Category Archives: Great War Wednesday

Great War Wednesday: 1916–Breaker of Nations


The first tanks appeared on the battlefield during 1916.

The year 1916 served as opening night of a danse macabre for which the two preceding years of combat had been mere dress rehearsals. This middle year of the war would see many, if not most of the battles which would become touchstones of nations in their collective memories of the Great War.

At a small French fortress town called Verdun the German High Command would make the ill-fated decision to “bleed France white” and the cream of a generation of two nations would perish before the high walls of the mighty fortress which rang with the battle-cry “ON NE PASSERANT PAS! They shall not pass!” The battle would last most of the year with casualties considered staggering by even the standards of the Great War.

Later in the year, Britain would launch the much rehearsed and anticipated offensive along the Somme River. Pitched by the British military leaders as a backbreaking blow to end the stalemate along the Western Front, the months long Battle of the Somme began with what remains the worst single day of death in the long and storied battle history of the British Isles as 60,000 men — one fifth of the TOTAL British casualties of the twelve year long Napoleonic Wars — died in the battle’s opening act as the British had to face the question of just whose back was being broken.

1916 would see the only full scale engagement between the German High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet in the entire war. What the naval history of World War One lacked in frequency, it made up for in magnitude as The Battle of Jutland became the largest surface-ship-only naval battle in world history.

In the south, Italy and Austria-Hungary would fight five more Battles of the Isonzo River to little effect besides mass carnage. Meanwhile in the East, the Russian bear would awaken in a mighty way and show just what the largest army in the world could do when led by an effective general. In the few short weeks of the Brusilov Offensive, Russia very nearly knocked Austria-Hungary completely out of the war.

The year would see other nations join the war as well with Italy declaring war on Germany in addition to Austria-Hungary and Romania entered the war on the side of the Entente’ powers, a decision she would instantly regret. Still, all eyes looked across the Atlantic to see what the greatest neutral of all — America — would do. Would she stand beside her mother country and fight with the Entente’ or would she side with the Central Powers and crush Britain and France forever? As 1916 progressed, the only certainty was uncertainty.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: Heads Up


Zouave in 1914 kit.

It’s a safe bet to say no one was ready for World War I. The last time Europe erupted in a continent-wide conflagration, a Corsican artillery corporal was the one who lit the flame. One hundred years of relative peace saw great progress in weapons technology, but other areas lagged conspicuously far behind. Nowhere on the battlefield was the state of general unpreparedness more obvious than the uniforms all the combatants marched off to war clothed in.

The French cavalry famously wore uniforms almost indistinguishable from those Napoleon’s famous cuirassiers had worn on the field at Waterloo. The French also fielded several of their Zouaves regiments still wearing their distinctive brilliant red flowing pantaloons in 1914 and 1915.

For their part, the British had learned from the Zulu Wars and the two Boer Wars how foolish their traditional bright red coats were on even a semi-modern battlefield. As a result of heavy casualties in those engagements, especially to officers, they wisely marched off to the Western Front wearing khaki colored kits. Unfortunately, while khaki is a marvelous camouflage in the Transvaal of Africa, it sticks out like a duck in a hen coop on the green fields of Flanders.

The wool Kepi hat, standard issue 1914-1916

Brightly colored uniforms aside, all the combatants shared one flaw in their strategy for protecting their soldiers — no one wore helmets. Helmets or “helms” had once been the crowning piece of any worthy soldier’s kit. Knights of course wore elaborate face-encompassing tubs of metal, but even the lowliest archer or pikeman would have some sort of iron or at least boiled leather pot to guard his pate.

Unfortunately, the advent of gunpowder spelled the doom of the helmet. Commanders reasoned, quite logically, that any helm capable of stopping a bullet would prove entirely too heavy and cumbersome for soldiers to wear with any regularity. As a result, the substantial protective headgear gave way to more elaborately colored and beplumed “shakos” which enabled generals to keep track of their troops in the smoke and fog of battle. For 200 years, the helmet, if it was worn at all, was a ceremonial headpiece at best. So things stood at the outset of the Great War as the French marched off in their traditional white wool “kepis” while the Brits wore soft flannel field caps into the early battles.

The distinctly Prussian pickelhaub

By the middle of 1915, however, trench warfare had set in in earnest and officers began noticing a new type of injury causing great casualties among the men. Whenever the massive field guns’ shells exploded near the lines, they would fling great plumes of rock, soil, and shrapnel into the air — often to great heights. As men like Galileo and Newton proved throughout the centuries, what went up was going to come down . . . HARD. A man might not be harmed in the least by the blast from a Bertha, but the fist sized rock she kicked up falling from a quarter of a mile high onto his cute little kepi would do a number on the old brain pan. Helmets started making a rapid comeback.

The Germans were at the forefront of helmet development having been the only power to enter the war with some semblance of one already — the iconic “pickelhaub” with its prominent central spike. The spiked helm was more for looks, however, so the Germans began development on a three piece forged helmet with a modest visor and a defined skirt at the back protecting the wearer’s neck. This became the famous “stahlhelm” which would serve with distinction throughout the Great War and later be a symbol of the Nazi regime during World War 2.

A “B” pattern Brodie helmet.

Across the Channel, the British developed the Brodie Helmet which became the stereotypical look of the British infantry “Tommies” during the War. The Brodie, unlike the stahlhelm was stamped from a single piece of steel instead of being meticulous fitted together. As a result, the Brodie could be turned out in much greater numbers at a greater rate enabling the British Expeditionary Force to be fully fitted out with helmets before any other army.

The Brodie was a practical design which hearkened back to medieval yeomen’s helmets. It was a shallow dome covering the head and sported a wide brim all the way round designed to shield the neck and face from falling debris in the trenches. The first production Brodie helmets had a bit larger brim than the later standard models, but High Command realized through early trials that the wider brim made it difficult for the men to aim their weapons from a prone, or lying down, position. The Brodie would later become the standard helmet for America’s doughboys and dogfaces upon the United State’s entry into the war.

French Adrian helmet of 1916

Other countries adopted their own versions — with modifications — of the stahlhelm and the Brodie depending on which side they were fighting. The French drug their feet the longest and it was actually the middle of 1916 before they exchanged their useless kepis for their version of the Brodie called the Adrian helmet which had a bit narrower brim but a more rounded cup over the head.

As soon as helmets started appearing in the trenches commanders noticed casualties from falling debris began to decline. In 1914 – middle 1915, the most common fatal injury was from falling projectiles. Once helmets appeared in sizable numbers, those injuries declined by two thirds and fatalities by around half.Of course, like their late medieval forebears, none of the helmets would stop a bullet, but such was not in their design. Instead, they kept the rocks and mound of dirt the guns kicked up from cracking the skulls of the men ducking down in the trenches.

One thing both sides had in common was that, while all of the helmets produced sported chinstraps, they were universally removed, tucked up, strapped over the top of the helm, and basically placed anywhere but fastened securely below one’s chin. The reason for this reluctance to wear one’s helmet fastened with its chinstrap has its roots in battlefield apocrypha. Apparently, someone at sometime, maybe he was English or perhaps Hungarian possibly even Russian, but whoever he was, he saw a comrade decapitated by a shell blast because the overpressure of the blast caught the helmet — securely fastened by the chinstrap — and ripped it from the poor soul’s head taking said head along with it. Something no one seems to ever question is the fact that any shell landing close enough to decapitate a helmet and chinstrap wearing soldier is probably going to be close enough that the helmet is just an afterthought.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s Great War post.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: A Most Perfidous Weapon

Standard War I was the proving ground for a great number of new weapon systems. Machine guns entered widespread usage. Artillery improved to the pinnacle of its deadliness. Submarines and airplanes made their debut on the big stage, and poison gas wasn’t just for use against tribal natives anymore.

Oddly enough, however, one weapon which, along with the shovel, proved effective beyond belief was never meant to be a weapon at all. It was invented to fill a need on the plains of the United States – a need to limit the freedom of cattle. One doubts Mr. Lucien Smith pictured the tangled bloody moonscaped battlefields of the Western Front when he filed his patent in 1867 for his invention to make fencing in cattle cheaper and less labor intensive, but his brainchild will forever be linked with the hellish killing fields of No-Man’s-Land.

Mr. Smith invented barbed wire.

Barbed wire in essence is two or three strands of wire twisted around each other and at regular intervals, a one to four pointed barb is twisted into the strand creating a single wire with thousands of flesh shredding “barbs” pointing outward. Different patterns cropped up from time to time before the Great War, but mostly they were just variations on this basic theme. At first, the wire had to be twisted by hand and creation of enough for any use was a time consuming process. By the time of World War I, however, giant barbed wire conglomerates like Smith and Glidden Barbed Wire Company had developed machines which turned out thousands of feet of wire each hour. Barbed wire now existed in quantities to make it an efficient battle implement.

The wire would have been effective if great coils of it were simply unstrung between the trenches and in places, this is exactly what happened. Like so much in this war of excess though, if a simple way was good, an overly involved way was much better. What developed was a series of x-shaped uprights spaced a few feet apart. Then, the engineers wove multiple coils of barbed wire over and around each post. The result was a waist or chest high hedge of shining steel that rusted within hours of exposure to the torrential dampness of Flanders.

Barbed wire lay in solid hedges in multiple lines parallel to every trench on the Western Front. Soldiers on the attack would have to pass through those hedges if they had any hope of reaching their objectives. Now, as any of us from Gray Court could tell you, passing over, under, or through a simple five strand “bob wire fence” could be difficult under simple, peaceful circumstances. Inevitably, crawling under would get your pants caught but climbing over risked the staples pulling out of the posts and dropping you across the bottom four strands in quick succession. In modern times, a mishap like that translated into a visit to the ER for a tetanus shot and some stitches; during the Great War, in a time before tetanus shots or even simple antibiotics existed, scratches from this rusty obstacle could mean an agonizing death as any opening in a soldier’s skin welcomed vast quantities of dirt and other filth into his bloodstream.

So soldiers faced an obstacle impossible to maintain a walking pace through which they needed to sprint across in order to avoid machine gun fire, sniper bullets, and bursting shells. It was a thorny problem both sides in the war faced. They would both employ several methods to attempt to overcome the barbed barriers. One of the most straightforward was a thick pair of leather gloves and a hefty set of wire cutters. Unfortunately, commanders found out early on that the man with the gloves and cutters wasn’t given a sunny reception by the other side if they observed him while bent to his task. As a result, most wire cutting missions took place in darkness.

Unfortunately, cutting gaps into the wire often caused more problems than it solved. Since the gaps were the safest places to pass without getting shredded, great congregations of soldiers gravitated towards the gaps. Before they had gotten to the second line of wire, however, the machine gunners on the other side would note where the gaps created bottlenecks and adjusted their withering fire accordingly. In this way, the final state of the soldiers was worse than the first.

Before long, bright men in the high commands decided artillery was the most efficient way to clear the attack corridors of wire. Seems like a good plan, but the execution, like so many plans in this war, proved less than adequate. At first, they would try shrapnel shells to cut the wire. Shrapnel shells are essentially huge shotgun blasts of pellets which exploded and shot downward at the ground . . . very effective on personnel, but, as anyone who has ever tried to shoot a limp rope or wire in twain could have told the commanders, absolutely useless on wire.

When thousands of casualties pointed to the ineffectiveness of shrapnel shells, the commanders switched to regular high explosive munitions. While enough of these projectiles would indeed cut the wire in many places, the sections would sail into the air to land atop one another willy-nilly fashion and instead of nice orderly rows of wire in predictable areas, no-man’s-land became a greater nightmare of shell craters lined with pointy, rusty steel.

For three years, men were swallowed up by the walls of barbed wire. Finally, another invention making its debut in the Great War emerged and removed the terror of wire for all succeeding generations. Barbed wire was doomed as an effective weapon as soon as the first Mark I “Matilda” tanks from Britain lumbered across the fields crushing the coils of wire beneath their treads on the fields of Cambrai.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: The Fokker Scourge


From the start of the Great War through September 1915, the air war, such as it was, had been dominated by the Allies. This was mainly due to two fortunate circumstances. First, they had more planes initially and second, more importantly, they had more rich young men who became pilots in the pre-War years as somewhat of a hobby. The British especially flew hundreds of sorties over the Western Front, generally to spot for the artillery and gather intelligence on troop movements for the generals. For the most part, these flights of the plodding scout aircraft came and went unimpeded across the lines. The few German planes, such as the Taube type, were outclassed by early British fighters such as the Vickers FB.5 and the French Morane-Saulnier L types. All that came to a screeching halt when Anthony Fokker’s brainchild, the Fokker E.I Eindecker appeared in September 1915 and initiated the period of the air war known as the Fokker Scourge.

The new Fokkers outclassed the French and British planes in every way. First, and strangely enough for a period dominated by biplanes, the E.I had a single wing mounted midway up the plane’s fuselage. This “high wing” design (as opposed to the wing running beneath the cockpit like most monoplanes) enabled the Fokker to turn much tighter in a fight than its opponents could. Also, the bracing of the wing allowed the planes to climb and dive more violently than their French and British counterparts without fear of the wings snapping off. Since a single wing weighed less than two, they also held a decided speed advantage over other planes of the day.

Max Immelmann, the Eagle of Lille and developer of the famous Immelmann Turn.

However, the secret of the Fokker’s dominance for the six to eight month period of the Fokker Scourge or Fokker Scare as some called it, lay in the armament. British planes relied on a separate gunner to fight air combats while the French mounted plates on their propellers in hopes of not shooting off their tickets home. The Germans, however, with their typical engineering zeal, managed to perfect the synchronization gear. This mechanism, also called an interrupter gear, allowed machine guns to be mounted along the axis of the plane and fire directly through the propeller arc. The gear attached to the engine’s crankshaft and whenever the propeller swept in front of the gun, a cam on the gear would prevent the gun from firing, ensuring the safety of the propeller.

The effect of the interrupter gear immediately propelled the German aircraft to the fore. Now, instead of trying to maneuver to allow a separate gunner to get a shot in or trying to line up a shot with a gun mounted atop the high second wing of a biplane, the pilot’s job simplified greatly. All he had to do was point his nose at the target. Wherever the plane flew, the bullets would fly also. The Germans strengthened this advantage by mounting belt fed machine guns instead of drum fed guns like the British Lewis gun. The belts allowed the Germans greater firepower in terms of sustained bursts which a British plane could not match for having to change drums on his gun. The interrupter gears were such an important part of the German successes, the German High Command actually forbade pilots from crossing the German lies into French and British airspace for fear that a shot down aircraft would result in their improved weapons system falling into the hands of the Allies. Thus, the Scourge was less severe than it otherwise might have been had pilots had free reign the entire time their aircraft were technologically far superior.

The strength and speed of the Fokker Eindeckers gave rise to some of the first standardized air combat tactics. One of the most famous was the Immelmann Turn, named for Germany’s early ace Max Immelmann. He would climb high and get his back to the Sun then dive on an unsuspecting target firing a long burst as he came. Most pilots would then continue the dive and begin a long climb back to an advantageous position. Immelmann discovered if he kept the throttle open and the plane at full power, he could “zoom.” This meant he would pull up hard on the stick at the bottom of his dive as he passed his target. His momentum would carry him on a short climb and he could then pitch the plane over and it would seemingly “flip” on it’s tail and be pointed right back at his opponent, giving him two attack chances instead of one for each pass.

Unfortunately for Germany, their dominance of the sky would only last until the spring of 1916 when more capable British and French aircraft began appearing on the front lines. These newer biplanes proved able to master the vaunted Eindecker and German pilots again became the hunted rather than the hunters . . . at least until the appearance of The Albatross turned the tide in the air once again!

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Warfare Takes Flight

Standard back at the turn of the century
in the clear blue skies over Germany
came a roar and a thunder like I’d never heard
it was the screamin’ sound of a big warbird!
Snoopy and the Red Baron by The Royal Guardsmen

Little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, some enterprising young French or British lad with a certain skill at piloting these newfangled “aeroplanes” convinced his commander to let him take one up just to “see what the Huns were up to over the hill.” The commander obliged and the daring young man in his flying machine returned a little later breathless and excited at all the amazing intelligence he was able to gather for his fellow soldiers. Obviously, some enterprising young German lad saw that “reconnaissance flight,” as did HIS commander so the youngster had little trouble convincing a nearby officer to let him go fly over the Allied lines. He went and came back safely, and so began the earliest use of airplanes in warfare.

Things went along splendidly for a few months with almost daily flights over the lines by both sides. The pilots were quite chivalrous with one another and usually exchanged a wave as they passed in the air. They were enemies on paper, but kindred spirits at heart. Then, one of the nastier young men figured it would be good if only HIS side were able to fly over and spy out the other side’s troop movements so this cretin carried a Lee Enfield or Mauser K98 up with him the next time he went aloft and instead of waving at his fellow recon pilot from the other team, he shot the guy with the rifle which, of course, the other man found quite unsporting and he complained about it bitterly to himself all the way to the earth whence he crashed and died.

The offended side, and I like to think it was the British for reasons which will be clear in a moment, thought this shooting at another plane was certainly NOT CRICKET! (see, only the Brits say that) They decided to one up Fritz and did so by sending up a plane with an “observer” in a rear seat. Now, this observer happened to have a Vickers machine gun mounted on a swivel in his cockpit and this machine gun made short work of the first German recon plane the duo encountered. Now the cat was well and truly out of the bag. Pilots had decided, mostly amongst themselves, it was open season on each other and the arms race took off, quite literally. I cannot help but admire these first air warriors. I am terrified to think of flying in the most modern airliner the world has to offer so the idea of climbing into a jumble of wires, wood, and cloth with an engine out front . . . usually anyway . . . is to me nothing short of madness.

At first, the most daunting task facing the early aircraft engineers was how to best arm the new “fighter” type planes. The rear facing machine gun was a start, but the chance always remained that an overzealous “backseater” might track a trailing plane too literally and end up blasting his own craft’s tail off with predictably disastrous results for him and his pilot. What was apparent to everyone almost from the start was the finest place for armament was on the nose of the airplane. With guns on the nose, the pilot could fly the plane and shoot the guns resulting in fewer men in the plane and less weight. The only drawback to guns in the nose was the particularly pesky problem of the propeller. Early attempts established what most suspected, any attempt to fire through the spinning prop would result in shooting one’s own prop to bits with more predictably disastrous results for the pilot and plane since planes before the invention of the jet engine tended to fly quite poorly without propellers.

The first attempt to remedy the problem was put forward by a Frenchman named Roland Garros. His solution was to place steel plating on the propellers at the point where a bullet would otherwise strike the wooden prop. This method did work. Mssr. Garros shot down three enemy planes using the steel plate technique, but it did have one nasty bug. If a bullet hit the steel plate at the right angle, it would not zing harmlessly to the side but instead came ricocheting back at the pilot seated behind the gun. Since the bullet traveled much too fast for the pilot to duck, he would usually end up shot in the head with, again, predictably disastrous results.

As luck had it, a German engineer of some renown, Anthony Fokker, (yes, let the puerile joking begin) got hold of a crashed plane with the steel plates on the prop and realized immediately what a truly stupid idea the whole thing actually was. Within a few weeks, he presented the German High Command with his masterpiece — the interrupting gear. This was an ingenious device that wedded the shaft of the propeller to the firing mechanism of the machine gun. Essentially, it had a “bump” on the gear wherever a blade of the propeller crossed the plane of fire from the gun. The bump would “interrupt” or lock the gun momentarily so the blade could pass unharmed.

Once a German fighter equipped with the interrupting gear crashed behind Allied lines, It didn’t take long for the British to get their hands on one of Fokker’s inventions even though the Germans tried like the devil to keep it secret. Once both sides possessed the ability to mount guns firing through the propellers of planes, the true age of fighter aircraft began as planes still famous today like Spad, Albatross, and Sopwith began taking to the air flown by men of equal fame like Buck, Rickenbacker, and von Richthofen. Air power was out of the cradle and by the end of the war would give glimpses of just how awesomely powerful airplane mounted weapons could be as well as how crucial control of the air would become.

More about all those in later episodes!

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: A Fresh Hell at Ypres

Standard colonial soldiers of the French 45th and 87th divisions — mostly Moroccans and Algerians — must have been longing for home as dusk fell around 5:00 PM on April 22, 1915. The damp, muddy French and Belgian fields of the Western Front were a far cry from the hot desert sands of North Africa where most of the soldiers dwelt when not in service to their French colonial masters. At least this day was better than most; a light breeze blew into their faces from across No-Man’s Land. This was a change from the ordinary since the prevailing winds in this part of the world tend to blow west to east.

Then something strange occurred. A faint acrid smell began slowly overpowering the overpowering stench of blood soaked mud and the cloying odor of the decaying corpses of their comrades who lay dead amidst the barbed wire and shell craters between the two lines. The smell grew stronger. Men’s eyes began to water. Suddenly someone in the first line of trenches raised the alarm and all eyes turned to No Man’s Land where a sickly greenish-yellow miasma rolled slowly, inexorably towards them borne upon the breeze. Men watched with fascination turning quickly to horror as the cloud enveloped the first trench and the screams began in earnest.

All along a four mile section of the Ypres Salient, soldiers — those who could — boiled out of their trenches like so many ants whose mound has been kicked over by a roguish schoolboy. With no thought of order or duty but gripped by a primal terror and driven with the instinctual urge to survive the men abandoned the lines and sprinted for the rear as fast as their horrified legs could carry them. A British soldier described the mounting chaos he witnessed

men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster.

The officers’ first inclination was to invoke the traditional somewhat racist view of the colonial troops as generally unreliable cowards apt to flee at the least provocation . . . until the cloud’s nauseating odor reached them and they too felt compelled to flee.

The entire four mile stretch stood abandoned by all but a few of the hardiest or most fearless soldiers. Had the Germans so desired and so prepared, they could have launched a massive attack and streamed en masse through the gap in the heretofore impermeable line, but such was not to be. The Germans had never foreseen their little experiment could have such amazing success and no reserve troops capable of carrying such an offensive stood ready to exploit the opening both sides had sought so tirelessly and at such cost of life for the past nine months.

The “little experiment” in question was the first use of what was to become the Great War’s signature weapon — poison gas. In this instance, it involved the release of over 150 tons of industrial chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders carried up to the front line by hand over a period of several days. The Germans then waited for a day when the wind was favorable and when the conditions materialized on April 22, 1915, combat engineers opened the valves on each of the cylinders and released the green devil to do his evil work.

The Battle of Second Ypres wasn’t the first use of any gas in the war. Both sides had deployed tear gas at various times in the previous months and the Germans had even attempted to use the chlorine attack before on the Russian Front, but there, at the indecisive Battle of Bolimov, extreme cold rendered the gas inert. Strangely, by using cylinders, Germany aimed to abide by the “rules of war” laid down by the 1899 Hague Convention which banned the use of “shells or explosives designed to deliver poisonous or asphyxiating gasses.” Since the convention mentioned nothing about regular gas cylinders, German military leaders figured they were in the clear . . . legally anyway.

The first attack used chlorine gas, which had an easily recognizable smell and color. While chlorine was quite deadly if inhaled or if one was submerged in it, this gas was actually much easier to avoid than later agents. Since chlorine is heavier than air, a soldier who could gain higher ground would be relatively safe from its deleterious effects. Those in greatest danger were the invalids and immobile wounded lying in the trenches. For them, trapped as they were at the bottom of the trenches, the green cloud was their death shroud.

While the gas attack was a theoretical success, it provided very little tactical and ultimately no strategic advantage to the Germans. As stated earlier, the high command didn’t attach much importance to the experiment so the line commanders had no reserves to press the attack, but more telling, the German troops were themselves loathe to attack across a field they had just flooded with a deadly fog of chlorine. Having witnessed the panic and chaos effected by their gas attack, the German soldiers realized they were one wind shift away from the same fate and had to be threatened with punishments by their officers to get them to move forward.

The final tally of casualties in the attack numbered around 6000 French and colonial troops killed. Hundreds more were blinded by the chlorine which attacked any moist tissue such as eyes, mouths, and mucous membranes. Others suffered lifelong damage to their lungs as the chlorine mixed with the moisture in the lungs to form hypochlorous acid, literally eating the lungs from the inside out.

In the end, Canadian troops halted the German advance. The Canucks were able to stand against the gas because some bright egg figured out that urinating on a bandanna or other cloth, then tying said cloth around the face would blunt the effect of the chlorine by causing the gas to react with the urea in the pee and become inert. Personally, I’d love to know the thought process this unknown Canadian used to arrive at the conclusion he should piss into a cloth and wrap it around his face and head. What’s more, he must have been one incredibly charismatic and persuasive individual to get the rest of the company to follow his example. Definitely an outside the box . . . or pants . . . thinker.

In coming installments about the Great War, I’ll discuss the origins of ANZAC day which is coming up quickly, as well as the development of gas warfare during the First World War. Until then, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: 1915 — Year Two


1915The Christmas Truce was long past as were the balmy days of autumn 1914 when the cream of Europe’s youth marched off to war singing “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary,” “Les Marseilles,” and “Deutschland Uber Alles” all safe in the knowledge that the war would be over by winter just as their generals promised. Mons, the Marne, and First Ypres had given the lie to that overly optimist tradition. With the cold of January 1915 came the beginning in earnest of the trench warfare so iconicly associated with our notions of the First World War. Movement along the front ceased and what followed were months of bloody, muddy, and fruitless carnage.

1915 is a bit of the redheaded stepchild of the Great War. It doesn’t have the claims to newness of 1914 or the major meatgrinding battles of 1916 that followed. Truthfully, the year gets short shrift often in works on the war. However, it would be a mistake to think nothing happened in the twelve months between 1914 and 1916. This was the year of the failed French offensives in Artois and Champagne. It was the year the Canadians arrived in Flanders near where a lonely mound of mud called Vimy Ridge waited.

This was the first year of the submarine. Immediately after the war began, Great Britain flung a blockade around the German ports and slowly began cutting off supplies from the Kaiser and his army. While the German High Seas Fleet remained bottled up in port, the unterseebooten were able to slip past the great grey warships of Britain’s Grand Fleet and begin unleashing havoc in the north Atlantic. At first, the u-boats practiced unrestricted warfare and sank anything in sight; unfortunately for the Kriegsmarine, U-20 sank a great prize on May 1, 1915 . . . The RMS Lusitania. The deaths of nearly 100 American passengers aboard the liner woke the sleeping giant and though swift and obsequious German diplomacy soothed the great beast for awhile, she would doze but fitfully for just a few more years before striding across the Pond to defend the country which birthed her.

Belgian troops with early, crude gas masks.

1915 also marked the first use of arguably the most infamous weapon of the war when the Germans opened cylinders of poison gas which then drifted languidly and deadly across the fields of the Ypres salient to begin the Second Battle of Ypres. Before long, all the combatants rushed in a headlong sprint to develop newer and more effective gasses to kill one another as well and better gas masks to keep their own casualties to a minimum.

Artist David Collin’s beautiful rendering of the Red Baron’s Albatros D.V

The men in the trenches during the early months of 1915 began hearing a strange new sound far above their heads as the first aircraft designed specifically for warfare and aerial combat took to the skies. All throughout the beginning of the hostilities, both sides were using the newly developed airplane for scouting and artillery spotting, but somewhere along the line, some enterprising jake carried a rifle aloft with him and started taking potshots at spotters from other countries. Then someone else took a few grenades up on a mission and began chucking them over the side once they reached the enemy trenches. Before long, both sides had developed planes with forward mounted machine guns and the world of fighter combat opened and in that world, no citizen was a greater star than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen aka “The Red Baron” who would begin his storied career in 1915.

As a result of the actions taken by the so-called “young Turks” of the Ottoman Empire, 1915 would see the introduction of a new word into the lexicon of warfare and international law — genocide. For the first time in modern history — depending greatly on when one begins counting “modern” — a government actually turned its military and full resources on its own people, not to quell some rebellion or restore order following a natural disaster, but to exterminate a hated minority, in this case the Armenian Christian population. The “forgotten fire” of the Armenian Genocide would later fuel another madman’s idea to exterminate another hated minority population and lead to yet another word — Holocaust.

Finally, 1915 would see the emergence of a future master of puppets arise in Great Britain. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill would mark his entry onto the world stage with a brilliant idea to end the war. With trench warfare so entrenched along the Western Front, he proposed moving the area of attack somewhere else. His strategy involved redirecting massive numbers of troops from Great Britain and the other Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand from France and Belgium southward across the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles in order to attack what he referred to as, “The soft underbelly of Europe.” The place the troops landed would give its name to the ensuing campaign and the campaign would give Lord Churchill his walking papers from the Admiralty and very nearly political life in general. The name of the chosen landing zone?


Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: The Christmas Truce of 1914




The London Times from January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

“Had he and I but met
      By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
      Right many a nipperkin!

     “But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

     “I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That’s clear enough; although

   “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
   Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
   No other reason why.

    “Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown.”

Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”

Men in their natural state show little inclination to go off and kill one another. The taboo against homicide is so ingrained within us that those who would be soldiers have to undergo desensitization to killing and interestingly enough, one key way of doing this is using violent video games, but that’s a post for another time. As a society we have labels for those who like to kill or enjoy killing or aren’t even bothered by killing. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths or simply “monsters.” Some studies of combat troops have found as many as 1 in 5 soldiers never fired their weapons during battles in which they participated. It seems despite all the sensational novels and television shows, even in the face of The Fall and our broken human natures, enough of God’s image remains within most people to cause severe distaste and discomfort when faced with taking the life of another Image-bearer of our Creator. Few events throughout history show this proclivity towards peace more clearly than the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.

Ever since August, Tommy, Pierre, and Fitz had been killing one another on an industrial scale from the border of Switzerland to the English Channel. What began as a war of movement now degraded into a stagnant morass of trench warfare with misery compounded by machine gun fire. By the time Yuletide came around, men on all sides realized they had been lied to — the war certainly would NOT be over by Christmas. So it was along the Western Front as the troops hunkered down in their muddy trenches on December 24, 1914 and prepared to spend the most miserable Christmas Eve of their lives cold, damp, and utterly devoid of cheer. Then, something changed.

By most accounts, the Germans started the affair up around Ypres by singing Christmas hymns and lighting candles. As the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht” drifted across the shell-pocked moonscape of No-Man’s Land, a few adventuresome Brits climbed atop their trenches to listen and then join in. When they didn’t tumble back into the trench with holes through their heads from snipers, more soldiers climbed out of their burrows to join in the singing.

At some point, accounts say, some German lad attached a bit of white cloth to the top of a small evergreen tree, climbed out of his trench, and walked towards the British.  When he didn’t fall to an Enfield round, more of his comrades joined him. The Brits, realizing this wasn’t a ruse, climbed out and the two erstwhile enemies met in the midst of the barbed wire and shell holes between their trenches.

Their first action was to gather up the dead, some of whom had been lying unattended for weeks, and carry them back to the rear for proper burials. That grim work accomplished, the two groups began some tentative conversations and the spirit of Christmas took over from there. The troops began exchanging small gifts — the English had a surfeit of tobacco; the Germans an abundance of chocolate — so these two commodities rapidly changed hands. Some men exchanged caps or buttons or whatever trinkets seemed to interest the other party. They sang more carols together. In some places up and down the front a game or two of football — soccer for the Yanks — broke out. As the old cliche’ says, “a grand time was had by all.” Then, some hours after the festivities began, it ended. Both sides embraced and returned to their trenches with the knowledge they would soon begin the unsavory work of trying to kill one another anew.

Officers on both sides were appalled by the impromptu ceasefire. They knew actually meeting the enemy and seeing he had a regular face and neither horns nor fangs made killing said “enemy” much more difficult. Orders went up and down the chain of command. The Christmas Truce of 1914 would be the last for the duration of the war. The enlisted were threatened with court-martial or worse should any of them be so silly as to attempt such a humane action ever again. The old men who send the young men to fight and die for the wars the old men started had spoken.

Still, for a brief shining moment in the midst of Satan’s playground, the Prince of Peace reigned supreme. The joy of Christmas stopped the mouths of the artillery and silenced the bark of rifles, if only for a time, proving for anyone who cared to ponder on the topic that peace is stronger than war if only men would embrace the light.

Love y’all and Merry Christmas! Keep those feet clean during these celebrations.

Great War Wednesday: First Battle of Ypres — The Carnage Properly Begins


The beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall in the Ieper city center.

The little Belgian town of Ieper, more famously known as Ypres, is no stranger to bloodletting. The Germanic tribal ancestors of the town fought Roman raids. The stubborn Flemish bled in a massacre by French troops in the fourteenth century Battle of the Golden Spurs. The War of Spanish Succession and the War of the First Coalition both raged outside the city’s walls.

All the bloodshed of the previous centuries paled however when compared with the series of battles fought here during the First World War. The first of these encounters, called aptly enough The First Battle of Ypres, began on 19 October 1914 and lasted over a month until 22 November 1914. The battle is most notable for being the first of the trench battles which came to symbolize the next three and a half years on the Western Front during the Great War.

Up until First Ypres, battles had been fluid. The German invasion through Belgium into France slowed somewhat at Mons and then halted altogether at The Miracle on the Marne early in September 1914. What followed is now called the “Race to the Sea” where each combatant tried desperately to outflank the other in what was quite literally a race northwest to get to the English Channel, turn the opponent’s flank, and secure a victory. Unfortunately, the race was a tie and the result was The First Battle of Ypres.

In many ways, Ypres became the training ground for the rest of the war and both sides paid in hogsheads of blood for the lessons. First, no one brought enough of anything. The Germans famously claimed the men would be home for Christmas and the French and British had similar overly optimistic assessments of the coming conflict. As a result, men ended up at the front without enough supplies. On the German side, captured Russian and Belgian small arms had to be pressed into service while on the Allied side, the artillery batteries were woefully under armed. Before this battle, doctrine of the day figured a few hundred shells would be expended in the course of a battle. By the time Ypres ended, the generals realized a few hundred shells wouldn’t last an hour. By the end of the war, individual guns were allotted a thousand shells EACH.

The end of the line of trenches on the Western Front. The top barbed wire is German while the lower strands are Allied. The wire literally runs right into the sea.

As with most of the months long “battles” of the First World War, a detailed analysis is far beyond the scope of my little blog. Thousand page books litter libraries across the land devoted only to this one battle. I would like to note two major outcomes of the First Battle of Ypres, however. First, the battle introduced the trench system to the Western Front. After neither side managed to gain the other’s flank, no one could figure out what to do. Situations like this were somewhat unusual and given the flatness of the coastal terrain and the deadliness of the new machine guns and heavy artillery, both the German and the Allies figured nearly simultaneously the best thing to do would be “dig in.”

Now armies had dug in before. Trenches in warfare were nothing new, per se, but what was new was the scale of trenches developed up and down the front during and after this battle. By the beginning of 1915, an unbroken line of trenches and associated fortifications stretched all the way from the beaches of the English Channel roughly southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland. The saddest commentary of the Great War is probably the best known — those trenches would STAY more or less in a static position for three years during which time hundreds of thousands of men would hurl themselves across No Man’s Land under withering fire with the goal of taking the other side’s trenches. Massive carnage and miniscule territorial gains were the inevitable result each time.

Cloth Hall circa 1918

The second development of the First Battle of Ypres is the area which became known as the Ypres Salient. This area directly around the ancient town was a “bulge” into the German lines. Vicissitudes of war in the early stages of the battle resulted in the Entente forces holding this one bulge several hundred yards into German territory. While that may seem like a good thing — being far out in the enemy’s lands — it was actually horrible. Because of the bulge of the Salient, the mostly British and Commonwealth troops stationed at the Salient came under fire from THREE sides simultaneously instead of just one. This Ypres Salient endured for the length of the war down to the final German “Hundred Days” offensive in 1918 and it ate men as a hungry cow eats grass.

During the six-week long battle, the British forces lost 58,155 men including the last of the professional army that arrived in August, the French lost 86,237 men and Germany suffered losing 134,315 men. The Belgian army — never large — ceased to exist altogether. Those seem like staggering numbers of dead and wounded and truthfully they are, but despite the ferocity of the First Battle of Ypres, the casualties were quite light when considered beside later battles such as the Somme and Verdun when it became de rigueur to have 50,000 men die in a DAY, not a six-week stretch. Still, it was a small taste of things to come.

That’s all for this episode of Great War Wednesday. Love y’all and keep those feet clean.


Great War Wednesday: Wolf Pups

Standard 5 September 1914, HMS Pathfinder exploded, broke in half, and sank in minutes. Of 258 souls on board, only eighteen survived. While the harbor rang with the mayhem accompanying such a terrible event, U-21 of the Imperial German Navy quietly slipped below the water and made her way out to sea having just become the first submarine to sink a ship with a torpedo fired from what we now think of as “conventional” torpedo tubes. (As a proud son of Dixie, I must note the CSS H.L. Hunley sank a warship half a century prior, but she used a “spar torpedo” and managed to sink herself in the process.)

The focus of Great War historians and historical dabblers usually centers on the miseries of the trenches or, perhaps, the chivalric glory of the burgeoning air corps. Most World War I scholars end up ignoring naval engagements in general — save the necessary treatment of Jutland — and submarines in particular, but in reality, while not as widespread or as advanced as the “Wolf Packs” Admiral Donitz sent into the Atlantic twenty years later, the submarines of World War I played a vital role in the conflict. The lowly submarine emerged as the technology that, in true double edged sword fashion, almost secured victory for the Kaiser but in the end ensured his downfall.

One reason submariners get such short shrift from military historians is the general negative light most people hold them in. To many in naval circles, the submarine is the sniper of the seas, hidden beneath the waves unseen and silently waiting for a perfect moment to kill an enemy. Indeed, more than one stuffy old-fashioned admiral felt submarines should be strictly relegated to a reconnaissance role because their ability to attack while hidden seemed somehow “unsporting” and “not quite fair.” As soon as submarines developed to the point they were seen as a viable weapon of war, countries enacted treaties and “rules of engagements” stating submarines had to “surface and warn” ships they were about to torpedo. Somehow, this was supposed to “even out” the sub’s advantage. Personally, I see “rules of engagement” and “laws of war” in much the same light as “jumbo shrimp” — oxymorons.

Don’t say we didn’t warn y’all.

Early on, German U-boat commanders actually sought to abide by such hamstringing rules and would surface, warn the merchant ship’s captain, and allow passengers to safely embark in lifeboats before either sinking the ship or seizing it as a prize of war. Of course, some enterprising merchant mariner came up with the idea of mounting GUNS on merchant ships which, by all earlier naval laws had been unarmed, and the submarines surfaced to warn a potential victim only to find the tables turned. At that point, some enterprising U-boat captains decided, “Zur Holle mit den Regeln,” and went back to sinking warships and merchant ships without warning.

This practice of “sink them all and let God sort them out” is what historians call a period of “unrestricted” submarine warfare. The idea was basically “y’all know we are at war with Britain so if y’all try to bring anything TO Britain, we’re going to sink you. Consider THIS your warning!” A little known fact surrounding the sinking of RMS Lusitania and the deaths of so many Americans in the Spring of 1915 is the German Embassy took out a full page ad in the New York Times right next to the ad for the ship’s voyage. This ad read:

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

Hard to claim it was a complete “sneak attack” when you warn everyone in the largest paper in the nation.

Unrestricted submarine warfare had a tremendous effect on Great Britain. As an island nation, she counted on being supplied by sea and at the height of the U-boat activity, Great Britain began running short on important war materiel and food supplies. The situation was not quite as dire as the blockade days of 1940 when the island was supposedly down to less than a week’s worth of food, but matters were still bleak.

Part of the reason the U-boats didn’t strangle Great Britain completely was the fallout from the Lusitania. President Woodrow Wilson gave several impassioned speeches warning Germany of the dangers of plucking the feathers from the American Eagle’s tail and Germany reluctantly ceased unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles.

Unfortunately for Germany, the stagnation along the Western Front and Great Britain’s own surface based standoff blockade of German ports combined to place the Kaiser in a position from which he couldn’t win. With matters increasingly dire and desperate, in January 1917, the German High Command again gave the order to return to unrestricted submarine warfare and sink any and all ships coming in the Zone of Exclusion around Great Britain and Europe. It was this action which led directly to Germany’s defeat in the Great War.

Once President Wilson heard of Germany’s resolve in resuming the indiscriminate sinking of any ships it came across, he ordered all German diplomats out of the country. It wouldn’t be much longer and he would ask the US Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and once Congress granted that declaration, the entire industrial and manpower might of the United States came to bear on an already weary Central Power alliance. Germany’s days were numbers when the “Yanks started coming over there!”

Still, the role of the submarine in Germany’s prosecution of the war shouldn’t be overlooked. At the War’s beginning, the Kaisermarine only had twenty operational U-boats and the entire sub fleet would never grow particularly large. For such a small force. the damage they inflicted was vastly disproportional to their numbers. In four years, a relative handful of U-boats sank almost 5,000 ships totaling nearly 13 million tons while losing less than 200 of their own number. I think most commanders in history would like to have a 25:1 kill ratio.

Well, that’s it for this week. Love y’all and keep your feet clean!