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

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Shocking Italian Front Death Toll from Winter Avalanches

Austrian Troops Watching an Avalanche at
Vermiglio, Trentino (1916)

During the three-year war in the Austro-Italian Alps at least 60,000 soldiers died in avalanches. [This conservative statistic comes from the research of Heinz von Lichem, in his outstanding three-volume study Gebirgskrieg 1915–1918.] Ten thousand died from avalanches in the "lesser" ranges of the eastern half of the high front—the Carnic and Julian Alps. In the "high" Alps to the west, the Ortler and Adamello groups, the Dolomites, avalanches claimed 50,000 lives.

The winter of 1916/17 was the worst. It turned out to be one of the snowiest of the century. Between November 1916 and January 1917, a rain gauge located on today’s Italy–Slovenia border measured 56 inches  of precipitation, about 80 percent of the local mean annual total. After a dry February, an additional 22 inches fell between March and April 1917. [On average, the amount of snow is ten times the amount of rainfall, that is, one inch of rain is equivalent to ten inches of snowfall.]

Reports by contemporaries suggest that, for most of the mountainous front line between Stelvio and Mount Krn, the shovel was the most important tool for soldiers and civilians alike. Avalanches came down almost daily, causing new casualties again and again. On the front line, tunnels were dug in the snow to reach the foremost positions.

However, there was one particular day that tragically entered the history books—13 December 1916. On this day, following a week of abundant snowfall, advection of a warm and humid air mass from the Mediterranean brought intense precipitation and a rise of snow level, causing countless avalanches across the region. The number of human casualties was unprecedented for this kind of natural event. An accurate overall death toll is impossible to provide, but estimates of 10,000 by some sources are certainly too high.The largest single incident took place on the highest mountain of the Dolomites (Mount Marmolada, 3,343 m) at Gran Poz (2,242  m), where between 270 and 332 men died.

To put these casualties in perspective, a total of 25,000 troops were killed by poison gas on this war's Western Front in Belgium and France. Gas killed an additional 7,000 men on the Austro-Italian front, the greater part on the plains and plateaus along the Isonzo and Piave rivers. [Gas is not very effective in the cold windy atmosphere of mountains.]

Also, see our earlier article The Nightmare of Alpine Warfare: Avalanches!

Sources: European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts; Smithsonian

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Lahore Division at the Second Battle of Ypres

Newly Arrived on the Western Front, Fall 1914

The contribution of the Indian troops in the Western Front, though largely underplayed by their British commanders, was hugely crucial. They filled the gaps–gaps that could have potentially allowed a German breakthrough. Their timely arrival during the 1914 Race to the Sea is probably the Indian Army's best-known contribution to the Allied effort on the Western Front.  However, it also played an important role in stymieing the German attacks during the Second Battle of Ypres.

On 23 April, the 1st Army (to which the Indian Corps belonged) was given the order that the Lahore Division had to get ready to move shortly. The division marched north the next day. In the morning of 25 April, the column arrived in Ouderdom, a hamlet between Reningelst and Vlamertinge. The men were exhausted on arrival in Ouderdom. They had marched for 24 hours in a sometimes hilly landscape along cobbled roads, slippery from the rain. They were only given a short break in Boeschepe on the French-Belgian border.

The Lahore Division now came under the command of the British Second Army of Smith-Dorrien. The warning was issued to the Indian troops that when gas was used, they had to place a handkerchief or a flannel over their mouths. It was recommended to soak the handkerchief in urine.

En Route to Flanders, 1915

After the gas offensive, the Germans had gained much ground in the region of Langemarck and Sint-Juliaan. The British now wanted to launch a counter attack on the Germans with the French and drive them away from their new positions. In the morning of 26 April, the Lahore Division rallied between Wieltje to the right and the Ypres-Langemarck road to the left, some 600 metres north of the La Brique hamlet. The Ferozepore Brigade had reached its position via Vlamertinge, but the Jullundur Brigade had moved to its rallying point on the road outside the Ypres ramparts. There they came under heavy fire. Most shells fell in the water of the moat or struck the thick walls. The men cheered from time to time as a shell fell in the water, but one heavy shell landed in the middle of a company of the 40th Pathans, with 23 casualties as a consequence. As soon as the division set up in the fields near the Wieltje hamlet, it was showered with tear gas shells. German airplanes carried out observation flights over the heads of the Indian troops, but nothing was done against it. On the other side of the Ypres-Langemarck road the French deployed their North African troops, and the British 5th Army Corps was positioned to the right of the Indians. The Ferozepore Brigade was deployed left and the Jullundur Brigade right. The Sirhind Brigade was in reserve in Sint-Jan. The headquarters of the division was located in Potijze.

After a prior shelling of barely 40 minutes, the sign for the attack was given in the afternoon of 26 April at five past two. Two officers per unit were sent ahead to explore the field, but none of them had returned. There was no information about the exact location of the German trenches or their distance. The men of the Lahore Division were exhausted after the long march, and their position was located by the enemy, as the Germans could observe undisturbed. Furthermore, the troops first had to cross open ground for a few hundred meters, up to more than a kilometer before reaching the first German line and proceed with the actual offensive. The surface relief was not favorable either as the soil first rose over a few hundred meters, then dropped over a few hundred meters and finally rose again toward the German front line. 

The British-Indian artillery was light and ineffective—it did not know the exact position of the Germans either. Once outside the trenches, any sense of direction was soon lost and the various attacking units, French, French colonial troops, British and Indians, ended up mixed together. After the first slope they found themselves in an inferno of gun fire, machine gun fire and shells, including tear gas shells. The men fell like flies, and soon the offensive was stopped. No reinforcements arrived.

The number of casualties was extremely high. The 47th Sikhs that attacked in the first line lost 348 out of 444 men or 78 percent of the regiment. In total the offensive claimed almost 2,000 casualties in the two brigades. Following this offensive corporal Issy Smith of the 1st Manchesters, which was part of the Jullundur Brigade, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Despite the constant heavy fire he had incessantly evacuated the wounded. Mula Singh and Rur Singh of the 47th Sikhs also managed to save many wounded. Bhan Singh, a Sikh of the 57th Wilde's Rifles, had been injured in the face early on in the offensive. He nevertheless stayed close to his officer, Captain Banks. When Banks fell, Bhan Singh thought of only one thing: bringing him back, dead or alive. As weak as he was, he stumbled under heavy fire, carrying Banks' body until he fell down exhausted and had to give up. Still, he did not return before first saving Banks' personal belongings

Click on Map to Enlarge

None of the attacking troops managed to reach the first enemy line. Each attempt to consolidate the positions failed when the Germans opened the gas bottles again around 2:30 p.m. When the gas reached the Indian troops, the soil was almost instantly covered with men being tortured in the most atrocious manner. Although all the attackers had to endure the effects of the gas, the Ferozepore Brigade and the French to their left were hit the hardest. They retreated amidst great confusion, while the dead and the dying were left behind in no-man's-land. A small group led by Major Deacon still managed to ward off a German attack and withstand in no-man's-land. Jemadar Mir Dast of the 55th Coke's Rifles, attached to the 57th Wilde's Rifles stayed in no-man's-land after all his officers were killed or wounded. He rallied all the men he could find including quite a few who were lightly gassed, and stood his ground with them until dawn. He only retreated then and brought many wounded soldiers with him. He also helped other injured Indians and British, although he was wounded himself. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. 

The smell of chlorine gas lingered all night. It was late in the night until what remained of Major Deacon's group could be rescued. The Ferozepore Brigade and the Jullundur Brigade were pulled back to Brieke, while the Sirhind Brigade replaced it in the first line. Men of the 34th Sikh Pioneers tried to reinforce the precarious position where Major Deacon managed to stand his ground. Two members of that unit, the sappers Jai Singh and Gujar Singh, were later awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal because they had restored the lines of communication under constant fire.

The action was repeated again and again over the next three days but always unsuccessfully for the North Africans, British, and Indians. The Germans resorted to their cannisters over the next days too. Shortly after 1 p.m. on 27 April, the French Colonial Troops, the Sirhind Brigade and the Ferozepore Brigade attacked again, this time with the support of the Canadian artillery. The two Gurkha battalions, the 4th London Regiment and the 9th Bhopal Infantry, led the attack and therefore suffered most. When they noticed that the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was untouched, the action was abandoned.

In the night of 29 to 30 April 1915 the Jullundur and the Ferozepore Brigade pulled back to their quarters near Ouderdom. Because they regularly came under fire there too, the men stayed outside instead of sheltering in their tents. A shelling early in the morning of 1 May made the pack animals of the 47th Sikhs bolt. Finally, after a last desperate attempt to reach the enemy lines, the Sirhind Brigade was withdrawn from battle too. On 2 May it joined the rest of the division in Ouderdom. The division started the return march to the rest of the Indian Corps near Neuve-Chapelle the next day. The Lahore Division had lost 3,889 men from 24 April to 1 May or approximately 30 percent of the men deployed.

Indian Troops, Ypres Salient, 1915

This was to be the last time that the Indian troops were massively deployed in the Ypres Salient. After May 1915, the Indian Corps became active near Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos. After the Battle of Loos, in late September 1915 the Indian Corps was transferred to Mesopotamia. In fourteen months it had lost 34,252 men, including 12,807 from the British units of the corps and 21,445 from the Indian battalions. 

After the departure of the Indian Corps in 1915, the Indians were no longer present in medium numbers on the western front. That does not mean to say that Indian units were no longer present, on the contrary. In Flanders too, Indians could still be seen from time to time until the end of the war. In Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery near Poperinghe a Sikh is remembered, a cavalryman who fell on 2 November 1917, and a Hindu who belonged to the Royal Field Artillery who fell on 12 October 1918.

Units of the Indian Labour Corps were also active in Flanders at the end of the war and in the first postwar years. Their arrival was welcomed by the local population. 

Source: The Indian Army in the Ypres Salient (1914-1918); Indian Embassy, Brussels

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Recommended: The War Service of A.P. Herbert, Author of the Classic The Secret Battle

Lt. A.P. Herbert

Originally presented in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War

Alan Patrick Herbert (1890–1971), only months after his successful Finals in Oxford, was staying with his friend "Cherry" Newbolt at the beginning of August 1914. He was playing a game of bowls with Cherry’s father, Sir Henry Newbolt (the Newbolt of “But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks/ ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’). Sir Henry was called to the telephone. When he came back to the lawn, he remarked, conversationally, “Germany has declared war on France” and then called to Herbert “Your turn, I think” (Pound, 37).

On 5 September 1914, Herbert went down to Lambeth Pier and enlisted as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He wanted to avoid the accusation that, as an Oxford toff, he would immediately take a commission and “be all right” (Pound, 40); he also thought that he might have a chance to meet up with his brother Sidney, who was training as a submarine officer.

Twenty years later, he addressed the Oxford University Conservative Association:

I am one of the too-fortunate survivors of that lost generation of 1914, who suffered our Schools [Oxford Finals] in June of that year, and heard our fate in July. For a week or two of that brilliant summer we strutted the world, boasting about our degrees or explaining them away, and in either case considering ourselves lords of life—and then in August, or maybe September, discovered ourselves, with some astonishment, recruits or combatants in a war that was to save civilisation and be the last war of all. Yes, though we were thrilled by the bugles and the drums, and though we delighted in our flags and uniforms, we did believe that (quoted Pound, 40).

Herbert went to Oxford in the autumn, in the uniform of an Able Seaman, to take the written examination for the All Souls Prize Fellowship: he did it as a joke, it seems, for all his answers were written in the light verse for which he was already renowned. He married on New Years’ Eve 1914, to a woman called Gwendolyn Harriet Quilter: “In World War One her initials G.H.Q [General Head-Quarters] on the railway luggage rack would attract respectful attention” (A.P.H., 19). Three months later he became a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was posted to Hawke Battalion in camp at Blandford in Dorset: together with Rupert Brooke, and the sons of the prime minister and of Lord Rothermere.

The Royal Naval Division Rehearsing for Gallipoli

Herbert and his battalion arrived in the Bay of Mudros, off Gallipoli, on 17 May 1915. He was in charge of a platoon of Tynesiders whom he could not understand and two men from a remote Durham mining village whom not even the Tynesiders could understand.

Herbert suffered from hay-fever all through school, and:

Hay-fever was an extra misery on the Gallipoli Peninsula in War One. On either side of the communication trenches the poppy and the cornflower flourished, and I used to sneeze all the way to the frontline and back. I was Battalion Scout Officer. One night the Staff desired some particular piece of reconnaissance in No Man’s Land, and I was detailed. I was a fool, I suppose, and afterwards I blamed myself severely. I should have said: “I’m sorry, I have hay-fever.” But how would this have been received by the Staff, by my Colonel? To the rest of the world hay-fever is a joke. So, on a quiet night, with two of my scouts I crawled forth. All went well of some way. There were no flowers in No Man’s Land, but suddenly I sneezed: the Turks opened rapid fire, and one of my scouts was hit. He was hit in the femoral artery. I remember terribly how the other scout and I dragged the poor fellow back through the hole in the wire into the front trench. He died later. I ceased to be Scout Officer: and hay-fever is no joke to me (A.P.H., 3).

It was the only event from 1914-1918 that Herbert remembered or wanted to write about when he came to write [his memoir] A.P.H., at the age of almost 80.  Otherwise, little is known of his time at Gallipoli: except that he did meet his brother Sidney” “I took him up to the front line (in his whites, provoking the Turkish snipers)” (quoted Pound 46). On 30 July Herbert developed a high temperature, and he was invalided home with violent enteritis.

Royal Naval Division Memorial Near Gaverelle, Site of
Herbert's 1917 Wounding

Later that summer Herbert rejoined Hawke Battalion; but they were at Abbeville in France by then. He found that they were being treated almost as if they were Army, rather than Naval Division. There was a row about the wearing of beards, for instance. Herbert became assistant-adjutant of the Battalion, in charge of the battalion’s correspondence, which he conducted “from this vantage point of mingled authority and irresponsibility” (quoted Pound 52).

In July 1916, the Royal Naval Division moved into the front line, near Vimy Ridge. In November it attacked at Beaucourt: 20 officers and 415 other ranks attacked; fewer than 20 mustered after the attack, and Herbert was one of the two officers who were still standing. After this attack, a sub-lieutenant in Nelson Battalion was court-martialed and executed for cowardice: quite possibly the event that triggered Herbert’s The Secret Battle.

By 1917, the Naval Division had been integrated into the Army as the 63rd (RN) Division. On 23 April, Shakespeare’s Day, in 1917 Hawke Battalion attacked Gaverelle, west of Arras, and Herbert was wounded. Jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were embedded in his left buttock; he credited the brandy from the hip flask as having sterilised the wound.

Herbert was sent home to recover. While he was convalescing he wrote The Secret Battle, the powerful story of a soldier’s nervous breakdown at Gallipoli, and his subsequent execution for cowardice. It was published in 1919, and received great acclaim. Field Marshal Lord Montgomery called it “the best story of front-line war I have read”, and Winston Churchill wrote a reverent introduction to the 1971 edition. It began Herbert’s writing career, but also began his career as a campaigner for legal reform; it was credited with influencing improvements in the court-martial procedures.

On 2 October 1918 he sailed out of Liverpool bound for Alexandria: his job as “assistant to Commodore.” They reached Port Said, and then sailed westward along the North African coast. Although when in Gallipoli he was excited by the fact that he was near the Plain of Troy, the sights of North Africa seem to left him rather cold. Algiers was “rather like a clean edition of Hastings” (Pound 59). He was in Algeria, visiting Tlemcen, when he heard the news of the Armistice. From there he came to Gibraltar, and took the train north to Seville and Madrid, and thence home.

Honored as an Author on a Cigarette Card

[Editor's addition] Sir Alan Patrick Herbert CH (A. P. Herbert, 24 September 1890–11 November 1971), was an English humorist, novelist, playwright, law reformist, and in 1935–1950 an independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University. After the war he was accepted to the bar but would never fully practice as a lawyer. He published The Secret Battle and a collection of his war poems. In 1924 Herbert joined the staff of Punch, to which he had contributed since 1910. To make ends meet, he pursued a parallel literary career writing eight novels and numerous articles, plays, and operas, many of a humorous bent. He found time to play a highly active role in Parliament. As an MP he campaigned for private-member rights, piloted the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 through Parliament, opposed Entertainments Duty, and in 1943, joined a parliamentary commission on the future of the Dominion of Newfoundland. He died on Armistice Day 1971.  The Times accompanied its obituary notice with a leading article, saying he had done "more than any man of his day to add to the gaiety of the nation."

Sources:  Reginald Pound’s A.P. Herbert: A Biography; A.P.H.: His Life and Times, as by Sir Alan Herbert, C.H.; Wikipedia

Monday, September 26, 2022

Wheat Was Behind the Dardanelles!

Statesmen of the War Depicts Many British Leaders Involved in the Dardanelles Decision Including, Asquith, Balfour, Lloyd George, and Churchill (Kitchener Not Shown)

Although not the only factor, wheat was apparently a major consideration for British war leaders in 1915. Wandering around the internet looking for fresh material, I sometimes come up with some little or never (by me) known aspect of the Great War that punches me right in the nose. Here's a factoid I never considered, according to author and historian Nicholas Lambert and reviewer of  Lambert's newest work, The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalized Trade Led Britain to Its Worst Defeat of the First World War, Pentagon official Thomas Hone, the whole Dardanlles fiasco was about wheat.  From his review:

Lambert shows [in his book] how economic and social factors rooted in Britain’s global trade network shaped the decision by the British War Council (the “War Lords” of the title) to order British (joining with French) naval and land forces to capture the Dardanelles in 1915.  Lambert has read the military histories of the Gallipoli campaign, but his research shows that comprehending why that campaign occurred—and occurred the way it did—requires an understanding of the role of wheat in Britain’s war strategy. 

Wheat? Why did wheat—specifically, Russian wheat—play an important role in the decision to attack the Turkish defenses of the Dardanelles? Lambert answers that question by first noting that the major belligerents assumed that the war would not last long. “Home by Christmas” may have been a wish that the troops on both sides voiced in 1914, but the leaders of the warring states hoped for it as well. Great Britain, for example, did not have a process in place to guarantee that British bakers would continue to have flour on hand to make affordable bread for Britain’s population if the fighting continued into 1915. British political leaders assumed that the commerce of wheat production and distribution, coupled with the commerce of open-market bread production and sales, would feed Britain’s millions adequately. They also assumed that the tsar’s regime could supply the Russian armies with sufficient ammunition. Both assumptions turned out to be wrong, and Lambert deftly explains why.

At Gully Ravine, Helles Sector

The heart of Britain’s problem was the insistence of Sir John D. P. French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, that a stalemate did not exist on the western front. French argued that, with more troops and artillery, his force could crack the German trench line in 1915, and Herbert H. Asquith, the prime minister, “could not and did not take the political risk of ignoring the professional opinion of the senior field commander” (p. 264). However, if French had it wrong—as indeed he did—then the war could drag on; and if it did, the Asquith cabinet—and not just the War Lords—had to do its best both to gain a victory and to not destroy the British economy in the process.

French’s was not the only military proposal on the table as the War Lords met at the beginning of 1915 to consider Britain’s next move in the war. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, pressed his colleagues to adopt a plan to seize the Dardanelles. His argument was that doing so would not prevent the British forces in Flanders from making a major attack on the German lines in 1915. Moreover, opening the Dardanelles would knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war—thereby allowing Russian wheat to flow into world markets, preventing a price surge that Britain ill could afford.

Lone Pine Cemetery and Memorial, Anzac Sector

Lambert makes a strong case that the War Lords went along with Churchill “primarily for political, not military, reasons.” Britain needed a victory to justify war losses already sustained; Russia needed to export its wheat so it could buy needed ammunition; British workers needed the wheat to live; and Britain needed to keep Russia in the war. Lambert observes that “[for] the most important decision-maker—the prime minister—the weight of the evidence indicates clearly that the wheat issue was paramount in his mind” (p. 267). But [wheat] did not retain that [paramount] position for Asquith. By late March 1915, after initial attempts by British and French warships to force their way through the straits had failed, Asquith and his colleagues faced a choice: back down and call off the attacks on the Turkish defenses or press on with a major amphibious assault? They chose the latter—and lived to regret it.

Source:  “NEITHER KNAVES NOR FOOLS” Thomas C. Hone review of The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster: How Globalized Trade Led Britain to Its Worst Defeat of the First World War, U.S. Naval War College Review, Winter 2022 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Kipling at His Most Jingoistic

Frankly, this surprised me a bit.  I'd never seen anything so over the top from Kipling before.  MH

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Victory Arch at Waterloo Station Was Rededicated in 2022

Rededication Ceremony

A century ago, not even four years after the Great War ended, London's Waterloo station’s Victory Arch was opened to pay tribute to the railway colleagues who fought and died for their country. The ceremony, led by Queen Mary—Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother—also marked the end of a long, 20-year rebuilding of the station by the London and South Western Railway, leaving the station with much the same layout as it is today. Waterloo became Britain’s largest and busiest station. 

Full Entrance and Arch (Pre-Restoration)

On Monday 21 March 2022, the arch was rededicated by the Reverend Christopher Henley, Railway Chaplain, supported by a host of senior colleagues from the London and South Western Railway’s successors at Network Rail and South Western Railway, along with those from the Railway Heritage Trust, British Transport Police and the armed forces. 

Detail: Goddess of War

The memorial was originally dedicated to to the 585 men of the London and South Western Railway who died during the First World War. The exterior of the arch, sculpted by Charles Whiffen, comprises, on the left, a representation of Bellona, the goddess of war, and, on the right, Peace. Around the arch are seven shields that show the theatres of war in which the men died—Belgium, Italy, Dardanelles, France, Mesopotamia, Egypt and North Sea. Beneath, the arch is "Dedicated to the Employees of the Company Who Fell in the War." Inside the arch are four bronze panels that list the names of the fallen. Inside the arch are panels listing the railroad's fallen of both World Wars. The memorial was revealed when the new station was opened by Queen Mary on 21 March 1922.

Detail: Peace

Waterloo Station was concluding a long-term reconstruction at the end of the Great War. As the station rebuild was drawing to a close, the LSWR commissioned the Victory Arch  and as a memorial to their staff that died in the First World War. The arch was designed by J R Scott, their chief architect.

Detail: Victory

Sources: Company Insight; London Remembers; RailUK

Friday, September 23, 2022

Our Contributing Editor David Beer's War Poets and Their Poems Series—A Roads Collection

From the Editor:  This is a representative listing, not inclusive of all the articles David Beer has presented on war poetry in Roads to the Great War. MH

About Our Contributor:

David Is Also a Piper

David F. Beer, PhD, is a retired English professor from the University of Texas. He is an expert on all aspects of the literary side of the Great War and has contributed to all my publications over the years and is now a Contributing Editor of Roads to the Great War.  In the introduction for an article on four neglected war poets he wrote for my old magazine, Over the Top, David explained his interest in the poetry of the Great War. 

Does anyone still read poetry? I received my PhD in English literature in 1972, having spent a year writing a dissertation on a 17th-century poet (Robert Herrick). From then on, the only poetry I read was in preparation for teaching “Intro to Lit” classes. The modern stuff appearing in the likes of the New Yorker or the Times Literary Supplement was beyond me and still is. But some 20 years ago, as my interest in the First World War developed, I discovered a huge collection of poetry that I could understand, appreciate, and be moved by. It all started by reading Owen's “Strange Meeting,” but that's another story. What I had stumbled upon was an astonishing body of thousands of poems written and published during and after the Great War.

But why bother to read war poetry? The innumerable political, social, tactical, and strategic aspects of the war make for fine and valuable study, yet if we want to enter the minds, hearts, and passions of those who were there, it's not through the causes, events, and outcomes of the war that we must travel but through the memoirs, diaries, and poetry that came from those living through the catastrophe.  DB


CRW Nevinson’s Tommies

Lt. Rupert Brooke, Royal Naval Division
(Possibly in Cadet Uniform Before Commissioning)


Robert Service on Duty in France


A Reminder: To search our archives for other articles on this topic, or to explore other World War One interests of yours, take advantage of the site search engine at the top left corner of every page on Roads to the Great War.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Diggers (Aussies) Discover Trench Raiding Western Front Style

For Christ’s sake write a book on the life of an infantryman, and by so doing you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.

Corporal A. G. Thomas, 6th Battalion, Letter, under fire at Pozières, 25 July 1916

The Men Who Carried Out the First Australian Trench Raid on the Western Front (Click to Enlarge)

Trench raiding had been largely abandoned at Gallipoli after early June 1915, when the staff decided that they lost much and gained little. Both both sides preferred to fight the war underground, by mining. When the Diggers arrived on the Western Front, however, they learned both tactics were pushed by the high commands. Raids in France and Flanders were vicious and bloody affairs. Later they became the least popular infantry tactic: within a few months of this time men were writing: 

They are not worth the cost. . . None of the survivors want to go in any more. Mac’s nerves are very jumpy now, and many of the others are the same’,  and ‘my word it was hot. My mate was killed alongside me . . . the bulletts were like hailstones. No more raids for me if I can help it. 

But during the first half of 1916, the Australians were fresh, confident, and eager to match themselves against the Hun. The enemy raided first, on the night of 5 May 1916, against a sector held by the 20th Battalion. They laid down

a shocking bombardment, hell let loose . . . it seemed as though every gun the enemy possessed was ranged against us & then when our artillery got going behind us, it was God darn awful,& . . . the Germans set up a cheering & shouting, the like, I have never heard before & simultaneously charged us in mass formation . . . they reached our left flank & got in amongst our fellows. It was fearful yet awe-inspiring, for the first few minutes I felt sick, then as steady as a rock, I was right in the line of fire & the shells came straight for my bay . . . some fellows nerves gave way & they became gibbering idiotes Seargeants & all sorts, god it was little wonder for .. . fighting here is just simply massacre.

Post Raid Australian Troops

The raiders inflicted 131 casualties, and apparently suffered none.  Worse, they captured two Stokes mortars, then so secret that Haig had ordered that they never be left in the front line. Their loss embarrassed the AIF along the entire British battle front, and made the Australians eager for revenge. A month after the  calamity a 27th Battalion NCO related,

I was going to England on my leave on June the second. But I volunteered to go on a raiding party & l have been picked & I wouldn’t miss that for anything. We are going to go into the German Trenches & suprise them or else bomb them out. It will be a fairly risky job but I think we can carry it out alright. . . The Germans made a raid on our Trenches down at the 20th Batt. & killed or wounded a hundred men. so l may assure we won’t take no prisoners.

This first Australian raid, on the night of 5/6 June, succeeded.  Seventy-three AIF soldiers took part. (Photo top of page.)  Its purpose was to obtain prisoners, intelligence, and weapons. Two Australians were killed and another four wounded while they were returning to Australian trenches. The soldiers were given eight days leave in London where they were feted by the press who labelled them the Black Anzacs because they had blackened their faces with burnt cork for the raid.

Soon the Australians, never lacking volunteers, were raiding almost nightly, agitating every quiet sector they held, and winning an ascendancy over the enemy which they retained for most of the war.

Usually, when a raid was decided upon, a raiding team would be selected, withdrawn from the line, and trained against a model of its objective:

Each man in the raiding party had a certain job to do [for examples, demolition, collecting booty, taking prisoners, killing, building defensive barriers, and looking for mine galleries] . . . and he had to be a specialist in [it] . . . We were trained . . . for three weeks just like a football team.

We don’t take a single thing with us to show who we are if Fritz gets our bodies. We wear Tommy uniforms . . . Only about 4 men out of the 66 carry rifles and bayonets . . . The rest carry weapons according to their job.

Australian Trench Raider

When all was ready, an artillery barrage saturated the objective, and the raiders struck:

when we did our dash all went like clockwork except one thing, and that mistake proved very costly to us . . . the artillery had been firing just too far, and nearly all their shells had landed in Fritz’s front trench instead of in his wire (which was uncut). I don’t know how we did it, but we got through into the German trench and did our job in full. A piece of shrapnel got me through the left thigh . . . one of our chaps . . . managed to get me out to a drain about the centre of No Mans Land. It was impossible to get back to our own trenches until Fritz’s bombardment lifted . . . [and] The beggars . . . started spraying with machine guns and shrapnel. . . We had to lie there for an hour and three quarters before their guns lifted off our trenches . . . my leg was quite stiff by this time . . . and as they were still playing the search lights and machine guns all over us, our only way out was along the drain . . . I hung on to [a fellow’s] braces and tried to keep my face up out of the mud as he dragged me through . . . [At] the end of the drain a big sergeant of ours was waiting . . . he picked me up and carried me right across to our trenches with the bullets snapping all around . . . he brought in four more.

German Dead from a Successful Allied Raid

It is not surprising that raids became unpopular, for few succeeded faultlessly. When they did succeed, men often enjoyed them  In the last year of the war, when the tactics of raids had improved a little,. . . Australians became notablly proficient raiders.

Sources: The Australian Army Museum of Western Australia; The Broken Years: Australlian Soldiers in the Great War; Australian National University Press, 1974

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Remembering Father Francis Duffy–A Roads Classic

At Times Square New York

Father Francis Duffy was the chaplain of New York's 69th Infantry, which fought in France as the 165th Infantry, a component of the 42nd Division. His gentle humanity and courage under fire, known to the men and officers of the regiment, became generally known around New York when the troops returned home. After his death he was honored with the monument in Times Square shown above. In his book, Duffy's War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War (Potomac Books, Inc., 2006), author Stephen Harris gathered some of the best memories of those who knew Father Duffy. As you read these selections from Steve's book, concluding with some of Father Duffy's own words, you will understand why he earned the respect of everyone whose life he touched and why the values he embodied still matter to us today.

On the Battlefield, Nearing Exhaustion

[AT THE OPENING OF THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE MARNE,] realizing his place was at the front line comforting his men, Duffy stayed throughout the worst of the shelling and the harrowing hand-to-hand combat. Maj. Tom Reilley saw the chaplain constantly exposed to enemy fire as he tended the wounded and carried them on stretchers to the nearest dressing stations. ''His religion consisted of a cheery word, a smile, and a slap on the back,'' Reilley recalled. ''He made himself dear to many a doughboy by handing out cigarettes just at the right time."

Cpl. Martin Hogan observed, "One look into Father Duffy's face was good for jaded nerves; for his face radiated a cheerful calm which made the hell around us seem unreal. He might just as well have been walking down the silent aisle of some majestic cathedral for all his face told of heeding danger or of wrought-up nerves. He spoke little personal things to each of the men; it was as though his thoughts were not on the battle, as though no battle were going on.''

Coming Home: Father Duffy on the Right, with Colonel William Donavan

[AT THE BATTLE OF THE OURCQ A NEW YORK TIMES CORRESPONDENT] described Duffy as ''coat-less, covered with the thick of fighting, cheering on the living, administering the last the dying, filling the place of a stretcher bearer who had been struck down by a bullet...For 117 hours he was under fire without rest..." [ONE] of his sayings, according to the correspondent, was "Give 'em hell!" But while the battle raged on, the priest had been seen weeping.

When the fight was at its worst, [MAJOR ALEXANDER] Anderson asked the chaplain if he wanted some grenades. The priest said, "No. Every man to his trade. I stick to mine."

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The East Africa Campaign 1914-1918

By David Smith
Osprey Publishing, 2022
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

The German East African theater of the First World War has a nearly legendary aura. Unlike the horrendous slaughter and stalemate of the Western Front, this series of campaigns involved smaller forces in wide-ranging maneuvers. A massively outnumbered and outgunned German colonial force successfully outperformed Entente (later Allied) armies for years - indeed, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s units survived the defeat of the German Reich they fought for.

This unusual story is well served by David Smith’s 
The East Africa Campaign 1914-1918. Smith begins briskly, with a short sketch of the political and military situation facing Germany’s East African colonial leadership in 1914. Governor Schnee desired peace and sought neutrality, but his military opposite number, von Lettow-Vorbeck, prepared for a war he deemed likely. His strategy was neither to conquer other African colonies, since the odds were poor (the Germans fielded only 15,000 troops at a maximum (38)). Instead, he would prove to be an annoyance to Britain and other colonial powers in the region, tying down forces and resources that would otherwise have appeared in France. 

A British Force Crossing a River

Von Lettow-Vorbeck has several advantages. First, he relied extensively on local troops, while Entente powers sent in soldiers from other colonies (notably India) or Europe. The locals had the benefit of local knowledge and fighting for their land, but also greater immunity to the diseases which wracked foreigners. Second, several of the Entente commanders were slow to move or failed to take advantage of tactical opportunities, while the German lieutenant colonel acted and reacted swiftly, often changing tactics on the fly. Third, von Lettow-Vorbeck was willing to improvise, while his opponents preferred to work through extended supply systems. At one point his units salvaged naval cannons from a defeated light cruiser and hauled them around the interior to great effect. Fourth, the German force fought a guerilla war rather than a conventional one, which its enemies had a difficult time grappling with.

The first major battle, the November 1914 Battle of Tanga (, showed these features. A sluggish British amphibious attack attempted to take a coastal town, but Germans dug in quickly, then drew in reinforcements at speed, while the British delayed and ultimately withdrew. von Lettow-Vorbeck had already raided British East Africa and would continue to do so, attacking the Uganda Railway in 1915. These raids served several purposes: surprising enemy commanders, degrading their forces, and obtaining supplies. The latter was key as German Africa, like the home nation, remained under British blockade.

Britain’s commitment expanded, as von Lettow-Vorbeck had hoped, building up larger and larger armies while adding to them a major South African force. The Germans, outnumbered four to one, drove off an initial South African attack at Salaita Hill in 1916 ( Other colonial powers entered the conflict, like Belgium and Portugal, motivated in part by the desire to win parts of the German empire. Overwhelming force and some shows of military competence gradually won the Entente German East African lands. By 1917 the colony was lost.

Yet von Lettow-Vorbeck kept forces in the field, forcing his opponents to remain fighting. After the 1917 Battle of Mahiwa (, which the Germans won, but suffered high numbers of casualties, the now General reduced his army to merely 2,000 effectives in order to require fewer resources and to increase mobility. They then withdrew from the occupied colonial territory and invaded Portugal’s, quickly winning one battle at Negemano ( and grabbing there enough material to keep going for another year. The German force - where Europeans and Africans were intermixed, including black officers giving orders to white soldiers - raced north to invade yet another colony, Rhodesia. That ragged, small, and effective army outlasted its Kaiser. In November 1918 word of the armistice reached central Africa and the Germans eventually surrendered “a force still maintaining itself proudly and victoriously in the field.” (90)

Soldiers of the German Colonial Forces, 1914

This Osprey book is a pleasure to read. Smith's style is clear throughout, guiding us well through complexities. The volume is also lavishly designed. Copious illustrations show us photographs and paintings of key players, the appearance of different troops, terrain, battlefields, posters, ships, aircraft, and more. Large and detailed maps—far too often lacking from WWI books!—let the reader follow the action well, year by year and through many locations.

The East Africa Campaign 1914-1918 can be ordered online from the publisher's website HERE

Bryan Alexander