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

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Captain Willy Rohr and the Birth of StormtroopTactics

Major Willy Rohr, Late War

By Dave Shunk

[By late 1914] the German Army identified the fact that the traditional equipment of the infantryman, the rifle with fixed bayonet, was unsuited to the conditions of trench warfare. The rapidity with which this problem was understood and the steps made to correct it, through the development of alternative weapons and tactics, indicates strongly that communication from the frontline troops to the higher command was very close. How German Captain Willy Rohr then changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army is a remarkable story. 

He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. [Modern U.S. Army Field Manual 3-0 describes the challenge Captain Rohr faced:]  

Decentralized operations place a premium on disciplined, confident small units that can integrate joint capabilities and fight together as combined arms teams. Leaders must prepare their units to fight and adapt under conditions of uncertainty and, during the conduct of operations, must also ensure moral conduct and make critical time-sensitive decisions under pressure. Conducting effective decentralized operations will require a high degree of unit cohesion developed through tough, realistic training and shared operational experience. 

World War One began in July 1914 but by year’s end the war of maneuver ended in the West and trenches extended along the entire European front. The tactical problem was simple—how to take trenches without unacceptable losses to the attacker. The Germans had three advantages to solve the problem: a decentralized command structure dating back to 1806, mission command orders which  inherently pushed trust down to the lowest levels, and a history of accepting new ideas. 

In 1915 the German Army needed fast tactical innovation and adaptation. The German General Staff turned to combat veteran and pioneer (engineer) named Captain Willy Rohr. As soon as he took over command of the assault detachment Rohr began a period of rapid evaluation of ideas and equipment. In this he cooperated closely with Captain Reddemann, commander of the experimental flamethrower unit. In only a few weeks these two officers developed the Strossstuppgedanke (assault squad concept), which was to remain the basis of German infantry tactics for 30 years.

Captain Rohr assumed command in August 1915 and never looked back. He immediately began experiments on the front line with new weapons, tactics and techniques. Innovative and adaptation flowed from his unit, other combat veterans like Captain Reddemann attached to the unit, and Rohr’s creative mind. The following describes the new weapons and equipment developed by his unit.

1. Flamethrowers: Flamethrowers were among the first new weapons tested. Captain Rohr turned to another combat seasoned officer for his expertise.  A  Landwehr captain and Leipzig fireman, Reddemann, inspired by accounts of flame throwing weapons used in the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War, Reddemann had begun conducting field exercises with simulated flamethrowers in 1907. By 1915 he a developed a backpack model, with a crew of two men. The chief tactical effect of the flamethrower was the fear that it inspired in the hearts of enemy soldiers. The first use occurred in February 1915 northwest of Verdun near Malancourt, France. The attack began with the flamethrowers spitting 40-meter-long streams of burning oil in the French position. Even though most had not been burned by the oil, the defenders were too shocked to react when the German infantry attacked.

Storm Trooper Grenade Specialist

2. Infantry Assault Weapons: Captain Rohr also tested lightweight cannon, grenades, machine pistols, mortars, and lightweight machine guns. Captain Rohr looked for these weapons to restore firepower with maneuver. The essential elements of the tactics that Rohr developed in the course of these experiments were (1) the replacement of the advance in skirmish lines with the surprise assault of squad-sized storms troops (Sturmtruppen or Stosstruppen), (2) the use of supporting arms (machine guns, infantry guns, trench mortars, indirect artillery, flamethrowers) coordinated at the lowest possible level to suppress the enemy during the attack, and (3) the clearing of trenches by—rolling them up—with troops armed with hand grenades. Recognizing the inadequacy of indirect fire artillery Rohr emphasized the importance of organic heavy weapons, Truppwaffen (squad weapons), within infantry units. While indirect fire was still essential for general suppression, the squad weapons enabled particular targets to be engaged with speed and precision. Their presence restored firepower to the infantry and so filled the gap in capabilities caused by the eclipse of the rifle.

3. Uniforms: Body Armor and Helmets. Not to be forgotten were the less than useful prewar uniforms. The assault unit designed their own uniforms based on their combat experiences and future needs. Not all items proved useful to the troops. Body armor did not match up with Captain Rohr’s ideas of speed of maneuver. . . Captain Rohr discarded body armor. Speed and violence of execution were far better protection than metal armor. The only piece of armor he adopted for all operations was the coal scuttle helmet (Stahlhelm) that was later to become the trademark of the German soldier of both world wars.  Captain Rohr‘s men had also substituted ankle boots and puttees for their 1866-pattern leather jackboots. The stormtroopers had also started sewing leather patches on their elbows and knees—shielding their most vulnerable joints from the wear and tear of crawling. 

4. The Assault Squad:  Capt Rohr’s unit now had new weapons and uniforms but the big question remained—how to use all this in combat? He had a new answer–throw away the linear-based organizations in use since Napoleon and try a new combat infantry organization called the assault squad.

Individuals within the German army had experimented on a local level with squads of infantry attacking across no man’s land. Captain Rohr took the basic concept of a maneuver squad and quickly developed the new organization into an innovative force, the assault squad. What distinguished Rohr‘s techniques from the prewar German tactical doctrine was the organization of attack forces in small groups deployed in depth, instead of advancing in a broad firing line, and the arming of individual infantry soldiers with various types of weapons, instead of the standard issue rifle.

Since the individual infantryman was no longer required to participate in the battle for fire superiority, infantry formations and equipment were remodeled. Whereas the prewar emphasis had been on firepower, the new emphasis was on assault power.  Rohr called these section sized units Strosstruppen or Sturmtruppen (assault squads)  Each squad consisted of eight men and an NCO. This proved the most effective size both for command purposes and for best use of the terrain. . . This squad provided flexibility of maneuver and control, specialized weapons, and quick response to the changing conditions. The assault squad gave the on-scene infantry commander the optimum in flexibility of maneuver and combat power.

5. Tactics. After the development of the uniforms, weapons, and assault squad one more key item to match the innovative organization —new tactics. Rohr developed new tactics which depended on decentralized command for the infantry commander to choose where to attack the enemy, operational adaptability to organize the assault squad as the mission dictated, and mission orders for maximum freedom in tactics to accomplish the mission. The solution came to be known as infiltration tactics.

Dispersed and irregular character of moving swarms (as opposed to well defined line abreast formations) permit infiltrators to blend against irregular and changing terrain features as they push forward. Small units exploiting tactical dispersion in a focused way—rather than large formations abiding by the Principle of Concentration—penetrate adversary to generate many non-cooperative (or isolated) centers of gravity as basis to magnify friction, paralyze effort, and bring about adversary collapse. The flexibility of infiltration tactics allowed the infantry commander to use terrain, supporting artillery, and/or gas to close with the enemy. The infantry forces then selected which trench segment to attack based on real time reconnaissance. The heavy weapons and the offensive firepower within the squad made a local fire storm which over whelmed an isolated trench area. The infiltration tactics sought out a weak point to assault.

Captain Rohr’s assault tactics contained a basic attack flow that consisted of three waves. The three waves were done in sequence to fight for intelligence; the on scene commander acted on the intelligence and used his initiative to attack where necessary. The first wave was an infantry probe (from the accompanying division) . . . to identify enemy positions [for the storm companies]. Two hundred and fifty meters behind, the elite storm companies and flamethrower section, with additional [division] infantry support, attempted to penetrate the enemy zones by pushing through weak areas to envelop enemy positions. Supporting these efforts was the third wave, about 150 meters behind, which contained the storm battalion's heavy weapons. This third wave provided fire to support the forward movement of the storm companies and to protect the flanks of the penetrations.

One of Rohr's Units After a Successful Operation

Once the infiltration made a penetration into a weak point in the enemy trenches the German assault squads used indirect or flank attacks. This greatly aided in collapsing enemy resistance and widening the breakthrough gap. The penetrating force turned at an angle from the main direction of advance and assaulted the flanks and rear of enemy forces on either side, in order to widen the gap created. German instructions ordered units to breakthrough and roll up (aufrollen) from the flanks and to take the strong points by envelopment. 

On 12 October 1915 Capt Rohr led his men into combat with the new ideas put into action. The new Stosstruppen squads and infiltration tactics overran and rolled up the French trenches they attacked in the Vosges Mountains. Gone were the days of old linear infantry tactics. At 5:29 that evening, six large flamethrowers opened fire on the French forward trench. From behind each flamethrower, a squad-sized stormtroop followed the jets of burning oil into a designated portion of the enemy trench, systematically clearing that section of trench with hand grenades. Lessons learned and refinements were immediately applied to the organization, tactics and weapons by Captain Rohr. Highly successful combat tests occurred again in January 1916 and later during the Battle of Verdun, where Rohr's troops performed 70 missions..

Rohr would personally command one of the new Sturm battalions for the remainder of the war and his unit would fight in  innumerable  operations, suffering heavy casualties.  His methodology, however, would have a much broader impact on the war, contributing to the successes of the Central Powers at Riga, Caporetto, and the Ludendorff spring offensives of 1918. He was retained by the post-Versailles German Army but found that his particular tactical genius had no application. He resigned in frustration and went into banking in Lübeck, where he died in 1930.

Source: Excerpted from "Army Capstone Concept & the Genesis of German World War One Assault Squad & Infiltration Tactics—The Historical Linkage," Small Wars Journal, by Dave Shunk, 3 August 2010.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

WoodrowWilson's Wartime Sheep Farm

The White House, 1918

By James Patton

In 1918, based on an off-hand remark made by President Woodrow Wilson on a country drive, his personal friend Dr. Cary Grayson procured a small flock of about ten sheep for the White House, even though neither member of the First Family was from a farming background.

The flock was put out to graze on the back lawn to create a pastoral setting which, in the era of the Kirkbride Plan, was thought by doctors to be good for mental health.  It didn’t really work out that way. The sheep didn’t like living in an urban environment and were spooked by automobiles. Some of them sickened, but they still managed to become a nuisance, eating almost all of the grass on the back lawn. Wilson ordered the sheep moved to the bigger south lawn, where all of the flower beds, shrubs and small trees had to be fenced to keep them from becoming fodder.

The White House, 1919

While the flock might not have calmed the Wilsons, it did prove to be a big public relations success. It was cited that the sheep grazing on the grass reduced the number of groundskeepers, perhaps freeing a couple of dozen men for military service, although the flock did require hiring shepherds and even veterinarians. When the shearing season came around the wool was collected and each of the 48 states were allotted a portion of it which their governors auctioned off for the benefit of the American Red Cross. Nearly $52,000 was collected, which is equivalent to just under a million dollars today. The image of the President doing his humble bit to help the nation in time of war was good copy. In 1920 the flock had grown to 48 animals and was removed to Homeland Farm in Olney, Maryland (now a suburb of D.C.).

Sources: The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Staunton, Virginia and The Atlantic Monthly

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Food War— A Roads Collection


The First World War not only overwhelmed societies, it also revolutionised the diet of European and North American countries. In 1918, 75 million soldiers of the Entente and the Central Powers had to be fed daily, an unprecedented challenge for armies. On the home front, hundreds of millions of civilians, indispensable to the war effort, had to be fed despite shortages. Food was an essential issue in this total war, as food production and distribution were areas where states intervened massively to provide the food essential to the survival of populations. Cutting off the enemy's food supplies was one of the objectives of economic warfare fought on a global scale.  Even before 1914, starving the enemy became an explicit strategic objective in the context of economic warfare. Winston Churchill (1874–1965), one of its architects and first lord of the admiralty, wrote after the conflict that the shared aim was to “to starve the whole population – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission”. In 1918, the defeat of the Central Powers, strangled by the food shortages, was also rooted in their approach to wartime supplies and the failures of the policies put in place. (1914-1918 Online Encyclopedia)

Wartime Public Kitchen, Great Britain


How the War Was Lost: The Food Weapon?

Was the Food Weapon a Myth?

The Coming of the "Turnip Winter"

How WWI Food Propaganda Changed the Way We Eat Today

FOOD: A Great Excuse for Invasive Government

America's "Progressive" Approach to Managing Its Food Supply During the War

Nexus: The Great War's Grain Crisis and the Coming of Prohibition in America

Out-Eating the Enemy: How Latin America Helped Feed the Allied Armies in Europe

Berlin at War: Deprivation, War Weariness, and Revolution

Did the U.S. Have Food Rationing in World War I?

Hunger Is the Best Sauce: The British Diet in Wartime

Proof That Soldiers Think About Food a Whole Lot

Waste No Food!

Eat Potatoes and “Spud” the Kaiser

Meatless Savory Rice Main Course


The Doughboy's Thanksgiving Day Pumpkin Pie

The Doughboy Cookbook

Red Cross War Cake for America's Doughboys

Food Photos and Recipes from the National World War I Museum

Victory Recipes: "Food Will Win the War"

ANZAC Biscuits

The Girl Scouts and the Great War

A Great War Gourmet Delight: Oysters à la Foch

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Recommended: Bruce Charlton on Biggles

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Bruce Charlton (political correctness, evolutionary psychology, societal  & spiritual decline, Tolkien & Lewis, and many other topics that fascinate me), is BIG fan of  Captain James "Biggles" Bigglesworth.  Here's his tribute to Biggles from last year's Armistice Day. MH

Biggles Flies at Bedtime! 
By Dr. Bruce Charlton

The "Biggles" (christened James Bigglesworth) series of books were published by Captain WE Johns between 1932 and 1970 (two years after his death). These were my staple literary diet between ages about 11 to13 (until displaced following the impact of reading Lord of the Rings); so I have considerable affection for them. 

Biggles was an aviator, and later an "air police" adventurer, and I followed him from his beginnings in the First World War as a Sopwith Camel pilot, through the Second World War (when he flew Spitfires). 

Indeed, I believe Biggles was the only fighter pilot who saw active service in both wars, a fact which was helped by the fact he never got any older. I then continued on with his later (Indiana Jones-type) international missions, of a more crime-fighting nature. 

Of course, I not not read all the Biggles books, nor even half of them—because there were apparently nearly 100 novels!—but I did read the first (The Camels Are Coming, 1932) and very nearly the last (Biggles and the Little Green God, 1969)... Essentially, I read everything I could find in the library, borrow from friends, afford to buy, or got as presents.  

Recently, I bought a trio of Biggles's earliest WWI novels at a bargain price, from a secondhand bookshop, because my wife said she would not mind trying one as our bedtime reading-aloud book. 

This may sound a strange choice for a married couple, but we have found that children's books tend to read aloud better, and their short chapters fit with the relatively short timescale before sleep supervenes. 

Also, my wife has been pretty interested in, and knowledgeable about, the history of the two world wars over the past several years—albeit remaining shockingly ignorant of what I regard as their most interesting aspect: the aeroplanes! 

(As an extreme example: she once mixed-up the identifications of a Spitfire and a Lancaster on a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, I know..!)

We started with The Camels Are Coming. This derives from a series of short stories published in children's magazines of the mid-war era. 

WE Johns was himself a WWI pilot, and he describes in the introduction that he is using Biggles and his friends as the fictional protagonists of what were real incidents and adventure, some of which happened to him, but most of were taken from accounts of other pilots he knew—or from gossip among the pilots.  

Consequently, the book has considerable documentary interest. For instance, as well has having a lot about the "machines" (aircraft) it is written using uncompromising RFC (Royal Flying Corps) slang. For instance, anti-aircraft fire is "archie," observation balloons are "sausages," the Fokker Triplanes are called "tripehounds,"and of course the Germans are usually "Huns."

This, either on the assumption that their boy readers would already know this. My modern edition has numerous footnotes to explain these terms, but as a kid, I simply picked up their meanings from context. 

I found myself becoming fascinated all over again by the extraordinary world of the pilots of that era, and my wife too got engaged. This we moved on to read Biggles Learns to Fly covering our hero's early years and are currently working through Biggles of the Camel Squadron, which covers the end of the war

Indeed, I got so interested that I read several real pilot's memoirs—both from the first and the second wars; and indeed, these kinds of books had also formed a staple of my early teen reading: I recall reading the accounts of or by Douglas Bader, Ginger Lacey, and "Cats Eyes" Cunningham the night fighter pilot...whose exploits British propaganda explained as due to eating carrots to help Cunningham see in the dark—rather than due to the secret radar. Carrots were not rationed and could be grown anywhere—so the government wanted to encourage their consumption. 

People die in these books, and quite frequently. This was a war, of course, and the RFC pilots had a staggering high mortality rate—especially in their first weeks, mostly due to very unreliable "machines" and the gross lack of training. 

At some points, something like half the pilots were killed in training—even before going to The Front, and they would be sent into battle after only a few hours of solo flying, rather like someone who has just recently passed their driving test participating in a Formula One Grand Prix. 

Experienced pilots lived much longer, but even so, most of the best WWI aces of both sides (with many "kills" to their credit) were sooner or later shot down or died from a malfunction. For instance, even the "Red Baron" von Richthofen—with 80 victories—was killed during a dogfight with Canadian airmen (who actually fired the fatal bullet that penetrated his chest is unsure). 

The WWI aircraft were slow, especially the two-men machines from early in the war, and around 70 mph was common (although this had been doubled in the best fighters from 1918), so they were very vulnerable to machine gun fire or even to rifle fire from ground troops. 

And the pilots had no parachutes. (The authorities took a shockingly long time to learn that pilots were worth, and cost, far more than aircraft.)    

So, our Biggles experiment has proved a major success! I can now see that the books are of a modest literary quality; and that Biggles himself is a rather unappealing character - because he tends to be very irritable and - under stress - violently bad tempered; also prone to making sarcastic and derogatory comments. 

Also, Biggles is surrounded by rather more genial chaps (and they certainly are "chaps"—officers from the upper classes) such as his cousin and wing-man Algy and his frenemy "Wilks" Wilkinson. I liked Henry "The Professor" and maths expert—but he seems, at this point, to have "bought it" and "gone West," i.e. died.

But of course Biggles is both brave and loyal and shoots down vast numbers of enemy planes, so none of that really matters!

P.S.  I know some of our readers just hate the WWI Black Adder series, but in Episode 4 of Season 4, they included an utterly smashing send-up of Biggles with an insufferable character named Capt. Flasheart.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

"War": Charles Dana Gibson's Femme Fatale

From the creator of the "Gibson Girl"—The portly gentleman is a caricatured portrayal of Kaiser William II, Emperor of Germany, in this imaginary tryst with a female friend labeled “War.” He recoils at discovering his “lady fair” is the embodiment of Death, as she beckons him to approach in all her grotesque, bejeweled splendor. Not only did Gibson lead the Division of Pictorial Publicity from 1917 to 1918, for which he recruited the country’s top illustrators to aid in building support for America’s war effort, he also drew anti-German political cartoons for Life magazine. Gibson’s title closely echoes a line from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem called “The Vampire.”

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Source: Charles Dana Gibson (1866–1944). “And the Fool, He Called Her His Lady Fair,” 1917. Published in Life, May 3, 1917. Ink over graphite underdrawing. Gift of Charles D. Gibson and Kay Gibson, 2013. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

General Jan Smuts and His First World War in Africa, 1914–1917

By David Brock Katz
Casemate, 2022
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

General Jan Smuts Observing German Forces in East Africa

Jan Smuts is a controversial figure in South African military and political history. His mixed legacy involves South African nationalism and the roots of apartheid. This makes a fair evaluation of his performance as a general during the First World War quite difficult. Others have written about Smuts, but author David Brock Katz feels that recent scholarship has only parroted inaccurate information put forth years ago. Katz is an author and historian who lectures at the Army and Defense Colleges of the South African National Defense Force. He is also a university faculty member and a member of the South African Army. Katz had no desire to write a full biography of the complex man; instead, he chose to focus on Smuts’s World War I military career.

The result is a manageable project that bolsters the historiography of the military leaders of the Great War. Katz has selected a wide array of sources. Indeed, he cites “this book’s keen interrogation and wide and deep research of the documentary evidence housed in the British and South African archive” as an antidote to previous historical research that recited the same incorrect or incomplete information repeatedly (p. xix). 

After discussing Smuts’s rise to South African national prominence, Katz delves into the meat of the book, Smuts’s military leadership during the war. Katz covers Smuts’s activity during the German South West African Campaign (and Afrikaaner rebellion) and the German East African (GEA) Campaign, along with several other operations.

Smuts and His Staff, July 1916

True to his military background, Katz carefully analyzes the military movements and actions of both sides against the backdrop of operational principles and tactics. His discussions of the battles and campaigns are enlightening. For example, Katz explains how the South African Army used an amalgam of British and Boer tactics; the Boer tactics, mostly relying on mobility and maneuver, were superior to British tactics in some situations. It is this maneuver warfare that Katz feels distinguished Smuts’s success as a military leader.

In discussing the operational and tactical aspects of the South African war, Katz never loses sight of the delicate strategic situation with regard to both South African/British relations and South African national politics. By meticulously covering Smuts’s actions and showing them in light of South African politics, Katz is able to refute some misconceptions surrounding Smuts’s performance as a military leader. After analyzing the African military campaigns Katz also includes a chapter devoted to Smuts’s service in Britain on the War Cabinet, including his role in planning the Paris Peace Conference and in developing the Royal Air Force.

Katz frequently criticizes British naval officer and historian Harold C. Armstrong for what Katz sees are inaccurate and selective assessments of Smuts as a military leader (see Armstrong, Grey Steel: A Study in Arrogance, London: Methuen & Co., 1941). Katz, who calls Armstrong’s book “heavily flawed” (p. 157), also faults subsequent historians (for example, Ross Anderson, The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign 1914-1918, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2004, and Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) for uncritically using Armstrong in their own work. 

Less convincing is Katz’s defense of Smuts’s leadership style of being near or in the front line. Large formations during World War I required leaders of those formations to be far enough to the rear to enable them to be in contact with as many subordinate units as possible; the World War I battlefield was too vast and its armies too large to permit the luxury of consistently leading from the front. Smuts commanded 73,000 men in the German East Africa (GEA) campaign, far too many to enable a commander to orchestrate tactics, operations, and logistics from the front line. Indeed, Smuts’s absence from his rear headquarters during the GEA campaign may have contributed to the poor state of logistics and medical care during that time.

The maps and illustrations in the text are helpful to understanding the battles and men in the narrative; Katz’s end notes and bibliography will help those who want to do more research. Katz succeeds in his goal of producing an objective analysis of Smuts as a military leader; indeed, Katz succeeds in rehabilitating Smuts in the historiography. The book stands alone in the historiography; there is no other thoughtful examination of Smuts as a World War I military leader. It is highly recommended to those who want to learn more about Smuts and the war in Africa in general.

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, June 20, 2022

Injured American Veterans and the Disability Rights Movement

By Ryan Reft, Library of Congress

Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire may remember that World War I veterans grappling with disability occupied a critical place in the show’s story. Fictional vet Jimmy Darmandy (Michael Pitt) struggled as much with PTSD as he did with a limp derived from shrapnel embedded in his leg by a German grenade. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), on the other hand, endured facial disfigurement so severe he wore a mask to conceal his injuries, though his wounds went far beyond the physical.

Artifacts on display in the Library of Congress exhibit Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I demonstrate the human cost of the war, the government’s response and the ways in which injured veterans helped push forward—even if in a somewhat limited fashion—the disability rights movement.

During the war 224,000 soldiers suffered injuries that sidelined them from the front. Roughly 4,400 returned home missing part or all of a limb. Of course, disability was not limited to missing limbs; as the Boardwalk Empire characters demonstrate, a soldier could come home with all limbs and digits intact yet struggle with mental wounds. Nearly 100,000 soldiers were removed from fighting for psychological injuries; 40,000 of them were discharged. By 1921, approximately 9,000 veterans had undergone treatment for psychological disability in veterans hospitals. As the decade progressed, greater numbers of veterans received treatment for “war neurosis.” Ultimately, whether mental or physical, 200,000 veterans would return home with a permanent disability.

“[A] man could not go through that conflict and come back and take his place as a normal human being,” veteran and former infantry officer Robert S. Marx noted in late 1919. Marx played a critical role in establishing the organization Disabled Veterans of the World War (DAV) in 1920. He knew well the sting of disability: just hours before the war’s ceasefire, he suffered a severe injury after being wounded by a German artillery shell.

With the larger American Legion, founded in 1919, the DAV worked to raise public awareness about disabled veterans, while pressuring the government to adopt programs to address their rehabilitation and reintegration into American society. Though far smaller than the American Legion, which claimed 850,000 members within its first year of its existence, DAV membership rolls topped 25,000 by 1922 and had 1,200 local chapters and state offices nationwide. Overlap between the DAV and the Legion was unmistakable; roughly 90 percent of DAV members were also legionnaires. In fact, Marx helped to found the Legion’s National Rehabilitation Committee.

Together, the two organizations placed veterans’ disability at the forefront of the push for veterans’ rights and benefits, including for “shell shock” or what today would be classified as PTSD. Due to the organizations’ efforts, in 1921 the U.S. government established the United States Veterans Bureau, a precursor to today’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Red Cross and the government also acted independently to address disability. In 1917, the Red Cross opened the first institution dedicated to training amputees and individuals with damaged limbs—The Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York City. Though not initially established for veterans, the institute soon found itself inundated with World War I soldiers. In addition to rehabilitating injured soldiers, the institute produced and distributed 50 pamphlets, broadsides and books focusing on rehabilitation in the first year after the Armistice. During 1918, the institute distributed six million copies of “Your Duty to the War Cripple” to New Yorkers.

The government established the Federal Board for Vocational Education in 1917; it produced the first studies on veterans’ disability. The following year, the Smith-Sears Vocational Rehabilitation Act passed, providing for rehabilitation and vocational training for disabled veterans.

Despite these efforts, the treatment of disabled veterans varied widely, and attempts to streamline it largely failed. Veterans lodged numerous complaints related to poor dining, housing and rehabilitation facilities. Counselors, meant to help steer veterans toward rehabilitation and vocational training, were seen by many veterans as distant and uncommunicative. Black veterans endured racial discrimination, greatly diminished facilities, and systematic neglect.

Of the roughly 330,000 veterans eligible for rehabilitation, nearly half received some amount of training. It came with a steep price tag, however; in 1927 alone, the cost of rehabilitation exceeded $400 million. The following year, the vocational education board expended half a billion dollars in compensation for veterans.

Though not exactly a success story, the government’s role in rehabilitation did expand the development and institutionalization of the veterans’ welfare and demonstrated a commitment to restoring veterans to societal productivity.

Source: Originally published on the Library of Congress Blog, 21 December 2017.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Recommended: How Things Looked to Both Sides by the End of the Battle of the Somme

By Edward Strauss
Originaly Presented at the Yale Press Blog, 18 November 2014

View from Butte de Warlencourt after
the German Withdrawal

The Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 1916, is generally said to have concluded on 18 November of that year.

In a dispatch on 29 December 1916, General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Armies in France, summed up the battle’s accomplishments:

“…The three main objects with which we had commenced our offensive in July had already been achieved at the date when this account closes [18 November]…Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the western front; and the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down. Any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle. The attainment of all three of them affords ample compensation for the splendid efforts of our troops and for the sacrifices made by ourselves and our Allies. They have brought us a long step forward towards the final victory of the Allied cause….”

In his 1920 memoir, German General Eric Ludendorff credits Allied resources and German shortcomings:

“On the Somme the enemy’s powerful artillery, assisted by excellent aeroplane observation and fed with enormous supplies of ammunition, had kept down our own fire and destroyed our artillery. The defence of our Infantry had become so flabby that the massed attacks of the enemy always succeeded. Not only did our morale suffer, but in addition to fearful wastage in killed and wounded, we lost a large number of prisoners and much material.

“…The equipment of the [Allied] armies with war material had been carried out on a scale hitherto unknown. The Battle of the Somme showed us every day how great was the advantage of the enemy in this respect….”

Many decades later, three British historians offer their perspectives on the battle’s conclusion:

“On the night of November 17 the first snow fell on the Somme battlefield.  On the following night the final assault of the campaign took place, an advance of a thousand yards along the Ancre [river, tributary of the Somme]. It was much hampered by mist and snow…After four-and-a-half months of struggle, suffering, and advance there was no concluding victory, or even coda: one divisional history recorded that two companies that had taken part in the assault on November 18 had disappeared ‘entirely, being overwhelmed by machine-gun fire.’….”—Martin GilbertThe First World War (1994), p. 299.

“To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy of the twentieth century, indeed of their national military history.”—John KeeganThe First World War (1998), pp. 298-299.

“[After September], as the weather worsened and the mud hampered operations, the battle was again explained in terms of attrition. In truth it should have been closed down.”—Hew StrachanThe First World War (2003), p. 193.

A British lieutenant’s diary entry from the Somme trenches, as the battle concluded:

“[November 16:] Coy is badly knocked out. Lauder and Young both badly wounded.  Sergeant-Major Dell wounded. Farrington killed. Sgt Brown not expected to live. Sgt Baker wounded. Westle, poor fellow, killed. Foley – the last of his family – killed, a lot of other good men, too many to speak of…800 Englishmen and forty Germans were buried yesterday – evidence of what price the assaulting parties must pay for some few yards of ground.  Damn Germany!”—Guy Chapman (1889-1972)

A German soldier, a former law student, had written home on 1 October, about a British attack a few weeks earlier:

“Suddenly the barrage lifts … and there, close in front, is the first wave of the enemy!…Everyone who is not wounded, everyone who can raise an arm, is up, and like a shower of hailstones our bombs [hand-grenades] pelt upon the attacking foe! The first [enemy] wave lies prone in front of our holes, and already the second is upon us, and behind the English are coming on in a dense mass. Anyone who reaches our line is at once polished off in a hand-to-hand bayonet fight, and now our bombs fly with redoubled force into the enemy’s ranks. They do their gruesome work there, and like ripe ears of corn before the reaper the English attacking columns fall. Only a few escape in full flight…

“Such is the battle of the Somme – Germany’s bloody struggle for victory.

This week represents the utmost limits of human endurance – it was hell!”—Karl Gorzel (born 1895,  Breslau; killed in action, 21 March 1918)

In the battle’s final weeks, a French infantryman and his squad wander through the labyrinth of trenches and shelters of the Somme battlefield:

“This ravine must have been the scene of fierce combats: blasted tree trunks pulled out by their root, shattered wagons and carts, all sorts of debris rifles, bayonets, grenades, German shells, scattered around or piled up. We marched past in silence, seemingly indifferent, under ceaseless rain which soaked us through and through but which didn’t stop the cannonade.  It seemed to grow more violent, the farther along we got….”—Louis Barthas (1879-1952)

Barthas then participates in the storming of a German trench:

“October 23, 1916 is a memorable day in the annals of the 296th [Infantry Regiment].  The previous night the officers were advised that, the next day, the regiment had to attack, with the objective of taking the first German line.
“During the night, the men were kept busy digging parallels – trenches extending ahead of our own front line, and we had to be especially careful that they not discover the work being done right under their noses.
“When, the next day, the fog lifted, the Germans were astounded to see the French a few steps away from them.
“Since those folks waged war like we did – constrained and forced into it – they judged it useless to defend themselves, and unanimously raised their arms, crying ‘Comrades!  Comrades!’
“However, some of them were scared stiff, and profited from the lingering fog and reigning confusion by taking off.  As a result there were only fifty-two in our hands….
“In the area around the trench, they found the body of an enemy officer, his head bashed in, and beside him a shovel covered with blood.  It seemed clear that , when he didn’t want to surrender, his men had gotten rid of him….”

Even after 18 November, Barthas and his unit are rotated between the rear and the front line of trenches, in worsening weather, under enemy shellfire:

“During these five days the torrential rain and snow never let up. The walls of the trench were sagging; the precarious shelters which men had dug for themselves collapsed at certain places.  Trenches filled with water.
“It’s useless to try to describe the sufferings of the men, without shelter, soaked, pierced by cold, badly fed – no pen could tell their tale.  You had to have lived through these hours, these days, these nights, to know how interminable they were in weather like this.
“Proceeding in nightly work details to and from the front lines, men slipped and fell into shell holes filled with water and weren’t able to climb out; they drowned or froze to death, their hands grasping at the edges of the craters in an effort to pull themselves out….”

Edward Strauss is the translator of Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Ottoman War Medal. (aka the Gallipoli Star)

[Editor's Note: On 9 June 2022, we presented regular contributor Jim Patton's article on Australia's "Gallipoli Star" military decoration. Here another of our contributors,  Col. Bill Anderson, USMC, presents a parallel  article on Turkey's Gallipoli Star.

Col. William Anderson, USMC

Prior to 1914, the Ottoman Empire did not have a general war medal for military merit. There had been campaign decorations with specific clasps to denote a particular campaign. Inspired by the German awards of the Iron Cross Medal and the Austrian Military Merit Medal, the commanders of the Ottoman Army felt it was appropriate for such an award for Turkish soldiers. In March 1915, the “War Medal” (Harp Madalyası) was authorized. It was not a campaign decoration but one for military merit or gallantry with only one class. It was to be worn on the right breast below the heart of the military tunic. It was authorized for anyone regardless of rank or title/position, to include allies.

Original Oval Design

The first design was for an oval bronze badge but, it appears, such a decoration was never issued prior to August when a new design was authorized. The new version would be the classic 5-pointed red star shown at the top.

The Obverse contains an upturned crescent circling the red center of the badge. Within the center is the tughra or seal of Sultan Mehmed Reshad V over the date “1333” (1915). The Reverse is flat, unadorned and has a straight pin.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Two Recipients Wearing the Decoration
The Turkish musician on the left earned the award for service as a stretcher bearer.  WWII German General Gerd von Rundstedt  helped reorganize the Turkish General Staff during the First World War.

The War Medal was issued in two versions – for officers made of silvered brass and for other ranks of thin lacquered white metal. However, any recipient could purchase finer versions from numerous German jewelers who made them during WWI and afterwards. German soldiers did just that and the finer jeweler versions are prized collector items, especially if associated with a well-known name. In homage, I guess, to the Iron Cross awards, the Entente soldiers referred to the Turkish award as the Eiserne Halbmond or Iron Crescent. Informally, it is still identified as the “Gallipoli Star” which causes some confusion with British and Commonwealth decorations of the war.

Sources: M. Demir Erman, "The Turkish War Medal," privately published, undated;  Edhem Eldem, "The Changing Design and Rhetoric of Ottoman Decorations, 1850-1920," Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 2016; star image, author's collection; oval, Eldem article.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Romania at War—A Roads Collection

This is  a new feature for Roads to the Great War.  Each Friday, I'm going to select one of the lesser-known aspects of the war and share some of the material we found and published on over the years.  Please let me know what you think in the comments below.  Today, we look at the experience of Romania at War.  MH


The Kingdom of Romania was neutral for the first two years of World War I, entering on the side of the Allied powers after the apparent success of the Brusilov Offensive in the summer of 1916.  Hostilities that commenced on 27 August 1916 ensued until Russian support was lost when the Reds left the war under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Central Power occupation led to the Treaty of Bucharest in May 1918.   With the Treaty of Bucharest, the Central Powers had taken Romanian territory including land along its coastline and around the mouth of the Danube River.

However, opportunistically, Romania reentered the war on 10 November 1918 on the side of the Allies.  The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 not only reversed Romania's territorial losses,  it also gave Romania control of the long-desired province of Transylvania. Romania succeeded in using the situation and its consequences to create a nation state of more than twice its original size. The human cost of its war effort, however, was enormous. 71% of the three-quarter million men mobilized were killed, wounded or missing in the war. An estimated 430,000 of its civilians also died from war-related causes.


Romanian Forces Abandon Bucharest

Book Reviews

The Romanian Battlefront in World War I by Glenn E. Torrey

Bugs and Bullets: The True Story of an American Doctor on the Eastern Front during World War I by Joseph Breckinridge-Bayne and Ernest Latham

A Russian Nurse in War and Revolution: Memoirs 1912–1922 by Tatiana Varnek

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Americans in the French Foreign Legion

Americans Serving in the French Foreign Legion,
Champage, 1916

By Edward Strauss
From the Yale Press Blog, 8 September 2015

One hundred years ago, young Americans were fighting alongside the Allies in the trenches and no-man’s-land of northern France. America would not enter World War I until April 1917, and American forces would not fully engage in combat until more than a year later, in 1918. But dozens of individual Americans signed on and fought in Allied armies, including 1915’s most horrendous battlefield slaughters.

The French Army prohibited enlistment by foreigners—except in the already renowned Foreign Legion. Spurred by idealism, yearning for adventure, young Americans signed on in the war’s first months. Many were alumni of top U.S. colleges and universities and scions of prominent families. Others were skilled mechanics, cowboys, drifters, veterans of the U.S. Army’s Philippine campaigns, merchant seamen, and assorted adventurers—including two African American prizefighters, Eugene Bullard and Bob Scanlon. They were thrown in with assorted Greeks, Russians, Swiss, and Turks in the Foreign Legion’s polyglot ranks.

The Legion’s first major combat came in May–June 1915, in the massive French Artois offensive.  Among the “American Squad” members missing in action were former VMI cadet Russell Kelly, ex-prospector John Earl Fisk, and MIT graduate and budding playwright Kenneth Weeks (whose body would be found in November).

That September, in France’s next concerted effort to regain territory lost to the Germans, the Legion joined French armies storming enemy lines in the Champagne region. John Jacob “Jack” Casey, an artist from San Francisco, was shot in the foot; Brooklyn’s Christopher Charles was wounded at “Horseshoe Wood” (Bois Sabot), as was Robert Soubiran, an auto mechanic in civilian life.

Groton School and Harvard alumnus Henry Farnsworth was killed at Champagne’s Navarin Farm on 28 September. Frank Musgrave, from San Antonio, was gassed and wounded in Champagne, that same month.

David Wheeler, MD, of Buffalo, NY, a graduate of Williams College and Columbia Medical School, enlisted in the Foreign Legion in February 1915. A newspaper account of his 1918 death in combat reported,“In the Champagne fighting on Sept 28, 1915, Wheeler was wounded in the right leg. After the charging French had passed beyond him he tried to crawl back to the rear, but finding many wounded and suffering men around him, he stopped and attended them. For this he received the French War Cross [Croix de Guerre].”

St. Louis engineer James J. “Jimmie” Bach was one of the first Americans to transfer from the Foreign Legion to the French Aeronautical Service and become an aviator, as restrictions loosened. He was taken prisoner while landing a spy behind enemy lines, on 23 September, the first American to fall into German hands. He remained a POW until the Armistice in November 1918.

Like Bach, other Americans, having fought in the Foreign Legion on the battlefields of Artois and Champagne, transferred to the fledgling French Air Service during 1915. They included Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, and William Thaw—founders of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille air squadron in 1916.

Still more Americans crossed the Canadian border to sign up under the British flag, either as infantrymen or as pilots-in-training, or sailed to England to do so. Others served in France as volunteer ambulance drivers for the American Field Service, then transferred to combat units.

Princeton's Johnny Poe, Jr.

Baltimore’s John Prentiss “Johnny” Poe, Jr., one of six brothers who had starred on the gridiron for Princeton, first served with the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1914–1915. Yearning for more frontline action, he joined the storied kilted Scottish Black Watch infantry regiment. He was killed in the early hours of the Battle of Loos, an attack launched in Artois by the British in support of the French Champagne offensive, on 25 September. His grave was never located.

What did these Americans experience as infantrymen in the frontline battlefields in 1915? Combat conditions in Artois and Champagne, in which these young men fought and died, were truly horrendous.  French infantryman Louis Barthas, who fought in Artois in May–June 1915 and again that September in support of the Champagne offensive, tells just what he saw—no doubt similar to what the Americans fighting in the Foreign Legion encountered:

We met up with an unfortunate fellow who had gone mad and was being carried by four of his comrades.  Oh, those haggard eyes, that convulsed, terrified, grimacing face, which had lost all human expression. What horrible scenes had those eyes seen, leading madness to invade the brain? 

. . We came upon men, isolated or in groups, heading to the rear. Most gave no response to our questions. Others exclaimed, “The poor guys, the poor guys . . .” or “It’s horrible, frightful.” They seemed half-crazy. . . . At daybreak we could see, to our horror, that in front of the trench and behind it the ground was covered with hundreds of French bodies.  Complete lines, entire ranks of foot soldiers, had been mowed down, This was the price   paid for an advance of four or five hundred meters – something like one human life per square meter. —Louis Barthas (Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918)

No wonder that, when the opportunity arose, many young Americans who had enlisted as infantrymen in the French Foreign Legion and fought in the trenches transferred to the air arm, beginning as early as 1915. As veteran flyer and airpower strategist General William “Billy” Mitchell later wrote: 

There was no marching and maneuvering, no songs, no flying colors and bands playing while going into action.  It was just groveling in dirty mud holes and being killed and maimed by giant projectiles, or permanently incapacitated by gas. The only interest and romance in this war was in the air.

*William Mitchell quote from The Unsubstantial Air: American Flyers in the First World War, by Samuel Hynes.

Edward Strauss is the translator of Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. He is a fundraising director in higher education and former publisher of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.