Category Archives: Great War Wednesday

Great War Wednesday: Britain’s Battle Rifle


The Lee-Enfield MK1 SMLE

At dawn on 23 August 1914, the head of the German sledgehammer carving its bloody path through Belgium ran into the British Expeditionary Force — “The Old Contemptibles” — near the Belgian border town of Mons. The Germans outnumbered the British three to one and obviously felt secure in the knowledge they could steamroll any opposition since they made no attempt to seek cover initially nor to break marching formation. That false notion proved the death of scores of the Kaiser’s soldiers. The British opened up with rifle fire at around 1,000 yards and as the Germans came on they withered like orchids in a drought. After the battle, many German soldiers believed they had blundered into a line of British light machine guns. In fact, they had not; they had encountered instead their first combat against British riflemen and their Lee-Enfield SMLE rifles.

No discussion of British martial endeavors during the first six decades of the last century could be complete without mention of the Lee-Enfield Rifle. First introduced in 1895, the Lee-Enfield served as Britain’s standard issue infantry battle rifle until the FN FAL took its place in 1957. Even after giving way to the new semi-automatic, the Lee-Enfield continued in front line service in several capacities, including dedicated sniper rifle, into the 1990s. By contrast, in the same time period, the US army fielded the Krag-Jorgenson, the Springfield A3, the M1 Garand and carbine, the M-14, and the M-16 as standard GI equipment, six totally different rifles to old mum’s one.

This is a Lee-Enfield stripper clip aka “charger” with five rounds at the ready.

The Lee-Enfield, or LE, or “The 303” was one of the first infantry rifles to use the bolt-action. German brothers Karl and Peter-Paul Mauser perfected the bolt-action some years before and armies all over the world quickly grasped how much more effective a bolt-action rifle could be when compared to the other rifles of the day. With a bolt-action, a soldier could easily sight his target and fire in all four standards shooting positions: prone (lying flat on the ground), sitting, kneeling, or offhand (standing with no support). What’s more, the introduction of box magazines meant rifles could generate much greater firepower in a fraction of the time as those Germans at the Battle of Mons discovered to their dismay.


This image shows the charger in place and ready for the soldier to push the rounds into the box magazine.

The advantage the L-E had over other contemporary rifles lay in its magazine capacity. All other battle rifles of major powers like the German K98 Mauser or the Russian Mosin-Nagant 91/30 had five round magazines. The SMLE could hold TEN rounds, which translates into five more shots without reloading. It’s important to note here these early rifles did not have detachable magazines like our modern weapons such as the M-16, AK-47, or Uzi. A soldier didn’t carry a bandolier of loaded magazines ready to swap out nearly instantaneously like a World War 1 version of Rambo. Instead, all of these bolt-action rifles had to be loaded one of two ways: the soldier could laboriously press one round at a time through the action and into the magazine or he could use “clips” which are also called “charger clips” or “stripper clips.” These little tabs of metal held five rounds perfectly aligned and secured so the solder could fit the bottom of the clip into a notch on the rifle and with a firm push of the thumb, seat five rounds into the magazine in a single fluid motion. Two such clips and the SMLE was loaded to the gills with ten .303 rounds. Since the British magazines held ten rounds instead of five, soldiers had to reload half as often as their enemies and on a battlefield where a second could cost a man his life, those five extra rounds could mean the difference between a muddy bed in the trench dugout or a muddy grave.

This is a 9mm detachable pistol magazine for comparison purposes.

The Germans at Mons who thought they were up against light Maxim type guns were actually facing British soldiers with state of the art rifles AND a training and firing doctrine that enabled the “Old Contemptibles” to blunt the German attack even with the staggering disadvantage in numbers. The Germans didn’t know it, but the Brits they were marching into like so many ducklings behind their mother were training to the British firing standard of “The Mad Minute.” At the dawn of the Great War, every British soldier had to complete the Annual Personal Weapons Test or APWT. This test consisted of scoring no less than 15 direct hits on a 12 inch diameter target firing offhand at 300 yards in 60 seconds. Ponder that a minute, please.

To qualify as a British infantryman, you had to be able to stand on your feet with a rifle which weighed at least ten pounds loaded, shoot at a dinner plate on a stand three FOOTBALL FIELDS AWAY, and HIT IT AT LEAST 15 TIMES! Holy bolt blisters, Batman! Remember, the rifle only held ten rounds so to complete the Mad Minute, the soldier HAD to reload at least once. Frighteningly for the Germans, 15 hits was the bare minimum. Most British soldiers could average at least 20-25 hits in the same time frame. To this day, the record for the Mad Minute is 38 hits (from three football fields away, remember that) in 60 seconds by Sergeant Alfred Snoxall. That means he had to reload AT LEAST THREE TIMES. Amazing.

With lead like that coming downrange, its little wonder the Huns thought they were facing Maxims, but no, they were just ordinary Tommies doing what they’d been trained to do by a generation of snarling sergeant instructors. As for the Battle of Mons, the Germans eventually forced the British to retreat because of overwhelming numbers, but the retreat was in good order and allowed the French to secure their flanks all because the British knew how to work a bolt-action rifle.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Now you know the difference and can scream at the guy in the war movie with an M-16 “You need a magazine! Stop asking for a clip!!”



Great War Wednesday: Some Men Cast a Long Shadow

Sykes Picot signatures

This document has slain tens of thousands in a century.

Anyone who has made even a cursory study of World War 1 knows the names Joffre, Von Moltke, Kitchner, Ludendorff, Hindenberg, and Pershing. These great generals . . . well, debatable, I know . . . managed to kill most of a generation of Europe’s finest young men. Their contribution to history is a long list of names of those killed and wounded engraved on monument after monument throughout Europe. Some enlisted men carved out their places in history during the Great War as well. These were infantrymen like Sgt. York of America, famous aerial warriors like Manfred “The Red Baron” von Richthofen of Germany, and poet extraordinaire Lt. Wilfred Owen of Great Britain. It is two men most people probably have never heard of, however, who cast the longest shadow of the First World War. While they may be relatively unknown to all but the most dedicated historians, Englishman Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot, by their actions following the Armistice of 1918, gave birth to men like Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden, and the shadowy leadership of ISIS / ISUL.

Map of Late Ottoman Empire

For 624 years, the Ottoman Empire was a major power in Eurasia. At its height, it ruled all of Asia Minor, Africa from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Horn of Africa, and Europe from the Balkans nearly to the gates of Vienna — an area which dwarfed the vaunted Roman Empire and compared favorably in size to even the mighty Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. In the early centuries of its existence, the empire and its millions of available soldiers were the bogie-men of European children. The evil of  “The Turk” was a tale told to keep little ones safely inside at night. From his palace in Istanbul, nee’ Constantinople, the Ottoman Sultan ruled a cosmopolitan kingdom of great riches, enormous resources, and surprising tolerance for non-Muslims. Unfortunately, those glory days were far faded by the outbreak of World War One. The Ottomon Empire had been “The Sick Man of Europe” for nearly a century before Sultan Mehmed VI signed a treaty with Germany and Austro-Hungary as much out of desperation as any grand design. Ottoman Theater of World War I is fascinating in its scope and grandeur. Filled with places like Gallipoli and inhabited by men like T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia” Lawrence, the Middle Eastern theater deserves more scholarship than it has received, but it is not what happened as the Turks fought which has cause so much horror in the 21st Century as what happened once they were defeated. Throughout its history, the Ottoman Empire was home to hundreds of tribes and nations. Mostly Muslim, the Empire was generally tolerant of Christians and Jews living within its borders, several famous pogroms nonwithstanding. What is most important, however, is the government in Istanbul maintained a strict SECULAR stance on governing the Empire. Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot shot that all to Hell when they signed the eponymous Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 even as millions were still dying. That agreement dictated how the Ottomon Empire would be carved up by the victorious Allies (confident pair, I must say) and, indeed, it was used to create the map we recognize today as the modern Middle East where everyone pretty much hates everyone else.

Francois Georges-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes

Sykes and Picot were colonialism men through and through, steeped in the propaganda of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and they brought that Eurocentric, nationalistic, colonial attitude with them to hammer out the post-War map of the Middle East. Being intellectual, educated men, they both shared a love of lines. Where Frost felt “good fences make good neighbors,” Sykes and Picot felt nice straight lines made good borders and since the area they were divvying up was just sand populated by mostly nomadic tribesmen anyway, why not stick with lines and angles?  These men were Christians — supposedly — and not given to Islamic scholarship. They had no idea what a Sunni, Shi’a, or Wahhabi was and, moreover, they didn’t particularly care.

When Sykes and Picot finished their work, the foundations of five countries existed where NONE had existed before: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine. These “areas” were not proper countries for several years following the agreement, but their roots are in the secret agreement. They were “mandates” which is a century old P-C term for “colony.” France held a “mandate” over Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Britain controlled Iraq and Palestine. To see just how violently the peace of World War I is affecting us TODAY, let’s take a look at just one of these countries: the current playground of ISIS — Iraq.

Iraq was never a country. It became a British mandate, The Mandate of Mesopotamia, in 1920 after the League of Nations ratified several treaties ending the War and dividing the spoils. Then, in 1932, Great Britain quite magnanimously granted “The Kingdom of Iraq” its independence. Then the problem with Sykes, Picot, and their damned straight line borders came to light. Saudi Arabia is another kingdom in the area. Ruled by the House of Saud, it has a long turbulent history, but a history nonetheless. Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni, specifically Wahhabist Sunni. The other ancient country in the region is Iran, formerly Persia. Most of its inhabitants are Shiite. Both those countries are somewhat oppressive by Western standards, but they are pretty stable places. Iraq is home to three VERY distinct groups — Sunni, Shiites, and the very eclectic Kurds who have representatives of at least six religions in their midst. NONE of these people groups like each other and since 1932, they’ve been told not to consider themselves Shi’a, Sunni, or Kurd but IRAQI.

Turn on the news tonight and see how well that has turned out. Britain practically guaranteed Iraq would fail. They did this by placing a Sunni King over the country. Of the three groups, the Sunni are the minority. So for over eighty years, Sunnis held real power over Shiites and Kurds, both of whom absolutely HATED the government. The only reason the country didn’t fall completely apart was a string of strong-arm dictators culminating in Saddam Hussein who ruled from 1979 to 2003 when he discovered America giveth and America taketh away. He held the country together by killing anyone who got out of line. As soon as “Coalition’ **cough ‘Merican cough** forces unseated him, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds went back to killing each other, a practice which has continued right up til today and shows no real sign of stopping.

So, when you see ISIS beheading American journalists on the nightly news, remember exactly who you have to thank for it — Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot — two mid level bureaucrats who lived out every bureaucrat’s dream of not just filing policy, but actually writing it. One hundred years later, the blood continues to drip from their hands. The leader of ISIS has even declared, “The Islamic State will not stop its blessed advance until the stain of Sykes-Picot is driven from this land!”

We have Sykes and Picot to thank for THIS.

Great job, guys.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.


Great War Wednesday: New Artillery


blacktom-09.jpg“If you want to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” Unknown American to Hiram Maxim, 1881

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Albert Einstein attributed

Many people view the machine gun as the most iconic weapon of the First World War, the greatest ground based technology employed all the multitude of advances in artillery. For hundreds of years, dating all the way back to China, black powder and its derivatives powered artillery. Black powder was the propellant which sent the projectile on its way as well as the payload packed in the earliest exploding shells. Cannons were cumbersome and slow to load. They had to be served from the muzzle in all but a tiny few experimental iterations and this limited their projectile size and the length of their barrels. Leading up to World War One, however, cannon technology took off in exponential fashion with the advent of new propellants, newer shell designs, reliable breach loading mechanisms, and — most of all — bigger calibers these advances made possible.

Artillerymen long looked for something to replace black powder for several reasons. Black powder gave off huge clouds of smoke when fired and this made it impossible to hide a rifleman, much less a billow belching artillery piece, and no commander wanted to give away his gun positions. Also, black powder quality varied tremendously even within a batch. The smallest change in relative humidity could change the burn rate of the propellant, which then affected the range and accuracy of the piece. Most problematic was this wouldn’t be noticed until the shell was fired and by then it was too late. The first leap in artillery came with the stabilization of nitrocellulose or guncotton as a propellant. Guncotton was invented or discovered in the middle of the 19th century along with its close cousin nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, both of these substances were entirely too volatile in their earliest forms to be of real battlefield usefulness. By the time of the Great War, however, guncotton was refined enough and stable enough to use as a propellant. The result was a tremendous increase in the reliability and power of the artillery.

The second major development in guns on the battlefield was in the area of projectiles. For years, muzzle-loaded cannon shot one of two projectiles — solid shot or grapeshot. Solid shot, as the name implies, was a single solid ball, first made of stone, then of iron. Grapeshot, however, was a canister of hundreds of smaller balls, often musket ball caliber. When shot, the canister fell away and the cloud of balls acted like a shotgun on massed infantry. The American Civil War saw the first use of explosive cannonballs. These were hollow iron spheres filled with black powder and fused to explode after a certain amount of time or upon impact with something solid. These explosive rounds did great damage — when they worked. With the perfection of nitroglycerin, however, explosive shells became fearsome indeed. A shell packed with nitro or guncotton either one would blow tremendous craters in the earth . . . or fortifications. Canister shot was replaced by shrapnel shells. These new antipersonnel projectiles still featured a multitude of smaller balls, but now they were packed in explosives. The shells would arc high into the air then explode over their targets raining death down on the men huddled in the trenches.

The final major advancement in artillery was reliable breechloading. The ability to serve the gun from the rear, or breach, instead of the muzzle meant the gun didn’t have to be lowered for each shot. Leaving the gun in firing position enabled better accuracy for followup shots. Breechloading also allowed for a higher rate of fire since the new shells were in one piece rather than separate powder and shot.

german big berthaTaken together, these advances created the most awe inspiring weapons on the battlefields of World War One. During the American Civil War, the largest coastal defense guns fired a shell which weighed twenty pounds out to a maximum range of about five miles with a fire rate of one shot every three minutes by an expert crew. The workhorse of the French Army in World War One, by contrast, the French 75, could fire 15 rounds per minute at a range of five miles with 16 pound high explosive shells filled with mellenite, a particularly nasty explosive to men’s lungs.

The 75 was a popgun compared to the true Queens of the Battlefield — the railway guns. Very early in the war, some enterprising German got the idea to take a naval rifle, designed to be used on a BATTLESHIP, and mount it on a rudimentary carriage to fire overland. The result was less than ideal since the carriage was destroyed every time the gun fired and had to be rebuilt, but engineers honed the design and figured out how to mount the guns on a modified railroad car which would absorb the recoil. The result was beautifully horrible to behold. The Germans had the “Long Max” which could launch a 15 inch diameter shell weighing two TONS a distance of 27 miles. The French, not to be outdone, fielded Le Obusier de 520 modèle 1916 that fired a shell TWO FEET across weighing 2.5 tons over ten miles.

The damage these guns could do cannot be overstated. One soldier wrote in his diary of seeing a group of 200 men gathered at a worship service in the field being hit by a “German Heavy” and “turning into a red mist” with no single man being identifiable afterwards because not enough pieces could be found.  The “heavies” of both sides excavated huge craters whenever they hit. Some pictures we have today show shell holes sixty and seventy feet across. The constant barrage of these guns turned the battlefields into moonscapes and men’s nerves into tapioca. Literally nowhere within range of the guns was safe. A high explosive shell could kill men in trench dugouts placed thirty or forty feet deep under ground.

The machine gun may have been the image most people associate with the War, but the artillery did the most damage. By some estimates, over 85% of combat casualties in the Great War were the result of artillery. If you were in range, as one soldier put it, “You were a dead man.”

Love y’all, keep those feet clean, and remember the fallen with honor.


Great War Wednesday: Shellshock


“Simply put, after even the most obedient soldier had enough shells rain down on him, without any means of fighting back, he often lost all self control.” Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars

In every conflict, some men seem to hold up to the stress of combat better than others. In World War I, however, the increased combat demands on individuals managed to break the resolve of even the most resolute soldier. At some point in the ceaseless rain of steel and sulfur, each man would eventually reach a point where he absolutely could not go on. Some men broke and ran while others fell down into a fetal position and still others could only stand rooted to one spot gibbering like mad men. This phenomenon, first noted in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, is what became known as “shell shock” and it is one of the iconic mementos and most lasting sorrows of the Great War.

The origins of shellshock lie in the type of combat men faced in the First World War. For most of recorded history, men had gone out to a battlefield, engaged in wholesale slaughter of one another, then retired to a base camp around dark if the day proved inconclusive or ran like scalded dogs from the pursuing cavalry of their enemy. In other words, battles were generally short, local affairs. To give some perspective, in the American War of Northern Aggression, the Battle of Gettysburg — the largest battle of the war — lasted for three whole days and it was considered near the end of human endurance. By contrast, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 lasted three MONTHS. The Battle of Verdun lasted ten months. These campaigns were not rightfully called “sieges” either. These were months of sustained contact with the enemy and, even worse, days upon days of unending bombardment by artillery which dwarfed anything used in combat before or since.

Not to make the ancient and medieval battles less important, but a man at Cannae or Agincourt could think to himself, “If I can just survive today, I’ve got a decent chance to get home.” This was far from the case in World War I. Every day a man lived with death flying through the air towards him in the form of shells or waited for him “over the top” in the wasteland of No Man’s Land. To be at the front was to be under constant stress from fear of death and eventually, officers noticed their men began to come unhinged.

The “Thousand Yard Stare” of a man who has seen more than men are meant to see.

One of the saddest commentaries of the entire First World War is that for much of the first months of the war, shell shock was not recognized as a true malady. Men who cowered in the trenches in tears and shaking were not considered unwell, they were considered cowards and malingerers shirking their duty to their country. Men who could not make themselves go over the top were charged with desertion or leaving one’s post under fire in addition to the accusations of cowardice. The result was the same regardless — a court martial. If the board found the defendant guilty, the punishment for cowardice, desertion, or dereliction of duty was the same — execution by firing squad. In all 306 British Empire soldiers — all but 15 enlisted men — were executed during World War I. Records show the majority of them were shot for desertion or cowardice. Being deserted by one’s faculties was not considered a reason not to fight, never mind that the hapless soldier often could not control his bladder, much less his limbs to shoot or march.

Gradually, thankfully, medical professionals began to take notice of what was happening. Doctors at front line casualty clearing stations started seeing definite patterns among the men they were treating. Early on, they thought what came to be called “shell shock” was a result of unseen brain damage caused by the concussion of high explosive shells near the victims. Then, the began to realize many men were showing similar symptoms even though they had not been in the vicinity of an explosion. That was the moment the medical corps realized it was dealing with a malady of the mind rather than the will and began treating men instead of shooting them.

Unfortunately, psychiatry was in its infancy as a medical practice in the early 20th Century so doctors weren’t sure how to help these hapless men. The one thing that seemed to work best was rest. Eventually, a man who began showing symptoms of shellshock was removed from the front to a safer rear area. Sometimes, this would be enough and a week or two with clean sheets, hot food, and no lice a reasonably safe distance from the bursting of the bombardments would restore a man and he could return to the fight. Once this became documented, the allies started the practice of rotating bodies of troops between the front and rear areas rather than demanding one unit stay on the fighting line for the duration of the campaign. This practice helped a great deal and new shell shock cases declined.

For some men, however, no amount of rest and recuperation would restore their shattered minds. Some of these poor souls could not stand unaided. Many shook uncontrollably at all times. For them, if they were lucky enough to survive until seen by a doctor, the war was over. They would be invalided back to the Home Islands, but for many, the damage was permanent. Some would spend the remainder of their lives in asylums or “neurological” hospitals with symptoms which never abated.

Even those who managed to avoid any outward symptoms of shellshock were seldom as unscathed as they appeared.

For many, coming home didn’t end the Great War. Look closely under the bed.

War correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote in his 1922 account of the war Now It Can Be Told of the mass of men returning from the war:

Something was wrong. They put on civilian clothes again and looked to their mothers and wives very much like the young men who had gone to business in the peaceful days before August 1914. But they had not come back the same men. Something had altered in them. They were subject to sudden moods, and queer tempers, fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many were easily moved to passion where they lost control of themselves, many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening.

At the time, people didn’t realize what was happening to these men, but their conditions demanded research.  These men, hale and whole in body yet shattered in mind and emotion paved the way for our understanding the soldiers of our later wars so that we no longer speak of “shell shock” but instead talk about Acute Combat Fatigue among our troops and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Combat Related once they transition to civilian life. It’s still not an easy fight as my daddy, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD could tell you if he could talk about it, but at least we no longer shoot our men as cowards just because their wills desert them.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: In Mordor Where Shadows Lie

"Crossing the Dead Marshes" by Ted Naismith

“Crossing the Dead Marshes” by Ted Naismith

On either side and in front wide fens and mires now lay, stretching away southward and eastward into the dim half-light. Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air. Far away, now almost due south, the mountain-walls of Mordor loomed, like a black bar of rugged clouds floating above a dangerous fog-bound sea.  “The Passage of the Marshes,” Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien.

The Battlefield at Passchendale

The Battlefield at Passchendale

Conditions are unbelievable , on either side stretches a quagmire , a solid sea of slimy mud . everywhere there are dead horses and mules ,smashed ambulances , ammunition limbers and guns.  There are great shell holes of muddy water into which mules and horses sink to their bellies and wagon wheels to the hub. Well , if this is La Belle France they ought to give it to Fritz. Somme Mud, Pvt. Edward Francis Lynch

If JRR Tolkien had possessed a more robust physicality or a somewhat better equipped immune system, the world may today be ever poorer for we likely would never know such creatures as hobbits ever existed. Luckily for us, Tolkien was not a strong man physically nor given much to feats of daring. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” In fact, Tolkien would put off joining up until he finished his undergraduate work at Oxford by which point questions concerning his patriotism were “becoming outspoken from relatives.” Once he reached the trenches, the young officer proved extremely susceptible to “trench fever,” a lice-borne disease which resulted in his being invalided home on three occasions, one of which came the day before his entire battalion was wiped out in battle.

Tolkien reached the Western Front as a newly minted second lieutenant signal officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers just in time to take part in the months long unspeakable carnage we know today as The Battle of the Somme. The privations young Tolkien endured and the hideous brutality and slaughter he saw made their way into his imagination and eventually worked out again in his writings of Middle Earth. Probably the easiest influence for us to grasp today is the sights of the battlefields he saw every day. It is hard to read the descriptions of the slag pits and blasted craters of the plains of Mordor without envisioning the wasted, churned, and cratered landscape of the Somme.

The genesis of the Dead Marshes lay in the bodies littering the mud of the Somme.

During the episode told in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam, led by Smeagol, cross the Dead Marshes, Tolkien lets slip another of the nightmares he witnessed on the front lines. Frodo falls headlong into one of the sodden pools and screams when he sees dead faces staring back at him. As he and Sam look closer, they see these dead faces of men, elves, and orcs are all about them. On the Somme and in the trenches in general, the dead were a constant companion to Tolkien and his comrades. Incessant shelling and sniping made it impractical if not impossible to recover the bodies of the killed and so they were left in the open to fester and rot until another shell impact might bury them under fresh mud. Indeed, stories are extant of men weighted down under packs and weapons losing their footing in No Man’s Land and drowning in the sucking mud of the Somme and elsewhere.

Another facet of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien admits to crafting based somewhat on his war experiences is the complex and devoted relationship between Frodo and Samwise. The British army in World War One was a microcosm of British society at large and that society was rigidly structured on class. Officers came from the upper middle classes and the gentry while the “Tommies” or regular enlisted soldiers drew their ranks from the lower classes and the working classes. Officers were forbidden to “fraternize” with their commands, but each officer, no matter how lowly his rank, had a batman assigned to his care. These batmen were the officers’ personal valets and saw to the officers’ needs and provided what creature comforts they could muster. The batmen were also invariably drawn from the lower classes of enlisted and for many of the upper class officers, they were the only members of the “other half” of society those officers knew.

2nd Lt JRR Tolkien, 1916

2nd Lt JRR Tolkien, 1916

Frodo, the privileged heir, to the riches of Bag End had his own batman — the sturdy, implacable, and altogether devoted gardener Samwise Gamgee. More than once, Sam’s low born skills and good common sense carried the day and kept his dear Mr. Frodo out of scrape after scrape. In fact, had Sam not decided to take the Ring from the comatose Frodo in Shelob’s dark lair, the Quest of Mount Doom would doubtlessly have ended in abject failure.

Upon the four companion’s return to the Shire following the War of the Ring, they were marked out as many of the veterans who returned from the Great War were. Merry and Pippin had been in battle, but not subject to quite so much of the hardship as Sam and Frodo. As a result, they were much more eager to tell the tales of their adventures and to draw swords to defend the Shire when the need arose. Sam, like the brave but honest VC winner, would recount his exploits when asked, but his was the bravery which needed no bravado. Meanwhile, Frodo, the most wounded of all his compatriots, sought only peace and release from the horrors he had witnessed and the pains which he endured. He is the picture of the one million British soldiers who returned from the Great War missing at least one limb; he represents the untold number of “shellshock” victims who suffered in silence and madness following their service.

Finally, Tolkien writes about how the War of the Ring signaled the end of an age. The old order passed away, burned up in the fires of combat. So too did the First World War usher in systemic societal changes in ways the Second World War never did. The Great War swept the newest empire in Europe as well as two of the most ancient monarchies into the dustbin of history. Tolkien lived long enough to see the changes his war brought about — redrawing of not just maps, but of social orders and systems of governments.

Tolkien with his three closest friends. Only Wiseman would survive the war.

Unfortunately for Tolkien, he was one of only two members of his closest circle of friends to survive the War and the magnitude of such loss weighed heavily upon him for the rest of his days. He remarked once, with some hint of understandable bitterness, “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; . . . By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” That one friend, Christopher Wiseman, likely owed his survival to fortunate enlistment in the Royal Navy; he became the godfather and namesake of Tolkien’s youngest son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien.

So it was that JRR Tolkien, a gentle man of great imagination and feeling, saw and suffered in the pits of the charnel house which was the Western Front and while other men may have turned to drink or in the last ditch, suicide, to quiet the horrors screaming out in their minds, Tolkien — linguist, professor, and dreamer — turned to the pen instead and the world is a much richer place because Middle Earth and the Baggins’ of Bag End survived.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Selling Tickets to Hell


KitchnerThe British Army at the outset of the First World War was at once a fantastic asset to the Empire and woefully inadequate to the task at hand. With the world’s strongest navy guarding any approach to the British Isles, the role of the army had heretofore been guarding the colonies and territories around the world while a small contingent remained in the Home Islands to deal with what remained of any force foolish enough to try landing on Britannica’s holy shores. On the other hand, this small army was completely made up of professional volunteer men. Practically every man in a British Army uniform had seen some type of combat in some far-flung fighting in southern Africa or in India. They were a proud, hard, disciplined corps of men the equal or superior of every other standing army any nation could field.

Alas, they were also entirely too few to fight the war they went to take part in. Some estimates claim less than one in five of the original professional army that sailed for France in August 1914 remained alive and uninjured by spring of 1915. If Britain was going to stay in the war, she was going to need many, many more men.

The task of supplying the army with fresh troops fell to the Secretary of State for War Field-Marshal Lord Horatio Kitchener. By the time recruitment drives began, word of the horrific fighting and conditions was trickling back from the Western Front and people began seeing the wounded returning as well, both of which tended to lessen fervor to fight for King and Country. What’s more, Britain still demanded a volunteer force. Essentially, Kitchener’s office had to convince fit young men — and some not so young — to willingly sign up for nothing short of a tour of Hell on Earth. Two methods of boosting the recruitment were particularly successful, at least in the beginning. One relied on shame and the other on friendships.

Today, young men — and women — can enlist in the military along with some friends and if they all enlist at the same time and qualify, they have a good chance of spending basic training together. After basic, however, they will most likely be split up unless they happen to be in very specific job sectors within the military. This camaraderie helps during the tough times of basic training and maybe alleviates some of the homesickness. In Britain during the First World War, the idea of camaraderie went to an entirely different level in the attempt to boost enlistment. Men who enlisted together and who wished to would be guaranteed to remain together not only for basic training but also for posting to the lines as well.

Recruiting poster for the 1st Footballers' Battalion

Recruiting poster for the 1st Footballers’ Battalion

These guarantees lead to what we now call the “pals brigades” or “pals battalions” and though the idea may have seemed like a sound one, in practice is was nothing short of horrific. Under the auspices of fighting together, young men of the same town, the same fraternity, the same school, etc would enlist together. As promised, they would go through training together and — as promised — they would go to the front lines to fight side by side. This led to units with names like “The Grimsby Pals,” “The Stockbrokers,” and “The 1st Footballers.” These were men who had known each other for years, some since mere childhood, and now they were to march off to war as a unit.

Unfortunately, in a war of heretofore unknown amounts of casualties, the pals battalions had unforeseen consequences. In some of the bloodiest offensives like the Somme Offensive of 1916, entire units would simply be wiped out. Now, this was terrible enough when the casualties spread across several towns or counties, but with the pals battalions, a single town might see almost all of its young men of fighting age killed or horribly wounded in a single engagement. Thus what was tragedy enough was magnified tenfold over by the loss of so many in one place at one time.

A man confronted by harpies of the White Feather Society.

A man confronted by harpies of the White Feather Society.


The second major recruiting tool was shame in the form of the Order of the White Feather. This society enlisted the services of women to shame men into signing up to go be blown to bits. A standard tactic involved a group of young ladies, often quite a large group, surrounding and berating a male of supposedly obvious fighting age as to why he wasn’t up at the front to “do his bit” with the rest of the fighting men. At the end of the harangue, one of the harpies would tuck a single white feather — a traditional symbol of rank craven cowardice in Britain — into the poor victim’s lapel and smugly walk away. We have records of plays stopping unexpectedly in the middle of a performance in order for the ladies to stalk up and down the aisles passing out white feathers to men who made the mistake of relaxing when it seemed they should be fighting.

The White Feather Campaign was actually extremely successful. It led to multitudes of men enlisting to fight the Kaiser for King and Country. Some of those men were large boys, often 15 or 16, who had been mistaken for fighting age by the incessant White Feather women. Instead of bothering to try explaining, these boys would lie about their age and take their places in the line. The harassment reached a point where returning soldiers received a badge to wear showing they had served already or were simply at home on leave.

Predictably, however, the White Feather Society produced some terrible embarrassment for its members at times. For instance, Able Seaman George Samson was delayed from attending a ceremony by a group of women who insisted on giving him the white feather since he wasn’t in uniform. Seaman Samson was, at the time, on his way to a ceremony where he was to be given the Victoria’s Cross — Great Britain’s highest military award — for his courage and gallantry in battle at Gallipoli.

The recruiting office undoubtedly had a hard job and one made all the harder since no one really wanted to see these young boys going off in khaki and coming back in linen so often. In time, volunteering no longer kept pace with the demand for fuel for the fires at the front. In those dark days, Great Britain did what she had never done before and instituted conscription. Now, men would be compelled to serve rather than asked to volunteer. It was a terrible time indeed.

Love y’all, though! Now keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Vive La France!

The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

When France collapsed after only seven weeks beneath the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in 1940, the French people earned a reputation of being effeminate and impotent retreaters unable to withstand the harsh rigors of war. For seventy years now, many ill-informed militaristic thinkers and armchair wannabe warriors have derided the French as unwilling to fight and lacking courage and fortitude. I remember — upon hearing French troops would be fighting in the Coalition Forces during the First Gulf war — college classmates of mine who had no more experience of war than they had of space travel making grave pronouncements such as, “Be sure they put the Frogs behind us so they don’t trample our troops during their retreat,” and “They need to be careful over there; everyone knows the French Army’s battle flag is solid white.” To be honest, I didn’t think much of the French military capabilities. I’d been raised on the old lie that arose after we began numbering our world wars — France was weak; France couldn’t fight.

That was before I’d done any substantial reading or study on World War 1 in general and the Western Front in particular. No nation has ever been more unjustly ridden with a yellow saddle than France. If they seemed to be swept aside in 1940, perhaps it was less cowardice and more memory — memory of another war a generation before.

People who speak of French lack of military prowess are woefully untutored in the annals of history. Britannica may have indeed ruled the waves, but for a millennium following Charles the Hammer’s victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours, the Fleur de Lis, then the Tricolor ruled continental Europe. This was the nation of Charlemange, Jean d’Arc, and Captain d’Anjou. Just a fraction over a century before the Great War began, a young Corsican second lieutenant of artillery raised the largest army the Western world had ever seen and came closer to conquering the entirety of Europe than anyone since the heights of the Roman Empire. Only a horrible Russian winter and the combined armies of almost every other country in Europe managed to keep Napoleone di Buonoparte  from recognizing his dream of uniting Europe under the Tricolor.

Only the rise of a unified German Federation with Prussia as its core began to challenge French military might on the Continent. France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War a generation before the Great War marked the passing of the torch of rivalry from France’s traditional enemy ever since the Hundred Years War — England / Great Britain — to a new and newly powerful Germany. Still, the loss of one war does not a coward make for if it did, Great Britain would have crumbled after the American Revolution. Instead, France learned from its mistakes in the Franco-Prussian campaign and some of those lessons would stand her in good stead in 1914, but only at a tremendous cost.

I'm not going to call him a Frog.

I’m not going to call him a Frog.

Americans, by and large, have a skewed view of war and especially casualties. Here is a number — 2,756,150. That’s a huge number by any accounting. In this case, that huge number is the sum total of ALL casualties — killed, wounded, or missing — from every conflict the United States of America has been a part of since the American Revolution. Again, 2.7 million casualties from EVERY conflict — even the bush wars, “Indian Wars,” and “interventions” right up to the present War on Terror. Also, nearly 800,000 of those casualties are from the War of Northern Aggression, not any conflict against a foreign power.

2,756,150 casualties in 238 years. That works out to roughly 11,500 casualties per YEAR since this nation was founded. That’s not a small number and I understand every person who makes up that number is a representation of suffering and grief not only of that person, but that person’s family, friends, and community. Unlike Comrade Stalin, I do not believe one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. Still, 2,756,150 casualties in 238 years.

Over the course of a single day — August 22, 1914 — 27,000 French soldiers died in an early part of what is now known at The Battle of the Frontiers.

27,000+ Frenchmen KILLED, not casualties, DEAD. In. One. Day.

For some perspective on the matter, consider this. America fought the Vietnam War from 1955-1975. In those twenty years, we had 47,424 combat deaths. In twenty years, we lost fewer men than France lost in TWO DAYS on the Western Front.

What is even crazier is people are STILL DYING every year directly because of World War I. Some estimates say as many as 12 million shells are still “out there” in the fields waiting to be struck by an errant plow or perhaps some teens on a motorcycle. Here in America, we have NOTHING to compare. Unless one is foolish enough to wander onto a military bombing or firing range, one is not going to be killed by an unexploded piece of ordnance from a past war.

verdun cemetery

Ils ne passeront pas

In all, the French lost nearly six million killed, wounded, or missing during the four year war. That is almost 10% of the country’s population. When you extrapolate each casualty having friends, family, and other loved ones who would be devastated by deaths and wounds witnessed, over half the population can be said to have been DIRECTLY affected by the events of the war.

Think of it this way, a good chunk of the men in charge at the outset of World War II, the men who oversaw the collapse of France in those seven short weeks, had been junior officers or enlisted soldiers during the horror of The Great War. Military historians often state most armies are perfectly ready to fight the PREVIOUS war. Could it be that so many of those men who had survived the carnage of the Western Front could only envision another war of mud filled trenches and body filled shell craters? If they did, can one blame them for not wanting their sons to go to the same Hell?

The French are not cowards now. They are eccentric to be sure, but they are not cowards, and they were not cowards in the collapse of France during the salad days of World War II. It is not cowardice to have an excellent and accurate memory.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Belgium Shows Her Backbone

The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege's forts

The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege’s forts

Germany had been spoiling for a war — with France especially — for over twenty years leading up to World War I. Unfortunately, given her position in the middle of Europe, any war was likely going to be a two-front affair and anyone who studies military history knows two-front wars are the nightmare of any nation’s military intelligentsia. With such a dire prospect looming,  the German military’s High Command, led by mostly Prussian aristocracy (think “Von” this and “Von” that), had developed a plan designed to make a two-front war not only winnable, but relatively simple. Officially, the plan was called Aufmarsch I West but those who study The Great War usually refer to it by the name of its principle designer and call it “The Schlieffen Plan.”

As several libraries worth of books and articles are floating around about the Schlieffen Plan, I’m not going into any great detail here, but the gist of the plan was thus: all along the border with France, Germany would maintain a token force to keep the French honest. Meanwhile, a huge force several armies strong would march from Germany’s heartland through neutral Belgium and come crashing down on the flank of the entire French border. This “sledgehammer head” force would push down all the way to Paris too quickly for the French forces on the border to react, Paris would fall, and France would be knocked out of the war at which point the bulk of German troops would pile on trains and head across France and Germany to engage the Russian Empire’s forces which would be just beginning to mobilize . . . theoretically.

The action would take place so fast and with such precision the British Empire would not have time to field a force and once France fell and Russia was neutralized, Kaiser Wilhelm II was certain his favorite first cousin King of Great Britain George V would figure any attack would be a waste of lives, resources, and –most dear to “a nation of shopkeepers” — money, and the two grandsons of Queen Victoria could divide the Old World amongst themselves. The plan was quite thorough, right down to timetables of trains leaving from thus and such a station and this or that corps arriving at just such spot in France. It was a fantastic plan, theoretically, but German High Command chose to overlook the sage advice of one of their country’s greatest military minds of the previous generation, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who famously said, “No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”

For the Schlieffen Plan to be successful, German forces had to get through neutral Belgium with alacrity. In all the wargaming  and planning leading up to 1914, High Command felt 48 hours would be sufficient to traverse the little country. What’s more, they counted on using Belgian roads, bridges, and railways to speed the sledgehammer head’s advance into the French heartland. Unfortunately for Germany, in all their years of careful planning, they’d failed to let the Belgians know they were expected to lie down and allow the jackbooted German war machine to pass unhindered through their homeland. Germany would pay for that oversight in blood.

On August 1, 1914, Germany sent Belgium a diplomatic ultimatum announcing Germany’s intention of passing through Belgium and demanding the Belgians not resist militarily, leave all bridges and railways intact, and get all civilian traffic off the country’s roads to expedite passage of German soldiers. The Belgian government responded with some awesome variation of “up yours” and proceeded to dynamite all the bridges over the rivers and all the locomotives and tunnels in the country before putting up barriers all over every road leading into Belgium from Germany. Then, the Belgians manned their ring of forts leading into the interior and waited.

As soon as German troops entered the country, Belgian reservists and even some civilians began harassing the columns during their march. Many German soldiers fell to snipers in the thick hedgerows and along the stone walls of the farm country. The first real test of the German war plan came on August 6 when the German forces attacked the heavily fortified city of Liege. Before attacking, German commander General Otto von Emmich sent an envoy to the commander of the forts under a flag of truce. He demanded the Belgians surrender the forts and stand aside. The fortress commander’s name has been forgotten, but his ballsy reply has not, “Frayez-vous le passage, Messieurs!” (“Gentlemen, you must fight your way through!”)

The Germans started the attack with a good old frontal assault figuring the Belgians wouldn’t have the stomach to repel such an attack. They found out it’s pretty easy to stomach any attack when you’re behind two foot thick concrete and steel walls and you’ve got a plethora of machine guns at your disposal. In a surreal scene which was to repeat itself all too many times in the following four years, German soldiers charged uphill at the forts and Belgian machine gun positions opened up on them. Thus the Germans were the first in the war to discover the equalizing power of Mr. Hiram Maxim’s invention.

The gallant Belgians held the German advance stalemated until August 15 knowing all the while help was not coming from France or Britain. They might have held on longer, but on August 12, the Germans brought up huge artillery pieces like 17 inch coastal battery guns via railroad. Once those guns were in place, it was just a matter of time. The forts of Liege were designed to repel any caliber of small arms fire and even the standard field pieces of their era, but the guns the Germans brought to bear were anything but standard. Within hours of setting the guns up, they began raining shells the size of small cars down on the brave defenders. Some of the forts caught fire and those that didn’t had their walls systematically reduced to flat rubble. The Belgians had fought bravely and punched far above their weight in this opening act of the war, but in the end they had no answer for the super-heavy artillery and the country fell to the invaders on August 17, fifteen days longer than the Schliefen Plan demanded.

The Belgian resistance wasn’t in vain. The fifteen days they held out enabled the British Expeditionary Force to land and dig in in good order just across the border and the French had precious time to mobilize reserve forces and move better troops into position to blunt the coming assault. The tiny country of waffles and chocolate may have been overlooked by the German war planners, but they gave their allies a precious commodity in war — time.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!