Tag Archives: Western Front

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!

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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: Vive La France!

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The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

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

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

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

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

I'm not going to call him a Frog.

I’m not going to call him a Frog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

verdun cemetery

Ils ne passeront pas

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

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

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

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!