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

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the Battle for Montfaucon

By Gene Fax
Oxford Publishing, 2017
Reviewed by John D. Beatty

First Day Objective of the 79th Division

Many books about the Great War have concentrated on single battles, but only a few on single units, in this case a National Army division formed in 1917. Gene Fax, an engineer who researched antisubmarine warfare for the U.S. Navy and environmental issues, spent 17 years (according to his bio) writing about his grandfather’s division, the 79th. With Their Bare Hands was well received when it came out, winning accolades and awards on excellent reviews.

Like many works of its kind, Fax spends a good part of his text on background, both of the war in Europe and the United States, on Pershing and on the area where the 79th originated, around Washington DC; Baltimore, Maryland; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s part social history, part military history, and part careful analysis of what went into the 79th.

Approach to Montfaucon Today

The prologue is entertaining, if not enlightening. It depicts a division runner who speaks the truth about his late mission: he can’t say that the brigade commander knew where his brigade was…and they sent him to find him again. This second mission was more adventurous but less successful. As an example of what was to follow, it is entirely apt. The first five chapters show how getting 18,000 men together in a training camp and getting them all to work together with practically no equipment, few trainers, a changing/developing training program, and constant pressure to get ready to go overseas is much like herding cats.

Wounded Men of the 79th Division

The strength of Fax’s analysis is clear early in the book. He doesn’t pull many punches, and seems perfectly at home poking derision at Pershing and the Army for its lack of preparedness. Early on, he dismisses most general officer memoirs as myopic and self-justifying. While true and refreshing, this sentiment is not generally accepted by historians, and more’s the pity. In this reviewer’s own books, especially on the American Civil War, there is no assumption that memoirs and letters are unimpeachable sources, approaching them with a critical mindset.

Once the 79th gets to France, confusion sets in for good. Their artillery brigade goes off to train on its own, never to return…not that it matters much. Once committed to the Meuse-Argonne, AEF sent the division staff off to train somewhere else. Assigned to take the “weak position” called Montfaucon on the first day, the 79th struggles and bleeds and dies and takes ground literally with their bare hands, with little or no support from nearby units and no organic artillery, which they were barely trained to work with, in any event. When the 79th finally secures Montfaucon, it feels anticlimactic.

A minor quibble this reviewer has with the otherwise excellent narrative is that Fax mentions the BAR and Browning heavy machine guns the 79th uses only in passing. The 79th was one of the few units to receive the Browning weapons, yet Fax omits Pershing’s reluctance to issue them at all. Pershing had possibly legitimate concerns that if the Germans were to capture a BAR, which they did not possess in their arsenal, they might replicate it to the detriment of the Allies. While that fear showed that Pershing did not see the war ending as fast as it did, we could also forgive him for not knowing how long it took the Germans to develop anything at all. As for the .30 caliber Browning MG, using it made the 79th one of the few ammunition-homogenous divisions in the AEF. Perhaps the distinction had little function in the event, but it is worth mentioning.

In subsequent chapters, we see the 79th driving ever on with few replacements, lousy staff work, poor casualty evacuation, and the eternally grinding successes the 79th could make on the battlefield. At the end of the war, the transportation home and the demobbing processes are a unique glimpse at something no one else cares much about.

In all, With Their Bare Hands is a well-written microscope view of a National Division, likely typical of the breed. While the author had a personal connection with the outfit, that connection does not seem to color the narrative or the analysis. The maps in With Their Bare Hands are an asset. Contour maps can be confusing even for the old soldier, but the way Fax rendered these makes them perfectly lucid. With Their Bare Hands, as the reviews showed, is an outstanding addition to our corpus of knowledge of the AEF and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

John D. Beatty

Monday, October 30, 2023

The U-boat Sinking of SS Athos I Brings China into the War—A Roads Classic

After the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917,  the United States demanded that other neutral powers, including China, follow their lead by likewise rupturing ties with the German Reich. . .  Further figuring into China’s decision to sever relations with Germany and enter into the war was Japan’s promise to extend much needed loans (the so-called Nishihara loans) to the government of Duan Qirui (1865–1936), which had been in power since 1916. All the same, apart from Duan Qirui, there was generally no stomach for taking a stand in the war against Germany. 

SS Athos I

A momentous event, however, led to a change in China’s position: The sinking of a ship with Chinese workers, en route to France, by a German U-boat became known at end of February 1917. The ship was the SS Athos I, a steamship of the French shipping company Messageries Maritimes that had been put into service in 1915 and served as a troop carrier during the war. The vessel was torpedoed at 12:27 p.m. on 17 February 1917, 180 nautical miles southeast of Malta, by the German submarine U-65. On board, there was a total of 1,950 people, including 900 Chinese workers and a large contingent of Senegalese soldiers, along with civilian passengers. The ship sank at a near vertical angle within 14 minutes. The captain, 112 crew members and 642 soldiers and workers and passengers (including 543 Chinese) were killed—a total of 754 people. The Athos I  was the biggest ship ever to have been sunk by U-65. Germany’s breach of international law through its unrestricted submarine warfare damaged the positive image of the country that had otherwise existed in China. At the same time, the attack was an unjustified act of aggression. In March 1917, China broke off its diplomatic ties with Germany. Germans, however, still continued to largely enjoy free movement in China.

Over the pending question of China’s entry into the war, an intense debate was ignited that involved almost every influential personality. It constituted an unprecedented episode in Chinese history, for never before had China taken an active role in a global event being played out far away from its own national borders. By participating in the war, the government hoped to regain its sovereign rights to Shandong in the event of a German defeat. . . Due to the ongoing domestic political resistance, Duan Qirui did not succeed in pushing through the declaration of war against Germany in the National Assembly until August 1917.

A Contingent Arrives in Boulogne 

China's contribution to the war in Europe consisted in its deployment of workers to Western Europe and Russia. [See our previous articles HERE and HERE.] This, too, was an event without parallel in Chinese history, as the Qing dynasty had long attempted to keep the Chinese from going abroad. It was not until the mid-19th century that the government began to change its policy and allow emigration.

Beginning already in the summer of 1916, negotiations were being carried out with France and England regarding the deployment of Chinese workers. Chinese officials hoped that the workers in Western Europe would learn valuable technical skills. Above all, the progressive social and intellectual elite of China .  . .  was involved in planning the migration of Chinese workers to Europe. They harbored the hope that the workers would not only enhance their knowledge and skills by living in the West, but also widen their horizons and consciousness.

As a consequence, they would be able to contribute to the reform of Chinese society and thus to the formation of a new national identity. In short, "working was the means and learning was the end." The workers from northern China (mainly Shandong) were not meant to serve as combatants in any campaign but to provide the Western troops with necessary additional personnel. In turn, this would allow the Allies to continue fighting ("laborers in the place of soldiers").

A Contingent with the French Army

They were active behind the front but quite close nonetheless to the combat. The workers’ tasks consisted in unloading military goods in ports and stations, digging trenches, constructing barracks and field hospitals, burying victims of war, and working in armament factories. They worked seven days a week, ten hours a day. Their activity was also not free of danger. Although the Chinese were assured they would not have to work while under fire, they were actually deployed in or near military combat zones. In France alone, approximately 2,000 workers were killed. China would eventually mourn around 3,000 victims in total.

Source:  Selection from Mühlhahn, Klaus: "China" in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Revolution in the Tsar's Army

Protesting Russian Soldiers in Petrograd, 1917

Lewis Siegelbaum, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University 

At the time of the February Revolution, the Imperial Russian Army contained some seven and a half million soldiers who were overwhelmingly drawn from the peasantry. The most immediate and tangible effect of the revolution on the army was Order No. 1 issued by the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on 1 March 1917 and approved under duress by the Provisional Government. Among other things, the order called for the election of soldiers’ committees under whose disposal all arms were to be placed. Although they were to maintain “the strictest military discipline,” soldiers were to enjoy the rights of all citizens outside the service and the ranks. They also were no longer to be addressed by their officers in the familiar (and condescending) form of “you” (ty). The addressing of officers with titles such as “your Excellency” was abolished and replaced by “Mister General,” “Mister Colonel,” etc.

The first few weeks of the revolution witnessed the desertion of between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers, most of whom were peasants anxious to return to their villages to participate in what they expected would be a division of the land. There was also a substantial tide of arrests of officers, particularly senior commanders, and their replacement by more popular individuals. Instances of violence, including executions of officers, were recorded in the Baltic Fleet and in the Petrograd garrison but were relatively rare at the front. In [t]his report of 16 April, General Alekseev, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, complained that “the army is systematically falling apart,” a situation that he attributed to the spread of “defeatist literature and propaganda.” 


The situation in the army grows worse every day: information coming in from all sides indicates that the army is systematically falling apart.

(1) Desertions continue unabated: in the armies of the Northern and Western fronts between April 1 and 7, 7,688 soldiers are reported as deserters … a number manifestly and considerably underestimated …

(2) Discipline declines with each passing day; those guilty of violating military duty are completely indifferent to possible criminal punishments, convinced of the extreme unlikelihood of enforcement.

(3) The authority of officers and commanders has collapsed and cannot be restored by present methods. Owing to undeserved humiliations and assaults, the de facto removal of their authority over subordinates, and the surrender of such control to soldiers’ committees … the morale of the officer corps has sunk to a new low.

(4) A pacifist mood has developed in the ranks. Among the soldier mass, not only is the idea of offensive operations rejected, but even preparations for such, on which basis major violations of discipline have occurred …

(5) Defeatist literature and propaganda has built itself a firm nest in the army. This propaganda comes from two sides -from the enemy and from the rear … and obviously stems from the same source.

A Small Formation of Still Loyal Troops Encounter a
Mob of Deserting Russian Soldiers in the Film Dr. Zhivago

But what is no less striking about the revolution in the army is the extent to which rank-and-file soldiers justified their actions in the patriotic terms of defending a “free Russia.”

Whatever the case, Aleksandr Kerenskii, who had replaced Aleksandr Guchkov as Minister of the Army and Navy in May, became convinced that Russia either had to accept the virtual demobilization of the army and capitulate to Germany or assume the initiative in military operations. Touring the fronts, he sought to whip up enthusiasm for an offensive that he and the leading core of officers hoped would ignite patriotic fervor and bring victory to revolutionary Russia. The offensive, under General A. A. Brusilov, began on 18 June all along the southwestern front. After some initial successes, the Russian army’s advances were repulsed, and the desperate attempt to stem the tide of the army’s disintegration actually served to accelerate it.

Sources: Seventeen Moments in Soviet History; The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt (March-April 1917) 

Friday, October 27, 2023

Look Familiar? The Trenches of the Ukraine War

I recently read an article on the Foreign Policy magazine website HERE that argues the it would be a mistake to compare the trench war fighting of the Ukraine-Russia war with that of World War I. It argues that the terrain is more similar to the Normandy hedgerow bocage of the 1944 post-D-Day fighting. I don't know that much about Ukrainian geography, but to me, the trenches of 2023 look a lot similar to those of 1914-1918.  Here's a sampling of photos I've found from various news organization websites. I think most are of Ukrainian sites. The last showing the digging for what looks to be an underground bunker is of Russian origin.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Final Defeat for the Versailles Treaty in the U.S. Senate

Three Senatorial Opponents to the Treaty
Wm. Borah (ID), Henry Cabot Lodge (MA), and Reed Smoot (UT) 

While the Treaty of Versailles did not satisfy all parties concerned, by the time President Woodrow Wilson returned to the United States in July 1919, U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly favored ratification of the treaty, including the Covenant of the League of Nations. However, in spite of the fact that 32 state legislatures passed resolutions in favor of the treaty, the U.S. Senate strongly opposed it.

Senate opposition cited Article 10 of the treaty, which dealt with collective security and the League of Nations. This article, opponents argued, ceded the war powers of the U.S. government to the League’s Council. The opposition came from two groups: the “Irreconcilables,” who refused to join the League of Nations under any circumstances, and “Reservationists,” led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who wanted amendments made before they would ratify the treaty. While Chairman Lodge's attempt to pass amendments to the treaty was unsuccessful in September, he did manage to attach 14 “reservations” to it in November.

A Pro-Treaty Contemporary Cartoon

In a final vote on 19 March 1920, the Treaty of Versailles fell short of ratification by seven votes. Consequently, the U.S. Government signed the Treaty of Berlin on 25 August 1921. This separate peace treaty with Germany stipulated that the United States would enjoy all “rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations or advantages” conferred to it by the Treaty of Versailles but left out any mention of the League of Nations, which the United States never joined.

Source: From the Office of the Historian, U.S. State Department

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Battle at Langemark: 21-24 October 1914

German Machine Gun Team

The battle of Langemark, 21-24 October 1914, north of the town, was part of the wider First Battle of Ypres. It began as an encounter battle between troops of the British I Corps and German troops of the Fourth Army, both probing for offensive opportunities. It ended with the Allies on the defensive around Ypres, holding off the first of a series of fierce German attacks that would be typical of the remaining battle for Ypres.

At the end of 20 October the two divisions of I Corps were separated. Sir John French—still unaware of the power heading towards Ypres—ordered the corps to gather near Langemark and then launch an attack to the north, with the overly ambitious aim of liberating Bruges. French believed that there was only one German army corps north of Ypres, when there were actually five between Ypres and the coast.

The start of the British attack was delayed by the time needed for the two divisions of I Corps to reach Langemark. After finally getting under way, the advancing British began to encounter an increasing number of German troops, advancing to the attack from the north. At 1500 hrs., General Douglas Haig, commander of I Corps, cancelled his advance and ordered his men to hold their positions. The new front line was only 1,000 yards beyond Langemark. At the end of 21 October, the Allies finally realized that the Germans were present in much more strength than expected. Any idea of an offensive by the BEF was abandoned for the moment, and Foch, senior French general in the north, agreed to send the French IX Corps to Ypres.

The fighting on 21 October had left the 1st Division of I Corps badly stretched out west of Langemark. On 22 October, the Germans launched an attack along a large stretch of the British line, against the 1st, 2nd and 7th Divisions. The German attack was repulsed along most of the British line, apart from in the center of the 1st Division. Here the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders held a semi-circular position north of the Kortekeer Cabaret. The line British line consisted of a series of unconnected trenches and rifle pits. Late in the afternoon, the Germans penetrated the northwest portion of the line. Once inside the semi-circle, they were then in a position to attack the remaining British positions from behind. At 1800 hrs., the Camerons were forced to retreat a quarter of a mile, leaving a potential gap in the British lines.

Haig responded to this crisis with a certain amount of flexibility, creating a reserve force from a variety of units. On the morning of 23 October, that scratch force recaptured the cabaret. At the same time a broader German attack against Langemark village to the east was defeated. Both battles were over by 1300 hrs.

Wounded German Soldier at Langemark

The same day also saw a French counterattack, launched by the 17th Division of IX Corps. The attack was launched from the front held by the 2nd Division. Foch had hoped for British support during his offensive, but his request didn’t reach General Haig until 0200 on 23 October, only seven hours before the attack was expected to begin. The French attack itself failed, but the French division replaced the British 2nd Division in the front line. The next day the 1st Division was also relieved, this time by two French territorial brigades. Often forgotten in summaries of the battle that focus on the bravery of the Old Contemptibles of the British Army, it was the French reinforcements who finally stabilized the line in front of Langemark.

An action at Langemark in the later stages of First Ypres added much to the mythic heritage of the war. The German reserve units attacked the well-ensconced positions of the enemy between Bixschote and Noordschote over open terrain on 10 November 1914 and suffered heavy losses. More than 10,000 German soldiers were wounded or killed in a battle that had no military significance. To conceal the disaster on the Western Front, the OHL published a famous official communiqué on 11 November 1914, which announced misleadingly that: "Westwards Langemarck young regiments rushed forward under the song "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," advancing against the first line of the enemy and taking it." The losses of these "Student Battalions" came to symbolize German heroism, patriotism, and a spirit of sacrifice, accentuated in the increasingly embellished accounts of how German troops had assaulted English machine guns without cover. Many of these 1914 dead are buried in German war cemetery at Langemark where more than 44,000 soldiers are buried there. 

Hitler at Langemark Cemetery

Adolf Hitler is linked  to Langemark, he was sometimes called an "Hero of Langemrk.  His inexperienced unit, the List Regiment,  was part of the assault near Ghelhuvelt Chateau that commenced on 29 October 1914, but were not part of the "Student Battalions" that attacked near Langemark. Hitler did, however, make a dramatic and well-publicized stop at  the Langemark Cemetery on 1 June 1940 during his "victory tour."

Sources: "Battle of Langemark," History of War Website; 1914-1918 Online

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Misfire: The Sarajevo Assassination and the Winding Road to World War I

By Paul Miller-Melamed
Oxford University Press, 2022
Discussion at OUP Blog, 24 June 2022

Times Cover 29 June 1914

Typical Review

"Misfire is without doubt a tremendously important addition to the 1914 literature. It is also, it has to be said, a stylishly written, absolutely entrancing work. In it, Miller-Melamed combines his agnosticism with massive erudition to demonstrate how the explanatory constructs in the narratives about the Sarajevo assassination in fact turn out to be, on closer inspection, no more than 'neat explanatory fiction'. This makes his book uniquely original in a sea of studies detailing the road to war....Misfire is certainly not just yet another account of how the war began. It is much, much more appealing and engaging than that: in showing how history can be so easily misconstrued and then widely transmitted, it is a striking reminder, and something of a reprimand, about how we end up processing the past through a mythological prism." — John Zametica, Balcanica: Annual of the Institute for Balkan Studies

Author's Discussion

Shot through the neck, choking on his own blood with his beloved wife dying beside him, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Habsburg Empire, managed a few words before losing consciousness: “It’s nothing,” he repeatedly said of his fatal wound. It was 28 June 1914, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. One month later, what most Europeans also took for “nothing” became “something” when the archduke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, declared war on Serbia for allegedly harboring the criminal elements and tolerating the propaganda that prompted the assassination. The First World War began not with Gavrilo Princip’s pistols shots but because European statesmen were unable to resolve the July [diplomatic] Crisis that ensued.

That crisis may have been short-lived, but the conflict between the venerable Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary) and the upstart (and far smaller) kingdom of Serbia had been brewing for decades. At its core were the South Slavs of Bosnia-Herzegovina—Muslims, Catholic Croats, and above all, Orthodox Serbs that Serbia claimed as its rightful irredenta, its “unredeemed” peoples. Austria-Hungary had administered Bosnia since taking over from the declining Ottoman Empire in 1878. It poured enormous resources into developing the territory economically, though scant benefits were seen by peasants like Princip’s family, who resented their poverty and repression under Austrian rule as much as they had the Ottomans’ long reign. Then, in 1908, the Habsburg Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina outright. For the next six months, the Bosnian [annexation] Crisis convulsed Europe. It has been called the prelude to World War I, though it by no means made that war “inevitable.” Russia, which sought control over the central Balkan region possibly through its partner state Serbia, was too weak to fight back in the wake of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. And while the Serbs were, literally, up in arms and made a big show of mobilizing their meager army, they stood no chance without Russian backing. Meanwhile, the annexation was accepted by the other Great Powers as a fait accompli.

It would be easy to conclude from this sparse summary of Balkan tensions that the Sarajevo assassination was driven by Serbian resentment over Austrian control of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such an interpretation is strengthened by the fact that myriad accounts of the political murder depict Princip and his accomplices as “Serbs” or “Serb nationalists” backed by a “secret” Serbian “terrorist” organization: Unification or Death, more notoriously known as the Black Hand. It’s all very subversive and satisfying to our contemporary sensibilities. Some scholars have thus even latched onto analogies between the Black Hand “terrorist network” and today’s Islamic fundamentalists. The issue is not merely inaccuracy or exaggeration, but that it’s part of the mythology that has accumulated around the Sarajevo assassination.

It’s true that the assassins concocted their plot in Belgrade and obtained their weapons, training, and logistical support in Serbia. Yet no official Serbian organization sponsored them, and there’s no evidence that anyone but rogue rebels in the Black Hand acted to aid the Bosnians, rather than the highly nationalist military faction itself. Far closer to the truth is that Princip and his co-Bosnian conspirators needed no more motivation to organize and execute the assassination than their patent suffering under Habsburg rule, as they insisted repeatedly at their trial. Serbia, meanwhile, did not need a war with a European Great Power, particularly on the heels of its hard-fought victories in the Balkan Wars (1912/1913). The Black Hand leaders knew this, which is why there’s evidence that they actually tried to stop the conspiracy that they never initiated in the first place. Yet the demonization of official Serbia and its uncontrollable nationalist factions persists as the main explanation for the Sarajevo assassination.

This should not be surprising, and not because the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s put Serbian nationalism again on display. No, the reason the alleged Serbian backing of the Sarajevo assassination is so compelling is the war itself—for how to explain the Sarajevo assassination has become an escape hatch for the true criminals in Europe’s “civilized” capitals. Thus, the myth of Sarajevo includes the endless stereotypes of the “savage” and “war-prone” Balkan peoples, “fanatic” Serb nationalists, “terminally ill” (with tuberculosis) assassins, and that ubiquitous explanation for everything—Europe’s “fate” and Princip’s “chance.” After all, who has not heard of the “wrong turn” taken by the heir’s car after he narrowly escaped a bomb attack that very morning; or wondered why the imperial procession had even continued after the near miss; or pondered how Princip’s first bullet happened to kill the one person he wished to spare: Franz Ferdinand’s wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg? There was so much happenstance on that “cloudless” Sunday of Europe’s over idealized “last summer” that it is all too easy to forget that the initial decision for war with Serbia was taken in Vienna, not Sarajevo, and it was made with full knowledge of possible Russian intervention and, thus, European war.

The Sarajevo assassination did not “shock” the world. Nor was it a “flashbulb event” that imprinted itself on the minds and memories of all contemporaries. On the contrary, countless first-hand accounts support the relative apathy and indifference that greeted the murder—a tragedy, certainly, but not one which, as British undersecretary of state Sir Arthur Nicolson wrote eerily to his ambassador in St. Petersburg, would “lead to further complications.” What “changed everything” was not a Bosnian assassin’s poorly aimed bullets, but the historical misfire by Europe’s Great Powers, which first came to light with Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July 1914. By then, the Sarajevo assassination was slipping from memory—this was an age, after all, in which political murder was all too common; or, as one American newspaper casually put it, there were other Austrian heirs to replace the Archduke. But Austria-Hungary had had enough of Serbian irredentism, despite the fact that its investigators found no evidence whatsoever of Belgrade’s collusion in the Sarajevo conspiracy. And Franz Ferdinand’s final words about his fatal wound—“it’s nothing”—would never seem more ironic than when the “first shots of the First World War” were fired—not in the Bosnian capital on 28 June 1914, as myth has it, but by Austrian gunboats against Belgrade a full month later.

Paul Miller-Melamed

Monday, October 23, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Lt. Colonel Claude Auchinleck, 62nd Punjabis and Future Field Marshal

62nd Punjabis, 1914
Captain Claude Auchinleck Far Right

James Patton

Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE (1884–1981), nicknamed "The Auk," was born to a serving officer at Aldershot. He won a scholarship to Wellington College, completed Sandhurst and was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1903. Over a year later he was assigned to the 62nd Punjabis, a distinguished unit, formed in 1759, which continues to the present day in the Pakistani Army. 

He learned the Punjabi dialects and customs, which earned him lasting mutual respect with the subadars and havildars of the regiment. He became a lieutenant in 1905, spent two years in Tibet and Sikkim and caught diphtheria. Remarkably, he survived but was invalided back to the UK for a year. He returned to India in 1909 and in 1912 was promoted to captain.

In 1914 the 62nd was detached from the 6th (Poona) Division and deployed with Expeditionary Force F to the defense of the Suez Canal. They engaged the Turks at Ismaïlia in February 1915 and were then sent to Aden where they fought a small battle at Sheikh Othman in July.  

The 62nd was intended to rejoin the 6th, but they arrived in Basra too late as the division was besieged at Kut-al-Amara. Attached to the 7th (Meerut) Division, the 62nd fought in a series of bloody and fruitless relief attempts at Sheikh Sa’ad (6–9 January 1916), Hanna (21 January 1916) and Wadi (31 January 1916). Auchinleck was one of the few British officers who survived this mini-campaign. In July 1916 he was promoted to major and made 2iC of the regiment. He became acting CO in February 1917 and led the 62nd at the Second Battle of Kut (9 February 1917) and the Fall of Baghdad (11 March 1917). He was mentioned in dispatches, received the Distinguished Service Order and was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in November 1919 on the recommendation of Lt. Gen. Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief,  Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. 

On Right, Brigadier Auchinleck, 1935

Lt. Col. Auchinleck’s career was far from over. In 1920 he (belatedly) attended the staff college at Quetta, then married a 20-year-old American heiress that he met on holiday in France. Their childless marriage would end in scandal in 1944, when it became known that she was romantically involved with Auchinleck’s colleague Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse. 

Auchinleck attended the Imperial Defense College in London in 1927, then became an instructor at the staff college. Promoted to brigadier in 1933 and given command of the Peshawar Brigade, he led them in two campaigns on the northwest frontier in 1935. 

In 1936 he was promoted to major general and held staff positions until 1939 when he took over the 3rd Indian Division. Recalled to the UK in 1940, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given IV Corps, the only instance of an Indian Army general officer commanding an entirely non-Indian corps. Auchinleck led that corps in the unsuccessful intervention in Norway but was nevertheless promoted to general in 1940 and given higher command. Bernard Montgomery, then a major-general and a subordinate, supposedly said of Auchinleck "I cannot recall that we ever agreed on anything". 

Commander in Chief, India

Auchinleck became commander-in-chief, India, in January 1941. At that time the defense of the Suez Canal was assigned to the Indian Army, so in July 1941 he took it on. Although successful against the Italians, the war in North Africa turned against the British when the Germans intervened and, after the first battle of El Alamein, Churchill replaced Auchinleck with Gen. Sir Harold Alexander.

After ten months without a command, in June 1943 Auchinleck was re-appointed commander-in-chief, India. General William Slim later wrote: "It was a good day for us when he [Auchinleck] took command of India, our main base, recruiting area and training ground. The Fourteenth Army, from its birth to its final victory, owed much to his unselfish support and never-failing understanding. Without him and what he and the Army of India did for us we could not have existed, let alone conquered." In 1945 Auchinleck’s Indian Army had 2,250,000 men.

Three British Field Marshals:
Montgomery, Wavell, and Auchinleck

On 1 June 1946, Auchinleck was promoted to field marshal, but he refused a peerage. He thought partition was fundamentally dishonorable, but he stayed on until late 1948, when the division of the army was complete. He retired to the UK but in 1968 moved to Morocco, where he died at 96. 

He is buried in Ben M'Sik European Cemetery, Casablanca in a CWGC grave. A memorial plaque was placed in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. The story goes that in 1979, as plaques for all of the great Second World War military leaders were being installed, Cathedral officials called Morocco to get the date of his death but were told "[I’m] here—but I won't be keeping you much longer!"

A personal footnote. In 1994, when I was in Shimla, the hill station where the Indian Army HQ was situated in WWII, I stayed at Eastbourne Lodge, which was Auchinleck’s residence when he was commander-in-chief. I even slept in his bedroom. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Photo Album: The Brutality of the Russian Civil War

“The Cheka [acronym for Chrezvychainaya Kommissiya (the the All-Russan Extraordinary Commission in the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage), the first Bolshevik manifestation of a state security police, December 1917, under Felix Dzershinsky] is the defense of the revolution as the Red Army is; as in the civil war the Red Army cannot stop to ask whether it may harm particular individuals but must take into account only one thing, the victory of the revolution over the bourgeoisie, so the Cheka must defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword falls occasionally on the heads of the innocent.”

Felix Dzerzhinsky (Red)

"The greater the terror, the greater our victories." He claimed he would be successful even if it was needed "to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-quarters of all Russians."

General Lavr Kornilov (White)

Helpless Woman in Samara Staring at Her Dying Husband

Stacked Famine Dead  Outside Cemetery in Samara

Hungry Russian Women Begging Relief Official for Food

Starving Child

Captured Bolshevik Leaders Shown Before Execution

White Propaganda Poster with Cloven-Footed Trotsky

Dead of Kharkiv Uncovered After Whites
Captured the City from Reds

Starving Russian Soldier, Allegiance Unidentified

Red Killed by American Forces, Northern Russia

Red Officer Awaiting Execution by Whites

As many as 10 million lives were lost as a result of the Russian Civil War, and the overwhelming majority of these were civilian casualties. 

Encyclopedia Britannica

Sources: Radio Free Europe; Spartacus

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Sassoon at His Bitterest: Does It Matter?

Sassoon as a New Officer, 1915

Does It Matter?

Siegfried Sassoon

Does it matter?—losing your legs?...

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When the others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?—losing your sight?...

There’s such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won’t say that you’re mad;

For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country

And no one will worry a bit.

Siegfried Sassoon's Gravestone at
St Andrew's Church, Mells, Somerset

Commentary from Poem Analysis

"Does It Matter?" is one of Siegfried Sassoon’s best-known poems. It was written in 1917 after Sassoon had grown tired of war and lost the patriotism that had defined his verse in earlier years. The poem describes the variety of injuries that men receive in war, those of the body and those of the mind. 

The poem was published a year after it was penned, in 1918, in Sassoon’s collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems. "Does it Matter?" is one of the most important poems in the volume and sets the tone for the poems that followed it. 


Friday, October 20, 2023

The Legend of Hutier Tactics

German Troops Gathering in St. Quentin
for Operation Michael

In Hutier Tactics, infiltration attacks began with brief and violent artillery preparation of the enemy front lines in place of the traditional week's long barrage. The new artillery purpose was to suppress enemy positions rather than destroy them. The new artillery preparation would shift to the enemy rear area to disrupt lines of communications, artillery, logistics, and command and control nodes. The goal was disruption at the critical moment. The resulting confusion would degrade the enemy's ability to launch credible counterattacks, concentrate fires, and shift units to fill gaps or block penetrations.

Light infantry led infiltration attacks. They would evade and bypass frontline fortified positions, thus identifying gaps in the front line. The infiltrating light infantry units would "pull" the larger, more heavily equipped, units through. More heavily armed units would follow and attack the bypassed and isolated enemy strong points. Other follow on forces would enter the gaps to reduce the strongpoint and precipitate the collapse of the entire front. These infiltration attacks relied on surprise and speed. 

Source: Armchair General

General Oskar von Hutier

Many English-language and French accounts of World War I such as the example above speak of "Hutier Tactics" as a German secret weapon that nearly won the war in Ludendorff's spring offensive of 1918. When Ludendorff launched his spring offensive on 21 March 1918. . . he achieved surprising success. The German Second, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies broke through the Allied lines on a 100-kilometer front. Especially spectacular was the advance of General Oskar von Hutier's Eighteenth Army, which gained ten kilometers on the first day, 12 on the second, eight on the third, and eight again on the fourth. When this operation came to an end on 4 April, Hutier's army had crushed General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth British Army, had taken 50,000 prisoners and had come close to driving a wedge between the British and French fronts. Hutier's army had moved forward a total of 38 kilometers, an astounding drive.

The second German attack on 9 April, and the third launched on 27 May, were equally astonishing. For example, on the opening day of the second offensive, German troops advanced 20 kilometers, the longest surge made on the western front since the beginning of trench warfare. The impact of these German successes was tremendous. To many contemporaries, as well as to later historians, it seemed that the recipe for mobile warfare had been found. The victories of the Eighteenth Army were praised not only by the German Emperor, who decorated Hutier with the Pour la mérite, but also by the Allies, and especially by the French.

The Paris magazine L'Illustration in June 1918 called Hutier "Germany's new strategic genius."1 Later that month the New York Times Mid-Week Pictorial presented the portrait of Hutier along with such generals as Ludendorff and Below, with the remark that Hutier was" one of the most successful of the German commanders." Several days later the Army and Navy Journal said of Hutier:

The enemy has worked out elaborate logistic features in his offensive of the present war which enable him to station his assaulting troops at a great number of points, twenty, thirty and possibly even fifty miles behind the intended point of attack. To General von Hutier in his March offensive. . . is ascribed the successful inauguration of the new method. . . If this method is correctly ascribed to von Hutier's attack, the crushing and sustained effect it produced upon Gough's Fifth Army gives proof of its formidable nature.

Hutier's successes made headlines, and military writers and historians came to·accept him as a genius. Commandant Desmazes of the Military School at Saint-Cyr wrote in 1920: "The battles against the Russians (Sereth and Riga). . . had been the laboratory for a new tactical doctrine fostered by General von Hutier, the Army Commander. . . and by Colonel Bruckmuller, who commanded the army artillery under General von Hutier." Major W. H. Wilbur, who would be a US general officer in World War II, said in his thesis at the Command and General Staff School in 1933: "In the offensive of March 21st, the Germans put into effect a new tactical doctrine. . . (that was) highly successful." Wilbur gave credit for this to Hutier and referred to it as the "new scheme for rupturing the enemy line."

[However] despite widespread emphasis on the Hutier tactics by French, American, and British authors, the German accounts of World War I present no evidence whatsoever of Hutier as the innovator of a tactical doctrine. Ludendorff himself makes no connection in his memoirs between Hutier's Riga campaign and the tactics of 1918. All that Ludendorff says of Riga is: "Supported by higher commands General von Hutier. . . made with his chief of staff, General von Suaberzweig, thorough preparations for the undertaking. The passage was successful. The Russians had evacuated the bridgehead. . . and with few exceptions, offered but slight resistance."

Crossing a Canal During the Third (May) Spring Offensive

General Wilhelm Balck, writing on the development of tactics in the First World War, says nothing of Hutier tactics. Nor does he credit Hutier as an innovator of a specific technique. Nothing is to be found in the German Army's official publication of documents. The same applies to an official publication of lessons of the great war. And in a later official survey, Hutier is treated only as a troop commander. Other German studies are similarly silent. An authoritative and detailed analysis as late as 1938 makes no mention of the Riga operation or of Hutier Tactics or of the influence of Eastern Front and Caporetto experiences on the Ludendorff offensive A German research historian examined the works of more than thirty German officers who participated in the actions in which the Hutier tactics were employed. . . concluded that "A special Hutier tactics or a so-called Hutier tactic in the presently available German sources [is] nonexistent."

Unfortunately, Hutier's diary was destroyed in World War II, and no document in the German military archives indicates his stand on the matter. It is likely that Hutier, along wit h many other army and corps commanders, contributed to the new tactics. Although it is difficult to credit the individuals involved in these innovations, one thing is certain–Hutier did not invent the tactics. They resulted from an evolutionary process in which many persons participated. If a single individual is more responsible than the others, it is Ludendorff himself, for he made the decision to collect, analyze, and formulate the use of these efficacious ideas.

Ascribing all this to Hutier was the work of the Allied Press and particularly the French. It is reasonable to assume that the other media carrying the news considered the French Headquarters a reliable source insofar as a contemporary combat report can be reliable. Subsequently, American works would cite principally French sources to support their statements about "Hutier tactics." Combining the press reports with the prestige of the post-World War I French Army, we may reasonably suppose that it was the French who originated and propagated the legend. Why the French made Hutier a hero is a matter of conjecture. . . Perhaps the French had to rely on incomplete and inaccurate information from the front and therefore made an educated guess as to the origin of the successful German tactics. But to think that the Germans themselves would refuse to credit a hero if one actually existed, is absurd, for they too had to keep up morale. "Hutier tactics" must be relegated to the status of historical legend.

Source: "The Hutier Legend" by Dr. Laszlo M. Alfoldi, Parameters, 1976, No. 2