Tag Archives: World War I

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: Warfare Takes Flight

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https://i2.wp.com/www.military-art.com/mall/images/dhm1296.jpgNow back at the turn of the century
in the clear blue skies over Germany
came a roar and a thunder like I’d never heard
it was the screamin’ sound of a big warbird!
Snoopy and the Red Baron by The Royal Guardsmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about all those in later episodes!

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

Great War Wednesday: A Fresh Hell at Ypres

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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: 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: 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.

https://i2.wp.com/www.valmontfirearms.co.uk/ESW/Images/303clip.JPG

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!!”

 

 

Some Damned Foolish Thing in the Balkans

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Gavrilo Princip, the man who lit the fuse.

Gavrilo Princip, the man who lit the fuse.

“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”
German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, Congress of Berlin, 1878

One hundred years ago this week, the explosion the Iron Chancellor predicted occurred, right where he said it would, in the Balkans. The young anarchist Gavrilo Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand a month earlier in Sarajevo and thirty days of frantic diplomatic activity had come to nothing. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on its tiny neighbor Serbia. From there, the decades old web of interlocking treaties of “mutual defense” and “promises to defend” ensured matters could only progress one way — war — the bloodiest, costliest, most destructive war mankind had yet known. World War II gets most of the press nowadays, but its safe to say World War I changed civilization in a much more fundamental way. It destroyed the old orders and old traditions in a storm of blood and fire; what emerged would be barely recognizable to men of just a generation before.

The last time all the major European powers gathered to make war, the young Corsican corporal cum Emperor of France was the opponent and ever since Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo a century before, only minor skirmishes, fights for territory, and border conflicts flared up. The Great War was altogether different. It would be unlike any previous conflict both in its scope and its misery. After a brief period of lightning fast battles, the war turned into a stalemate and a new word entered the popular lexicon — trench warfare.

“The trenches” are the iconic image of World War I, but the grainy black and white photos of the battlefields cannot truly portray the hideousness of the conditions. For one thing, one cannot smell a photo. Accounts of the men who fought and died in the trenches make constant mention of the stench pervading the battlefields. Bodies lay strewn across No-Man’s Land for months or even years. Often those who died in the trenches would be entombed in the trench walls. Pictures that get much less exposure in the centennial celebrations show trench walls studded with hands, arms, and legs all poking out from the walls of mud. Men dug holes in the trench walls, shoved their comrades into the open earth and walled them up again. It was gruesome and ghoulish and eminently pragmatic. The corpses rotting under the Flanders sky point to the primary point which made World War I so revolutionary — dealing death had become industrialized. trenches

Over the course of  military history from the earliest battles with sticks all the way up to the Great War, weaponry had changed slowly, but tactics were basically the same. In Alexander the Great’s time, a bunch of men with long spears lined up shoulder to shoulder and charged another bunch of men with similar spears. Under Roman rule, the gladius and the pilum carved out an empire, but the basic military mindset remained the same — two armies lined up with similar weapons and tried to kill each other. At Agincourt, the English longbow replaced the javelin but the two lines of combatants still converged to the final slaughter. Even gunpowder hadn’t really changed things so much. Instead of lining up with spears, men lined up by rank and column with horribly accurate muskets and closed with the enemy amidst fire and smoke. Massed infantry charged massed infantry and whoever broke ranks first would be wiped out by the cavalry waiting in the rear.

Hiram Maxim changed all that around 1885 when he took the advice of a dinner companion who told him, “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.” Maxim did indeed make a pile of money and the invention which was the cornerstone of his fortune made an even bigger pile of bodies. Hiram Maxim invented and perfected the first portable and fully automatic machine gun. Along about the same time, Alfred Nobel perfected dynamite and TNT which enabled artillery to destroy larger targets at longer ranges than black powder cannoneers could have dreamed.

"Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not"  But, alas, they did.

“Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not”
But, alas, by now, they did.

Unfortunately, no one bother to explain to the generals in charge of this new warfare that times had changed. As a result, they used the same tactics on the Western Front that had defeated Napoleon. Massed groups of men with bayonets fixed to their rifles sprinted across fields towards the enemy, but this time, the enemy wasn’t running towards them in response. Instead of spears or muskets, the masses of infantry met the Maxim gun. A famous simile from the time said “men were scythed down like corn and wheat” by the hail of bullets which were deadly — not at the 100 yard range of the musket — at 1000 yards. Before long, sensible men began to dig trenches to avoid the machine gun fire. Still, the generals were an unimaginative group and slow to learn so every so often great clouds of men — Allied or German — would be rousted from the relative safety of their rat infested and waterlogged trenches to run screaming across No Man’s Land at the machine guns of the other side. Most of them would add their bodies to the great masses of corpses rotting on Flander’s Field. This madness went on and on with generals on both sides sacrificing the lives of an entire generation of their nations’ young men for gains which were measured — literally — in feet or sometimes yards.

As time went on, however, men began to devise ways to break this awful stalemate situation and those who thought the machine gun and the Bertha gun were the worst weapons man could dream up realized they were only glimpsing the tip of what was to come. As bad as it was, things were going to get exponentially worse.

I’m going to write more on World War I events over the next few months so if you like history, watch out for those posts. It won’t be all I talk about, but I believe World War I really was the most pivotal moment in history since the birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It created wounds on our collective souls that have not healed to this day and likely never will.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.