Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Not Yet "Dog Tags"—WWI Identity Disks



One of the first orders out of General  Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Paris,  in 1917 was the use of identity tags by all members of the AEF. The tags, also called identity discs, were to be made of aluminum the size of silver half dollars with the information about the individual stamped on them. Two tags were issued to each soldier; in the event of death, one tag was left with the body in burial and the other tag was to be removed and sent to the Chief of the Burial Department. World War I was the first time identity discs were issued on a grand scale and by general order of the headquarters.

Each soldier was to be assigned a service number. It was a part of his official designation, never changed and never reassigned to another soldier. Along with the number, the early discs were stamped with the name, rank, company, and regiment. A later change to the identity tags eliminated all unit references for security reasons, especially for soldiers near or in the front lines. This was done to give less information to the enemy if the soldier was captured.

On request by the wearer, the letter C, H, or P (standing for Catholic, Hebrew, or Protestant) could be added. The discs were worn on a cord around the neck. Alternatively, the Navy generally used an oval tag on a wrist chain. The term “dog tag” for identity discs came into general use after World War I.

Source: WWI Dispatches from the Front, National WWI Museum, Fall 2012

Friday, August 18, 2017

Who Were the Bantams?


During the First World War, the British Army raised battalions in which the normal minimum height requirement for recruits was reduced from 5 ft 3 in (160 cm) to 5 ft (150 cm). This enabled otherwise healthy young men to enlist. The British and Canadian armies recruited over 50,000 short men to serve as front-line soldiers.

A Wounded Bantam Soldier Accompanying a German Prisoner

Alfred Bigland, MP for Birkenhead, pressed the War Office in 1914 for permission to form a “bantam” battalion of men who failed to reach the British Army's normal height requirement (5ft 3in) but who were otherwise perfectly capable of serving. About 3,000 men – many of them previously rejected – rushed to volunteer. These first bantams were formed into the 1st and 2nd Birkenhead battalions of The Cheshire Regiment (later redesignated the 15th and 16th battalions). Bantams had to be not less than 5ft (1.5m) tall and no more than 5ft 3in (1.6m).

Men of the 16th (Bantams) Battalion, Cheshire Regiment in training, 1915. (Neg Q 53724)
Other regiments began to follow Bigland’s lead – for example, The 20th Battalion of The Lancashire Fusiliers, raised at Salford in March 1915 through recruiting efforts by local MP Montague Barlow and the Salford Brigade Committee.

The West Yorkshire Regiment, The Royal Scots, and The Highland Light Infantry all had bantams. Many bantam recruits were miners, and some of the units were formed into The British 35th Infantry Division. The 40th Division had a mixture of bantam and regulation units, although it is generally considered to have been a bantam division. The bantams were very popular at home, and were often featured in the press.


They also had a reputation for feistiness.  Author Sidney Allison wrote, "Their quarrelsome reputation was legendary." After frequent bar brawls they became known around Glasgow as the Devil Dwarfs.

By the end of 1916, however, the general fitness and condition of men volunteering as bantams was no longer up to the standard required. Brigades were informed that no more undersized men would be accepted, and the divisions lost their bantam status as replacements diluted the number of small men in the mix.

Sources:  BBC, Amazon.com, Imperial War Museum

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Recommended: Guilt Trip: Versailles, Avant-Garde & Kitsch by Roger Kimball



Ever and anon into the hearts of men sounds the enchanting whisper: “Ye shall be as gods.” But humanity-worship is so profoundly inadequate to the true aspiration of man...that it must end almost fatally in some form or other of individual or collective self-worship, and indeed it ends not infrequently in devil-worship pure and simple.
—Étienne Mantoux

What a vast difference there is between the barbarism that precedes culture and the barbarism that follows it.
—Christian Friedrich Hebbel

"Les Demoiselles d’Avignon",  Pablo Picasso, 1907

In Europe’s Last Summer, his brilliant book about the origins of the Great War, the historian David Fromkin dilates on the seductive beauties of the summer of 1914. It was, he notes, the most gorgeous in living memory. That serene balminess seemed an objective correlative of the rock-solid political and social stability that Europe had enjoyed for decades. To be sure, percipient observers discerned troubling clouds on the horizon. As far back as the 1890s, Otto von Bismarck predicted that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And his anxiety was later echoed by many statesmen who regarded the extraordinary arms race in Russia and Germany and the Balkanization of the teetering Ottoman Empire with trepidation. In 1912, Helmuth von Moltke, then chief of staff of the German Army, opined that war was “inevitable,” and “the sooner the better.” A world war, he admitted, “will annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come,” but Germany would eventually have to confront an ever-strengthening Russia. Better now, when Russia was still fledgling and Germany was taut with Prussian vigor.

On the other side, there were plenty of soothing voices to point out that the world’s increasing economic interdependence rendered any serious conflict “impossible”—that was the reassuring word one heard repeatedly. There had been no war among the Great Powers for nearly half a century, ergo the status quo would persist for decades, maybe forever. There would always be honey then for tea.

War was “inevitable.” War was “impossible.” Between the horns of that dilemma the world trod the mournfully contingent path of the actual.

When war did finally break out, it was greeted in many quarters as a lark, a holiday, a deliverance from the tedious routines of everyday life. Yes, there were some cautionary voices. “If war breaks out,” warned Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, at the end of July 1914, “it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.” On 3 August, when the German armies were swarming towards France and the “Rape of Belgium” was about to begin, he somberly predicted that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

But in early August, Grey’s was a minority perspective. “We’ll just pop over to France next week and be home by Christmas.” That was the popular refrain. In Germany, the mood was triumphalist. Even a moralist like Thomas Mann welcomed the war as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope. The victory of Germany will be...a victory of soul over numbers.” “The German soul,” Mann wrote, “is opposed to the pacifist ideal of civilization, for is not peace an element of civil corruption?” What contempt Mann had for the “nation of shopkeepers” across the channel.

Then in September came the first battle of the Marne. Its unprecedented slaughter exacted half a million casualties in a week. It is accounted a great victory for the Allies. But although it halted the German advance, it also paved the way for four years of that butchery by attrition that was trench warfare in the age of total war.

It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed that “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, Nobility, Valor, Patriotism, Sacrifice, Beauty: Who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?

Protest at German Reichstag over the Versailles Treaty

But it’s worth interjecting two points. First, it is sometimes said that the Great War, because of its body count, the tactics of its generals, the as-it-turned-out false promise that it was “a war to end all wars,” was therefore meaningless. I submit that, on the contrary, it was instinct with significance. As David Fromkin put it at the end of Europe’s Last Summer, “it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.”

Second, on the matter of culture, it is worth noting that most of the primary innovations in form and sensibility that we associate with that spirit of disillusionment predated the war. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, ushering in decades of ugliness and assaults on the human form. We haven’t recovered yet. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, with its gleeful “smear of madness” and its giddy “war-is-beautiful” apotheosis of speed, technology, and violence, appeared in 1909. “We want no part of it, the past,” he shouted, giving voice to an entire movement that was sick and tired of bourgeois stability. Stravinsky’s primitivist extravaganza, Le Sacre du Printemps—he had thought of calling it “The Victim”—was first performed in Paris to Diaghilev’s carefully staged pseudo-riots in 1913.

There was a fair amount of posturing involved all around. Recalling Roger Fry’s exhibition of some post-Impressionist paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery, Virginia Woolf famously said that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” That made the punters sit up and take notice. Was it true? It would be impolite to ask.

If there was a shift in artistic sensibility because of the war, I suspect that it had more to do with mood, with the quantum of braggadocio involved, than any formal innovation. Picasso, Marinetti, and early Stravinsky were brash gatecrashers. After the war the brashness evaporated, the energy turned rancid. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land, a poem whose title and suspended splinters of a shattered civilization seemed to epitomize the somber flirtation with nihilism, impotence, and polysyllabic despair that the Great War left in its wake.

Such signposts, I think, are pretty familiar. The sniggering, anti-art hijinks of Dada, the progenitor of so many bad things, belong here, as do the strenuous reactions and attempted recuperations of high modernism. What I’d like to do is step back and place the cultural consequences of the war in a broader context. This is where the promised theme of misplaced guilt, highlighted in my title, comes in.

One of the most famous books to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the war was John Maynard Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace. It was an instant bestseller. By 1924, it had been translated into 11 languages. (It is somehow appropriate that the other great bestseller that year was Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians: the spirit of Bloomsbury was riding high that year.) Keynes, the brilliant Bloomsbury economist whom the commentator David Frum percipiently called “the Nietzsche of economics,” had been at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as a representative of the British Treasury. He quit in disgust because he thought the terms of the proposed peace treaty were too harsh. General Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African delegate to the conference, convinced him to write up his objections. The Economic Consequences of the Peace,which might just as well have been called “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans,”was the result. The book is not a novel. But it occupies a place in the hinterland between fact and fiction—of moralistic melodrama, say, what the public relations people might call a “docudrama”: not true, exactly, but close enough to be described as “based on a true story.”

This is not, I know, the usual opinion about this book. On the contrary, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, along with its 1922 sequel A Revision of the Treaty, is widely regarded as a prophetic work of genius. Keynes’s searing moral indictment of greed and cruelty among the Allies, even more than his gloomy economic and political prognostications, sounded a gratifying note of moral superiority that was eagerly embraced by simpatico elites. They thrilled to the book’s knowingness, its sarcasm, its literary polish no less than to its message. Indeed, The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a classic in the library of liberal hand-wringing. As such, its contentions are proposed not as arguments, but as taken-for-granted, inarguable truths about the world, in this case the historical realities of the post-war settlement and the succeeding political and economic situation.

Think about it. The one thing that everyone knows about the Treaty of Versailles is that, because of the overly harsh terms the Allies imposed upon Germany, it led directly to Hitler and World War II. An article in The Economist in 1999 epitomized this bit of folklore: The “final crime” of the Great War, the article proclaimed, was the Treaty of Versailles, which “would ensure a second world war.”

As usual, Mark Twain came closer to the truth. It’s not so much the things you don’t know that get you into trouble, Twain wrote, as the things you do know that ain’t so.

In fact, as the historian Andrew Roberts argues in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, there are good reasons for believing that the Treaty of Versailles ought to have been a good deal harsher than it was. Had it divided Germany into two parts, as happened after World War II, or perhaps returned it to its 1870 status of several independent principalities, or even had the Allies merely enforced its original terms, the world would probably have been spared Hitler and the horror of Nazism. There might well have been “no via dolorosa of Rhineland-Anschluss-Sudetenland-Danzig for Europe to walk between 1936 and 1939.”

Roberts cites for support a neglected masterpiece in the history of polemic, Étienne Mantoux’s book The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes.

Let me introduce you to Monsieur Mantoux. Born in 1913, he was a brilliant French economist. His experience with England started early. His father was a diplomat, and young Mantoux crossed the Channel six times with his family before war broke out in 1914. As a young man, he studied at the London School of Economics as well as in Paris. He joined the French Air Force in 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland. After the fall of France in 1940, Mantoux was unable to make his way to England and so went to Lyon to finish his dissertation. In 1941, he managed to travel on a Rockefeller Fellowship to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he wrote, in lapidary English, The Carthaginian Peace. In 1943, he returned to France, rejected the offer of an administrative post, and took up a position flying under General Leclerc. In April 1945, a scant week before Germany’s surrender, he was killed in action outside a Bavarian village. He was 32.

The “Carthaginian Peace” of Mantoux’s title—what was that? Keynes several times charges that the Allies, and especially the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, wanted to impose a “Carthaginian Peace” upon the defeated powers, in particular upon Germany. What did Keynes mean? History provides two possibilities. There was the final Carthaginian peace at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C. This was the fruit of Cato the Elder’s repeated injunction “Carthago delenda est,” “Carthage must be destroyed.” The Romans burned the rival city to the ground, killed or sold into slavery the entire population, and, legend has it, salted the fields. Only one bona fide Carthaginian monument from the once glittering city has come down to us, and that, appropriately enough, is a tomb.

That doesn’t sound like the Treaty of Versailles, does it? Perhaps Keynes remembered the other “Carthaginian Peace,” the peace treaty that followed the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. in which Scipio defeated Hannibal. The Romans appropriated most of Carthage’s vessels of war, her overseas possessions, and exacted an indemnity of 4,000 talents.

Maybe that is the sort of thing that Keynes had in mind. As far as I know, he never said. But he did charge that the Treaty of Versailles sought “to weaken and destroy Germany in every possible way” and that it was “one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.” Those who sign it, he said, “will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women, and children.” The Germans, he claimed, would never be able to afford the reparations exacted by the treaty. And as for all the provisions about the Rhineland and other territories, Keynes sniffed that the “perils of the future” lay not in “frontiers or sovereignties” but in “food, coal, and transport.” As an aside, I might mention that Adolf Hitler, for one, would have been surprised to hear that.

Let’s linger over that word “reparations.” Can anyone hear the word straight any longer? Keynes’s book took the word out of normal circulation and invested it with an aura of malignancy and unreality that persists to this day. But Germany started the war, which was fought almost entirely on foreign soil, and, along with the other Central Powers, it inflicted horrendous property damage and killed millions. As the historian Sally Marks points out, “France’s ten richest industrial departments were only horrific ruins, over 1,000 square miles now a desert.” German industry was intact. Why shouldn’t Germany pay? Keynes claimed that the Allies sought to revenge themselves upon the Germans. But restitution is not revenge (even if it happens to be mistaken policy). It is merely justice.

Keynes predicted that if the treaty were put into effect, Europe would be threatened with “a long, silent process of semi-starvation, and of a gradual, steady lowering of the standard of living.” It is true that certain aspects of the treaty—regarding reparations, for example—were only haphazardly imposed. (Germany began reneging on its reparation payments within a year or two and stopped paying altogether in 1932.) But it was the territorial settlement of the Treaty, in which Germany lost more than 13 percent of its territory, that Keynes said would sharply “diminish the production of useful commodities” and lead to the starvation of those “millions of German men, women, and children.” In fact, ten years later, Europe’s production and standard of living were well above the pre-war level. Keynes predicted that the iron and steel output of Germany would diminish, but by 1927 it was producing nearly 30 percent more iron and 38 percent more steel than the record year of 1913. It was the same story with other commodities. Keynes initially warned that Germany could not afford to spend more than 20 billion gold marks in reparations per year (in 1913, $1 equaled about 4.1 gold marks). Hitler, by his own reckoning, spent seven times that much every year from 1933 to 1939 in rearming Germany.

And by the way, if you want to see what a genuinely harsh peace treaty looks like, you need only contemplate how Germany planned to treat the Allies if it had won—Britain, for example, was to be “squeezed to the uttermost farthing”—or turn to the Treaty of Brest–Litovsk that Germany imposed upon the Bolsheviks in 1918. Russia agreed to default on its financial commitments to the Allies. It ceded the Baltic States to Germany, other territory to the Ottoman Empire, and recognized the independence of Ukraine. Russia also agreed to pay 6 billion German gold marks in reparations. Hostilities did end, but on terms that one might almost describe as Carthaginian.

Throughout The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes was careful to don his economist’s hat to supplement the moralist’s mantle. Dilating on the wickedness of reparations, for example, he embroiders his discussion with various technicalities about the difficulties of transnational currency flows. But after 1939, the Germans found that wholesale expropriation, enslavement, and extermination more than overcame these little difficulties in extracting wealth from conquered peoples. The idea that France had anything to fear from Germany in the future, Keynes said in A Revision of the Treaty, was “a delusion.” It would, he explained, be “many years” before Germany once again cast her eyes Westward. Germany’s future “lies in the East.” Any fears, he wrote in Economic Consequences, of “a new Napoleonic domination, rising...from the ashes of cosmopolitan militarism” were but “the anticipations of the timid.” Whew! Everyone can relax. It was almost as reassuring as the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928, that “General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” which was signed by 50 countries, including Germany, Italy, and Japan. It was a monument to idealism, perhaps, but lacked the homely wisdom of Catherine the Great’s observation that human skin is more ticklish than paper.

In another work, Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Pondering what he wrote about the Treaty of Versailles, I believe I begin to understand what Baron Keynes meant. Perhaps this is the place to note how close Keynes was to the German parties of the treaty. As Niall Ferguson points out in The Pity of War, Keynes was deeply attached to Carl Melchior, Max Warburg’s righthand man at the Hamburg Bank of M. M. Warburg & Co. He read parts of a draft of Economic Consequences to Melchior and Warburg, and apparently profited from their response. “Thanks to Dr. Melchior’s clear explanation,” the German Foreign Office official Kurt von Lersner recalled, “Herr Keynes...is trying to find common ground with us.” How nice. Posterity has not, Ferguson notes, appreciated “the extent to which Keynes was manipulated by his German friends” or “the extent to which he erred in his analysis of the consequences of the peace.”

Continue reading the complete article in  the September 2014 New Criterion, here:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Wm. Brown, 9th Infantry, AEF, Catches the Flu


I was sent back to the hospital at Toul in October, 1918, sick with the famous "flu." I was kept there two days, transferred to a hospital train and taken clear across France to the Beau Desert Hospital, a few miles from Bordeaux. There the "flu" developed into pneumonia and then empyema (pus abscesses between the lung and chest walls) and I lay there for five months between life and death. 

This hospital was built of cement and had very little heat in it and sometimes the cold was intense. It was hard to be sick and cold too—but we made the best of it, and say, we had the best bunch of nurses. They did everything in their power to make us well and happy—they always had a new joke for us to laugh at. Laughing helped like thunder; it was so easy to be blue in France every time you thought how wide the ocean was. 

One of our nurses was such a dear. Every morning when she reported for duty—she always greeted us with a "How are you, my dear children," and somehow, I always felt better—she was so like a mother to us. 

The overseas Red Cross Nurses underwent a great many hardships too. The field hospitals were near the front, and sometimes under fire. Many times I have seen German planes bombing our field hospitals—without any excuse for the outrage, four large Red Crosses were painted on the roofs of the hospitals, plainly visible from an aeroplane. 

Sometimes, too, the nurses had to live on the same kind of grub that we did—just plain "canned Willie" and hardtack, but they never grumbled. They deserve a special niche in history. 

The Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Knights of Columbus were so good to us at the front and in the hospital. While we were lying in bed, death staring us in the face, they did far more than we ever expected them to. They brought us practically everything we asked for. Uncle Sam's boys will always have a warm spot in their hearts for these institutions and no one who ever donated anything to these organizations need regret it. 

After five months of terrible suffering at Beau Desert Hospital I had the choice of staying there until well or coming home. I couldn't see that there was any choice—home was dearer to me than heaven—so I took the chance. If I didn't last thru—at least I'd be buried in my own country. 

We were loaded onto a hospital ship—at least, the officers called it that. It was an old English boat called the Henderson and she was supposed to make the voyage in ten to twelve days. We went by the southern route, by the Azores, hoping to avoid the storms, but we ran into one after another—each worse than the last until I thought the ship would turn turtle. The drainage tube in the abscess in my side was so long that every roll of the ship drove it farther into my side and the 19 days that it took to cross the ocean seemed like 19 years. I was sent for 11 days to the Debarkation Hospital in New York. The people of New York gave us royal treatment, took us out for long automobile rides, to the theaters, etc., and did everything they could for us. They made France and its horrors seem far away. 


Flu Ward at Camp Funston, KS, Where It Is Believed the Pandemic Originated

On March 1st, 1919, I was sent to the Base Hospital at Camp Lewis, Washington. All along the route, the Red Cross Chapters of each town and city met us, and nearly killed us, giving us so much to eat, and so much to smoke. I never had any idea that there were so many kind women in the world. 

At Camp Lewis, I stayed in the empyema ward until my discharge on the 29th of June, 1919. In my estimation, the hospital at this camp had the finest staff of officers in the army. I had begun to think I would never get well—but my recovery under their care was fairly rapid and thanks to them, I am well today perhaps, not as well as before my enlistment, but as a doughboy once said, "As long as we're alive, we should worry." 

Camp Lewis Hospital had a great many visitors then, who brought us flowers, candies, cakes, and everything. Some came out of curiosity to hear the stories from overseas—but sick men don't like to talk—and some came to cheer us up. 

There was one woman who will remain in my memory forever. She rarely missed a day in coming to our ward, and she always came with a smile—one that seemed to say, "You're all going to get well." She nursed us all in her happy, motherly way, and made us all well. She was Mrs. Hiram Tuttle of Tacoma, Washington, and she was known as the Mother of Ward 81 at the Base Hospital. The boys of 81 will never forget her. 

I was in France 15 months—ten months on the firing line with the shock troops, and five months in the hospital. I spent nine months [total] in the hospital. Altogether I was in the army two years and three months, and I'd willingly do it again, if our Country needed me.

From
The Adventures of an American Doughboy
William Brown, 9th Infantry, 2nd Division, AEF

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Pershing's Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I
Reviewed by David F. Beer


Pershing's Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I

by Richard S. Faulkner
University Press of Kansas, 2017


If you want to know almost everything there is to know about the varied backgrounds, feelings, and experiences of the men who were drafted and served in the American Expeditionary Force from 1917 to 1919, then this is the book for you. Richard Faulkner has produced a nearly 800-page volume, with copious notes and detailed index, that is virtually encyclopedic in scope. Thus the 24 chapters of Pershing's Crusaders take us in detailed yet readable narrative from the earliest days of recruitment to final homecomings. After finishing the book I had to agree that the author has done exactly what he set out to do, namely "present a more holistic and detailed exploration of the many facets of the doughboys' lives and attitudes than has been given in previous accounts" (p. 5).

Not surprisingly, a recurrent theme throughout is the extent to which the military and the country were unprepared to fight in a world war. The situation necessitated an explosion of haste, often with unfortunate results. Although not everyone was enthusiastic about the war, millions of men eagerly reported to draft boards and were processed to training camps that were being rapidly constructed. It was impossible to organize these men and train them all without some pitfalls. Medical exams were cursory and resulted sometimes in passing unfit recruits for training. The most startling example given by Faulkner is of the recruit who was sent on to training camp where he was found to have only one hand. As in Britain in 1914, many recruits trained in their own clothes, uniforms being in initial short supply. Training was often, as the author puts it, "wildly uneven and woefully incomplete" (p. 326). Sometimes this resulted in green young soldiers finding themselves at the front without having fired their rifles, let alone being prepared for the smells, sounds, and sights of trench warfare.

From beginning to end, Faulkner provides statistics on every aspect of the war, the fruit of his having combed through thousands of letters, memoirs, documents, and reports of the American Expeditionary Forces. For example, the recruiting process garnered a great deal of information about America's youth: the weight of the average inductee was 141.54 pounds, his chest measured about 34.7 inches, and his average height ran around 67.5 inches. (Texans were on average an inch taller than the rest.) We find out how many of these soldiers and sailors were drowned on their way to Europe and how many were never to return.

Doughboy experience, from fighting to drinking to venereal disease to relationships with chaplains and the British and French soldiers, all is covered with intriguing statistics in this book. It's interesting to find that the Doughboys had little respect for their French or British comrades (excepting the Scots) but liked the ANZACS and Canadians. On the other hand, the British Tommy tended to "look with contempt on the striplings who had come in to win the war" (p. 291), and the French could be quite impatient with the newcomers—"One Frenchman told his American charges that their failure to grasp trigonometry left him dumbfounded that they held commissions in artillery" (p.287).

By the time I finished this book I felt there was little left to know about the various experiences of the American soldiers in the Great War. This includes their interactions with YMCA, Knights of Columbus, and other civilian volunteer groups plus the impressive array of educational opportunities offered to our soldiers in France. Faulkner also provides the sad details of racism, wounds, death, mutilation—including the legend of a "basket case"—and the impact of the influenza epidemic on the army. And true to his statistical style, the author reminds us that 4,452 members of the AEF are still missing today (p. 598).


Additionally, many soldiers (although not all of them) suffered keen disappointment at getting to France but never coming close to combat. Some 546,000 troops were assigned to non-combat duties with the Services of Supply and another 173,008 worked in other noncombatant jobs behind the lines (p. 351). Moreover, about "half of the soldiers mobilized for the war, some two million men, never made it closer to France than Camp Upton, New York" (p. 606). Nevertheless, in one way or another WWI inevitably changed millions of Americans. As one West Virginia Doughboy admitted on his return home, "I am out of the army, but I have a feeling it will be a long time before the army is out of me" (p. 633). This book is not only a fascinating read but also a seminal volume to keep as a reference and a reminder of how things were for Pershing's Doughboys.

David F. Beer

Monday, August 14, 2017

August 1917: What It Was Like at Passchendaele


Sgt. Robert McKay was a stretcher-bearer with the 109th Field  Ambulance, 36th Ulster Division. This month a century ago, he was recording some impressions of the great battle.

How Sgt. McKay Served His King

6 August 

Today awful: was obliged to carry some of the wounded into the graveyard and look on helpless till they died. Sometimes we could not even obtain a drink of water for them. Yesterday and today have been the most fearful couple of days I have ever put in.

7 August 
Bringing the wounded down from the front line today. Conditions terrible. The ground is a quagmire. It requires six men to every stretcher. The mud in some cases is up to our waists.  Every place is in full view of the enemy who are on the ridge.

14 August 
One party of stretcher-bearers was bringing down a wounded man when an airman swooped down and dropped a bomb deliberately on them. The enemy shells the stretcher-bearers all the time.

16 August 
The infantry took a few pill-boxes and a line or two of trenches from the enemy in this attack but at a fearful cost. It is only murder attempting to advance against these pillboxes over such ground. Any number of men fall down wounded and are either smothered in the mud or drowned in the holes of water before we can reach them. We have been working continuously now since the 13th. The stretcher-bearers are done up completely.

17  August
Captain Johnston  said that the Division was being relieved tonight and to warn men of the 109th Field Ambulance that they could make their way down to headquarters.  One man, B. Edgar, asked me when I was going down, and I said in the morning between two and three o'clock, Edgar then said he was going to have a a sleep and not to go down without calling him.  I looked at him and said, "Where in Heaven's name are you going to sleep here?" and for answer was told that there were two dead men at the entrance with a blanket thrown over them, and I would find him under the blanket, and here he would not be disturbed, as all three were lying in the open above ground.

19 August
I have had no sleep since I went on the 13th. Never do I want to be in such a place again. The 109th Field Ambulance alone had over thirty casualties, killed, wounded and gassed—and this out of one hundred men who were doing the line.

Sources:  Imperial War Museum

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Remembering Distinguished Historian and Friend, Thomas Fleming


By First World War Historian Stephen Harris

For all the folks who love history, love to read it, talk about it—just to revel in it—we lost a treasure the other day with the passing of Tom Fleming. Among the areas Tom wrote about in his long, distinguished career were the American Revolution and World War I. His last book on the war was The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. He wrote novels, too, including Over There, a riveting account of the Great War told through the eyes of a jaded general and his relationship with an idealistic, spirited woman who went overseas to do her part from volunteering as a nurse to driving an ambulance on the Western Front.

Thomas Fleming

Tom was an inspiration to me ever since I’d read a piece he’d written for American Heritage years ago about his father in World War I. When I put that article down I decided to write about my great-uncle and his experiences in the war as art editor of the 27th Infantry Division’s famous magazine, Gas Attack. My book developed into Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York’s Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking of Hindenburg Line. I owe that book and my ensuing books detailing New York’s National Guard in the war to Tom.

One of my last contacts with Tom dealt with a play, still yet to be staged, that he’d penned about Father Francis Duffy, the chaplain of the Fighting 69th Regiment, entitled Home Again. It tells of the heartbreak Father Duffy suffered from the war, seeing so much bloodshed, tending to the wounded on the battlefield and administering last rights to the men from New York whom he knew and loved, many from his own parish. After he was home again from the Western Front, the Good Father holed up in a hotel room to purge with alcohol the demons from the war that were tormenting his very soul. Into the room paraded a cast of characters from the war that we all know—General Pershing, Wild Bill Donovan, Joyce Kilmer, and others.

The idea for the play, Tom said, came from a friend of his who had known Father Duffy and had told him that, in fact, Duffy, once back in New York, had indeed cut himself off from the world while he dealt with this personal tragedy.

When I had the honor to read Home Again, I wrote to Tom, “Duffy’s anguish... drives the story so forcibly forward—a compelling statement against war, especially the Great War. It was a war, I believe, that should have never been fought, and your play, to me, drives that point so powerfully home.”

I hope so strongly that someday Home Again will be brought to the theater. May Tom rest in peace.

Editor's Note:
Thomas Fleming  has contributed to our publications in the past and has personally encouraged me to pursue my studies and various World War I projects. I'll miss a good friend. A good place to be introduced to his view on the Great War can be found at our interview with him here:


Saturday, August 12, 2017

America's First Act of World War I


“Proceed Instantly”—

the Bureau of Immigration and the U.S.’s First Act of World War I


A copy of the telegraph sent by the secretary of labor to 
Bureau of Immigration officials on duty 
at U.S. ports holding German ships on 6 April 1917

It’s a little-known fact that the Bureau of Immigration played a key role in the U.S.’s first act of World War I. 

In March of 1917, it had become clear that the U.S. entry into the World War on the side of the Allies was imminent. To prepare for this event, the Bureau of Immigration, then under the Department of Labor, drafted plans to take custody of every German officer and crewman aboard German merchant ships anchored in U.S. ports.

By the start of April 1917, as Congress moved closer to declaring war on Germany, the secretary of labor ordered the Bureau of Immigration to place all of its men on duty at ports holding German ships. The Bureau of Immigration prepared its boarding vessels, boats normally used to transport employees to passenger liners for shipboard immigrant inspections, so that immigration officials could board the German vessels “at a moment’s notice.”

The Tacoma Times,
6 April 1917
In Washington, the secretary of labor and the Bureau’s leaders waited for word from the Capitol. At 3:14 A.M. on 6 April 1917, the secretary received the message that Congress had declared war against Germany. One minute later, immigration officers at ports around the continental U.S., in Puerto Rico, and in Hawaii received a prearranged telegraph ordering them to “proceed instantly.” The Bureau of Immigration then set its prearranged plan in motion.

At the same time, the secretary of the treasury sent a similar order to U.S. customs collectors, who seized the ships from which immigration officers removed German officers and crew.

Immigration officials removed German officers and crewmen at over a dozen ports without any violence or major incidents. According to the commissioner of immigration’s report of the events, immigration officers treated the Germans with “every kindness and courtesy possible under the circumstances.”

Removing the German officers and crewmen proved to be just one of the Bureau of Immigration’s many tasks during the war. For example, in the following days, the Bureau temporarily detained those officers and crewmen at immigration stations around the country, including Ellis Island and Angel Island.

Eventually, the Bureau transferred the German officers and crewmen to a more permanent internment center at Hot Springs, NC. At the Hot Springs camp, German officers received the “kind of quarters and food that first-class passengers might reasonably expect” and the crewmen were treated as “immigrant class” passengers.

Internee Camp at Hot Springs, NC

The Bureau of Immigration oversaw 2,000 to 3,000 German internees in the Hot Springs camp until 1 July 1918, when it transferred custody of the German officers and crewmen to the War Department. 

About Our Source:

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services History Office and Library recently launched a World War I (WWI) centennial website. It was initiated by our friend Allison Finkelstein and her colleague Zack Wilske of the USCIS History Office and Library.

Check out other articles from their new and growing site at:

https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/world-war-i


Friday, August 11, 2017

Inscriptions Needed for the new WWI Memorial at Pershing Square


Readers of Roads to the Great War and the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire know that I have been a strong supporter for building a National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, DC.  You may have read that the National WWI Commission's design has been unanimously approved by both the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, the agencies that have primary design approval authority for the memorial.  With those approvals, the detailed design work is proceeding with the aim of holding a ground breaking on the site in November.

One Perspective of the Approved Design

Mr.  Edwin Fountain, Vice Chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission, who is heading up the effort to design and build the memorial, has contacted me to ask for assistance from our readers.  Mr. Fountain provided a nice summary of what is now needed for the memorial project: 

"Apt quotations are often powerful elements of memorials, and we plan to include similar inscriptions at the WWI memorial.  Hence, this request to you:  Could you please identify what you consider to be worthy quotations for inclusion on the memorial.  There are no restrictions on what might be a suitable quotation (other than probably being limited to a paragraph in length)–we are looking for:

  • Quotations from generals and statesmen as  well as Doughboys, loved ones, and civilians
  • Quotes from Americans as well as allies and adversaries
  • Quotations not just about the accomplishments of American troops, but about the nature of the battle, the costs and sacrifice, geopolitical aspects of the war, the socio-cultural aspects of the war in the U.S., the effects of the war on the home front, etc.
  • Quotations from those who experienced the war and those who served in it. 
  • Quotations reflecting the diversity of service and contributions from all segments of American society
  • Quotations from speeches, press reports, official reports, and histories as well as diaries, letters, memoirs, poems, songs, etc.
There is a general preference for contemporary writings, but retrospective commentary some years after the fact might be considered as well."

Here are some examples from other American war memorials:

"Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue"  and "Semper Fidelis"
U.S. Marine Corps Memorial

"We have met the enemy and they are ours."  and "Sighted sub, sank same"
U.S. Navy Memorial

"Kilroy Was Here,"  and
"Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln one the eighteenth century father and the other the nineteenth century preserver of our nation, we honor those twentieth century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift of our forefathers entrusted to us: a nation conceived in liberty and justice."
U.S. World War II Memorial

Another View of the Memorial, General Pershing in Distance

Mr. Fountain and I would like you, our readers, to check your memories and your own libraries for appropriate quotes and submit them for considerations.

There are  three ways to submit your recommendations. These can be done anonymously or with your name and  address or hometown included. Submittals are needed by 1 October 2017.

1.  Through Roads to the Great War, just publish in the comments section to this page.

2.  Send it to me via email to: greatwar@earthlink.net

(For methods 1&2 I'll aggregate them with your name and seen them to Mr. Fountain.)

3.  Send directly to Mr. Fountain at fountaine@abmc.gov

This is a chance for you to make a lasting contribution to the effort to honor the service and sacrifices of all those American who served in the war.

Mike Hanlon, Editor/Publisher

PS:  Don't worry that someone else might have sent in the same quote.  The commission needs to know if a quote is widely admired.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Air Reconnaissance Proves Its Value at the Marne



Aerial reconnaissance played a significant role 100 years ago in the unfolding of the First Battle of the Marne. Louis C. Breguet of the famous watch-making family, who was also a budding aircraft designer, had himself assigned as an enlisted pilot. Flying a Breguet AG-4 of his own design and manufacture on 2 September 1914, he spotted the German forces changing direction, moving from west to east rather than trying to circle around Paris. He informed his headquarters of it. Getting the generals to act on this information was a tougher task, however. 

An AG-4 of the Type Used by Breuget in His Mission

The next day the Royal Flying Corps substantiated Breguet with its own report that "disclos[ed] the movements of all the Corps of the I German Army diagonally South East across the map toward the Marne." Alarmed by these reports and the lack of response from senior officers, Capitaine Georges Bellenger, commander of the air unit supporting the Sixth Army being formed in Paris, appealed to General Gallieni, commander of the Paris District. Won over, Gallieni then made the case to supreme commander Joffre that the Germans were exposing their flank to an attack out of Paris. 

The net result of this collaborative effort was that over a period of three days the Germans marched into a salient with the French 5th Army on their left flank, the French 6th Army on their right flank, and the British Expeditionary Force standing firm at the bottom of the pocket. 

Sources: Walter J. Boyne, "The Influence of Airpower on the Marne," Air Force Magazine, July 2011; Shooting the Front, Terrence Finnegan, 2006.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Field in Flanders by Thomas Wolfe

First, a message for readers of ROADS TO THE GREAT WAR.

I occasionally get requests or suggestions for articles on various WWI topics. I hope you will continue to do so.  You can mention the topic in our comments section below or email me at greatwar@earthlink.net with your idea.

However, I sometimes get requests on subjects we have covered in past postings.  It is not very evident in the Google Blogger format, but we have our own search engine in the upper lefthand corner of the page.  Try typing in your favorite topic, and you might find several articles among the 1562 daily entries (no kidding) we have made since we started out in 2013.  MH




British Troops at Polygon Wood, Flanders, 1917


A Field in Flanders
By Thomas Wolfe

The low, grey clouds are drifting 'cross the sky,
While here and there the little smoke puffs break,
And now and then the shrapnel bursts on high,
And growling guns their mighty thunder make.
A war-ripped field,-with what a tale to tell!
A tale to cause the souls of kings to quake,
For here, within a smoking, bloody Hell,
Ten million risk their lives for Freedom's sake.
And to the right a ruined village burns,
And to the left a wood its secrets hold,
But in the gutted field the plowshare turns
A grinning skull which sneers its message bold.
November 1917




Who Was Thomas Wolfe?

Thomas Wolfe as a Student
Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) of Asheville, North Carolina was a major 20th-century American novelist. His four mammoth, autobiographical novels, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939), and You Can't Go Home Again (1940) follow a young man from his boyhood in the rural South to his career as a teacher and writer in New York City. His work has been described as being characterized by lyrical and dramatic intensity and by an obsessive sense of memory, time, and place. His novels, stories, and journals present a sweeping picture of American life after the turn of the century. "A Field in Flanders" is one of his earliest published works, appearing in a University of North Carolina magazine while he was a student. Called the best writer of his generation by William Faulkner, Wolfe died young from complications due to influenza and pneumonia.

Compiled from several online sources.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander


The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End

by Robert Gerwarth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

On 11 November 1918, at precisely 11:00 a.m., all of the guns on the Western Front fell silent. For the first time in four years of horrific war, every cannon, rifle, machine gun ceased, according to the provisions of a just-signed armistice. Apparently, soldiers experienced the sudden silence as something like the onset of divine mercy. Men wept openly, overcome by the quiet and shattering arrival of peace.

Paris, 11 November 1918: Not the End

Many people take this astonishing moment as the end of World War I, with some good reason. Hostilities did end in France. Soon after a semblance of liberal democracy began to spread, abetted by American president Wilson's idealism. Yet Robert Gerwath's The Vanquished shows that the war did not end on that date. In fact, several wars continued, and several others sprang into terrible life, wrecking havoc largely among the many peoples whose nations lost in the war. World War I did not so much end as fall apart, stagger along, and mutate. For those living in Riga, Kiev, Smyrna, or many other places in eastern, central, and southeastern Europe in 1919, there was no peace, only continuous violence (4).

More than 4 million people died of violence right after WWI, in revolts, civil wars, invasions, and coups (7). So much for "peace".

This isn't a question of pedantic detail. Instead, paying attention to what happened alongside and right after the Armistice of Compiègne honors the enormous struggles that also occurred, while shedding light on subsequent events, including the rise of fascism and WWII.

This is rich and complex history, so I'll summarize all too quickly.

In eastern Europe, the Russian revolutions of 1917 (the fall of the Tsar, the Bolshevik revolt, the construction of a Soviet state) gave way to a spectacular civil war, which included a war with Poland, an attempted invasion of Germany, and invasion by multiple other nations (including the United States, Britain, France, and Japan), only ending in 1922. Newly independent Baltic states experienced revolts and invasions, like the Latvian War for Independence (1918–1920). Newly independent Finland fought an intense civil war in 1918, killing 1 percent of its population (as a visitor to that country, I can testify that that war's impact is still a living thing in the 21st century). Bulgarians revolted against their state, which led to a reign of terror against its putative supporters. Hungary had a Soviet-style state in 1918, which was overwhelmed by its neighbors in still more fighting.

Soldiers from the defeated German empire formed independent groups (Freikorps) to fight in these wars, and also at home, since Germany itself went through at least one revolution, plus a series of revolts and attempted coups. For instance, left-wingers created a Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1918, which lasted until demolished by Freikorps and others in 1919.

Farther east, European powers dismantled the Ottoman Empire, which led to a bitter war primarily between Greece and newly formed Turkey, along with newly formed Armenia and victorious France

Western Europe fared better than the aforementioned central and eastern Europe, but still endured further strife. Spain underwent "three Bolshevik years" of revolts and instability, culminating in a dictatorship. Ireland fought for independence from Britain, then lunged into civil war. Across the Atlantic the United States spasmed into a Red Scare, with multiple civil liberty violations and acts of violence.

Another victor, Italy, experienced postwar unrest which grew into "what seemed increasingly like an open civil war...About 3,000 people were killed in Italy between 1919 and 1922" (161). What ended that was Mussolini's March on Rome and the birth of the first fascist state in 1922.

In fact, Gerwarth argues, WWI only ended in 1923, giving way to a far too brief period of peace broken up once more in 1939 (16, 248).

What drove all of this horror and chaos? To begin with, nationalism continued to chew up European borders, as relatively recent nationalist feelings ran up against older delineations of empire. WWI's victors, while containing national republics of various sorts, were also intercontinental empires, and fought to balance these contradictions. Moreover, the successful Soviet revolution of 1917 inspired workers' uprisings around the world, along with anticommunist movements; this is, after all, the start of the longest struggle of the 20th century, the Cold War.

Furthermore, the victors were a mess. The Vanquished shreds the reputation of the Treaty of Versailles or, more to the point, the character of its signatories, who managed the epic hypocrisy of mouthing slogans of national self-determination while engaging in historical land grabs and meting out harsh, eventually self-defeating terms to the defeated Central Powers. That much is well known. Gerwarth goes further, showing that the Versailles leaders added incompetence to hypocrisy, gradually losing control of the European area situation. Violence and sharp politics on the ground undid the victors' achievements and plans repeatedly. Wilson's dream of spreading democracy actually backfired, with dictatorships on the rise, not retreat, by the mid-1920s (245).

Versailles, 28 June 1919: Not the End

Along the way terrible precedents were set, and old ones renewed. WWI began with strong efforts to avoid killing civilians (Entente/Allied propaganda would overstate German atrocities), but the post-1918 conflicts blurred the civilian-soldier boundary thoroughly. Irregular forces of many kinds would take to the streets, setting up a matrix for fascism's rise. And ethnic cleansing became a serious policy tool, especially with the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 2 million people across the Aegean.

There are many good things to approve of in this book. Gerwarth writes clearly and at times with passion, nicely organizing a great deal of complexity into clarity. He relies on a rich range of sources. At a smaller level, I was pleased to see Gerwarth accurately refer to the Sykes-Picot agreement as Sykes-Picot-Sazonov (57).

There are some weaknesses, however. The biggest is neglecting the Spanish influenza, which ravaged the world at precisely this time, and killed a mind-boggling 50 million or so people. On the political side, I wanted to learn more about colonial lands as they took up nationalism against victorious empires, from India to Vietnam. And, with Richard Fulton, I also wanted more on the post-Ottoman Middle East.

These, I confess, are complaints of greed based on a book that does so much so well. Strongly recommended.

Bryan Alexander

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Short Destructive Life of Dicke Bertha


Contributed by Marc Romanych


In the first days of World War I, Germany unveiled a secret weapon—the 42cm M-Gerät siege gun. The howitzer was a mobile fort killer purposely designed to destroy Belgian and French fortifications that could either block the advance of field armies or tie forces down in protracted sieges. To the Allies, who had no similar weapon, the existence and destructive power of the howitzer was a shocking surprise.

When war was declared, the German Army had only two M-Gerät howitzers. Upon mobilization, both were rushed to Liège where they easily demolished two forts—Pontisse and Loncin—and brought the siege to a quick end. Jubilant over the success of the howitzers, the crews nicknamed them Dicke Bertha (in English, "Big" or "Fat" Bertha) after the owner of the armament works that built the howitzers. 

Target: Fort de Leveau, Maubeuge
Left: Two Barracks of the Fort Destroyed by a Single Shell (Former Door Frames Shown) Your Editor, Who Is 6ft, 2in, with an Unexploded Big Bertha Shell That Hit the Fort in 1914

The Big Berthas then moved on to Namur where they met up with eight mobile Austrian Škoda M.11 30.5cm mortars. Under intense fire from the siege guns, the forts fell like dominos and the fortress surrendered in just five days. During the bombardment the two M-Gerät howitzers proved more effective than the eight Škoda mortars; having fired fewer rounds (126 versus 573) to destroy as many forts. However, to protect the secrecy of the M-Gerät howitzers, the Škoda mortars were given credit for destroying the fortress.

Next, came the French fortress of Maubeuge. There, the Big Berthas and Škoda mortars were joined by several rail-transportable German 30.5cm Beta and 42cm Gamma guns which had been delayed en route by sabotaged railroads. Despite the great number of siege guns, ammunition shortages limited the intensity of the bombardment and ten days were needed to reduce the fortress and force its surrender. 

The final siege for 1914 was at Antwerp. Declared the strongest fortress in Europe, it fell in 12 days. The siege artillery, led by the mobile Big Berthas and Škoda mortars, relentlessly pounded several forts into rubble, opening a gap in the fortress ring. The Belgians conducted an aggressive defense, but the siege guns were unstoppable, and as more forts were destroyed, Belgian forces and British naval infantry abandoned the fortress. The rapid fall of Antwerp was attributed, by both Germans and Allies, to the devastating firepower of the 42cm M-Gerät and Gamma howitzers which were responsible for destroying most of the forts. 


Read More In






In 1915, Big Bertha and the other siege guns repeated their feats of destruction on the Eastern Front at Przemyśl, Kovno, and Novogeorgievsk. But on the Western Front, the importance of the big guns waned with the spread of trench warfare until, at Verdun in 1916, the German siege artillery had its swan song. There, despite their large numbers, the siege guns failed to destroy the main French forts, which were more modern than the Belgian forts of 1914. 

The era of the siege gun had passed, and although they continued to operate on the both the Western and Eastern Fronts, little was heard of Big Bertha in the last years of the war.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Killing the Kaiser


Kaiser Wilhelm at the Front Inspecting a Gas Launcher

It is not widely known that the British and French attempted to change history by making a concerted effort to kill the Kaiser from the air in Belgium, France, and Turkey. They also came close by accident on two occasions, once missing his train in Germany by only a few hours. 

For instance, there were several attacks by the British and the French on various German headquarters where the Kaiser was believed to be visiting. On 1 November 1915, the British attacked the headquarters at Thielt, Belgium, dropping 32 bombs at a building where he was supposed to be. According to French historian René Martel, reports of the Kaiser at the German General HQ at Mézières brought air raids in 1915. 

The Kaiser, paradoxically, was more careful of his British royal cousins, expressly forbidding zeppelin raids near royal palaces or locations where they were meeting. 

Thanks to Steve Suddaby for these details.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

Executed for Cowardice


Rev Richard Griffiths served as a chaplain to the forces in the 24th Field Ambulance Eighth Division in France. He was 49. He wrote about his experiences in a detailed journal; the extract below describes the execution of a deserter. 

3 June 1915: I received the shocking confidential information that one of the men was condemned for repeated desertion and cowardice and is to be shot. The message came late last night and I have been with him most of the afternoon. I sat on the edge of the dug-out talking, with him crouched on the straw. The bullets and shells did not matter, as this lad pleaded with me to do all I could for him, and I tried to bring him to truth, honour and God. Many thoughts weighed up. 

Pro: His youth, not yet 20. His circumstances—an only son and his mother a widow. His health—he repeated that his head troubled him, and he did not know what he was doing. 

Con: The selfishness of a man wishing other people to face dangers for him and unwilling to take his share. What right has any man to ask that? The falseness of some of his statements. The need of discipline—on two battlefields he had run away, after being warned. The assurance that every consideration must have been weighed by the Court Martial, the Brigadier, the General, the Corps Commander, the Army Commander and the Field-Marshal—and yet one’s last lingering wonder is whether penal servitude would not have answered the offence. Those responsible have decided not. 


Film Depiction of a WWI Execution


4 June 1915, 4:30 a.m: It is all past—the hideous business. The actual agony was over in three minutes and the burial in another five. Everyone was assembled by 3:30 a.m. He was a man who had made many scenes, and it was thought I should not speak with him again, and I felt that that was right. The sandbag bank, the hollow in front of it with the stake. The long grass and oat stalks. The trench made for the purpose, along which were lined small detachments from other battalions. The firing party about 20 paces in front. The Provost Marshal, the Colonel, three or four officers, the doctor. I put on my black scarf and stood at the side, almost too stunned to pray. Behind came the prisoner, scarcely able to walk, pleading and groaning. As he turned the corner he suddenly dashed from his guard and ran wildly across the broken ground, stumbling, panting, able in his despair to reach an astonishing speed, and for the time, to outdistance the men, laden with their equipment. He was eventually caught, and as he came back facing us, he presented a pathetic figure. He was tied to the stake. His eyes were bandaged. "Past 4 o’clock," said the Colonel to the Provost Marshal. A sudden quick crack and the huddled earthly form was separated from the soul gone to the beyond. 

4 June 1915, later: The strain of this morning has been rather much. Other men have gone from us, so many now, good and gallant—known to be sinful, some of them, but redeeming so much by dying bravely. One likes to recall them at a time like this. That abject cry: "Can I have the bandage off, sir? I want to see the sky"—cut short with the sharp crack, the quiet thud, the absolute silence, the stillness. The quick "about turn" to the firing party. The swish of an enemy bullet in the long grass across the path—it was difficult to pray.

Published in The Guardian, 26 July 2014