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

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Three Great Readings of Siegfried Sassoon's World War One Poems

"Dreamers" read by Tom O'Bedlam

"Aftermath" read by Charles Dance

"Everyone Sang" read by Sir John Gielgud

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A Baker's Dozen Images of Britain's World War I Arms Industry

In 2015, Historic England conducted a retrospective survey of the nation's First World War National Factories. These factories were directly controlled by the Ministry of Munitions to produce vital war material, everything from wooden boxes, respirators, shells, and explosives to optical glass and vehicle radiators. Many were adapted from existing works, while others were located in specially designed factories. Some were finished to high architectural standards and followed the latest thinking in factory design and the provision of welfare facilities. 

Over 8,700 companies and factories in the UK produced munitions of various sorts during the Great War. However, of these only 218 were directly administered by the Ministry of Munitions as National Factories. Of these, 170 National Factories were established in England, at 174 locations, with the balance located in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Roads to the Great War presents here a baker's dozen of the most interesting photos from Historic England's final research report.  They are all displayed at 580px width, but by clicking on them you can expand them to 1200px, which will make the captions more readable.

Source: "First World War National Factories: An archaeological, architectural and historical review by—A Historic England Assessment" by David Kenyon.

The entire survey report with all 62 images can be downloaded HERE.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis

Order This Title HERE

Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books, 2023
Reviewed by Jim Gallen

American Midnight is the tale of an era during and in the wake of the Great War in which popular sentiment and law focused on anyone deemed disloyal, un-American, or just different. It was a time in which labor unrest and war combined to foment a perfect storm that swept away rights normally accepted as the American birthright. The precipitating force that brought underlying tensions to the surface was American involvement in the Great War. Led by a president, Woodrow Wilson, who saw dissent as treason, Americans united to purge disloyalty from the nation.

Guilt was established by association. Membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies,” was sufficient to draw investigation, prosecution, and imprisonment. German names established disloyalty and subjected their holders to vigilante violence. Unwillingness to purchase Liberty Bonds merited social ostracisation and worse. In St. Louis, their purchase was offered as satisfaction for speeding tickets.

Suppression of dissent was enforced by patriotic individuals, quasi-official investigators, and direct government action. In Collinsville, Illinois, a row erupted between 30-year-old German native Robert Prager, either because he was preaching socialism or was a company spy, it was not clear which. Though having been rejected by the U.S. Navy due to a glass eye, Prager was seized by a group of miners from his home, stripped to his underwear, and forced him to walk barefoot down the street draped in an American flag. After being rescued by a policeman, police stepped aside while a larger mob removed him and hung him from a hackberry tree.  Commentary in the Washington Post observed, “In spite of such excesses as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country.”

The American Protective League, APL, “Organized with Approval and Operating under Direction of the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation,” enabled its members unable to go to France to fight the “enemy” domestically. To business leaders it provided forces to fight organized labor. Among APL’s accomplishments were getting 50 Wobblies fired from military plants in Philadelphia and Wobbly farm workers purged from the wheat fields of South Dakota, inspiring a Justice Department official to hail the South Dakota APL as “The Ku Klux Klan of the Prairies."

Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson

Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson excluded from the mail publications “calculated to…cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny…or otherwise embarrass or hamper the Government in conducting the war.” Among indiscretions deemed worthy of banishment were saying “that the Government is controlled by Wall Street or munition manufactures, or any other special interest” to “attacking improperly our allies.”

Wisconsin Senator Robert M. Lafollette’s opposition to the war was investigated by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections to determine whether he deserved expulsion.  Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who had collected over six million votes in 1912 and whose party elected over one thousand state and local officials, was a target due to his opposition to the war. In a June 1918 speech Debs stated the following: “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourself be slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, never had a voice in declaring war.” That provided the evidence for indictment and conviction under the Espionage Act. His ten-year sentence kept him imprisoned until President Harding commuted his sentence to time served in December 1921.

American Midnight chronicles a time in our history during which American rights melted under the pressure of martial fervor. I recommend it to Roads readers seeking to look beyond the smoke and the sound of the guns for other battlegrounds in which the Great War was waged and the shadow it cast Over Here.

Jim Gallen

Sunday, February 25, 2024

How an American College Supported the War Effort #2: Clemson College

Clemson's Corps of Cadets Before the War

What is now known as Clemson University in South Carolina was founded in 1889 through a bequest from Thomas Green Clemson, a Philadelphia-born, European-educated engineer, musician and artist who married John C. Calhoun’s daughter, Anna Maria, and eventually settled at her family plantation in South Carolina. A longtime advocate for an agricultural college in the Upstate (Western part), Clemson left his home and fortune to the state of South Carolina to create the institution that bears his name.

In November 1889, Gov. John Peter Richardson signed a bill accepting Clemson’s gift, which established the Clemson Agricultural College and made its trustees custodians of Morrill Act and Hatch Act funds, federally provided for agricultural education and research purposes by federal legislative acts.

Initially an all-male, all-white military school, Clemson College, as it was generally known, opened in July 1893 with 446 students.    In the early years of Clemson, the Board of Trustees decided that Clemson would use a system of military discipline similar to most land-grant colleges of the time.   Students were required to wear uniforms, lived in barracks, held rank, and practiced military tactics.  The Clemson Board of Trustees asked the War Department for the detail of an officer to act as Commandant, responsible for life of cadets outside of the classroom. Clemson became a coeducational, civilian institution in 1955 and the corps of cadets disbanded. With academic offerings and research pursuits, the institution became Clemson University in 1964.

Clemson Students on Military Duty at the Guard Post

The National Defense Act of 1916, which brought all college military training programs under the federally-controlled Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), had just been implemented.   All freshmen and sophomores were required to participate in ROTC.  Juniors and seniors who passed rigorous requirements continued to the advanced ROTC program with the hope of receiving an officer’s commission.  Students not accepted for advanced ROTC still participated in the college’s military program.  

By 1917, Clemson College had just under 1,000 students, approximately 70 faculty members and several dozen other employees.  All the students, faculty and administrators, and most of the staff, were white males. Frequently called Clemson Agricultural College, the school’s main areas of study were agriculture, engineering and textiles. There were five varsity teams – football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis — and inter-class athletic competitions in the same sports.  Literary societies and the YMCA were other popular extracurricular activities. 

Clemson Tiger, 11 April 1917

In April 1917, the entire senior class sent President Woodrow Wilson a telegram, volunteering its services to the United States' World War I effort.   In early May 1917, forty-eight Clemson seniors and twenty-one juniors left campus to go to the Reserve Officer Training Camp at Fort Oglethorpe in northwestern Georgia near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Several were selected to be instructors because of their Clemson military training. By the end of 1917, several hundred Clemson students had entered military service. They were joined by many of the school’s approximately 1,500 alumni and other “Clemson men” who attended the college but never graduated. Clemson’s programs in engineering and mechanics gave many soldiers and sailors an advantage with the new and developing technologies of war. Other graduates participated in important war work, including research in agriculture and mechanics.

From the class of 1917, 79 of the 110 men who volunteered that April day put on the uniform during a time of  war. Their service record speaks for itself; at least 22 saw combat service in France, no less than three confirmed air to air victories by Class of 1917 aviators, three Distinguished Service Crosses, one Navy Cross, four Silver Star Citations, one French Legion d’Honneur and at least four French Croix de Guerre. In addition to students, a number of faculty members, extension workers and other employees left their positions with Clemson College to serve their country in the military or related war work. Other faculty, staff and students who did not enlist were drafted and sent to training camps to prepare to go overseas.

An Everyday Scene During the War at the Campus

After military service created a shortage of male faculty members nationwide, Clemson administrators hired the college’s first women faculty members in Fall 1918. In one case, Rosamond Wolcott replaced her brother Wallace who left his position teaching architecture to join the Army. Wolcott had a B.A. and Master of Architecture from Cornell University. 

The Student Army Training Corps

With the rapid expansion of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, the U.S. War Department needed more officers and technical experts. Colleges with housing, equipment and expertise for training large numbers of students were seen as ideal places to meet this need with the establishment of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) program.

Young men at least 18 years old who had not been drafted could apply to one of two tracks of study:

Section A: Men who had completed a grammar school education could enroll in short-term trade and technical classes comparable to college vocational courses.

Section B: Men who had completed a standard high school course of study could study either standard college courses or special war courses in subjects such as engineering, mining, chemistry, physics, bacteriology, and sanitation.

Clemson SATC Students in Training to Be
"Topographic Draftsmen"

The program also included military training and regulations. Students inducted into the SATC were given uniforms, free tuition, room and board and the usual soldier's pay of $30 per month. In May 1918, Clemson began offering short-term courses in auto mechanics, radio operation, blacksmithing and carpentry to men enrolled in SATC Section A. After a number of delays, Clemson began a Section B program on October 1, 1918 with regular college courses in Agriculture, Engineering and Chemistry for over 400 SATC students. The SATC students also had two and a half hours of military training each day and marched to and from classes.  Clemson also had a Naval Section of the SATC with about 80 men. Although uniforms were to be provided, they didn’t arrive at Clemson until the program was almost over.

The Spanish Influenza struck America in the Fall of 1918.  At Clemson, influenza spread through the SATC ranks and into the local community with over 150 cases within a couple of weeks. All healthy non-SATC students were sent home, where some then contracted the disease anyway.  Faculty and staff members’ wives and daughters, local Red Cross volunteers and a few of the students’ mothers helped care for the sick. The Textile Building, Chapel and Trustee House all were used as temporary hospitals. 

With the Armistice,  Clemson's SATC program ended at the close of the Fall 1918 semester. Many students who left for military service gradually returned  to campus to continue their studies. In early 1919, Clemson President Walter M. Riggs was asked to go to France for six months as an Educational Director for the Army Educational Overseas Commission (AEOC). Riggs was stationed at a large university established by the War Department in Beaune, France to teach agricultural and basic mechanics. Clemson professor William H. Mills also went to France to teach with the AEOC.

Memorialization of Clemson's War Sacrifices

World War I Memorial in the Chapel

Approximately 800 Clemson students, former students and graduates served in the military during World War I. Thirty-two men with Clemson connections lost their lives. Clemson held its first memorial service for "The Great War" on March 7, 1919. A tree was planted for each Clemson man who died in service. The area became known as Memorial Grove. 

The afternoon was beautiful and warm and at four o’clock the people had assembled. The cadets marched to the grove in a body with the band…Each of the trees had a United States flag on it. The program was short, but impressive.  First the audience sang ‘America,’ then were led in prayer by Mr. Davis, then Gov. Ansel made his address, which was very good. The planting of the trees came next, this being done by members of the alumni on the faculty, and the Presidents of the Senior and Freshman Classes, each of whom had lost a member in the service. At the conclusion, The Band played ‘the Star Spangled Banner’. 

Letter to College President  Walter Riggs (Serving in Europe), March 8, 1919

Over time, several World War One commemorative plaques were dedicated on the campus. The one displayed above is in the Memorial Chapel. A bridge built over the Seneca River near campus in the 1920s also was dedicated to Clemson men who died in World War I. The bridge is no longer standing.  Similary to other colleges across America, Clemson’s football stadium was named Memorial Stadium as a tribute to the Clemson students who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the United States. 

Click on Image to Enlarge

The Scroll of Honor

Clemson's service and sacrifices in the Great War has been incorporated into the university's unique and beautiful Scroll of Honor. It honors 498 Clemson students and graduates who have been killed in this nation’s wars and in peace-time operations. Funded With the gifts from thousands of alumni and friends of Clemson,  the Memorial was dedicated in April 2010. The mound is circular in design to represent that duty, honor, and country are values that transcend time.  The names of the fallen and their class years are engraved on stones in random fashion, just as the men fell on the battlefield. The stones are mounted in the barrow at an angle so that visitors must bow their heads to read the names on the stones – as if in reverence to the memory of the heroes.

Cadet Carlos Golightly Harris

In 2014 graduate of the class of 1917,  Carlos Golightly Harris, was added to the wall.  He was discovered to have died from wounds in 1926 that he had received while serving as an officer with the 371st Infantry in France.  In February 1917 Harris contributed an editorial to Chronicle, a school publication on the possibility of prospects of America entering the war.

What will the United States do?’ is the question of the day. . . There seem to be two great motives effecting the minds of the people of the United States. The first is, to avoid war at any price; which motive seems to me to be either the outgrowth of a false and erroneous imagination of honor and credit or the manifestation of the weakest and lowest principles one could imagine – that of utter selfishness. The second and higher motive that effects us is, that motive which prompts us, as a nation, to uphold our honor and prestige for which we have so often fought and bled to obtain. Which would be more honorable, to enter the war as the deciding factor of bringing about world wide peace, and uphold our nation’s rights, or sit by with weakness and patience, and afterwards suffer the less of our prestige, and hear the character of our nation ridiculed with indifference by all the world?

Clemson University Today

Visit How an American College Supported the War Effort #1: Penn StateHERE.

If you have information on your school during World War I please send it along.  I'd like to continue this series. EMAIL

Sources: World War I and the Clemson Community; Tigers in the Trenches: The Clemson College Class of 1917 in the First World War by Alan C. Grubb and Brock Lusk; NARA; and various Clemson University websites.

Thanks to James Patton and Abby Rich, Clemson ’21, for bringing the Clemson story and resources to our attention.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Remembering a Veteran: Ace in Both World Wars: Oberst (later Generalleutnant) Theo Osterkamp

Osterkamp During World War I

The best-known dual-World War ace was Oberleutnant zur See and (later Generalleutnant) Theo Osterkamp (1892–1975). He is also a rare example of the recipient of his nation's highest military honor in two separate wars. He would shoot down both a Camel and a Spitfire in his dramatic career. At the beginning of the war, the Prussian Army rejected him for health reasons, but Osterkamp was accepted by the Freiwilliges Marine Flieger Corps and flew with Marine Field Jastas I &II.  First as an observer and then piloting a variety of aircraft, including the Fokker D.VIII, he became the German Navy's highest scoring ace with 32 victories.  Osterkamp was one of the last Germans awarded the Pour le Mérite, in 1918. When the war ended, he went east to fight the Bolsheviks in the Baltics.

With His Wife Inspecting a Lufwaffe Aircraft

In 1933, he joined Germany's new Luftwaffe. In 1940, Osterkamp commanded JG 51 flying ME-109s in the Battles of France and Britain. During World War II, he was credited with six more victories. (Some sources contest this number.) He eventually rose to the rank of Generalleutnant and was awarded the Ritterkreuz, Germany's highest award for valor during the Second World War. His criticism of the Luftwaffe High Command led to his dismissal from service in December 1944. He survived and lived into his 80s, passing away in Baden Baden in 1975. 

Sources:; WikiCommons

Friday, February 23, 2024

Barking, East London, Remembers Its Victoria Cross Recipient: Sgt. Job Drain

The town of Barking in east Greater London has created a wonderful monument to its fallen  in the Great War.  It features a sculpture of Barking's WWI Victoria Cross recipient, Job Henry Charles Drain, and a smashing panel depicting the action in which Drain risked his life.

He and his officer, Captain Douglas Reynolds, and his fellow driver Frederick Luke, all received the VC for the action. Drain and Luke were personally awarded with their  Victoria Crosses by King George V in France on 1 December 1914.  Reynolds received his decoration from the King in January at Buckingham Palace and was promoted to major. He was killed in action on the Western Front on 23 February 1916. Luke and Drain both became sergeants and survived the war.  

Click on Image to Enlarge

An inscription on the relief summarizes the action nicely:  

Le Cateau, France 26 August 1914

On this day, the 37th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, had lost four of their six howitzer guns in action. Driver Job Drain was one of the soldiers who volunteered to recover the last of the guns. Under intense fire and showing disregard for his own safety, he drove his team of horses within yards of the German lines, retrieving the last remaining gun thus preventing it from falling into enemy hands. For this act of bravery he received the Victoria Cross.

The Proud Soldier Wearing His Victoria Cross

A second inscription on the panel reads:

In memory of the sons and daughters of Barking and Dagenham who fell in the Great War.

After the war, Drain had some difficulty getting back into civilian life.He worked as a messenger for government offices in Whitehall, then as a fish porter, a local bus driver, and finally for the London Electricity Board. Job died in 1975 at age 79 and is buried at the local Rippleside Cemetery.

42 Greatfields Road, Barking

Sources:, Fine a Grave, Statues Hither & Thither, Barking and District Historical Society; Joolz Guides YouTube

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Austro-Hungarian Cemetery at Gorjansko on the Carso Plateau

The Austro-Hungarian cemetery of Gorjansko on the Carso Plateau is considered the best preserved World War One cemetery in Slovenia. Buried in it are men from a wide number of nationalities who died at the nearby hospital. Its striking monument was completed in 1916 while the war in the area still raged. Some of the stone crosses and marble plates have been stolen over the years, but the site retains its wartime look. A number of the fallen were exhumed in the 1930s, but at least 6,015 are still interred at the cemetery in individual or mass graves. Probably because of the great variety of religions that were represented in the Dual Empire's forces, there is an assortment of styles for the grave markers.

Present-Day Photos

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The AEF 5th Division's "Red Devils" Take Frapelle, 17 August 1918

A 5th Division 155mm Artillery Piece at Frapelle

Early in the war, the Vosges Mountains in eastern France were the site of ferocious fighting, but they had remained stagnant for three years when the fresh U.S. 5th Division was sent to train there in the spring of 1918. The first divisional troops occupied trenches late on 14 June and experienced their first casualties on the same night. From then on, the 5th Division suffered from regular German attacks. On 17 June, a mustard gas attack killed three, wounded three, and gassed 24 men of the 60th Infantry Regiment. The Red Devils, naturally, responded with raids on the German lines. Theirs was the typical trench-warfare experience for six weeks. 

By August, however, they were experienced enough to be designated as an assault unit for the upcoming St. Mihiel Offensive. Before they departed, the division was asked to eliminate a most annoying salient around the hill town of Frapelle threatening the Allies' position. Their capture of Frapelle would be the first Allied advance in the sector since 1915.

On 15 July, the division moved to the Saint-Die sector where Frapelle is located. The division's four infantry regiments divided the front approximately equally. The 60th Infantry Regiment took the sector between Celles-sur-Plaine and Moyenmoutier; the 61st Infantry Regiment occupied both sides of the Rabodeau; the 11th Infantry Regiment occupied the Ban-de-Sapt sub-sector; and the 6th Infantry Regiment was on the front line in Bois d'Ormont. The 5th Division started patrolling and raiding the German lines regularly, both by night and by day. The first units of the Artillery Brigade joined the division on 28 July. The division was then ready for a major offensive action. Their mission was to capture Frapelle and the hill just to its north to dominate and close off the valley below.

On 17 August, after an artillery preparation of ten minutes, the attack was launched at 0400 hrs. The 6th Infantry advanced from the west face of the salient behind a rolling barrage. The German defenders, however, were quick to mount a counter-barrage. At 0406 they opened fire and hit the U.S. departure trench, striking some of the other assault waves. Despite the casualties inflicted on the attackers, the defenders withdrew from all but a few strong points. Most objectives were reached promptly.

By 0630 hrs., the village of Frapelle was liberated after four years of German occupation. The Germans immediately started a massive bombardment of the Americans, which lasted for three days and nights and included intensive use of mustard gas. The men of the Red Diamond Division organized their positions, built new trenches, and set new wires. A German counterattack failed on 18 August, and by 20 August, the American positions were completely consolidated. The high ground north of Frapelle was held and the valley below barricaded. The sharp salient had been eliminated.

The Gas at Frapelle Was So Severe Many Doughboy Uniforms Had to Be Destroyed

The division left the sector by 23 August and moved to Arches where new headquarters were established. The division lost 729 men in the Vosges. Shortly after that rest, the 5th Division was transferred toward St.-Mihiel, where it participated in the successful St. Mihiel Offensive. The subsequent record of the division was one of the best in the AEF. Somewhere along the line, its members had earned the nickname "Red Devils."

Sources: St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, February 2021

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918

This Title Can Be Purchased HERE

By Jonathan Boff
Cambridge University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Paul M. Ramsey, 
University of Calgary

Originally published on the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, Issue 3

For understandable reasons, historians have consistently tried to clear the waters by reducing the complexities of the First World War. This process has been vital in understanding the origins of the war, its conduct, victory and conclusion, and in shaping the historiography. Moving beyond earlier fixed interpretations, for the last 20 years the idea of a "learning curve" has played a major role in explaining British success in the autumn of 1918. Yet, its explanative power is limited in three significant ways. Firstly, war and strategy is reciprocal; the battlefield is an interactive play of forces, and not simply the play of one side. Secondly, friction resulting from this and multiple other interactions means war is complicated and winning is difficult. Thirdly, learning is often uneven within large institutions and dynamic problems cannot be solved with single solutions. With this in view, Jonathan Boff’s book addresses these fundamental issues and reanimates the complexities of the First World War, challenging many assumptions about victory and defeat on the Western Front in 1918. Boff expertly navigates these muddy waters and demonstrates how explaining complexity trumps earlier monocausal explanations; showing as Clausewitz made clear that everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult, especially winning.

Winning and Losing on the Western Front is a brilliantly detailed comparative Study at the tactical and operational level of General Sir Julian Byng’s British Third Army and the opposing German Second and Seventeenth armies during the Hundred Days campaign fought from August to the Armistice in 1918. Four basic assumptions dominate explanations by historians for the British defeat of the German army. The Germans lost either because they were outnumbered in men and machinery or German army morale collapsed. The British won either because they were tactically better and employed a successful combined arms method or by virtue of superior operational art. 

By integrating and adding nuance to these hypotheses, Boff argues that Third Army was able to win on the Western Front during the Hundred Days because it was better able than the seriously weakened and increasingly operationally limited German armies facing it to maintain a higher operational tempo and execute better combined arms tactics. There was no single sufficient condition for victory and winning required a combination of British success and significant German failures. Although innovation and learning were uneven in the British army, it adapted better than the German army to modern warfare. The principal conclusion is that British ability to better apply the techniques of modern war, added to the accumulation of earlier attrition and the tactical and operational shortcomings of the German army, caused German defeat and produced British victory.

Third Army Commander General Sir Julian Byng
Inspects a Captured German Gun

Boff meticulously and persuasively demonstrates this argument by addressing the four basic hypotheses explaining victory and defeat. First, successful attrition meant that the German army started the Hundred Days at a manpower disadvantage and attrition during the campaign aggravated the problem, accelerating the exhaustion of German divisions. While Third Army by comparison was better able to replace causalities, it was less able to maintain its material advantage. As the Hundred Days  progressed weather conditions and logistical problems reduced any British material lead, however the perception by some German soldiers of British material superiority was greater than the reality. Manpower and material were important, but never alone decisive. Secondly, the effect of perceived inferiority under worsening conditions  undoubtedly damaged German morale. Yet, the morale picture is less straightforward than historians have hitherto suggested and the view of the German army as a morally spent force is an oversimplification. Rather, morale in the German Second and Seventeenth armies is shown to be better than previously thought; mood may have been poor, but spirit was not broken. Although British morale was probably good and certainly better than that of the Germans, it was not unwaveringly great. Nonetheless, good morale was important for success at the tactical and operational level. Thirdly, the British army employed good combined arms tactics and the calibrated use of combined  arms in support of infantry, including artillery, machine guns, tanks, aeroplanes, gas and cavalry, maximizing combat effectiveness. However, it is not clear that Third Army’s combined arms method was fully "the true elixir" of Allied success that John Terraine described. Undoubtedly, at the small-unit tactical level Third Army did display a highly sophisticated, flexible, and diverse practice of combined arms method. 

Yet, some units were unwilling or unable to grasp the approach and even between the sophisticated units no universal tactical method existed. Nonetheless, the German tactical response was slow, rigid and exaggerated the threat of armor and aviation,  which distorted and weakened the German defensive scheme. German failure to respond to the impressive diversity of British combined arms method contributed to British success. Fourthly, by delegating control to the ‘man on the spot,’ British command was able to maintain a higher operational tempo than the German army. However, a complex and variable command system meant decentralization of  command and the promotion of initiative in Third Army were not consistent,  undermining British efforts. Nevertheless, the over-centralized German command system was deeply flawed and contributed to the failure of German operational art. In attempting to fight on fixed defense lines often without good intelligence or artillery support, the German army was unable to match British operational tempo, counterattack effectively, or regain the initiative. The British may not have done everything right, Boff argues, but they did more things better than their enemy, and the shortcomings of the German army were a major factor in its defeat.

Relatively overlooked by historians, the British Third Army advanced over sixty miles and was one of the most active, suffered the most casualties, captured the second  most prisoners and was the largest and most representative of British fighting manpower of the five British armies in the late summer and autumn of 1918.  Redressing this, and adding balance by giving due attention to the opposing German  armies, Boff’s well-formed case study provides the basis for his insightful analysis and clear argument. Boff’s use of quantitative and qualitative methods are excellent. For  example, by combining a stylistically strong narrative with simple but illustrative  figures, Boff is able to effectively demonstrate the importance of attrition to British success (19-20, 70). Moreover, the consistent and authoritative use of the available German primary source material is impressive, especially in support of British records.  Indeed, the chapter on morale in particular makes a significant contribution to an understudied and important aspect of the war. While the Canadian Corps receives little attention, Boff’s treatment of the analogous New Zealand Division provides an interesting comparison that will interest Canadian military historians, as will his analysis of Third Army operations and command at Havrincourt in September 1918. Although the Canadian Corps is well covered by Tim Travers, Bill Rawling, Ian M. Brown, Shane B. Schreiber and Tim Cook, a methodologically similar study of the Canadian Corps in the First World War would be welcome. 

This book left me disputing only one small detail. Does Boff make a clear enough distinction between tempo and momentum and explain how they relate? If tempo is about timing and rhythm, and momentum is about mass and velocity, is it not true that the former allows you to achieve the latter, that they are not interchangeable words, but rather, have a causal relationship? Indeed, tempo allows the application of pressure, which in turn, creates and then increases momentum, allowing you to control operations. That being said and nitpicking aside, Winning and Losing on the Western Front is a model study of combat at the tactical and operational level. Boff effectively challenges those narratives reliant on reductive explanations for British victory and German defeat in 1918 by explaining the complexity of war on the Western Front, while making an important argument about the difficulties of the problem faced by the British army in adapting to fight and win in modern warfare. This required “an intensely practical attempt to unpick a series of different specific tactical, operational and strategic knots” as both “armies were locked in a deadly evolutionary struggle”. What Winning and Losing on the Western Front makes clear in very Clausewitzian terms is that the British army demonstrated “an understanding of the complex nature of modern warfare which was more complete than the Germans ever achieved." The German army was unable to compensate for all the intrinsic friction of warfare to the same extent the British army did. Winning was difficult and British success was in adapting to the realities of modern warfare. It is impossible to do justice to Boff’s multiple and elegantly intertwined arguments. It simply must be read. The specialized undergraduate class and graduate level seminars will benefit from reading this book, but it may not serve a general lower-level undergraduate course. Nonetheless, it is surely made accessible to the general reader by its methodical style. In this book, soldiers will recognize the characterization of the immense difficulty and complexity of operations in war, theorists will rediscover the utility of history in adding example after example to their theoretical bones, and historians will praise Boff’s historical method. Winning and Losing on the Western Front will be a standard reference for historians of the First World War for years to come.

Paul Ramsey


Monday, February 19, 2024

When Hindenburg and Ludendorff Finally Gained Supreme Command

Ober Ost Command & Staff in the Field

After the triumph of Tannenberg, the Hindenburg and Ludendorff  duo would spend the next 22 months of their collaboration in the east attempting to knock Russia out of the war. They would be constrained and sometimes fully frustrated by two factors. In the words of Eastern Front historian Norman Stone, the pattern of the war in the east was of "more or less constant Austro-Hungarian crisis." After their early successes in the fall of 1914, the partnership—mindful of the early failed Austrian offensive in the south—got their first taste of cries for help from their weaker ally when they were compelled to send a German division to help hold the Russians out of Hungary in December of 1914. Much has been written about how burdensome the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on Germany during the war. The empire was deep in decline, its army wildly diverse ethnically in a time of rising nationalism, under-manned, under-gunned, and inexpertly commanded. Through diplomatic ineptitude, they even managed to draw in an additional enemy against the Central Powers, Italy. In the course of the war, the Dual Monarchy required the Kaiser's assistance in conquering its original adversary, Serbia, and—to avoid collapse several times on the Eastern Front—assistance in the Carpathians in 1915 and against the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. Only the German troop deployments at Caporetto made that attack feasible and saved the Austro-Hungarian position on the Italian Front in 1917. All of these "extra responsibilities" had, of course, the greatest impact on the German planning and operations on the Eastern Front during the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime. Admiral Tirpitz described the situation as being "tied to a corpse."

The partnership's second on going distraction was the unpredictable support from their two superiors, Kaiser Wilhelm and the new chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Helmuth von Moltke after the First Battle of the Marne. Falkenhayn initially recommended negotiating a peace settlement with the Russians and focusing on the war against France. This approach was blocked quickly due to a meeting of the minds of the Austrian high command and his own commanders in the East. Falkenhayn's thinking next moved to an offensive strategy on the Western Front, while conducting a limited campaign in the east. He hoped that Russia would accept a separate armistice more easily if it were not humiliated too much. This still brought him into conflict with Hindenburg-Ludendorff, who favored massive offensives in the east. In effect, Ober Ost argued for an inversion of the Schlieffen Plan concept of knocking out France quickly to concentrate on Russia. 

At Last, at the Kaiser's Side

Other initiatives in 1914 failed for Hindenburg. He felt the Russian Army simply had too many troops at that point. After the turn of the year, however, the clear stalemate on the Western Front found the Kaiser open to other possibilities. Convinced by Hindenburg-Ludendorff of the possibilities on the Eastern Front, he intervened for once in the disputes among his commanders and ordered that the major military effort for 1915 take place in the East. Falkenhayn accordingly strengthened German forces there with a new army (Tenth) and authorized the formation of a new, mixed Austrian-German force to cooperate with Habsburg efforts in Galicia. 

On the surface, the stupendous 1915 success in the south with the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive and at an earlier victory in the north at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes, were substantial victories. The partnership was credited with massive territorial gains and having inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on the enemy. Yet, oddly, the Russians were still in the war. Further, garrisoning larger territory required more troops and the Central Powers planners began realizing they were starting to run out of manpower. To the disappointment of Hindenburg-Ludendorff, the Kaiser and Falkenhayn were losing their enthusiasm for the East and planned to move some of the partnership's forces to the West. Fighting on both fronts in 1916 would be of a different character than in 1915. These changes, though, would also open a surprising opportunity for the partnership.

The following year brought the downfall of the hated Falkenhayn. Behind the scenes, the political infighting had been brutal. Falkenhayn had found it hard to counter the partnership's aggressive Eastern Front strategy given their national popularity. Ludendorff openly hated the Chief of Staff and found it impossible to work with him. In retaliation, Falkenhayn had tried to transfer Ludendorff out of his headquarters position and even asked Hindenburg to retire. Kaiser Wilhelm personally disliked both Ludendorff and Hindenburg's personal ambitiousness but needed to publicly support them.

Double Portrait by Hugo Vogel

Against this backdrop, Erich von Falkenhayn had an utterly disastrous 1916. His advocacy of the blood-draining Verdun Offensive committed his nation to an attritional battle at a time when Germany was running out of manpower. The Allied offensive on the Somme was strongly resisted, but it was allowed to turn into a second attritional struggle. Finally, during the summer of 1916, his long-held view that Romania with its substantial 650,000-man army would never join the Allies in the war proved incorrect. They joined the Allies when the Brusilov Offensive showed Russia was still dangerous. Kaiser Wilhelm lost all confidence in his warlord. Falkenhayn had to go. For Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, the army and the nation, the choice was obvious. His Majesty had deep reservations about the pair, both individually and collectively, but he made the appointment of Paul von Hindenburg to the post of Chief of the Great General Staff on 29 August 1916. Ludendorff demanded joint responsibility for decision making and authority to sign most orders. Hindenburg did not refuse and authorized that a new position, First Quartermaster General of the Great General Staff, be created to emphasize Ludendorff's nearly equal and comprehensive authority. The pair had completed their march from anonymity to supreme command.

Sources: Battles East by Irving Root; The Eastern Front, 1914-1920 by Neiberg and Jordan; Wikipedia