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

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Elementary: Conan Doyle Sounded the U-Boat Alarm—Before the War!

The most accurate prewar prognosticator of the threat presented to England by German U-boats was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle. After visiting Germany in 1911, Conan Doyle began to study German war literature. He saw that the submarine and the airplane were going to be important factors in the next war. He was particularly concerned about the threat of submarines blockading food shipments to Britain.

Convinced that this was a vital precaution, Conan Doyle eventually took his idea to the public in the form of a story, "Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius" that originally appeared in the July 1914 edition of The Strand magazine and was republished in Collier's the following August.. The story dealt with a conflict between Britain and a fictional country called Norland. In the story, Norland is able to bring Britain to its knees by the use of a small submarine fleet. Its opening passage was an eye-opener:

It is an amazing thing that the English, who have the reputation of being a practical nation, never saw the danger to why they were exposed. For many years they had been spending nearly a hundred million a year upon their army and their fleet. . . Yet when the day of trial came, all this imposing force was of no use whatever, and might as well have not existed.

Illustration for the Collier's Presentation

Doyle’s proposals, given voice an imagined Times leader in the story, included: reformation of agriculture and trade policies to provide “sufficient food to at least keep life in her [Britain’s] population;” construction of “two double-lined railways under the Channel” to facilitate movement of goods and, presumably, armies; and “the building of large fleets of merchant submarines for the carriage of food.” Clearly, Doyle’s major concern was with having enough food to feed the nation during hostile times.

Sadly, Conan Doyle's warnings were ignored, at least by the British. German officials were later quoted as saying that the idea of the submarine blockade came to them after hearing Conan Doyle's warnings against such an event. How much of that statement was truth and how much was propaganda designed to cause conflict within Britain is not known.

From: Continuum, Newsletter of the University of Minnesota Libraries

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Delayed 10 Years, the World War I Publishing Boom Is Still with Us

By Modris Eksteins from the British Library Website

War boom   

For a decade publishers, convinced that the public did not wish to read about the war, resisted war material. Then suddenly in 1928–29, everything changed. The public couldn’t get enough of the war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, first serialized in a Berlin newspaper in December 1928, led the way. It depicted the destruction of an entire class of students, one by one, not in order to make the world a better place but simply on account of the cupidity, arrogance, and narrow-mindedness of its elders. The book became a huge international success, the first genuine modern bestseller, rushed into some 30 translations around the world and filmed by Hollywood. In Germany, Remarque was joined on the bestseller lists by Arnold Zweig, Ludwig Renn, and Ernst Glaeser; in England by the memoirists Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the dramatist R.C. Sherriff, whose play Journey’s End had 594 performances at the Savoy and Prince of Wales theatres in London from 1929 to 1931. London buses were plastered with the words "All roads lead to Journey’s End." The notion of the "lost generation" became common coinage. "It is time," wrote the respected American critic and veteran Malcolm Cowley in 1933, the year the decorated soldier Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, "for us to admit … that all of us fought in vain." The German Führer of course disagreed. For Germany, he claimed, the war had been a spiritual victory. Yet he, too, wished to reshape the world on the basis of his own experience, his personal struggleMein Kampf, as he called it.

The end of history?

For many, fiction had displaced historical writing. The study of history, a dominant intellectual impulse of the late 19th century, was too constrained by rules; fiction represented freedom. In the 1920s everyone seemed to be waiting, not for the comprehensive historical account but for the supreme literary masterpiece that, like Homer’s Iliad or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, would invoke and explain all. For Ernst Kantorowicz, author of a widely applauded biography of the medieval emperor Frederick II, the genres blended. At a conference of German historians in 1930, he stirred up a hornets’ nest when he suggested that "historical scholarship and historical fiction are, despite their mutual animosity, rightly interchangeable concepts."

All is not quiet

Many of these issues, particularly the ongoing crisis of authority and the concomitant disintegration of category and definition, still resonate. Novelists and filmmakers keep being drawn to the First World War as a major source of this process of deconstruction and liberation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Timothy Findley, Jane Urquhart, Sebastian Faulks, and Pat Barker, among others, have used the war as a setting to probe contemporary concerns about art, gender, social relations, psychology, and remembrance.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Boy Soldiers of the Great War

By Richard Van Emden
Pen and Sword, 2021R
David F. Beer, Reviewer

How would you feel in 1914 if you were the parent of a 12- to 17-year-old boy who wanted nothing more than to join the army and get to France to be in the fighting? Would you encourage him, be glad to get rid of him, vacillate, or be adamantly opposed? Whatever your reaction, it shouldn’t surprise you if your young son wanted to go—after all, he had grown up in a post-Victorian generation of war romantics:

War, glorious war, with its bands and marching feet, its uniforms and air of recklessness, its heroes and glittering decorations, the war of our history books…From the cradle up we have been fed on battles and heroic deeds, nurtured on bloody episodes in our country’s history; war was always glorious, something manly, never sordid, uncivilized, foolish, or base. (p. 9)

So go they did, from 1914 to 1918, in the tens of thousands and cheerfully lying about their age. In this, the final update of his study of boy soldiers in the Great War, Richard Van Emden makes use of previously unknown information to describe the numbers, conditions, and various adventures and fates of the boy soldiers Britain was often willing to absorb into her wartime army.

Getting into the army was not really a problem. Birth certificates were rarely required. Staff were paid a bonus for the number of recruits scooped up. You could avoid a scrupulous recruiter or medical officer by going to another town—or across town to another recruiter. One medical officer admitted that “We had orders not to be too strict in our physical examination” (p. 40), and this lenient attitude easily transferred to matters of age. The moral quality of some of these young soldiers didn’t necessarily parallel their eagerness to enlist, however:

It is not your ‘good’ boy who rushes to the recruiting office and tells a lie about his age, it is not the gentle, amiable, well-mannered boy who is so enthusiastic for adventure that he will leave his home and endure the hardships of a soldier’s life for the sake of seeing fighting. These boys were for the most part young scamps, and some of them had all the qualities of the guttersnipe, but they had the makings of men in them if treated properly. (p. 298)

And many boys did find their way to manhood in the army. Their trials and tribulations and numbers are described and annotated in depth in Van Emden’s book. Many would soon be found fighting in the trenches and in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including Gallipoli. Thousands died in combat, while many others survived the war after acquitting themselves honorably and even valiantly. Some were awarded medals for gallantry and a handful became respected officers—at the age of fifteen.

It’s not hard to find the gravestones of boy soldiers in the battlefield cemeteries of France and Flanders, and the author has headed each of his 20 chapters with a parent’s inscription that appears at the foot of a gravestone:

Private George Yeldham, aged 16 

 Private James Walters, aged 16 

Private Bernard Whittingham, aged 17

Another memorial, to be found in a London suburb is a blue cast-iron plaque which simply reads:

Sidney Lewis 1903–1969 
Youngest British Soldier First World War 
Age Twelve Lived Here

Boy Soldiers of the Great War is almost encyclopedic in its details and statistics. Estimated numbers of deaths of boy soldiers for each year of the war is given. The final chapter of this 467-page volume is devoted to short biographies of “The Youngest of the Young” who died, and the final pages list the youngest army officers (including one naval officer) who were killed or wounded, for the most part 16- and 17-year-olds. An interesting entry is that of Second Lieutenant George MacKelvey Morris of the Liverpool Regiment, from Toledo, Ohio, and a U.S. citizen. He died of wounds in France, aged 16 years and 221 days.

Besides the statistics and numerous tales of youthful heroism, this book also contains fascinating accounts of how many lads were returned to their homes from France at the request of their parents. This could be a complicated process, which included sending a copy of a birth certificate to the War Office and providing other materials showing a boy to be underage and perhaps unfit (according to a parent). Camps were set up as a sort of halfway house or "holding pen" for boys in the process of being sent home. On at least one occasion, not surprisingly, perhaps,

They rioted. Every window in the place was shattered. Everything breakable was smashed into little bits. A YMCA worker, a young man lent to us…fled to a small room and locked himself in. The tumult became so terrific that an officer of high standing and importance…sent an orderly to us with threats. (p. 300)

Yet for the many who were troublesome there were just as many young lads who matured quickly on the battlefield, were a credit to their units and helped win the war. This book is a testimony to them as much as it is a critique of the mistakes and misadventures involved in a desperate nation’s gathering as many bodies as possible to go off to fight. Typical of many of the young heroes is this description given by a chaplain at the 23rd General Hospital in Etaples in a letter of 7 August 1915:

“Did I tell you a boy came in yesterday. He will be fifteen next month. He was out a long time and is now wounded. He doesn’t want to go back to England but wants to have another go at the Germans…” (p. 412)

We can only admire, from a great distance, the valor and grit of such young lads.

David F. Beer

Monday, March 28, 2022

Ten Aces Speak

I put my bullets into the target as if I placed them there by hand.

René Fonck (France)

If one has not given everything, one has given nothing.

Georges Guynemer (France)

The most important thing in fighting was shooting, next the various tactics in coming into a fight and last of all flying ability itself.

Billy Bishop (Canada)

To be a great pilot you have to make a pact with the devil, but don't let him swallow you up.

Ernst Udet (Germany)

Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.

Eddie Rickenbacker (USA)

Good flying never killed an enemy.

Mick Mannock (UK)

To the aircraft I aim, not the man.

Francesco Baracca (Italy)

I hate to shoot a Hun down without him seeing me, for although this method is in accordance with my doctrine, it is against what little sporting instincts I have left

James McCudden (UK)

A glorious death. Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood and the last drop of benzen—to the last beat of the heart and the last kick of the motor: a death for a knight—a toast for his fellow, friend, and foe.

Manfred von Richthofen (Germany)

You must take the war to the enemy. You must attack and go on attacking all the time

Willy Coppens (Belgium)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Just Who Were the Polar Bears? — A Roads Classic

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   Polar Bear Expedition Monument, Troy, Michigan

The American military intervention at Archangel, Russia, at the end of World War I, nicknamed the "Polar Bear Expedition," is a strange episode in American history. Ostensibly sent to Russia to prevent a German advance and to help reopen the Eastern Front, American soldiers found themselves fighting Bolshevik revolutionaries for months after the Armistice ended fighting in France. At some point, they named themselves the Polar Bears.

During the summer of 1918, the U. S. Army's 85th Division, made up primarily of men from Michigan and Wisconsin, completed its training at Camp Custer, outside of Battle Creek, Michigan, and proceeded to England. While the rest of the division was preparing to enter the fighting in France, some 5,000 troops of the 339th Infantry and support units (one battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital, and the 337th Ambulance Company) were issued Russian weapons and equipment and sailed for Archangel, a Russian port on the White Sea, 600 miles north of Moscow within the Arctic Circle.

The strategy of the expedition's commanders was to advance south and east to join Russian and foreign anti-Bolshevik armies hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Fighting during the winter of 1918–1919 was concentrated in six areas scattered across Archangel Province in a semicircle south of the city. The Americans had a number of intense skirmishes, the most famous of which, the Battle of Toulgas, was fought 200 miles south of Archangel, ironically on Armistice Day for the war.

Morale declined over the grim winter with the troops—who were experiencing hit and run raids and growing dissatisfaction with the British command of the mission—increasingly feeling forgotten and confused about their mission. They were withdrawn the following spring.

The Michigan Connection

Because of the strong Michigan connection to the expeditionary force, there is, today, a beautiful memorial to their service located in Troy, Michigan at the White Chapel Cemetery.  There is also a large collection of Polar Bear artifacts at Michigan's Military and Space Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth, MI.

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    Kiosk 1 at the Memorial

The Troops in Russia 

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    There Are Few Combat Action Photos for the Polar Bears

Retrieving and Honoring the Fallen
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    Kiosk 2 at the Memorial

Memorial Site: White Chapel Cemetery, Troy, MI

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    Another View of the Monument, Cemetery Entrance, and Dedication Plaque

Sources: Steve Miller's and Richard Vandenbruhl's photo collections, the Library of Congress, the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Archives and U.S. Army publications.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Map Series #23 The Yanks at Mt. Kemmel

The U.S. Army's WWI Campaigns commemorative series has some excellent modern-looking, yet very informative maps of the AEF's battlefields.  I found this one covering the activities of the 27th and 30th Divisions just south of Ypres in the late summer of 1918,  in  SUPPORTING ALLIED OFFENSIVES: 8 AUGUST–11 NOVEMBER 1918 written by two friends from the Western Front Association;s US-East Coast Chapter, Paul Cora and Alexander Falbo-Wild.  The entire volume can be downloaded HERE

Click on Image to Enlarge

After this operations the two division would be merged into the U.S II Corps and detailed to the British Fourth Army for the assault on the Hindenburg Line.

Friday, March 25, 2022

2021 Tomlinson Prize for Best World War One Books Announced


Heather Jones, Maartje Abbenhuis, Ismee Tames, and Graydon Tunstall awarded the 2021 Tomlinson prize for their World War One books; Honorable Mention goes to Anna Maguire
The World War One Historical Association (WW1HA) annual Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr., prize for 2021 for the best work of history in English on World War One (1914-1918) has been awarded to five exceptional historians:
Heather Jones, Professor in Modern and Contemporary European History at University College London, author of For King and Country: The British Monarchy and the First World War (Cambridge University Press)

Maartje Abbenhuis, Professor in Modern History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand – and Ismee Tames, Professor in History at Utrecht University and Senior Researcher at NIOD, Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, The Netherlands – co-authors of Global War, Global Catastrophe: Neutrals, Belligerents and the Transformation of the First World War (Bloomsbury Collections)

Graydon A. Tunstall, retired Senior Lecturer of History at the University of South Florida and the Executive Director for Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society, for The Austro-Hungarian Army and the First World War (Cambridge University Press)

For the fourth year in a row the Honorable Mention category was also awarded:
Anna Maguire, Queen Mary University of London historian, for her Contact Zones of the First World War: Cultural Encounters across the British Empire (Cambridge University Press)

This is the seventh time that multiple books won the Tomlinson prize. Three 2018 titles shared the award presented in 2019, three books published in 2016 shared the 2017 award, and three 2010 titles also shared the award presented in 2011. Two books published in 2019 received the award in 2020, and two 2017 books received the award in 2018. The Tomlinson prize started in 1999.

The Tomlinson prize consists of a cash award and original bronze plaque sculpted by Andrew L. Chernak, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran whose sculptures are installed at Arlington National Cemetery and in state and private parks:

Honorable Mention awards consist of an original bronze plaque sculpted by Chernak.

Both awards are made possible through a grant from Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr., director emeritus of The Western Front Association – United States Branch. (WFA-US became the World War One Historical Association in 2011.)

Historians Graydon Tunstall, Michael Neiberg, and Heather Streets-Salter, plus editor of the WW1HA Tomlinson Prize Review of World War One Books Dana Lombardy form the prize jury for the Norman B. Tomlinson Prize.

Normally the prize is awarded in the year following the calendar year of publication, but there are occasional exceptions to that policy. For information on how to submit books for the prize, email or

Previous Tomlinson award winners and information about the World War One Historical Association can be found at the-tomlinson-book-prize.
PO Box 10777
490 Lake Park Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The World War One Wishbones of McSorley’s Old Ale House

McSorely’s Old Ale House in New York City, the oldest Irish pub in the city, dating back to 1854, preserves some wonderful World War One artifacts.  In 1917, when a number of McSorely’s patrons who were getting ready to ship out for France—probably members of  the Fighting 69th, since it was an Irish ale house—were feasted with a turkey dinner. They took their wishbones and hung them on a rafter. There was quite a number of wishbones. After the war, the survivors came back to McSorely’s and redeemed their wishbones. The twenty Doughboys who were killed had their wishbones left on the rafter and there they have stayed all these years honoring their memories.

Hat Tips to WWI author Stephen Harris for the story; NY Times for the photos.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

SAPPER'S BACK: Air Raid at Pop

From Mufti

by Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) 

The officer lying back in the home-made chair tilted the peak of his cap over his eyes and let his book slip gently to the ground. A few moments later, after various unavailing waves of the hand, he pulled out a handkerchief of striking design and carefully adjusted it over his face. Then, with his hands dug deep in his pockets to remove even a square inch of skin from the ubiquitous fly, he prepared to slumber. And shortly afterwards a gentle rise and fall of the centre bulldog, so wonderfully portrayed on the bandana, announced that he had succeeded.

To anyone fresh from England who desired to see War the scene would have been disappointing. There were no signs of troops swinging down a road, singing blithely, with a cheery smile of confidence on their faces and demanding to be led back forthwith to battle with the Huns. There were no guns belching forth: the grim Panoply of War, whatever it may mean, was conspicuous by its absence. Only a very fat quartermaster-sergeant lay asleep in the sun and snored, while an ancient and dissolute old warrior, near by, was engaged in clearing out a drain as part of his Field Punishment, and had just discovered a dead dog in it. He was not singing blithely: he had no cheery smile of confidence on his face: he was just talking—gently to himself.

The field was on a slight ridge. Above the camp there floated one of a line of sausage balloons, and the cable to which it was attached stretched up taut from some point near the farmhouse behind. A triangular flag, like a burgee, flew straight out in the breeze from half-way up the cable, and the basket, looking absurdly small, hung down like a black dot below the balloon.

Peace was the keynote of the whole situation. In front the country lay stretched out, with its hedges and trees, its fields and farmhouses. In certain places there ran long rows of poles with strips of brown material stretched between them, which a spectator would rightly conclude was camouflage erected to screen the roads. Only from what? Where was the Boche in this atmosphere of sleep and quiet?

Beyond the silent countryside rose a line of hills. They seemed to start and finish abruptly—an excrescence in the all-pervading flatness. On the top of the near end of the line, clear cut against the sky, the tower and spires of a great building; at the far end, on a hill separated—almost isolated—from the main ridge, a line of stumps, gaunt tooth-pick stumps standing stiffly in a row. There was no sign of life on the hills, no sign of movement. They were dead and cold even in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. Especially the isolated one at the far end with its row of sentinel trees. There was something ghostly about it—something furtive.

And then suddenly a great column of yellow smoke rose slowly from its centre and spread like a giant mushroom. Another and another appeared, and the yellow pall rolled down the side twisting and turning, drifting into the air and eddying over the dark, grim slope. Gradually it blotted out that isolated hill, like fog reeking round a mountain top, and as one watched it, fascinated, a series of dull booms came lazily through the air.

"Jerry gettin' it in the neck on Kemmel." Two men passing by were regarding the performance with perfunctory interest, while the purple bulldog still rose and fell, and the dissolute old warrior did not cease talking to himself.

"Derek scooped the bally lot as usual." An officer appeared at the entrance of a tin structure in one corner of the field with a bundle of letters in his hand. "Look at the dirty dog there—sleeping like a hog—in the only decent chair."

He disappeared inside to emerge again in a moment with a badminton racket and a shuttlecock. "On the bulldog—one round rapid fire." He fired and with a loud snort the sleeper awoke.

"You are charged with conduct to the prejudice, etc.," said the marksman severely, "in that you did spread alarm and despondency amongst the troops by disguising yourself as a disease and making noises indicative of pain."

Derek Vane stretched himself and stood up. "We are feeling well, thank you—and require nourishment. Does tea await me, and if not—why not?" He took his mail and glanced through it. "How they love me, dear old boy! What it is to be young and good looking, and charm. . . ."

There was a loud shout and the deck chair became the centre of a struggling mob. Shortly afterwards a noise of ripping canvas announced that it had acted as deck chairs have acted before when five people sit on them at the same moment.

"Look out, you mugs, you've broken it." Vane's voice came dimly from the ground. "And my face is in an ants' nest."

"Are you good looking and charming?" demanded an inexorable voice.

No. Get off, Beetle; you've got bones on you like the human skeleton at Barnum's."

"What are you like?" pursued the same inexorable voice.

"Horrible," spluttered Vane. "A walking nightmare; a loathly dream."

"It is well—you may arise."

The mass disintegrated, and having plucked the frame of the chair from the body of an officer known to all and sundry as the Tank—for obvious reasons—they moved slowly towards the mess for tea.

In all respects an unwarlike scene, and one which would disappoint the searcher after sensation. Save for the lorries which bumped ceaselessly up and down the long straight road below, and the all-pervading khaki it might have been a scene at home before the war. The yellow fog had cleared away from Kemmel, and over the flat country the heat haze rose, shimmering and dancing in the afternoon sun. In the field next to the camp an ancient Belgian was ploughing, his two big Walloon horses guided by a single cord, while from behind the farm there came the soft thud-thud of a football.

And then it came. In a few seconds the air was filled with the thumping of Archie and the distant crackle of machine-guns.

"By Jove! there he is," cried the Tank. "He's got him too."

The officers halted and stared over the dead town of Poperinghe, where flash after flash of bursting shrapnel proclaimed a Boche aeroplane. They saw him dive at a balloon—falling like a hawk; then suddenly he righted and came on towards the next. From the first sausage two black streaks shot out, to steady after a hundred feet or so, and float down, supported by their white parachutes. But the balloon itself was finished. From one end there glowed for an instant a yellow furnace of fire. Then a flame shot up, followed by clouds of black smoke. Like a stone, the basket crashed down, passing the two white, drifting specks on the way, and leaving behind it a long streak of black.

Rolling from side to side like a drunken man, the aeroplane was coming towards its next quarry. Lewis guns, machine-guns, Archies were now all firing full blast, but the pilot continued on his course. Tracer bullets shot up like lines of light, but so far he had come through untouched. From the balloons the observers dived out until at one moment there were ten in the air. And each balloon in turn followed its owners, a flaming, smoking remnant . . .

Then came the end—as suddenly as it had begun. A tracer bullet seemed to pass right through the aeroplane. Like a tiny ball of fire the bullet struck it, and then went out. The plane swerved violently, righted and swerved again. Then it spun down, rocking from side to side, while a burst of white flame roared all round it. And, falling a little faster than the plane, two black spots, which did not steady after a hundred feet. They crashed fifty yards from the tin hut, and almost before they reached the ground the officers were on the spot. A little distance away the aeroplane was blazing, and they could feel the heat as they bent over the pilot and his observer. They were both dead, and the pilot was unrecognisable; a bullet had entered the base of his skull from behind. But the observer was not much damaged outwardly. He lay—arms outstretched—looking up at the sky, on the ground that the farmer had just ploughed. He seemed to smile cynically at the hoarse cheering now spreading from field to field, from camp to camp. Perhaps even then he had realised the futility of it all . . .

For a few seconds Derek Vane looked at him gravely, while close by two excited men from different units argued raucously as to which battalion had brought the aeroplane down.

"I tell yer I saw the ruddy bullet hit the perisher right in the middle," cried one claimant. "It were old Ginger's gun, I tell yer. E's a fair corker is Ginger with a Lewis."

The smile spread till it was almost a grin on the dead man's face.

Muscular contraction, of course, but. . . . With a sudden movement

Vane stooped down and covered the face.

"Sergeant-Major." He turned to the N.C.O. beside him. "Armed guard round the plane at once till the Flying Corps arrive. Bring these two bodies into the camp on stretchers."

Five minutes later they sat down to tea and an unopened mail. The farmer had resumed his ploughing—the football enthusiasts their game. Twenty-five Lewis guns and twelve Vickers sections were all composing reports stating that their particular weapon had done the deed, and somebody was putting another fog cloud on Kemmel.

In fact, the only real difference in the scene after those ten short minutes was that by the ruins of a deck chair two German airmen with their faces covered lay very still on stretchers. . .


"Sapper"  was the  publishing pseudonym for British engineering officer  H. C. McNeile (1888-1937). Drawing on his experiences in the trenches during the First World War, he started writing short stories and getting them published in the Daily Mail. As serving officers in the British Army were not permitted to publish under their own names, he was given the pen name "Sapper" by Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail; the nickname was based on that of his corps, the Royal Engineers.  After the war, McNeile left the army and continued writing, although he changed from war stories to thrillers. In 1920 he published Bulldog Drummond, whose eponymous hero became his best-known creation. He became one of the highest-paid writers after the war. He died young, though, in 1937 of throat cancer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The True Story of the Christmas Truce: British and German Eyewitness Accounts from the First World War

By Anthony Richards, Foreword by Hew Strachan
Greenhill Books, 2021
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

News Account of the Christmas Truce
(Click on Image to Enlarge)

The centennial of the Great War brought renewed attention to that historic conflict. One of the many episodes remembered and celebrated is the Christmas Truce of 1914. This new book by Anthony Richards examines the truce and analyzes its causes, meaning, and legacy. Richards, a historian who has been an archivist at the Imperial War Museums, utilizes British and German firsthand accounts to bring us this fascinating story. He states that the reasons the troops sought to fraternize are, in some ways, self-evident. The real question, he says, is why the troops chose to continue fighting afterwards, and why a truce of this kind didn’t recur during the war. In addition, Richards says, “the main encouragement for me to write this book lay in a fresh availability of a wealth of rarely seen German accounts of the Christmas truce, many never before translated into English and some not previously published.” (pp. 7-8)

In reviewing the truce, Richards doesn’t proceed by unit or by geographic location. Instead, Richards examines Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day in the British sector, followed by Christmas elsewhere, Boxing Day, and the days afterwards. While focusing on the general area of the truce (Flanders), he examines events leading up to the truce including failed and bloody British assaults less than a week before Christmas. This resulted in the presence of large numbers of mostly British dead between the lines; the bodies provided a valid reason to conclude at least a brief local truce to bury the dead. Early on, Richards postulates that the nearness of opposing trenches to each other, coupled with the Christian fellowship of the season and the very real need to improve trench living conditions, provided the proper atmosphere for a truce.

The truce manifested itself in various behaviors ranging from shouted greetings to meetings in no-man’s-land. In many cases, soldiers actually visited the opposing trenches although many frowned upon this practice. Indeed, on several occasions soldiers who ventured too near the enemy’s trenches during the truce were detained as prisoners of war. The personal accounts are interesting and entertaining. One humorous example involved a German-speaking British soldier who is summoned to translate for a drunk German soldier who wandered into the British trench system during the latter phase of the truce. The German waved two beer bottles and requested to be joined in a drink. He refused to return to his own trenches, and he declined to be taken prisoner. Eventually two British soldiers forcibly escorted the errant German back to his own wire obstacles where they left him to fend for himself. Other firsthand accounts focus on what the participants experienced and how they felt about it; all the accounts are interesting glimpses into this unusual occurrence.

In the penultimate chapter, Richard discusses the causes of the truce. In addition to the feelings of brotherhood common to Christians at Christmastime, the author reiterates another cause: the common desire for all fighting men to improve their immediate conditions. This meant burying the dead (with the added benefit of improving morale), draining and reinforcing trenches, and getting a bit of fresh air and exercise. The shared misery of the soldiers in the front line trenches—the notion that the infantry of any nation had more in common with each other than with rear area troops, for example—also served to instill a feeling of a common bond even between enemies. Richards also discusses the views of more senior officers who, not unexpectedly, took a dim view of the proceedings. The author reports how the British and German home front, including the press, viewed the truce. Here, too, feelings and opinions varied between disgust and hopeful feelings of brotherhood.

The author contends that after Christmas 1914 new developments in trench warfare, notably the greater use and improved tactics of artillery and trench mortars, “meant that trench fighters were forced into a situation of constant aggression.” (p. 193) This dramatically cut down the opportunities and desire for any large-scale truces. The author provides a summary of truces experienced throughout the remaining war years; nothing like the Christmas Truce would occur.

The author contends that after Christmas 1914 new developments in trench warfare, notably the greater use and improved tactics of artillery and trench mortars, “meant that trench fighters were forced into a situation of constant aggression.” (p. 193) This dramatically cut down the opportunities and desire for any large-scale truces. The author provides a summary of truces experienced throughout the remaining war years; nothing like the Christmas Truce would occur.

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, March 21, 2022

Scouts Find the Way at St. Mihiel, Part II

Helmet of the 26th Yankee Division

By Ben B. Fischer,

Originally Presented 12 June 2006 on HistoryNet

Part II: Continued from Yesterday on Roads to the Great War

"'Anyway, will you try it with me?’ I asked him. Proc got more serious.

'Jim,’ he replied, ‘I honestly think we’re foolish to try it, but whatever you say goes.’

‘We didn’t shake hands or do anything sentimental — we just started and within ten minutes, we were crawling up from their rear about fifty metres from them. We stopped to look the ground over a little better before making the final move. Just behind them a few yards an immense tree had been knocked off about fifteen feet from the ground. They had taken advantage of this by weaving a green camouflage among the branches. This screen kept them from being silhouetted against the skyline, but it also hid them from our view and we had not seen any of them since leaving our first vantage point. The limbs reaching the ground were very large, and we carefully climbed up the largest of these. Then I whispered to Proc: ‘I’ll jump down into the middle of them and you show yourself at the same time. Keep well back however, and kill the first one that shows fight and keep on killing. Don’t shoot at all unless they start it, then do your best.’ — I drew my pistol and jumped almost landing on the head of one of them.

Depiction of the Fighting at St. Mihiel
by French Artist Lucien Jonas

'Hände hoch!’ I roared as I stuck my pistol in his face. His hands shot upward and never, never, shall I forget the terrified expression on his face. Every one of them stood as if paralyzed, and again I roared:

'Hände hoch!'

"Every German word I had ever learned or heard came to me like a flash, and I told them that if any one of them was slow in obeying my orders I would kill them all. Their machine guns lay idle. Most of their rifles were leaning handily near them. They all wore pistols, but no one attempted to draw. Two or three whom I could not cover from where I was sneaked away and opened fire on Proc. He gamely returned their fire. I played my last card. Stepping further into the group, I drew my other pistol from my coat pocket and shouted to Proc to cover those who were between us. I stepped ahead just quick enough to see a pair of legs disappear into the bushes. Using all the profane German I had ever heard, I ordered him to come out. The bushes parted, and out stalked a tall Prussian officer with sullen and intense hatred showing in his every move. His left hand moved a little in his coat pocket. I ordered him to take his hand out but leave his pistol in, and he did. Sweeping the bunch with both pistols, I told them to remove their pistol belts, throw them on the ground, and go over to Proc, one at a time. I let one pistol pause for a moment on the one nearest to me and yelled: ‘Du!’ He removed his belt, threw it on the designated spot, and took his proper place so quickly it seemed like a single move. In like manner, one by one, they were soon disarmed. One of them attempted to hand me his pistol, suggesting it would make a good souvenir, but I could not drop a perfectly good forty-five for a miserable little gun of that sort at such a time. The Officer marched up with his teeth grinding and a terrible scowl on his face. As he neared me, his hand sneaked back into his left coat pocket. I stopped him, for a pistol in a man’s pocket is far more dangerous than a pistol in a closed holster — it is harder to watch. For this reason, I told him he could keep it, providing he would make no attempt to use it, and I would collect it later.

In the Distance—The Ridges of Bois de St. Rémy
Where the Two Scouts Did Their Work

"With his right hand tightly clenched on his heavy cane, and his left twitching nervously halfway down his pocket, he slowly turned toward me. Fixing his evil eyes on mine, he advanced. I could read his cunning design, for I could look right down into the very depth of his black soul. He planned to knock my pistols down with a quick motion of his cane, and then shoot me with his Luger. My own safety demanded that I kill him right there. However, he was worth more alive than dead for the information he possessed, so I stepped back, pace for pace, until I had time to tell him that I knew what he was trying to do and that he would be killed if he advanced another step. With an angry snarl, he removed his pistol by the barrel and threw it far into the woods. His trench knife followed the pistol, his camouflage helmet the trench knife. It had been a terrible battle between two will powers. The haughty Prussian had been conquered, and the relief from the awful intensity left me weak, but highly elated. The worst was over.

"I lined them up close together in a single file, the officer at the head, told Proctor to bring up the rear, and we started for the Grande Tranchée. As Proc came up to take his place, he was fired at by one of the Boche who had been lurking in the woods. He silenced it with one shot and came on. Good old Proc with his one pis-tol had had the hardest part of it all. He had been the most exposed and yet had guarded us both. We made all possible haste and were on the Grande Tranchée but a few minutes when we met a patrol of our own men. They had been sent forward to discover the cause of the sudden silence of the machine guns that had been raking them. One of my men who had returned from the rear, and had been waiting for me then came up, and I rushed him to the telephone with this message: Enemy in full retreat. Bois de St. Rémy clear of Germans. Rear guard captured.

"Having borrowed a guard from the Infantry for the rear, Proc and I, once more shoulder to shoulder, marched our prisoners back three kilometers to Brigade Headquarters where we turned them in. There we had to count them. I counted them, and Proc counted them, and we both counted them again. There were forty — one officer, six non-coms, and thirty-three privates. ‘Forty of them Jim,’ said Proc. We puffed gently on our pipes as we turned back in the gathering dusk, to resume our duties at the front.

The Division's 102nd Infantry Charged Down
This Road to Hattonchâtel  

"Acting on the information which we had sent in, together with what had been picked up from other sources, the General Staff ordered forward one regiment, to march in close column, at greatest possible speed, and at all cost. By a forced night march, they arrived at Hattonchâtel and Vigneulles at two o’clock the following morning, capturing two trainloads of the enemy just as the trains were pulling out of the station. From then on the Drive became a circus."

The machine-gun nest that Carty and Proctor captured had held up the Yankees’ advance for five hours. Carty’s own regiment, the 102nd Connecticut, made the famous march to Hattonchâtel and Vigneulles, which Brig. Gen. George H. Shelton praised as being of ‘unique and important character,’ carried out in an ‘efficient and spirited manner.’ General Edwards ordered the temporary commander, Marine Colonel ‘Hiking Hiram’ Bearss, to reach Vigneulles before the rival ‘Big Red One.’ Bearss beat the regulars by seven hours. When the local German commander refused to surrender, Bearss punched him in the jaw and then ordered the Germans to make coffee for his dog-tired troops.

German Prisoners' Taken at St. Mihiel

Thanks to the German withdrawal, the St. Mihiel offensive, begun on the early morning  of  12 September 1918, was successfully concluded by 16 September. The Americans liberated 200 square miles of French territory and took 15,000 German prisoners. Their own casualties totaled 7,000 — about one-third what the U.S. Army Medical Corps had anticipated. For his small but outstanding contribution to the operation, Carty was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The drive was an important confidence builder for the AEF, but it left the Americans unprepared for the much grimmer Meuse-Argonne operation. Launched on September 26 into a nightmarish combination of dense forest and hilly terrain, every foot of which was stubbornly defended by veteran troops of General Max von Gallwitz’s Fifth Army, the Meuse-Argonne campaign became an agonizing contest that the AEF would not win until 5 November—at a cost of 117,000 American and some 100,000 German casualties.

Carty’s postwar years were only a brief reprieve from death. A semi-invalid, he never recovered from the ravages of gas and constant artillery shelling in the French "forest of death." The "Lone Yankee Fox," as one newspaper called him, died on Thanksgiving Day 1929, an old soldier at 34.

Monument to the 1st Division at Vigneulles, Where the Two Divisions Hooked-Up. The 26th Got There First,
But the 1st Got the Memorial

This article was written by Ben B. Fischer — James F. Carty was his great-uncle — and originally published in the August 1998 issue of Military History magazine.