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division (Reprinted by permission of the author)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Verdun 1917: The French Hit Back by Christina Holstein

17 Aug 1917 Aerial Image of Mort Homme, Left Bank
of Meuse, Showing Evidence of Shelling Prior to Assault of
20 Aug. (Tom Gudmestad)

by Christina Holstein

Penn & Sword Books, 2020

Editor's Note:  Regular readers of Roads to the Great War and the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire will recognize the name of author Christina Holstein, who has frequently contributed articles for us. For those who are not familiar with her, let me introduce her this way—she is simply the most knowledgeable person alive about the Verdun battlefield.  Verdun 1917 is the fourth in  a series on her specialty.  In covering the period between the wrap up of the legendary 1916 battle and the American arrival in the sector in the fall of 1918, she provides an amazing number of facts that are either neglected or glossed over in most works other on Verdun. Verdun 1917 has the same format as the earlier works in her series, a highly detailed mixture of history, operational descriptions, personality profiles, and itineraries for "boots-on-the-ground" visitors, supplemented by helpful maps, and numerous photos from Christina's own collection and that of fellow expert Tom Gudmestad.  Here is a selection from the work, it's on a fascinating topic I knew little about until I opened my copy of Verdun 1917. MH

The Tunnels of Mort-Homme (Excerpt) 

Restored Southern Entrance for Gallwitz Tunnel (Author)
See Top Photo and Map Below for Location

By mid-1917, the German positions at Verdun comprised, roughly speaking, five defensive lines on the Right Bank, with some positions still under construction, and three lines on the Left Bank, which included three tunnels on the Mort-Homme. The lines were served by an extensive railway network and supported by roughly 130 batteries, many of them heavy, and 20 air escadrilles comprising bombers, fighters and spotter, reconnaissance and communication units. As regards infantry, French intelligence reports at the time named four German infantry divisions on the Right Bank, plus three with elements of a fourth on the Left Bank. As for reserves, there were two divisions available on the Left Bank and four or five which could be brought rapidly forward to support the Right Bank.  

The existence of the tunnels was well known to the French from aerial observation and the interrogation of prisoners. Work on them had begun during the summer of 1916, when the really desperate fighting had died down, leaving the German lines visible to French observers. This made supplying them both difficult and costly and to solve the problem General von François, commander of VII Corps, ordered the excavation of three tunnels to provide safe, underground passage between the front and the rear. The work, which took almost nine months to complete, was carried out by pioneers and infantry, many of whom were miners, who also provided the nightly labor needed to bring the tools and building materials from the regimental pioneer park several kilometers back. Even ration parties were pressed into service once they had delivered the rations.  All three were inaugurated by General von François in May 1917, an occasion on which decorations were handed out.  

French Map Showing the Three Tunnels
Click on Image to Enlarge

The Kronprinz Tunnel  

Starting in a ravine on the lower slopes of the north side of the Mort-Homme, the Kronprinz tunnel ran through the hillside to the Schlesier Graben, a deep trench forming part of the intermediate line. From prisoners’ reports the French knew it to be just under a thousand meters long, varying from two to four meters wide and approximately two meters high. Tunneling through limestone was hard work and even with jack hammers and pneumatic drills progress was only about seven meters per day. At first the spoil was dumped close to the main entrance and covered over; but as the tunnel progressed rails were laid and the spoil was loaded into wagons and hauled away by horses. In addition to the main entrances at the northern and southern ends of the tunnel, twelve side exits offered access by steep flights of steps to a series of rooms housing a regimental command post, a first aid post and beds for two companies. There was a machine room with a four horse power motor, a compressor, a power unit, and a generator providing power for the drills and lighting for the workface. The power unit, which comprised a petrol engine and a lighting dynamo, provided tunnel lighting. There were kitchens in a short branch tunnel at the northern end, while a captured spring at the southern end provided water for the machine room and a mineral water plant. All the exits had gas doors and internal barricades allowed the tunnel to be defended against attackers. General von François called it "a masterpiece of civil engineering ,"but others had reservations. 

Electricity Generator Supplying Light and Power for a Tunnel
(Schantzen-Warten-Sterben, Alexander Berkel, 2014)

In May 1917, the commander of Reserve Infantry Regiment 35, one of the regiments using the tunnel on a daily basis, complained that "inexcusable design flaws" made it weaker than it should have been. He had numerous complaints: the timbering was inadequate, particularly in the widest part where the kitchen tunnel branched off; the roof in the central section was weak; the entrances needed reinforcement; the kitchen tunnel had no independent escape route; and generally speaking the construction was amateurish. He was rebuked, told that other regiments would be pleased to have such accommodation, and his report was dismissed.  

The Bismarck Tunnel 

This short tunnel was first named after Generalleutenant von Runckel, commander of the 43rd Reserve Division, but the name was later changed. Starting in the Schlesier Graben a short distance from the exit from the Kronprinz tunnel, it ran for a little over 400 meters under the summit of the Mort-Homme to the German front line. Most of it was excavated by pioneers and progress was slow, with only about one meter being added each day. The Bismarck tunnel was the same height as the Kronprinz tunnel but it was only half as wide and differed in being entirely timbered. It had no electric lighting and whilst there were multiple exits, there were few side rooms, as it was purely designed for the passage of troops, i.e., a subway.    

The Gallwitz Tunnel 

This ran from the north side of the Mort-Homme, passed under a hilltop and ended in the Ravin des Caurettes, a sheltered ravine behind the German front line to the east of the summit of the Mort-Homme. Although shorter than the Kronprinz tunnel it was similar in many respects, being the same width and height and having the same sort of timbering, gas protection and barricades. It was also electrically lit, and had several side exits accessible by long flights of steps, including one of 165 steps known as the "stairway to heaven" which led to an artillery observation post. The machine room was similarly equipped and there was a command post, a first aid post, kitchens, and side rooms with enough beds for one company. Rails ran the whole length of the tunnel, allowing spoil to be evacuated and equipment to be brought in. 

During the summer of 1917 all three tunnels offered shelter, food, and accommodation for the regiments in the sector but the weaknesses noted by the commander of Reserve Infantry Regiment 35 remained and in time they would prove disastrous.  

German Dead in the Kronprinz Tunnel after
Its August 1917 Capture

PS: If you like this work and find the Battle of Verdun utterly fascinating, Christina Holstein's earlier works,  Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, and the Left Bank are recommended and available on  MH


Monday, March 22, 2021

Postwar: The Totalitarians Emerge

In the aftermath of the war, the two great tyrants of the first half of the 20th century would sense their path to power and begin their movement to the top. By 1919, according to his biographer Robert Service, Josef Stalin was already recognized by Lenin and the inner party circle making up the Central Committee as an intelligent and decisive political operator, very willing to take on responsibility in difficult situations. In 1919, to achieve his expanded assignments, he would apply terror and violence on a greater scale than any of his colleagues, including Trotsky. This would both enhance his "can do" reputation and his already intimidating aura.

By May 1919 Stalin Had Made It to Lenin's Side

During the two years of Russia's civil war, Stalin was active on or near the military fronts. In 1918 he led Red forces in strategically valuable—for the nation's food supply—Tsaritsyn on the Volga River. Challenging Trotsky, who was Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, he had out-maneuvered him to gain full control of the military units in the region. Once in control, he stabilized matters by applying a formula of executions of deserters and bandits along with the burning villages to ensure the cooperation of the peasants. His success at Tsaritsyn (which in 1925 would be renamed Stalingrad, then in 1961 Volgograd) marked him as a man who could restore a crumbling situation.

In May 1919, a larger crisis would provide Stalin with a greater opportunity to shine. A coalition of Russian and Finnish White forces supported by a British naval flotilla attempted to capture Petrograd. Further, there were concurrent mutinies among some Red units and fortress garrisons around the former capital. The Central Committee appointed Stalin to fix things, which he did in short order. Calling in Red Army reinforcements, he focused first on recapturing the forts and executing the traitors. The invading forces were then quickly routed and Stalin had another triumph. In November 1919, the government awarded him the Order of the Red Banner for his wartime service.

Come September he was returned to the Southern Front and began acting as if he were a law unto himself. In November Stalin threatened to resign over a minor matter, a technique he used repeatedly. Nevertheless, in the same month, the government awarded him the Order of the Red Banner for his wartime service. In 1920, with the civil war effectively decided, Stalin would be drawn into the Soviet War with Poland, a struggle he had personally opposed. The defeat by the Poles would tarnish his reputation, but his behind-the-scenes role in the administration of party affairs would allow him to accrue more power in the meantime. "Koba" was on his way to the top.

Adolph Hitler, on the other hand, was nowhere as visible or influential in Germany, as was Stalin in Russia. His 1919 was spent observing the political scene in Bavaria, selectively demonstrating his oratorical skills, and what we today call networking with kindred souls. In October 1918, toward the end of World War I, Hitler had been partially blinded in a mustard gas attack near Ypres. He was sent to the military hospital in Pasewalk and was there at the time of the Armistice. Hitler returned to Munich on 21 November 1918, two days after his release from the hospital in Pasewalk, Pomerania.

Hitler Connected with Herman Goering and Ernst Roehm (Right) Early in His Budding Career

During the next six months, Hitler had an opportunistic association as soldiers’ council representative to the civilian authorities in Bavaria with the independent Socialist-led coalition Bavarian state government of Kurt Eisner, which assumed power in November 1918. After Eisner’s assassination by the fanatic Count Anton von Arco-Valley in February 1919, Hitler had a similarly opportunistic association with the Bavarian Soviet Councils Republic. He played no part in the overthrow of the Councils Republic on 2 May by Freikorps units or in the establishment of the military administration that governed Bavaria until a civilian government could be formed.

At the end of May 1919, however, Hitler was recruited to work for the information office of the military administration commanded by Captain Karl Mayr. Among its tasks were gathering intelligence on political movements potentially hostile to the Bavarian authorities and tending to the “political education” of the troops to counter Bolshevik influences. Hitler excelled in a training course in early June and in August 1919 became an instructor for a five-day course for Reichswehr (German armed forces) personnel at a base in Lechfeld near Augsburg. Hitler stood out as an effective communicator and made his first virulent anti-Semitic speeches in Lechfeld.

Impressed with Hitler’s skills as a communicator, Mayr entrusted him with responding to a Reichswehr client request for elaboration on the so-called Jewish question. In a letter of 16 September 1919, Hitler first identified Jews as a so-called race that served as the “driving force” of Communist revolution in Bavaria.

In his intelligence-gathering function, Hitler and two colleagues attended a 12 September 1919, meeting of the German Workers Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei–DAP), a Völkisch-nationalist organization. During the meeting, Hitler denounced a speech favoring Bavarian separatism. Within a month, Hitler had joined the DAP with the number 555. Due to his speaking abilities, charisma, and tireless energy, Hitler quickly rose in the renamed National Socialist German Workers Party leadership ranks. He contributed significantly to the development and announcement of a new party program on 20 February 1920, at the Munich Hofbräuhaus. It called for German abandonment of the Treaty of Versailles, the expansion of German territory, and exclusion of Jews from citizenship. His discharge from the army came through on 31 March 1920.

Combining his considerable oratory capabilities with an unusual ability to read audience mood, both in individuals and large groups, Hitler established himself as absolute Führer (Leader) of the National Socialists by 1921. Under Hitler, the Nazi Party grew steadily in its home base of Bavaria. It organized strong-arm groups to protect its rallies and meetings. Within two years the party had grown to a membership of 55,000 and Hitler felt confident enough to launch his overly ambitious effort to overthrow the Weimar Republic, known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Imprisonment followed for him, but it provided an opportunity to become an author.

Sources: The Holocaust Museum, WW2Timelines, Wikipedia