Lost in Translation

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The cable handed to America’s ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in early January of 1917 was an unusual request.

Since the start of the Great War, Germany’s telegraph lifelines to the rest of the world had been severed by the Royal Navy.  But the undersea cables connecting the United States to Europe had remained undisturbed, and in an effort to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their stated policy of neutrality, the Wilson administration had allowed Germany use of their lines.

The terms of Germany’s use of America’s transatlantic cables were fairly simple – all messages had to be transmitted “in the clear” – uncoded – or they would not be relaid to other German embassies.  The message in Gerard’s office was coded, set to be delivered to the German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, in Washington.  The cable was coming from the newly installed Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who had won Wilson’s trust by positively responding to the American administration’s peace overtures.  Zimmermann was a career bureaucratic from a middle class family – not a member of the German royalty that Wilson privately blamed for the war.  In the interest in building trust with Zimmermann’s office, Gerard let the cable go through on January 16th, 1917.

The recipient may have been Ambassador Bernstorff, but Washington was not the message’s final destination.  Bernstorff relayed the contents to Germany’s Mexican ambassador – an offer of a German/Mexican/Japanese alliance against the United States.  In return for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Mexico would join the Central Powers in the event of America entering Europe’s war.

Arthur Zimmermann believed he was ensuring Germany’s defense.  Instead, he had poured the foundation of Germany’s eventual defeat.

The Zimmerman Telegram made headlines around the world and enraged the United States – leading to her entry into the Great War


The Mexico of 1917 was simmering with political mistrust and foreign intrigue.  And it had started – in small part – over an insufficient apology.    Continue reading

The Holy Alliance

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was well after midnight on December 29th, 1916, but the staff of the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was preparing for a party.

The Palace’s wine cellar had been temporarily redecorated for their expectant visitor.  Furniture and carpets had been moved in, along with a gramophone playing “Yankee Doodle” on a continuous loop.  Several bottles of wine had been set aside for the occasion, in addition to a variety of sweet petit fours.  The number of attendees were unknown – only a few key members of Russia’s nobility and their assistants would later amid to being present.  The host, Prince Felix Yusupov, was attempting to entertain his guest of honor – Grigori Rasputin.  Yusupov had sought out the supposed “mad monk” weeks earlier to attempt to learn some of the controversial holy man’s healing techniques.

What followed was a mixture of partial facts blended with mysticism and politically-motivated exaggeration.  Popular legend states that Yusupov fed Rasputin treat after treat laced with potassium cyanide to no effect.  Re-interpretation suggests that one of the night’s conspirators, a doctor, couldn’t violate his Hippocratic Oath to poison the famed mystic.  Reality suggests the food was either never poisoned or was administered before being baked, evaporating the cyanide in the process.

After an hour, an exasperated Yusupov had tired of playing guitar and listening to an increasingly drunk Rasputin.  The Prince would retrieve his gun and, according to his testimony years later, “a shudder swept over me; my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger.”  Rasputin was seemingly dead – only to reanimate himself and stumble out the door where he kept moving despite four more shots.  Only a following head shot supposedly slayed the infamous corruptor of the House of Romanov.

In reality, Yusupov’s first shot had passed through Rasputin’s mid-section without major damage.  One of the Prince’s co-conspirators, politician Vladimir Purishkevich, had fired multiple times at Rasputin and connected only once – a bullet to his spine.  The body was dumped in the Malaya Nevka River with such haste that one of Rasputin’s galoshes was stuck in the bars of the bridge.  Unsure of how to react, the participants dismissed the police sent to investigate the gunshots heard at the Palace, only to re-invite them back to brag about killing Rasputin…all the while insisting the officers keep the incident quiet.

Grigori Rasputin had been an enigma in life – his role in Tsarist Russia a subject of heated debate then and now.  In death, the man from the Siberian Plain would become a legendary indictment of Russia’s nobility and government in the First World War.

The truth of Rasputin is difficult to uncover – many “facts” of his life have later been proven false.  Allegations abound as to his behavior and influence over the Romanovs


By the winter of 1916, St. Petersburg had become a national paradox – the seat of government for Tsarist Russia, yet a capitol increasingly void of political power.

Tsar Nicholas II had long since left the capitol for Moghilev, some 400 miles away, after appointing himself Commander-in-Chief following the Russian army’s rout in the summer of 1915.  Left behind in St. Petersburg to manage the domestic affairs of state were Nicholas’ wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, and a deeply divided State Duma with little actual authority.   Continue reading

White Friday

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the Austro-Hungarian 1st Battalion of the Imperial Rifle Regiment Nr.III likely considered themselves fortunate.  Stationed at the summit of Mount Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites section of the Alps, the soldiers were on a fairly passive part of the Italian front.  Their barracks, build into the mountain side in the summer of 1916, was well protected by rock cliffs, which limited the effectiveness of Italian artillery.  Even the weather was reasonable.  Despite the massive snowfalls of that winter, the temperatures were warming.

The roar that the battalion heard at 5:30 in the morning on Friday, December 13th, 1916, didn’t sound like artillery.  It groaned and seemed to move closer towards them, shaking the very earth under their feet.  Most the men in the unit had been awakened by the sound, only moments before 200,000 tons of snow and ice collapsed on top of them.  In an instant, 270 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were killed by an avalanche – a part of 10,000 men killed by falling snow in December of 1916 alone.

The Italian front continued to find new ways to claim lives.

Austro-Hungarian troops survey their position – the Hapsburgs would suffer nearly 2.4 million casualties on the Italian front


It had taken multiple failed offensives, and a nearly successful Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive, but Italy’s fortunes in the Great War had finally improved.

The late summer of 1916 had presented Italy with an opportunity.  Between the Battle of Asiago and the Brusilov Offensive of that summer, the Dual Monarchy was on the verge of a military collapse.  Vienna had transferred hundreds of thousands of men from the Eastern front to the Italian front, and when that gambled failed, had been forced to do the same back to the East as the Romanians pressed into the underbelly of the Habsburg Empire.  Despite five different attempts at breaking the deadlock at Isonzo over the course of a year and a half, for the cost of over 175,000 casualties, Italy now held something it never had before – a numerical advantage.    Continue reading

The Knockout

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was 7pm on December 6, 1916, as several of the key members of Britain’s War Cabinet arrived at Buckingham Palace.  For the past 24 hours, Britain had been without a Prime Minister – and seemingly no one was willing to accept the position.

Herbert Henry (H.H.) Asquith had not been a particularly popular war-time Prime Minister, as he had been increasingly mistrusted by both the left and right in his coalition government.  Nevertheless, Asquith’s resignation the day before had come as a shock.  Even more surprising was that the office’s natural successor, the Conservative opposition leader Bonar Law, had declined George V’s offer to form a new coalition.  Law had insisted on Asquith’s continued presence in the War Cabinet; Asquith spoke of resigning from politics altogether and escaping to Hawaii.  Despite George V’s negotiations throughout the day of the 6th, the Monarch couldn’t bring together the disparate parties.

Now the torch of British leadership was being offered to a man who just two years earlier had been accused of being a pacifist, a political radical, and a “Little Englander” (a supporter of self-government for many of Britain’s colonies).  Instead, for the next two years, David Lloyd George would be one of the strongest proponents for continuing the Great War and expanding the British Empire.


David Lloyd George inspects the troops. He would go from war skeptic to hard-line war supporter within the course of the conflict

Britain and the Entente had seen many crises during the Great War, forcing out elected leadership in most of the democratic members of the alliance.  By the fall of 1916, the French were already on their third Prime Minister, with two more to follow before the fighting was done.  By comparison, the Italians, infamous for their dysfunctional governance, would have only three different PM’s throughout the entire conflict.   Continue reading

Follow the Leader

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The aging Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been confined to his bed for several days.  The 86 year-old monarch, who had reigned for nearly 68 years, had caught a cold that had developed into pneumonia.  While Joseph’s participation in the day-to-day affairs of state had been significantly curtailed for years, the Empire still waited nervously for updates on the monarch’s conditions.

Franz Joseph’s empire had been beset with ethnic divisions for decades – the Austrian monarchy had become the Dual Monarchy with Hungary under his watch.  Yet Joseph remained a popular, unifying figure for all the ethnicities under Habsburg rule.  Bismarck himself had noted many years earlier that despite the nationalist squabbles of the nation, “if Kaiser Franz Josef should mount his horse, all his people will follow him.”

On November 21st, 1916, Franz Joseph died.  The glue of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had faded away.


The outlines of the demographics of Austria-Hungary, circa 1910.  It’s easy to see the beginning traces of the states that would follow in the Dual Monarchy’s fall

The narrative of the final years of Austria-Hungary was of a rising tide of nationalist fervor overtaking a polyglot empire.  And most assuredly, the Habsburgs presided over one of the most diverse kingdoms of Europe.  Austrians, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Muslims, Jews and others made the Dual Monarchy their home, with the empire recognizing 10 different ethnicities in their 1910 census.  With the rise of ethnic-based states like Serbia, observers from both outside and within the Empire wondered how unified Vienna could be in the event of war.   Continue reading

3,800 Votes

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

As the night of November 7th, 1916 became the early morning hours of November 8th, supporters of Charles Evans Hughes were becoming increasingly confident.

The former New York Governor, Supreme Court Justice and Republican nominee for President, Hughes had waged a brief campaign – he hadn’t sought the office but accepted the nomination in June – but looked as though he was on the verge of winning.  Hughes had all but swept the Eastern states, racking up victories in large electoral college states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.  By the time the reported results had turned to the Western states, Hughes already had nearly 249 electoral votes (New Hampshire was still too close to call) out of the 266 he needed to win.  The early numbers in the West had favored incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, but Hughes’ camp felt secure that he would obtain at least Oregon and California’s votes.  Together, they would deliver the Presidency to Hughes.

Despite Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and numerous acts of terrorism, America had remained neutral in Europe’s conflict.  Wilson had campaigned largely on his ability to keep America out of the war, while Hughes had spent the last five months questioning the nation’s preparations.  Despite Hughes wanting to side-step any mention of the war directly, the campaign’s final weeks had devolved into a pro-neutrality versus pro-Entente/pro-war election.

The results from Oregon and California, although not official, arrived early in the morning – Hughes looked likely to win them both.  As Hughes drifted off to sleep, it was as the President-elect of the United States.  America had taken one step closer to preparing for war.


It’s not quite “Dewey Defeats Truman” but the nation assumed they had narrowly elected Charles Hughes as President

The common historical refrain of America’s attitude about the Great War in 1914 was that the nation staunchly preferred peace.  In reality, the nation was strongly divided on a variety of issues surrounding Europe’s conflict.   Continue reading

Romania’s Day

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The Romanian ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was insistent on delivering his communique on August 27th, 1916.  Entrusted with a diplomatic message directly from Romania’s Prime Minister Ion Bratianu, the ambassador was rushing to made sure it reached the correct authorities within the Dual Monarchy.

In a verbose note that covered Romania’s relatively short diplomatic history with the Habsburgs – the nation had at one point been a part of the Triple Alliance along with the Austrians, Germans and Italians – Bratianu recited a long list of perceived slights and concerns for the young Romanian nation.  The Dual Monarchy had regarded the Romanians as “an inferior race” which had led to a “continual state of animosity,” at least according to Bratianu.  For these reasons, and many, many others, the note concluded: “Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.”

The Romanian ambassador had done his job.  Only the note was supposed to be delivered on August 28th, not the 27th – meant to arrive as Romanian troops were already crossing the Austro-Hungarian border.

Romania had surveyed the landscape of the Great War and decided to join the Entente in a grasp for territory and power.  Within two days of their premature declaration of war, they found themselves surrounded and in conflict with every nation of the Central Powers.


The Romanians weren’t exactly fighting for “freedom and justice.”  Romania’s Day would be extremely short

Romania’s choice to go to war in the late summer of 1916 may have been cynically opportunistic, but the nation’s optimism seemed firmly grounded by the war’s recent turn of events.   Continue reading

Mirage

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the British 2nd Light Horse Brigade welcomed the setting sun on the night of August 3rd, 1916.  Stationed at the small Egyptian town of Romani in the Sinai, the men had been forced to contend with the unforgiving elements of the desert more than their Ottoman opponents for months.  The few wells and vast distances between towns or outposts exacerbated the effects of the 120-degree temperatures, which took their toll on the Brigade’s men and horses.  Wrapping up their daily patrol in the cool desert night was a refreshing change of pace.

The night-time patrols had been deemed necessary as the Ottoman presence near Romani, only 23 miles from the Suez Canal, had slowly increased.  But since the Ottoman raid against the Suez in January of 1915, what little fighting had occurred in the Sinai had been done as minor raiding parties by either side.  Other than the disastrous Turkish invasion of Sarikamish early in the war, the Ottoman Empire had been almost exclusively on the defensive.  The threat of a large-scale Turkish offensive seemed little more than another desert-fueled illusion.

The sounds of gunfire and artillery as the night of August 3rd became the early morning of August 4th confirmed the fears of the Brigade’s commanders.  8,000 troops – the vanguard of a mixture of 16,000 Ottomans, Germans and Austro-Hungarians threw themselves against the light horsemen.  The strength of the Central Powers in the Middle East was about to reach its zenith.

Members of a captured Turkish ambulance at Romani. The battle would be the Central Powers’ attempt to gain the upper hand in the Sinai and Egypt


For all of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal – its construction had reduced the journey between Bombay and London by nearly half, facilitating trade that rapidly grown Britain’s economy – neither Britain nor the Ottoman Empire had prioritized efforts to defend or occupy the Sinai.  Instead, the significant battles for control of the Middle East had thus far occurred in the Bosphorus and Mesopotamia.   Continue reading

The Embers of Prometheus

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The town of Kostiuchnówka had already seen heavy fighting for nearly a year when the first hits of Russian artillery landed on July 4th, 1916.  The town, located in Austrian occupation Russian territory (now, modern Ukraine), had been part of the frontline that was the Eastern Front since the massive Central Powers’ victory in the summer of 1915.  Now, Kostiuchnówka was again an active battlefield as part of the Russian Brusilov Offensive.

The attack had unfolded as most of the attacks during the offensive – a brief artillery barrage followed by seasoned Russian troops putting pressure on the entire front, hoping to form a crack and exploit the advantage.  26,000 Russians were prepared to assault Kostiuchnówka.  Only their opponents weren’t the usual mixture of men from the Dual Monarchy.

Many of the 5,500-7,300 men facing the Russians had recently been Russian nationals themselves.  The men of the Polish Legion, led under Józef Piłsudski, weren’t merely fighting for Berlin or Vienna’s claims on Tsarist Russia, but for a renewed homeland for themselves.  As Pilsudski’s men fell, the seeds for the short-lived Kingdom of Poland were being planted.


Russian pro-Polish propaganda – the Russians tried to keep Poles from rebelling, as they had four other times since 1830

Despite the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth being one of the largest nation states in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland had usually been at the mercy of their neighbors.  By the summer of 1916, Poland had ceased to exist for more than 120 years following the nation’s division between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.  Yet the potential future of a Polish state was very much on the minds of the country’s long-past conquerors.    Continue reading

The Arab Revolt

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The call to early morning prayers (the fajr) had reverberated throughout Mecca on June 10th, 1916.  The modestly-sized city of less than 80,000 was only just beginning their day as Hussein bin Ali, the Ottoman-appointed Sharif of Mecca, strode to the balcony of the Hashemite Palace.

Despite the conflicts to their East in the Sinai and Mesopotamia to their West, the holiest city in all of Islam, home to the Masjid al-Haram or “Sacred Mosque,” had been remarkably quiet.  Most of the Ottoman troops stationed in Mecca had been relocated, leaving only a skeleton force of a thousand men.  A large military presence in the holy city, the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s triumphant return following years of exile in nearby Medina, was otherwise considered unseemly.

From the balcony of the Hashemite Palace, a shot was fired into the air.  As the echo coasted down the city streets, 5,000 men began firing upon the Ottoman fortresses that dotted the town.  Peering out from behind one of the fortress walls, the Ottoman commander quickly telephoned Sharif Hussein bin Ali – who was attacking them?  Both the attackers and defenders were flying the same flag of the Kingdom of Hejaz, the regional authority of the Ottoman Empire.  Were these attackers Bedouin?  Ottoman deserters?  The British?  No, Sharif Hussein bin Ali replied – they were his troops.

What would become known as the “Arab Revolt” had begun.  And the era of Ottoman control of the desert was about to end.


Arab Revolt – the romanticized view.  In reality, it would become a brutal conflict and one heavily subsidized by the British

In the summer of 1916, the dichotomy of the politics of the Arabian Peninsula were profound.  Nowhere else in the Ottoman Empire was a region governed by men so willing to rebel, yet leading over a populace so apparently disinterested in doing so.   Continue reading

Here Be Dragons

It’s hard to think about warfare in the past century without conjuring up the image of the tank.

Today’s main battle tanks – nearly impregnable to any weapon that faces them on land – are like the land-battleships they were intended to be, 100 years ago.

British “Challenger II” main battle tanks. A Challenger scored the longest-ranged tank to tank kill in history – 5,000 yards. That’s three miles. With a first shot.

Some wars have involved vast fleets of tanks duking it out, in the desert…

Israeli “Patton” Tanks – US-built M-60s – maneuver across the Sinai in 1973.

…and the sub-arctic…

A British “Scorpion” “tank” (actually a light scout vehicle) in the Falklands in 1983.  Although mostly intended for covertly snooping around enemy positions in Europe, it was heavier than anything the Argentinians had brought to the Falklands, and so may as well have been the above-mentioned Challenger II.

…and on the steppe.

German “King Tiger” tanks – the most powerful tank of World War II – at the Battle for Berlin.

Of course, at times the legend of impregnability was an illusion; beneath the hide of hardened steel, they were vehicles full of fuel and explosives and far-from-impregnable men.

An American “Sherman” tank, blown literally to pieces by an internal ammunition explosion. Those sides that are peeled open are 1.5-1.75 inches thick. The turret weighs something like five tons.

Today’s main battle tank is like a formula 1 car compared even to tanks from the 1970s; todays’ American M1 Abrams…

A pair of M1 Abrams tanks.

…is powered by turbine engine, has a laser range-finder integrated into a digital fire control system that allows it to score first-round kills while moving, against moving targets, at ranges well over a mile, firing hypervelocity rounds with tungsten or depleted-uranium cores that can slice through armor like it’s cardboard at ranges well over a mile.

Soviet-built T-72 tank, destroyed by an American tank round that drilled through the sand berm, and then through the armor.

And the concept got its first shakedown 100 years ago today.

Continue reading

The Somme, Part II: The First Day

It was well before dawn, on what promised to be a warm day in central France.

The 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – the “Accrington Pals”, who’d volunteered en masse for service in the war, in line with the great British tradition of turning out for King and Country – had had a busy year; after a stretch of duty guarding the Suez Canal in Egypt, they’d been recalled to France (along with their 94th Infantry Brigade, part of the 31st Infantry Division, a unit of about 15,000 men recruited in the north of England in the first autumn of the war.

The 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – the “Accrington Pals” – parading in Accrington in 1915.

Like the rest of the Brigade, they’d seen little to no action – Egypt worried the Imperial General Staff greatly, but the Ottoman Turks had never managed to make good on the potential threat they posed; indeed, they’d largely crumbled throughout the Middle East – partly as a result of post-dated self-determination checks written by the British and French that we’re still paying for today, especially in “Palestine”.

But as the war dragged on into its third bloody summer, the Accrington Pals became part of the General Staff’s plan to make a major difference in the war.

And they did – but not in the way that the Staff planned.

Continue reading

The Somme, Part I: The Accrington Pals

100 years ago tomorrow, the Battle of the Somme began.

We’ll come back to that tomorrow, on the anniversary of the battle’s launch.

First, we’re going to talk tradition.


Since 1588, when Queen Elizabeth I’s brand-new Royal Navy destroyed a Spanish invasion fleet, the United Kingdom had depended on the Royal Navy to be both the glue that held the Empire together, as well as the shield that kept the tiny, vulnerable island nation both safe and supplied.

The British Army, on the other hand, had always been the red-headed (not to mention red-coated) stepchild; existing as a creation of Parliament, cobbled together from centuries of expedience and accidents and the vicissitudes of nobility, subject to wild mood swings in terms of funding and staffing, and frequently serving more as a hard core for large armies of colonials, natives and mercenaries throughout the empire.  This had been especially true in the previous 100 years, when the end of the Napoleonic Wars ushered in the “Pax Brittania”, one of history’s longest eras of relative peace – ensured by British force of arms, meaning largely the Royal Navy.  During this time the Army had fought primarily as the empire’s policeman, fighting in large numbers only in the Crimea in the 1850s, and the “Boer War” in South Africa in 1899 and 1900 – wars that had led to little in the way of public relations, but much in the way of reform, after some disastrous early reverses.   The Army served mostly in obscurity, a closed-off warrior tribe.  The Army had wryly nicknamed itself “The Old Contemptibles” before the war, mirroring their view of their public image.

But the Army had had three things going for it.

All They Could Be:  in their isolation and obscurity, they – or at least the regulars – became very much a warrior elite.  At a time when ammunition was a downright cheap commodity, Army units would spend days at the range honing their marksmanship.  As noted earlier in the series, the firepower of the Contemptibles caught the advancing Germans by surprise in their first contact, at the first Battle of the Marne.  The Army had long been a force of long-serving career soldiers (the shortest hitch available to a full-time British soldier in the early 1900s was 12 years) backstopped with the “Territorial Army” and “Militia”, analogous to our National Guard, intended for home defense, who were trained to a much lower level.

For The Love Of The Game:  They were volunteers.  As, indeed, British soldiers had been throughout all of history; while the Royal Navy had long had a history of shanghaiing British citizens (and even foreigners) into service on their ships, the Army had been an all-volunteer force.  While conscription had been broached during the Napoleonic Wars, it was intended for home-defense forces – and even that proposal provoked a constitutional crisis in the UK.   At any rate – the British Army had always been primarily a volunteer force; as such, they had some huge advantages over largely draftee armies like Germany and France; the volunteers wanted to be there; when the chips were down and the stress of combat was at full blast, that fact was often the difference between carrying home an attack and taking cover and calling it off; between holding a beleaguered position and running away or surrendering.

Tradition:  The French have a term, “esprit de corps” – loosely, “Spirit of the Unit” – which means virtually nothing to civilians.  But in the extreme stress of battle, having that spirit, or esprit, is sometimes the difference between staying a difficult course and collapsing into a rabble.  That esprit is built from generations, even centuries, of tradition that imbue the soldier with the sense that they are part of a long-standing elite – and those traditions can not be let down.

The United States – being a country that was expressly founded out of a fear of standing militaries, and the long-standing traditions they accrete – was largely unfamilar with this idea for most of two centuries; its military units, almost entirely raised by the states for all major wars, from the Revolution through the Spanish-American War, tended to have no history to them at all; in each of these wars, the US really had two armies; the “US Army”, the tiny, professional force of long-serving regulars, and the various armies of state troops committed to federal service; that’s why most of the units of the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War had names like the “First Minnesota” and “23rd Virginia”; they were state units lent to the federal or confederate government, as the case may be.  Even with the sunset of the state militia system before World War I, American units in both World Wars and Korea tended to be created on the fly, given an anonymous, administrative numbers (the “175th Infantry Regiment”), and dissolved when the war ended.

And it makes a difference.  In the Battle of the Bulge, the US 106th Infantry Division – an anonymous unit with no history, no tradition (and very little training and no combat experience) folded like an Ikea end-table under the German attack, while the 101st Airborne – a unit with three years of tradition (and experience (and training as an “elite” paratroop division) held out while surrounded at Bastogne.

The exception?  The US Marines – who use their hundreds of years of tradition as a fundamental building block of their  esprit de corps.  A member of the First Marine Regiment (“The First Marines”), gets the Regiment’s history – Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue – drilled into his head; it makes the Marine part of a tradition that must be upheld.

It seems corny and overwrought to civilians – but it’s been the difference between standing and running, between victory and defeat, and ergo life and death, for countless servicemen.

And it’s been the status quo for Britain forever; even in 1914, there were British units with 250 years of tradition; units like the Grenadier Guards, the Black Watch, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Royal Scots each had centuries of battle honors, heroes, shared mythology, all of which – along with years of hard training – contributed to the units’ ethos, as elites who were just plain better than their conscripted German opponents.

And in the first weeks of the war, before constant combat against long odds, heavy artillery and machine guns ground the Contemptibles down to a shadow of their former strength, they were,  Much, much better.

The Reboot:  In September of 1914, Lord Kitchener – the legendary hero of the Boer War – broke from the majority of British policymakers’ opinion. While most sunnily held that the war would be over by Christmas, Kitchener believed, almost alone, that the war was going to be long and brutal, and that the Contemptibles (who had not quite yet gotten into the thick of the action) would need help.

With Kitchener’s leadership (and likeness), the Army launched one of history’s iconic ad campaigns:

Kitchener Wants You. Kitchener was a hero of the Boer War, and a popular figure in Britain in 1914; imagine if David Petraeus had become a media star after the Anbar Awakening, and then multiply it.  The US could only muster “Uncle Sam” for its parallel campaign in both World Wars.

The call went out for volunteers to staff an entire “New Army” – actually five “New Armies”, each a force of six infantry divisions plus support troops.

Among them were a large number – over 200 – “Service” or “Local Reserve” battalions, each affiliated with an existing regiment, each initiated by a sponsor – a town mayor, a member of parliament, a trade group, a school, a factory, even a club (there were three battalions formed from “football” associations, the “Football Battalions”).   These battalions, made up of men from the same town, trade or avocation, were called “Pals Battalions”.

In A Village In Lancashire:  On September 2, 1914, in rural Lancashire, the mayor and town council of the village of Accrington opened a recruiting station to begin assembling men for a new unit; officially, it was the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – a unit formed in 1881 from two earlier regiments with battle honors dating back to 1702, in India, Gibraltar and the Napoleonic Wars; as the “East Lancs”, they fought with distinction in the Boer War.  It was into this tradition that the men of the 11th Battalion were inducted.   It took precisely ten days to recruit the men for the entire Battalion.

Notwithstanding the fact that the roughly 1,000 men (in four rifle companies of around 220 men, plus a headquarters and service company) were from all sorts of villages in East Lancashire – Burnley, Blackburn, Chorley and others – the battalion was sponsored by the mayor of Accrington – so the 11th was nicknamed the “Accrington Pals”, a name that stuck with it throughout its service.

The 11th Battalion went through training near Accrington – the War Office and the Army didn’t have anyplace to barrack the men, in the confused early days of the war, so the men lived in tents, or at home.  There were also insufficient rifles, and even uniforms – so the Battalion’s NCO’s frequently wore the bright scarlet field uniforms left over from the early days of the Boer War (which were replaced with dull khaki when the scarlet proved to be a perfect target for Boer marksmen), while the enlisted men frequently drilled in civilian clothes with regimental badges pinned on, carrying wooden mockups of rifles until the real thing became available.

Eventually, uniforms, rifles, and a War Department directive arrived – and the Pals joined the 94th Infantry Brigade (with two “Pals” battalions from Barnsley and one from Sheffield) of the 31st Infantry Division – part of Kitchener’s Fourth Army, a division mostly built from other “Pals Battalions” from northern England.  After training and a period on Home Defense duty, the Accrington Pals initially deployed to Egypt with the 31st Division, to ward off a potential Turkish threat to the Suez Canal, before being recalled to France in the late spring as part of a buildup for an upcoming offensive in the region along the Somme River, in northern France.

We’ll come back to the battle – and the Accrington Pals – tomorrow.

The Rock Amidst the Raging Tempest

Despite rough seas, the HMS Hampshire was making good time on June 5th, 1916.  Having left the main British naval base in Scapa Flow, Scotland, the cruiser was easily outrunning its destroyer escort.

With the wound of Jutland fresh in the minds of the admiralty, the HMS Hampshire had been assigned a circuitous route through the Orkney Islands to avoid German U-boats and yet another British naval casualty.  Besides, the HMS Hampshire was carrying precious cargo – the Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener.  The man whose image had called millions of Britons to service in the Great War, had seen his political star dim by 1916, as his support of tertiary British fronts and efforts just short of conscription hadn’t produced his promised results.  Still, Kitchener maintained some of his pre-war aura as the heroic pragmatist with a golden touch.  His dire warnings on British manpower – that the war would be won by the nation capable of finding the “last million men” – had echoed in the halls of power only months earlier.

Kitchener’s mission aboard the HMS Hampshire had him en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, where the Secretary was charged with negotiating yet another agreement for supplies with the Tsar’s failing government.  He would never arrive.

At 7pm, an explosion tore through the hull of the HMS Hampshire – the victim of a U-boat placed mine.  The ship starting listing immediately, on it’s way to sinking within 15 minutes.  As sailors scrambled towards the few lifeboats that were being lowered, a figure caught their eye.  Standing calmly on the starboard side of the vessel, casually chatting with fellow officers was the War Secretary himself.  It would be the last time anyone would see Lord Kitchener again.


 

Kitchener the Recruiter – the War Secretary’s call to patriotism swelled the ranks of Britain’s armies (at first)

“We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten…He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.”

Journalist Charles Repington upon Kitchener’s passing

 

With the passage of 100 years, the reputation and impact of Herbert Horatio Kitchener is difficult to relay without invoking the comparison to another titan of war-time Britain just a conflict later – Winston Churchill.  Like Churchill in World War II, Kitchener was an aging war hero; a walking anachronism that nevertheless personified the English ethos of their eras and inspired a generation’s trust and admiration.  Unlike Churchill, Kitchener would never live to see his legacy repaired by victory.   Continue reading

“The Greatest Crisis of the War”

The days might have been getting longer across Europe in June of 1916, but in the capitals of the Entente, the second summer of war only appeared to be getting darker.

France was bleeding to death in the trenches of Verdun.  Italy was reeling from an Austro-Hungarian offensive that threatened their main army at Isonzo.  Even the vaunted British Royal Navy had suffered a tactical defeat days earlier at Jutland.

Yet perhaps nowhere did the Entente’s fortunes look worse than in Tsarist Russia.  Malnourished, under-trained, and overwhelmed with anti-Tsarist/anti-war propaganda, Nicholas II’s armies (now directly under his command) had suffered devastating blow after blow.  After losing nearly five million soldiers by the fall of 1915, the Russians had failed to advance against the Central Powers just months earlier despite an overwhelming advantage in men and material.  On June 4th, 1916, they were being asked to assume the offensive once more.

Near the Galician city of Lutsk (now in modern Ukraine), the Russians would yet again attack – only this time without a significant advantage in manpower.  Nor would they be aided by a massive artillery barrage.  In fact, their commander had specifically requested that artillery not pound the Austro-Hungarian line for days in advance.  Even the Stavka, the Russian High Command, saw little chance of success.  To them, the offensive was being conducted for political, not military, reasons, in order to shore up Russia’s support of the Chantilly Agreement of inter-Allied coordination.

Within 72 hours of the first shots being fired, the entire complexion of the Great War would change – and Russia would emerge victorious from one of the largest offensives in history.


Gen. Aleksei Brusilov – an under-rated general, Brusilov’s offensive would temporarily change the direction of the entire Great War

After nearly two years of war, the recipe for offensive warfare could have easily been viewed as numbingly rote, if not for the horrible carnage.  Lined in trenches, forces would advance in human-wave conditions after a sustained barrage of heavy artillery.  Gaines and losses could be measured in meters, not miles, and even in victory, the cost in lives were high.   Continue reading

Jutland

Despite the vast expanse of the North Sea, on the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, British Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty had found his prey.

Commanding a squadron of six battlecruisers and four battleships, Beatty’s small fleet had encountered a German fleet of five warships.  Both small contingents had spent most of the last two days seeking each other out.  Now finally confronting one another, the battle was relatively short as the Germans quickly took out two of Beatty’s battlecruisers.  With dry British wit, Beatty remarked “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”  Withdrawing from the battle, Beatty hoped to encourage the Germans to chase him.  The Germans obliged, unwittingly following Beatty into a British trap where a large portion of the world’s foremost navy lay in wait.

As the small German fleet appeared on the horizon, with the early evening sun back-lighting the German ships, only then did the British realize both sides had intended to set a trap on this day – the pursuing German vessels numbered nearly 100, not single digits.  Instead of a minor naval battle, both Germany and Britain had committed the majority of their surface forces to a battle that could decide the question of naval supremacy, and with it, potentially the outcome of the Great War.

Off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, 250 warships would spend the next several hours engaging in the largest naval battle in human history.*


Jutland wouldn’t be the only clash of surface ships in the Great War, but it would be the most significant by far

The seeds of Jutland had been planted nearly 20 years earlier, thousands of miles away from Jutland, Germany or Britain.    Continue reading

“Something’s Wrong With Our Bloody Ships Today”, Part I

The term “arms race” is almost – sort of – falling into disuse these days.

I’m sure it won’t last forever.

Those of us of a certain age well remember the ultimate arms race – the race to build nukes  between the US, the USSR, China, and their various proxies and allies in the Cold War.  The goal of that arms race – it almost seems counterintuitive – was to build weapons that’d deter their use by others.  So far so good.

It wasn’t the first arms race.  Far from it.

But 100 years ago today, one of the history’s biggest, most expensive arms races was coming to a violent, explosive, and yet fitful and indecisive conlusion in the chilly waters of the North Sea.

And along with the arms themselves, and the men who worked them, other things were being weighed and found wanting; grand strategies, and the the technocrats who conceived them.

Brittania Rules The Waves:  In 1588, an armada from Spain attempted an invasion of England; the fledgling Royal Navy defeated and scattered it.  It was the kind of victory that launches – and did, indeed, launch – myths and legends around which nations build themselves.

And indeed, that’s what happened; for the next 350 years, the Royal Navy thwarted every attempt to invade Britain, and eventually became the glue that held together the British Empire, the tarp that’d smother any brushfires that might break out, and the shield that kept it safe from any who’d dare try to bite off a chunk.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 set the pattern for the next century; the British Navy, with no rivals anywhere on the planet, was in effect the world’s beat cop; with it, the British Army – highly professional by the standards of the day, and extremely small for the world’s dominant superpower – could be carried to the scene of the Empire’s countless little brushfire wars in safety, to fight with the aid of colonists, mercenaries and proxies to put down the insurrection.

At the twilight of the Age of Sail, as the technology of the iron cannon and the sail-powered ship drew to a close, the Royal Navy dominated territory that made Alexander and Rome’s legions green with envy.

Disruption:  Marketing weasels today are fond of talking about “disruptive innovation”.   And 21st century westerners are often of the conceit that we, here and now, live in an era of unparalleled disruption.

But the world between 1815 and 1865 went through a spasm of technological, cultural and social revolutions that were in many ways the underpinning of our entire world today (and I strongly recommend Paul Johnson’s The Birth Of the Modern to go into them in wondrous depth); from trousers (yes, a revolutionary development) to the consumer piano to the steam and internal combustion engines to the notion of serious art to the idea of direct election of representatives to the asphalt road to the to the rise of Social government to Edinburgh Renaissance to the mechanical analog computer, the age was perhaps the most amazing in history.

Several of those disruptions brought changes that threatened to completely disrupt the world order – indeed, some of them led to the changes that brought about World War I in the first place.

  • The rise of the European nation-state, replacing the dog’s breakfast of duchies and kingdoms with large, centrally organized nation-states.  Joining France (regaining strength in the century after Napoleon) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a weak “empire” whose energy largely went to trying to keep its myriad ethnic factions playing nice) were Italy, in a position to dominate the Mediterranean, and most of all Germany – industrious, industrial, culturally homogenous, and governed by a militaristic semi-constitutional monarchy nominally under a Kaiser but governed mostly by an authoritarian, militaristic bureaucracy, the new Germany set about becoming an industrial and military power; in humblingFrance in 1871, they showed themselves a serious contender.
  • The Ironclad Warship:  Field-tested in the American Civil War, the armored warship instantly made the vast fleets of wooden ships – like the Royal Navy of the day – obsolete.  (Not so much the steam engine; the British adopted steam with uncharacteristic speed).   Suddenly, nations that had been second or third-rate powers were, for a brief moment, on an even keel with the mighty Royal Navy; for a moment in the 1860s, the Brits were genuinely worried about the fleets of France and Italy, which briefly led them in ironclad technology, a gap made up only at great expense and with immense pain.
  • The Torpedo:   Ultimately even more revolutionary – the effects of this invention are still with us today.  Also field-tested in the Civil War, the original “torpedo” was an explosive charge on a long spar carried at the front of a small boat (as well as in front of the first submarine, the Confederate Navy’s “Hunley”).   It broached the prospect that small boats could sink the mightiest battleships – a prospect made starker just after the war, when a Briton, Robert Whitehead, working in Italy and Croatian, replaced the boats that carried the spar torpedoes, putting an engine behind the explosive charge, allowing the boat to shoot the torpedo from hundreds of yards away.
  • Cheap Steel:  Steel had been considered an almost-exotic material through most of human history.  Occurring in tiny amounts in nature, manufactured only with extreme difficulty, it was a scientific oddity and technological dream.   And so through the American Civil War, most of the world’s metallurgy – especially cannon and armor – was in iron and bronze.    That changed in the mid-1800s, as changes in technology made steel passably affordable and usable in the market – first for building smaller objects, like cannon, and eventually as a structural material.    While the age of the wooden ship lasted from the dawn of navigation to the 1850s, the age of the iron ship was perhaps two generations.    And as the world’s cannon switched from relatively soft, brittle iron to hard, durable steel, the power and range of the cannon rose exponentially – driving the ranges of cannon from hundreds of yards to, by the turn of the 20th century, the limits of visual range, heaving payloads that rose from 24-48 pounds in the 1820s to nearly a ton a century later.  And to use this range and power, the final innovation became vital:
  • Computing:  In our 70-year-old digital age, it’s hard to remember that for over a century and a half, computers were analog; gear spins, cam rotations, and rack and pinion movements in elaborate mechanical assemblies did what 1s and 0s do in your smart phone do today.

For roughly forty years, the world’s maritime powers tinkered with each of these technologies, trying various takes on the formula for the perfect warship.

And just a little over 100 years ago, all of these innovations came together in the form of the ship that was the currency of record for naval warfare for two generations.

It Dreads Nought;  In 1906, the British launched HMS Dreadnought – the first ship launched that tied all of these technological advances into one package, which would define what a “battleship” actually was, for the next 3-4 generations.  Designed by Admiral “Jacky” Fisher – one of history’s great naval architects and thinkers, whose greatest contribution to life today may have been the invention of the term “OMG” Dreadnought was a large, fast (by the standards of the day – 20 knots/24 mph) all-steel warship armed with a uniform battery of 12-inch guns (supplemented by a small group of 3-inch guns, intended to swat away torpedo boats), armored to withstand hits from the same-sized weapons (with special arrangements to try to negate torpedo hits); the big guns were aimed by a central mechanical fire-control “computer” that calculated a firing solution based on the Dreadnought’s speed and course, and it’s targets range, course, bearing and speed, as well as the wind, the temperature and the type of ammunition being fired, electromechanically linked to the gun and turrets, allowing the entire battery to be aimed  as a single group (controlled by a fire-control crew atop the ship’s mast, with the best visibility on the entire ship), and fired by single electrical button.

HMS Dreadnought

Which leads us to one of the myths this series focuses on; while the world credits the British battleship HMS Dreadnought as the first ship to perfect the formula, the Japanese and Americans had similar ships on the ways; the Brits finished Dreadnought weeks before the US launched  the South Carolina, ensuring that two generations of all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleships with heavy armor and centralized fire control would be called “Dreadnoughts” rather than “Southcarolinas”.

The USS Texas, the world’s last surviving first-generation Dreadnought. Built six years after the British ship, it served in both World Wars; it was borderline obsolescent even in World War I, but served in WWII as mobile invasion-support artillery, including a stint bombarding the D-Day invasion beaches.

And so the technology was there.  What remained was that national will to do something with it.

The Great Race:  With the world’s naval calculus completely reset for the second time in fifty years, the playing field was at least briefly leveled.  The world’s second-tier naval powers – France, the US, the Austro-Hungarians, Russia, Italy, and especially Japan – jumped into Dreadnought construction with both feet.   Even third-tier powers – Brazil, Argentina and Chile – began acquiring “Dreadnoughts” (bought, generally, from British shipyards).

But most of all, there was Germany.

SMS Kaiser, one of Germany’s 17 dreadnoughts. Although the German ships were fewer in number, they had some technical advantages; German armor steel was better than the Brits. And German propellant powder was more stable, and its handling equipment and procedures were better – as the Brits found out 100 years ago today to their immense chagrin.

The German state, run by militarist oligarchy that co-opted a long series of historical myths to drive German expansionism, had designs on being the most powerful nation in Europe, and to building a world empire.  It had gotten a fair little start – with important colonies in the Pacific, along the Chinese coast, and especially Africa.

And to make the empire viable, Germany needed a navy to protect the lines of communication between Germany and the colonies.

And while many powers – France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Japan – might conceivably take a run at a German colony, and might logically start by cutting the colony off from the Fatherland by naval action, there was only one power that could interfere with a nascent German empire, decisively and completely, anywhere in the world; Britain.

And with the playing field leveled by technology, Germany made its move.  The German state embarked on a building spree unlike any other in Europe.

The British, who’d been building dreadnoughts at a brisk pace to stay ahead of similar building in Austria, Italy, France, Japan and the US, reacted by making a national priority of countering, and exceeding, German production.

And so in the 1900s and 1910s, both nations engaged in a building frenzy that strained both nations’ treasuries to the brink.  Indeed, as World War I loomed, the Germans – facing the combined might of the British Navy and French Army (the British Army was deemed fairly negligible, an error that’d cost the Germans dearly in August, 1914) in the west and the immense Russian Army in the east – tried to negotiate a treaty with the Brits, guaranteeing British neutrality in a coming war, enabling Germany to dial back the hideously expensive naval building program to concentrate on the Army.  The British rejected the offer – although the building program was taxing even their immense wealth.

HMS Warspite, one of the British “Queen Elizabeth” class of “Superdreadnoughts” – with 15 inch guns that fired 2000-pound shells, the five ships were far superior than any German ship commissioned during the war. It’s seen here in its World War II configuration; it served in both wars with distinction – and suffered near-fatal damage in both. The ridges around the waterline are anti-torpedo bulges – standoff spaces to theoretically allow torpedo and mine explosions to lose some energy before hitting the armor plate inside the ship’s hull.

And so by the beginning of the war, Britain had 29 dreadnought battleships (and 20 “pre-dreadnoughts”, obsolete ships from the “tinkering” era) to the Germans’ 17 (plus 12 pre-dreadnoughts).  France added 10 to the Allied side; Austria-Hungary, four to the Germans’, all in the Mediterranean.

And 100 years ago today, these fleets of ships would meet their first, and only, test.

More tomorrow.

A Slice of Turkey

The letter that sat on the desk of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been eagerly awaited.

Addressed from France’s Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, the contents of the letter were the result of nearly five months of negotiations between Britain and France to reshape the Middle East after the hoped-for fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Despite the failings of the Entente to make progress on the battlefield, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of England and François Georges-Picot of France had sought out success at the negotiating table, slicing and dicing Turkish lands.

What would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement would first unite, and then embarrass the Entente, while setting the foundation for the next 100 years of engagement between the Middle East and the West.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement – the final map of the Middle East after World War I wouldn’t be much different


100 years earlier, Europe had seemingly settled most of the map of the world with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.  The result had ultimately satisfied no one, with most of the attendees echoing the parting words of Britain’s Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who regarded the final treaty as little more than “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.”  For Stewart’s heirs across the various powers, the Great War seemed a grand opportunity to re-draft the map of the world for another century.

From the war’s first shots, both the Entente and Central Powers had cast their eyes onto their rival’s territories with hopes of expansion.  Whether it was the British and French trying to digest German African colonies, or the Ottomans seeking to expand their Empire to Persia, millions were dying or being maimed for the right to claim sections of the globe most the warring power’s citizens didn’t even know existed.   Continue reading

The Strafexpedition

For an operation that the Dual Monarchy had hinged on careful coordination, seemingly nothing had gone according to plan.

The scale of the forces involved could hardly be concealed.  400,000 men, complete with nearly 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery, had sat nestled into the Austrian Alps for months on the Italian/Austro-Hungarian border.  Record snowfall had kept the men confined to their trenches as whatever element of surprise the Austro-Hungarians once held slowly melted as surely as the white powder around them.

Having been on the defensive in Italy for a year, the Austro-Hungarian troops were now fed promises of dealing their hated Italian enemies a crushing blow.  General Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Dual Monarchy’s Chief of Staff, had labeled the coming offensive a Strafexpedition or “punitive expedition” against Italy.  While the tactical goal was ideally to cut off the Italians from the majority of their armies to the south in the Isonzo river valley, the more honest strategic purpose was simply to raze as much of Italy as possible for having joined the Entente.  At last, the Dual Monarchy was finally prepared to have their revenge.

On May 15th, 1916 the Austro-Hungarian army wasn’t looking to beat Italy, but to punish her.

The ruins of Asiago. The city, deep in what is now northern Italy, then closer to the border, was devastated by the Austro-Hungarian offensive

Long before Italy had cast it’s lot with the Entente, the simmering hostilities between the Dual Monarchy and Rome were well known among the diplomats of Europe.  France’s ambassador to Italy, Camille Barrère, defined the relationship between the two nations as “enemy-allies.”  Despite each nation’s participation in the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austrians resented their defeats within the Italian Risorgimento and the Italians longed to acquire territory at the Dual Monarchy’s expense.  As late as 1911, the Austro-Hungarians were contemplating a preemptive assault against their nominal Italian allies.   Continue reading

Éirí Amach na Cásca

The halls of the Irish General Post Office in Dublin, An Post, were quiet at noon on April 24th, 1916.  The day, Easter Monday, was a holiday in Ireland, leaving the gigantic Georgian building practically empty save perhaps for a few support staff who weren’t taking Easter Week off.

As such, there was no resistance as 400 armed men stormed past the An Post‘s pillars and burst through the front doors.  The men, members of the armed Socialist trade union the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), raised two Irish Republican flags and began reading from the prepared pamphlets they had printed in secret – a proclamation of an Irish Republic.

Across Dublin, 1,200 Irish volunteers representing a cross-section of the various rebellious groups constituting the Irish Resistance spread out, occupying most of the significant buildings of the city.  Despite ample intelligence forewarning of Irish intentions, the British were taken completely by surprise.  For the next week, one of the hottest battlefields in the Great War would be in the heart of the Entente.

“Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.”  Future Prime Minister William Grenville to the Duke of Rutland, December 3, 1784

 

Monday, Bloody Monday – a British barricade in Dublin during the Easter Rising

If one is to talk of the seeds of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, there are no shortage of dates that can be chosen from which to start.  Did it begin with the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century?  The Tudor conquest in the 16th?  The overthrow of the Catholic parliamentary majority in 1614?  The Acts of Union of 1800, which ended semi-Irish independence as the country was politically absorbed into the British Parliament?    Continue reading

Moscow on the Mediterranean

Marseilles was awash in pomp and circumstance on April 16th, 1916.  Military bands played marching songs and patriotic music, as throngs of French citizens flocked to the waterfront, eager to meet the arriving vessel the Himalaya.

Thousands of wide-eyed young men trampled off the causeway, many with musty uniforms and salt-corroded brass – remnants of the group’s more than two-month journey to the Western Front.  While all of these young men had been born and raised in an urban, industrialized environment, for most of them it was their first trip to a foreign country.  The experience was overwhelming for men who just months earlier hadn’t even been in military service, and were now showered with attention from local French dignitaries and beautiful French women.

Only these weren’t French soldiers.  Or British.  Or even colonial troops from one of the Western Allies.  The nearly 9,000 men marching through Marseilles were the soldiers of the Russian 1st Special Brigade – the first of nearly 50,000 Russian troops who would serve on the Western Front.

The Russians Are Coming! – the arrival in France.  They had gone East from St. Petersburg, making an arduous two-month journey out of the Pacific port of Vladivostok to France

The vast expanse of the Eurasian Steppe had long conjured the image that within the Russian Empire were multitudes of men ready, willing, and able to serve the Tsarist military machine.  The “limitless” manpower of Russia had been so ingrained in Western popular opinion, that it came to be believed as well by the country’s ruling elite.  Despite the monstrous losses incurred on the Eastern Front in just a year and a half, few in St. Petersburg, London or Paris feared that Russia would – or could – reach a breaking point when it came to fielding an army.    Continue reading

Death by Committee

What had been a roar of artillery weeks earlier had quieted to a trickle of distant, infrequent thuds.  Where the men of the Russian Second Army had charged forward over snow-capped passes days earlier, on March 31st, 1916, survivors now limped back through a morass of mud and blood at Lake Naroch, in what is now modern Belarus.

It should have been a momentum-changing victory for Russia and the Entente.  Eager to recover from their rout in the summer of 1915, 373,000 Russian soldiers had attacked only 82,000 Germans holding one of the weakest portions of the Eastern Front.  887 pieces of field artillery had pounded the German line for two days – an eternity by Eastern Front standards – under a battle plan crafted by the Russian Imperial Army’s own Chief of Staff.  The Russians had optimistically believed they were about to achieve their breakthrough.

Instead, it was yet another major Russian defeat.  Only this time, it had the fingerprints of the rest of the Entente all over it.

Lake Naroch carried all the hallmarks of early Russian defeats – bad intelligence, terrible tactical execution, and overconfidence.  The difference was the Russians thought they had addressed these issues before the battle

The seeds of the Russian debacle at Lake Naroch had been planted months earlier in the French city of Chantilly.  Indeed, many of the Entente defeats of 1916 could trace their lineage to the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly in December of 1915.    Continue reading

Knights of the Sky

The Great War had made unlikely alliances since the first shots had been fired.  And in the spring of 1916, there were few stranger alliances circulating through the Entente’s halls of power than the triumvirate of William Thaw, Norman Prince and Edmund L. Gros.

The trio of Americans had all arrived in France at the start of the conflict with the motivation of aiding a beleaguered Entente, albeit with vastly different strategies.  Thaw and Prince were military dilettantes; the children of some of the most wealthy individuals in the world.  Thaw had served with the French Foreign Legion while Prince was flying with the French Air Corps.  Gros had been interested in saving lives, working as a field director for the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort providing medical services to the French trenches.  Together, they had lobbied (thus far, unsuccessfully), to create an all-American volunteer air wing.

The group had much working against them.  While the Germans were pioneering airpower as a means of attack, the Entente still viewed the biplane’s principle role as observational.  And considering those lobbying for an expansion of France’s air force included one pilot, a soldier with terrible eyesight who wanted to fly, and a doctor with no military experience, the odds appeared long that the group’s proposed “Escadrille Américaine” would ever come to be.

But the French Air Department saw the propaganda value of American volunteers fighting against the Kaiser and renewing the spirit of the centuries’ old alliance between France and America.  On March 21st, 1916, what would become the Lafayette Escadrille was born.

The Lafayette Escadrille – yes, those are lions in the picture, the squadron’s mascots

The concept of aircraft influencing the outcome of wars was as revolutionary in 1914 as flight itself.  Orville and Wilbur Wright had only achieved heavier-than-air human flight nine years earlier.  The first commercial use of aircraft had only actually happened months before the Great War started – a brief 23 minute flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida.  And in terms of combat, the first bombs dropped by plane had no impact on the outcome of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 – why would they now?    Continue reading

Down Mexico Way

One would have to search hard to find the tiny village of Columbus, New Mexico on a map in the modern era.  It wouldn’t have been any easier on March 9th, 1916.

The quiet hamlet on the Mexican/American border had grown in recent years thanks to the train stop, adding a general store, a saloon and even a school, in addition to several hundred new residents.  Signs of the village’s growth were everywhere as four new hotels sprang up and even a local newspaper.  Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, Columbus probably felt as safe as any location in the United States.

The sounds of gunshots and battle cries surprised both civilian and soldier alike.  Cutting through the cold desert night, 500 Mexican guerrillas loyal to famed rebel Pancho Villa, (or Villistas, as they were known) had invaded the village, pillaging and shooting anything they could.  Desperate for supplies in their long-running war against Mexican authorities, Villa and his men had mistakenly been told the village was all but unprotected (rumors persist into the modern era that Villa had come to Columbus to buy guns from an American arms dealer).  Instead, 270 U.S. soldiers, and several Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns, lay just over the border.  By the time dawn broke, Columbus had been burnt to the ground, with at least 90 Villistas, 8 U.S. soldiers, and 10 U.S. civilians dead.  Elements of Columbus’ garrison defied orders and chased Villa 15 miles into Mexico, killing a few more of his men.

The United States had resisted entering Europe’s war, even amid hundreds of American casualties.  But blood had been spilled on American soil from across the Mexican border – and not for the first time.  America was going to war in Mexico.

Pancho Villa (middle) and Gen. John J. Pershing (right) in 1913.  A young George S. Patton looms over Pershing’s shoulder

The turbulent political background in Mexico had seen an ever-changing series of alliances, with the United States intermittently intervening and then withdrawing, unwilling and/or uninterested in creating permanent relationships with the variety of figures and governments in Mexico since 1910.  Despite a sizable American military presence on the border, rebels continued to cross into the U.S., trading fire and casualties.  Coupled with political paralysis from Washington, which dithered between antagonizing Mexico and trying to quell the violence, the situation on the border had significantly deteriorated by the beginning of 1916.    Continue reading

“Men are Mad!”

The citadel of Verdun had stood outside the city walls since the early 1600s – a relatively new addition in the Gallic city with a history reaching back to the 4th Century.  For nearly 300 years, Verdun had represented the strength of the French nation; it’s surrender to the Prussians in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War had symbolically (and somewhat practically) closed the chapter of French dominance over the continental affairs of Europe.

The French were determined to never let Verdun fall again.  A massive defensive redesign in the 1880s produced a bulwark without rival in Europe, or likely the world.  28 fortresses produced a double-ring of defense, each with 8-feet of steel-reinforced concrete, covered further in sand and earth.  1,000 pieces of artillery, with another 250 in reserve, were supported by a gigantic maze of trenches, bunkers and even an underground rail system.  Verdun had been deemed, before the war, “artillery-proof.”  If the famed citadel would ever fall again, it would be due to the weakness of the men inside, not the steel that protected them.

On the morning of February 21st, 1916, that theory would be put to the ultimate test.  808 German guns, firing for ten straight hours, lobbed over 1 million shells against the fortifications of Verdun.  The barrage could be heard 100 miles away.

For the next nearly 10 months, one of the worst battles in human history would slowly unfold, consuming lives on an industrial scale that exceeded anything the Great War had previously seen.  78% of the entire French army would eventually serve at Verdun.  The Germans would dub the battle the “blood-pump of the world.”  And anywhere from 973,000 to 1.25 million lives would be maimed or claimed before it was over.

French troops at Verdun.  Even today, the name “Verdun” conjures the worst images of the Great War

If there is a battle that encapsulates the entirety of the First World War, it might be Verdun.  The crushing weight of artillery; the human wave attacks; the obstinance of commanding generals – all were embraced at Verdun.  The scale of the battle can be seen even today.  Despite the Great War pounding the earth repeatedly at a number of locations, only in sections of Verdun does nothing grow 100 years later.   Continue reading