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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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

By David Brock Katz
Casemate Publishers, 2022
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

General Smuts on an Inspection Tour of the Western Front

Roads readers are familiar with the Western Front, maybe Gallipoli and the Russian or Italian Fronts, but few with the Great War in Southern Africa. General Jan Smuts and his First World War In Africa, 1914-1917 is an in-depth study of that theatre from the South African perspective. Author David Brock Katz has crafted a defense of Smuts against his critics, primarily those who disparage him as an amateur soldier, unqualified for his level of command, while telling the saga of the Great War in Southern Africa.

The scene is set historically and geographically. South Africa had emerged from its war between the Afrikaner Republics and the British as a country divided between empire loyalists and Boer nationalists. Its neighbors included German Southwest Africa, later Southwest Africa and now Namibia, and German East Africa, later Tanganyika, and now the mainland portion of Tanzania.

The central figure of this work, General Jan Smuts, was, like his mentor and superior Prime Minister Louis Botha, a multi-faceted man. A scholar in literature and science, placed by at least one commentator on a par with John Milton and Charles Darwin, a lawyer, a politician and a military leader, Smuts is one of the most impressive figures of both world wars. 

A fighter for the Afrikaner Republics during the South African War, Smuts, along with Botha, became political leaders who strove to unite Dutch and English settlers in a Dominion of the British Empire. A political and military leader, in the tradition of Napoleon, he balanced a vision of political expansionism with his public’s desire for low casualties. Though an Empire loyalist, Smuts remained a practitioner of the South African way of war. An advocate of maneuver rather than frontal attack, he lacked the will to annihilate his enemy but led his men to victory.

South African Troops in Action

Envisioning the expansion of South Africa to encompass Africa to the equator and the position of the dominant Dominion in a Cape-to-Cairo British domain, Smuts’ war aims meshed with those of his British colleagues. As rulers of the waves, Britannia sought to drive the German Navy from the South Atlantic by capturing the German Western African ports of Luderitzbucht and Walvis Bay and the destruction of the German wireless stations in those ports and Windhoek. While achieving those goals, Smuts led his South African forces to capture the whole territory. Success having been achieved in the West, Smuts and his forces turned to German East Africa which it conquered in joint actions with British and Belgian units.

With South Africa holding sway over much of the southern portion of the Continent, Smuts was dispatched to London to be part of the Imperial War Cabinet and to participate in the peace conference. Resisting offers of the Egyptian Command, deeming it a sideshow, and a secret mission to Russia, which he regarded as a spent force, Smuts played roles in the development of air power and the settling of Welsh strikes. In peace discussions, Smuts’s expansionist goals were thwarted but South Africa emerged as an enhanced Dominion, and his international reputation would carry him into prominence in the Second World War.

Smuts’ war was in a secondary theatre. Why should a Roads reader take the time to add this study to his Great War canon? I see several reasons. It is well written. Katz has skillfully woven cultural, political, and military themes into his account. The text is helpfully supplemented by maps, tables, photos, a bibliography, and cartoons. A student of military operations will appreciate the detail with which they are presented.

Smuts is depicted, in my view, as more of a Pershing, in his preference for movement, than a Haig, Nivelle or Smuts's British colleagues in South Africa in their practice of static warfare and direct attack. Smuts, the Afrikaner political leader, first had to draw public opinion into support for the war before marching onto Mars’s fields. One is reminded of Confederate heroes, Joseph Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, who re-donned the blue to rally Southern support for the Spanish American War. Katz illustrates that some warriors fought in a manner unlike the bloodbath of the Western Front. This book reminds us that the Great War was, after all, a world war that profoundly shaped world history beyond Europe and even the Middle East. It provides a perspective lacking in most Great War histories.

Jim Gallen

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Military Service in Two World Wars of Insulin's Co-Discoverer, Major Frederick Banting

Banting in World War I

By Stacey Devlin, Banting House

Although Frederick Banting is often remembered for his discovery of insulin, he is not as frequently acknowledged as a war hero.

Banting served in both the First and Second World Wars. Banting’s attempts to enlist during the First World War were rejected twice due to poor eyesight. However, as the war continued, the military was in desperate need of doctors, leading to Banting’s deployment to England and then to France as an orthopedic surgeon. During the Cambrai Offensive of September 1918, Banting was injured in the right arm by shrapnel. Rather than evacuating as ordered, he remained on the front lines (some reports say for 17 additional hours!) to help other soldiers. He referred to himself as “the luckiest boy in France” because the war was over by the time his arm had healed. He was awarded the Military Cross in February 1919. This is the second-highest honour awarded in the British Empire after the Victoria Cross.

Canadian with Dead German Gunner at Canal du Nord

Banting insisted on serving in the Second World War just as he had served in the First. He was promoted from Captain to the rank of Major. His knighthood transformed his official title to “Major Sir Frederick Banting, MC.” Because of his research, the Canadian government would not allow him to serve on the front lines. However, they urged him to continue his involvement with the National Research Council of Canada. He worked on such diverse projects as treatments for mustard gas, anti-gravity suits and oxygen masks, and biological and chemical warfare. Banting played his greatest WWII role in helping organize Canada's effort in researching the medical aspects of military aviation.

In February 1941, Banting was given the opportunity to return to England for three weeks. He was sent to review wartime medical research in England, with the possibility of bringing some of this research back to Canada for protection. At 8:30 p.m. on 20 February 1941, he left with a crew of three on Hudson Bomber Flight T-9449. Approximately half an hour later, the oil cooler failed, leading to the failure of both engines and the radio. Captain Mackey attempted to land the plane on Seven Mile Pond, Newfoundland (eventually renamed Banting Lake). The aircraft clipped the trees and was brought down only meters away from a potentially safe landing place. Two of the crew died upon impact; Banting and Mackey survived. Mackey left to get help. Wounded and delirious, Banting wandered away from the plane and died of exposure.

Banting in World War II

The bodies of the three passengers were recovered on 23 February. A funeral ceremony was held in Toronto on 4 March 1941, and Banting was buried in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Lady Banting was given the Memorial Cross on Major Sir Frederick Banting’s behalf.

Source: Banting House — Birthplace of Insulin

Sunday, January 29, 2023

When America's War with Germany and Austria-Hungary Officially Ended

Preliminary Congressional Report on the Proposed Resolution

On 2 July 1921, while visiting a friend's estate in Raritan, NJ, President Warren G. Harding signed into law the Knox-Porter Resolution officially concluding the United States’ involvement in the First World War. The bill had been derived from two separate resolutions drafted by Senator Philander Knox and Representative Stephen Porter, both Republicans from Pennsylvania. Congress had decided that the United States would not repeal the declaration of the state of war between the U.S. and the Imperial German Government signed on 6 April 1917 but simply declare the state of war to be at an end. Representative Ross Collins of Mississippi concluded that “with the exception of the United States of America, all the nations that were at war with the Central Powers are now at peace with them. This country alone remains in a state of war . . . the people in all parts of our Nation are hungry for actual peace.”

President Harding Signing the Resolution, 2 July 1921

The Knox-Porter Resolution also declared peace with the recently separated nations of Austria and Hungary. By declaring peace, the U.S. hoped to consolidate its power in the postwar world and play a prominent role in the treaty-making process. “We will ask only for a just, equitable, and honorable disarmament, no more, and will accept no less; as we will ask for only a just and honorable peace,” said Representative Robert Maloney of Massachusetts.

The resolution also guaranteed the rights and privileges of American citizens by protecting them from government seizures of property. During the war, the U.S. seized German property from American citizens through the office of the Alien Property Custodian. While the government retained this property, the resolution paved the way for trade resumption between the United States and previously hostile Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

Sources: Website of the U.S House of Representatives

Saturday, January 28, 2023

President Pershing? — A Roads Classic

World War I did not produce a military hero who became president, but it did launch at least one aspirant, Gen. John J. Pershing, supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing challenged a second soldier-candidate from an earlier war, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. Many believe Pershing's fear of Wood—an extremely political general—was his sole motive for mounting a campaign. However, the "Pershing for President" boom soon collapsed.

Not a Natural-Looking Politician:
With His Son Alongside, Pershing Manages to Appear Dour at an Event Honoring Him at His Hometown in January 1920

Attention focused on Pershing as a presidential possibility soon after the close of World War I. When he returned to the United States from Europe, welcoming crowds were enthusiastic. His reception in New York was like that of a returning hero as thousands lined Fifth Avenue to catch a glimpse of the most heroic figure of the war. Cautious by temperament, Pershing consulted friends, especially Charles Gates Dawes, about what course his future should take.

Dawes and another friend of both Dawes and Pershing, Mark Woods of Lincoln, began working to establish a "Pershing for President" boom in Nebraska. Like most professional soldiers, Pershing lacked a permanent residence, but he had lived in Lincoln from 1891 to 1895, and his family continued to live there. His backers faced a daunting task—building a statewide organization before the April 1920 presidential primary. Rival candidates Leonard Wood and Senator Hiram Johnson were far ahead.

General Leonard Wood
Pershing Came to Despise
His Former Booster
The strategy for capturing the 16 Nebraska votes at the Republican convention was to present Pershing as a favorite-son candidate and rely on voter loyalty to a fellow Nebraskan. A long campaign ended when Nebraska voters went to the polls to vote in the primaries on 20 April 1920. The final tally found Johnson the victor with 63,262 votes; Wood, 42,385; and Pershing, 27,669. Nebraska's favorite son carried only Lancaster County by the slim plurality of 35 percent and was second choice in another ten counties near Lancaster.

The draft Pershing longed for did not come. His name never appeared before the Republican convention, which nominated Warren G. Harding for president. Pershing did derive some satisfaction from the defeat of his rival general, Leonard Wood. A number of factors were responsible for Pershing's poor showing. Cautious and reserved by nature, he did little personal campaigning and was often indecisive at crucial moments. His localized campaign lacked the organization and financing necessary to upset rival candidates, who had entered the contest earlier and with more resources.

Pershing served as U.S. Army chief of staff from July 1921 to September 1924, when he retired from military service. He went on to additional distinguished service to the nation as the founding head of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He died in July 1948.

Source: The Nebraska Historical Society

Friday, January 27, 2023

A Forgotten Action in the Race to the Sea: The Battle for Messines Ridge

15 October – 2 November 1914 

Indian Troops Called In to Defend Messines Ridge

Immediately south of Ypres rises a five-mile-long spur that commands the open territory to both the west and east to a considerable distance. This ridge starts just at the point where the southern part of the salient's bulge emerges. Atop it sit three villages, St. Eloi, Wytschaete, and Messines. Messines Ridge, as it came to be known, would in 1917 be the site of one of the most spectacular events in military history. In October 1914, no one knew of this future fame, but the riders of General Edmund Allenby's recently created Cavalry Corps clearly saw that its possession was the key to the southern defenses of Ypres. At this point, the Race to the Sea melded into the series of actions later known as the First Battle of Ypres. The actions around Messines would overlap and impact nearly all the action to the north during the First Ypres.

By the 18th the partly dismounted Cavalry Corps flanked by two infantry divisions were positioned on the eastern slope of the ridge. However, the two cavalry divisions each contained only half the manpower of a British infantry division, while the accompanying Royal Horse Artillery was simply no match for the approaching German forces. Further, at this point neither BEF Commander Sir John French and his staff, nor sector coordinator Ferdinand Foch. had grasped the enemy's intentions and the massing of forces just over the horizon. Their orders for the day were for their small, under-gunned forces to advance east. For three days, the advance proceeded eastward of Messines and Ploegsteert Wood, involving only light skirmishing. The Germans were building up their manpower for the push to the channel, which would be launched on 29 October.

Over the next week, the sheer mass of the advancing German Sixth Army drove the cavalrymen back to Messines Ridge, where thinned-out units combined with French reinforcements and some newly arrived Indian Army battalions made a stand. At 0530 on 29 October the Germans opened a broad offensive from north of the Menin Road to Messines. The 1st Cavalry Division repulsed German attacks against the town of Messines, but further north on the ridge things were dire, despite French reinforcements sent by Foch. The next day the II Bavarian Corps renewed the attack on Messines in the evening and broke into the town at 0430 the following morning. In the local area, about 6,000 Germans were engaging less than 900 of the dismounted cavalrymen. After extensive house-to-house fighting the British troops withdrew. Reinforcements arrived around noon and tried to regain the town, but were unsuccessful. Farther north at Wytschaete, a similar pattern developed, with outnumbered British troops losing the attritional battle as both sides experienced heavy casualties.

London Scottish Territorials, Decimated at Messines, Withdrawing

Wytschcaete fell at 0245 on 31 September and attempts by French forces to regain it failed. With both key positions on Messines Ridge in enemy hands, the decision was made to withdraw Allied forces from the high ground. To safeguard their retirement, the British shelled Messines to prevent a close pursuit. The French 32nd Division passed through the exhausted retreating British and secured a defensible position west of Messines Ridge.

Things quieted down after 2 November all along the new front around the Ypres Salient. Except for a successful breakthrough at St. Eloi that was quickly halted, for the next week German efforts concentrated on artillery work to batter the town of Ypres and the field fortifications springing up around it. On 10 November, the German Army launched what turned out to be their last offensive action in the west in 1914. It did not provide pressure around the new line west of Messines, however. This position would remain stable until 7 June 1917 when Messines Ridge would be the site of the most spectacular demonstration of mine warfare in military history.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Weapons of War: The First French Tank—the Schneider CA-1

A Schneider on Display at the French Tank Memorial, Berry Au Bac

Perhaps the most recognizable tanks of the war were the British Mark-series tanks—the Schneider CA1 was France’s version of the tank. The Schneider’s main purpose was to create channels through no man’s land through which thousands of infantry troops would pour, towards German lines and into their trenches. To achieve this purpose, the Schneider had a peculiar boat-like prow. This pointed front served two purposes. The first was to push down and aside barbed wire obstacles that littered the battlefield so that the wire would be out of the way for dismounted infantry. It was also hoped that the prow shape would assist the Schneider in getting across trenches, as the front end tended to make contact with trench walls and get stuck. Built atop the double tractor design of California's Holt Tractor Company, the CA-1 was the first operational French tank and the second in the world after the British Mark-I.

Since the beginning of hostilities Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne was fascinated with the idea of armored transports that could bring infantry safely up to the enemy trenches. After observing frontline action the first weeks of the war, on the 25 August he declared in front of his staff and officers "Gentlemen, victory will be owned by the one of any belligerents that could place a 75mm gun on a car able to move on all terrains". He learned during the summer of 1915 that Eugene Brillié was already working on an armored prototype able to cross barbed wire, based on a Holt tractor. After gaining the approval of General Joffre for 400 orders, he gathered a small team in early February to produce the prototype of the CA-1 on the basis of the Schneider chassis, which was ready within two weeks. After relatively successful tests, Schneider began building the infrastructure for mass-producing the CA-1. This process was quite long. The first units were ready in September. At the same time Estienne was named at the head of the newly formed "Special Artillery" corp. The first unit was ready for combat in April 1917, in time for the Nivelle Offensive.

The strange tank's armament was irregularly placed. A single 75mm cannon was on the Schneider's right forward corner and had only a limited traverse. Its location inside the tank necessitated a very compact design, which resulted in a very short barrel. The short barrel length had an adverse effect on both projectile velocity and accuracy.

By period artillery standards, the Schneider had to be virtually on top of German lines before it could score chance hits at maximum range, a little over 2,000 meters or a bit above one mile. Aiming was coordinated by both the gunner and the driver, as the Schneider had to face enemy trenches at an oblique angle for the gun to face the right direction. In addition to the single 75 millimeter gun, two machine guns were mounted internally.

Amazingly, a crew of six were expected to fit inside the Schneider: two machine gunners, a driver/commander, a 75mm cannon gunner, a loader for the cannon, and one mechanic/machine gun loader. Ventilation in the terribly cramped space was achieved through ventilation slits in the roof, which were intended to suck hot air and shooting fumes outside the vehicle. Though significantly more capable than preceding tank designs, the Schneider CA-1 had several design flaws that hindered its usefulness. Externally carried fuel tanks were prone to catching fire when hit. Moreover, in order to increase range, additional fuel was sometimes carried inside and was very likely to explode if enemy artillery penetrated the Schneider's armor.

Schneider CA-1s Attacking at the Chemin des Dames, April 1917

The first batches of CA-1s were ready for action on 16 April 1917, just in time to be sent into action during the Nivelle Offensive at Berry-au-Bac. A hundred and thirty-two tanks, almost all models then available, were engaged. But the result was a disaster. Many found the rough terrain was too much for their tracks, and their forward rail acted to overhang the hull, prone to ditch itself in any solid obstacle. The engine was not powerful enough, and many broke down at the very beginning. The others advanced in broad daylight and the Germans deployed a lethal artillery barrage using field guns at short range in direct fire, firing on flat trajectories against tanks which were designed to only sustain machine gun and infantry fire. Eventually, the Germans learned to target the exposed forward gasoline reserve and many burst into flames, earning it the infamous nickname of "mobile crematoriums." A total of 57 CA-1s were lost that day. Forty-four broke down at the start and the remainder managed to reach their objectives, breaking through German first and second lines. However poor coordination meant that the infantry failed to support them and retreated. Only 56 survived. The entire, futile offensive, was a disaster and Nivelle was sacked. Later on, in 1918, available Schneider CAs were reorganized into 20 Artillerie Spéciale units and given to then-general Estienne. They participated in some minor offensives including the American capture of Cantigny.

Sources:; The National Interest

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Sir William T. Bridges, First Commander of the 1st Australian Division, KIA

Major General Bridges

By James Patton

William T. Bridges KCB CMG (1861–1915) was born at Greenock, Scotland, the son of a navy officer. As a boy it was intended that he become a midshipman, so he attended the Royal Naval School at New Cross, although for less than two years, because his family moved to Canada. Young William then spent three years at Trinity College at Port Hope, Ontario, before entering the newly created Royal Military College (RMCK) at Kingston, Ontario, as a member of its second class (he was Cadet No. 25). He failed to graduate because in 1879 the family moved again, this time to his mother’s family home in Moss Vale, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. However, upon payment of C$100 by the family, William was granted a Certificate of Military Qualifications from the RMCK, which enabled him to be hired as a civil engineer with the NSW Department of Roads and Bridges. 

He returned to military service in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery with the NSW Militia, and also in that year he married his wife, Edith (1862–1926). For the next few years he held various positions at the NSW School of Gunnery and then attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the Royal School of Gunnery at Shoeburyness, both in England, passing out everywhere with distinction. 

Bridges was one of four Australian officers seconded to the British army in South Africa in 1899.  He saw combat at Kimberley, Paardeberg, and Driefontein, but he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. 

In 1901 the Australian Army was formed and all of the militias were amalgamated into it. As a ranking officer in 1902, Bridges became the first chief of Australia’s general staff, and in 1909 he was Australia's first representative to the British General Staff in London. The next year he was tasked with founding Australia's first military college, at Duntroon in the recently designated capital territory. In 1914 he became the army’s inspector general.

At the beginning of the First World War, Bridges was picked by Lord Kitchener to organize the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for service in Europe and was promoted to major general. He traveled to Egypt with the first contingent of the AIF in October 1914. In November the Australian and New Zealand Corps (ANZAC) was created in Egypt under the command of the distinguished Englishman, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood GCB, GSI, GCMC, GCVO, CIE, DSO (1865–1951), and Bridges was given the command of the 1st Australian Division within ANZAC. 

Bridges started to record his experiences in a diary in early 1915. From this account, we can see the evolution of the planning for the Gallipoli campaign, including his meetings with senior commanders like Birdwood and General Sir Ian Hamilton GCB, GCMG, DSO, TD (1853–1947) as well as various Australian commanders such as then-Brigadier General Sir John Monash GCMG, KCB, VD (1865–1931), who would rise to prominence later.

Bridges's 1st Australian Division was the first ashore at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915, and very soon thereafter he argued for immediate evacuation, owing to what he saw as a hopeless situation, but he was overruled. He paid routine visits to the firing lines, showing blatant disregard for his own safety, and on 15 May a bullet severed his femoral artery. He died of sepsis three days later on board the hospital ship HMHS Gascon

Coincidently, three days after he died, his appointment as a Knight Commander of the Bath came through, thus he is known to posterity as Sir William Bridges. 

He was the first Australian officer—and the first cadet from the RMCK—to reach the rank of major general, the first of same to command a division, and the first of same to receive a knighthood. He was also the first (of two) Australian generals to be killed in action. 

The Interment of General Bridges, Duntoon

Bridges is one of only two Australians killed in action in the First World War to be interred in Australia—the other is the Unknown Soldier buried at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. After a state funeral held on 3 September 1915 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Bridges’s body was buried on the grounds of the Royal Military College at Duntroon. He is also commemorated on a memorial tablet at St. John the Baptist Church in Canberra, on the memorial arch at the RMCK and in the Canadian Book of Remembrance.

General Bridges’s favorite horse (he had three) was a “Waler” named “Sandy” and was the only Australian horse to be returned to Australia. 

One of his sons, William F. Bridges DSO (1890–1942), served with the 2nd Australian Division, rising to the rank of brigade major. After the war he resumed his work as a surveyor in Malaya, becoming the Surveyor General there in 1938. He was lost when his evacuation ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on 28 February 1942.

Source: Australian War Memorial

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Defiance! Withstanding the Kaiserschlacht

By C. H. F. Nichols
Pen & Sword Military, 2022
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

German Troops Advancing to Their Jump-Off Point

This British artillery officer’s memoir is a reprint of the original 1919 edition. The author, C. H. F. Nichols, was a lieutenant and captain in the 82nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA). His memoir covers the period from March 1918, after he returned to the brigade following his recovery from a wound suffered in 1917, to 4 November 1918. During this time, Nichols served mostly at brigade headquarters as a combination adjutant, signals officer, liaison officer, and transport officer

When Nichols published his memoirs in 1919, wartime censorship was still in effect. Consequently, the text contains “space holders” when referring to various British army units, such as “-------rd Brigade.” Much of the narrative consists of Nichols’s efforts to establish contact between battalion headquarters and its four batteries, and in arranging moves, quarters, and liaison for brigade headquarters. Nichols witnessed artillery barrages, gas attacks, aerial bombardment, and aerial combat. His narrative shows that, even late in the war, the Germans were by no means impotent, and they posed a significant threat even while retreating. His confusing, and often perilous, forays into the night to find a battery or an infantry unit headquarters highlight the difficulties of communications and liaison common to all armies of the Great War.

Amid these combat duties, Nichols relates items of human interest. For example, he records card games, a search for a major’s missing smoking pipe, and a frantic search for a missing much-loved dog. His interactions with fellow officers are often interesting or humorous. When discussing his sleeping arrangements with a snoring U.S. Army doctor assigned to his brigade, Nichols relates: “Down in that shaft, he must have introduced a new orgy of nasal sounds. It commenced with a gentle snuffling that rather resembled the rustling of the waters against the bows of a racing yacht, and then in smooth even stages crescendoed into one grand, triumphant blare” (p. 165). . .

British Prisoners Carrying Their Wounded

Nichols had great respect and admiration for the nameless colonel who commanded the brigade: “[T]here was no one like our colonel; and, in the serene atmosphere of his wise unquestioned leadership, petty bickerings, minor personal troubles, and a half-jesting, half-bitter railings against higher authority, had faded away” (p. 196). American readers will appreciate his account of his interactions with some Americans, probably from the 27th Division, during the assault on the St. Quentin Canal in September 1918.

When Nichols reports on his conversations with various officers and men, the dialog is recreated and therefore must be viewed as giving an overall impression rather than a strictly accurate account. There are no maps, and Nichols avoids discussion or analysis of the strategic situation on the Western Front; this is simply one officer’s memoir of his participation of the momentous events of 1918.

Defiance! is reminiscent of such American works as Toward the Flame (Hervey Allen, University of Nebraska Press, 2003 reprint) and Let’s Go! (Louis Felix Ranlett, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927). It is highly recommended to anyone interested in learning about the workings of an RFA battalion headquarters in World War I.

Peter L. Belmonte

Monday, January 23, 2023

A Visit to General Haig's Headquarters at Montreuil-sur-Mer

Guard Detail at G.H.Q.

It was at Montreuil-sur-Mer that Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Army on the Western Front, installed his General Headquarters (G.H.Q.) between March 1916 and April 1919. G.H.Q. moved to this quaint little town, set in a beautiful countryside,  because St. Omer, the old G.H.Q. location, was no longer suitable as the center for the vast operations pending, namely the forthcoming "Big Push" that would come to be known as the Battle of the Somme. 

Aerial View of the Town

Montreuil-sur-Mer is a commune with a nomal population of about 2,000 located in Pas-de-Calais, 24 miles south of Boulogne-sur-Mer, 135 miles north of Paris, and eight miles from the sea—hence the "Mer" in its name. Montreuil was one of the most pleasant and respectable places one could imagine in France before the war. From the 7th Century there had been strong religious associations for Montreuil, first a monastary, later a shrine and reports of miracles. By the 100 Years War it was heavily fortified and defended by ramparts which still stand today. During the 18th century, it was "discovered" by the aristocracy, who built a number of country retreats in and around the town.  Before the war, it also sheltered a small colony of artists in the summer, attracted by the wonderful panoramas from the ramparts. Montreuil was previously best known as the scene of much of the first part of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables. The author had once visited the town and it had left a pleasing impression.

Ancient Citadel of Montreuil

View from the Ramparts

However, in wartime Montreuil would prove to be the perfect headquarters for the British forces. For one thing, it was as close to London as you could be on the continent. From an unofficial history by one of the staff officers who served there:

Montreuil was chosen as G.H.Q. for a wide variety of reasons. It was on a main road from London to Paris—the two chief centers of the campaign—though not on a main railway line, which would have been an inconvenience. It was not an industrial town and so avoided the complications alike of noise and of a possibly troublesome civil population. It was from a telephone and motor transit point of view in a very central situation to serve the needs of a Force which was based on Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, and Havre, and had its front stretching from the Somme to beyond the Belgian frontier.

A great general, asked to define in a phrase what was wanted for a Headquarters, said "A central remoteness." It was urged that this seemed an oxymoron. "Well then, if you like, a remote centrality." The finality of that allowed no further argument. Montreuil provided both a central position and a position remote from the disturbances and distractions of traffic, of a large population, of gay social interests. The great Ecole Militaire offered accommodation for the principal offices. There was sufficient billeting accommodation in the town's houses and the neighbouring chateaux. . . [also] Had it not been for those Rampart walks, the toilsome life of G.H.Q. at Montreuil would have been hardly possible. The road from anywhere to anywhere, if time allowed, was by the Ramparts and most went by the Ramparts unless work was hideously pressing.

The Ecole Was the Main G.H.Q. Building

The Town Theater Was Used for Briefings and Meetings

By 1918, an estimated 1,700 soldiers were working within the town walls. Between 3,000 and 3,500 more were working in or close to the town—bringing the total to 5,000. For three years G.H.Q. dominated the life of the town of Montreuil.  Office space was seized in innumerable buildings for every imaginable military specialty, railroad operations, intelligence, gas warfare, sanitation, interpreters for the Indian Army and Chinese Labor Corps, as well as for the missions of the French, Italian, and American forces.

Château de Beaurepaire—General Haig's Quarters

An August 1918 Visit by the King

General Haig himself worked at the Château de Beaurepaire, two miles south of Montreuil.  He was visited daily by his senior staff, the adjutant and quartermaster generals, the director of operations, head of the Royal Flying Corps, and so on. The "Chief" would visit Montreuil at least weekly for the Presbyterian church service there and would then go round the offices. During major operations he would move forward to an advanced HQ,  sometimes in his adapted railway train, but always in communication with Montreuil. King George V and other dignitaries would periodically drop in and visit Haig at the chateau.

Today the most prominent reference to Montreuil's war service is the equestrian statue of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in the square by the town's theater. It was created by Paul Landowski of Christ over Rio fame and dedicated on 28 June 1931. Nine years later, it was unbolted and melted down by the Germans during the Second World War. It is recast from the original mold and placed in front of the theater on 25 June 1950. 

Sources:  G. H. Q. (Montreuil-Sur-Mer), by  Frank Fox, G.S.O; Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive; Google Maps

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Hindenburg Was the Source of the "Stab-in-the-Back" Claim!

1917 Sculpture

The "Stab-in-the-Back"

During his postwar testimony before Germany's Parliamentary Investigatory Committee, former General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg read a declaration that he had formulated with Karl Helfferich and Erich Ludendorff. In it, he specifically cited the “stab in the back” as the reason for Germany’s defeat. He failed to mention blunders made by the empire’s political and military leadership—not to mention the army’s high command. Here is his testimony on the situation in the fall of 1918.

The intentions of the command could no longer be executed. Our repeated proposals for strict discipline and strict legislation were not adopted. Thus did our operations necessarily miscarry; the collapse was inevitable; the revolution only provided the keystone. An English general said with justice: “The German army was stabbed in the back.” No guilt applies to the good core of the army. Its achievements are just as admirable as those of the officer corps. Where the guilt lies has clearly been demonstrated. If it needed more proof, then it would be found in the quoted statement of the English general and in the boundless astonishment of our enemies at their victory.

Paul von Hindenburg
Testimony, 18 November 1919

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The T.E. Lawrence-Robert Graves Connection — A Roads Classic

Lawrence & Graves

By Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

At War's End: A Wary Robert Graves

The Great War fronts of combat experienced by T.E. Lawrence and Robert Graves could not have been more different. Graves served in the trenches and woods of France and Flanders that epitomize the stagnation of the Great War. Lawrence's war was one of movement across the Arabian desert and into the Levant. They both, however, carried the war with them for the rest of their lives and found in each other mutual understanding and appreciation.

Graves and Lawrence first met in 1919 at an Oxford dinner. Before that, Lawrence had worked with Graves's older brother in Cairo. He knew of Graves also as a poet, whose work he admired. Graves had married in 1918 and was already embarked on what was to become a family of four children in rapid succession. His wife was Nancy Nicholson, a talented artist and daughter of Sir William Nicholson. Their life was fraught, impoverished, and haunted by Robert's harrowing experiences in the war, which included his near-fatal wounds at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

By 1927 Lawrence was an international celebrity, having published Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1922 and been crowned as "Lawrence of Arabia" by press and populace alike. His publishers pushed for him to follow up Seven Pillars with an autobiography. Lawrence himself was hesitant, for he was not comfortable with the fame and accolades. He did see, however, the opportunity to help his friend Robert Graves—Lawrence agreed to the biography being published but only if Graves wrote it and that this stipulation be kept secret from Graves to spare him embarrassment. The publishers agreed, approached Graves, and received his acceptance only on the condition that Lawrence's approval be sought!

The Erstwhile "Lawrence of Arabia" As a
Postwar RAF Aircraftman

Upon publication in 1927, Graves's book, Lawrence and the Arabs: An Intimate Biography, was an instant success and ensured solvency and even comfort for Graves and his family for some time to come. Lawrence's generosity came at a time of very low spirits for Graves and went a long way toward bolstering the morale of a poet and writer who Lawrence knew to be capable of significant contributions to 20th-century literature. Graves more than sustained Lawrence's faith in him.

T.E. Lawrence died in 1935 of injuries from a motorcycle accident. Robert Graves lived until 1985 and is remembered as a significant poet, novelist, and mythologist. For a thoughtful, thorough, and adept biography of Robert Graves in three volumes see Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1926 (1987); Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940 (1990); Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985 (1995), all by Graves's kinsman Richard Perceval Graves. Graves's biography of Lawrence is still in print.

Friday, January 20, 2023

The Battle of Cantigny – A Roads Collection

Doughboys of the 1st Division at Cantigny with a
French Schneider Tank

Your Editor (Leather Jacket) and the "Old Contemptibles" & Friends at the Cantigny Doughboy Memorial 



A Reminder: This is a representative listing, not inclusive of all the articles we have published on this topic in Roads to the Great War.  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, January 19, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: From Oxfordshire to Ireland to France to Italy to Prisoner to Escape—Signalman Eli Smith's Adventurous War


Whatever thoughts Eli had about army life, it would be safe to say that what followed was not one of them. In 1916, 18-year-old Eli Smith from Old Hill, Staffordshire, enlisted in the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) and made his way with others to Ireland where he was to learn his military skills in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion.

In December that year, he was next part of a group of 200 soldiers that were sent to France to join the 1/4 Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, arriving two days before Christmas 1916. The Battalion fought in France until November 1917 when it was posted to Italy for the start of the Austro-Hungarian offensive.

Off to the Infantry

Fighting continued until 15 June 1918 on the Asiago front, when Eli was reported missing in action. His family found out that he was a prisoner of war in Austria, having been wounded. He had sustained a shrapnel wound to his chest which would have been fatal but for his cigarette case in a breast pocket. He was found by the Austro-Hungarians two days later.

Eli was sent to a hospital in Vienna and, once fully recovered, found he was the only Englishman there. Although a POW, he was treated well and offered work within the hospital helping the surgeons and on the wards with dressings. He is shown in the photo below working as a surgical aide in an Austrian Army hospital.

POW and Hospital Orderly


One week before the Armistice, he managed to obtain an Austrian coat and cap and set off toward the Italian lines, where he revealed his identity. He was eventually released to the authorities, who arranged his passage home. He returned to the bosom of his family and friends where he was given a hero’s welcome-home party. Eli was by now twenty-one-years old. He’d had his adventure.

[If any of our readers have any details about Eli's later life, please post them below.  MH]

Source: Oxfordshire Museum