The Western Frontier

The ships had arrived silently in the night at the small Egyptian port city of El Salloum (or Sollum), their cargo carefully unloaded by the few Bedouin residents who had abandoned their nomadic ways and settled the city.  Overseeing the Bedouin workers were thousands of Senussi men, a Sufi-Muslim order of tribesmen from Libya.  A largely nomadic people, like the Bedouin, the Senussi hadn’t come to El Salloum to trade or rest.  The Senussi had come to meet their shipment of thousands of rounds of ammunition, machine guns and even light artillery from Germany and the Ottoman Empire.  The Senussi had come to wage a jihad against the West.

On November 23rd, 1915, in the deserts of Egypt, the Great War had become a Holy War.

The Senussi on the march. Thousands of Senussi, aided by Bedouin allies, tried to force the British out of Egypt

Through the lens of the early 21st Century, the Senussi appear nearly pacifistic.  An off-shoot of the more mystical Sufi-Islamic faith, the Senussi had been founded in the mid-1800s in Mecca as a relative liberal interpretation of Islam.  The movement’s leader, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (or Grand Senussi; a title that survived him), had rebelled against what he perceived as the more conservative orthodoxies of the Ottoman officials in Mecca.  Senussi preached that his followers live lives of voluntary poverty and resist fanaticism in the name of the faith.  Branded by a fatwa condemning his teachings, Senussi moved from Mecca, eventually finding acceptance in the Bedouin communities of the desert.   Continue reading

The Black Soldier’s Lament

Amid the scores of concerns that clouded France’s Chamber of Deputies in the fall of 1915, the status of some of the empire’s colonial citizens would not have seemed a priority.  Despite decades of colonial demands to codify the citizenship status of France’s African subjects, in some cases stretching as far back as to the revolutions of 1848, the issue had been deflected by French government after government.  For the African subjects of the Fourth Republic, broadly known then as the Senegalese originaires (even though few of them were actually in French Senegal), their rights and ability to elect representation floated in a Schrödinger’s cat state of unrest – they were both citizens and not-citizens, sometimes the beneficiaries of French law, and sometimes bereft of it.

But for a war bleeding France white, black soldiers became one potential solution to the manpower shortage.  A mass conscription of Senegalese oringinaires could provide thousands of men at arms.  But conscription also conferred citizenship.  France could have her thousands of black soldiers, if colonial Africa could have a seat at the table in French political affairs.  The demands of the trenches outweighed the colonial fears of the French ruling class.  Black Africans were no longer broadly defined as Senegalese subjects – they were now French citizens.  Over 200,000 would fight for France; 30,000 would never return home.

The debate over the status of colonial subjects was occurring in all the capitals of the Entente.  The Great War was only just over a year old, but was already remaking European society.

French Senegalese troops – the term “Senegalese” was given to pretty much all central African French subjects, and the “oringinaires” only referred to the coastal population of those colonies

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end…

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden


To the extent the Entente gave their colonies any considerations at the start of the Great War, it was in pursuit of German colonial possessions.  The rapid expansion of Europe’s colonial empires in the 19th century had left Britain and France in control of vast sections of the globe, with only a thin paste of shifting political allegiances and minimalist military power holding it all together.  Concerns over how the empires could consolidate their gains were secondary to the opportunity to once again enlarge their territories at Germany’s expense.    Continue reading


For over two months, the Isonzo river had been blissfully quiet along the border of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Little fighting echoed through the peaks of Mount San Michele or valleys of the Banjšice Plateau.  Following Italy’s exuberant entry into the Great War the previous spring, there had been little progress in the realization of Italia irredenta” as both sides had exhausted themselves by August of 1915.  Italy’s second major offensive of the war at Isonzo had halted just months earlier for literally running out of ammunition.

Supplies would not be the hurdle for Italy on October 18. 1915.  1,200 artillery pieces and 19 divisions worth of men would hurl themselves against the rugged cliffs and the Dual Monarchy’s trenches in the third of twelve eventual attempts to break the Austrian line.  For the Italian soldiers who were lead forward with cries of “Avanti!“, Isonzo would become less a war than a battle of endurance – against the elements, and Italian generalship.

Italian light infantry of the 1st Alpini Regiment on Monte Nero, during the Isonzo campaigns

There may not have been a more difficult place on the planet to conduct a major offensive than the Isonzo river valley.    Continue reading


By the tens of thousands, they marched through snow-capped mountains on the Serbian/Albanian border.  Most of them injured or riddled with disease, the survivors of Serbia’s resistance in the Great War, military or civilian, shuffled towards the faint hope of Entente salvation on October 7th, 1915.

The last chapter from the first act of World War I was in the process of being written.  That same day, the crushing weight of four armies – two Bulgarian, one German and one Austro-Hungarian – had broken the beleaguered lines of the Serbian defense.  The nation that had started the war had already seen tremendous hardship, enduring repeated assaults by the Dual Monarchy.  Now, the full weight of the Central Powers was being turned against them.  It would cost Serbia 27% of its entire population.

The evacuation of what remained of the Serbian nation would finally prompt the Entente to act, thus starting one of the longest, and strangest campaigns in the Great War – the Salonika Front.

A Front for the Whole Family – from left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.  717,000 troops from 6 of the Entente coalition nations fought in Salonika

Despite its primary role in the conflict, neither the Central Powers nor the Entente seemed to give Serbia much of a priority.    Continue reading

Mob Mentality

It was designed to change the Entente’s fortunes in the Great War.

Across open fields clouded by chlorine gas, 6 divisions-worth of newly trained British soldiers threw themselves at the lightly defended (but heavily fortified) German line.  For the first time in 1915, the British were taking on a significant role in operations on the Western Front.  The young men who were leading the charge had answered the call from Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Horatio Kitchener, whose very image had surplanted the traditional “John Bull” (the British “Uncle Sam”) in rallying Britons to defend the Entente.  After a hard year of bloodletting from their French allies, “Kitchener’s Army”, or “Kitchener’s Mob” as his critics derided the volunteer recruitment effort, was to go into battle at the French town of Loos-en-Gohelle.

The Germans never saw the attack coming, and coupled with a surprise artillery burst and the first use of poison gas by the British, the Allied advance looked to be successful.

It ended in another wholesale slaughter.

The Battle of the Loos – the “mist” is 140 tons of chlorine gas

By the fall of 1915, Britain’s strategy to win the Great War had gone horribly adrift.   Continue reading

Die Hungerspiele

For hours, women had gathered in line at the farmer’s market in Cologne.  Before even daybreak, hundreds, and then thousands of German women had lined up to try and be among the first to buy badly needed supplies fresh from the nation’s farms.  The long lines, and limited food stuffs that awaited them, were nothing new.

But the prices were.  The cost of eggs, butter and fat had been raised yet again.  Indignant, the women began to argue with the market’s sellers.  The arguing quickly turned to shoving, as women pushed past farmers to grab what food they could.

Cologne’s police were quick to arrive, which only seemed to anger the women further.  “We want to eat,” the women chanted.  “Our men are fighting for the country, and we are starving!”  With the market’s supplies being overrun, the police drew their sabers and charged into the crowd.  Dozens were wounded as the women fled, trampling five of their fellow protesters to death.  For the next two days, thousands of Cologne’s women rioted in response, smashing the windows of shop keepers they accused of hiking prices, and attacking police units around the city.

In the fall of 1915, Germany and her allies might have been winning on the battlefield, but were losing the war at home.

A German Food Line – the initial effects of the blockade weren’t really felt until 1915 as the 1914 crops had already been harvested when the war began

While the Central Powers were experimenting with new technologies to try and win the war, unleashing poison gas and zeppelin raids, the Entente’s most powerful weapon had been among the simplest – starvation.    Continue reading

The Strain

By the beginning of September in 1915, Europe had been at war for over a year – a year of bloodshed and loss for the Entente.

The Western Powers of the Entente were locked in the static horror of the trenches.  The Russians were slowly losing their eastern European empire, en route to losing 2 million men in 1915 alone.  And the British were desperately throwing themselves against the Dardanelles while already contemplating a humiliating retreat.  Yet despite their victories, the Central Powers seemed no closer to ending the war than the Entente.  For both sides, their visions of victory – yet alone their rationales for fighting – were sinking into a murky morass of blood and mud.

But in the small village of Zimmerwald, Switzerland, a vision for the end of the war was beginning to form – a vision of revolution.

The Revolutionary in Obscurity – Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov in Switzerland in 1914

From September 5th to 8th, 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, the Great War was reduced to a war of words.  The combatants were not heads of state, military leaders, or even prominent civic leaders.  Rather, the attendees were there precisely because they lacked any real role among the warring governments.     Continue reading

The Beginning

It was a little before 9am in the morning as Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japan’s foreign minister, and the rest of the Japanese delegation, boarded the massive American battleship the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945.

The small Japanese contingent was dwarfed by the presence of the American military, and the number of representatives from other Allied forces.  89 warships, the majority American but a handful of them British, lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay, while hundreds of American planes flew in formation overhead.  The deck of the Missouri itself was overflowing with brass and press, the occasion dripping in symbolism of the American military might than had finally brought Japan to surrender.

At 9:04am, Shigemitsu signed the Instrument of Japanese Surrender on behalf of Emperor Hirohito.  In a small form of irony, Shigemitsu had been among the few prominent figures in the government to oppose a war with the United States (Japan’s militarists never trusted him) and yet stood signing for a surrender to a war he had never wanted.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur, milking the moment, signed as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces before turning the pen over to the representatives of the other Allied nations.  By 9:23am, the signatures had been completed and the brief ceremony finished.

World War II had ended.  The challenge of the post-war world had begun.

The formal Japanese surrender – the actual ceremony was very brief

Defeating the Axis powers had been a monumental task, won at the cost of perhaps 50 million dead or more (some estimates range as high as 80 million).  Rebuilding those same powers would prove to be a nearly equal task.    Continue reading

The End

On August 14th, 1945, the Second World War had but hours to go.

Since the atomic bombings and Soviet invasion of Manchuria just days earlier, Japan had begun secret communications through the neutral powers of Switzerland and Sweden to accept the Allies’ demands for unconditional surrender.  Unbeknownst to all but a few within the government and military, Emperor Hirohito had already recorded a radio address to accept the Potsdam Declaration.  The recording would be played on August 15th and subject Japan to an unknown fate in the hands of the Allied powers.

Major Kenji Hatanaka knew of the Emperor’s recording on the night of August 14th as he and a group of fellow officers entered the Imperial Palace.  Hatanaka burst into the office of Lt. General Takeshi Mori, the commanding general of the 1st Imperial Guards Division whose troops were responsible for defending the Palace and royal family.  Hatanaka made his intentions plainly known – he and his co-conspirators intended to stop the Emperor’s broadcast and continue the war.  Mori was horrified; Hatanaka and his men were violating an explicit order from their superiors.  Mori immediately demanded that Hatanaka return to his barracks.

But Kenji Hatanaka was not going to be following orders on this night – he was going to be giving them.  Hatanaka and his officers quickly shot Mori and Mori’s visiting brother-in-law.  Using Mori’s official stamp, Hatanaka forged Strategic Order No. 584 – an order to surround the Palace and prevent anyone from coming or going.  The 1st Imperial Guards Division was now at Hatanaka’s disposal and the Emperor was, in essence, his prisoner.

The end of World War II rested upon Japan’s ability to withstand a coup.

Major Kenji Hatanaka – the mastermind of the August 14th coup. He was only 33 years old and managed to convince older, higher-ranking officials to take his orders

Just days earlier, Tokyo had seen two different conferences attempt to address the end of war – each with very different conclusions.    Continue reading


Tsutomu Yamaguchi was eager to go home.

For three months, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries draftsman had resided in the port city of Hiroshima, doing his job designing Japanese oil tankers.  His job had become increasingly difficult as supplies for ship building became fewer and fewer.  American submarines,  warships and planes were sinking the tankers faster than Yamaguchi and his co-workers could design and build them.  The work had forced Yamaguchi to be away from his family and he was thankful for the opportunity to see them again when he arrived at the Hiroshima train station on August 6th, 1945.

His joy turned to frustration – he had forgotten his hanko, or hand-stamp that allowed him to travel.  Rushing to his office, Yamaguchi noticed the American bomber in the sky above.  The bomber, any American bomber, was an unusual site over Hiroshima as the city had been spared the sort of conventional air campaign that had devastated the rest of the country.  The bomb dropped its cargo – one bomb in a parachute.

Above Yamaguchi, a great flash brightened the August morning sky, blinding him and knocking him to the ground.  Within that flash, 80,000 Japanese were instantly killed.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi – and the world – had witnessed the horrible birth of the atomic age.

Tokyo firebombed – the Allied conventional campaign could cause as much damage as the atom bombs did

With the narrative of how the first atomic bomb came to be dropped on Hiroshima, the inevitable question and debate rides alongside of it – should it have been?    Continue reading

The Feeding Frenzy

It was barely 14 minutes past midnight when the twin explosions, coming almost one on top of the other, rocked the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30th, 1945.

Coming from Guam by way of Tinian, few of the crew of the Indianapolis – and none of the crew of the Japanese submarine that had just given her a mortal wound – knew of the cargo she had just recently delivered.  The first atomic bomb had laid in her depths just days earlier.  The ship, having seen near constant action since 1942, was en route to Leyete to join Task Force 95 in sweeping the South China Sea of Japanese shipping.  She would never see her destination, sinking within 12 minutes of being hit.

Of the Indianapolis‘ 1,200 man crew, only 300 had perished when the ship went down, despite the speed of her sinking.  Nearly 900 men had thrown themselves into the vast expanse of the Pacific to avoid becoming trapped in the vessel as she listed and then rolled.  They leaped in with few rafts or lifejackets.  There had been no distress call.  The speed of the sinking meant the U.S. Navy had no idea so many of their sailors were in the water.

But the sharks knew.  And for the next nearly four days, almost another 600 men would be lost.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis – with a long Naval career and good speed, the Indianapolis was a logical choice to escort the first atomic bomb in 1945

There’s a temptation to believe that had the Indianapolis not been linked with the atomic bomb – and the tragedy of her sinking – the ship might never have been notable at all.  Rather, the Indianapolis had 13 years of distinguished, and interesting, service before meeting her untimely end.     Continue reading

The Brave New World

“To the victor belong the spoils.”

– Sen. William L. Marcy (1828)

It had been perhaps the strangest coalition in human history – the foremost democratic, colonial, and communist powers in the world, rallying together to defeat a nation antithetical to all of them, despite their immense differences.

Fear of defeat had united them; the prospects of victory had already been slowing dividing them.  By the time the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had gathered in mid-July of 1945 at Potsdam in Germany, their once-unified vision for the brave new world that would emerge from the carnage of war was breaking apart.  While there was still plenty of fighting to do to bring the last of the Axis powers down, the democratic and Wilsonian ideals pushed largely by the United States were quickly buckling under the weight of political reality.

The hopes of avoiding another Versailles-like post-war environment were fading.  The victors were eagerly eyeing their spoils.  And the red-hot war that had engulfed the globe was freezing over into a cold one.

The Victors: the dynamics of previous Allied conferences were no longer in play as Truman replaced FDR – determined to strike a harder, anti-Soviet tone

The world – and the participants – had looked much different just five months earlier at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945.    Continue reading


The shelters were scattered across the cool New Mexican desert, one in each direction, 5 miles away from the target – a simple wooden 100-foot tower, looking much like an oil derrick.  Yet for most of the observers, the VIP shelter 20 miles away seemed the safer bet.

The mood was tense.  The gathered collection of scientists and soldiers tried breaking the tension with betting pools on the power of the explosion they were about to witness.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the program, was on the low end of most of the predictions – only 30 tons of explosive power.  More confident scientists guessed the explosion would be 1,400 or 3,000 tons.  One pessimist wagered zero.

At 5:29am on the morning of July 16th, 1945, the “Gadget”, as it had come to be known, was triggered.  The surrounding mountains were said to have been lit up as though it was the middle of the day.  The shockwave could be felt 100 miles away.  A mushroom cloud 7.5 miles high was all that was left at the center of the detonation.  The explosion had the effect of 200 kilotons or 20,000 tons of TNT.

Operation Trinity – the testing of the first atomic bomb – had been a success.

The Los Alamos headquarters for the Manhattan Project.  An inauspicious backdrop to the most destructive weapon in human history

The path to Trinity had been an arduous one.  Six years, 130,000 workers, $2 billion worth of expenses (the equivalent of over $25 billion today), espionage and dissent all hallmarked the journey to the design, development and eventual use of the atom bomb.  It was a journey started in August of 1939 with nothing more than a letter.    Continue reading

Shell Shock

In September of 1914, at the very outset of the Great War, a dreadful rumor arose. It was said that at the Battle of the Marne, east of Paris, soldiers on the front line had been discovered standing at their posts in all the dutiful military postures – but not alive. “Every normal attitude of life was imitated by these dead men,” according to the patriotic serial The Times History of the War, published in 1916. “The illusion was so complete that often the living would speak to the dead before they realized the true state of affairs.”

It was blamed on asphyxia, the result of such powerful new high-explosive shells fired at massive intervals – 432,000 shells had been fired in 5 days at the Marne.  That such an outlandish story could gain credence was not surprising: notwithstanding the massive cannon fire of previous ages, and even automatic weaponry unveiled in the American Civil War, nothing like this thunderous new artillery firepower had been seen before.  The rumor emanating from the Marne reflected the instinctive dread aroused by such monstrous innovation.

Only the “frozen” men at the Marne were not actually dead.  Rather, what the survivors of the first days of the Great War were experiencing and witnessing was an issue that would dominate every major army for the next four years – shell shock.

Duck & Cover – the scale of warfare experienced by the men in the trenches was unlike anything any army had encountered before.  No army was prepared for how a largely conscripted, civilian-based military would react

“Shell shock,” the term that would come to define the phenomenon, first appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915, only six months after the commencement of the war. In a landmark article, Capt. Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps noted “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in soldiers who had been exposed to exploding shells.  The first cases Myers described exhibited a range of perceptual abnormalities, such as loss of or impaired hearing, sight and sensation, along with other common physical symptoms, such as tremor, loss of balance, headache and fatigue.    Continue reading

The Great Retreat

For nearly a year, the Eastern Front had been something of a murderous pendulum.  The armies of the Central Powers and Russia had traded monstrous blows, racking up casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands battle after battle.  And despite the Front’s lack of the same sort of trench warfare that would define the Great War in the West, the battle-lines rarely shifted…and when they did, they often quickly shifted back.

The other constant was Russian blood.  Whether in victory (such as in the Carpathians) or in defeat (the Masurian Lakes), Russian soldiers died in biblical proportions.  At least 2 million rifles short, starving for food and being fed anti-Tsarist/anti-war Bolshevik propaganda, Russian troops were deserting in greater and greater numbers.  As a Russian Army report in the summer of 1915 suggested, “super-human efforts were [being] required to keep the men in the trenches.”

The Central Powers’ offensive that began on July 13th, 1915 held goals far more modest than being the decisive blow against the Russian Army.  Too many other battle plans had rested on such a notion in the previous 11 months and come up wanting.  The hope had been mostly to press on the gains made by driving the Russians out of Austrian Galicia that spring.  Instead, the Russian Army collapsed.

Tsarist Russia had been on the breaking point – she now appeared to be broken.

German troops enter Warsaw.  It would not be the last major city in the Russian Empire to fall

By any metric, Russia was not prepared for a prolonged, industrialized war.   Continue reading

Tinker, Tailor, Explosion, Spy

It was 11:40pm on July 2nd, 1915 and the U.S. Senate chambers were practically empty.  The senators had left to return to their States (Congress was out of session), and most of the building’s staff had not only gone home for the night, but were likely going to stay home for the 4th of July holiday.

Security was light – true to form for the era – and few (if anyone) took note of the thin gentleman who entered the Capitol and the U.S. Senate chamber’s reception room.  Even fewer probably noticed the man hurriedly exit the building.

The explosion that followed rocked more than the U.S. Senate chambers.  Despite America’s official neutrality in the war that was consuming Europe, the nation had just experienced a terrorist attack in the heart of their seat of government.

It was an informal beginning to Germany’s undeclared war of sabotage against the United States.

The remains of the U.S. Senate chamber’s reception room.  The bomber had hoped to set off the device in the Senate itself, although he appeared to time the explosion to ensure no one was around

The smoke was still clearing from the U.S. Senate chambers on July 3rd when a thin man approached the door of famed banker J.P. Morgan Jr. in Long Island, New York.  Forcing his way into Morgan’s home, the stranger shot Morgan – twice – before being subdued by the banker’s butler, who bashed the would-be assailant on the head with a piece of coal.  Such a bizarre assault was found to be stranger still – the assailant was the same man who had planted the bomb in Washington. Continue reading

Twenty-One Demands

With a world at war, and new nations joining the fight, the events of May 25th, 1915 would have seemed blessedly contradictory – two nations signing a peace treaty.

There was little drama or media fanfare as representatives from Japan arrived in Peking to meet with the Republic of China’s first (semi-democratically) elected President, Yuan Shika. The course of nearly five-months of bitter negotiations, and the threat of expanded war in Asia, had led to this meeting. At issue were Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” – a list of diplomatic concessions Japan wanted from China, including territories, industry, and most concerning for Japan’s fellow Western allies, de facto control of Chinese government ministers.

If accepted, China would become little more than a Japanese protectorate. If refused, the Great War would expand even further.

Japanese artillery at Tsingtao. A German-held Chinese port, Tsingtao was captured in 1914 by a joint British-Japanese invasion, setting the stage for further Japanese expansion in China

When we started this retrospective on World War I, we mentioned that it made sense after covering World War II since the conflicts “really were two different phases of the same war.”  And most assuredly, the seeds of Japan’s imperialist designs on China – and war against the United States and Britain – were firmly planted on May 25th, 1915.   Continue reading

Italy, Unredeemed

The enthusiasm was contagious in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.  As the 482 Deputies out of the Chamber’s 500 poured into their seats, the Deputies applauded were those who wore military uniforms.  Men hooted, waiving flags amid cries of “Viva Italia!”  For the dozens of diplomatic attendees, ranging from representatives of the Entente to neutral American observers, the atmosphere was more carnival than political.

A few minutes before the session began the Italian nationalist poet, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, appeared in the rear of the public tribune which was so crowded that it seemed impossible to squeeze in anybody else.  But the moment the people saw him they lifted him shoulder high and passed him over their heads to the first row.

The entire chamber, and all those occupying the other tribunes, rose and applauded for five minutes, crying “Viva D’Annunzio!”  Later thousands sent him their cards and in return received his autograph bearing the date of this eventful day.  Premier Antonio Salandra entered, followed by all the members of the Cabinet.  “Viva Salandra!” roared the Deputies, with the cheering lasting longer than anyone cared to count.  After the formalities of the opening of the Chamber, Premier Salandra, deeply moved by the demonstration, arose and said:

“Gentlemen, I have the honor to present to you a bill to meet the eventual expenditures of a national war.”

On May 23rd, 1915, Italy willingly chose to enter the horrors of the Great War.

The Triple Alliance – Italy was allied with the Central Powers before 1914, but felt very much the junior partner. The animosity was mutual – Austria was contemplating a surprise attack against Italy as late as 1911

For most of the combatants in the Great War, their entry into the conflict was, in some way or another, strategic.  Austria had to punish a nation which had assassinated a royal heir.  Germany couldn’t afford to be trapped in a two-front war against Russia and France, and thus felt it had to strike first.  Even Britain, ostensibly fighting for Belgian independence, joined the battle to keep Germany from dominating continental geopolitics.  But for Italy, the Great War was far more ideological. Continue reading

The Last Act

It was well after 2:00am on May 7th, 1945 when the first cars pulled up to a little red schoolhouse in Reims, France.

Shuffling inside, and out of the cold morning air, were representatives of most of the major combatants in Europe.  Few were major commanders – the closest being Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the chief of staff of Gen. Eisenhower.  Accompanied by the Soviet liaison officer Ivan Susloparov and French Major-General François Sevez, the Allies awaited their guests.

Arriving in an Allied-driven staff car, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl and his staff entered the schoolhouse.  Given the assignment of representing the German government by Admiral – and now, with the suicide of Adolf Hitler, President – Karl Dönitz, Jodl had arrived two days earlier with simple instructions – negotiate a surrender to the Western Allies only.  Eisenhower had made it clear to Jodl just hours earlier that only a complete unconditional surrender would be accepted.  Otherwise, Eisenhower would order the Western Front “closed” to German surrender, forcing the Nazis into the waiting arms of the Soviet Army.  Neither Dönitz or Jodl wished that fate.

At 2:41am on May 7th, 1945, Nazi Germany agreed to unconditionally surrender by the following day, May 8th.  The war in Europe was finally about to end.

German POWs in Soviet Custody – these men probably wouldn’t have smiled if they knew their fate. The Soviets confirmed that 380,000 German POWs died under their watch. Post-war estimates suggest that number was substantially higher

The events of May 7th/8th were the culmination of numerous, “smaller” surrenders over the preceding weeks. Continue reading

“Deliberately Unfriendly”

The morning fog had lifted over the Atlantic, giving way to clear skies and calm seas.  120 miles southwest of Ireland, in open water, the RMS Lusitania was charting a fast, and direct, course for England on May 7th, 1915.  The ship had left New York just six days earlier, brimming with a passenger list that read as a “who’s who” of political, theatrical and financial dignitaries from Britain and America.  Many passengers were enjoying the warm, sun-swept decks as they awaited their arrival in Liverpool.

Also enjoying the sites was 18 year-old Leslie Morton, a lookout among the Lusitania‘s crew.  A commotion in the calm waters easily caught his eye; a foaming residue trail in the ocean.  Morton could barely shout out his warning, “torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” before the Lusitania was hit, just underneath her bridge.  Steel and water rocketed skyward.  Almost instantly, a second explosion, “a million ton hammer” struck the vessel.  Within four minutes, the boat had lost her engines, steering and all electric power.  All aboard understood what happened – the Lusitania was destined for the bottom of the ocean.

Nearly 1,200 lives would join her.

The scale of the loss of life wouldn’t be apparent right away, but 1,198 civilians drowned on the Lusitania

Of all the tactics the Germans had unleashed to try and turn the Great War to their advantage, unrestricted submarine warfare had been the most effective. Continue reading

The Spectator

The sun was setting in the tiny hamlet of Giulino di Messegra as the Fascist prisoners were off-loaded from a truck.  The handful of men, and one woman, had spent the previous night in a cold farm house, having just been captured off a German convoy by Italian communist partisans.  The partisan’s local leader, Walter Audisio, ordered his prisoners to stand against a wall at the entrance to the Villa Belmonte.  One of the other partisans closely watched the prisoners, noting that the most prominent one among them “was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind. I read utter exhaustion, but not fear…[he] seemed completely lacking in will, spiritually dead.”

What happened next remains somewhat debated.  Audisio, reading orders from his superiors in the Italian Communist Party, supposedly issued a death sentence to those held captive.  He immediately aimed his machine gun at the group and squeezed the trigger.

The gun jammed.  The life of Benito Mussolini would gain a few additional seconds.

“Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen. I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.”

Benito Mussolini to a Journalist in January of 1945

Mussolini’s Rescue – September, 1943: Despite the Italian government’s efforts to hide the former Il Duce, German intelligence quickly located him after the Italians switched sides

Benito Mussolini had spent a lifetime fighting.  Fighting Austrians and Germans in the Great War.  Fighting communists in the early days of the Fascist Party.  Fighting wars from Abyssinia to Greece.  By September of 1943, the deposed Italian Head of State, Il Duce (the leader) hadn’t the stomach for another battle. Continue reading

Haber’s Rule

The sun was setting on the trenches of Ypres on the evening of April 22nd, 1915.  The Allied battlefield, a mixture of British regulars and French colonial troops, had been quiet for months following the First Battle of Ypres in November of the previous year.  The men of the French 45th and 87th divisions were acclimating to the routine of the trenches – a far cry from their prior lives in Morocco and Algeria.

On the darkening horizon a cloud began to form from the German line.  It moved slowly, practically crawling on the ground towards the French colonial troops.  Eyes began to itch and water; mouths filled with a distinct metallic taste.  And as the cloud enveloped the trenches, lungs seized and eyes felt like they were melting…because they were.  It was 168 tons of chlorine gas.

Science had brought another new horror to the Great War.

Clouds of Death – the use of chemical weapons at the Second Battle of Ypres contributed to nearly 70,000 Allied casualties over the course of one month

The use of new technology as new tools of terror had already been well-established in the Great War. Continue reading

As the World Turans

The retreat was slow, deliberate, and disciplined over the mountains leading from the Azerbaijani village of Dilman on April 15th, 1915.  For a conflict that already had claimed or maimed millions of combatants, the men of the Turkish 1st Expeditionary Force were relatively unscathed.  Few of the Ottoman regulars had lost their lives.  But their conscripted Kurdish cavalrymen were less fortunate – their entire force of nearly 12,000 men had either been killed or deserted.

The objective had been an indirect strike at Russian and British colonial influence through an invasion of Persia.  The Great War was further becoming a world war.

The Great Game, summarized in a 1911 cartoon: “If we hadn’t a thorough understanding, I (British lion) might almost be tempted to ask what you (Russian bear) are doing there with our little playfellow (Persian cat)”

By the spring of 1915, it was already clear that this was no longer just “Europe’s war.” Continue reading

“For The Tradition and Glory of the Navy”

The ship was already listing badly at 4:02pm when the order was given to abandon her on April 7th, 1945.  Seven torpedo hits, and countless bombs, were the source of belching smoke and fire that could be seen for miles.  The ship’s magazine stocks were engulfed in flame as well, reaching critical levels that might set off the ammunition.  The cooling pumps, designed to douse such fires, had long since been broken in the battle.

By 4:05pm, the ship was sinking, listing so badly that when the final wave of American torpedo bombers attacked, they actually struck the bottom of the hull.  The ship rolled completely to her side, her 70,000 tons shifting so dramatically that the ship’s forward magazines collided, setting off a massive explosion that was witnessed as far as 100 miles away.  3,055 of her 3,332 crew would join her at the bottom of the Pacific.

The largest battleship in history – the Yamato – was no more.

The Yamato in 1941 – along with her sister ship the Musashi and the German Bismarck – were the largest battleships that fought in World War II. All three would not survive the war

It could said that the Yamato was an anachronism by the time she first set sail in the fall of 1941.  After all, nearly 12 months before the Yamato launched the British were proving at Torino that the aircraft would soon reign supreme at sea.  But then, the Yamato was as much the product of political concerns as military ones. Continue reading

The Chinese Finger-Trap

Everywhere, Japan was in retreat.

In April of 1945, the Japanese Empire was being pushed on almost every front.  Americans bombers were decimating Japanese cities and industry.  British troops were reoccupying Burma.  U.S. forces were slowly driving Japanese troops out of their positions on Okinawa – all with frightening levels of casualties for Japanese soldiers and civilians alike.

But on one front, Japanese troops were advancing – China.  On April 6th, 1945, the Empire of Japan began their last offensive of the war.  An offensive they hoped would finally end the fighting on a front that had consumed nearly 10 million combatants and taken almost 25 million lives.

A Japanese soldier stands guard at the Great Wall. The Sino-Japanese War rivaled only the Eastern Front in terms of scale; over 25 million Chinese and Japanese died in China from 1937 to 1945. Even more were wounded

Throughout the course of this series, we haven’t commented on the fighting between China and Japan.  That’s unfortunate, because while World War II officially started on September 1st, 1939, it could just as easily have been said to have started on July 7th, 1937. Continue reading