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

Friday, December 31, 2021

God and Fear on the Front Line

A German Chaplain Leading Services

From "God’s Soldiers: Religion and Resilience"
By Hanneke Takken

I am God’s soldier, and where he sends me, I must go, and I believe that He sends me and shapes me in the way He needs it.

Otto von Bismarck

In November 1916, the battle of the Somme ended. About half a million German soldiers were killed or wounded. The British suffered approximately 420,000 dead and wounded, the French lost some 204,000 men.  The battle of Verdun, which ended one month later, took about 330,000 German and 380,000 French men, wounded, killed, or lost.  Both battles became the symbol of the horror and futility of the Great War. The German periodical Mitteilungen für die evangelischen Geistlichen der Armee und der Marine (Announcements for the Protestant Clergy in the Army and the Navy) published the above Bismarck quote in the issue of November and December 1916. 

“I am God’s soldier, and where he sends me, I must go…” The quote brings together the two main elements of the military chaplain’s work: his missionary work of awakening and strengthening soldiers’ faith in God, and his morale-boosting responsibility of stimulating the men to do their duty in obedience and perseverance. Both these tasks were connected; a good soldier was a Christian one, only a true Christian soldier could really persevere. But how strong and convincing was this religious message during and after the hell of the Somme and Verdun? Did religion help soldiers to deal with the horrors of war?

The importance of religion as a coping strategy in the First World War has been emphasized by historians like Michael Snape, Richard Schweitzer, Annette Becker, Patrick Houlihan, and Alexander Watson. According to Watson, who compared coping mechanisms of German and British soldiers during the Great War, “in the First World War German army in particular, religious belief was a great source of strength for many men”.  Watson based his findings in large part on psychological research done by Walter Ludwig, who was interested in the emotion of fear among frontline soldiers, and especially in the factors that weakened or strengthened this fear. Ludwig had first-hand experience, having served as an officer in France and Belgium (Somme, Ypres) and having been wounded three times. During the war, he asked 200 Württemberger soldiers of aged between 20 and 30 years old to write an essay about their experience with fear on the battlefield. About half of them wrote detailed essays about their time at the front, revealing the way they and their mates were confronted and dealt with fear.

According to these essays, fear was increased by darkness, flashes of light, by noise, by the limited freedom of movement in the trenches, by pain, and the sight of blood (one’s own or that of someone else). Repetition of these elements made fear worse. Unknown and unexpected situations, as well as anticipations, for instance about getting wounded and about subsequent suffering, could strengthen these sensations. So did the expectation of the manner in which the soldier was able to defend himself. Fear could be lessened by feelings of comradery and thoughts about the family and the nation, by discipline (“Befehl ist Befehl”) and feelings of duty, honor and responsibility, by distractions like music and humor, cigarettes and alcohol, and by hope, including the firm belief in one’s own indestructability. The factor mentioned most was religion.

Here's a British soldier's expression. Robert Stafford Arthur Palmer,(1888–1916) was a member of the Indian Army who volunteered for service is Mesopotamia, where he was killed in 1916.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Ten Photos from the Nivelle Offensive of 1917

These are from the Times History of the War, which reveals little of the systematic disobedience after the failed offensive.  Click on the images to enlarge.  They are displayed at 580px and expand to 850px.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Filming the Battle of the Somme: A Then and Now Story

The filming of this documentary which is intended to present the visit of two descendants of Battle of the Somme veterans to the sites their relatives served (well told), contains another story within this framework. The battlefield experts and film experts also do a great job of  overlaying 1916 and 21st-century imagery.  Their treatment of the Hawthorne Mine Crater explosion (at about minute 40) is superb.  MH

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Recommended: World War I in American Popular Culture

Street Fighting by Harvey Dunn

By Professor Jennifer D. Keene, Chapman University

World War I has occupied an uneasy place in the American public and political consciousness. In the 1920s and 1930s, controversies over the war permeated the nation’s cultural and political life, influencing memorial culture and governmental policy. Interest in the war, however, waned considerably after World War II, a much larger and longer war for the United States. Despite a plethora of scholarly works examining nearly every aspect of the war, interest in the war remains limited even among academic historians. In many respects, World War I became the “forgotten war” because Americans never developed a unifying collective memory about its meaning or the political lessons it offered.. . . 

Throughout the 20th century, Americans’ most sustained encounter with the war came through literature. Veteran novelists, including Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote enduring classics that embraced themes of disillusionment, cynicism, absurdity, and sexual dysfunction.  These novels portrayed the war as a rite of passage for young men and women who lost their adolescent naiveté within the crucible of war. 

Classic American films also reinforced the prevailing portrait of senseless slaughter along the Western Front. All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory condensed the war into the horror of trench warfare, corrupt officers, and disillusioned youth.  This emphasis on human carnage permeated the larger culture, setting a paradigm for understanding the war even among those who never actually read these books or watched these films. Novels and films that valorized the war’s idealism and sacrifice, such as Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front, and the Howard Hawks–directed Sergeant York had no lasting impact on popular memory 

Over time, Lost Generation novels and films served less as indictments of World War I and more as universal statements on the shock of confronting the reality of war. The themes of disillusionment highlighted in these artistic works struck a nerve during the Vietnam War era when Americans began once again to question the efficacy of using war to spread democratic values. Stanley Cooperman’s World War I and the American Novel drew parallels between the sentiments expressed in antiwar fiction of the 1920s and street protests against the Vietnam War.

In The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and the Fiction of Mobilization, Keith Gandal rejects the antiwar label attached to Lost Generation fiction.  Gandal instead argues that the root of postwar disillusionment came not from having experienced fighting firsthand but rather from Hemingway and Fitzgerald having failed to reach the Western Front as officers. In a subsequent book, War Isn’t the Only Hell: A New Reading of World War I American Literature, Gandal reinterprets a broader range of veteran-authored fiction, viewing these works as uneasy meditations on how military mobilization challenged existing hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and gender. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, official committees mobilized to commemorate a war that they believed Americans would long regard as a seminal event in the nation’s history. Veterans’ organizations and local communities mobilized to erect monuments throughout the nation.

The American Battle Monuments Commission undertook the massive task of compiling a comprehensive battlefield guidebook. The commission expected tourists and pilgrims to retrace the steps of American soldiers as they paid their respects to the dead. Originally published in 1938, the guide instead became obsolete almost immediately, collecting dust on library shelves. Similarly, by the time the fundraising and construction of monuments had concluded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, public interest in the war had waned. More recently, the World War I Centennial Commission and American Battlefield Monuments Commission tried to renew interest in the war by opening visitor centers and organizing official commemorative events to mark key battles, including simultaneous ceremonies at all official World War I overseas cemeteries on 11 November 2018.

Few Americans bought or read the slew of participant memoirs that appeared in the interwar period. Some were poorly written, while others appeared after the reading public had tired of rehashing the war. Many memoir writers also found that their accounts differed too dramatically with the now-accepted paradigm established by the Lost Generation novelists.

Steven Trout notes, for instance, that the combat memoir of John Lewis Barkley, a highly decorated U.S. soldier, “did not line up with accepted wisdom (at least among artists and intellectuals) about how soldiers of the Great War were supposed to remember their experiences.” Barkley championed camaraderie and individual resilience. Something of a “war lover,” he relished the excitement of battle and killing enemy soldiers. Out of step with the times, Barkley’s memoir failed to find an audience.

Unlike the Somme for the British or Verdun for the French, the 1918 Meuse-Argonne campaign (the culminating U.S. battle in World War I) found no lasting place in American memory. The high death toll did not result in an indictment of American military leadership (as it did in Vietnam), nor did the victory cause subsequent generations of Americans to relish their role in defeating Germany (as in World War II). Other wars, historian Edward Lengel contends, simply offer Americans better stories—ones with a clear beginning and end, with easily identifiable heroes and villains who serve as mirrors that allow Americans to see their values, their strengths, and their flaws more clearly.  The memory of World War I, by contrast, focuses nearly exclusively on the universal horrors of war, and therefore offers no such prism for championing American exceptionalism.

Steven Trout offers a different argument for the indifference and ignorance that pervades American society about World War I.  Rather than willfully purging the war from the national consciousness, Trout believes that Americans remembered the war in too many diverse ways. What exactly should the nation recall about the war? The failure of neutrality? The bravery of the combat soldier? The futility of trench warfare? .  .  . The domestic attacks on German Americans? The botched peace processes? These competing memories reflected existing political and social divisions within American society during the twenties and thirties, preventing Americans from forming a sustainable, collective memory about the war.

Nonetheless, from 1918 through 1945, the war was anything but forgotten, suggesting that “forgetting” is a more recent phenomenon. America grappled with the loss of 120,000 soldiers (half of these in combat, the rest mostly as a result of the influenza epidemic), and the reintegration of nearly 200,000 wounded men. Historian G. Kurt Piehler has traced the physical presence of World War I in towns and cities where Americans drove their cars on Pershing Drives, attended meetings in Memorial Halls, and watched football games on Soldiers’ Fields. Critical of the plethora of mass-produced statues erected after the Civil War that lionized leaders and footsoldiers, memorialization in the 1920s took a utilitarian turn, honoring servicemen through the creation of community structures that improved civic life. In 1921, the remains of an unidentified soldier were buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, a noteworthy alteration of the nation’s commemorative landscape. 

Excerpted from:  "Finding a Place for World War I in American History, 1914–2018," Jennifer D. Keene; (Downloadable HERE from the Chapman University Digital Commons)

Monday, December 27, 2021

Announcing Our World War One Tattoo Collection: #1 The Immelmann Turn

Here is the first selection for our new, soon to be famous, collection of tattoos featuring World War I content.

Subject/Title:  #1 The Immelmann Turn 

Description:  Aerial maneuver created by German aviator Max Immelmann. After some spirited collegial debate, the consensus about this plane's identification is: artist's rendering of a representative rotary-engine biplane late in the war

Location:  Lower Left Leg

Tattooee: Ms. Anonymous 

Artist: E. L. Ford, RNAS, 1918 flight manual Practical Flying

Nominees from our readers will be considered for addition to the collection.

The following rules, however, MUST be observed:

1.  Content is to be exclusively from the First World War

2.  Nothing on private parts or faces

3.  No Rasputin portraits

4.  Decisions by the Editor as to suitability for our collection are final and irrevocable

Submit photos and pertinent details to the editor at

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Court Martialed for a Christmas Truce: Captain Iain Colquhoun (1887–1948)


Captain Ian Colquhoun 

On 25 December 1915, Captain Ian Colquhoun of the 1st Battalion  Scots Guards and scion of a noble Scottish family was contacted by a German officer. A year after the 1914 Christman Truce, he was well aware of how determined the high command was to avoid a repetition. He described in his diary what ensued.

A German officer came forward and asked me for a truce for Xmas. I replied that this was impossible. He then asked for ¾ hour (three-quarters of an hour) to bury his dead. I agreed. The Germans then started burying their dead and we did the same. This was finished in ½ hrs time. Our men and the Germans then talked and exchanged cigars, cigarettes etc for ¼ of an hour and when the time was up I blew a whistle and both sides returned to their trenches.

For the rest of the day the Germans walked about and sat on their parapets. Our men did much the same but remained in their trenches. Not a shot was fired. At night the Germans put up Fairy lights on their parapets and their trenches were outlined for miles on either side. It was a mild looking night with clouds and a full moon and the prettiest sight I have ever seen. Our machine guns played on them and the lights were removed. Our guns shelled heavily all night at intervals of ½ an hour and the Germans retaliated on Sunken Road. I had to leave my dug-out five times during the night owing to shells.

After ten more days on the front, Colquhoun returned to a billet in the rear to find himself under arrest, charged with   “Conduct to the prejudice of good order of military discipline in that on 25th Dec he (1) Approved of a truce with the enemy (2) Permitted a cessation of hostilities”.

Friend and Defense Counsel
Lt. Raymond Asquith

As well as having the prime minister’s niece as his wife, he had Asquith’s son Raymond as his Prisoner’s Friend—which is what defense counsel are known as in [British] military discipline. Raymond Asquith was a fellow frontline officer—he was killed during an attack in the Battle of the Somme later in 1916—and one of the finest minds of his generation.

Asquith was unimpressed by the military hierarchy generally, in particular their tactical incompetence, but chose to serve at the front and had a high regard for his fellow trench officers and soldiers. Sir Iain’s detached approach to the court martial, his belief that he had done the right thing and stood by it no matter what some of his superiors thought, impressed Asquith—it was very much in line with Asquith’s thinking, as he later recorded.

Asquith’s efforts did not get Sir Iain acquitted but they ensured that his sentence was the minimum possible. Sir Iain was found guilty but only received a Reprimand. General Haig, who had been commander-in-chief, BEF, only since 10 December 1915, and whose duty it was to confirm or reject the punishment, was smart enough to see all the pitfalls of the sentence.

He personally rejected even a reprimand sentence and Colquhoun was immediately returned to full duties, although the conviction stood. He went on to a have a distinguished army career, and became Lord Lieutenant of Dumbartonshire soon after the war. Today we would applaud his actions and condemn the foolishness of Lord Cavan for bringing the charges in the first place.

His co-accused, Captain Miles Barne, against whom the case was even more flimsy, was found not guilty and returned to full duties. Later promoted to major he was killed in the Ypres sector of the front in September 1917. Raymond Asquith would also perish during the war, at the Somme in 1917.

On the day of his conviction he entered in his diary:

The whole Guards Division and everyone who knows the facts of the case all say that it was a monstrous thing that the court martial ever took place.

Sir Ian Colquhoun,
Laird of Loss,
Between the Wars

The case did not blight Colquhoun’s career. He rose to lt. colonel, earning the DSO, and remained popular with his troops even after the war, showing concern for the welfare of those who fought beside him.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas Scenes at the Front: A Roads Classic

On a Hospital Ward

President Wilson Visiting AEF General HQ, Chaumont
Christmas Day 1918

French Prisoners of War with Their Tree

British Staff Christmas Dinner Menu

Friday, December 24, 2021

America's First World War I Memorial


Monument Erected by the Minot, North Dakota,
Military Squad for Fallen World War I Soldiers,
Rosehill Memorial Park

Originally  presented by Jill Shramm in the 
Minot Daily News

A monument in a Minot, North Dakota, cemetery dedicated before the Armistice holds an important place in the history of World War I memorials in the United States.

The white marble monument erected by the Girls' Military Squad of Minot in May 1918 is believed to be the first permanent memorial in the nation to recognize local soldiers who died during the war.

Susan Wefald of Bismarck has been compiling North Dakota information for the national World War I Memorial Inventory Project for the past two years.

“Around North Dakota I have found about 40 World War I monuments and memorials,” she said. Completed between 1918 and 1941, they are among thousands across the country.

When she came across the Minot monument in Rosehill Memorial Park, she brought it to the attention of the project director, Mark Levitch. Levitch responded that there are a handful of memorials from 1917 that celebrate the troops’ departures and one memorial in Arkansas dated November 1917 that honors the first three members of the American Expeditionary Forces killed in the war, although the originality of the existing structure is not clearly documented. A cornerstone for a memorial home in Indiana, honoring the mother of one of the first three killed in action, dates to April 1918. The United States entered World War I on 6 April 6 1917

Minot’s memorial appears to be the first major, permanent monument to local war dead, and the best documented, Levitch wrote. He confirmed that distinction this week, saying it is unusual for memorials to have been erected that early in the war. Most monuments were erected after the war ended. So the existence of the Minot monument was a pleasant surprise.

“That really stands out,” he said.

The Minot memorial was dedicated on 30 May 1918, in Riverside Park, now Roosevelt Park. It was moved to Rosehill Cemetery due to flooding, Wefald said. The date of the move is uncertain. Cemetery and park officials are researching to locate that date, known to be before 1962, and welcome any information the public might have.

Visitors to Rosehill will notice the nine-foot spire standing over veterans’ graves, but few may be familiar with the Girls' Military Squad, the organization that erected it.

The 12 April 1917, issue of the Ward County Independent announced the formation of the squad, which by then had already held several meetings. The young women had ordered khaki suits of the regulation military style, and a military instructor planned to drill the women. They were to use regular Army guns for drilling, and with some practice, planned to make appearances in the parks.

Minot Girls' Military Squad

Sixteen members of the Minot Girls' Military Squad are shown above in uniform in this 25 July 1918, photo from the Ward County Independent. Women across the country were organizing such squads, the article noted.

“It affords excellent exercise and gives the young women an opportunity to learn what our young men have to undergo in times of war. The moral influence on our patriotism is increased, and in case of necessity, they will be better enabled to defend themselves,” the article stated.

Members at that time were Sayde Pinkerton, Hazel Holt, Martha Piper, Corene Ash, Margaret Guthrie, Margaret Falconer, Mrs. Ethelda Luce, Catherine Leet, Mabel Olson, Lola Smith, Eva Taplin, Hilda Balerud, Dagney Jensen, Willa Edminster, Gladys Myers, Pearl Adams, Ida Schomacher, May Hardak, Hazel Rusk and Mrs. Will E. Holbein. At the time, the squad consisted of about 25 women who arranged financing of the monument and organized the dedication.

Wefald said Holbein may have been a primary organizer. Her husband was a prominent newspaperman and politician. He established the Lansford Journal in 1909 and was secretary for the N.D. Press Association from 1911 to 1914. He moved to Minot in December 1915 to become secretary of the Minot Commercial Club. He had been a Republican candidate for agriculture commission and labor secretary in 1914. The Holbeins moved to Bismarck in 1920.

A Ward County Independent article on 26 April 1917, noted 54 young ladies attended the latest meeting of the squad at the Association of Commerce rooms. The first drill was held in the same location on April 26. The squad also held the first of what would be several dances that month.

The Girls’ Military Squad wasn’t without controversy, though.

The 21 June 1917 issue of the Ward County Independent wrote of the criticism the young women were receiving for wearing soldiers’ uniforms and drilling, which were considered unseemly by some residents. The article argued that since most of the young women work in stores or offices, the outdoor, physical activity is a good thing, and their intent to be a service to the country is commendable.

The article stated their activities were considered wrong “because they have had the temerity to organize such a military company without conferring with the high and mighty men and women who have set themselves up as dictators of conduct, mode of living and who have established a code of military ethics. These young women are told to take to the sewing machine and knitting needle.”

According to the article, the squad was organized to:

  • stimulate desire for outdoor life.
  • give young ladies gymnastic training.
  • assist the Red Cross Society through teaching first aid.
  • assist the local military authorities in recruiting.
  • assist the home guards in every possible way.
  • take part in activities that might arise on account of the war.

The squad showed up on Registration Day to see that men who registered for the draft were tagged. They helped recruit membership for the Red Cross and sold tickets to raise funds to assist the committee in charge of the Loyalty Day parade. They assisted in furnishing enlisted men with small conveniences not provided by the government.

Memorial Certificate for Frank Midak, Also Honored
at the Minot Monument

Squad members also arranged for the monument in memory of heroes who enlisted in Minot and died in the fight. Members of Companies A and D who were memorialized were Pvts. Claude Keller of Glenburn, Frank Midak of Minot, Theodore Wong of Sanish, Ernest Fulkerson of Parshall, Wallace Hatchard of Velva, Clarence Larson of Tunbridge, Willie Remine of Silva and Rolly Darling of Berthold. Also recognized were John Engen of Des Lacs, Ole Victor Cox of Max, and Carl Boardson of Minot, who died of disease at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

The base of the monument is inscribed on all four sides. On the north side is engraved, “Erected by the Girls Military Squad, Minot, ND, May 30, 1918.” Other inscriptions read, “All For Our Country,” “In Memory of Minot’s Heroes Who Have Sacrificed Their Lives In The World’s Great Struggle for Universal Democracy,” and “That Government of, by, and for the People Might Not Perish From the Earth.”

Thanks to Susan and Bob Wefald for bringing this story to our attention.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Remembering a Most Generous Historian: E.M. "Mac" Coffman


Friend and Great Historian, E.M. "Mac" Coffman (1929–2020)

I shouldn't have waited a year to write this article, but Mac Coffman's death was late-arriving news for me. When I decided to study the American Expeditionary Force in depth his 1968 work, The War to End All Wars, was head and shoulders above anything else published at the time (late '80s) on that big subject. I called Mac at  his office at the University of Wisconsin and he picked up right away. We talked for hours. He told about his research, his own war service, about teaching military history at a highly politicized campus, and meeting Sgt. York.  He also encouraged me to dig deep on the subject of America and the Great War. When his dinner time came and he had to go, he concluded with a list of contacts of writers who had an interest in the area but from different perspectives, such  as Tom Fleming, Ed Simmons, and Page Smith. He told me to contact them and use his name as way of introduction. All of the historians he suggested turned out to be as interesting and helpful as Mac.

Lots of  additional material has been written since those beginning days for me—much inspired by Mac's landmark volume.  I know this because I've talked to many of those newer authors and almost all of them had pleasant memories of  meeting the man. Remarkably, almost all of them volunteered kind comments about his generosity. Their experience had been the same as mine. For almost 30 years I continued corresponding with him. He always gave me great advice and many ideas for articles on Roads to the Great War and the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire. Like many of his student and colleagues, I'll miss his joyful approach to history and his kindly nature. In preparing this article, I found someone had written a fabulous obituary for Mac Coffman. Here it is:

"Edward McKenzie Coffman, distinguished military historian and revered teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died on September 16, 2020, at Thomson-Hood Veteran Center in Wilmore, Kentucky.  He was 91.

"Mac" Coffman was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky on January 27, 1929, to Howard Beverly Coffman (1895–1972) and Mada Pearl Wright Coffman (1894–1953). He attended the University of Kentucky where he was a member of ROTC.  He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate with a degree in Journalism and entered the U.S. Army as an infantry officer, serving in Korea and Japan during the Korean War.

Upon leaving the Army, Coffman entered graduate school at the University of Kentucky.  There he received his MA and PhD in History, working under the renowned historians Gerhard Weinberg and Thomas C. Clark, his major professor.  Coffman's dissertation and subsequent first book was a biography of Peyton C. March, U.S. Army chief of staff during World War I, entitled The Hilt of the Sword: The Career of Peyton C. March.  While researching at the National Archives for his dissertation, Coffman agreed to serve as research assistant for Forrest Pogue on his acclaimed multi-volume biography of George C. Marshall.  He drew on that research experience at the Archives for his second book, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I, a volume that is still regarded as the standard work on the subject.


Still in Print, a Classic of Military History


Coffman taught a year at Memphis State University and then was recruited as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught for thirty-one years.  His classes on American military history were among the most popular on campus, often closing first in a department with exceptional teachers and huge enrollments. An early practitioner of the "New" Military history, Coffman's lectures moved away from the old-fashioned "battle a day" and offered insights into the lives of soldiers and their families and how soldiers reflected the society from which they came. His basic approach was to understand the military in institutional as well as personal terms, and to approach war from that same perspective.  Students applauded his breadth and depth of knowledge and relished his fascinating and often amusing anecdotes that enlivened his lectures.  The State of Wisconsin awarded him a citation for his excellence in teaching and history.

Coffman was one of the early practitioners of oral history, actually interviewing a black enlisted man in the nineteenth-century Army and a cavalryman in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia when he was a teenager.  Among his most prized interviews were those with Douglas MacArthur, Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Philippine fight for independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Benjamin Foulois, who was at one time the sole pilot in the United States Army, and dozens of general officers.  His greatest passions were interviewing World War I pilots and the spouses and family members of U.S. Army officers.

Coffman then embarked on a massive, two-volume study of the American peacetime army from 1784 to 1940.  The first volume, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898, brilliantly explores the institution and the experiences of enlisted men and officers.  Most novel, though, are his entire chapters on soldiers' families, which opened a fresh vista for military historians.  The second volume, The Regulars: The American Army, 1898 to 1940, actually surpasses The Old Army in its depth and insights.  Coffman emphasizes officers, enlisted men, and military families and exploits his trove of oral interviews that bring the world of the early twentieth century U.S. Army to life.  The book earned the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History.  His final book, The Embattled Past: Reflections on Military History, is a stimulating collection of published and unpublished essays over his career.

Over his career Coffman directed a dozen dissertations and taught scores more in seminars.  Known for his affable personality and an extraordinary memory for people, facts, and sources, his students were the envy of the graduate-student population.  Coffman's graduate students developed a rare affinity for him as a result of the warmth, decency, and respect they received from him while also holding them to the highest professional standards.  His scholarship and that of the graduate students whom he trained have assisted in enhancing the respect Military history has gained in academe in the last several decades.

Coffman also devoted extensive time to training present and future officers in military history and in shaping the way the armed forces utilizes history in its military education.  He taught numerous active-duty officers on a graduate level and served on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee for six years and then as its chair for four years.  To this day he is the only civilian to serve as the distinguished military historian at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S Army Military History Institute and Army War College, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  Over his career he was honored with the Commander's Award for Public Service, Outstanding Civilian Award, and Distinguished Civilian Service Award from the U.S. Army.

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his social history of the peacetime army, Coffman was president of the Society for Military History and received the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement in the field.  He also was awarded the Spencer Tucker Award from ABC-Clio for outstanding achievements in the field of military history.  Coffman was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Kentucky.

More than just a great scholar, teacher, and public servant, Coffman was beloved by his students, colleagues, and friends.  He was renowned at the Society for Military History annual meetings for his friendliness and generosity.  That warmth, kindness, and helpfulness to friends and strangers alike assisted in building an extraordinary atmosphere of congeniality and professionalism in those annual meetings that has survived to this day.

He enjoyed reading non-fiction and mysteries, played clarinet, and loved a wide variety of music ranging from fife and drum corps to jazz, with a particular fondness for Duke Ellington.  He was an outgoing and ebullient person who radiated gentleness.

Mac Coffman is survived by his wife, Anne, of 65 years.  They met at the University of Kentucky when she was an undergraduate student and he was working on his PhD.  He leaves three children: Anne Wright Coffman (Paul Schmidt), Lucia Hassen (Matthew), Edward Coffman (Danielle); six grandchildren; and eight great grandchildren."

Courtesy of the Milward Funeral Home 


 Bonus Feature:

Mac Coffman Meets Sgt. York

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Up to Mametz and Beyond

By Llewelyn Wyn Griffith
Pen & Sword Military, 2021
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Lt. Griffith

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith served as an infantry officer in the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the war. After rising to company command, he was assigned as a staff officer during the fighting for Mametz Wood in July 1916. Wyn Griffith was a poet and author, and his memoir, Up to Mametz, was originally published 1931. This current edition includes an update entitled “Beyond Mametz” that was begun by Wyn Griffith after World War II and is here ghostwritten by the editor of this volume, Jonathon Riley. Riley, a retired British Army lieutenant general, author, and historian, does a fine job of editing and annotating this edition.

Wyn Griffith’s memoir is a simple chronological account of his service as an infantry officer in 1915 and 1916 and as a staff officer thereafter. He gives us a wonderful insight into the world of a junior British infantry officer in the trenches. The author is perhaps at his best when he describes mind and body-numbing days of utter fatigue in the trenches. When discoursing of mud in the trenches, Wyn Griffith writes:

[W]e turned again to our daily task of unending displacement of mud. We filled sandbags with it, piled them up into a wall, beat them into a firm rampart, there to remain until a shell-burst undid our efforts. Then our damaged wall would sag and drop, and our labour in lifting mud three or four feet above its original resting place was made waste [p. 60].

Wyn Griffith then goes on to humorously describe the infantry’s frustrating interactions with engineers as they sought to buttress the mud walls of the trenches.

The Welsh Memorial Overlooks the Site of the 7 July 1916 Attack on Mametz Wood by the 38th Division

In addition to the fatigue of trench duty, the author also recounts his interactions with Town Majors, staff officers, adjutants, and senior commanders. Wyn Griffith was detailed as a staff officer in June 1916, just before the battle for Mametz Wood. His narrative now shifts to a broader perspective, and his apt descriptions of military service extend to his new role. One can feel the exasperation felt by officers and men in Wyn Griffith’s description of the situation when a detailed artillery support plan went wrong at the beginning of the fighting near Mametz Wood: “The elaborate timetable suddenly became a thing of no meaning, as unrelated to our condition as one of Napoleon’s orders…” (p. 104).

Wyn Griffith’s assessments of senior officers are frank and enlightening. His description of corps commander General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston’s bizarre micromanagement will infuriate even those who have not experienced such a leadership style. On the other hand, the author gives an approving description of General Sir Alexander Godley’s handling of his corps from a relatively advanced command post during the fighting in April 1918. Thus, while Wyn Griffith is critical of the competence of many of the senior officers he encountered, it is probably a stretch to place him completely in the “lions led by donkeys” camp. At the very least, he balances his harsh assessments with honest views of the senior officers with whom he served as a staff officer. Indeed, editor Riley himself dismisses the “donkeys” viewpoint. In addition, Wyn Griffith greatly desired to become a red-tabbed staff officer, and this allowed him to write with some sympathy and understanding of that sometimes-hated breed.

In the second part of Up to Mametz, Wyn Griffith (with assistance from the editor) discusses his duty as a staff officer after Mametz. The author took part in the final German offensives of 1918 as well as the Allied drive beginning in July. During these final months of the war, the author gained experience working with Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and the French. The book concludes with Wyn Griffith returning to England where he resumed his work as a government tax inspector. Throughout the narrative, Wyn Griffith’s pride in his Welsh nationality shines through.

Readers familiar with the 1914 Christmas Truce will appreciate Riley’s interesting appendix that describes a similar but much smaller truce that occurred among Welsh, Scottish, and German soldiers the following Christmas. A number of photographs, illustrations, maps, and sketches, as well as a helpful bibliography, enhance the text. Wyn Griffith was a keen observer of life in the trenches with a writer’s flare for conveying the futility and fatigue that accompanied monotonous days struggling against mud and the elements; Pen and Sword has done a service for readers in reprinting 
Up to Mametz. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in reading about the experiences of British officers in the trenches. 

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, December 20, 2021

After Victory at the Falklands: the Fates of Battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible

Invincible and Inflexible Leaving Port Stanley
in Pursuit of Von Spee

Three Invincible-class battlecruisers were built for the Royal Navy and entered service in 1908 as the world's first battlecruisers. They were the brainchild of Admiral Sir John ("Jacky") Fisher. Eight classes of battlecruisers, a total of 15 ships, were eventually built for the Royal Navy.

After the disastrous 1 November 1914 defeat at the Battle of Coronel off the Chilean coast, the British Admiralty included  two of the class, Invincible and Inflexible, in the force sent  to hunt down and destroy Admiral von Spee's fleet in the South Atlantic. Unaware of the force sent to intercept him,  Admiral von Spee planned to destroy the British coaling station at Port Stanley on East Falkland in the South Atlantic. Spee found a much superior British force in port as he approached—Invincible and Inflexible—vastly more powerful and considerably faster than Spee’s principal ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Within hours he was dead.

Inflexible Gathering German Survivors

The Invincibles, fresh out of dry dock, had a 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) advantage over Spee's ships which all had fouled bottoms that limited their speeds to 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph) at best. Only one man was killed and five wounded aboard the battlecruisers during the battle. The British gunnery was poor due to smoke, and the Germans maneuvered skillfully so that it took much of the afternoon before the British made telling hits. Eventually, however, the big British shells struck home. Both German armored cruisers were sunk before about 1800 hrs. with few survivors. 

The defeat at Coronel had been avenged—even the German escapee from the battle, Dresden, was caught and destroyed while hiding in Chilean waters three months later.  The victory led by the battlecruisers seemed to vindicate Admiral Fisher's championing of the new class of ship.  However, post-Falklands records of the  Invincible and Inflexible reinforce some of the early doubts about the usefulness of a fast big-gun ship but with lighter armor than a battleship.

Inflexible Visiting New York in 1909

At the outbreak of the war, HMS Inflexible had participated in the unsuccessful pursuit of the German  battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau.  After minor repairs for damage suffered in the Battle of the Falklands, Inflexible was returned to the Mediterranean. During the Gallipoli campaign, she  bombarded Turkish forts in the Dardanelles in 1915 but was damaged by return fire and struck a mine while maneuvering. She had to be beached to prevent her from sinking, but she was patched up and sent to Malta and then Gibraltar for more permanent repairs. 

Transferred to the Grand Fleet afterward, she damaged the German battlecruiser Lützow during the Battle of Jutland in 1916 but watched her sister ship, Invincible, explode. After the Battle of Jutland revealed her vulnerability to plunging shellfire, additional armor was added in the area of the magazines and to the turret roofs. However, after Jutland there was little significant naval activity for the Invincibles, other than routine patrolling, thanks to the Kaiser's order that his ships should not be allowed to go to sea unless assured of victory. Inflexible was sold for scrap on 1 December 1921, and scrapped in Germany the following year. 

Invincible Before the War

HMS Invincible was the flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The squadron had been detached from Admiral Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet a few days before the battle for gunnery practice with the Grand Fleet and acted as its heavy scouting force during the battle. She was destroyed by a magazine explosion during the battle after the armor of one of her gun turrets was penetrated. Of her complement, 1026 officers and men were killed, including Rear-Admiral Hood.

Invincible's Magazine Detonating

Wreck Settling

Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Original Pershing Rifles of the University of Nebraska Followed Their Instructor to Cuba and the Western Front

On 25 September 1891, General Pershing, then a second lieutenant in the Sixth Cavalry, became Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska. Lieutenant Pershing, a graduate of West Point, demanded excellence in his cadets and embarked on a program of discipline and serious military training. He used the manual of arms and drill as the means of instilling a new sense of professionalism and structure with his cadets. He established a system of cadet promotions that recognized students who displayed leadership and skill in military drill and tactics.  Enrollment in military courses dramatically increased as students were drawn to the program by Pershing’s positive leadership example.  Cadets took pride in themselves and in their corps. Over the next four years Pershing inspired an enthusiasm for drill which few leaders have equaled.

In March 1892, Lieutenant Pershing reorganized Company A of the university’s Military Department, as a select company in preparation for the National Competitive Drills in Omaha, Nebraska. As a result of intensive training, Company A had become so proficient in drill that by early June it won the University’s inter-company competitive drills, better known as the “Compet.”

The long awaited national drill competition in Omaha began on 13 June 1892,  Company A, which had trained for only four monthsn faced veteran companies from all over the Nation.  In the “Maiden Prize” competition the company was so exacting in its movements that it completed its prescribed maneuvers in just 23 minutes, well under the 45-minute time limit imposed by the competition.  As a result, Company A won the Maiden Prize of $1,500 and the Citizens of Omaha presented them with a large silver cup, the “Omaha Cup.”

2nd Lt. John J. Pershing and His Senior Cadets

Although there was a strong desire amongst the university chancellor and cadets to form a permanent “crack company,” it wasn’t until 1894 that that a student organization with this goal was established. Three of the original Company A members, meeting casually during the summer of 1894, were responsible for the idea of founding the “Varsity Rifles” based on the outstanding drill and leadership example of their mentor Lt. Pershing.

His personality and strength of character dominated us. We loved him devotedly.  

George L. Sheldon, Varsity Rifles Company Commander

On Tuesday evening, 2 October 1894, 39 picked cadets and alumni met in the armory to hold their first meeting, Lieutenant Pershing consented to act as temporary drillmaster for the organization.  It is this year, 1894, that we recognize as our official founding.

Pershing was as severe a disciplinarian as a kindly man can be. He was always just. He had no pets. Punishments came no swifter than rewards.

William Hayward, Varsity Rifles

When Lieutenant Pershing left the University of Nebraska in 1895 he, at the request of a committee representing Varsity Rifles, gave the unit a pair of his cavalry breeches. The breeches were cut into small pieces and were worn on the uniform as a sign of membership.  These “ribbons” were thought to be the first service ribbons worn in the United States.

Pershing Memorial at the University of Nebraska

We met in his room one night to organize and ‘The Lieut,’ as we familiarly called the Instructor - he was a second lieutenant then - asked what colors we wanted on our badges. Yellow and blue - cavalry colors. I have the very thing, he responded, and went to a chiffonier from which he took a brand-new pair of cavalry trousers. With shears he ruthlessly cut them across, making fifty badges, each with a strip of blue and the yellow leg stripe.

William Green, 1918

On 1 June 1895, the Varsity Rifles, in honor of the recently departed Lieutenant Pershing, changed its name to the “Pershing Rifles.” In February 1898, Lieutenant Pershing, now an instructor at West Point, gave a flag to the Pershing Rifles which was presented by the University Chancellor. Also for the first time the Pershing Rifles wore on their collars a distinctive pair of crossed rifles with the initials “P.R.”

During the Spanish-American War, 30 members of the now powerful Pershing Rifles enlisted in the First Nebraska Volunteers.  Every one of the 30 distinguished himself in the ensuing battles.  

Over two decades after his departure from the University of Nebraska,  several of his original "Rifles" had risen to senior position in the Army.  A number of them distinguished themselves during the Great War under the former 2nd lieutenant who was now commander of the AEF.

Sources: Pershing Rifles Website;  Lt. Col. (and P.R.) Kevin Upton; Univ. of Nebraska Archives