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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Alpini Bridge of Bassano del Grappa

The Alpini Bridge from the South

The Alpini Bridge on Italy's Brenta River, symbol of the town of  Bassano del Grapp, was originally built in 1569 by Andrea Palladio although a wooden bridge has existed there since at least 1209. During the Great War it became famous as the Alpini Bridge after the elite mountain troops who marched over it on their way to Mte Grappa, last bastion of the post-Caporetto Italian defenses. While crossing the bridge they sang the sentimental song Sul Ponte di Bassano — "On the Bridge of Bassano" — about kissing a pretty girl and squeezing her hand as they parted. Destroyed several times, the current wooden bridge was rebuilt after its destruction in WWII by the Alpini, Italy's mountain brigade. At the entrance are two 16th-century arches. The views of town from the bridge are breathtaking. Across the bridge (left side in the photo) are the Museum of the Alpini and the historic Nardini Tavern overlooking the river.

My 2011 Tour Group on the Bridge

Sunday, March 30, 2014

100 Years Ago: Quotes from March 1914

The war against the powers of the Triple Alliance has become necessary. . .
General Schtcherbetchew, Director St. Petersbury Military Academy, March 1914

At present the Volunteer Aid Detachments are wasted organisations. In time of war, mobilisation would be next to impossible. There should be some… official equivalent to the German Imperial Commissioner, who with a staff should devote the whole of his time to the matter of voluntary aid.
First Aid Journal of the British Red Cross, March 1914

It is my firm conviction that Germany's two neighbors [Russia and France] are carefully proceeding with military preparations, but will not start the war so long as they have not attained a grouping of the Balkan states against us that confronts the monarchy with an attack from three sides and pins down the majority of our forces on our eastern and southern front.
Hungarian Premier István Tisza to Emperor Franz Josef, March 1914

I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone? 
James Joyce, Published in Des Imagistes, 2 March

The Russian Scare
Mobilization of German Interests
Demand for a Firm Policy
The Times Berlin Correspondent, 9 March

We do not want sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.
Edward Carson, Speech in Commons, re: Ulster counties being allowed out of Home Rule for six years, 9 March

I should say that the future lies with Ibn Sa'ud.  If it is true — as we hear — that he has driven the Turks out of the Hasa, he is a formidable adversary.
Gertrude Bell, Diary, 17 March

General Henry Wilson
Behind the Scenes Instigator of Curragh

 Sir Arthur Paget, Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, Reporting Curragh Mutiny, 20 March

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Tsarist Russian Officer's Code of Honor

By Alexander Ryazantsev

  • If you are abrupt and haughty, you will be despised by all. 
  • Be polite and modest in your dealings with all people.
  • Do not promise if you are not certain of your ability to follow through.
  • Carry yourself simply, with dignity, but without exquisiteness.
  • Be concise, accurate and tactful always, with all and everywhere.
  • Be considerate and attentive but not intrusive and adulatory. Know how to leave in a timely manner and not be unwanted. 
  • It is necessary to remember the boundary where dignified politeness ends and where sycophancy begins.
  • Do not carouse, as this will not prove one brave but rather likely compromise you.
  • Do be in a hurry to get familiar with someone you do not know well.
  • Avoid keeping financial tabs for friends. Money always spoils relations.
  • If you can, help out your comrade with money, but personally avoid accepting money, as it will demean you.
  • If you cannot say anything nice about someone, also refrain from saying anything bad if you happen to know of such.

  • Do not dismiss the advice of others – hear it out. You will always have the option to deciding whether to heed it.
  • Knowing how to use the good advice of others is an art no less useful than being able to provide good advice yourself.
  • Honor fortifies the heart and ennobles bravery. 
  • Safeguard the reputation of any woman who has confided in you, regardless of who she is.
  • There are times in life when one must forget the heart and heed reason.
  • Be guided by instinct, a sense of fairness and duty to decency.
  • Always be on guard and never slack off.
  • May your words be soft but arguments be strong. Try to convince rather than annoy one’s opponent.
  • When speaking avoid gesticulation and raising one’s voice.
  • There is nothing worse than indecisiveness. A bad decision is better than hesitancy and inaction.
  • A moment lost can never be returned. 
  • The person who is not afraid is more powerful than the person whom everyone fears.
  • When two people quarrel, they are always both wrong.
  • The greatest delusions are those which go unquestioned.
  • There is wisdom in keeping silent. 
  • Modesty is not about being indifferent to praise so much as it is being attentive to reprimands.

Source:  Russian Mir Foundation

Friday, March 28, 2014

Western Front Virtual Tour —
Stop 13: Retreat from Mons, Part II

By 27 August, parts of the retreating BEF were coming unraveled. However, a great deed of personal leadership would overcome a crisis, and eventually General French's two corps would reunite and proceed to cross the River Marne. There they would regroup and eventually return to play a key role in the rapidly approaching crisis along the Marne.

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Next Week: Maubeuge

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Remembering a Veteran: Albert Marshall, Last Surviving Cavalryman of the Great War

Trooper Albert Marshall

Albert (“Smiler”) Marshall, the last cavalryman of the First World War, died on 16 May 2005, aged 108.

When Albert Marshall was asked about the First World War, he sometimes thought it odd that so much was made of the Somme. For him the worst moment came the next year, in 1917. He was 20,and serving with the Essex Yeomanry in his third year at the front. A new regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, had just come out from England to join up with his. The men were mustard-keen, in fresh-pressed uniforms that had not yet seen a shell hole or a trench.

Eighty years later, Mr Marshall found it hard to remember whether the Ox and Bucks was sent “over the top” in the morning or the evening. What he never forgot was going into no-man's-land a few hours later, following an officer with a white flag, to bury their bodies. There were hundreds of them; all but a handful had been killed immediately. The mud was too compacted to dig down far. As his unit marched back, he trod under his boots the corpses of the men with whom, that morning, he had eaten breakfast.

Very few men—perhaps a dozen now in Britain—survive from the conflict that marked modern history, and seared the modern conscience, more than any other. Mr Marshall was the last representative of perhaps the most quixotic part of that doomed enterprise, the cavalry units of the Western Front. Once he had joined up, enthusiastically lying that he was older than 17, he had his picture taken in uniform, proudly astride his horse. He had ridden since he was five, starting on a goat for a tuppenny dare, and was a natural in the saddle. In 1915, no boy looked happier to have left the Wivenhoe shipyards for adventure in the fields of Flanders.

Some commanding generals, Haig among them, believed in 1914 that cavalry would win the war. A mounted charge, with swords or lances, was swift and flexible and had shock value. Even in later years, as the war on the Western Front bogged down in mud and barbed wire, horses seemed to hold the key to making it mobile again. A quick cavalry break through entrenched infantry lines could shatter the stalemate, take the fighting on to new ground, and move it forward.

Just once or twice, Mr Marshall lived that dream. At Cambrai in 1917 he met German infantry advancing: “We drew our swords and cut them down. It was cut and thrust at the gallop. They stood no chance.” For a moment then, his blade gleaming, he was in a direct line that went back to the squadrons of Xenophon. A few days after the burying expedition, when German foot-soldiers surprised the Essex as they saddled up, he watched in amazement as the Bengal Lancers leapt on to their horses bareback, plucked their lances out of the ground and routed the enemy. It was “a colossal sight”.

For much of the time, however, horses did not help in close engagements. High-explosive shells terrified them, and chlorine gas blinded them as it blinded men. (Mr Marshall fought at Loos, where 140 tons of gas, released by the British over the battlefield, blew back into their own trenches.) Horses also made large targets, especially when corralled in numbers behind the lines, and soon weakened when they could not be cared for. Of 800,000 horses used on the Western Front, mostly for transport and pulling artillery, only about half survived.

In winter, when fighting eased, the cavalry's job was to hold the front line: “three lines of trenches, mud and devastation”, as Mr Marshall remembered it. On one spell of duty, out in the middle of no-man's-land, an exploding shrapnel shell half-buried him in mud and smothered two of his friends. Unable to move, he sang hymns to them until he was pulled out. They were past rescuing.

A Shared Cigarette

When Mr. Marshall turned 100, historians and documentary makers began to show up at his farm cottage in Surrey—where he had lived since 1940, working as a handyman on a nearby estate—to ask him for his memories. He had never spoken about the war before or revisited the battlefields. Remembrance was sharp enough.

Under questioning, he revealed a slyly insubordinate streak. He used to trade cigarettes for other men's rum rations and, when the orderly officer's back was turned, quickly whip off puttee, boot, and sock to rub the rum between his toes. As a result, while other men's feet were slowly rotting from trench foot or gangrene, “[mine] were as good as anything." He recalled, too, offering a drag on a cigarette to a soldier who had been tied to the wheel of a cart, without food or water, for some misdemeanor. Years later they met by chance in Oxford Street and shared memories of how good that smoke had been.

Albert Marshall at 108

His nickname, “Smiler," stemmed from an incident, soon after joining up, when he had thrown a snowball at a drill sergeant. (“Hey, Smiler, I'm talking to you!” the sergeant roared.) He sang on the boat that took him to France, sang as he returned, and sang when he was there: “If the sergeant's pinched your rum, never mind," and “Nearer my God to Thee." His smile was one of the last of that crowd of sunny recruits who look out of their fading photographs in blithe and cocky ignorance of the horror they were to see. No faces are more haunting.

Source:  the Economist, 26 May 2005

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

26 March 1918: Ferdinand Foch Named Allied Generalissimo

Stained Glass Window at Doullens Town Hall
Commemorating Foch's Designation as Generalissimo
26 March 1918

The action of 26 March was formalized at a later meeting in Beauvais on 3 April with this document:

Gen. Foch is charged by the British, French, and American Governments with the coordination of the action of the Allied Armies on the western front; to this end there is conferred on him all the powers necessary for its effective realization.  To the same end, the British, French, and American Governments confide in Gen. Foch the strategic direction of military operations.

The Commander-in-Chief of the British, French, and American Armies will exercise to the fullest extent the tactical direction of their armies.  Each Commander-in-Chief will have the right to appeal to his Government, if in his opinion his Army is placed in danger by the instructions received from Gen. Foch.

D. HAIG, F. M.
HENRY WILSON, General, 3.4.18.
TASKER H. BLISS, General and Chief of Staff.
JOHN J. PERSHING, General, U. S. A.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century
by David Reynolds
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

The Long Shadow challenges two accepted views of the Great War and its aftermath, namely that most of postwar Europe was frozen in perpetual mourning and the 1920s and 1930s were predominantly morbid. Indeed, argues Reynolds, some of the changes brought about by the Great War were positive in a transformative sense, especially for Britain.

One of the aims of The Long Shadow is to demonstrate why and in what ways Britain's experience of the conflict was unique. She was not, for example, bombed seriously; neither was she engulfed in revolution or wracked by civil war or paramilitary violence as in so many other European countries. And both politically and economically, Britain was more stable than her Continental neighbors.

While the focus of The Long Shadow is primarily on Britain, Reynolds also contrasts Britain's role in the war with that of the United States, which was both geographically and emotionally more distant; the Great War in America was something that happened "over there," 3000 miles from home. Nonetheless, as Reynolds demonstrates, both Britain and America shared a growing disillusion with what the conflict achieved.

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For two decades, the Great War in Britain was overshadowed by the Second World War but was to be rediscovered in the 1960s, around the time of the 50th anniversary. At this point, it became the war of trenches and poets. Reynolds asks why the British have such a problem with the war. The answer, he believes, is to be found in the Armistice and the Peace of Versailles and not, as has often been assumed, in the causes of the war. Reynolds argues that the massive losses during the Great War might eventually have been seen as justifiable by the British if the war had, as was promised, proved to be the war to end wars. Ultimately, explains Reynolds, the meaning of the war would depend not on the events themselves but on the persistence of the peace.

British conceptions of the war established after the 50th anniversary have remained largely unchallenged — it is still regarded as a human tragedy, trenches were the symbol of suffering, and literature is the natural form of expression for what the war meant and still means to the British. Through the writing of Paul Fussell, Pat Barker, and Sebastian Faulks, Americans have come to share in this image. It is time, argues Reynolds, to take a wider view that gives greater space, for example, to the first few weeks of the war, or to when the German Army nearly captured Paris, when America entered the war and helped push back the exhausted German Army, to medical advances, and last but certainly not least, the important contributions of the home front in the form of the manufacturing industry, food production, the use of woman power in factories, transport, farming, and clerical work.

It is Reynolds's hope that as we approach the centenary, the British will start to "lift their eyes beyond the Western Front" to encompass the broader story of the Great War. He makes the valid point that the Tommies of 1914–18 are now as far away as Wellington's redcoats of 1815 were from them. Our memorials remain, but what memories will they trigger? How will we read the established stories of the war, and how will we write new ones?

Cenotaph, Whitehall, London
Remembrance Day 2010

The Long Shadow is a scholarly work by one of Britain's foremost experts on the two world wars. It is a thorough and convincing examination of what has formed the British view of the Great War and why this needs to be re-thought. By focusing on such themes as democracy and empire, nationalism and capitalism, art and poetry, and by comparing the differing impacts of the war on Britain, Ireland and America, Britain's perception of the war will change; she can no longer be seen in splendid isolation.

Scholarly and extensive (The Long Shadow is over 500 pages long) but also highly readable, Reynolds's study clarifies why Britain has seen her role in the war as so different from all other nations. Drawing on a wide range of sources — historical, artistic, and literary, copiously annotated, and featuring black and white as well as color illustrations from a variety of countries both during and after the war, The Long Shadow is an important work not only for historians but also for Great War enthusiasts and literary specialists. Surprisingly inexpensive, at $23.35, it is superb value. The final statement in the inside flap is no exaggeration: "stunningly broad in its historical perspective, The Long Shadow is a magisterial reinterpretation of the place of the Great War in modern history."

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dining with Rasputin

Should time travel ever be invented and you're contemplating inviting some interesting historical figures over for dinner,  you might want to think twice about extending an offer to Rasputin. Here is the report of Mr. Joseph Vecchi, restauranteur, who operated the French restaurant at the Astoria Hotel in St. Petersburg in the days of the last tsar. He served a party of society ladies celebrating the birthday of an unnamed princess one evening.

Throughout the evening the behavior of Rasputin was intolerable. Remember that he was an adventurer, possessed of undoubted powers of personal magnetism, a skilled psychologist, and was the secret power behind the Russian Court. Many of the ladies present had favors to beg from the Court which Rasputin was in a position to influence. Though his supporters vowed that he was a man of ascetic life, he was, nevertheless, a man entirely without principle. . . and he was surrounded by some of the loveliest and youngest women in Russia, only too anxious to court his favors. Such a compliment might go to any man's head, and it certainly went to Rasputin's. Strive as I will I can find no words to mitigate of excuse his disgusting behavior.When he ate it was like a beast using his long talon-like fingers in lieu of knife and fork, grabbling amongst the food on his plate and stuffing himself in a very vulgar way with no regard of the feelings of the cultured ladies who sat at table with him.  

Rasputin at His Most Photogenic and Sober

HE drank freely, but it didn't get the better of him. Rasputin was not a drunkard. No one could intimidate him. He used the most vulgar language in the presence of his hostess and ladies (and rumor said that he used it even at Court in the presence of the Czar), and none of them dared to utter a rebuke, or betray by as much as a hostile look or averted eyes how shocked they were. Yes, the party was gay, but I was disgusted, and felt sympathy in every nerve for the lovely women present who were dining with such a beast (though nobody could have told from their expressions and demeanor what they might have been thinking). They seemed to be enjoying the party thoroughly, and the feeblest joke on the part of Rasputin would send them off into peals of laughter. . . and the most vulgar ones did not bring a blush to their cheeks, . . or if they did, it went unnoticed.

Rasputin made a habit of leaving every party he attended before any of the other guests did. It was a favorable affectation of his, and no doubt copied from better men. This particular party was no exception to the rule;  but it wasn't until about 3:30 a.m. that he made his departure, quietly slipping away up the little staircase and unnoticed out of the hotel to his waiting carriage. After that the party lost its coherence, the ladies leaving in twos and threes, in an inconspicuous manner so that  they would not be observed, although it was unlikely that such a notability as Rasputin could be in the hotel and rumors and conjecture not fly about.

Source:  The full account of the evening can be found at the excellent Alexander Palace website, "The Home of the Last Tsar." (Link)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Britsh Army's War on Trench Foot

The conditions of trench warfare included nervous strain and long hours of inactivity, with men remaining almost motionless and in cramped positions, immersed in mud or cold water at near-freezing temperatures. As the temperatures fell, those standing knee deep in ditches faced actual freezing, and field ambulances reported treating cases of frostbite. Even with improved weather conditions, physicians found themselves not treating actual frostbite but characteristics that were clinically indistinguishable from frostbite and which they initially called "chilled feet" or "trench foot."

This Can't Possibly Be Good for One's Feet

The typical medical history of trench foot began with soldiers feeling their feet becoming cold and then ultimately losing all feeling. Beyond the initial discomfort associated with cold feet, there was no other complaint until the feet swelled around the ankles, the swelling sometimes extending up the calves. At this stage, soldiers could not replace their boots once they had been removed. It was thus not unusual to see men in a battalion hobbling along in their bare feet or in boots that were too tight to lace. In moderate cases, the condition lasted two to three weeks, but the more severe cases lasted from six weeks to three months or more.

Among soldiers diagnosed with trench foot, many had worn their boots and puttees for periods from 72 hours to 14 days without taking them off. Often, boots that were large when dry had shrunk under the wetness. "Within a few minutes  or even before entering the trenches for their spell of days and nights of fighting," wrote one medical observer, "the boots of the majority of my patients had been soaked, and so they remained until, on their removal, the gangrene or other manifestations were discovered."

A Minor Case of Trench Foot

In studies undertaken by the British Medical Department, physicians not surprisingly found that the instances of trench foot coincided with cold and wet weather. Of interest, however, the highest number of cases occurred during October and November, falling off in December and January during the freezing weather and rising again after the thaw. During the first year of the war, one battalion lost 400 men in two days to trench foot, and many of these men suffered subsequent amputations. Physicians treating these cases soon began dividing them into three different groups: the first type they characterized as functional anesthesia with impairment of movement; a second type showed slight edema, functional anesthesia, and impairment of movement; the third type exhibited well-marked edema, bleb formation [bulges], and ecchymoses.

Further research discovered that the predisposing factor was fatigue, but the exciting factor was purely mechanical, namely, "venous stagnation and consequent exudation of material into the tissues of the foot." Accordingly, one researcher, Capt. Basil Hughes, insisted that men in the trenches rest with their legs elevated, that they use blankets when resting on the fire-step, that they change socks frequently, and that they take hot soup and rum to keep up vitality.

A Gruesome Case of Trench Foot

Ideally, dry weather and good drainage in the trenches eliminated the problem of trench foot. Such an environment, however, seldom prevailed under battle conditions. Constant bombardment and the need for readiness often precluded efforts to pump out saps, fire bays, traverses, and communicating trenches. The military initiated efforts to drain the trenches and provide them with boards — known as "duckboards" — placed at the base of the trench. By 1915, miles of duckboards were laid in the trenches, many of which either floated away with the heavy rains or were trodden into the mud.

More effective prophylaxis involved thorough foot and boot inspection of soldiers before they entered the trenches, the systematic use of soap, water, and "French powder" (borated talc and camphor), oiling the feet, and insisting that boots be well greased and of ample size so as to ease pressure on the feet when wet. Additional precautions included loose lacing of the boots as well as loose binding of the puttees to ensure adequate circulation.

Eventually, officers across the Western Front developed elaborate organizational arrangements to ensure fresh supplies of socks to men in the trenches. Waterproof bags full of clean dry socks were sent every night to the trenches along with the rations. This enabled every soldier to receive a fresh pair of socks every 24 hours. To maintain circulation and avoid any form of constriction of the feet and legs, officers prohibited the wearing of puttees in the trenches and encouraged the men to move about as much as possible. Some even instituted a regular removal of the boots, followed by foot rubbing drills and massage. Officers also insisted on correct posture when sitting on the fire step or crouching against the wet side of a trench. Other changes included the rule that trench duty in a waterlogged sector should not exceed 24 to 36 hours; the institution of "foot-ashing centres"; a liberal ration of hot food in the trenches; removing boots and socks at least twice a day while in the trenches; the more extensive use of gum boots; and the gradual abandoning of greasy preparations for the use of dry foot powder. Nevertheless, British soldiers never completely gave up using their whale oil. When in the line, a battalion received ten gallons of the oil as its daily issue.

Foot Inspection in the Trenches

Most important, the Army placed the responsibility for the proper care of the men's feet on company and platoon officers rather than on the medical corps. The Fourth Army's Standing Order No. 595, issued 20 June 1917, stated that "CO's [company officers] will be reminded that the loss of effective strength due to the prevalence of this trouble is an indication of faulty discipline and faulty interior economy, and they will, therefore, be held responsible that the instructions laid down are carried out under the strictest supervision by company officers." The real secret to preventing trench foot was perhaps best revealed in the comment of A. G. Butler in The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918: "The CO and all officers entered enthusiastically into the spirit of the game.   In other words, the successful elimination of trench foot as a major source of attrition turned out to be little more than good morale, common-sense hygiene, and strict military discipline.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

SPAD XIII Cockpit: A Virtual Tour at the USAF National Museum

In 1916 a new generation of German fighters threatened to win air superiority over the Western Front. The French aircraft company, Société pour l'Aviation et ses Dérives (SPAD), responded by developing a replacement for its highly successful SPAD VII. Essentially a larger version of the SPAD VII with a more powerful V-8 Hispano-Suiza engine, the prototype SPAD XIII C.1 ["C" designating Chasseur (fighter) and "1" indicating one aircrew] first flew in March 1917. 

With its 220-hp engine, the SPAD XIII reached a top speed of 135 mph — about 10 mph faster than the new German fighters. It carried two .303-cal. Vickers machine guns mounted above the engine. Each gun had 400 rounds of ammunition and the pilot could fire the guns separately or together. Technical problems hampered production until late 1917, but nine different companies built a total of 8,472 SPAD XIIIs by the time production ceased in 1919. 

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Since the United States entered World War I without a combat-ready fighter of its own, the U.S. Army Air Service obtained fighters built by the Allies. After the Nieuport 28 proved unsuitable, the Air Service adopted the SPAD XIII as its primary fighter. By the war's end, the Air Service had accepted 893 SPAD XIIIs from the French, and these aircraft equipped 15 of the 16 American fighter squadrons. Today, Americans are most familiar with the SPAD XIII because many American aces — like Rickenbacker and Luke — flew them during WWI. Now look at the SPAD from the pilot's point of view.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Western Front Virtual Tour —
Stop 12: Retreat from Mons, Part I

At Mons, General French's BEF force was facing von Kluck's First Army, which was twice its size. By the afternoon of 23 August, despite their success of earlier in the day, the British regulars were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Also, and with the retreat of the the French Fifth Army on their right, they were facing danger of being isolated and annihilated. Orders went out for a withdrawal south, which would continue for two weeks until the BEF was able to escape the German pursuit by crossing and moving south of the Marne river.

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Next Week: The Retreat from Mons, Part II

Thursday, March 20, 2014

History's First Aerial Bombing?

It was not in the Turkish-Italian or Balkan Wars before World War I!

The first aerial bombs in history were dropped from hot-air balloons during the Austrian-Venetian War on 15 July 1849.

The first aerial bombing was attempted in 1849 when the Austrians launched 200 pilotless, bomb-carrying hot-air balloons against forces defending Venice. At the siege of Venice when no position could be found for siege guns, it was decided to use balloons for bombardments. This was during the Italian War of Independence, 1848–1849, when Austrian artillery lieutenant Uchatius undertook the technical development of such a means of attack. Hot-air balloons of thin paper were used. These balloons could carry bombs weighing 33 pounds for a half hour and were dropped by means of a time fuse. The point of departure of the balloons was determined by the direction of the wind. 

Ground Zero for History's First Aerial Bombing

No great material damage was done to the enemy, though one of the charges burst in St. Mark's Square. An unexpected shift of the wind drove some of the balloons back to the besiegers, and their use was abandoned. Aviators would rediscover bombing in the wars that preceded the Great War. In World War II, the Japanese would try to apply Lieutenant Uchatius's idea of using balloons to bomb the west coast of the United States.

Sources:  History of Flight and Smithsonian Institution

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rossignol: An Episode in the Battle of the Frontiers

3rd Colonial Division Memorial

Contributed by Christina Holstein

On 22 August 1914, the French 3rd Colonial Infantry Division, marching along the road from Rossignol to Neufchateau (Belgium) encountered the German 6th Army Corps and, in a day of desperate fighting, was defeated with losses of over 8500 officers and men. The loss of officers was frightful and included all three generals (two killed and one wounded and taken prisoner), almost all the officers of 1st Brigade and another 60 officers from 3rd Brigade. Only one officer survived from the divisional artillery. The French put 32 guns out of action and the remainder were either destroyed or captured. German losses were also serious but not as high as the French.

Memorial at Execution Site

On the following day, 122 civilians, mostly from Rossignol, were rounded up by German troops and taken away to Arlon, where they were shot near Shoppach bridge. The bodies, at first buried in a civilian cemetery at Arlon, were returned to Rossignol after the war in the presence of the King of the Belgians. The present mausoleum was inaugurated in 1925.

Mausoleum for the Civilians

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914 — Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914
By Clayton Donnell
Published by Pen and Sword, 2014

Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German Army's General Staff, laid out his plan for defeating France with the Roman-Carthaginian battle of Cannae as a basis. In that battle, the Carthaginian leader Hannibal faced a vastly superior Roman force that would have undoubtedly annihilated his army if he attacked it frontally. Hannibal chose instead to avoid the Roman center and concentrate on moving around its flanks and crushing it from the rear and sides. Von Schlieffen was faced with a similar problem: the Belgian and French border fortresses of Liège, Namur, Maubeuge, Givet, Longwy, Verdun, Toul, and Épinal. Von Schlieffen reasoned that the fortress line was an Allied center which, if the Germans approached it frontally, would annihilate their divisions with the superior firepower protected by impregnable fortifications. As a result of this observation, he decided that the best way to avoid slaughter and bring it to the enemy was to outflank the line and come up in its rear. In the 1890s, when von Schlieffen first wrote his plan, his assessment of the fortress line may have been valid, but by 1914 weapons improvements made them less formidable. Regrettably, the new General Staff under Helmuth von Moltke and his field commanders failed to adjust to those facts.

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Clayton Donnell's book is one of those rare works that reports the facts without embellishment or generalities. And the facts are in the thousands. At times, I found my mind as equally besieged as the fortresses by the overwhelming bombardment of facts. The author, a retired Air Force officer who spent tours in Europe and had many opportunities to visit the fortresses he talks about in his work, starts each chapter, which is dedicated to one of the sieges, by painstakingly describing each fortress that the invading German Army encountered in their August–October 1914 drive across Belgium and northern France. Not only can a statistician find a complete list of armaments and manpower, down to the company level, but also the fortress' origins and the many improvements they received since the first brick was laid up to the date the siege began. From this information, enhanced by a plethora of maps and photographic images from archives and museums across northern Europe, the reader quickly discovers that the fortress line, with the exception of the Belgian fortresses and the French fortifications south of Verdun, was not as formidable as it had been in the 1890s. Budgetary concerns had delayed outer protection upgrades from brick to concrete, stripped the ramparts of manpower in an effort to furnish men for attack rather than defense, and failed to update armaments, some of which  still used black powder or still stood openly on ramparts.

With the information about the defenders minutely detailed, the author launches into the same precise description of the besieging force. Key among this data is the armaments that the Germans brought to the siege. Belgian engineers had designed the forts of Liège and Namur to withstand bombardment by 21cm cannon, the largest caliber believed to exist in the last 1890s. Unknown to the world, the munitions makers of Germany and Austria-Hungary had brought into existence cannons of 32cm and 42cm with ranges that allowed their placements to be well beyond the ranges of the Belgian and French fortress cannons.

Then the author sets out a day-by-day account of the siege itself that he gleaned from some of the best primary sources available from French and Belgian records. There's data on how many shots of what caliber landed where and in what frequency (at times as many as four 42cm shells weighing 1026 kg hit one Namur fort at one time) as well as which company mounted the assault and which company resisted. In these accounts the reader will find the first mistakes made by the besieging forces. For instance, at Liège, the first fortress town to come under fire, German artillery commanders brought as many forts under fire as possible instead of concentrating on one area. But the most glaring mistake was the ordering of infantry assaults after a preliminary bombardment that incapacitated some of the forts but not the majority. The result was repulse after repulse with high casualties. By the time the Germans encountered their last objective, Antwerp, their tactics had changed to allowing the cannons do their work fully before the infantry attacked.

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Damage at Fort Maizeret, Smallest in the Namur Zone

Donnell writes an excellent analysis on whether the fortresses accomplished their primary mission — that is, did they hold up the German armies long enough for the Allies to formulate a defense and organize a counteroffensive? Entering into his answer to that question, which is contained in the last chapter, are many factors. At first I read his answers with reservations. They appeared to be just so many "the French, Belgians, or Germans could have done such and such to avoid this or that." But on reflection, Donnell's analysis did more than answer the question with a resounding yes. His discussion boiled down to the age-old axiom that many of us who delve into the reasons for the extraordinarily high casualties of the early days of the Great War have found in our research or casual reading: neither side's leaders understood how to conduct war with the weapons they had at their disposal or how to coordinate one system with the other. Efficiency came as a result of trial and error which, regrettably, cost lives.

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914 does not romantically transform fortresses into people with distinct personalities, nor does it create bigger-than-life heroes who stand on the ramparts defying shot and shell or bang sabers against doors demanding surrender. Yet this is a book that will stand as a source to artillery and fortifications buffs and researchers for many years to come. The information contained in the pages is without measure.

Michael Kihntopf

Monday, March 17, 2014

The War on the Home Front: Kill the Squirrels!

As soon as I discovered this on the website of the U.S. Army Heritage Center, it moved to the head of the line for the Roads to the Great War audience. I am so proud to know that even back then my home state was in the vanguard of the mighty forces protecting the Republic. Please don't miss the fearsome enemy squirrels in their Pickelhaubes at the bottom of the cartoon.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

War Artist Percy Wyndham Lewis

British painter, novelist, and critic Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on his parents' yacht, off Amherst, Nova Scotia,  on 18 November 1882 and he died in  London 7 March 1957.  He was the son of a British mother and a wealthy American father. He came to England as a child, studied at the Slade School, 1898–1901, then lived on the Continent for seven years, mostly in Paris. 

Wyndham Lewis in 1913

In 1909 he returned to England and in the years leading up to the First World War emerged as one of the chief figures in British avant-garde art. From 1911 he developed an angular, machine-like, semi-abstract style that had affinities with both Cubism and Futurism. He worked for a short time with Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, but after quarreling with him in 1914 he formed the Rebel Art Centre, from which grew Vorticism, a movement of which he was the chief figure and whose journal, Blast, he edited. He served with the Royal Artillery, 1915–17, and as an Official War Artist, 1917–18, carrying his Vorticist style into works such as "A Battery Shelled" (1918, Imperial War Museum, London). 

First World War Work

Officers and Signalers, 1918

A Battery Position in a Wood, 1918

A Battery Shelled, 1919

A Canadian Gun-Pit, 1918

In 1919 he founded Group X as an attempt to revive Vorticism, but this failed, and from the late 1920s he devoted himself mainly to writing, in which he often made savage attacks on his contemporaries (particularly the Bloomsbury Group). His association with the British Fascist Party and his praise of Hitler alienated him from the literary world. Lewis was the most original and idiosyncratic of the major British artists working in the first decades of the 20th century, and he was among the first artists in Europe to produce completely abstract paintings and drawings. He built his personal style on features taken from Cubism and Futurism but did not accept either. He accused Cubism of failure to "synthesize the quality of life with the significance or spiritual weight that is the mark of all the greatest art" and of being mere visual acrobatics. The Futurists, he wrote, had the vivacity that the Cubists lacked, but they themselves lacked the grandness and the "great plastic qualities" that Cubism achieved. His own work, he declared, was "electric with a mastered and vivid vitality." He wrote several books, including novels, notably Tarr (1918), and collections of essays and criticism. Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), Wyndham Lewis the Artist (1939), and Rude Assignment (1950) are autobiographical.

Second World War Work

A Canadian War Factory, 1944

Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

98 Years Ago: The U.S. Launches the Punitive Expedition into Mexico

Ninety-eight years ago this week, President Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. Pershing into Chihuahua in what came to be known popularly as the "Punitive Expedition." Historian Mitch Yockelson explains what happened. [A week] earlier, the bandit/politician Francisco "Pancho" Villa had raided Columbus, New Mexico. With approximately 485 men, known as Villistas, Villa had attacked the border town on 9 March 1916. According to War Department reports, ten American officers and soldiers were killed, two officers and five soldiers wounded, eight civilians killed, and two wounded. The Mexican irregulars' losses numbered approximately one hundred killed, with seven wounded and captured. From 16 March 1916, to February 14,1917, the expeditionary force of more than 14,000 regular army troops under the command of Brig. Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing operated in northern Mexico "in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays." Another 140,000 regular army and National Guard troops patrolled the vast border between Mexico and the United States to discourage further raids.

10 March 1916 Cartoon

Although the Mexican Punitive Expedition is considered a minor event in U.S. history, it is a story filled with adventure, intrigue, and confusion. Despite its failure to capture Pancho Villa, the Mexican Punitive Expedition can be deemed a success. Secretary of War Baker praised the efforts of Pershing and his men by stating that "its objective, of course was the capture of Villa, if that could be accomplished, but its real purpose was a display of the power of the United States into a country disturbed beyond control of the constituted authorities of the Republic of Mexico as a means of controlling lawless aggregations of bandits and preventing attacks by them across the international frontier. This purpose is fully and finally accomplished."

Pershing Leading His Force

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Most important, the Mexican Punitive Expedition provided military training experience for the 11,000 regular soldiers who made up the expedition. Pershing's experience during the Punitive Expedition and the death of Funston on 19 February 1917, made him the obvious choice as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Many of the same men who served with Pershing in Mexico accompanied him to France.

Mitch Yockeleson's excellent summary article (especially helpful for researchers) can be found on the website of the National Archives (link) and the late John Eisenhower's in-depth treatment can be purchased at

Friday, March 14, 2014

Western Front Virtual Tour —
Stop 11: Mons – 1914 & 1918

Given the job of guarding the left flank of the Allies' position in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force arrived at the Belgian town of Mons on the 22nd and ran into scouting parties of the German First Army just north of the town. The next day they fought an important delaying action, but by the afternoon overwhelming numbers of the enemy were arriving and BEF commander John French order the withdrawal that became known as the Retreat from Mons.  Over four years later, the British Army was driving the German Army back and, ironically, was in Mons again, the very site where they fired their first shots of the war.

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Next Week: The Retreat from Mons, Part I