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

Monday, October 23, 2017

100 Years Ago: Italy Loses an Entire Army at Caporetto

The Battle of Caporetto began 100 years ago tomorrow at 2:00 a.m. on 24 October 1917 with an artillery bombardment. Italian trenches were destroyed by the Austro-German Army's brief, but very intense, artillery barrage, and the survivors of the artillery attack were quickly surrounded and overrun by the fast-moving enemy columns. The Austro-German infantry assault was greatly helped by the dense fog that provided them with cover until they were almost on top of the Italian trenches. Poison gas was used widely and proved especially lethal in the Plezzo basin, where possibly the most successful chemical warfare attack in history took place. The XIV Austro-German Army took only two days to capture all their immediate objectives around the Isonzo River. The subsequent exploitation, pushing the Italian forces back to the Piave River, lasted about a month. The key to the success of the Central Powers at Caporetto was a double breakthrough that shattered the entire Italian defensive deployment the first morning of the battle. 

Initial Attack & Advance by Central Powers at Caporetto

Tolmino: Southern Breakthrough Point

Because of the bridgehead at Tolmino (see map), German forces deployed there could attack on both sides of the Isonzo River. Further, a successful breakthrough at this point would place them behind the first and second Italian lines on the right (east) side of the river. This decisive attack was launched from the Tolmino bridgehead against the Italian XXVII Corps. Italian defenses were far stronger at Tolmino than at Plezzo, but still inadequate. Few of the XXVII Corps's artillery batteries managed to open fire before being overrun. Italian command and control were successfully targeted by Austro-German artillery and Italian Second Army's headquarters was left unable to effectively issue orders or receive news from the front. Throughout the battle, the Italian artillery performed miserably, either because the batteries were overrun or because they never received orders to open fire. The Italian infantry was left with little or no artillery support throughout the battle. Tens of thousands of Italian troops deployed on the mountains on the east side of the Isonzo were captured en masse, many never firing their weapons. 

Italian Soldiers with German Captors Near Caporetto, October 1917

Plezzo: The Northern Breakthrough Point

The assault through the Plezzo basin was preceded by a massive gas attack on the night of 23-24 October. Italian gas masks were ineffective against the mix of phosgene and diphenylchlorasine used by the Germans. The entire Italian 87th regiment deployed in defense of the Plezzo basin was killed in the attack. At dawn, the I Austro-Hungarian Corps attacked down the Isonzo valley from Plezzo, encountering only sporadic and poorly coordinated resistance until they reached the Saga Narrows.

Near Knock-Out

At Caporetto, the Italian Army suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the entire First World War. Italian casualties totaled 40,000 dead and wounded, over 280,000 prisoners and 3,150 artillery pieces captured. The Italian Army was reduced in size by one half, from 65 infantry divisions to 33 and the Italian province of Friuli was abandoned to the enemy along with much of the Veneto Province. The entire Italian Second Army was wiped off the board. Today, 100 years after the event, Italians still say "It was a Caporetto" to mean "It was a complete disaster."

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Doughboy Basics: How Many Battles Did the AEF Fight?

Below is a map I use for my battlefield tours to show the distribution of the main American operations in the war.  It has its genesis in the infamous WWI PBS documentary of the 1990s, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, in which two American historians, David Kennedy and Jay Winter, separately misinformed the viewers that "the United States had only fought one battle" in the war. For two decades I have waged a campaign to correct the damage they did.

What is shown on the map are what I think to be the ten most significant battles of the AEF.  I does not include ALL operations. These battles were waged by American formations of division size or greater and resulted in American victories. Not shown, for example, are the battles of the segregated regiments that fought separately with the French (mostly in the Champagne) and the aborted offensive out of the reduced St. Mihiel Salient that ended with the Armistice.  Sorry, but the only way to view the map is to enlarge it. Please feel free to print it out or save it to your hard drive if you wish.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Saturday, October 21, 2017

War Artist Anna Airy

Anna Airy (1882–1964) was an English oil painter, pastel artist, and etcher. She was recognized before the war as one of the finest British artists, winning a number of prizes and exhibited at leading museums.  When the war came, Airy was commissioned by the Munitions Committee of the Imperial War Museum in June 1918 to produce pictures representing typical scenes in munitions factories. The images below are all from the Imperial War Museum collection.

 South Metropolitan Gas Company, London

15-Inch Shells Being Assembled

Aircraft Factory Floor

18-Inch Shell Jackets Forged

Shell Casing Forge

Friday, October 20, 2017

Albert Einstein in the First World War

Since the posting on Albert Schweitzer a few days ago, I guess I've had Alberts on my mind.  So here's a little something about another well-known Albert who was around during the Great War.

Albert Einstein at His Flat in Berlin During the War

Albert Einstein was a pacifist of long standing and sincerity. In January 1896, with his father's approval, he renounced his citizenship in the German Kingdom of Württemberg to avoid military service. While his friend, Fritz Haber, was a signatory of the Fulda Manifesto [aka Manifesto of the Ninety-Three,  a 4 October 1914, proclamation endorsed by 93 prominent German scientists, scholars, and artists, declaring their unequivocal support of German military actions in the early period of World War I], Einstein (now a German citizen again) signed a counter-manifesto—one of only four signatories—that called for an end to the war and the creation of a united Europe.

War had not yet come to Berlin in April 1914 when Einstein arrived in Berlin to accept an appointment to the still-to-be-founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics. [The institute never had its own building; it was located in Einstein's own flat.] In Berlin, he struggled with the separation from his wife, Mileva, and their two sons. Despite the war atmosphere, he would continue his work in general relativity and gravitational concepts.  On 25 November 1915, Albert Einstein held his seminal lecture before the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, which ended with the words: “Thus, the general theory of relativity as a logical edifice has finally been completed.”

A devout pacifist, Einstein would support antiwar movements through the war. He called Berlin a "lunatic asylum" and expressed a desire to move to Mars "to observe the inmates through a telescope". The strain of wartime conditions, family troubles, and overwork (he produced ten scientific papers and a book on relativity within a year) took their toll on the physicist. In the fall of 1917 he collapsed in agonizing pain and lost more than 50 pounds in two months.

Einstein continued to work, despite failing health, although he could not contact fellow "enemy" scientists. On Armistice Day, a group of revolutionary students seized the University and imprisoned the rector and several professors. Einstein, with his friend and fellow physicist Max Born intervened, eventually negotiating a settlement at the Reichstag. In 1919, one month before the signing of the Versailles Treaty, observations made of a solar eclipse by Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein's theory about the relationship of time and space and the nature of gravity. From that day on, he would be recognized as an international celebrity.He left the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1922.

From: "Scientific Genius Encounters World Conflict" by Douglas K. Shaffer

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tirpitz's Influence Began to Wane in 1912

Since he came to office in 1897, Tirpitz had consistently striven toward several goals. One was to build a fleet to deter a British attack on German trade and seaports. A strong fleet, he hoped, would induce the British to come to terms with Germany on world economic matters. Indispensable to such a strategy was the ironclad support of Emperor William II. Tirpitz's ability to get a longtime financial commitment from the Reichstag for a series of navy laws assured his monarch's favor. Before 1897, Reichstag recalcitrance had made that impossible.

Grand Admiral von Tirpitz at the Time of His 1916 Resignation

The German tax system permitted no nationwide direct taxes. The upper classes refused to submit themselves to democratic finance, unlike the more flexible British. Also, beginning in 1911, the sleeping giant, the German Army, slowly awakened. Since the 1890s the army, which saw deterrence of domestic disorder as one of its main functions, had deliberately limited its growth. Burgeoning population growth and urbanization meant more workers than loyal peasants in the ranks, and more bourgeois officers, since the traditional supply of aristocratic officers was shrinking in proportion. Militaristic pressure groups, more fearful of Germany's powerful neighbors than of insurrection, began to clamor for army expansion. By 1911 the navy was taking one third of the defense budget. Tirpitz saw the handwriting on the wall that the army would now be a formidable competitor for relatively scarcer tax revenue.

Although some historians believe that Tirpitz intended to undermine the Reichstag, more recent research suggests that he manufactured Reichstag consent more by courting the parliamentarians than by threatening them. Crucial was his consistent and successful wooing of the Catholic Center Party, which held the balance of power in the Reichstag for most of Tirpitz's 19 years in office. Complicating his relationship with the politicians were the hair-raising cost increases for shipbuilding, especially after he decided to follow the British dreadnought initiative. Passage of the 1912 amendment marked the last time Tirpitz was able to finesse the cost question past the Reichstag.

Inept German diplomacy, most recently during the Agadir Crisis in 1911, drove Britain and France closer together when the German intention had been to drive them apart. While Tirpitz had sometimes used past crises when it suited his purpose to advance the navy law, he had usually opposed high profile diplomatic initiatives because he wanted to “build and keep quiet". The principal exception was when he felt the navy law threatened such as the abortive Haldane Mission of early 1912. Pressure from Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to ease Anglo-German tensions forced Tirpitz to limit the 1912 Navy Law amendment to a two-tempo from 1912 to 1917 with only an additional two ships more during that period. He despaired that the permanent three-tempo, due to resume in 1918, was dead forever.

Tirpitz's domination of other branches of the navy, though still strong, was for the first time under serious attack. Seagoing officers forced him to deviate from his previous single-minded concentration on capital ship construction to take more account of submarines and to give a substantially increased priority to preparedness.

Another long-term nightmare for Tirpitz was the looming menace of the new class of British dreadnoughts, the five Queen Elizabeths, the first two of which—HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Warspite—were laid down late in 1912. They were fast, oil-fired, and had eight 15-inch guns. For Germany to follow suit quickly with similar ships would be so expensive as to exceed even Tirpitz's legerdemain with the politicians. It is therefore not surprising that from 1912 on Tirpitz's expectations for the future became ever more pessimistic.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Admiral von Tirpitz, and General von Moltke
Aboard the Battleship Friedrich der Grosse, 1912

By 1912 the naval arms race was abating. Tirpitz publicly stated that 1912 was his “last” amendment to the navy law. Naval arms talks between Britain and Germany ended. Since no one was planning any further great initiatives, tensions eased. British patriotism, its purse, and its tax system had beaten back the German challenge. In Germany attention turned to army expansion, accomplished by the great army bill of 1913. France and Russia soon responded, and the optimistic military war plans that led to the crisis of 1914 continued to evolve.

The events of 1912 particularly demonstrated how dysfunctional was the German system of government. There was no coordination in war planning between the navy (which wanted the army to invade Denmark and ignore Belgium) and the army (which wanted to invade Belgium and ignore Denmark). Needed was a wise emperor who might have been able to see the mortal danger of the Schlieffen Plan and the value of preserving the peace.

When war broke out, aware of Germany's inferior number of capital ships, Tirpitz became a vocal spokesman for unrestricted U-boat warfare. He felt the strategy could break the British stranglehold on Germany's sea lines of communication.  When the restrictions on the submarine war were not lifted due to diplomatic pressure from the United States, he fell out with the Kaiser and felt compelled to resign on 15 March 1916.

From:  "1912: Naval Issues" by Patrick J. Kelly

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Kilted Troops in Battle—The Kit of the Gordon Highlanders

Click on Image to Enlarge

Friends Are Good on the Day of Battle

Chris McDonald publishes the 4th Gordons Website (Link)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment

by Simon Jones. Illustrated by Richard Hook
Osprey Publishing, 2007

French Re-enactors Demonstrate Two Models of Gas Respirators

Today, we use the term "chemical weapons" or "weapons of mass destruction." During the Great War, the term to describe these weapons was much simpler—GAS! One of the unique things about the Great War was the widespread use of gas on the Western Front. We have iconic images of British soldiers with their "P" or "hypo" helmets manning a machine gun. Imagine wearing a heavy flannel bag over your head, treated with skin irritating chemicals, sweating in the heat, breathing out through a tube and hoping that the bag over your head neutralizes the toxic cloud of gas that surrounds you. Later, the British came up with the small box respirator and we have iconic images of Tommies, guns at the ready, wearing their small box respirators. And finally we have the image used for the cover of this book, the image of British or American soldiers in a line, some with eyes bandaged, with their left arm on the shoulder of the man in front of him, forming a line to be led to treatment for gas induced blindness at an aid station.

This book is part of the Osprey series on military history. It is a very, very brief book, at 63 pages. Of those pages, eight are full-page illustrations and four pages are explanations of these illustrations. Most other pages include a third to a half page of pictures, so it is a book you can read in a couple of hours. In addition, this is not a new book, having first been published in 1994.

At the Hague Convention of 1899, the major European powers agreed to abstain from using projectiles "the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases." Before the war, Germany was the leading power in terms of scientific research, with German scientists winning over half the Nobel prizes for science awarded up to 1914. Nowhere was this German dominance in science more evident than in the German chemical industry.

On Maneuvers German Soldiers and Dogs Demonstrate Respirators

The author points out that both the French and Germans early in the war experimented (without result) with non-fatal gasses such as tear gas and gas to irritate and cause sneezing. It was German scientist Fritz Haber who came up with the idea to weaponize chlorine gas by delivering it as a cloud against an unprepared enemy. This was done in April 1915 and could have been a game changer had the Germans been better prepared to follow up on the havoc wreaked on the Allied line. The Allies, however, quickly identified the gas and came up with improvised counter-measures, soon embracing the use of toxic gases themselves. At first, gas was looked on as a potential war winner, but it soon proved to be less than that. It was difficult to deliver, it quickly dispersed, and it proved fairly easy to counteract. Nonetheless, gas evolved into a valuable tool to harass, suppress, and isolate enemy troops. The author methodically recounts the developments in gas warfare. First was the competition, usually led by Germany to develop new chemical weapons, from chlorine to phosgene to the ultimate Great War chemical weapon: mustard gas. Next evolved the competition to develop the most effective ways of delivering the toxic chemicals, from the original cloud method to artillery shells, to the British Livens projectors, which were banks of large mortars that threw hundreds of large containers of chemicals at the German positions. Third and final was the necessary competition to develop measures to protect soldiers from the new chemicals and delivery methods. These consisted of developments of protective gear and the training and discipline to deal with gas.

The dynamic was that since the Germans seemed to keep one step ahead of the Allies in developing new mixtures of gas, it was then for the Allies to learn how to develop counter-measures that would make the new gases as harmless as possible. The Germans also were more advanced in terms of delivery methods and protective equipment. Allied efforts were more improvised and less methodical.

The author plots all this chronologically, by year, all done in a very brief manner. The text is straightforward and well written, and the pictures do a good job of illustrating the equipment used in gas warfare. This is a good starting point for learning about the chemical warfare waged in World War I.

If you want to look at more detailed accounts of the use of WMDs in the Great War, I would recommend Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I, which is an in-depth discussion of British strategy and how chemical weapons were a part of that strategy. Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I is an account of the activities of the Special Brigade, the unit created in the British Army that was responsible for launching chemical attacks. Finally, I would recommend No Place to Run, which is the story of the Canadian Army's experience with gas warfare on the Western Front.

Clark Shilling

Monday, October 16, 2017

Albert Schweitzer Reflects Back on the First World War

Albert Schweitzer was a remarkable and world famous French-German theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.   He focused much of his prize lecture on the First World War.  These are the specific observation about the war that I have extracted from the talk. Naturally the overall theme of the lecture focused on his  hopes and suggestions for pursuing world peace. I hope I haven't taken these remarks out of context.

The historical problem of Europe is conditioned by the fact that in past centuries, particularly in the so-called era of the great invasions, the peoples from the East penetrated farther and farther into the West and Southwest, taking possession of the land. So it came about that the later immigrants intermingled with the earlier already established immigrants.

A partial fusion of these peoples took place during this time, and new relatively homogeneous political societies were formed within the new frontiers. In western and central Europe, this evolution led to a situation which may be said to have crystallized and become definitive in its main features in the course of the nineteenth century.

In the East and Southeast, on the other hand, the evolution did not reach this stage; it stopped with the coexistence of nationalities which failed to merge. Each could lay some claim to rightful ownership of the land. One might claim territorial rights by virtue of longer possession or superiority of numbers, while another might point to its contribution in developing the land. The only practical solution would have been for the two groups to agree to live together in the same territory and in a single political society, in accordance with a compromise acceptable to both. It would have been necessary, however, for this state of affairs to have been reached before the second third of the nineteenth century. For, from then on, there was increasingly vigorous development of national consciousness which brought with it serious consequences. This development no longer allowed peoples to be guided by historical realities and by reason.

The First World War, then, had its origins in the conditions which prevailed in eastern and southeastern Europe. The new order created after both world wars bears in its turn the seeds of a future conflict...

It is pertinent to recall that the generation preceding 1914 approved the enormous stockpiling of armaments. The argument was that a military decision would be reached with rapidity and that very brief wars could be expected. This opinion was accepted without contradiction.

Because they anticipated the progressive humanization of the methods of war, people also believed that the evils resulting from future conflicts would be relatively slight. This supposition grew out of the obligations accepted by nations under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1864, following the efforts of the Red Cross. Mutual guarantees were exchanged concerning care for the wounded, the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and the welfare of the civilian population. This convention did indeed achieve some significant results for which hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians were to be thankful in the wars to come. But, compared to the miseries of war, which have grown beyond all proportion with the introduction of modern weapons of death and destruction, they are trivial indeed. Truly, it cannot be a question of humanizing war.

The concept of the brief war and that of the humanization of its methods, propounded as they were on the eve of war in 1914, led people to take the war less seriously than they should have. They regarded it as a storm which was to clear the political air and as an event which was to end the arms race that was ruining nations.

While some lightheartedly supported the war on account of the profits they expected to gain from it, others did so from a more noble motive: this war must be the war to end all wars. Many a brave man set out for battle in the belief that he was fighting for a day when war would no longer exist.

In this conflict, just as in that of 1939, these two concepts proved to be completely wrong. Slaughter and destruction continued year after year and were carried on in the most inhumane way. In contrast to the war of 1870 .the duel was not between two isolated nations, but between two great groups of nations, so that a large share of mankind became embroiled, thus compounding the tragedy.

Since we now know what a terrible evil war is, we must spare no effort to prevent its recurrence. To this reason must also be added an ethical one: In the course of the last two wars, we have been guilty of acts of inhumanity which make one shudder, and in any future war we would certainly be guilty of even worse. This must not happen!

The entire lecture can be read here:

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Doughboy Basics: What Parts Did Trench & Gas Warfare Play in the American War Experience?

Trench Warfare

Trench warfare, or least vivid memories of unpleasant extended periods of service in the trenches, was not a big part of the American experience in the war.   One reason for this is that trench warfare effectively  ended in the most active parts of the front, Flanders-Artois-Aisne/Marn-Champagne-Verdun-St. Mihiel, when the German Army launched its first of five spring offensives on 21 March 1918.  From this point on American forces in these hot zones were either plugging a  gap, as they did at Château-Thierry, or launching an attack.

1st Division Doughboys Digging a New Trench

This is not to say that the Doughboys didn't spend time in the trenches to get their footing and test the command structure of the units.  The ideal was to spend some time in a quiet zone where the trenches were well-established and this was actually the experience of the early arriving units, particularly the 1st and 2nd regular divisions,  and the 26th Yankee and 42nd Rainbow Divisions.  The 1st division incurred the first casualties in action in November 1917 during a trench raid in the Vosges Mountains at Bathelémont.  The following spring the 26th division was targeted by special German assault units in a memorable trench raid at Seicheprey on the border of the St. Mihiel Salient.  During the summer, however, as the arrival of Americans turned to a flood (10,000 arrivals per day in July) things were also heating up on the battlefields.  The newer units were rushed into action and had less time to spend in the trenches.  These shorter stays could still be dangerous, with random bombardments including gas shelling, sniper fire, and enemy raids.  But the postwar memories of the troops focused much more on what happened to them, say, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive than in their brief service in the trenches.

This is probably a good time to mention something for which General Pershing has been broadly criticized since the war.  He felt trench warfare was futile and wanted his men trained for open warfare.  On this  general point he was absolutely correct.  However, the tactics he preferred involved attacking with mobile infantry, primarily riflemen.  By the latter stages of the  war, Pershing's staff and field commanders including such officers as Fox Conner, George Marshall, Hunter Liggettt, Charles Summerall, and John Lejeune had figured out  the winning formula for dominating the World War I battlefield—through the coordination of infantry, artillery, and the supporting logistics train. We will expand on this in later editions of "Doughboy Basics."

Gas Warfare

28th Division Troops Under Gas Attack

Defensive Measures

Gas took a tremendous toll on the Doughboys.  Nearly 75,000 men were gassed.  The official figures suggest about 1,500  of these  men died.   This, I believe, is  misleading, possibly dramatically so. Since I've been publishing the Doughboy Center website I have been told of dozens of episodes like this: "Uncle Bill was gassed at Belleau Wood.  He survived the war, but died of respiratory problems in the 1920s or '30s."  The most famous example of this is baseball hall-of-famer Christy Mathewson, who was gassed in a drill in France and developed TB after he returned home and died soon after. Such stories are anecdotal, of course,  but I believe a substantial number of the 75,000 men—far beyond the official number—eventually died young because of their gassing during the war.  Another factor to consider is the Spanish Flu, which also attacked the respiratory system.  An early gassing episode would weaken a soldier's  ability to fight off the flu when it struck. This means that some of the AEF's fatalities that are categorized as "from illness" are due to being gassed on the battlefield.

Why was the AEF so hard hit by gas?  The experience of the 29th National Guard Division from Maryland and Virginia is instructive.  They were sent into action on the heights of the east side of the Meuse River on 8 October 1918.  Within three weeks the division was pulled from the line due to attrition from gas shelling. German artillery had fired 22,000 gas shells at the Americans during the period over which the 29th Division suffered 2,408 wounded and 1,782 gas cases.

The analysis of the 29th Division period in the  front line is very critical of the division's officers and by inference the higher command of the AEF:

1.  The Division Gas Officer lacked authority in matters of training and discipline The division's first gas officer was relieved for excessive zeal.

2.  The German tactic of desultory but almost non-stop gas bombardment was not understood as effective at taking casualties and  the persistence of phosgene gas was not understood.

3.  Men could not wear their gas masks all the time.  They were willing to tolerate slight irritations not realizing the cumulative effect of the gas.

4. The main lesson learned by the Allied armies from the first use of gas in 1915 that the best way to suppress the enemy's use of gas is to use it on him was never absorbed by the U.S. command.  The French artillery assigned to support the 29th Division only fired gas on the German artillery a single day during October.

Offensive Applications

As pointed out above, there was reluctance to use gas even as a defensive measure to limit its own casualties by the AEF. But one of the dirty secrets of the Great War was that gas could be effective on the battlefield—even decisive—if used intelligently.  This was true, for instance, for the German attack at Caporetto in October 1917 and the British Army at Amiens in August 1918. However, in the opening of the  largest American battles of the war, the  Meuse-Argonne Offensives, gas use was minimal. even though shells were made available throughout the First Army. The senior staff did not appreciate the offensive possibilities of gas and gas shells were not given  a high priority by corps and division commanders.  Plus, there were  reservations about the morality of gas and a one-sided fear that  if gas was used, the enemy would retaliate with his own gas.  For the last phase  of the offensive, however, new leadership had arrived to lead the U.S. First Army, and they had no reservations about its use.  Gas played a critical role in the attack of 1 November 1918 that shattered the German defensive structure and opened the road to Sedan.  It was a singular event for the AEF, though, and the war ended soon afterward.

In sum,  the American experience with gas warfare can be described thus;

Because the U.S. Army failed to develop gas warfare doctrine, the average AEF officer never really understood the potential value of chemicals. Nor could he put aside his preconceived, if perhaps erroneous notion, that chemicals were unusually inhumane weapons whose development should not be pursued.  For America the real inhumanity of chemical warfare in World War I lay in the blindness of U.S. civilian and military leaders who, having ignored the real and present threat posed by gas, deployed the doughboys of the AEF to fight unprepared in a chemical environment. Ignorance, shortsightedness, and unpreparedness extracted a high toll at the front, a toll that the United States with its intellectual and technological resources should not have had to pay. 

Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918 
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"A Soldier's Journey" Explored with U.S. WWI Memorial Sculptor Sabin Howard

By Patrick Gregory

The design for America’s proposed new National World War I Memorial in Washington, DC, has reached another key stage thanks to an innovative collaboration between the memorial’s sculptor and computer artists in New Zealand. Sabin Howard, the leading classical sculptor, has taken designs for the memorial from his studio in New York to Wellington to work with leading 3-D modelling specialists. He’s been talking to Patrick Gregory.  

Sabin Howard with his new working model of "A Soldier's Journey", developed in
partnership with digital modelers, Weta Workshop, in Wellington, New Zealand
(Image © Weta Workshop/US World War I Centennial Commission)

It's over 18 months since the WWI Centennial Commission chose Sabin Howard and architect Joe Weishaar’s design for the new national memorial in Washington, but it has been time busily spent taking the original concept through a number of different design stages. For sculptor Howard that has meant 60-hour weeks in his Bronx studio while discussing and developing the various iterations of his ideas through a detailed committee process; and now he has a new set of partners on the other side of the world. All are helping shape the final design.

Howard's focus has been on the wall of remembrance which will be set in the middle of what is to be a newly configured Pershing Park, off the National Mall in the capital, not far from the White House. In particular, the centerpiece of that wall, a 65-foot bronze bas-relief.

Detail from Sabin Howard's drawing for the bas-relief on the new
National World War One Memorial in Washington
(© US World War I Centennial Commission)

Entitled "A Soldier's Journey", the layout and figurative design of the sculpture has been put together very deliberately and with great precision. It is, explains Howard, constructed in a geometric and mathematically precise manner, but he hopes it manages to achieve something which is "not esoteric and classical but more expressive and emotional".

For that he has developed a 38-figure composition which flows from left to right, moving across the length of the relief, characters overlapping, straining, toiling on the way. The composition seeks to tell different stories within one framework. The main narrative is a two-in-one affair: a soldier’s journey through the Great War as he leaves his family to go to the front, charting his battles there and his ultimate return home; the second is of America’s journey in the war. Together the two form an allegory: the soldier’s personal war representing America’s journey and its coming of age through the conflict.


Within the overall narrative, though, individuals have their own recognition. It is a layer-on-layer approach. Each figure has a place within a set group, with these various groups or tableaux then coming together to form the bigger picture. Indeed the 38 figures are actually a cast of characters, some appearing and reappearing as the story progresses, including four principal figures: a father, who also represents America, the child who is the first and last figure in the work, the wife and the hero. 

It has been a gradual process involving real-life actors coming to Howard’s studio. All have dressed in WWI uniform and period costume to get into character, helping enact different scenes which the artist could then photograph for use in drawings. However even then, Howard says, he had to make sure he got things just right: "For each figure in the wall of 38 there's been an average of 12 to 15 iterations per person."

Photographs of actors striking action poses for the
U.S. First World War memorial design
(© U.S. World War I Centennial Commission)

Throughout all of this time, one of the aspects of the creative process he has grown to value most has been the input of others to the design. He has worked through his ideas with, among others, the Centennial Commission’s Vice-Chair Edwin Fountain, the U.S. Commission of Fine Art and the National Capital Planning Commission. The effect of the collaboration has both surprised and delighted him: 

"I felt [at first] like 'what the hell is going on here?'. I’ve never collaborated before in my life—it’s been dictatorial! But from this process I’ve changed my mind. I’ve really grown as an artist in ways that I never imagined. It was a learning process because I’m not just doing this for myself and one client, I’m doing this for many people and I think there are certain figures and focuses in the final iteration that I never would’ve arrived at on my own, but which elevate the piece."

The positive experience of that initial collaboration meant that Howard was open to more team-working, this time at the Weta special effects and film prop studios in Wellington, New Zealand, when the opportunity presented itself. The invitation to do so arrived earlier in the summer and came at exactly the right moment for Howard, a time he recalls as one of "turmoil".

New Zealand "calling"

He had come to the realisation that he wanted to speed up the process of producing a working model to present to the Fine Arts Committee. He did not want to drag that process out for two or three years. Suddenly, out of the blue, came an email from Sir Richard Taylor, the head of Weta. Taylor, whose work includes the Lord of the Rings series and "Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War" sculpture exhibit, was an admirer of the sculptor’s work and was going to be in New York shortly afterward. Could he call by to see Howard when he was there? He did so and the two quickly hit it off. Howard describes it as an instance of "synchronicity", things coming into his life at the right moment. 

"It was like a brotherhood between us. It was like a calling. The door opened. It doesn’t always open." The door came in the form of an invitation to go to work with Taylor’s team of 3-D artists in New Zealand and two weeks later Howard found himself on a plane to Wellington.

"It was completely new to me. I don’t work with computers—and I get eight sculptors who are digitally taking my drawing and recreating the figures three-dimensionally on a screen. What happened was that we got to create five different reliefs in two weeks. This is something that would've taken me a year and a half, easily."

3-D imagery of the bas-relief produced at the Weta studios
(© Weta Workshop/US World War I Centennial Commission)

But it was not just the speeding up of the process which appealed to him. It was also the fillip it gave to the artistic process: "This tool enabled me to understand very quickly that at 150 feet away, if I made the relief too flat, it would not carry the emotion and drama necessary to portray the act of war and the cost of war."

That trip was in July, since when Howard has been back in the U.S. showing the 3-D imagery and working models; but he is returning to Wellington in October to begin work sculpting the work in clay, a process he hopes to complete by December. In February he should have a 3-meter final version to present to the committee in Washington.

He has been energized by the whole process, and the impetus given him by these new working methods has left him buzzing: "I am beyond excited—because this is like looking into the future."

Source:  This article was originally published in Centenary News on 27 September 2107 (Link)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Why Is France's Battle of the Marne Monument at Mondemont?

The National Monument to the Right; the Chateau on the Left Was the Scene of
Intense Fighting on 9 September 1914

On 12 September 2014 France commemorated the 100th anniversary of its victory at the Marne in a tiny Champagne village named Mondemont (shown above), which is far from any city and most inconvenient to visit. The ceremony was held there, though, because it is also the location of the nation's monument to the victory.  But why is the nation's monument located in this isolated location?

One clue is that commemorations were already being held at Mondemont while the war was still being fought. This suggests that the site already had a powerful symbolic draw. One hundred years later one can only guess why this should be. Mondemont was most certainly strategically important in September 1914. Had the German Army broken through in this area they would have wreaked havoc with Joffre's deployments, especially to the east.

The fighting around Mondemont also brought General Ferdinand Foch to the forefront of the French Army and the nation would eventually look to him as the architect of victory in 1918. Commanding the new Ninth Army in the middle of the French line south of the Marne, Foch had found his forces under siege by two converging enemy armies for five critical days, during which he contributed one of the great quotes of military history—" My center is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent. I am attacking!" However, while Foch certainly had something to say about the location of the monument when it was authorized by parliament in 1920, the dominant, bigger-than-life representation on the monument is Joseph Joffre, not Ferdinand Foch.

Joffre—Gigantic; a Poilu—Bigger Than Live; French Generals—Normal Size

My best guess is that, while not the site of the deepest penetration of the German Army into France's heartland in 1914, it was the most southerly battlefield where the outcome could have turned either way. In other words, Mondemont was where France was spared a dagger to her heart.

In any case, seeing the 35-meter tall, dark-pink concrete colossus in person is something every World War I student should do. Known locally as “The Carrot", it is a remarkable combination of Celtic runes, a classical winged victory, and conventional iconography of military memorials.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

100 Years Ago: 12 October 1917—The Blackest Day in New Zealand History

New Zealander Reinforcements Advancing to the Front in the Rain

In October 1917 four Anzac divisions, three Australian plus the New Zealand Division, were in the center of action in the attempt to take Passchendaele Ridge.  On 4 October the Anzacs had a major success taking Broodseinde Ridge, advancing the front line 3,000 meters.  The New Zealanders played a major role in the advance, seizing a key position on the ridge, Graventafel Spur.  The division attacked up hill, over open slopes, and against pillboxes and barbed wire. It was a victory on the scale of the New Zealand Division's capture of the fortified town of Messines in June. The Broodseinde assault was during a dry period, however, and the troops did not have to deal with the famous Flanders mud. 

The Battlefield of 12 October 1917—There Was No Advance at All Across This

After a rest, the high command ordered a renewed assault in an operation referred to in some sources as the "First Battle of Passchendaele."  The next objective was Bellevue Spur, the second of the small rises leading to Passchendaele Ridge.  In the interim, though, continuous rain made the entire area an almost impassable quagmire.  The attack of 12 October was a disaster for the division.  Any advance was impossible and 846 men were killed in the first four hours of the attack.  The New Zealand government's history site puts it plainly: "12 October is undoubtedly, in terms of lives lost in a single day, the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 existence."

Commemorative Panel at Nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery

The suffering did not end in a single day, though. The division spent a week stuck in the mud, absorbing enemy fire. There were 1,135 New Zealanders who were killed that week and another 3,178 wounded.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Thomas Hart Benton, USN, Camoufleur

Panel from "America Today," Thomas Hart Benton, (1930–31)

After studying in Europe, fledgling artist and future muralist Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) moved to New York City in 1912 and resumed painting. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. His war-related work had an enduring effect on his style. He was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. 

Later in the war, classified as a "camoufleur," Benton drew the camouflaged ships that entered Norfolk harbor. His work was required for several reasons: to ensure that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes, to aid in identifying U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. Benton later said that his work for the Navy "was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist."

During the Second World War, Benton was an official Navy war artist and turned out a memorable series of life about Navy ships, submarines, and shipyards.

First World War Sketch, Probably Norfolk Navy Yard

Camouflage Documentation Prepared by Benton

WWII Series:  "She's Off," Launching an LST, 1944

Sources:  Wikipedia, U.S. Navy Art Collection, Chrysler Museum Websites

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Radium Girls
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam

The Radium Girls: 
The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

by Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Radium Girl
Eight-Year-Old Peg Looney
Ottowa, Illinois
The Radium Girls is the story of the American girls and young women who painted watches, clocks and military dials with radium, a substance considered luxurious, a promoter of good health and a miracle cure for a wide variety of ailments. The young painters worked in studios instead of noisy and cramped factories like so many other women, received high salaries, and considered themselves fortunate to secure such a glamorous job. There was, however, a high price to be paid some years later in terms of health and life style. Moore describes the lives of a wide range of female painters, whom she dubs 'characters'. She covers the period from 1917, when many were employed by the United States Radium Corporation or the Radium Dial Company, to the mid-1930s, when some of the survivors filed law suits for compensation. In addition to the many women and girls described in The Radium Girls, the list of 'characters' also includes company presidents, vice-presidents, chemists, executives, doctors and investigators.

By 1917, when the USA entered World War One, the demand for radium, which allowed soldiers to read clocks and dials at night, was insatiable. There were plenty of women ready to do the work. Miss Irene Rudolph is a case in point. After five years of painting watches and dials, the initial glamour had gone: Rudolph was barely able to walk, and her mouth was seriously damaged by so-called lip pointing. This technique, which was advocated by employers, entailed putting the brush to the lips to bring the hairs together, and then dipping it in radium. The system promoted greater accuracy, which was particularly important when painting small numbers. Despite numerous visits to the dentist, Rudolph's condition worsened; so much so that, after some months, 'she'd had to give up her job in a corset factory' (48). Her case was not unique. Chapter 11, for example, describes how in 1924 Dr Barry 'had never had such a busy January. Patient after patient came through his door, pale hands clutched to thin cheeks, discomfort obvious in the women's questioning eyes as they asked him what was wrong' (75).

Quinta McDonald, another 'character' in The Radium Girls, was put in a constricting plaster cast that encased her body for nine months. She could barely walk and by the end of 1925, her family doctor had been called out ninety times, resulting in a bill for $270 ($3,600 in today's terms). Life was finished; there was no cure.

The truth about radium had been kept a carefully guarded secret. As Kate Moore points out, specialists had known as early as 1914 that "radium could deposit in bone and cause changes in the blood" (123). Deceptively, in the initial stages, radium appeared to actually promote health rather than harm it, as witnessed in the characteristic rosy complexions. This was only a temporary condition, however, "because, while radium stimulated the bone marrow to produce extra red blood cells, this soon became "over-stimulation" (124). Red blood cells were destroyed, anemia resulted, and there were other ailments, including necrosis. Both companies at which the girls/women were employed denied responsibility for their former employees' state of health. And in the case of Radium Dial, Moore explains that the company went one step further: "in December 1936, [it] abruptly closed its doors and upped sticks—to where, nobody knew" (314).

Catherine Donahue was one of the women who took her case to court. She described her pains, which had appeared after only two years of painting with radium. "The pains had spread all across her body; her ankles, her hips, her knees, her teeth" (338). She had become bedridden. Dragging herself to court, she produced evidence that shocked all those present: two bones that had been removed from her jaw. This, however, did not sway her former employer, who argued that compensation could not be paid because the law only covered diseases incurred from poisons. The hearing was deferred for a month, to allow for the submission of further evidence. This was a major blow for Catherine Donahue, whose health was extremely frail and whose life expectancy was very short.

One month later, when justice was finally brought to bear, and Catherine Donahue was awarded compensation: £5,661 ($95,160 in today's values; this was "the maximum possible award the judge could deliver under the provisions of the law," 359), it was almost too late. One month later, Catherine Donahue was dead.

The Radium Girls is a painful book to read. It is shocking and very personal. Its "characters" are taken from real life, making the story all the more tragic. The Radium Girls is based on solid research conducted in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Ottawa, Illinois. Moore met the families of the women, visited their homes and graves and the studios where the girls and women worked. It is Moore's hope that through her study the radium girls will be remembered.

The Radium Girls contains comprehensive notes (45 pages), a useful "select bibliography" and numerous black and white photographs. It is an authoritative and empathetic study of an important part of American history—a part that has hitherto been largely neglected.

Jane M. Ekstam

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Centennial at the Grass Roots: Finding WWI in Rural Kansas

By James Patton

The Axtell Doughboy
Axtell, Kansas, (pop. 401) is a sleepy little town in Marshall County, about 85 miles northwest of Topeka, the state’s capital city. Axtell isn’t on a main highway and the nearest commercial airport is in Nebraska. Axtell isn’t the county seat. That’s at Marysville (pop. 3,295), 23 dusty miles to the west. Axtell has never been a thriving metropolis—the 1910 population was 748. Nevertheless, she sent 150 of her own to war in 1917–18, including two women: Ruth S.E. Anderson and Claudia Ryan Clay. 

Nineteen local families contributed more than one member. There were four men who didn’t come home: Ray J. Creevan (one of three members of his family who served), Arthur Nelson (one of three Nelson boys), Ray R. Hendricks (also one of three), and Arthur Ross. 

In 1925 the community erected an impressive memorial to them, featuring an E.M. Viquesney “Spirit of the Doughboy” statue in pressed copper, with cast bronze plaques on the pedestal bearing the names of all who served. The monument was placed in the middle of the intersection of Fifth and Maple Streets and cost $1,850, almost all of which was raised by private donation. Ninety years later, the statue is in good condition, missing only the bayonet blade.

Seneca Memorial
(William S. Fischer, Jr. Photo)
As mentioned above, one of those commemorated is Cpl. Raymond R. Hendricks, 38th ("Rock of the Marne") Infantry, 3rd Division, who died in the Meuse Argonne Offensive on 9 October 1918. The local American Legion Post No. 214 was named after him when it was formed, and it still exists today.  The monument was relocated to the northeast corner of the intersection in 1960 and sits (with permission) on land belonging to the Union Pacific railroad, directly across 5th Street from the local feed store. 

Onaga Doughboy
Ten miles east of Axtell is Seneca, Kansas, (pop. 1,991), which is the seat of Nemaha County, where there is another WWI memorial (no Doughboy here, just a bronze eagle) bearing the names of 825 from the county (1910 pop. 19,072) who served, including 32 who didn’t come home. 

Thirty-five miles south of Axtell in Onaga, Kansas, (pop. 702), in the northeast corner of Pottawatomie County (Westmoreland is the county seat), there stands another Doughboy, this one cast in bronze by Viquesney’s arch-rival, John Paulding, also with a broken bayonet.

Two things stand out today from this virtual visit to a chunk of nowhere, parts of three counties in a "fly-over" state: first, that such a large number of the young men and women from here went to war in 1917–18 (and so many died). Second, that having given so freely of their human capital, the people of these tiny communities then gave willingly of their modest wealth so as to memorialize the service and sacrifice of their sons and daughters, and they continue to remember them to this day. None of these monuments has ever been "updated" to include all wars.

 You can read about all of the Kansas WWI memorials here:

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Doughboy Basics: What Surprises People the Most About the AEF?

I have been writing and speaking about the American Expeditionary Force of the First World War and leading tour groups to their battlefields for over a quarter of a century. Without a doubt, what consistently surprises most people about America's effort in the war is what I call the Quantitative Factor—the shear magnitude of the nation's effort. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about.

Far-Flung Battlefields

  • By the summer of 1918 the U.S. had combat units deployed from Flanders nearly to the Swiss border.
  • By the second week of October 1918, the AEF was responsible for 101 miles of the entire Western Front. Pershing's forces were mounting major attacks in the Somme, the Champagne, and three different sectors of the Meuse-Argonne 99 years ago today (8 October 1918).
  • Besides the Western Front, America deployed troops to Italy, Northern Russia, and Siberia, some of whom fought on after the November 1918 Armistice.


  • There were over two million troops in Europe by the time of the Armistice and two million more were due to arrive in the first half of 1919.
  • 35 percent of these men worked in logistical arm, the Services of Supply, the remainder were in the combat branches.
  • In addition, there were 42,644 civilian volunteers present supporting the troops.
  • By the official count, 116,000 Americans died in the war. Later in "Doughboy Basics," we will explain why this figure understates the nation's losses.


  • In slightly over six months General Pershing's forces fought TEN battles at the divisional or larger operational level. (American Divisions were (25,000 to 28,000 men.) There will be more on these later in the "Doughboy Basics" series.
  • The AEF was the only force in World War I to mount two major offensives—St. Mihiel & the Meuse-Argonne—only two weeks apart.
  • Had not the Armistice taken effect on 11 November 1918, the AEF, with French support, was scheduled mount another major offensive in the Lorraine on 14 November 1918.
  • The statistics for the Services of Supply's accomplishments are astonishing: 192,000 hospital beds operated; 1,500 railroad locomotives and 20,000 cars delivered, assembled, and operated; 250,000 horses and mules purchased and cared for; 16,000 barracks built, etc., etc., etc.
Of course, underlying this was the total national effort and support from every level of American government, every institution from Wall Street to Hollywood to Detroit to Harvard, and nearly the entirety of the American people, who were willing to open their pocketbooks fully and send their sons into fearsome hazards in support of the war.  This is an effort that should never be forgotten and  it is why we at have enthusiastically supported the building of the new National World War I Memorial in Washington DC.