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

Friday, June 30, 2023

Recommended: Wonder Woman Helps Us Understand Trench Warfare

Wonder Woman Navigating a Grim No-Man's-Land

By Dr. Bret Devereaux
From: A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

Author and publisher of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry,  Bret Devereaux  is an ancient and military historian who currently teaches as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His articles have been published in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, The National Interest, and numerous academic journals.

In his two-part in-depth analysis of trench warfare he looks at how the trench system came apart and how they were eventually broken. In doing so, he draws on the imagery and some of the practical details of the trenches incorporated into the 2017 film Wonder Woman. In my opinion, that particular film has some of the best examples of  trenches and no-man's-land ever captured in a Hollywood film. I added some imagery from the film for this introduction to Devereaux's article.

Part I: No-Man's-Land,  the Trench Stalemate

This week (and next) I want to build a bit off of our discussion of Victoria II and talk a bit about World War I and in particular the trench stalemate on the Western Front. That trench stalemate is, in many countries, synonymous with the war itself. Of course the war was much larger than that, and while trenches, machine guns and artillery appeared everywhere in the war, not all fronts devolved into the static trench warfare of the Western Front. The Eastern Front, for instance, was always too large for this (though trench systems developed in areas of frequent fighting), while battles in Mesopotamia and the Levant always had the desert as a vast, open (but also logistically challenging) flank. Nevertheless, the experience of the Western Front was extremely important; the disaster of the First World War both broke and made nations. Yet precisely because it was so formative, World War I, its generals, tactics, and battles are often shrouded in national myths and unquestioned assumptions.

A Defensive Position from the Film
They Could Have Shown More Barbed Wire

What I want to focus on here is the disconnect between the popular conception of how trench warfare actually worked and the actual conditions that produced trench warfare. This week, we’re going to look at the problem: both the popular perception of what the problem is and what the actual problem of trench warfare is. This is both to set the groundwork for the next post, which will discuss the ways that this stalemate was and wasn’t broken, but it also serves to handily dismiss some of the "easy" solutions that are often offered which don’t solve the actual problem but merely solve the imaginary one.

One thing I should note I am not going to do here is discuss specific battles or specific generals. If you are expecting a all-round defense of WWI generalship, you will not find it here; while there has been a tendency of historians to revisit (fairly, I think) the tarnished reputations of many of the commanders of WWI, I think it is also broadly indisputable that the First World War saw more than its share of stunning command incompetence. (For what it is worth, I generally consider Luigi Cadorna, Italian chief of Staff 1914-1917, to have been the worst general I know of. I may run a B-side addendum to these posts on why I think Cadorna deserves this unique dishonor, especially given how stiff the competition in WWI is for terrible generalship.) On the other hand, as will soon become apparent, I think that, quite to the contrary of the popular perception that this or that easy solution was available, many WWI generals were presented by what was a fundamentally unsolvable problem, at least unsolvable with the technologies and armies they had to work with. Nevertheless, even within an unsolvable problem one may discern different degrees of quality, in part in the speed with which someone realizes that the problem is unsolvable and adjusts accordingly. Some generals did this, some did not.

Naturally, though, we need a jumping off point for the popular perception of trench warfare and if you’ve paid any attention to the thumbnail you already know what it is: the iconic no-man’s-land scene from Wonder Woman (2017).

A quick walk-through of what I think are the key points in the scene here. We start in what is apparently a frontline trench position somewhere in Flanders (although, as we’ll see, it is surprisingly densely held and also both surprisingly dry and overbuilt but also lacks any machine-gun positions). It’s held by British troops. After a shell goes off (which no one reacts much to), Steve Trevor explains to Wonder Woman that “this is no-man’s-land” (which is not true, they’re in a trench which is, definitionally, not no man’s land), “…means no man can cross it” (which is also not correct, by the by. No-man’s-land was called that because no one held it and so it belonged to no man). Trevor then declares that “this battalion has been here nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch,” which initially seems an odd statement since this is supposed to be late in the war. But if we squint really hard it could make sense if we assume this is a position abandoned by the Germans in the pullback to the Hindenburg Line in February of 1917. 

The film takes place is 1918, so the dates almost add up. Though that’d be an odd thing, “we only gained an inch, except for that one time barely out of the time horizon I am offered where we gained several miles in a day because the enemy didn’t fight for them” is a strange way to present a stalemate. Alternately, he is just meaning that this battalion has been here for that long, the previous battalion that was also here having been rotated out, which would be an odd point to make.

An Actual WWI Trench

Also, if I may just stop here for a moment, but Hollywood writers, please. Please. Go to your computer, go to Wikipedia, and look up the sizes of various military units. A British battalion in WWI was notionally 1,000 men, though by 1918, they’re all going to be under strength to one degree or another. These aren’t independent maneuvering units; battalions do not launch major independent attacks but rather are components of attacks generally launched at the divisional level. Steve Trevor has just patiently explained to Wonder Woman that his car seat has been stuck in that parking space for almost a year; yes it has, because it is attached to the car. It is the car that hasn’t moved! The word you were looking for here was "brigade" or more likely "division." This is a seemingly perennial problem in movies that have no sense of how large particular units are or what sort of tasks are appropriate for what unit size (though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word "battle" in it).

Steve Trevor then explains that this lack of movement is because there are “a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place.” Wonder Woman then decides to charge over no man’s land, which is a flat expanse of blasted ground. Because she is basically immune to bullets, she absorbs the machine gun fire (and deflects a mortar with her shield; how this solves the fragmentation issue is beyond me). Because the machine gunners are distracted, the British troops can swarm up out of their trench and charge and seize the opposing position. This in turn causes a break in the front which allows our heroes to slip through the German lines and continue their mission.

Apart from its story utility (and don’t get me wrong, as a scene in a story this bit is fantastic; it’s easily the defining scene for the character in the film and honestly the franchise), the scene serves to drive home some of the basics of the popular conception of trench warfare in WWI, namely:

1. The primary obstacle to a successful assault was crossing no-man’s-land.

2.  The primary obstacle to that was machine-gun fire, such that "drawing all of the fire" would be sufficient to enable an attack.

3.  Reaching and clearly the immediate enemy trench line was sufficient to break a sector’s defense (but attacks cannot accomplish this because of (1) and (2))

4.  Consequently, attacks always fail because attackers are mowed down by machine-gun fire before ever reaching the enemy line; defenders take negligible casualties.

As premises, those conceptions lead to a nearly inevitable conclusion, typically phrased by my students as, "Why don’t you just go on the defensive and let your opponent attack himself to exhaustion?"

To continue Part I and learn Dr. Devereaux's response, click HERE.

To read Part II, No-Man’s-Land, Part II: Breaking the Stalemate, Click HERE.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

All About Puttees

The Real Deal

Puttees were the distinctive leg wraps adopted by many countries during the First World War.  Although some militaries continued using them long after the Armistice, they are generally associated with the trench warfare of the Great War. They evolved out of the prewar British experience in India. The name "puttee" was derived from  the Hindi patti, bandage (from patta, strip of cloth), for a covering for the lower part of the leg from the ankle to the knee. In India's climate with its crushing heat and monsoons, the British Tommy's black leather leggings or gaiters did not hold up well. In 1897, the troops of the Indian Army were issued the first puttees. By the time of the First World War, puttees were standard issue throughout the British Army.  Other armies soon observed their advantages, especially for the conditions of trench warfare.

Members of a U.S. Marine Color Guard Wearing Puttees
Naturally the Generals Are Wearing Polished Leather Boots

These early puttees consisted of long narrow strips of cloth, usually wool, about 9-foot in length, that were secured with tapes. For the foot soldier, puttees had many advantages. They are light, easy to roll up, and capable of being washed, and provided the desired effect of a covering for the lower leg that would give greater support and protection. They would, of course, become sodden and muddy very quickly.  Also, they were a little tricky to get on.

A French Poilu Impresses a Mademoiselle with
His Perfectly Installed Puttees

The American puttees were 110 inches long. They were named  U.S. Pattern 1917 Spiral Puttees and were worn by both the Doughboys and Marines of the AEF.  Puttees would remain part of American Army uniforms until 1938.

An Austrian Sharpshooter Unit Proudly Wearing Puttees

By the war's end, Puttees were adopted by almost all the all the Allied belligerents and Germany and Austria-Hungary. Possible exceptions include Russia, Turkey, and some of the smaller powers.

The Italian Alpino in This Monument Is Wearing Puttees

If you plan add puttees to your outdoor wardrobe, take a look at our Doughboy Center article "Putting on Your Puttees" HERE.

Sources:  100 Objects of World War I; Imperial War Museum; Canada at War; U.S. Army &  Marine Corps websites

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

A Personal View of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich

Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich

By Major General Sir John Hanbury-Williams, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., C.M.G.
Chief of the British Military Mission in Russia, 1914–1917

In August 1914 I arrived at the Headquarters of the Russian Army in the Field to take up my post as Chief of the British Military Mission.  The Commander-in-Chief and his Staff were located in trains drawn up near the station of Baranovitchi. My quarters consisted of a small compartment about the size of one of our ' sleepers,' in which I was to live all the time, except on occasional visits to the various armies.

The morning after my arrival an A.D.C. appeared and I went off to be presented to the gallant Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies. The Grand Duke welcomed me very heartily and said a few complimentary words about the British Alliance. 

On first acquaintance he appeared some- what cold and reserved, but our friendship rapidly made headway, growing later on into a cordial and unforgettable intimacy. I know him for a gallant gentleman, a keen soldier and a most kind friend, whose life I trust may be spared to see the country he loves so well under happier conditions; a commanding figure and a commanding personality, who would, I believe, had a Romanoff been left to create order out of chaos, have done much to help his country and the Allied cause. I little thought in those days that I should have to say my final farewell to him as a Russian officer under such tragic circumstances.

Our train was drawn up with some others in a pine forest alongside a few huts which served as the ' workshops ' of the C.-in-C. and the General Staff. The troops of the escort were quartered a little way off, the train being guarded by a few Cossacks and Gendarmerie.

We breakfasted, lunched and dined in the dining-car at small tables, mine being that of the Grand Duke Peter, with Prince Galitzin and the French Military Attache, General Marquis de la Guiche. Next to our table was that of the C.-in-C. who, as a deeply religious man and devoted to his Church, had with him not only the Chief of the General Staff, General Yanuskevich, but Father George, that gallant and devoted Russian chaplain who had done good service in the Japanese war, winning the Cross of St George.

We had many happy talks across from table to table during our long months together. The C.-in-C. being a keen sportsman—especially about the Waterloo Cup, in which he had an entry—gave us plenty of opportunity of discussing other matters besides war, and in these he was always joined by Prince Galitzin (whom, alas, like so many others of those days, I can never see again), a fine horseman and a good man to hounds, who had raced and hunted in England, and was head of the Emperor's chasse, but as a great friend of the Grand Duke, attached to the latter 's personal staff. Many a ride did we have together through the forests and over that dreary prairie country surrounding them. Plenty of chaff and laughter passed between the two tables, and especially, I remember, over some of the messages of congratulation received by the C.-in-C. at the New Year, one of which, from an unknown lady at Biarritz, was short, concise and witty: ' Neuf pour Monseigneur—Baccaratpour les Boches.' 

The Author General Hanbury-Williams
with the Tsar

Operations and military affairs were never discussed at table, and the Staff were strictly forbidden to give any information except that approved and passed by the C.G.S. or the Q.M.G., the latter answering to our Director of Military Operations. 

On Sundays, saints' days, etc., and on occasions of victory or reverse we all attended the little wooden church in the camp, with its solemn service and beautiful singing. All the Headquarters troops were drawn up at the entrance to the Church, Guards and Cossacks, Cossacks of the Guard and the rest, all in khaki, with long grey overcoats reaching to their feet—still as rocks—looking almost like a line of stone statues against the background of the pine forest.

Here we waited till suddenly a fanfare of trumpets rang out, and in the distance coming along the road from the train there marched, stern-faced and head erect, that great and, to the army he loved so well, almost mystic figure—the Grand Duke Nicholas. His staff, seeming dwarf-like in comparison, followed till he reached the line and swung round facing his men—facing them in the real sense of the word—looking at them absolutely straight, eye to eye—and called out to all ranks the customary ' good-day.' 

With the rattle of presenting arms came the answering shout from every man in reply. Then briskly and quickly he passed along the line, his face gleaming with pleasure and pride, its sternness momentarily relaxed, as he dropped a word here and there to some well-known figure, and so we all slowly filed into the church. 

The deep-toned voice of the priest in the absolute silence sounding almost like the breaking of the sea on a still night, the solemn sadness of the singing, the rush of incense through the air—all linger in some corner of one's memory, like many other brain pictures which flash across one's eyes at unexpected moments, when at unawares a sound or a scent or a turn in the road suddenly brings back scenes of great happiness or great sorrow. And Russia, to me, is full of these. Some of joy and victory, many, alas, of broken men and broken hearts and all the other tragedies of a great upheaval.

Other memories crowd in on me—how I met  the Grand Duke one early morning walking along the wooden sidewalk which stretched alongside our train, and how he came smiling up and, apologising for 'Russian customs,' threw his arms round my neck and told me of the taking of Lemberg.

Then the day that he sent for me to his room and with his C.G.S. told me of the very serious position of the armies in the Caucasus, of the appeals from that quarter for the retention of some of the troops destined for the German front, and of his determination still to send them, so as to avoid any failure towards the Allies, great as the risk of the Turkish advance might be. Was it possible, he asked, for the British to help in any way to draw off the Turks ? I had to answer that in those early days I feared we had no troops ready, we were short in France, and those in our own country were only ' in the making.' Possibly, I said, some demonstration might be made by our ships to alarm the Turks. Anyhow I promised to go at once to Petrograd (as I had no decent cipher in those days) and send off a message.

The Grand Duke as a Young Officer

I left that afternoon, went to the British Embassy on arrival the next day, and got off a telegram, through the ambassador, which began the history of the Dardanelles. But all that is another story. The worst day that year was when I was again sent for and told the truth of what had been rumoured as to the lack of guns and munitions. He was quiet and cool as ever, but disappointment was written in every line of his face, and again I had to go off and do what I could to help. Again another story and a long one. 

When in 1915 the decision was announced that the Emperor was to take over the command 'in the field,' the Grand Duke sent for me to say good-bye on his departure for the Caucasus. It was the break-up of a period of comradeship, passed in times of victory and defeat, with a vista of great anxiety for the future. The air was full of wild stories of intrigue, and the mischief-makers were everywhere busy with the usual tales of calumny and prognostications of disaster, but in the midst of all these, calm and dignified, true and straight as steel, and, above all, loyal to his Emperor and to his Allies, the retiring Commander-in-Chief remained the same upright soldier and gentleman.

I remember the little room at the bottom of the stairs on the right-hand side of the door, and his step forward, with that sudden bright smile and extended hand, while I felt more like crying than laughing, possibly with some vague anticipation of disaster in my head.

He said that no doubt I knew that the Emperor had decided to take over command, and therefore was dispatching him to the Caucasus as Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief. He had but to obey his Imperial master, to whom he felt sure I would be the same as I had been to him, a good and loyal friend. He begged me to tell Lord Kitchener that Alexeieff as Chief of the General Staff to the Emperor would be a most excellent link with our army chiefs, that if he (the G.D.) had been given his choice at the beginning of the war he would have selected him as his own C.G.S.—this in no spirit of criticism of Yanuskevich, who had always served him loyally and well, and whom he was taking with him to the Caucasus. Indeed his chief anxiety appeared to be that I should not let any hint appear that any change was taking place except to the advantage of the Russian army and its Allies. Beneath all this smiling conversation I could see well what he was going through, and I think the nerves of both parties to the scene were on the stretch.

For the end of it was that his arms were round my neck and he kissed me on both cheeks in the Russian fashion, with the repeated injunction to be sure ' and be the same to the Emperor that you have been to me. He had much professional pride and ambition of the most commendable kind—namely, that of being a real Commander-in-Chief and not only a figure-head, the handicap of birth and position tending always to stand in his way as a professional soldier, and possibly to prevent those around him from running any risks which might be incurred by more frequent and nearer visits on his part to the troops in the fighting line.

A very strict disciplinarian, he at the same time commanded the respect and confidence of all who knew him. No one could believe him capable of a dishonourable act, and he took up his command in a full sense of the serious responsibility with which he was en- trusted, not only as involving the cause of his own country, but also that of its Allies.  Nothing occurred in his short period as C.-in-C. of all the Russian Armies in the Field to disprove the high estimate which had been put on his abilities ; indeed in the secondary position which he occupied later in the Caucasus theatre of war he added, if possible, greater laurels to those he had previously gathered.

The Grand Duke with His Staff (the Author on Right)

He gave credit to those of his commanders who served him well without any arrierepensee in regard to his own position. Jealous of that, he was invariably just and kind to them. Though stern and almost reticent by habit, he still had that wonderful influence over his commanders and staff that made them feel it was a pleasure to serve him, and he was willing to trust his generals in the making and execution of their plans. Personally I should say he was self-reliant but not over-confident. 

In the grave and disastrous periods of ' munition difficulties ' my own opinion is, and nothing will alter it, that he was badly served, not alone, that is to say, by the War Office at Petrograd—this was obvious—but by his own Staff. The link between them and the War Office was lacking and the line taken—' It is our business to fight and yours  to supply'—was too rigid, and a situation arose which with better organisation should not have reached such grave results. 

There is an obvious retort about 'people who live in glass houses, etc.,' but our own failures in this regard should have served as an example to the Russians. The only occasion upon which the Grand Duke spoke to me in a strain of bitterness was—I well remember it—when standing in the pine woods just alongside our train, he turned to me and reflected in strong terms upon what he called our failure to support the Russian army in these munition matters.

I sometimes think, when I look back on these anxious days, that it was fear of this great, stern-faced man that induced those serving him to throw a 'rosy' light on a situation of deadly danger, and fail to tell him the truth regarding Russian delays till too late, when the blame was turned upon the Allies.Surely, however, had circumstances been otherwise, and there had been no munition failure, followed by the intricate thread of circumstances which led to the collapse of his country, the Grand Duke's name would have stood out as that of a great commander.  

There is another side to the picture which I have endeavoured to paint. It shows his great sense of humour, the good stories he would tell, his delight in talking over questions of sport and so on, and his unfailing hospitality and enjoyment of a good dinner in good company, followed by the enormous cigar, over which he would chaff us who were his neighbours at table, and laugh at the plans which we proposed for the days of peace, when we hoped to meet under other circumstances. And I remember well my saying to him one day that he would have to visit ln London after the war, and his laughing dread of the sea passage which he hated. But the curtain of tragedy was soon to fall upon the stage of comedy. 

We met again during his occasional visits to the Emperor's headquarters, and kept in touch by correspondence through Yanuskevich and Galitzin. He invited me to pay him a visit at his Caucasus headquarters, but the distance and the many ties of my work prevented me from going, much as I wished to do so. 

Then came the Revolution.  

For a short period, and indeed after the departure of the Emperor as a prisoner, it was still thought that the Grand Duke would remain on as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies, so much so that we chiefs of the Allied military missions sent him a telegram to assure him of our readiness to place ourselves at his disposal. It had been the wish of the Emperor that this arrangement should be made.

Under the impression that this plan was to be carried through, his Imperial Highness, after a journey that took the appearance of an almost triumphal march, arrived at Mohileff, and immediately I was summoned to see him in his train, drawn up at that station, which was the scene of so many historic events. I found him the same as ever, calm, cool and collected, and we had long conversations over the terrible turn of affairs.

The armies were by now in a state of nervous confusion, the Revolution running along like fire on the prairie, from the fleet and northern armies downwards to the south. Meanwhile events had moved rapidly, and rumours came of a telegram which had not reached him—that no Romanoff was to remain in command of any kind. Concerning this he told me that he would make no move of any sort till he received some official confirmation from the temporary Government, which it was his wish not to embarrass in any way whatever.

In the intervals of a very busy period I spent a good deal of my time with the Grand Duke in his train, indeed taking most of my meals there, for he had expressed the wish that my colleagues and I should be with him when the decision was reached, so that he might make it clear that his loyalty to the Allies and the great cause remained the same, and that it would be only force majeure and the desire to do the best he could to support the chosen Government of his beloved country which would induce him to resign. 

Then suddenly, almost dramatically, the blow fell. Confirmation of the decision of the Government arrived. He took off his epaulettes, the emblem of his long and faithful service in the army, and slowly and sadly the train steamed out of the station on its way to the Crimea. There he remained, careless and scornful of German invitations, respected and almost feared by the bad elements in Russia, till he was finally forced to turn his back on his own land and depart for Italy.

The happy memories of him are clouded over by the sadder ones which followed and cut short what should have been a career brilliant to the end. When the victorious Allied troops marched through London, and every Allied flag but Russia's was flying, my thoughts, naturally, perhaps, turned to those old friends with whom I had served so long and into whose souls that day was entering the bitterness of humiliation and disaster to their beloved country. I left the window from which I was watching the march past, went down to my own room and wrote to the Grand Duke to say that on this day my thoughts turned to him and to those other comrades so many of whom we should never see again—men whose lives should have been spared for a better purpose than that of defending themselves against their own people.  

His answer was characteristic and I know he would pardon me for quoting some of his words

'Vos paroles me sont allees au coeur.

'Vous avez justement apprecie la valeur et I'heroisme des soldats Russes, que j'ai eu I'honneur de commander, et c'est au fond de mon coeur, que je vous remercie d'avoir apprecie a leur juste valeur, ceux qui ont donne leur vie pour la Patrie au nom de I'honneur et de la fidelite.

'Je ressens vivement les emotions que vour avez du eprouver en voyant le retour de vos vaillantes troupes, et je partage cordialement les sentiments qui vous ont animes.

'Je vous serre bien affectueusement la main.'


Translation Courtesy of Google Translator

'Your words went to my heart.'

'You have justly appreciated the valor and heroism of the Russian soldiers, whom I had the honor to command, and it is from the bottom of my heart that I thank you for having appreciated at their fair value, those who gave their lives for the Fatherland in the name of honor and fidelity.'

'I deeply feel the emotions you must have felt on seeing the return of your valiant troops, and I cordially share the feelings which animated you.'

'I shake your hand very affectionately.'


The next time we met was at Cannes in 1920. I had intended to go over to Genoa to see him, and had just arranged the necessary passport when I received word that he was coming to Cannes. For the first time I saw him in plain clothes, walking down the stairs as I came into his hotel. His face lit up at once, and we sat and talked alone. Such a conversation was of necessity sad and private, but he showed no bitterness, no ill feeling, obvious and terrible regrets, and very sincere friendship.

The Grand Duke's Death in 1929

Never was a more loyal servant to his Emperor, in face of many difficulties; never a more gallant soldier or greater gentleman. What can the future bring him ? Those who know him, as I do, can hope but one thing for him—Happiness.

Source:  The Emperor Nicholas II: As I Knew Him, 1922

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

2022 Tomlinson Prize Awards for WWI Books


The World War One Historical Association (WW1HA) annual Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr., prize for 2022 for the best work of history in English on World War One (1914–1918) has been awarded to three exceptional historical works.

****All of these works can be ordered from Amazon by clicking on the links below.

Plotting for Peace: American Peacemakers, British Codebreakers, and Britain at War, 1914–1917
By Daniel Larsen
Cambridge University Press

Capt. Reginald (Blinker) Hall, R.N.

With Britain by late 1916 facing the prospect of an economic crisis and increasingly dependent on the US, rival factions in Asquith's government battled over whether or not to seek a negotiated end to the First World War. In this riveting new account, Daniel Larsen tells the full story for the first time of how Asquith and his supporters secretly sought to end the war. He shows how they supported President Woodrow Wilson's efforts to convene a peace conference and how British intelligence, clandestinely breaking American codes, aimed to sabotage these peace efforts and aided Asquith's rivals. With Britain reading and decrypting all US diplomatic telegrams between Europe and Washington, these decrypts were used in a battle between the Treasury, which was terrified of looming financial catastrophe, and Lloyd George and the generals. This book's findings transform our understanding of British strategy and international diplomacy during the war.


Parker Hitt: The Father of American Military Cryptology
By Betsy Rohaly Smoot
University Press of Kentucky

Col. Parker Hitt, USA, Infantry

Parker Hitt: The Father of American Military Cryptology is more than a biography; it also tells the story of the development and growth of the cryptology field, largely at the nurturing of Hitt and his peers. It is also the story of a small, tight-knit military family as they lived their lives immersed in the Army culture of the first half of the 20th century. Colonel Hitt's manual, cipher devices, and proactive mentorship of Army cryptology during World War I laid the groundwork for the modern American cryptologic system. Though he considered himself an infantryman, Hitt is best known as the "father of American military cryptology. career progressed in tandem with the evolution of military cryptology. 


Million Dollar Barrage: American Field Artillery in the Great War 
by Justin G. Prince 
University of Oklahoma Press

Recruiting Poster

The U.S. Army's field artillery entered the Great War as a relatively new branch. It separated from the Coast Artillery in 1907 and established a dedicated training school, the School of Fire at Fort Sill, in 1911. Prince describes the challenges this presented as issues of doctrine, technology, weapons development, and combat training intersected with the problems of a peacetime army with no good industrial base. His account, which draws on a wealth of sources, ranges from debates about U.S. artillery practices relative to those of Europe, to discussions of the training, equipping, and performance of the field artillery branch during the war. Prince follows the field artillery from its plunge into combat in April 1917 as an unprepared organization to its emergence that November as an effective fighting force, with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive proving the pivotal point in the branch’s fortunes. 

Go HERE to Join the World War One Historical Association

Sources: Air University; University of Kentucky Press

Monday, June 26, 2023

Grasping the Battle of the Marne

By the Editor

For over two decades, I included pieces of 1914's Battle of the Marne in my tours of the Western Front. From my first readings about the war, I knew it was the largest conducted on the Western Front, with over a million men on each side crashing into one another in what was two almost simultaneously launched offensives. More important, it was the battle that turned a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas into the four-year battle of attrition and struggle for national survival it came to be. However, since the actual battlefield extended over 200 miles I had to pick and chose my destinations, the accidental starting point at the village of Villeroy, the retreat and the swinging back into action of the British Expeditionary Force, and the National Memorial at Mondemont.

As interesting as these stops were, I knew I was missing the massive scope of the battle. So, in 2014 for the hundredth anniversary of the battle I decided to cover the battle in its entirety. In preparation, I studied all the works I could find and, most important, searched out the best maps I could find. What I came to see (in football terms) two teams of six armies each (counting the six division BEF as a full army) lined up against one another. However, the formations weren't head to head in all cases. Sometimes they were gaps leaving an army with open territory in front and in some cases other armies had two enemy armies facing them. I realized in each of these unbalanced situations there had been a possibility for one side or the other to break through and wreck the plans of their opponents—thus winning the battle and the war. I decided to visit each of these gaps (there were four) on the trip. I also decided to start the trip at the Hotel des Invalides, where the taxicabs of the Marne started out, and work systematically to the easternmost extent of the battle.

Click on Map to Enlarge

Key Points of the Marne Battlefield
1.  Paris/ Battle of Ourcq; 2. The Two Morins; 3. Foch's Moment at Mondemoont; 4. Mailly & Revigny Gaps, 5. Verdun-St. Mihiel Sector; 
6.  Initial Gap & British Pursuit

Scenes from the 2014 Reenactment of the Opening of the
Battle of the Marne at the Village of Villeroy, NE of Paris

My group and I learned a lot on the trip, too much to fully summarize here. But a few points are worth listing. These are things I would have never known had I not traveled the entire battlefield of the Marne.

1. The failure of the Crown Prince's Fifth Army to capture Verdun in the earlier campaign had a rippling negative effect on the German effort. Three of those gaps were in the eastern part of the battle close to the Verdun battlefield. Had Fifth Army been able to spring loose a corps or two, those men could have been plugged into one of those openings and wreaked havoc with Joffre's plans.

2. More broadly put, while much is written about the opportune charge of the BEF through the western gap around Meaux, the German Army missed multiple similar opportunities a hundred miles to the east.

3. In all my reading about the battle, I had completely missed the significance of a night attack on 8 September ordered by new Fifth Army commander Franchet d'Espèrey against the opposing German Second Army commander. Having just driven across the Meaux gap myself, I saw how the assault froze the enemy in place and guaranteed that the BEF would have a wide-open path to charge through.

4. Besides issuing his stirring quote, "Hard pressed on my right, my center is falling back, impossible to move, situation excellent. I attack," General Foch did a marvelous job commanding his new 9th Army when it was attacked by both the German Second and Third Armies.

5. I was surprised to once again run into that whirling dervish of a lieutenant, Erwin Rommel. who led one of the last successful attacks of the battle at the village of Rembercourt south of Verdun just before the retreat to the Aisne was ordered.

Mondemont, Where Foch Held the Line;
National Memorial on Right

My 2014 Group at the  British La Ferté-sous-Jouarre
Monument on the South Banks of the Marne Marking
the Terminus of the Retreat from Mons

 Here are some of my more recent reflections on the great battle..

In visiting all the battle's major sites, from where the taxicabs of the Marne delivered their reinforcements north of Paris over to Fort de Troyon 11.5 miles southeast of Verdun on the Meuse River, I was reminded how infrequently plans work out as intended, whether those pertaining to million-man armies, delivery schedules, or today's personal to-do list. Only Joffre's "Big Idea" of ambushing the German Army when it was overextended seemed to work out. Almost none of the specifics of either side seemed to work out as intended. Maybe that's the point—if you have the right idea, things will shake out despite innumerable problems, while a bad concept will fail no matter how well executed. Consider a later war: Operation Barbarossa—Bad Idea and disaster; Operation Overlord—Good Idea and success.

That history can change direction in an apparently insignificant location, like the village of Villeroy where a chance encounter triggered the opening of the struggle a day earlier than either supreme commander intended; or tiny Marchais-et-Brie, where the French Fifth Army in the aforementioned surprise night attack decisively gained the flank of the German Second Army; or the hill outside Vitry called Mont Môret where a regiment-sized seesaw battle determined the fate of the French Fourth Army.

Fort de Troyon—Perfectly Positioned to Interfere
with Any Crossing of the Meuse River

Finally, let me indulge in one bit of alternate history-making. Two days after the battle's opening, Helmuth von Moltke ordered the Crown Prince's Fifth Army to move much of his manpower off its Verdun anchor, sending a single corps south against what has been called the Troyon Gap, where only a small fort guarded a crossing of the Meuse River, and the remaining available units to the west of Verdun. Had he (or the General Staff) thought more boldly, revising that deployment by leaving a single corps to monitor the Verdun garrison while sending the rest of the army to storm the Meuse Heights and cross the river, history might have changed dramatically. Even mighty little Fort de Troyon would not have been able to stem the German tide flooding across the Meuse, which would be free to attack Joffre's rear, effectively destroying his operational concept. Crown Prince Wilhelm, should that have transpired, would have been the greatest hero of a European (not world) war that had begun in August 1914 and ended just five weeks later. How's that for "what if?" history? I could never have conceived of this had not I stood on the ramparts of Fort de Troyon overlooking the River Meuse with map in hand to appreciate the strategic opportunity the German Army had missed there.

M. Hanlon

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Weapons of War: The Mosin-Nagant M1891 Rifle

By James Patton

The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878 lasted just 10 months. The Turks had purchased 50,000 44 caliber Winchester 1866 seven shot repeating rifles, while the Russians were using single-shot 46 caliber Berdans. The siege of Plevna (in modern Bulgaria), where the outnumbered Turks inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians, awakened interest in repeating rifles throughout Europe. 

In 1889 Russia solicited designs and a prize of 200,000 rubles was announced for the winner. Two ordnance officers, Captains Mosin and Zinoviev, each produced a design in the popular 30 caliber. Surprisingly the Belgian firm Fabrique d'armes Émile et Léon Nagant entered a 35 caliber design. 

After two years there was no consensus between the Mosin and the Nagant designs. It was time to start over. Only Mosin and Nagant were invited to try again. After several rounds of testing the commission found this Mosin design met its needs the best, although during the trials it was discovered that it was susceptible to double feeding of cartridges, which jammed the rifle. The Nagant design had an interrupter as a part of the extractor—a feature that Nagant had actually copied from a previous Mosin design. The committee added this interrupter to the current Mosin—voilà, problem solved. 

Not so fast; Nagant had patented his design and threatened suit for infringment (even though it had been Mosin’s idea first he couldn’t patent it because he was employed by the government). So both Mosin and Nagant were awarded prizes of 200,000 rubles. It is said that a furious Tsar Alexander III ordered that both names to be stricken from the record. The official designation was "3-line rifle M1891" (трёхлинейная винтовка образца 1891 года). Nevertheless, due to the western proclivity to name weapons after their designer or manufacturer, it became known as the Mosin-Nagant rifle.

Mosin borrowed from others besides Nagant. Like the Mauser 71, the Mosin rifle locks up via two relatively large lugs, with a third safety lug being the root of the bolt handle, although Mosin’s lugs lock horizontally instead of vertically. Like the Lee-Metford, the head portion of the bolt is interchangeable. 

The Mosin-Nagant M1891 has a milled, single-column, non-detachable five-round magazine with a floorplate that can be opened via a latch on its bottom. Some modern variants have a detachable ten-shot box instead. Relatively heavy, the Mosin-Nagant weighs 8.8 lbs unloaded (the Mauser 98 weighs 7.9 lbs). It has a three part bolt that is more time consuming to make and requires a screwdriver to field strip as two screws must be removed. The magazine is usually loaded via stripper clips.  The rimmed cartridges must be carefully inserted into the clip, as the rim of each cartridge must lie ahead of the rim of the cartridge below it. The cartridges will be slightly askew in the clip, and to use the clip properly, the cartridges must be loaded into the magazine with the bullets in the downward position. 

The Mosin-Nagant safety uses a knob on the back of the bolt to pull the firing-pin assembly away from the trigger and hold it in a depression milled into the bolt body. It’s very positive, but slow to operate. The flip-up rear sight is adjustable to 2000 meters but since the front sight is fixed it’s doubtful that anything close to this range could be achieved. 

It has been chambered for four different cartridges, but by far the most prevalent is the original 7.62x54 mm R. The muzzle velocity from the 28.7 inch barrel is rated at 2838 fps, higher than all of its contemporaries except the Mauser 98 (2881 fps). Due to its high power the scoped Mosin-Nagant has an excellent reputation for long-range accuracy, and is in use to this day as a sniper rifle.

The estimated production of the Mosin-Nagant is over 37 million rifles. Most were produced by the Russian armories at Tula, Izhevsk, and Sestroryetsk; prior to WWI, 500,000 were made in France by Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Châtellerault (MAC). 

In 1915 a total of 3.3 million were ordered from the American firms Remington and Westinghouse. The Bolsheviks cancelled these orders before completion and the production numbers vary; officially the Russians received 469,951 from the American contractors and about 280,000 were unsold. Extant rifles have serial numbers that indicate much greater production, e.g. Remington 636,122 and Westinghouse 828,084. 

The U.S. government bought the unsold rifles to prevent bankruptcies, and called them "U.S. Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916." Some were used by the post-war American and British expeditionary forces in Russia and some were sent to the Czech Legion. Later some were issued to National Guard and ROTC units and the rest were sold to the public for $3.00 apiece. 

During WWI, the Germans and Austrians captured many M1891s which were re-issued to rear-echelon units; in the 1920’s most of these were sold to Finland. In the 1930s, the Soviets sent many to arm the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. 

About 19.8 million were produced by Soviet industry during WWII, and at least nine other countries have manufactured them. There are 45 known variants used by 64 forces in at least 46 conflicts including the current Ukraine-Russia one. As of now, no other rifle has been service longer than the Mosin-Nagant, but the Mauser 98 is still in production at Kraguevic, Serbia. 

The Mosin-Nagant is a typical Russian firearm: simple in design, easy to make, rugged and very dependable. Today WWI models of the Mosin-Nagant sell for over $1,500. The carbines from the WWII-era are trés cute; the best is the rare Finnish-made Model M39. 

Sources include The American Rifleman magazine

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Anzac Position 1: Plugges Plateau

Looking South from North Beach, Plugge's Plateau Is
Just Right of Center

Plugges Plateau was located at the top of a steep 100 meter hill overlooking ANZAC Cove and Shrapnel Valley and was captured on 25 April 1915 shortly after the landing, by the 11th Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the AIF.  It was named later after the commander of the Auckland Battalion, Lt. Colonel Arthur Plugge (pronounced Pluggy).

Key Locations in the Opening Campaign

The Commanding View of the Rear Sector, from L to R
Anzac Cove, Ari Burnu (marker), N. Beach (marker)

On the day of the landing, 25 April 1915, the plateau was approached in the second effort  the reach the high ridge overlooking the landing beaches. It at first seemed promising but the steep drop  off on the backside of the plateau proved impossible.  Although not helpful for the initial assault, it would prove to be a valuable position throughout the campaign. The landing beaches and the rear support areas of all the fighting areas could be observed. It became a battery position, a reservoir, and a position on the "Inner Line" of defenses. The Turkish forces named it Hain Tepe (Treacherous Hill) because of the effect of the artillery battery located on it. The Anzac Headquarters were on its western slopes.

Australian Troops Crossing Plugge's Plateau

Australian Artillery

Plugge's Plateau During the Fighting

The Plugges Plateau Cemetery, with 21 burials (identified: 17, unknown: 4,  is located on the North-West corner. The burials include the identified remains  of 12 men killed on the day of the landing and the rest are from nearby field artillery positions.