Tag Archives: First World War

Great War Wednesday: Heads Up

Standard
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/French_soldier_early_uniform_WWI.JPG

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.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sofmilitary.co.uk/products/White%20French%20Kepi%20Hat%20291113%2001.JPG

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.

https://i0.wp.com/snapshotsfromberlin.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/3-Prussian-Pickelhaube.jpg

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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.monsmilitaryantiques.co.uk/myarchive/1456.jpg

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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/uploads/3/0/6/7/3067335/5950063.png

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: Some Men Cast a Long Shadow

Standard
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.

http://www.lasalle.edu/~mcinneshin/303/wk02/images/zottomanmap1900.jpg

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.

https://i1.wp.com/www.christophermantei.com/uploads/1/5/5/6/15562118/9647792_orig.gifThe 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.

https://i2.wp.com/iranian.com/data/images/eymdwu0ugra1.jpg

Francois Georges-Picot

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6a/Mark_Sykes00.jpg

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

Standard

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

Standard

https://grocerystorefeet.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/8b453-schalestossopfer-shellshock-firstworldwar-deutschlandunddieostmark-petercrawford.jpg

“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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.britishpathe.com/admin/images/user_images/xthousandyardstarevs.jpg.pagespeed.ic.-BnX5KfZ4Z.jpg

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.

https://i1.wp.com/i.ytimg.com/vi/AL5noVCpVKw/0.jpg

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: Selling Tickets to Hell

Standard

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!