Tag Archives: Great War

Great War Wednesday: A Most Perfidous Weapon

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https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02871/Barbed-wire_2871765c.jpgWorld 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.https://i0.wp.com/www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/warpictures/trenches/images-trenches/15-german-stormtroopers-during-attack-gw000.jpg

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.https://i2.wp.com/aboutnicholasii.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/4/6/38466355/6733743_orig.jpg

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.https://i0.wp.com/www.diggerhistory.info/images/tanks/tank-wire.jpg

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: The Fokker Scourge

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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.

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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: A Fresh Hell at Ypres

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https://i2.wp.com/sod-a.rsc-cdn.org/www.rsc.org/periodic-table/content/Images/Elements/Chlorine-L.jpgThe 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: Death in Armenia

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Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?
(Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?)
Adolf Hitler, 22 August 1939

Of all the burning questions still smoldering in the unresolved coals of The Great War, none glows so brightly as the events surrounding what most of the non-Turkish, non-Arab world calls “The Armenian Genocide.” Depending on which source one consults, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,500,000 ethnic Armenians perished during World War I beginning in 1915 and continuing even after the official Armistice in 1918. These deaths were not from enemy attack but were carried out by the military and cooperating civilians of the Ottoman Empire.Under the cover of a world wide conflict, the Ottoman Empire sought to finally and definitively find an answer to what a long line of sultans referred to as “The Armenian Question.”

This “question” began plaguing the Ottomans during the 16th century when they first annexed the ancient kingdom of Armenia into their growing empire. At the heart of the issue lies the fact Armenia is the oldest officially Christian nation-state in world history. Way back in 301 AD, just when Christianity was still kicking off in the Middle East, King Tiridates III made it the one official state religion. Throughout the next seventeen centuries, the Armenian heartland remained a stronghold of Christianity if not always an independent nation. When the Ottomans took over from the Persian Empire around 1600, trouble for the Armenians began in earnest. The Ottomans were strongly, almost militantly, Islamic; thus the Christian Armenians came to be seen as a possible “fifth column” for any invader. Beginning almost immediately, the Armenians became a persecuted minority.https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/ca/Ravished-Armenia-The-Story-of-Aurora-Martiganian.jpg

The fate of the Armenians in Anatolia throughout the centuries leading up to World War One was not dissimilar to the position European Jewry found itself in for most of its history leading up to World War Two. Just as the Jews in Eastern Europe suffered almost cyclical pogroms and faced constant discrimination, so to the Armenians were the targets of raids and even massacres from time to time. The worst violence occurred during a two year period from 1894-1896 when the Armenians asked for more autonomy from the ruling Ottomans. The Ottoman monarch at that time, Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Hamid II, disagreed with the Armenians’ request and responded to their push for limited independence by slaughtering somewhere between 80,000 to 300,000 people in state sponsored massacres. With this type of persecution in their history, the Armenians couldn’t have been surprised when, in another eerie foreshadowing of events of the Holocaust, the Armenian elites and intellectuals were arrested en masse beginning in April 1915; however, their fate was a new twist on an old persecution and signaled the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.

Instead of the usual period of threatening and roughing up, the jailed intellectuals were summarily executed. In May 1915, the roundup of the Armenians began in earnest. Grand Vizier Mehmet Talaat Pasha colluded with the other two members of the ruling Young Turk triumvirate to institute a version of martial law and stated anyone “suspected” of “possibly” giving aid to the enemy would be detained. Within weeks, soldiers and paramilitary guards began marching any Armenians they could find towards a final concentration point at Dir ez-Zor in what is now Syria. Men, women, and children, infant and elderly alike herded into the small town and the desert surrounding it. Contemporary sources note the Turks provided no shelter or provisions for the detainees despite the insufferable conditions. It was a de facto death camp with thirst, heat, and starvation doing the work gas chambers would later perform.

The Armenians died by the thousands at Dir ez-Zor, but the Ottomans had only begun their cruelty. From the Syrian desert town, groups were force marched to a network of around 25 concentration camps near the present day Iraqi border. These camps for the most part became the final destination for the flower of Armenian Christianity and here many reports of the worst atrocities originated.

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One more reason I’m proud to be from South Carolina.

One of the most notorious camps was Ra’s al-‘Ayn which I feel could be called the Auschwitz of Armenia. Only women and children went to Ra’s al-‘Ayn — on foot. Those who did not die in the desert along the way entered the camp ragged, dirty, and suffering with disease. It was not unusual for an entire group of refugees to arrive at the camp completely naked, having been stripped and repeatedly raped by their guards during the march. Unfortunately, reaching the camp brought less safety than the desert. Unlike their Nazi counterparts two decades later, the Turks made no pretext of using the gathered people for even slave labor. The Armenians had one job to do from 1916 to 1918 — die, as quickly as possible. To this end, groups of as many as 300 souls were herded out of the camps daily and butchered in the nearby desert after a 20 mile march. More than once, the entire camp would be exterminated at once in order to “prevent the spread of typhus.”

In other camps, high ranking officials perused the arriving refugees as a buyer would cattle. They were representatives of local emirs and dignitaries whose task was to pick out the most beautiful and healthiest of the young women to increase the size of the eminent men’s harems so those poor girls survived hellish conditions only to secure a position where they would be repeatedly raped begging the question, is rape on a Persian rug atop silk pillows any different than rape in the open desert?

Besides rape, the Armenians were subjected to other brutalities of the most uncommon violence. Some commanders did not wish to overload their caravans so entire villages would be herded into the church, the doors would be nailed shut, and — like something out of a Dante’ passage — the building set afire. One Turkish soldier reported seeing as many as 5000 people at once thus burned alive. In other places, water was the preferred means of execution with entire families loaded onto small boats under the pretext of taking them across the Black Sea and giving them to the Russians. The Armenians were justifiably terrified of the water since, originating in a high, cold, and rocky climate, precious few of them ever learned to swim. Their fears came true more often than not as the boats would be purposely capsized once out of sight of land and in this way many more thousands died.

No blog post, indeed no book or series of books, can adequately describe the events of the Armenian Genocide. It stands beside the Holocaust as an example of the supreme hatred of one group of people for another. Ironically, several Germans who were advisers to the Ottoman government during the Great War and witnessed the atrocities committed by the Turks would later go on to hold high positions in the Nazi government of Germany and more than one would become an architect of the German “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.”

Love y’all, and as you keep your feet clean . . . remember.

Great War Wednesday: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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https://i2.wp.com/www.uboat.net/media/wwi/articles/wwi_pic1.jpgOn 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:

Notice!
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!

Great War Wednesday: Britain’s Battle Rifle

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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.

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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.

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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: Shellshock

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“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.

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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.

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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

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"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.

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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!