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

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The U.S. Air Service Before the Americans Entered the War

By Lieutenant Colonel Andrew W. Hunt, USAF

While the war raged in Europe, the US air force lay dormant. In 1915, the entire inventory consisted of 55 airplanes, all trainers. Of this astoundingly low number, General John Pershing commented that “51 are obsolete, and the other 4 are obsolescent.”

 Even though the primary need for airplanes was for trainers, it was surprising that the inventory did not include a single combat (bomber or pursuit) plane. (While there were aerial operations in the Mexican campaigns, none was considered a combat mission; airplanes flew observation missions in support of the soldiers on the ground.)

Additionally, the military possessed and operated only two dedicated flying fields: one in Texas and one in New York. In terms of personnel, the Air Corps was just as lacking. Of the 131 officers in this branch of service, only 26 were considered fully trained, and not a single member of the US military “had actual combat flying experience.”

While the aircraft situation before the United States entered the war was dire, few options were available to correct this problem. In 1915 and 1916, the Curtiss Company was the lone company capable of contributing anything substantial in terms of airplane output. Curtiss was already producing 100 training planes per month for the British. Within a year, the number of contractors the government employed to build airplanes increased to nine companies, tasked to produce 366 planes (of which only 64 were ever delivered).

American Aviation Prepares for War

In late 1916, it was apparent that the United States would soon be a major participant in the war in Europe. As such, it would send its army to fight alongside the British, Italians, and French. But its contribution would not be limited to the role of the foot soldier. With louder and louder voices, the Allies embroiled in the conflict across the ocean urged the United States to contribute a sizable air arm. As the United States was the pioneering nation in the frontier of flight, this was hardly unreasonable. However, as mentioned earlier (and a statement that will be a  recurring theme), the apathy in American aviation made this request a difficult one. Before 1917, US civil aviation activities were not at a level that could be considered significant.  “America, with the apathy of peace, had been outdistanced by the belligerents in the science of aviation.”

Formation of National Committee on Aeronautics and the Aircraft Production Board

The first signs of life in the military aviation sector surfaced in late winter of 1917. On 5 February, officials in the air arm of the army decided to prepare an initial estimate on the aviation requirements needed to support an organization of regulars, volunteers, and the National Guard. Initial dollar amounts neared a staggering $49M. Again, the capacity of the industrial sector to handle these requests was unknown. In the first few months of 1917, the number of contractors employed by the government stood at 11, and nearly 300 planes were on order.

 For the first time, thought was given to managing the production and acquisition of these materials. The National Committee on Aeronautics was  established in March 1917; its mission was to bring together the manufacturing sector and the government since there was a noted “lack of cohesion.” This organization was designed to prevent duplication of efforts and keep costs under control. The committee, headed by noted paleontologist Dr Charles D. Walcott, recognized the absolute lack of airplane manufacturing capability and suggested, to speed up production and mobilization, a standardized training plane for use by both the Army and the Navy be adopted as soon as possible.

In April 1917, the government formed the Aircraft Production Board (APB) to oversee the production plans and projections for the Army aviation sector. This organization was the focal point for all military aircraft production and was solely responsible for ensuring that the United States could field a viable air contingent. Headed by Howard E. Coffin, an automobile manufacturer from Detroit, the APB began its crusade on 12 April (6 days after America formally entered the war), with the announcement of a three-year production plan: 3,700 aircraft in 1918, 6,000 aircraft in 1919, and from 9,000 to 10,000 aircraft for 1920.

Initially, the main focus of the Board was the production of trainers. The rationale behind this decision was that there was little or no knowledge of battle planes in this country and that the gathering of information over the next six months (April–October 1917) from the Allies would slow production to the extent that the output realized by manufacturers would be of little use in the war effort. 

Since the airplane production sector was so far behind, the APB proposed a deal with the French that would allow the military to make a more immediate impact in the air war in Europe. In May 1917, the United States proposed a 16,500-ton shipment of men and materials to France in exchange for airplanes, motors, and land for airfields. In August of the same year, the deal was revised to read that France would send 5,000 planes and 8,500 engines in return for tools and materials. This deal seemed feasible, as the United States had greater quantities of human and materiel resources, while the Allies had a greater capability to produce combat-ready aircraft. This early reliance on the French would be a pervasive theme throughout the war.

Sources: Air Force Journal of Logistics, Volume XXXIV, Numbers 3 and 4; The U.S. Air Service in World War I, Vol. II

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

King George V at War

Visiting a Field Cemetery on the Western Front

David Freeman, California State University, Fullerton

The only surviving son of Edward VII, King of Great Britain (1841-1910), George V, King of Great Britain (1865–1936) succeeded with his official title as King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India upon the death of his father on 6 May 1910. He had a polite but cool relationship with his paternal cousin Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany (1859-1941), in whom he saw little merit and privately referred to as “William the Fidgety.” They never communicated again after 1914. By contrast, George V felt warmly toward his maternal cousin Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868–1918), to whom he bore a strong resemblance and knew as “Cousin Nicky.”

Unlike his continental cousins, the British king was a purely constitutional monarch, possessing only the rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. Ably assisted by his private secretary Lord Stamfordham (1849–1931), George V was well suited to this role. In the days before war was declared, the king urged restraint, but to no avail. Ironically, the only time the king did successfully intervene with his government during the war to encourage a change in policy was when he persuaded Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945) to rescind an offer of sanctuary made to the deposed Tsar and his family in 1917 in response to a request from the provisional government in Petrograd. The king feared the presence of the Romanovs in Britain would encourage republican elements and lead to an erosion of his own family’s support.

Early in the War, with General Haig Looking On,
the King Decorates a Soldier of the BEF

Relationship with the Armed Forces

As titular commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the king nominally held power of appointment for the army and navy. In practice, this was to be done on advice from his government, but enough ambiguity on this point still existed at the start of the war for the king to exercise some independence, albeit not without risk to the Crown.

George V took advantage of his position to invite correspondence, both directly and through his secretaries, from leading generals as a backdoor form of communication with his army. Most of these letters simply provided detailed accounts of action in the field that supplemented the official reports. Generals Sir Douglas Haig (1861–1928) and Sir William Robertson (1860–1933), however, successfully utilized this royal access to help turn the king against the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir John French (1852–1925), in December 1915 and maneuver themselves into succeeding as BEF commander and Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) respectively. According to Ian F. W. Beckett, this “represented the apogee of the king’s real influence over military affairs.” 

Ultimately, however, the king could not support his generals over his ministers. When George V strongly objected to the removal of Robertson in February 1918, Lloyd George bluntly told Stamfordham that, in that case, “the Government could not carry on and His Majesty must find other Ministers.” The Court backed down.

The King and Queen Examine a Captured German Airplane

The Royal Family during the First World War

The war directly affected the Royal Family in many other ways. The king’s two eldest sons both served in uniform: the Prince of Wales, the later Edward, Duke of Windsor (1894–1972), in a staff position with the army behind the Western Front, Prince Albert, the future George VI, King of Great Britain (1895–1952), on HMS Collingwood during the Battle of Jutland. Anti-German hysteria in Britain led the king to change the name of his dynasty from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a legacy of the marriage of his grandmother Victoria, Queen of Great Britain (1819–1901), to the quintessentially English House of Windsor. He also implemented an austerity regime in the Royal Household and rarely wore anything during the war other than military uniform. To his regret, he allowed himself to be talked into giving up alcohol for the duration to set an example for factory workers.

George V took his ceremonial duties seriously. To see to it that the civilian war effort was properly recognized, he created the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and passed out thousands of honours, while often pressing his government to recognize individual acts of bravery that came to his attention. Along with Mary, Queen, Consort of George V, King of Great Britain (1867-1953), he made hundreds of official tours to review troops, inspect factories and shipyards, and visit hospitals. On a tour of the Western Front, he was thrown from a horse and injured to the point that he endured pain and discomfort for the rest of his life. It did, however, gain him release from his temperance pledge.  His personal journal for that day reads:

Passing on to the Flying ground I rode down the lines of 1st Wing, R.F.C. who gave 3 cheers as all the other troops had done. Unfortunately my horse was only a few yards off them at the time, took fright, reared straight up & fell back on top of me, giving me an infernal bad fall, which completely knocked the wind out of me. They picked me up and took me back to Aire in the motor car as quickly as possible. I suffered great agonies all the way.


King George V Studying a Recent Battlefield

After the War

The heavy casualties of the war, approximately one million British Empire dead, left George V with strong pacifist instincts. He supported disarmament in the 1920s and '30s, including the scrapping of capital ships, despite his own training as a naval officer. When confrontation threatened in 1935 as a result of Benito Mussolini’s (1883–1945) invasion of Abyssinia, the king flared up: “I will not have another war. I will not.” 

Sources:  Encyclopedia 1914/1918; The Royal Collection Trust

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914-1920

By Daniel M. Smith
John A Wiley & Sons, 1966
John D. Beatty, MA, Reviewer

In The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914-1920, Daniel M. Smith, professor of history at the University of Colorado, presents a cogent and well-documented account of the political and diplomatic aspects of a turbulent, pattern-changing period of American history. The book has a chronological/thematic organization. That means that the text must, of necessity, skip around in time somewhat, though it is done better here than elsewhere. Readers looking for battle narratives will be disappointed that there are none to be found in this book. This is a somewhat staid and dry foreign policy/political history, not an exciting military/naval one. At the same time, there is nothing here about military politics/diplomacy or Pershing’s struggle over amalgamation or over what kind of troops were dispatched to France. Smith describes the title’s “departure” as a departure of American outlook and policy, a departure that began after the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine War (1899-1902).

By the early 20th century, the concept of “neutrality” had undergone many changes. Though the US declared itself “neutral” on the day Germany invaded Belgium, by April 1917, American neutrality was becoming increasingly perilous. Actual non-participation in the conflict had become hard to find—the Americans had provided everything short of ships and troops to the Entente up to then. Where ties of culture and language were strong between the US and Great Britain, relations of trade and immigration were much broader and more critical by the generation. During the 1914-1917 period, America began to realize that, as an industrial power—and an emerging Great Power—the United States could no longer stand aside and watch the Old World dissolve into chaos. Participation in world affairs was becoming mandatory for a globally-trading nation. The political and diplomatic struggles between competing philosophies of America are among the topics that Smith artfully discusses in this short, thoughtful book

In Chapter 1, The Shock of War, Smith describes American incredulity at an assassination in Sarajevo that could result in a major war. It was also difficult for the “hyphenated Americans” of foreign origin to believe that America could sit back and watch the carnage, resisting the propaganda campaigns from both the Entente and the Triple Alliance that began almost simultaneously with the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914. But trade increased during the war, the American ammunition industry was born, and American financiers lent millions for the Entente to buy American goods. While not going into detail, Smith capsulizes the tensions between official non-belligerence and private war profits well.

The most thoughtful chapter is Chapter 2—American Interests and the World War. It starts with a summary of the American scholarly literature written since 1918 and proceeds to a brief analysis of Wilson’s recognition early on that American neutrality was at best perilous because the US could not allow Germany to be victorious. Wilson and all but one of his top advisors knew that eventually, the US would have to fight if Germany were to come close to victory. Wilson’s first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, did not feel the same way, and Smith draws the contrast between Bryan and his successor, Robert Lansing, starkly. This chapter also details why Bryan left the Wilson administration in 1915, described in Chapter 4.

Chapter 3, Trade and Blockade, describes the myriad changes in warfare and naval technology that diplomacy, international law, and public opinion had yet to assimilate. The spiderweb of neutral shipping, of what was and was not contraband, of where this cargo or that would eventually end up is avoided in Smith’s text, while the diplomatic and commercial maneuvering over these topics is briefly covered. The best that can be said about this chapter is that Smith makes the confusion and Gordian-like knot of blockade politics seem sane compared to his next chapter. My one complaint is that Smith does not even mention the Hoover relief of Belgium and the diplomatic maneuvering it entailed.

America and the U-Boat is Chapter 4, a comprehensive review of American attitudes towards this new form of warfare and the political/diplomatic results. Submarine warfare was as dangerous to the submarine as to their targets if the rules of “cruiser warfare” were followed, as was expected in 1914. Bryan was as outraged by German submarine warfare as the British blockade and instructed his then-subordinate Lansing to write a scathing condemnation of both in response to the Lusitania sinking in 1915. That he was overruled by Wilson—and Lansing’s refusal to write such a thing—foretold Bryan’s eventual exit from the Wilson cabinet. In the meantime, diplomats argued; ships sank; people starved and drowned; the issues went unresolved; naval warfare became that much more brutal; “kill or be killed” was the result. I have long argued that some essential social mores died in the mud and horror of the 1914-18 war. Distinctions between military and civilian was one of those victims, reflected in the advancement and eventual silent acceptance of submarines attacking all targets without warning.

In Chapter 5, Mediation and Belligerency, Smith amplifies his themes of American lack of unanimity and begins his portrait of Wilson as a Presbyterian parson-cum-president. While that characterization is somewhat stark, it is how the European leaders saw him and his attempts at finding a peaceful solution to the increasing savagery of the war. Smith cannot avoid depicting Wilson’s persevering belief in the ultimate power of the populations and their desire for democracy as somewhat child-like. 

Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd George

The Moral Leader of the WorldChapter 6, amplifies the theme of Saint Woodrow of Princeton in Paris. At the same time, Smith refutes the idea that Wilson was unprepared for the complex issues to be addressed in the peace conferences. Smith does acknowledge that Wilson was not prepared for the trenchant tenacity of Georges Clemenceau, or the persuasive arguments of David Lloyd-George, in getting their way on the reparations and peace settlements. Wilson rode on a wave of progressive good feeling (aided by Republican party division) in 1912, and his “he kept us out of the war” slogan in 1916 got him reelected. He was not a career politician like the Europeans accustomed to log-rolling and rough-and-tumble, but a humanist academic who argued facts and morality. Without whipping out the “God only needed Ten Commandments” quip regarding the Fourteen Points, Smith makes this clear.

Chapter 7, A Victory for Collective Security, is somehow mistitled, frankly. It discusses Wilson’s preparations for the peace conference and the politics involved in going to France at all. Wilson should have, Smith claims, left Edward House and Lansing to negotiate in Paris while he managed the Senate’s and the country’s expectations. At the same time, Smith points out that each of Wilson’s Fourteen Points on which Germany relied for a lasting peace treaty was distorted, delayed, or ignored. The Versailles Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations were less a real victory for collective security than it was a symbolic one. Treaties and well-meaning organizations couldn’t stop the nightmare that would follow in less than a generation. Yet, Smith hails Versailles and the Covenant as a “victory” nonetheless. Perhaps it is intended to be ironic or as a Cold War homage to the hopes and prayers for the United Nations.

The tangled Chapter 8, The Russian Problem and the Peace Conference casts another shadow from the Cold War. Wilson and the other conferees except Clemenceau were determined to use Germany to bulwark against Bolshevik incursions into Europe. Clemenceau was concerned about the Red Menace but not so concerned that he would leave Germany with an army capable of attacking France again soon. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks were starting a civil war with all its factions, and there was the issue with those armaments that the Allies sold the Tsar that were sitting in Murmansk and Vladivostok. And the Czech Legion was fighting for freedom, which could have been fighting in France. The list goes on. Smith only touches on the most significant, most apparent parts of the Russia Problem, arguably because most were never fully resolved, anyway.

The Struggle For an Enduring Peace, Chapter 9, discusses the last throes of Treaty/Covenant negotiations and Germany’s struggle to sign it. As well-meaning as all the conferees were, there were ethnic issues and minority population issues that Versailles could not solve. Ethnic tensions and perceived and real racism—especially regarding the racial equality provisions that Japan sponsored but had been rejected—threatened any supposed “peace” with more hobnails on the pavement to prove a point, however dubious. Smith’s treatment of the many issues, great and small as they were nailed down or ignored, is as comprehensive as it could get in a small space.

The Defeat of the Treaty, Chapter 10, covers Wilson’s fight over the treaty in the US. Smith’s description of Wilson’s defeat is relatively standard. He also holds that the success of the League depended largely on US participation. I had never fully understood why American membership in the League was/is seen as necessary. Even with American membership, the small pre-1939 US military organization would have been inadequate to stop Italy’s encroachment into Ethiopia, let alone Japan into China. Smith does not tie Wilson’s defeat to his illnesses—which were many—much to his credit. Instead, he connects the failure of the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty to Wilson’s lack of genuine political acumen and, again, his enduring faith in everyone always wanting to see things his way.

The Great Departure is a part of a series called “America in Crisis,” published in the mid-1960s and edited by Robert A. Divine, now the George W. Littlefield Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Texas at Austin. While both The Great Departure and the other five books by different authors in the series (providing similar treatments for the Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War II) reflect some Cold War biases, they are well worth digging up for those interested in American political and diplomatic history.

John D. Beatty, MA

Monday, September 27, 2021

A Combat Surgeon on the Western Front: Captain Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson VC, MC


Dr. Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson VC, MC (16 December 1883–9 April 1954) was an American-born Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) during the First World War.  Hutcheson was a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School. In 1915, he renounced his United States citizenship in order to join the Canadian Army as a medical officer. He reclaimed his American citizenship after the war. This letter is transcribed from a rough draft found in an old trunk in 1989. 

Dear Captain Gwynn;

Replying to your first series of questions, concerning the 76th Brigade of Royal Field Artillery:

The 76th Brigade was supporting the Canadian Infantry which was holding the line in front of Vimy. The brigade consisted of four batteries of 18 pounders (field guns) and one battery of 4.5 inch Howitzers. The cover of the guns, while poor was, I suppose, as good as that usually occupied by field guns in position only a few days, and the quarters of the gun that crews were in cellars near the guns, but the shells thrown at us were eight inch, and armour piercing. At least the artillerymen said that they were armour piercing, and after viewing the effects of their explosions I was in no position to argue with them. After several dugouts had been blown in, some of the uninjured personnel set to work digging out the injured while the bombardment was in progress and it was this rescue work which was carried out under scanty or no cover.

The bombardment lasted from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m., with a few periods of lull, and was apparently counter battery work on the part of the enemy. Our guns were not in action.

As you surmise, the gun crews had taken refuge in cellars, not anticipating a bombardment of such intensity with heavy stuff. Gas shells and high explosions were intermingled. My work consisted in dressing the wounded, checking hemorrhage, giving a hypo of morphine when necessary and seeing that the injured were evacuated to the rear. The gas used that day was the deadly sweetish smelling phosgene. It was my first experience with gas in warfare and I wore a mask part of the time and instructed the men to do so whenever there was a dangerous concentration. You ask about my own reaction. It was of course very disconcerting to endeavor to dress wounded while shells were showering debris about, and the possibility of being in the next few seconds in the same plight as the terribly wounded men I was dressing, occurred to me every now and then. The whole thing seemed rather unreal, particularly when it occurred to me, busy as I was, that the killing was being done deliberately and systematically. I felt particularly sorry for the young artillery men, (and many of them were about 19) who were being subjected to the ordeal. I remember one man who had a ghastly wound which would obviously prove fatal in a short time, pleading with me, amidst the turmoil of explosions, to shoot him. Every soldier who has seen action since knows that it requires the highest type of stamina and bravery for troops to lie in a trench and take a heavy shelling without being demoralized and panic stricken, therefore I shall always remember the orderly rescue work carried on by the officers and men of the artillery in the face of the concentrated shelling that occurred that afternoon.

You ask about the work of the artillery officers. They very bravely and ably directed the men in the work of rescue and tried to keep gun crews intact as nearly as possible, in order to fire at any time, should orders to do so, be received.

During the trench tours in front of Lens, I usually had a deserted gun pit or cellar communicating with the support trench as a dressing station. The actions about the G[um] Crossin and La Coulotte, though attended by heavy casualties, were more in the nature of raids or diverting attacks, than holding attacks, therefore, I did not accompany the attacking parties. During a trench tour I stuck close to the dressing station if the enemy was active, in order to look after the injured, if things were quiet I visited the different headquarters of the platoons and companies holding the line. Going into the line was sometimes the most disagreeable part of the tour, because of the darkness, danger of getting lost, the mud, and the shelling of the roads just behind the line. The Passchendaele Campaign was carried on in a sea of mud. I have never seen a drearier sight than the salient in front of Ypres -- churned up mud with mucky shell holes and never a tree as far as the eye could reach. It was necessary to march single file on duck walk because of the mud for a distance of five or six miles when going in for a tour. We were machine-gunned and bombed from the air and subjected to a terrific shelling on the way in and nothing like a real trench system was possible, the line being held by a series of posts in shell holes. My dressing station was located beside a concrete "pill box", an old German strong point. Captain Dunlap, medical officer of the 102nd Battalion, who was later killed, shared the dressing station with me. I had never met Dunlap before and when he appeared at our rendezvous, with four days growth of black beard on his face, a torn tunic and string like remnants of puttees, he looked so much like a stage hobo that I burst out laughing in his face. He was a fine chap and we became good friends.

The stretcher bearers had a very difficult time. The whole area was subjected to continuous shelling by the enemy. The pill box afforded shelter on one side for the dressing station and sheets of camouflage and canvas formed the roof. When no wounded were coming in Dunlap and I would crawl into the pill box for greater security. We kept no enlisted personnel with us as there was literally no place where they could stand without sinking to their knees in mud and the number of wounded men was not so great but that the two medical officers could do all that could be done. When we were relieved by the medical officer of the English unit that took over; Dunlap and I, with Captain A.A. Gray, adjutant of the 75th, started back towards Ypres, over the duckwalk. The different platoons of our battalion had trickled back as they were relieved. The two way duckwalk was, as usual, shelled heavily. We were passing the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders coming when a shell got a direct hit among them about 200 feet ahead of us. Their dead and wounded, lying in grotesque attitudes, were being cleared away by their comrades with feverish haste as we dog trotted past the smoking shell hole. We did not stop because their own medical unit was on the job, they had plenty of help and each unit was supposed to take care of its own casualties.

Regarding the citation for the Military Cross: "The open ground" mentioned consisted of the wheat fields and other flat unwooded ground through which we passed between Beaucourt and Le Quesnel on the immediate left of the Amiens-Roye road. As we advanced we were frequently under direct observation by enemy balloons directing artillery fire. When one shell landed half a dozen others were pretty sure to land in a very short time within a radius of 50 yards or so of where the first one did, consequently when the first few caused casualties they had to be attended in a shower of debris caused by the explosion of succeeding shells.

It was necessary to pass through the streets of Le Quesnel several times during the barrage in order to find the wounded who were scattered throughout the town. I supervised their collection, during lulls in the shelling in a cellar I used as a dressing station. The platoons furnished stretcher bearers. My medical section, consisting of a sergeant, corporal and two privates were with me part of the time, or were in the dressing station when I was out, or they themselves were engaged in looking for wounded.

As the 4th C.M.R. and tanks pushed through the village the shelling again became intense. The Germans were about 240 yds. outside the village. As Corporal Adnitt, and Private Marigold and myself were attending to some wounded in a d[inur]y near a street corner that was being heavily shelled, a company of the 4th C.M.R. went by. As the hind of the company reached the street corner about a hundred feet away a shell landed in their midst. About six men went down. As they were going into an attack they could not stop to take care of their wounded. Adnitt, Marigold and I ran to them. The Company Commander lay on his face with the back of his head sheared off. I recall that he had the rank and name of "Captain MacDonald" written on some of his equipment. Three other men were killed and lay beside him. The Company Sergeant Major had his leg blown off just above the knee and several men had less severe injuries. We put hurried dressings on the wounded and got them off the corner, which was a very hot spot, into shelter as quickly as possible. One of the men who had been killed was evidently carrying phosphorous smoke bombs. These set his clothing on fire. We tired to extinguish the fire, but his clothing and body seemed shot through with the phosphorous and it was impossible to put it out. The nature of his wound made it evident that he had been instantly killed and as shells were falling about at a lively rate, we left him. Later in the day when the enemy had been pushed back and things had quieted down I saw his body again. He was almost incinerated.

I dressed very few enemy wounded in Le Quesnel, as they had evidently been able to evacuate them before we took the village. A day or so later we came across a temporary tent hospital of the Germans full of wounded. These my men and I dressed until they could be evacuated as a matter of ordinary humanity. I might add that they were very grateful. I am attaching a very rough sketch of the Sept. 2nd attack. The Germans did not use very much gas that day in our sector. I do not think they used the bayonet much either, though I was not in a position to know.

I kept no copy of the notes that I sent you and do not know what details concerning Sept. 2nd I gave to you. My medical detail and I worked along the crest attending to the wounded when the battalion was held up short of its objective. The rifle, machine gun and artillery fire was intense. We got to the wounded by crawling or running in a stooping position and when the fire became too hot flattened out on the ground like limpets on a rock. My Sergeant, Harry Munnell received the C.C.M. and my Corporal, George Adnitt received the M.S.M. for the work done that day. I cannot speak too highly of their gallantry and devotion to duty.

Concerning Capt. Dunlop (who by the way, is to be distinguished from Capt. Dunlap the M.O. of the 102nd Battalion previously mentioned). He was first hit in the abdomen by a rifle bullet, as he led his company over the crest. He had advanced in the face of a [wither]ing fire, swinging his walking stick nonchalantly. There wasn't much chance for conversation as I dressed him but he did ask if we were having many casualties. Twenty or thirty minutes later when I was near him again he told me that he had been hit in the thigh as he lay there. We put him in a shell hole. His first wound being in the abdomen it was advisable to get him back to the C.C.S. for operation as soon as possible, so Sergeant Munnell and I stopped three or four German prisoners to press them into service as stretcher bearers. An enemy field gun about a mile away, ahead and to our right, began firing at us and the first or second shell landed among us, or so it seemed to me, I was knocked into the shell hole with one of the Germans on top of me; Munnell was knocked to the ground, a wounded man who was lying near had his ear nearly taken off and the other two Germans, wounded and shrieking, ran toward our lines. As I struggled out from under the German, he was groaning and crying, and I spoke to him sharply to get him to remove his weight from me. Dunlop said, "He's badly hit Doc. Look at his face." I looked, and the face was gray. At the same time I saw a wound in his thigh with the blood spurting from a severed femoral. As I put a tourniquet above the wound he moved a little and I saw that the whole side of chest was torn out. He expired in less than a minute. Meanwhile the field gun continued to fire at us, about every 10 or 15 seconds, I should say, landing its shells usually within 15 or 30 yards. As the four of us, Munnell, Dunlop, another wounded man and myself lay in the shell hole the din was terrific, with machine gun and rifle fire ahead, our low flying planes swooping to within 50 feet of the ground and firing at the enemy and shell explosions all about. Someone remarked that it was no place to sit and read the paper and another observed that there would be an awful mess if Fritz ever got a direct hit on our shell hole. In a short time the enemy fell back and the fire abated, and we were able to get Dunlop and the other casualties scattered along the crest, back a couple of hundred yards or so, to a trench in which we were collecting our wounded.

Burial Marker, Mt. Carmel, IL, USA

You ask regarding the circumstances under which aid was rendered to the Sergeant mentioned in the V.C. citation: He was Sergeant McCullogh of the battalion scouts. As I recall it, at the time mentioned I was lying on the ground near our colonel, who was of course directing the attack, the adjutant, McCullogh and several others. The firing just ahead had subsided to desultory machine gun and rifle fire and McCullogh was dispatched by the Colonel, to find out I believe, what progress was being made by the right flank. Things were quieter and it seemed that the enemy was falling back. He stooped and ran forward and to the right about 200 feet, when there was a single shot followed by a burst of machine gun fire, and he fell. The enemy was, I estimate 100 to 300 yards ahead in the sunken road. I ran to him and dressed his wound, which was a dangerous one through the pelvis. I do not recall our conversation and do not remember if he was placed in a shell hole. With slight undulations in the terrain one was sometime fairly well [protected] if one lay very flat on the ground. I lay beside him for 5 or 10 minutes, then crawled away and went about my other duties. We got him back a short time later.

I am attaching an extract from "a History of the 75th Battalion", which describes briefly the battalion movements from Sept. 2 till the Armistice. As there stated, I was on leave during the action of September 27th to October 4th when our casualties were terrific. I did not want to go on leave at this time as I was endeavoring to get my leave postponed until I could get off at the same time as my brother, who was a lieutenant in the infantry of the American Rainbow Division. It was just as well, probably, that my leave came through when it did.

In compiling these notes I have dwelt rather lightly upon my experiences from a purely medical standpoint. You have a copy of an address which I delivered dealing to some extent with this phase of my service.

Like most regimental medical officers I was at great pains in endeavoring to be just to the men in assigning them duty or in sending [them] into the line if they professed to be sick or disabled.

I was never wounded. On Sept 2 1918 I was knocked to my knees when a machine gun, or rifle bullet, deeply scored by steel helmet. In November 1917 as we were going up to Passchendaele a fragment of shell from a high velocity gun knocked me down as we were marching past the Cloth Hall in Ypres and the back of my rain coat and tunic were torn out, but I sustained no injury other than a severe contusion.

You ask concerning my motives for joining the Canadian army: They were rather mixed. In the first place, I was in great sympathy with the Allied cause, secondly I am chiefly of English decent; my great grandfather served under Lord Nelson and lost an eye in the battle of Trafalgar and my paternal grandfather came to the U.S. from England in the 1840's and was Captain and adjutant on a New York regiment during the Civil War. The third factor was the desire for surgical experience and adventure which I felt war service would afford.

Please do no quote me in your narrative. I feel sure that I can rely upon you to give no highly colored version of events I have related.

Concerning my reference to the Encyclopedia Britannica which you state that you were unable to trace: The reference is to pages 952 to 959 in Volume III of "The Three New Supplementary Volumes, Constituting with the Volumes of the Latest Standard Edition the Thirteenth Edition". Copyright 1926.

You will find in those pages a very accurate and detailed account of the action of Aug 8th and Sept 2 1918. There are also two very good maps.

Sources:  Canadian Veterans Dept.; Find a Grave

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Fortnum & Mason Provisions the Front — A Roads Classic

by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

Asked what food typified the Western Front, most students would come up with bully beef or Maconochie's stew. Here is the antithesis of that—the luxury of a Fortnum & Mason hamper, of varying items and quantities, available to be sent to "officers." Presumably the price alone precluded other ranks from ordering these, let alone the social exclusion. Bear in mind that many officers were but of the temporary sort, not necessarily monied as in the traditional prewar days. We show below excerpts of the Fortnum's 1914 catalog, primarily for Christmas—

Click on Images to Enlarge

The 1915 catalog (note the black/white, much sparer look) expanded to include other necessities for frontline existence, including a "Mediterranean" version, presumably for those in the vortex of Gallipoli. Perishables and breakables were kept out of these hampers as much as possible. And by hamper we really mean boxes and crates, since the lovely classic wicker hamper from Fortnum's could hardly stand the ravages of wartime transport and storage. Those boxes were useful empty as well.

1915 Fortnum & Mason Catalog

Included here are parcels of the month, all labeled "January," "February," etc. through December. And in another sad new tangent of the war, there is a section of parcels to send to POWs. How many of these actually made it through to their recipients can only be surmised—

After 1915 it is hard to image these abundant catalogs being made use of, or even available, given the escalating lack of food in Britain with the increased U-boat war sinking much-needed imported food. And with official rationing instituted in 1918, this prewar approach to sending treats to the front must have fallen away altogether.

To read through more of these catalog pages and find other Great War historical gems please go to The site owner Ian Houghton graciously gave permission for these to be excerpted. I had not seen his site before, but I recommend it.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

In Champagne: The 28th Brigade Ossuary and Cemetery

Located  about one mile west of Souain in Champagne is the French National Cemetery and Ossuary of the 28th Brigade. It houses the graves of 147 French soldiers of the 28th Brigade, killed during the First World War's Second Battle of Champagne. There is also a mass grave on the site but the number of burials in the mass grave[s] is unclear.  

Its unique design was apparently intended to be evocative of Celtic cromlechs (megalithic period tombs).  Surrounding a large limestone cross, which carries the inscription "Aux morts de la XXVIIIe Brigade,"  are two circles of markers identifying the individual burials. Toward the flag pole there are additional markers for the the brigade's regiments and memorials to two other regiments, the 60th and 44th that fought in the area. During the battle. after six days of fighting, the 28th Brigade lost  1,133 dead and missing and  1,362 wounded.

Midway Between St. Hilaire le Grand and Souain

After the war, the chaplain of the 28th Brigade, Father R. Paul Doncoeur, SJ,  and several volunteers from Belfort, where the unit was raised, returned to the battlefield to locate and bury the rest of their comrades. The monument and cemetery were inaugurated on 25 September 1919. This cemetery is officially named the "Nécropole nationale de Souain—28e Brigade".

I discovered this remarkable cemetery over thirty years ago when I first visited the Western Front.  Despite the fact it made a powerful impression on me,  I subsequently lost track of where I had seen it, but it had left a lasting memory.  On a later tour I led to the Champagne, I was determined finally to track it down. However, my navigational skills failed me that day. We somehow missed the turn and we didn't have time to turn back.  Consequently, I've never been able to revisit the site.  In preparing this article, I've been surprised at how little information I've been able to discover about the site or the 1915 action fought there.  If you have any information about it, please include it in the comments, and I'll try to add it to the article.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Mountaintop Trench Warfare: The Battle of Mte. Pal Piccolo March 1916

Mte. Pal Piccolo Today, Italian Defenses Visible on the Plateau

(Translated [poorly] and adapted from Italian sources)

After the opening Italian offenses of the war the lines guarding the critical mountain passes were stabilized, trenches, barricades, and  hardened fortifications were begun. One key position on the Austrian/Italian border overlooking an especially important pass, was Mte. Pal Piccolo, 40 miles east of Cortina d'Ampezzo.  A breakthrough here would allow Austro-Hungarian forces to break into the rear of the two main Italian armies attacking along the Isonzo River sector.  

That winter, the opposing sides began a large number of actions, surprise attacks, raids and attempts to to disrupt, cause damages, casualties or confusion more than to conquer or defend positions.  Besides the victims of the cold, bad weather, and avalanches there were also casualties by by the continuous sniping by sharpshooters who preyed on those using the paths to the trenches.

Partial Map of Italian Front with Location

At the beginning of spring, the opposing commands were determined  to begin offensive actions.  In March 1916 the snow on the plain of Pal Piccolo was between 3 to 6 meters (10-19 ft.).  In spite of, indeed to make use of the snow, the Austrian Command decided to resolve the situation in one blow by attacking an Italian position at  Mt. Pal Piccolo (at  1859m, 6135 feet), known as “il Trincerone” (big ditch or trench) which blocked the road south.   

Italian Defenses

At 2:00 A.M. on 26 March the attack commenced.With a snowstorm under way and soft snow covering the approaches, it was almost impossible for the Austrians to leave their trenches and the attack soon mired down. On the Pal Piccolo, though, tunnels had been dug through the snow and tunnels led toward the Italian lines. The assault platoon of the 8th Jaeger Battalion was finally advancing, when tardy counter orders to pull back arrived. At this point retreating in “no man’s land” would cause a massacre and so  Lt. Kamper, commanding the assault troops ordered the advance to continue.

The 272nd company of the Tagliamento Battalion. which manned the Trincerone line, was caught completely by surprise and retired hastily with great losses.  Immediately, Colonel Poggi commander of the sector reacted, sending reinforcements to the Alpini’s of two Bersglieri companies and any other available units nearby.

Austrian Mountain Troops

That night, during the storm the men struggled to close the breakthrough.  In the morning the storm ceased and in the afternoon the soldiers formed into three columns and counterattacked in the fresh snow.  Because of the minimal results the Italian soldiers were forced to stay over night in the open  in close contact with the enemy.

The night temperature became freezing and this proved lethal for the wounded.  In the morning, with the sudden arrival of the 212th company of the Tagiamento Battalion they had the good fortune of discovering an unmanned path and, in a swoop, fell on the Trincerone.  In a violent melee that followed other Italian units joined in and the Austrians beat a hasty retreat to their original lines. The short delay in orders caused two days of bitter fighting in horrible conditions and more than 2000 dead and many more wounded.

Machine Gun Position on Austrian Front Line

Mte. Pal Piccolo will be one of the most contested points of the Trentino battlefield in the years to come. The lines remained the same and the style of warfare became that of the Western Front, with fixed trenches, snipers, random artillery shelling, etc., except — the soldiers also found themselves on mountaintops with the additional dangers of hypothermia, avalanches, and falling off cliffs. This was the situation for the troops on Mte. Pal Piccolo until the post-Caporetto advance by the Central Powers in October 1917 swept the front line far to the south to the Piave River line. The Italian troops guarding the mountain positions, who were not able to retreat in a timely manner, were left to surrender or simply starve  at their mountain outposts without any chance for resupply.

Italian Alpini Troops Heading for Pal Piccolo

Today, Mte. Pal Piccolo  is an amazing outdoor war museum, a tribute to the men who served there in the Great War. The photos shown here are from the museum's website.

Source: Alpini ed Austrici sulle Vette by Guido Aviani Fulvio

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Recommended: How Bicycles Helped Win the War

Italian Bicycle Troops of the 26th Bersaglieri Battalion
Onward Savoy — Force, Mind, Impulse

By Jessica Coulon
Originally Presented in, 27 May 2019

World War I was unprecedented in its time for its sheer size and deadliness. In part, this was because of new technologies used widely in combat for the first time. Things like modern artillery, powered aircraft, and tanks all signaled a new era of warfare on a massive, far bloodier scale.

But amid a field of advanced technology was one simple, handy, and timeless machine: the bicycle. Rarely the focus of writings and discussions on WWI, bikes were a common sight on all sides of the conflict. In fact, they played a vital role in transporting huge amounts of soldiers and supplies to and from the front lines.

“At the beginning, while it was a war of mobility, bicycles were very important,” said Doran Cart, senior curator at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.

Here’s some more of what we learned about bicycles in World War I.


Bicycles could move large bodies of troops without some of the problems associated with horses or motor vehicles. Horses needed food, while in the 1910s cars and trucks needed not only fuel but also good roads, trained operators, and frequent maintenance. Bicycles, on the other hand, were human powered and relatively easy to maintain.

Cycling units could travel anywhere between 50 and 100 miles a day. Because they could deploy quickly, many were sent to the front in the war’s early years. French folding bicycles, seen on the postcard above, were especially pragmatic: Troops could ride them on roads when possible, or else carry them over rough terrain.

Pictured above is a fully restored “Captain Gérard” folding bicycle, an especially prized exhibit piece at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. “It’s rare,” Cart said. “It went out of fashion when the military stopped using it in WWI.”

This model was designed in 1896 by Henri Gérard, commander of the French bicycle troops, and manufactured by Peugeot. Weighing roughly 30 pounds, it was designed specifically for the French infantry: Gérard added a folding component and straps so soldiers could carry it on their back, and he moved the seat post directly over the rear axle, enabling a soldier to stabilize the bike and fire his weapon while straddling it.

Gérard’s bikes did make a reappearance in World War II, Cart said, enjoying some use among paratroopers.


Not every soldier had a bike, but some WWI infantry units—and sometimes entire battalions—had only cyclists in their ranks. Professional riders were often recruited to lead these units, which were especially common during the first two years of the war. Seen here is a compagnie cycliste of the French army, a unit that relied on folding bikes. Other countries with cycling units included Britain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Russia.

Like guns and uniforms, bicycles were military issued. Among British soldiers, they were in such high demand that for a short time, the Army reverted to using civilian bikes retrofitted for military use.

Deployment of a French Bicycle Unit

Members of the cyclist corps were identifiable by the badges on their caps and other insignia. (The U.S. was the only major country engaged in the war that did not designate its cyclists with cap badges.) Most military-issued bicycles were single speeds, though some British models had three gears.

Every country involved in WWI used bicycles at some point. . . German bicycle units faced particular hardships early in the war. Rubber was rationed at the time, and during one shortage German bike manufacturers had to make tires out of wood—or else, soldiers had to ride on their rims. By 1917, rubber tires were only allowed on German bicycles specifically approved for war use.

Although modern cargo bikes hadn’t yet been invented, military bicycles could still transport goods like ammunition, small arms, medical supplies, and food to the front.


The U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917, but when it did the military decided it too would need bicycles. As Cart said, “They realized bicycles could make a difference in certain situations.”

By this point, trench warfare was well underway at the front, meaning bicycles were no longer needed to rapidly move troops. They weren’t particularly safe on open roads, either, but they still played important roles on airbases and relaying messages quickly. The image below shows American servicemen in ground support of an air facility in France.

Producing military bikes fell to three American companies: The Westfield Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts, the Great Western Manufacturing Company of Laporte, Indiana, and the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Dayton, Ohio. (The latter switched to making bicycles just for the war.) All three manufacturers put out the same bicycle, known as the “standard military type.” In all, 27,000 American bikes were produced for WWI.

Regardless of country, bicycles in the 1910s were deeply engrained in the public imagination. Unlike many other technologies used in WWI, bicycles were familiar to everyone, including civilians. “It was a tool of war that wasn’t really from the military, so it wasn’t threatening,” Cart said.

Sources:  Images and Identifying Information Courtesy of the National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Odd Odyssey of Russian Battleship Peresvet

Battleship Peresvet After Launching

Peresvet was the lead ship of the three Peresvet-class pre-dreadnought battleships built for the Imperial Russian Navy at the end of the nineteenth century. Her keel was laid down on 21 November 1895 by the Baltic Works in Saint Petersburg and she launched on 19 May 1898. She was not completed, however, until July 1901.  The ship was transferred to the Pacific Squadron upon completion and based at Port Arthur from 1903. An omen of Peresvet's bad luck career occurred on the journey to the Pacific.  The ship ran aground on the tip of Langeland Island near Denmark on 1 November 1901.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, she participated in the Battle of Port Arthur suffering minor shell damage and at least two collisions. Peresvet was heavily damaged during the Battle of the Yellow Sea and again in the siege of Port Arthur. In December 1905, The Japanese troops were able to seize Hill 203 overlooking the harbor on 5 December. This allowed the Imperial Japanese Army's siege guns to fire directly at the Russian ships and they hit Peresvet many times. The ship was scuttled before the Russians surrendered.   Peresvet was later salvaged by the Japanese and placed into service with the name Sagami. 

Raised After Scuttling

Partially rearmed, Sagami was reclassified by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) as a coastal defense ship in 1912. In 1916, the Japanese sold her to the Russians, their allies since the beginning of World War I.  On the way to Vladivostok for refitting, Peresvet once again ran aground. En route to the White Sea in early 1917, she sank off Port Said, Egypt, after striking mines laid by German submarine U-73.  Over 100 of her crew were lost in the sinking.

Sources: Russian & Soviet Battleships by Stephen McLaughlin; Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

In A Women’s Death Battalion: A Russian Nurse in Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1918

By Maria Bocharnikova
Translated by Kimball Worcester
Blurb, 2021
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Training Camp at Levashovo

Kimball Worcester has given World War I aficionados a magnificent translation of an important historical document. She has translated another document from the Alexander Solzhenitsyn Russian Charitable Foundation where reside many memoirs collected from people who experienced Russia in World War I, during the Revolution, and during the civil war. Her other two works from the foundation, reviewed on this blog (HERE & HERE), were memoirs from nurses involved in the Russian Revolution and civil war, and they were eye-openers. This work is much more important in that it comes from a former nurse who turned infantry soldier. It covers less than a year in her life, but the words hold mountains of information and the only description of the fight at the Winter Palace in October (Old Style) 1917.

Maria Bocharnikova was a 17-year-old sister of mercy (nurse) working in northern Persia with the Russian army when she heard that Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional Government’s minister of war, had given permission for women to enlist in the army as combat soldiers. Kerensky had come up with this program in response to the pleas of Maria Bochkaryova, a highly decorated soldier who had fought for two years on the Eastern Front. She had convinced Kerensky that an all-woman force would strengthen the male soldiers’ resolve to once again begin operations at the front. Bochkaryova formed the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in May 1917. Under her leadership, the battalion was trained and deployed to the front to participate in the trenches. Bocharnikova chose not to join Bochkaryova’s battalion. Instead, she enlisted in the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion. She was two months shy of her 18th birthday when she was accepted in the ranks. The administration made an exception of her because of her service in Persia.

Bocharnikova lays out in detail the types of women who enlisted, taking special care to note that the vast majority (about 60 percent intelligensia and 40 percent uneducated) signed up because of patriotism. She does note that a few had fled from abusive relationships, but as a whole the women were apolitical. The Petrograd Battalion began forming in early June 1917 and filled its authorized strength of 1,163 officers, non-commissioned officers, and ranks by early August. Kerensky was proud of his project, but the Army Staff was not. They put every kind of obstacle in the women’s path to deter the organization’s completion. Bocharnikova’s unit had to raise money for uniforms and equipment through public appeal, which included celebrity entertainments at Luna Park and finally an American-style auction at which an autographed picture of Kerensky was sold. With uniforms and equipment, the women were drilled in Petrograd and then sent out to the country for field training. Bocharnikova describes field training in snippets of experiences. These are an excellent representation of camp life.

1st Petrograd Women's Death Battalion on Palace Square

With training completed, the battalion looked forward to being shipped to the front, but things did not transpire as expected. On 24 October (Old Style) the battalion was put on trucks and taken back to Petrograd. They thought that they were to parade through the streets on the way to the front. Instead, they were taken to the Winter Palace where they were told that it was their lot, along with other loyal units, to defend the Provisional Government from the expected Bolshevik coup d’état.

And this is where the memoirs became the most interesting for me. In the next few pages, Bocharnikova describes what happened that fateful night. It is an account without the political embellishment that was heaped on it by the Communist Party or the Western governments which wanted to defame the Bolsheviks and their later government. The only common element in each of the three accounts is that Lenin’s supporters triumphed and the resisters were rounded up and disarmed. Bocharnikova clearly states that the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion did not crumple into mass hysteria as a result of the Red Guard assault. They stood their ground repelling at least one frontal assault, and they did not lose control when the Aurora unleashed a salvo (blanks, by the way) from her guns. In fact, the battalion had to be ordered to lay down arms after their commanders realized that the Red Guards supported by Kronstadt sailors outnumbered them nearly five to one and had surrounded their barricaded positions. The battalion did not suffer inordinate casualties during their encounter. When noses were counted, only one of the women had been killed. Nor were any of the battalion raped.

Under Arrest in the Empress Maria Fyodorovna's
Throne Room, Winter Palace

The women, after a brief arrest, were returned to their camp, disarmed, and disbanded. Bocharnikova was one of the last to walk out. Once again, through snippets she relates to the reader about the women’s experiences in returning home. It is enough to say that they were not allowed to go peacefully by either the army or the Red Guards. She managed to return home to Tiflis in the Caucasus in time to enroll in the counterrevolutionary Volunteer Army. It is regrettable that she did not write about her experiences in the Kuban campaign in which she was wounded and invalided.

Worcester’s translation is masterful in bringing out Bocharnikova’s characteristics and mannerisms as well as those of fellow soldiers she interacted with in the battalion. The reader can often feel Bocharnikova’s frustration in not being able to go to the front, during her imprisonment for her association with the Social Revolutionaries’ attempt at overthrowing Lenin in early 1918, and the loss of her homeland. This is one memoir, written in the late 1970s, that is not tainted with hindsight or the sagacity-filled philosophy of age which often invalidates historical views. The translation of more memoirs would greatly benefit the study of the Russian front.

(Statistical information was taken from They Fought for the Motherland, Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution by Laurie S. Stoff with anecdotal information from Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile by Maria Bochkareva. Stoff’s book was reviewed in this blog.) .

Michael P. Kihntopf