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

Monday, May 31, 2021

Remembering a Veteran on Memorial Day: Capt. Dean M. Gilfillan, Tank Corps

"Captain Dean M. Gilfillan (1890–1935), one of Ironton, Ohio,'s world war heroes.  died this morning at the Deaconess hospital. A graduate of Yale, he served as captain in the AEF's tank corps and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and Purple Heart for his war service."  News report 19 October, 1935. 

Glfillan commanded Company A of the 354th Tank Battalion on the opening day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive in support of the 28th Pennsylvania Division. At first in reserve, Gilfillan was forced to commit his tanks when a strong crossfire from German machine gun nests held up the advance.  The Doughboys moving behind the tanks were unable to advance through the deadly fire which was becoming more intense and accurate as the morning fog lifted.  The tanks were forced to fall back and join them around the villages of Varennes and Cheppy.

An America Tank Like Capt. Gilfillan's Advancing
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Gilfillan's tank was hit twice by artillery fire during the advance and began to burn. He was also wounded by machine gun fire. Nevertheless, he remained in his tank, destroying two of the machine gun positions and wreaking havoc on a column of enemy infantry trying to reach Cheppy. As the fire worsened and the threat of an explosion grew imminent, Gilfillan was force to abandon the tank, only to be wounded a second time by fragments from a nearby artillery explosion. Evacuated from the battlefield, Capt. Gilfillan soon found himself in a hospital bed alongside Lt. Col. George Patton, who had also been wounded in the fighting.

Inspired by Capt. Gilfillan

After six months recuperation he returned to Ironton and worked with the Ryan and Gilfillan Company. His early death from respiratory disease in 1935 was thought to be due to complications from being gassed in the war, possibly during the St. Mihiel Offensive.  Shortly after his return home, Ironton’s first professional football team was organized and took on the name “Tanks” in honor of Gilfillan and other World War I tank soldiers. His military career and act of heroism served as the inspiration for The Patent Leather Kid,  one of the last films of the silent era, released in 1927. Its star, Richard Barthelmess, was nominated for best actor at the first Academy Awards in 1929.

Thanks to Joe Unger for this account.

Sources: Ironton Tribune, Find a Grave, Treat 'em Rough by Dale Wilson, IMDB

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Émilienne Moreau, Heroine of Loos and Later Pursued by the Nazis: A Roads Classic

Contributed by Tony Langley

At 17 years old during the battle of Loos in 1915 Émilienne Moreau was decorated by the British and French for having single-handedly killed several German soldiers who were killing wounded British soldiers. The Germans never really took a liking to civilians who killed their soldiers, even in defense of the helpless, which it arguably was. So when they came back in 1940, she was in real, deep trouble, wanted for murder. She (and husband and other family members) joined the Resistance and stayed out of German hands during the war by moving all over the place. After WWII she went into politics and made it to deputy minister. Not bad for a mine worker's daughter in early 20th-century France.

Her story is one of those Great War fait-divers that would make a great movie. It's a wonder no French director has ever done one on her.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

What Was the Czech Legion (Siberian Version)?

The Czech Legion on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

During the early months of the First World War an army of Czechs and Slovaks was formed to fight alongside the Russians against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite sanctioning its formation, Tsar Nicholas II deeply distrusted this "Czech Legion" and refused to allow it to fight with his troops.  [Note: other units on the Western and Italian Fronts shared the name "Czech Legion" at times] The Bolsheviks, after their seizure of power, also uncomfortably viewed the Legion as a foreign army on their soil. Indeed, the Czechs were one of the only disciplined and cohesive fighting forces in Russia at the time, numbering almost 70,000.  After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—which ended the war between Russia and Germany—they found themselves as an army without a war. Agreements were  reached between the Czechs and Bolsheviks whereby the Legion could exit Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Legion would embark at Vladivostok for France to continue the fight for national independence.  

None were to complete the trip during the war. In May, at the town of Chelyabinsk, the agreement broke down. What began as a clash between Czech echelons moving east and Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war being repatriated under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk moving west resulted in open warfare between the Bolsheviks and the Czechs. The Bolsheviks demanded the Czechs surrender their weapons for passage out of Russia. The Czechs quite naturally refused, and the conflict quickly spread the length of the 5000-mile-long railway, over which detachments of the Legion were strewn. After receiving news of the uprising President Wilson informed his allies that he was rethinking the possibility of sending American troops to Siberia, to help the Czech Legion escape.

Czech Artillery Crew

During early June news came that the Czechs had captured Vladivostok and the president made up his mind. With Vladivostok under "friendly" control, the Allies possessed a secure base of operations. As the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok was the key to launching and supplying any military effort. Ahead lay thousands of miles of track, running westward across Manchuria, and north to Khabarovsk, then also turning west into the Siberian hinterland, leading ultimately to Moscow. It was the supply line built by the last tsar to expand his empire, and it was now the lifeline of the counterrevolution struggling to get back to the center. Indeed, it was the jugular vein of Siberia. Any hope of determining the outcome of the civil war in eastern Russia depended upon controlling and keeping open that railway system.

The Czechs, in one sense, were just the type of force Wilson sought to support in Siberia. They were anti-Bolshevik, anti-German, and anti-Japanese. They were the most effective fighting force at the time in Siberia through which to support counterrevolution. Wilson took the opportunity "to help the Czechoslovaks consolidate their forces and get into successful cooperation with their Slavic kinsmen," as the aide-mémoire announced. Left undefined was who exactly their Slavic kin were. The memoir was equally vague in other areas. The AEF was "to steady any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves may be willing to accept assistance" and also to guard the vast amount of military supplies that had built up in and around Vladivostok during the war, "which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces in the organization of their own self-defense." Which Russians Wilson had in mind was likewise left undefined.

In Vladivostok After Its Capture

The commander of the American intervention, MG William Graves, saw serious implications to supporting the Czechs.  For the Czechs to consolidate their forces the railway system had to remain operable. Acceptance of this duty immediately compromised any "neutrality" sought by General Graves. The Czech Legion was in revolt against the Bolsheviks and were active partisans in the civil war. To maintain the railway system, moreover, was not just aid to the Czechs; it would benefit the counterrevolution that depended upon the railway. Graves had little illusion about the role his troops played in Siberia. "As I see this question," he would wire Washington, "we become a party, by guarding the railroad, to the actions of this governmental class". The American forces would be in caught in the middle of hostile and more numerous forces during the entirety of their deployment. Fortunately, in General Graves, they had a wise and cautious leader, who successfully extricated them.

As to the Czech Legion—they eventually made it home. They reached and accommodation with the Bolsheviks, by betraying the Whites and turning over General Kolchak to the Reds, and fending off the local war lord and Japanese forces trying to hinder their arrival in Vladivostok. By September 1920, however, the last of some 67,000 members of the legion had left Russia for their new country of Czechoslovakia. Some of them past through the United States and were feted in cities like San Francisco and Chicago (the second largest Czech city in the world) as heroes.

Friday, May 28, 2021

“Marching Men” by Majorie Pickthall (1883–1922)

By David F Beer

Sadly, not many people have heard of Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall, although in her time she was considered a significant Anglo-Canadian writer. She died young of an embolism but not before producing hundreds of short stories, a few novels, and several collections of poetry. Just one of her war poems, "Marching Men," has stood the test of time, however, and can occasionally be found in anthologies of First World War poetry.

I find it a striking poem for a number of reasons. First, it is written by a female civilian rather than a male combatant. It maintains a pleasingly consistent cadence and rhyme scheme. Not least, it weaves a strong religious theme into the image of thousands of young men who were weekly marching off to die.

            Marching Men

Under the level winter sky

I saw a thousand Christs go by.

They sang an idle song and free

As they went up to Calvary.

Careless of eye and coarse of lip,

They marched in holiest fellowship.

That heaven might heal the world, they gave

Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.

With souls unpurged and steadfast breath

They supped the sacrament of death.

And for each one, far off, apart,

Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart.

This is a cutting statement about sacrifice. To the poet, these young soldiers are modern-day Christs on their way to be crucified. Unlike Christ, they don’t know they are already condemned to death and so enjoy an "idle song and free" as they march along carelessly and jokingly. A more cosmic view would see them as willing sacrifices on the road to Calvary in the hope of redeeming the world.

It doesn’t happen, of course. Heaven doesn’t heal the world and all their innocent hopes only culminate in their sacrificial deaths. Hauntingly, in the background is the Christian rite of Holy Communion, where believers ‘sup’ the elements of bread and wine in commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice.

The final couplet is intriguing. Each soldier’s death will pierce a woman’s heart. We recall from the Gospels that Christ’s mother was present at his death and heard the final seven exclamations of her son in agony on the cross. Each would have rent Mary’s heart, just as news of their soldier sons’ sacrifice will stab the hearts of the mothers who watched them march away.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Don't Miss Your May 2021 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire


In this issue, we continue our look at the opening campaigns in the west with the first of a two-part look at the forgotten, but critical, siege of Antwerp.

Main Focus: Antwerp Falls, Part I

  • From Your Editor: Locking in the Western Front
  • Defenses of the National Redoubt
  • Enemy at the Gates
  • Under Heavy Fire

Belgian Defenders at Antwerp

  • Belgium's New Capital
  • E. Alexander Powell Describes the Beginning of the Main Siege of Antwerp
  • Different Perspectives on the Siege
  • Lloyd George's Call to Duty

Opening Day at the National WWI Memorial

Other Topics:

  • Documentary: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa
  • 100 Years Ago: A Surprising German-Soviet Accommodation
  • The U.S. National World War I Memorial Opens
  • The Kaiser Had Threatened Two Belgian Kings
  • Plus all our regular updates and features

Next Month:  Antwerp Falls, Part II

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

British West Indies Regiment and the Bermuda Contingent RGA

Badge of the British West Indies Regiment

By James Patton

In the second episode of the short-lived BBC series The Crimson Field there is a minor plot line involving a British patient who is Black. This made me wonder: did any Black soldiers actually serve with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), or was this dramatic license, history seen through 21st-century eyes?

It is well known that many thousands of Black soldiers served on the Western Front with the French and the U.S. armies, and also that predominantly Black units raised in the West Indies and Africa served with the British Army, some of them even trained in the U.K. The all-white 1st South African Infantry Brigade brought an African "labor corps" with them to France, but these men weren’t soldiers. 

Beginning in the fall of 1914, volunteers from all parts of the Caribbean sought to join the British Army, even encouraged to do so by activists like Marcus Garvey, who preached that if they showed their loyalty to the king they would "earn" the right to be treated as equals. 

Command Staff & NCOs of a BWIR Unit

En route to the U.K., hundreds of West Indian volunteers suffered from frostbite when they were routed through Halifax in the winter of 1914–15. Some had to be returned home as no longer fit to serve, with no compensation or benefits. Still others came to Britain as stowaways. From the Stratford Express (London) 19 May 1915, page 3:

THE DOCKS - Black Men for the Front at West Ham Police Court to-day (Wednesday).

Nine Black men, natives of Barbados, West Indies, were charged with being stowaways on the S.S. Danube. 

Mr. JW Richards, who prosecuted for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, said that the S.S. Danube made a voyage from Trinidad to England, and the day after leaving Trinidad the ship called at Barbados. It was presumed that the men came aboard there for the day. Afterwards they were found on the vessel. 

Mr. Justice Gillespie: In a dark corner, I suppose? (Laughter). 

Mr. Richards continued that the men were put to work, and they did not cause any trouble. He was told that the men were desirous of enlisting in the Army. 

Mr. Justice Gillespie: What, do they want to enlist in the Black Guards? (Laughter). 

Det. Sergt. Holby said he had made enquiries at the local recruiting office and they told him they could not enlist because of their colour, but if application was made to the War Office no doubt they could enlist in some regiment of Black men. 

Mr. Justice Gillespie: Remanded for a week.

West Indians living in the U.K. were mostly signed up under the Derby Scheme, where recruiting agents visited men in their residences to badger them into joining. There are 1915 photographs on the Internet which show Black enlistees in both the Essex Regiment and the Prince of Wales’ Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment. 

The War Office became concerned with the numbers and placed a stop on the enlistments, even vowing to deport any more arrivals. Discussions between the Colonial Office and the War Office were unsuccessful, but the king intervened, and on 19 May 1915, approval was granted to raise a regiment of West Indians, including those living in the U.K. On 26 October 1915, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed at Seaford, W. Sussex. All previous Black enlistees were transferred to the BWIR.

BWIR Troops on the Albert-Amiens Road, Somme Sector

On the Western Front the BWIR soldiers were given labor duties, particularly stevedoring.

This poem by one of the troops, "The Black Soldier's Lament," showed the bitterness with which this was borne:

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest

Midday's reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.

Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

Toward the end of the war British soldiers were given a 50 percent pay rise, but the War Office denied this to the West Indians. This was later reversed by the Colonial Office who feared the resentment it had caused would result in violence at home after demobilization. 

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the BWIR served in Egypt and Palestine, the 3rd, 4th,  6th, and 7th Battalions served in France and Flanders, the 5th Battalion was a reserve draft unit, the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Battalions also served in France and Flanders but were transferred to Italy in 1918. A total of 397 officers and 15,204 other ranks served in the BWIR. There were 185 killed or died of wounds, 697 wounded, and 1,071 died due to sickness. Members received 81 medals for bravery, and 49 were mentioned in dispatches. The BWIR was disbanded in 1921.

During the Palestine Campaign General Allenby sent the following telegram to the Governor of Jamaica: 

I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations.

BWIR Unit in Palestine

There was another unit with Black soldiers in the BEF, raised from the Bermuda Militia Artillery, which was founded in 1895 because there were over 500 guns on the island and insufficient British regulars who could be spared to man them.  

On 31 May 1916, 201 officers and men under the command of Major T. M. Dill left for France. Later on, a reinforcement of 62 officers and men left Bermuda on 6 May 1917. The unit, titled the Bermuda Contingent, Royal Garrison Artillery, served at ammunition dumps and delivered ammunition to active batteries. They were at the Somme from start to finish but were then moved to stevedoring until April 1917, when they were attached to the Canadian Corps in ammunition supply, working with them right through Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, where three men were killed, several wounded, and two received the Military Medal. The unit was demobilized on 31 December 1918. 

They were employed on heavy ammunition dumps, and great satisfaction was expressed with their work. Though called upon to perform labour of the most arduous and exacting nature at all times of the day and night, they were not only willing and efficient but also conspicuous for their cheeriness under all conditions. On more than one occasion the dumps at which they were employed were ignited by hostile shellfire and much of their work was done under shellfire. Their behaviour on all these occasions was excellent, and commanded the admiration of those with whom they were serving.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig

Members of the Bermuda Contingent Working Alongside Australians in the Ypres Salient

Going back to the question at the top—the writers of The Crimson Field didn’t make up their history, although it does seem that most of the Black soldiers weren’t in France as early as the summer of 1915, when the story was set, so they may have stretched a bit.

Sources include:

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

With the Russian Volunteer Army: A Nurse’s Memoir, 1918–1923

by Zinaida Mokievskaya-Zubok
Translated by Kimball Worcester
Blurb Press, 2021

Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Zinaida Mokievskaya-Zubok in Uniform c. 1918


In 1970, Russian author and activist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was denied the privilege of accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Soviet government. One can surmise that this denial only added to his antagonism toward Soviet government policies. Reflections of his past and Russia’s past may have fueled his desire to make sure that the trials and tribulations of World War I and Russia’s civil war should not be forgotten. After all, he was a child of that turbulent era. His mother, the spouse of an Imperial Guards officer, was widowed in June 1918 shortly after learning of her pregnancy. She did not remarry, causing her to struggle through the civil war years as a single parent nearly destitute since her family’s estate in the Kuban was lost to collectivization.

General Denikin (third from left), Officers, and Unidentified Nurse in Kharkov, June 1919

It is of little wonder that Solzhenitsyn in 1974 sent out pleas to the Russian people at home and in exile to write down their experiences during the Great War and the period that followed. Copies of some of the responses he received were archived at the Hoover Institute and have largely gone unpublished outside of Russia—especially in English—until translator Kimball Worcester took the time to dig deeper into the world of civil war Russia. This work is one of her endeavors to bring individual experiences to the English-speaking world.

Zinaida Mokievskaya-Zubok responded to Solzhenitsyn’s plea from her home in Canada. She masterfully laid out her experience from 1917—1923 as a nurse to the dying tsarist army of Kerensky, to the counterrevolutionary Whites' Volunteer Army of General Anton Denikin, and finally as an exile in General Piotr Wrangle’s Crimean endeavor. Her experience begins, at age 17, with a description of her duties at the hospital in Rostov, her hometown, caring for hospitalized Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war and members of the just-forming Volunteer Army resisting the Bolsheviks.

Armored Car, c. 1919

Over the next year, Zinaida went from one medical unit to the next at the front gaining more experience and becoming a professional in her chosen career. She was nearly captured when Denikin’s army collapsed in December 1919 on the verge of seizing Moscow. However, she managed to escape in the unorganized retreat to continue her nursing in the Crimea as part of Wrangel’s last-ditch effort to keep the Volunteer Army alive. This group was evacuated to Gallipoli in 1921.

Worcester’s translation is a work of art in that the reader can perceive the moods of Mokievskaya-Zubok through victories at the front, to failure, and through bouts of typhus and accidental poisoning. That ability to maintain the meaning of an author’s words from one language to another is rare. Sentences are not just cold words. They have a depth to them which clearly shows Worcester’s dedication to bringing a nurse’s story to a public hungry for literature of this type. In this work she has fulfilled Solzhenitsyn's desire to commemorate the experiences of the people and, probably, his mother during a time of uncertainty and confusion.

I highly recommend this book for a place on your bookshelf next to such works as Lyn MacDonald’s Roses of No Man’s Land, Ellen N. LaMotte’s The Backwash of War, and Worcester’s other translation, A Russian Nurse in War and Revolution: Memoirs, 1912–1922. We look forward to a third publication from this translator before long.

Michael P. Kihntopf

Monday, May 24, 2021

Riva del Garda: World-Class Resort on the Front Line

Riva del Garda from a Distance and Up Close

When war broke out on the Italian Front in 1915, at the southwestern tip of the destined-to-collapse Austro-Hungarian Empire lying on the north shore of  Lake Garda was the beautiful town of Riva del Garda.  Surrounded by the mountains of the South Tyrol (Trentino Alto-Adige for Italy, which wished to claim the region), Riva del Garda offered everything a resort could offer: high-quality hotels, cobbled streets with shops, magnificent views, climate, citrus trees and vineyards, thermal spas, and limitless recreational opportunities. Its attractions were known and taken advantage of by the Romans, Etruscans, and  preceding them, the Celts. It was in the 19th century, though, when the town's tourism exploded. In the German- and English-speaking worlds the newly affluent of the industrial age were drawn to the practice of "taking the waters" in spa towns like Bath and, well, Spa. Riva del Garda, given its many other attractive features, became popular with the nobility, the rich, and the cultural elite—such as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Frederick Nietzsche, and even D.H. Lawrence. They gave the town an added refined air.

Selected Austrian Defense Works
#1 Barracks and Shoreline Fortifications

#1 Austro-Hungarian Commanding Officer

Because of its position on the Italian-Austrian border and the well-understood expansionist longings of Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire  planned the defenses around Riva del Garda carefully. Some of their preparations and sites can be visited today, including forts of different generations, wartime trenches, and tunnel and gallery complexes in the surrounding mountains. (Some of these are shown here.) When hostilities started, the Italian Army moved forces to the border, including substantial artillery units, which spent the next three years barraging the enemy positions and unintentionally, but most unfortunately, leveling much of the town.  Needless to say, tourism dropped to nothing during the war.

#2 Forte Garda

#3 Forte San Nicolo

Postwar, the pounding the town had taken from Italian artillery left so much damage there was no quick return of the tourism trade. The restoration of Riva del Garda was championed by the literary dynamo and war hero Gabrielle D'Annunzio, who was building his own estate, the Vittoriale, on the west shore of Lake Garda immediately after the war. It was D'Annunizio's architect, war veteran Giancarlo Maroni, who was at first lent to help with the rebuilding of Riva del Garda and who subsequently earned the responsibility for the town's master planning. The visible face of Riva del Garda is in good part Maroni's creation.

#4 Fort on Cima Oro

#5 Inside the Multi-Level Tunnel System at Cima Rocca

By the 1930s, Riva del Garda had returned to its leading place as one of the great resorts of Italy and the world.  While Riva del Garda was not on the front line in the Second World War, combat did come close during the last month of the war, when the U.S. 10th Mountain Division fought its last action and the last battle on the Italian Front just east of the town.  Today, the old war veteran holds its own as popular  and somewhat affordable vacation spot.

Sources:  Various Riva del Garda History and Tourism sites on the Internet

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Remembering a Veteran: Welsh Poet Hedd Wyn, 38th Division, British Army

Hedd Wyn, born Ellis Humphrey Evans  (1887–1917), was the shepherd poet who became the symbol of a generation lost during the First World War. Better known by his bardic name Hedd Wyn ("Blessed Peace"), was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.  Born in the village of Trawsfynydd, Wales, he wrote much of his poetry while working as a shepherd on his family's hill farm. His style, which was influenced by Romantic poetry, was dominated by themes of nature and religion. He also wrote several war poems following the outbreak of war on the Western Front in 1914.

Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist and did not enlist for the war initially, feeling he could never kill anyone. In 1916 the Evans family were required to send one of their sons to join the British Army. The 29-year-old Ellis enlisted, rather than his younger brother Robert. In March 1917 the government called for farm workers to help with ploughing, and many soldiers were temporarily released. Hedd Wyn was given seven weeks' leave. He spent most of this leave completing his epic poem The Hero (Yr Arwr).  As it was such a wet year, he overstayed his leave for another seven days. This extra seven days made him a deserter, so the military police came to fetch him from the hay field and took him to the jail at Blaenau. From there he traveled to the war in Belgium, where he went over the top on 31 July 1917, was soon wounded, and died later that morning.  He is buried at the Artillery Wood Cemetery, north of Ypres. Among the many fatalities that day was the Irish war poet, Francis Ledwidge, who was "blown to bits" while drinking tea in a shell hole

Weeks after his death, his poem The Hero won the 1917 Eisteddfod Bardic Chair (the highest honor bestowed to Welsh-language poets). When the tragedy was revealed during the ceremony, a black cloth was dramatically draped across the chair. Remarkably, the “Black Chair,” as it is now known, was carved by Eugeen Vanfleteren, a war refugee from Flanders. The original chair is on display in Hedd Wyn’s former home Yr Ysgwrn, now a center run by Snowdonia National Park Authority.  Hedd Wyn is the title of a well-regarded 1992 Academy Award-nominated biopic that's only available on YouTube.

Here's his best-known war poem:

WAR (Rhyfel)

Why must I live in this grim age

When, to a far horizon, God

Has ebbed away, and man, with rage

Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,

To slay his brother, and the roar

Of battlefields now casts upon

Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung

On willow boughs, and their refrain

Drowned by the anguish of the young

Whose blood is mingled with the rain.

— Hedd Wyn

Translation by Alan Llwyd

Sources:; Wales Museum; Wikipedia

Saturday, May 22, 2021

1914–1918: The Phases of the Air War

From: "The Technology of Air Power During the Great War," by A. Gilam, in Computers Math. Applications, Vol, 26, No. 6

The reliance on technology during the Great War is demonstrated from its very beginning. Looking back at the war records, one is inevitably impressed by the rapidity of the mobilization that was made possible by the access to telegraph and railroad networks. The  German army and its air force began mobilizing on 1 August 1914, and on the same day, the French began making their own preparations. Three days later, the Germans invaded Luxembourg and Belgium, and as a result, the United Kingdom immediately entered the war. It took only a few days for the British Expeditionary Force to move into northern France. On 11 August, seven days after Britain joined the Allies, the first Royal Flying Corps crewmen began arriving in France. There is hardly a previous war effort that started with such a rapid mobilization. At this very early stage of the Great War, the conventional military wisdom was that aircraft is suitable for the detection of enemy troop movements from the air. Instead of relying on horse-mounted scouts that would report back to the field commanders on enemy concentrations, the airplane would perform the task more efficiently. Small wonder that in the early months of the war, ex-cavalrymen were often selected for pilot training.

Because of the emphasis on aerial reconnaissance, at the early stage of the war, airplanes were not even equipped with weapons. The typical BE2a used by the British usually lacked a machine gun or any other type of armament. Only when the war stabilized and the war effort concentrated on trenches was the need for the prevention of enemy reconnaissance fully perceived and appreciated.

The introduction of aerial warfare was accomplished with the help of major technological improvements. First in trying to mount a machine gun that could shoot through the propeller blades were the French, but their accomplishment was meager. All they came up with were deflection metal plates welded to the propeller blades that would deflect the bullets away from the propeller itself. After thorough examinations and testing, Anthony Fokker [a Dutchman], who worked for the Germans, invented the interrupter gear that synchronized the motion of the propeller to the pace of the machine gun. For the first time, a machine gun could shoot straight through the propeller without actually harming it, and thus the modern military aircraft came into being.

Equally decisive was the advancement in the field of aerial photography. Individual photographs, usually taken from an altitude of 16,000 ft., could capture an area of two by three miles. The photos would be taken by semi-automatic cameras, measuring three by four feet, which were mounted vertically to face downward and their shutters operated by a wind-driven generator. These photographs would then be assembled and would pinpoint even the most minute shifts of machine gun posts, artillery positions, supply lines and troops.

The synchronizing device and the improvement of aerial photography led to the second phase of the air war, which started in late 1914 and ended in early 1916. During the second stage, not only did aerial reconnaissance became more important, but the need for deterrence also became critical. It was imperative to keep the enemy observation airplanes from entering one’s own air space. Again, during this period success or failure depended on the mastery of technology.

Even though the Germans were the first to introduce into the battlefields the synchronized machine guns mounted on the Fokker E-types, they failed to capitalize on their technological edge. They did not produce the numbers required to guarantee an absolute military superiority. At the end of October 1915, they had only 55 Eindecker types in the battlefield and by the end of the same year, only 86. The delay at the German production lines enabled the English to turn to pushers and the French to develop the Nieuport 11, whose machine gun was mounted on top of the upper wing. The Allies tried to offset the technological gap by relying on superior numbers and on the aggressive Trenchard Doctrine, which advocated a relentless attack on enemy aircraft no matter how high the costs might be.

Verdun and Somme, the lengthy and bloody battles of 1916, mark the third stage of the air war. It was during these two catastrophic confrontations that the real value of aerial reconnaissance was first fully understood. Due to the awesome consequences of artillery direction from the air, the casualties became astronomical. On the first day alone on the Somme, the British Army suffered 60,000 casualties, 15 times its loss on D-Day almost 30 years later. Thus, aerial photography of enemy positions and the prevention of enemy activity in one’s own territory now became a major priority for the entire war effort. Instead of being perceived as auxiliary, air services had become major components of any military action. It is small wonder that the number of dog fights had increased and the number of airplanes participating in battles had multiplied.

Of necessity, the accelerated activity in the sky created a demand for faster and more powerful flying machines. Consequently, the English introduced the Sopwith Pup and the French the SPAD VII, the latter equipped with a power plant producing 150 hp. The Germans, for whom this stage started with the outmoded Eindeckers, realized that they would have to close the technological gap fast in order to survive. At the end of 1916, they began mass-producing the new fast Halberstadts and Albatroses (D types), armed with two guns. As of the battles of Verdun and the Somme, the quality of the hardware would become a major factor in gaining the upper hand.

As we reach the fourth stage of the air war, we definitely focus on a race in the field of technology. Since the introduction of the Albatros D-III in early 1917, the German air service could rely on a fast, powerful, and sturdy airplane that had revolutionized the air war. Due to the strong plywood construction of the fuselage and wings, German pilots now controlled superb flying machines that could dive, turn, and bank rapidly without damaging the airplane. From the very beginning, the Allies realized that their airplanes could not match  the new Albatroses. The major confrontation between the different types of machines occurred in April 1917, along the northern front (particularly at Arras). The English and the French air services were beaten so badly by the Germans that they called this dreadful month “Bloody April.” Throughout the rest of the year, British and French aircraft manufacturers were urged to upgrade their output. Only with the arrival of such powerful fighters as the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5, the Sopwith Camel, and the Nieuport 23 was the balance shifted once more. The Germans, too, recognized how decisive the technological edge was for the entire war effort, which is why they came up with their Amerikaprogramm, calling for the establishment of new aircraft wings before America’s participation in the war would secure the victory for the Allies.

The final phase of the air war further demonstrates how technology had revolutionized modern warfare. Early in 1918, the German high command decided to break the stalemate on the Western Front by launching the "Great Offensive," which would crack enemy trench lines prior to the involvement of the Americans in the war. This time, the penetration of enemy trenches was preceded by strafing actions launched from any available aircraft. By using air-to-ground war, aiming at infantry and artillery positioned in the trenches, the Germans finally managed to achieve the impossible, but the five offensives launched by Ludendorff eventually stalled and with American help, the Allies were able to stop the German initiative.

Next came an Allied assault on the Germans, and this time the utilization of the tank and liquid fire made trench warfare totally obsolete. Further than that, tactical air fights now became more regular and their impact more effective than before. The point is well made by aviation historian Malcolm Cooper: “Commencing with the British attack at Cambrai in November 1917, the systematic use of aircraft either to help break through defensive positions or to hold up a victorious advance became more and more common. In the great offensive of 1918, close aerial support of this nature was an important part of the tactical repertoire of both sides.” 

The American intervention in the war further highlights the importance of air power. Under the influence of Colonel Billy Mitchell and General Mason M. Patrick, an army air force consisting of 600 Allied airplanes participated in the offensives on the St. Mihiel salient and the Meuse-Argonne. On both occasions, Allied aircraft joined infantry and artillery forces in the effort to smash enemy troop concentrations and supplies. 

This was the military experience that eventually led such military thinkers as General Giulio Douhet, General Hugh Trenchard, and General Billy Mitchell to prophesy that the future of warfare depended on air power. The lesson they drew from the Great War was that the airplane became the most crucial factor in the pursuit of any military action in the modern age. Small wonder that the most common prescription for preventing future aggression in the aftermath of the Great War was understood to be the elimination of air power held by any potential aggressor. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Voyage of the "Red Ark"

Contemporary Cartoon

In December 1919, nicknamed the "Red Ark" (or the "Soviet Ark") by the press of the day, the USAT Buford was used by the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Labor to deport 249 aliens, including Emma Goldman, to Russia from the United States because of their left-wing, anarchist, or syndicalist political activities.

In 1919 Alexander M. Palmer, the attorney general, and his special assistant, John Edgar Hoover, organized a plan to deport a large number of left-wing figures. On 7 November 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in 23 different cities.

Emma Goldman

Hoover decided he needed a high-profile case to help his campaign against subversives. He selected Goldman, as he had been particularly upset by her views on sexual matters (Emma's preferred mode of revolution) and religion. In court, however, Hoover argued that Goldman's speeches had inspired anarchists to commit acts of violence in the United States and won his case. Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, along with 247 other radicals, were deported to Russia.

Emma eventually made it to Russia. Expecting utopia, she was shocked about the lack of freedom there and personally informed Lenin of her disappointment. For the next two decades she journeyed the world as a vagabond preacher of progressivism, spreading joylessness and discontent wherever she stopped. Despite her exile, Emma managed to make it back to the U.S. twice, once for a speaking tour in the 1930s and then for her burial in Chicago in 1940.

Sources: Ellis Island Website; Wikipedia

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Recommended: The Forgotten Honor of World War I by James Bowman

From The New Atlantis,  October 15, 2014

If the men of Europe who went to war in 1914 were permitted to return to the land of the living for long enough to read the literature of the Great War, what do you suppose they would make of our scholarly obsession, a hundred years later, with the question of the war’s beginning? They might well wonder if we still get the joke of the fake headline that is said to have circulated after the war: "Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive: War Fought By Mistake." Our being po-faced about this is not only because we believe it to be in poor taste to laugh about so many deaths. The point of our digging around in the details of the diplomatic chain reaction that started "the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen" — the words are those of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey — or at least "the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century" (George F. Kennan) is that we feel the pressure of the imperative to believe the war was, indeed, fought by mistake. A mistake that, just because it was a mistake, could have been avoided.

Explicitly or implicitly, that seems to be the view of almost every author in the small library of books that have come out in the last year or so about the causes and origins of the war — some including a perfunctory history of the war itself and some concluding in August 1914, at the end of what a century later appears to be the most interesting thing about the war: its beginning. Margaret MacMillan, whose history of the period in The War That Ended Peace is one of the most exhaustive, can speak for the others in the final words of her epilogue when she notes that, "if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices."

It is not clear to me that she is right about either of these two things. First, no one could have foreseen the full extent of the horror that was to befall, but lots of people, including many of those who made the crucial decisions to go to war, had a fairly good idea that, as The Times of London editorialized at its outset, "Europe is to be the scene of the most terrible war that she has witnessed since the fall of the Roman Empire." And if Sir Edward Grey mistakenly believed that Britain’s navy would prevent her from suffering as much as other countries would, he was very far from lacking the imagination to see substantially what lay ahead. His more famous saying was that "the lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes." The pathos there derives precisely from the fact that he had taken a rough measure of the destruction that was to come — and that he thought he and his country had to go to war anyway.

And second, for Professor MacMillan to say that a greater determination on the part of the world’s statesmen to keep the peace could not but have resulted in a better choice for all the belligerents in 1914 is at one level a mere tautology. If the choice had been made for peace, there would have been no war, and if there had been no war, there would have been none of the destruction of the war there was, because they made the opposite choice. Hurrah! But of course we do not really know what consequences would have followed a refusal to fight. That is what makes Professor MacMillan’s assumption and that of the others who stress the mistake it was for anybody to fight, irrespective of whether he was aggressor or defender, into a profession of belief. If there are always choices, then there can never be an argument from necessity. Again, this is at one level a banality: there are always choices, right enough, but only so long as you have no prejudice against surrender. In practical terms, as Orwell said, the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it. In fact, it is pretty much the only way — apart from winning it.

But let us assume that Professor MacMillan is saying something rather more interesting than this. Perhaps she means that it is an article of faith with her — and with many others of like mind with her — that determined negotiators for the morally superior side in a conflict (tacitly assumed to be the British in this case) can always find that diplomatic will-o’-the-wisp, "a negotiated solution," no matter what the warlike determination or the bad faith of the other side might be. This idea is now such a truism that she feels no need to argue for it or even to spell it out. It is the origin of the curious notion that emerged a decade or so ago, during America’s war in Iraq, of "wars of choice" — an immense concession at the outset, though few saw it as such at the time, to the anti-war party. By acknowledging that one is fighting a war of choice, one has already admitted that it is an unnecessary war — and that the death and suffering the war causes, as wars inevitably do, are also unnecessary. If there are always choices, who but a monster or a sociopath would not choose peace?

Obligations of Honor

Those who, during the centenary observations, have written about the "lessons" of the First World War appear not to have noticed that thinking about war in this essentially pacifistic way is itself the principal legacy of the war and of its literary-historical aftermath. Partly, this is because, in retrospect, so much of what led up to war in August 1914 looks like a mistake, beginning with a wrong turn by the Archduke’s chauffeur down a side street in Sarajevo in a car with no reverse gear. This is what brought Franz Ferdinand and his wife face to face with their assassin, Gavrilo Princip, after he had decided to give up the attempt and retire to a coffee shop. Why, it’s not just a mistake, it’s what the media would call an ironic twist.

Continue reading the full article at:

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Map Series #20: U.S. Homeland World War I Military Installations.

This is as complete an attempt at presenting all of America's military installations as I have ever seen. It incorporates the new training camps and airfields, plus the pre-WWI frontier and coastal artillery forts. I don't think it's quite complete for all Navy and Marine Corps installations, though. The cartographer, for instance, missed Quantico, which the Marines opened in 1917. Camp Fremont, CA, training site for the 8th Division was overlooked as well. Since there was room to add it, I did so. Also, there are a few installations I've never heard of and cannot find any evidence of their existence. My guess is that they were planned but never built. All-in-all, though, I think this is a tremendous achievement, which really captures the scale of the American effort in the war. MH

Click on Image to Enlarge
Display Size = 580 px     Full Size = 2268 px

Source: The Geography of the Great War by Frank M. McMurry, PhD, 1919

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War

by Heribert von Feilitzsch
Henselstone Verlag Llc, 2015
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

U.S. Infantry in Brownsville, Texas,  Early in the Crisis

Even for many Roads readers, a Mexican Front in the Great War is a novel concept. In Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War author Heribert von Feilitzsch untangles the twines of espionage, intrigue, money laundering, and multi-party arms deals that demonstrate that there really was a Mexican Front and that it came remarkably close to igniting a second Mexican-American war. Between 1913 and 1916, Mexico was in the throes of a three-sided civil war in which the United States was deeply involved in choosing and assisting the sides, while German agents sought to exploit the unrest to distract the United States from the Great War in Europe and to divert American arms shipments from the Allied powers.

Felix A. Sommerfeld was an expatriate German Jew who came to the United States as a 19-year-old in 1898. He joined and subsequently deserted from the United States Army during the Spanish-American War, after which he returned to Germany. In 1902 he came back to the United States and spent the next several years in the U. S. and Mexico. When the interests of Germany and the United States diverged, Sommerfeld served his homeland as a naval intelligence agent. Having gained the trust of American and Mexican interests, he was called upon by both. This facilitated his operations as chief weapons and munitions buyer for Pancho Villa and as Villa’s diplomatic envoy to the United States, which made him a valuable asset for Germany.

The extent of initiatives by all parties demonstrates a much more serious situation than the Zimmerman Telegram, which is viewed as a Quixotic quest by many. German operatives were active in attempting to divert American arms from Allied to Mexican factions (some of which were to eventually be sold to Central Powers forces), to stir up trouble between Mexican partisans and the United States, and to cut off the flow of Mexican oil to the Royal Navy either through purchases of stock or sabotage of production capabilities. Many know about Villa’s Columbus, New Mexico, raid and the resulting Punitive Expedition in pursuit of him, but fewer are aware of the raids at Naco, Arizona, and elsewhere. Steps to incite insurrection by Mexican Americans threatened to set the Southwest ablaze. Concern over the situation was so great that intervention was actively debated in Congress and other public forums, and the U.S. Army drew up plans for a three-pronged invasion of northern Mexico.

Author Heribert von Feilitzsch has done almost incredible research into the activities of Sommerfield and his accomplices in transferring money and munitions among the parties and the interactions among the various Mexican factions. He has found and compared bank records, sales accounts, government archives, newspaper reports, court documents, correspondence, and other sources to unearth an extensive German conspiracy to further entangle the United States in Mexican affairs.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry with Dead Raiders After a 1918 Encounter in Arizona

For most Americans, the characters in this book are often familiar, such as Woodrow Wilson and John J. Pershing, but their association with Mexico is not within our ken. Others are known by name only, such as Pancho Villa, or unheard of, for example Venustiano Carranza, Felix A. Sommerfield, et al. The author helps by providing a cast of characters before commencing the text. Keep a bookmark by it for easy reference as you advance through the volume. The extensive end notes and bibliography are valuable for those seeking more.

This work reveals much about political and military conditions in Mexico in 1913–1916 and its tumultuous relations with the United States. It provides insights into Woodrow Wilson’s policy-making process regarding Mexico. Many readers may find names of familiar institutions on these pages, such as Olin Industries and Mississippi Valley Bank, as I did, plus well-known personalities, including J. P. Morgan.

Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War has changed my view of the role of Mexico in America’s road to the Great War. Von Feilitzsch has made a compelling case that, due to both German initiatives and Mexican instability, a second Mexican-American War was a real possibility during the early phases of the Great War. This could have had massive impact on America’s response and ability to engage in the European war. Conceivably, the international border could have migrated, either north or south, with incalculable influences on the United States, Mexico, and hemispheric relations. In my opinion Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War has established that, although not a belligerent, there truly was a Mexican Front in the Great War.

Note: The Spanish version of this book is also now available as a paperback and on Kindle. Thus both biographies of Sommerfeld (before 1914 and after) are now available in Spanish as well as in English.

Jim Gallen