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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Recommended: Doughboy Tragedy at Fismette, August 1918

Fismette Across the Vesle River, Then and Now

Originally Published at

“Here they come!”

To the surviving Doughboys, the cry seemed like a death knell. Only a few dozen of them remained, scattered in the cellars of half-ruined houses and strung out behind a battered stone wall that spanned the northern edge of the village. They had been fighting for weeks and had not eaten a scrap of food for four days. Nerves frazzled and lungs wracked by gas, they slumped at their posts, seemingly more dead than alive. They had long since used up their grenades. German artillery had knocked out their only machine gun. Their rifle ammunition was running low. And they were trapped.

The Doughboys occupied the village of Fismette, on the north bank of France’s Vesle River. German troops occupied the steep hillsides that dominated the village to the north, east, and west. To the south the debris-choked river flowed 45 feet wide and 15 deep. A man could swim it if he didn’t mind slithering across submerged coils of barbed wire and risking German machine-gun fire. Otherwise, the only way across was a shattered stone footbridge that barely linked one bank to the other. Clambering over the bridge was a slow business—impossible in daylight, due to enemy mortars and machine guns, and risky at night.

For the past two hours the Germans had bombarded Fismette with every gun in their arsenal. Now dawn had broken, and German observers stationed on the hills above or flying in planes overhead would watch the Americans’ every movement for at least the next 12 hours. It was at this moment—when the Doughboys’ situation seemed impossibly desperate—the Germans chose to attack. A full battalion of elite stormtroopers armed with rifles, grenades, and flamethrowers rushed the weak American line. As thick black smoke and flames spurted toward them, the ranking American officer, Major Alan Donnelly, could find only two words to say.

“Hold on!” he shouted.

The Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Division, the famed “Keystone,” was among the best the Americans had in France in the summer of 1918. “They struck me as the best soldiers I had ever seen,” said Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan, commander of the division’s 55th Infantry Brigade. “They were veterans, survivors who didn’t seem to be oppressed by the death of other men.”

German Flamethrower Team Similar to Those Deployed at Fismette

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 109th, 110th, 111th, and 112th infantry regiments formed the 7th Division. Later that year the unit was re-designated the 28th Division, assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces and shipped to France under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles H. Muir. Though grouchy and inflexible, Muir knew what fighting meant. Serving as a sharpshooter during the Spanish-American War, he had received the Distinguished Service Cross for singlehandedly killing the entire crew of a Spanish artillery piece. Muir’s men affectionately called him “Uncle Charley.”

The Pennsylvanians entered combat for the first time in early July 1918, fighting as part of the American III Corps under Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard. As no independent American Army in France yet existed, however, they were under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Jean Degoutte’s French Sixth Army. Attacking northward from the Marne River about 50 miles east of Paris, they pushed into an enemy-held salient backed by the Aisne River. On 4 August the Americans captured the town of Fismes on the south bank of the Vesle River. They had advanced 20 miles in just over a month and cleared out most of the German salient. Degoutte nevertheless ordered the 28th Division to cross the Vesle, capture Fismette and hold it as a bridgehead.

Muir and Bullard vehemently disagreed with Degoutte’s orders. The bridgehead at Fismette was too vulnerable, they argued. Enemy-held hills overlooked it on all sides, and withdrawal under fire over the Vesle would be next to impossible. But Degoutte would have none of it, and the American generals had to swallow their objections. Until the independent American Army that General John J. Pershing had sought for so long became a reality, they had no choice but to follow the Frenchman’s orders.

The Germans did not concede Fismette easily. On the night of 6–7 August , troops of the 112th Infantry attacked the village, but German resistance was too strong, and they had to withdraw. They tried again the following morning after American artillery had laid down a heavy barrage, and after a savage street fight they gained enough of a toehold to hang on. For the next 24 hours attacks, counterattacks and constant hand-to-hand fighting engulfed Fismette in an inferno of flame, smoke and noise.

Lieutenant Hervey Allen, a literate young man from Pittsburgh who would later become a successful novelist, approached the riverbank opposite Fismette late on the evening of 9 August. His company of the 111th Infantry had been fighting the Germans for six weeks and had not received rations for the past few days. Allen’s thoughts were less than cheerful as he gazed across the Vesle at a churning cloud of smoke flickering with muzzle flashes and echoing with gunfire and explosions. Somewhere in there lay Fismette.

The infantrymen crossed the stone bridge just after midnight. As they picked their way forward, they prayed enemy flares would not light up the sky and expose them to machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the sky remained dark. Rifle fire intensified, however, as the Doughboys entered Fismette. The Germans still held much of the village and contested the Americans house to house. Allen’s captain led them through the village, dodging and sprinting, until they reached its northern edge just before dawn. Ahead, on a half-wooded upward slope cut by a small gully, German machine guns barked at them furiously from the shelter of some trees.

Lt. Hervey Allen
The captain ordered an attack but was shot dead as he led his men into the open. Allen and the others continued forward another 50 yards before retiring to the village with heavy losses. The few remaining officers in Allen’s company held a hurried conference in an old dugout. Their standing orders were to attack and seize the hills above Fismette, but this seemed insane when even survival was problematic. One of them, they decided, had to return to headquarters in Fismes and seek further orders. Allen said he could swim, so the other officers chose him.

Allen approached the riverbank by slithering down a muddy ditch, dragging his belly painfully over strands of barbed wire half-submerged in the mud. Small clouds of German mustard gas filled the ditch in places, and although he wore his mask, the gas burned his hands and other exposed patches of skin. Enemy shells fell nearby, stunning him into near-unconsciousness. Allen nevertheless made it to the river’s edge, where he slipped into the water, discarding his gas mask and pistol.

The lieutenant crossed the Vesle beneath the bridge, sometimes swimming and other times crawling over submerged barbed wire. As he reached the opposite bank, Allen’s heart sank. American and German machine guns constantly raked the shore. There seemed no way forward and no way back. “I lay there in the river for a minute and gave up,” he later remembered. “When you do that, something dies inside.”

After a moment, fortunately, Allen noticed a small culvert that offered just enough cover for him to make his way into Fismes. A few minutes later he was racing down rubble-strewn streets toward the dugout serving as battalion headquarters. No signposts were necessary—all he had to do was follow the macabre trail of dead runners’ corpses. He arrived at the dugout to the sight of an unexploded German shell wedged into the wall just over the entrance. Inside, Allen waded through a crowd of officers, wounded soldiers, and malingerers to reach his battalion major. The major looked rather pleased with himself, for he had so far received only positive reports of the fighting in Fismette. Allen, as the only eyewitness present, quickly disabused him of his optimism. His duty done, the lieutenant saluted, moved to a corner and lost consciousness.

Several hours later an officer shook Allen awake and ordered him to guide a group of reinforcements back into Fismette. Night had fallen. Little remained of the bridge, and the surrounding area was strewn with shell holes, broken equipment, and pieces of men. A sentry warned that the slightest sound would provoke German machine guns to open fire on the bridge, and that several runners had been killed trying to cross. Waves of nausea engulfed Allen. For a moment his resolve wavered. “No more machine guns, no more!” he said to himself over and over. An American sniper, sheltering nearby and waiting to fire at German muzzle-flashes, hissed, “Don’t stoop down, lieutenant—they are shooting low when they cut loose!”

Allen sucked in his stomach and led his men carefully over the bridge. As they reached mid-span, an enemy flare lit up the sky. The Doughboys stood frozen and prepared to die. “That,” Allen later recalled, “was undoubtedly the most intense moment I ever knew.” The flare seemed to float eternally, until it finally descended in a slow arc, sputtered and went out. Miraculously, the enemy had not fired a shot.

The hours that followed sank only partially into Allen’s memory, passing in a haze of sights, sounds and impressions. What he remembered most was weariness. “In that great time,” he later wrote, “there was never any rest or let-up until the body was killed or it sank exhausted.” Around him, the fighting continued without letup.

Lt. Bob Hoffman
Months afterward many members of the regiment would receive medals in tribute to their bravery in Fismette. Sergeant James I. Mestrovitch rescued his wounded company commander under fire on 10 August and carried him to safety. Mestrovitch would receive the Medal of Honor for this act of heroism—but posthumously, as he was killed in action on 4 November.

Lieutenant Bob Hoffman would return home with a Croix de Guerre. He spent his days and nights in Fismette scouting German positions and fighting off counterattacks. One morning Hoffman noticed German preparations for an attack and deployed his men in a block of ruined houses they had linked together with strongpoints and tunnels. The Americans had just taken their positions, poking their rifles through apertures in the crumbling stone walls, when German soldiers came rushing down the street. Hoffman never forgot the sight: “Clumpety-clump, they were going, with their high boots and huge coal-bucket helmets. I can see them coming yet—bent over, rifle in one hand, potato-masher grenade in the other; husky, red-faced young fellows, their eyes almost popping out of their heads as they dashed down the street, necks red and perspiring.”

Continue reading the entire article at:

Saturday, June 24, 2017

What Happened at Zivy Crater?

Zivy Crater Cemetery Looking West (Away from Vimy Ridge)

Zivy Crater–now the site of a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery–sits right at the foot of Vimy Ridge and was on the jump-off line for the Canadian assault of 9 April 1917. I'd never visited it before, but I thought after looking at Google Earth that it would be the perfect spot to start the Vimy Ridge segment of my recent Western Front Battlefield Tour. Unfortunately, when we got there the view of Vimy Ridge was perfectly blocked by an overpass and surrounding trees. We did learn the story of its role in the war  from  the informational kiosk at the site. The cemetery  is the final resting place for 53 fallen of the war, mostly Canadians, who died in the opening attack of 9 April.

After the War, Zivy Crater Was Something of a Pilgrimage Site for Canadian Visitors

Photos: Dudley Heer and CWGC

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Great War's 101 Defining Events: Numbers 41–50


(click on image to enlarge)

This series will run every Friday on Roads to the Great War through its completion.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Roads Classic: How Did the Disaster at Caporetto Occur?

With the centennial of the Italian Front's most famous battle, I thought readers would like to see this article we presented in our first year.  I'll be leading a tour of the Caporetto battlefield this summer, so if you would like some information about the trip, just email me at

How Did Caporetto Occur? 

The Caporetto offensive launched  24 October 1917 along the Isonzo River, is considered one of the most decisive victories of the 20th century. It was boldly planned, very ably organized, and well executed. While two Austrian armies, under General Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna, attacked the Italian Third Army on the Carso and Bainsizza Plateaus on the lower ground near the Adriatic shore, further north in the more mountainous  part of the Isonzo sector, the German-Austrian Fourteenth Army, targeted the Italian Second Army. Comprising the six German divisions and nine Austrian under German General Otto von Below, with Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen as his chief of staff, the Fourteenth Army's masterful  double breakthrough proved decisive, annihilating the Second Army.

The assault stunned Italians troops and their commanders, who fell back in confusion: Below's van reached Udine, the former site of the Italian general headquarters, by October 28 and was on the Tagliamento River by October 31. . .The Italians [eventually] sustained about 500,000 casualties, including 250,000 taken prisoner.   How could such a catastrophe occur in so short a period?  The answer–I believe–lies in the faulty deployment by the Italian Commando Supremo. Even the anxious Italian King, who visited Caporetto a few days before the attack, expressed skepticism over the dispositions made by his generals. The map and photos below should demonstrate these weaknesses to you. 

Click on Image to Expand

Important things to note:  A.  The opening day's battlefield was huge, roughly 12 x 12 miles; B. The front line and the Italian defensive lines weave back and forth across the Isonzo (Soca) River; C.  The large gap between Italian 2nd and 3rd lines;  D.  Tight fit of all three Italian Lines west of Tolmino (8). 

Following the Map from Top (North) to Bottom (South)

  • Mte. Rombon (1) was the site of ferocious mountaintop fighting right up to the opening of the 24 October offensive. It marks the northern extent of the Caporetto battlefield. Occupied by Bosnian troops, it gave the German-Austrian forces an excellent view of their enemy's deployments before the operation.  Far below its peak on the river lies the village of Plezzo (2).

  • Plezzo (2) was just behind the front line of 24 October. The front here crossed the Isonzo, meaning attacking forces would not need to force a river crossing, simplifying things greatly for them. Here Austrian divisions and German gas officers would execute the most successful gas attack of the First World War, and charge through a huge opening that opened the road to Caporetto.  The photos below show the area today.

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The view from the 3rd Italian line above the river bend looking northeast toward Plezzo (2) along the narrow river valley. Mte. Rombon (1) is in the far distance. In this area the mountains are quite close on either side of the river.

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However, just along the river near Plezzo (2), there are some low flat spaces. Italian forces deployed here were hit with a lethal gas barrage, allowing a clean breakthrough by Austrian divisions.  One of the dirty secrets of WWI is that gas attacks were effective when used intelligently.

  • Moving south past a big bend in the Isonzo is the town of Caporetto (3), the opening objective and namesake of the battle.  It is a road-hub at the head of a second valley (off to the right on the photo below) and its capture allowed the deep pursuit into northern Italy after the initial  rout. 

  • Mte Nero (4), at 2244 meters on the left of the photo, was on the front line on 24 October.  Three Italian divisions, the 43rd, 46th, and 50th, were deployed just below its peak and that of a second summit on Mte Mrzili (5). Heavy fog and rain on the morning of the battle obscured the vision of these units. South of Caporetto most of the Italian 2nd line and all of the 3rd line were on the opposite side of the river. By mid morning, unbeknownst to them, the three divisions on Nero and Mrzili were being flanked from their left (also left on the photo) by the enemy units that had broken through at Plezzo (2) and were marching down the river edge. This was not their only danger, though.

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About 10 miles south of Caporetto (3) lies another river town, Tolmino (8). General von Below was executing a second breakthrough there.

  • Below is a spectacular view of Tolmino (8) from a hang glider above the Isonzo.  Once again the front line and 2nd and 3rd Italian lines cross the river at a perpendicular just north of the town.  Here the Italian positions were too tightly bunched. Both the town and the high hill to the right of the town–part of the Tolmino Bridgehead (7)–were occupied by  German troops, as was the hill to the left of town which offers a superb view down the valley towards Caporetto.  Once again the Central Powers were able to attack on both sides of the river at the same time. Additionally, a strong attack here had the potential of punching  through all three Italian positions very quickly; and an assault from the Bridgehead (7) could be mounted attacking downhill. It was a position of maximum danger for the Italian Army and maximum opportunity for their opponents.

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For orientation purposes:  Just out of view to the left of the glider is Mte Mrzili (5) and over the pilot's left shoulder is Mte Nero (4);  ahead is Tolmino (8) in the center and the Bridgehead (7) is to the right; out of view on pilot's right is Mte. Kolovrat (6).

  • The attack in this area had three branches. Out of Tolmino (8): One German division attacking out of Tolmino  advanced along the river and headed for Caporetto (3).  This group would join up later in the morning with the group advancing from the Plezzo (2) breakthrough. The three Italian divisions deployed along the slopes of Mrzili (5) and Nero (4) were cut-off and captured en masse. Many of those troops did not fire a shot in the battle.  Caporetto (3), itself, was secured by 1600 hours. 

  • Also out of Tolmino (8), German Alpenkorps (including Lt. Erwin Rommel) crossed over advanced on the other side of the river up onto the Mte Kolovrat (6) range to reduce the strong points of the 2nd and 3rd Italian positions.  Over several days each of these strong points were eliminated.

  • The third group attacked out the Bridgehead (7) and targeted the right flank of the Second Army where its XXVII Corps was deployed.  A relief of units was in progress when the attack hit and the confused Italian forces were devastated.  

  • In summary, almost all the troops in the three Second Army lines were killed or taken prisoner in the early stages of the fighting.  Subsequently those troops in reserve and in the rear areas were threatened by a double flanking maneuver that quickly followed the initial double breakthroughs out of Plezzo and Tolmino. After capturing Caporetto, the northern Austro-German force pushed west, then south into the Veneto. Meanwhile,  the force that advanced out of the Tolmino Bridgehead also threatened the flanks of the remains of Second Army on one side of its thrust and the Italian Third Army on the other side.  This effectively collapsed the entire Italian position along the length of the Isonzo River, leading to the headlong retreat that is the hallmark and most remembered aspect of the Battle of Caporetto.

Click on Image to Expand

The view from an artillery position on the Italian 3rd line on Mte Kolovrat (6). The hill just below marked the 2nd line. Rommel captured a position there early in the battle.  On the left just across the river, the early slopes of Mte. Mrzili (5) where the Italian 46th Division found itself stranded can be seen.

If only one of the attempted breakthroughs had succeeded, the Central Powers would have certainly gained a major victory at Caporetto.  However, with both succeeding on 24 October, an entire Italian Army was wiped off the board.  The heartland of Italy was threatened, and the positions of mountain troops to the north of Caporetto and and the 3rd Army to the south along the Adriatic were made untenable. In Italy today "A Caporetto" is another name for a disaster. In future postings on Roads to the Great War we will discuss the pursuit that followed the double breakthrough, and how Italy–after a long retreat–stabilized the situation along the Piave River.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Under Bombardment

View of a Bombardment
[Editor's Note:  This is one of the best descriptions I've ever read of what it was like to be the target of a pre-attach bombardment from the enemy.  It's from the novel Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He was wounded in August 1918 in the Battle of Amiens and survived the war.]

We never become accustomed to the shellfire. Its terror for us increases with each passing day. The days out on rest ease our harried nerves, but as soon as we are back in the line again we are as fearful and jumpy as the newest recruit. With the first hiss and roar of a shell we become terror-stricken as of old.

We look at each other with anxious, frightened faces.

Our lips tighten.

Our eyes open wide.

We do not talk.

What is there to say?

Talk of the coming offensive continues.

The sector becomes more tumultuous.

The guns rage all night.

We "stand to" long before dawn and wait at the parapets expecting an attack until long after sunrise.

The fatigues are innumerable.

Every night there are wiring parties, sapping parties, carrying parties. We come back exhausted from these trips. We throw ourselves down in the dugouts for an hour's sleep.

But we do not rest.

There is no time for rest. We stagger around like drunken, forsaken men. Life has become an insane dream.

Sleep, sleep–if only we could sleep.

Our faces become grey. Each face is a different shade of grey. Some are chalk-coloured, some with a greenish tint, some yellow. But all of us are pallid with fear and fatigue.

It is three in the morning.

Our section is just back from a wiring party.

The guns are quiet.

Dawn is a short while off . . .

We sit on the damp floor of the dugout.

We have one candle between us and around this we sit chewing at the remains of the day's rations.

German Troops Undergoing an Artillery Barrage in an Underground  Bunker

Suddenly the bombardment begins.

The shells begin to hammer the trench above.

The candlelight flickers.

We look at each other apprehensively. We try to talk as though the thing we dread most is not happening.

The sergeant stumbles down the steps and warns us to keep our battle equipment on.

The dugout is an old German one; it is braced by stout wooden beams. We look anxiously at the ceiling of the hole in which we sit.

The walls of the dugout tremble with each crashing explosion.

The air outside whistles with the rush of the oncoming shells.

The German gunners are "feeling" for our front line.

The crashing of the shells comes closer and closer. Our ears are attuned to the nuances of a bombardment. We have learned to identify each sound.

They are landing on the parapet and in the trench itself now.

We do not think of the poor sentry, a new arrival, whom we have left on lookout duty.

We crowd closer to the flickering candle.

Upstairs the trench rings with a gigantic crack as each shell lands. An insane god is pounding it with Cyclopean fists, madly, incessantly.

We sit like prehistoric men within the ring of flickering light which the candle casts. We look at each other silently.

A shell shatters itself to fragments near the entrance of the dugout.

The candle is snuffed out by the concussion.

We are in complete darkness.

Another shell noses its shrieking way into the trench near the entrance and explodes. The dugout is lit by a blinding red flash. Part of the earthen stairway caves in.


In the blackness the rigging and thudding over our heads sounds more malignant, more terrible.

We do not speak.

Each of us feels an icy fear gripping at the heart.

With a shaking hand Cleary strikes a match to light the candle. The small flame begins to spread its yellow light. Grotesque, fluttering shadows creep up the trembling walls.

Another crash directly over our heads!

It is dark again.

Fry speaks querulously:

"Gee, you can't even keep the damned thing lit."

At last the flame sputters and flares up.

Broadbent's face is green.

The bombardment swells, howls, roars.

The force of the detonations causes the light of the candle to become a steady, rapid flicker. We look like men seen in an ancient, unsteady motion picture.

The fury of the bombardment makes me ill at the stomach.

Broadbent gets up and staggers into a corner of our underground room.

He retches.

Fry starts a conversation.

We each say a few words trying to keep the game alive. But we speak in broken sentences. We leave thoughts unfinished. We can think of only one thing–will the beams in the dug-out hold?

We lapse into fearful silences.

We clench our teeth.

It seems as though the fire cannot become more intense. But it becomes a little more rapid–then more rapid. The pounding increases in tempo like a noise in the head of one who is going under an anesthetic. Faster.

The explosions seem as though they are taking place in the dugout itself. The smoke of the explosives fills the room.

Fry breaks the tension.

"The lousy swine," he says. "Why don't they come on over, if they're coming?"

We all speak at once. We punctuate our talk with vile epithets belittling the sexual habits of the enemy. We seem to get relief in this fashion.

In that instant a shell hurtles near the opening over our heads and explodes with a snarling roar. Clods of earth and pieces of the wooden supports come slithering down the stairway.

It is dark again. In the darkness we hear Anderson speak in his singsong voice:

"How do you expect to live through this with all your swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain?"

For once we do not heap abuse and ribaldry on his head. We do not answer.

We sit in the darkness, afraid even to light the candle. It seems as though the enemy artillerymen have taken a dislike to our candle and are intent on blowing it out.

I look up the shattered stairway and see a few stars shining in the sky.

At least we are not buried alive!

The metallic roar continues.

Fry speaks: "If I ever live through this, I'll never swear again, so help me God."

We do not speak, but we feel that we will promise anything to be spared the horror of being buried alive under tons of earth and beams which shiver over our heads with each explosion. Bits of earth from the ceiling begin to fall . . .

Suddenly, as quickly as it began, the bombardment stops.

We start to clear up the debris from the bottom of the stairs.

To think we could propitiate a senseless god by abstaining from cursing!

What god is there as mighty as the fury of a bombardment? More terrible than lightning, more cruel, more calculating than an earthquake!

How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways again and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulfur, we who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies?

Canadian Troops Awaiting an Enemy Assault

Yes, all of us have prayed during the maniac frenzy of a bombardment.

Who can live through the terror-laden minutes of drum-fire and not feel his reason slipping, his manhood dissolving?

Selfish, fear-stricken prayers–prayers for safety, prayers for life, prayers for air, for salvation from the death of being buried alive . . .

Back home they are praying, too–praying for victory–and that means that we must lie here and rot and tremble forever . . .

We clear away the debris and go to the top of the broken stairs.

It is quiet and cool.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Kitchener's Mob
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson

Kitchener's Mob: The New Army to the Somme

by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster
The History Press, 2016

Kitchener's Mob tells the hectic story of the raising of Kitchener's Army in August and September 1914. The number of volunteers who joined Kitchener's Army was higher than the total number of soldiers obtained by conscription in 1916 and 1917 combined. In fact Kitchener and the War Office were able to add five New Armies to Britain's military forces. Kitchener's first call was for 100,000 men; this goal was reached within just two weeks. A further 100,000 men were required almost immediately. Feelings of patriotism ran high, as in the case of Harry Gilbert Tunstill, a land agent and county council representative who, on 24 August had just returned from a trip to Russia and immediately took on the responsibility of raising men to serve in the New Army. All but two of the New Army divisions saw action in France and Belgium. As Boyle and Foster demonstrate, the men of Kitchener's Army suffered greatly during the first few months of the war because of a severe shortage of weapons, equipment, and accommodation.

British Troops Advance Along the Ancre, Late in the Battle of the Somme

Kitchener's Mob is divided into five chapters: Men of the Moment, Kitchener's Men, Pals, Road to the Somme, and End of an Experiment. The first chapter describes Kitchener's qualities as a leader in time of war. Kitchener's Army quickly entered the popular imagination, as evidenced in the wide range of posters, postcards, and advertisements reproduced in Doyle and Foster's study.

Chapter two, "Kitchener's Men", describes the training of the volunteers, and the production of their uniforms and equipment. Among the many evocative illustrations in this chapter are the photographs of individuals and groups at camp and in training. Equipment was hard to come by and of questionable quality. All the same, the total weight carried by Kitchener's men was between 61 and 65 lbs., which included clothing, arms, ammunition, accoutrements, rations, and water.

Conditions in the camp were far from comfortable, as the postcard text below illustrates:

Down in our blinking camp,
We're always on the ramp,
That's where we cop the cramp,
Through sleeping in the damp.
(p. 81)

It is clear, however, that despite the difficult conditions, spirits ran high.

"Pals", the third chapter of Kitchener's Mob, describes how the retreat from Mons in August 1914 spurred on the recruitment campaign as fears grew that the Expeditionary Force would be pushed back to the Channel ports. The Pals concept grew out of this fear along with a subsequent request that the City of London raise a whole battalion of stockbrokers. Two weeks later, a letter from Lord Derby appeared in the Liverpool Echo, addressed specifically to the commercial classes:

It has been suggested to me that there are many men, such as clerks and others engaged in commercial business, who wish to serve their country and would be willing to enlist in the battalion of Kitchener's New Army if they felt assured that they would be able to serve with their friends and not to be put in a battalion with unknown men as their companions. Lord Kitchener has sanctioned my endeavouring to raise a battalion that would be composed entirely of the classes mentioned, and in which a man could be certain that he would be amongst friends (p. 95).

Pals regiments, from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland became a vital part of Kitchener's Army. A particularly moving photograph reproduced in the chapter is that of Private 15/1545 Tom Scawbord, who was killed on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 (p. 119). The chapter also describes recruitment in Ulster, showing a photograph of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912; they are a pathetic sight as they march with neither uniforms nor ammunition.

Chapter Four, "The Somme", is richly illustrated with photographs from the front, showing the trenches, dugouts, labor battalions, and German barbed wire. There are also extracts from letters such as the one below, which makes it clear that soldiers found it difficult to describe what it was really like at the front:

It is awfully cold and dismal at nights. I would refer you to Rudyard Kipling for a description of the dawn and the close of the day, when soldiers stand to arms, to give you a truer idea of something no-one but a good poet can describe (p. 174).

The chapter also contains a section on Gallipoli and Egypt.

It is, however, the section on the Somme that is the most powerful. With the aid of maps, photographs, and illustrations from Punch, Doyle and Foster demonstrate the challenge that the Somme represented for Kitchener's Army. They conclude Chapter Four with the following sentence ~

"The story of Kitchener's Army does not end with the 151 days of the Somme, but there the youthful army came of age—and it would face the challenges of 1917 head on" (p. 197).

Pvt. Charles Branston
The final chapter, "End of an Experiment", is shorter than the previous ones. It describes how the social experiment of locally raised battalions of volunteers met the reality of modern warfare - and how so many did not make it across no-man's-land. Their bodies remained in France, as a symbol of patriotism and sacrifice. The lack of experience of the men and their leaders took its toll. The chapter ends with the statement "one thing is clear: the road to the Somme paved by Kitchener's Army continued on to the victory of the citizen army in November 1918" (p. 204).

The photograph of one of the men on the final page says it all:

Charlie Branston was wounded by shellfire in the trenches at Contalmaison on 10 July 1016, and killed in action on 12 October 1916 near Lesboeufs. His name is among the thousands recorded on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval.

Kitchener's Army includes a wide variety of documentary sources, both primary and secondary, is richly illustrated throughout, and meticulously annotated. It is a fine commemoration to the patriotism and sacrifices of the thousands of men who joined Kitchener's Army. They are not forgotten.

Jane Mattisson
Østfold University College, Norway

Monday, June 19, 2017

Recommended: Avian Anti-Submarine Warfare

By:  David A. H. Wilson, Cumbria Institute of the Arts, United Kingdom

Attempts were made throughout the First World War to discover means of countering the enemy submarine. Both defensive and offensive measures were assessed and sometimes implemented, with varying degrees of success. So serious were the losses caused by the U-boats in their campaign of unrestricted warfare and the resulting effect on national morale that the authorities in Britain were soon prepared to consider from all quarters every proposal to locate, track, destroy, neutralize or evade the U-boat.

Systematic assessment and experiment began in 1915 with the establishment of the Board of Invention and Research (BIR) and then continued in late 1916 with the creation under naval control of the Anti-Submarine Division (ASD). To develop antisubmarine measures, as well as others to contribute to winning this "struggle of invention," the BIR invited and received suggestions from scientists, navy personnel, and members of the public. The latter source produced many bizarre ideas, but some of them were considered worth investigating. Among these were proposals to train gulls and other birds to indicate the presence of U-boats.

Source:  International Journal of Naval History
April 2006,Volume 5 Number 1

Read the Full Article Here:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The USS Recruit

The USS Recruit

By Keith Muchowski

At half past noon on 30 May 1917 New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel arrived at Union Square for a public gathering. It was one of several Decoration Day events taking place around the city. Uptown, Governor Charles S. Whitman and Major General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island, were presiding over the annual parade past the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park. Fifty-two years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, there were still several hundred aged Boys in Blue in the procession. This year’s event had special resonance—the United States had entered the Great War earlier the previous month and tension was high. Mayor Mitchel was in Union Square to launch the USS Recruit, a scaled-down, wooden replica of a U.S. battleship built, as its names suggests, to spur enlistment in the American armed forces. The Recruit remained in Union Square for almost three years and proved a big success. Nearly 25,000 men joined the Navy there. The Navy generously shared the facility with the Army and Marine Corps. The public could purchase Liberty Bonds at the site. There was fun to be had too. Sports and entertainment were a regular features aboard the USS Recruit.

New York Mayor Mitchel and His Family at the USS Recruit's Christening

Mayor Mitchel had called for the construction of the Recruit just over a month earlier, on 27 April. Everyone understood the importance of expanding the Navy. Germany and Great Britain had spent much of the past two decades building their naval forces. Playing catch-up, President Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet on an a 14-month around-the-world journey in December 1907. Still, the U.S. Navy was a fraction of the Europeans’. The Navy Department in Washington had established New York City’s quota at 2000 sailors, a number that Mitchel was determined to meet. The task of building the Recruit fell to the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense, who hired the George A. Fuller Company, whose work included the Flatiron Building just north of Union Square, to construct the 200’ x 40’ ship modeled to resemble the USS Maine. Construction expenses were $10,000, just under $200,000 in today’s dollars, and the funds were raised through private subscription.

View from the Bow, USS Recruit

Civic and military dignitaries watched the mayor’s wife, Olive Child Mitchel, christen the Recruit with a bottle of champagne, after which her husband turned the ship over to the Navy. The city’s flag came down and the pennant representing Admiral Nathaniel Riley Usher rose in its place. Navy and Marine officers wasted no time getting down to business. The Recruit was outfitted with office space, medical facilities for physicals, electricity, running water, and even living quarters for physicians. It was aboard the USS Recruit in June 1917 that Lieutenant John Philip Sousa made his first public appearance after enlisting in the Navy days earlier; the 63-year-old composer was leading his Marine Band again for the first time since leaving the Corps in 1892. The following month there was a vaudeville show with Broadway stars, followed a week later by an appearance by soprano Mabel Garrison of the Metropolitan Opera. Irish heavyweight Jim Coffey oversaw a boxing tournament in May 1918. Adding to the international flavor, a contingent of ANZACS from Australia attended the pugilistic matches to get to know their new allies and build camaraderie.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels Addresses a Crowd from the Recruit

Of course none of this got in the way of serious business. The recruiting, charity, and bond drives continued. On 10 March 1918 Governor Whitman’s wife set forth three carrier pigeons to First Lady Edith Wilson back in Washington in a publicity move for a Women’s Overseas Hospitals U.S.A fundraiser. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels came aboard the following week, just as the spring fighting season was about to commence in France. The National League for Woman’s Service sent its Camouflage Corps in July 1918 to paint the ship various shades of white, black, green, blue, and pink. This camouflage demonstration aligned neatly with the Recruit’s mission to instruct New Yorkers on what the Navy did and how it operated. To this end there were “wash days” and demonstrations of machine gun and artillery maneuvers, all while the recruiting was going on. Union Square had long been a meeting place for radicals and agitators. Ironically while sailors, solders, and Marines were working aboard the Recruit, socialists, anarchists, and suffragists were pamphleteering against the war in the same park.

Crew and Mascots

The Armistice came in November 1918, but the Recruit continued its work for another 16 months with its usual mix of work and public diplomacy. A troupe performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera “H.M.S. Pinafore” in summer 1919. On 10 September the Navy flew a “free balloon” over New York City for the first time, the craft leaving the Rockaway Naval Air Station and settling over Union Square while dropping recruiting leaflets along the way. In early 1920 officials decided to decommission the Recruit. The idea was to send the ship to Luna Park, the amusement center in Coney Island. For reasons that are still unclear that did not come to pass. Presumably Luna officials decided that visitors did not want to be reminded of the war while relaxing at the amusement park. Americans in 1920 wanted nothing more than a return to normalcy. The ship’s fate came rather anticlimactically, and sadly little or nothing remains of the USS Recruit today. On 16 March 1920, 80 sailors stood at attention while the Recruit band played its last rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The American flag and commanding officer’s standard came down from the masthead for the final time, and construction workers quickly began disassembling the vessel.

Keith Muchowski is a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, New York. He blogs at

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Whoops—There Might Be a War Coming! The Prewar Rush to Fill the Ranks

The Kaiser Reviews His Troops on the Eve of War

By early to mid-1913 the Balkan situation and a growing sense of defensiveness by European leaders over the cascading series of disagreements and crises seem to have led to an unstated acceptance of the possibility of imminent war. All the major land powers concluded they needed more bodies in uniform. In their own fashions they initiated legislative measures to accomplish this.

In March, Russia began this cycle with the unveiling of a five-year "Great Program" of expansion before the Imperial Council by the military leadership. This naturally quickly got the attention of the members of the Triple Alliance and encouraged subsequent responses from them. Being Imperial Russia, though, the process there took the longest to work through and was not fully approved until June 1914. Nevertheless, its implementation added two full corps to the army and substantial increases and modernization in artillery.

In May, with the backing of President Raymond Poincaré, a controversial bill known as the "Three Year Law" was introduced. It was intended to allow France to match the size of the German Army on mobilization and (this was not so publicized at the time) to make it possible for France to launch the offensive operations contemplated under the latest war plan. An immediate boost was provided by calling up two new classes simultaneously, combined with an extension to three years active service for those already in uniform (the classes of 1910 and 1911). The bill was passed in August after an appeal to the legislature by General Joffre.

The Kaiser and his generals were now looking at the two-front war they had long planned for. A shift in national priorities was in order. Immediately after gaining approval for a naval bill (something less that Admiral Tirpitz had urged), an effort was mounted to increase the strength of the army. Like the French effort it was a political "hot potato," but for another reason. The expenses of building the fleet had made the Reichstag resistant to cost increases that could increase tax burdens. After much sparring, a compromise was reached on 30 June. In October the final measure was approved, which added 136,000 enlisted men and included many reorganizing measures regarding the army, reservists, and home guard, which would facilitate the mobilization in 1914. By one rough estimate, it increased the army of 1914 by one-sixth.

During the Balkan wars the Dual Monarchy had passed a series of emergency military measures, but the overall situation of declining political stability further alarmed the leadership, both military and political. The war ministry reported in August 1913 that increases in manpower and artillery were needed due to recent technical innovations and a diplomatic situation shifting against the Monarchy's interests. Changes were approved by October 1913 with the support of one-time anti-militarist Hungarian leader István Tisza. These included credits for war materials and for expanding the intake of conscripts to allow for a larger force on mobilization. 

Sources: Pierre Miguel's writings on French politics, David Hermans on the arming of Europe, and the WWW-Virtual Library

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great War's 101 Defining Events: Numbers 31–40


(click on image to enlarge)

This series will run every Friday on Roads to the Great War through its completion.

Remembering a Veteran: From Doughboy to Army Commander, William Hood Simpson

West Point Cadet, Class of 1909
While often overlooked in the history of the European Theater of Operations during the Second World War, William H. Simpson, commander of the U.S. Ninth Army, proved to be one of the most effective American generals of World War II. Calm, modest, and utterly dependable, Simpson led the Ninth Army through some of the war’s bloodiest fighting. In a testament to Simpson’s abilities, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his book, Crusade in Europe, stated, “If Simpson ever made a mistake as an army commander, it never came to my attention.”

William Hood Simpson was born on 19 May 1888 near Weatherford, Texas. In 1905 he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Upon graduating in 1909, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry and was assigned to the 6th Infantry. From 1910 to 1912, Simpson served with his regiment in the Philippines, fighting against rebellious Moros. He later took part in the Punitive Expedition of 1916.

One month after the U.S. declared war against Germany in April 1917, Simpson was promoted to captain and became the aide-de-camp to MG George Bell, Jr. In July 1917, Bell assumed command of the 33d Division, an Illinois National Guard unit. Simpson was later named the 33rd's operations officer, which provided him invaluable experience in upper-level staff procedures. The division saw action alongside the Australian corps in the Somme sector, most notably in the Meuse-Argonne, and at war's end in the St. Mihiel sector.   

Lt. Col. Simpson with 33rd Division Patch

In America's greatest battle of the First World War the 33rd Division was one of the most successful American formations.  In the opening of the attack it neatly captured the village of Forges on the opening  of the battle, thus securing the right flank of Pershing's First Army.  Later, in  October 1918, it became the first American unit to force a crossing of the Meuse, beginning the push to the strategic Meuse Heights.  

Simpson earned a Silver Star and a Distinguished Service Medal. He later served as the division’s chief of staff from November 1918 until he returned to the U.S. in June 1919 to become chief of staff of the 6th Division. Simpson reverted to his permanent rank of captain on 20 June 1920 but was promoted to major the following day.

General Simpson in 1959

Continue reading about his distinguished service in WWII at:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

100 Years Ago: The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo Winds Down

Tenth Battle of the Isonzo
12 May–8 June 1917

By 1917 Italy had agreed to coordinate its operations with its allies. Spring of that year was to be the occasion of a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front to be led by French general Robert Nivelle. Italy, therefore, also had to plan for a decisive breakthrough in its only feasible area for offensive operations, the Isonzo. The usual priority, expansion of the Gorizia corridor for a further push to Trieste, was this time turned into a diversionary part of a broader attack. So the initial attack was on the Carso Plateau, but in the overall scheme, it was to be a diversion.  Serious fighting, though, would ensue toward the end of the Tenth Battle as Austrian forces were ground down.

Italian Trench During the Battle (Possibly Carso Plateau)

For mysterious reasons, however, in the spring of 1917 Comando Supremo seemed bent on capturing as many mountains as possible. Moving from north to south, they engaged in an indecisive war of mines for control of Mte Krn's peak east of Caporetto. The largest assault (sound in concept but weak in execution) on the Tolmino bridgehead began on 15 May and failed. Mte Kuk and Mte Vodice near Plava were successfully captured, but Mte Santo across the river from Mte Sabatino was not, at first.

Hills Around Gorizia from the Austro-Hungarian Position

As the main battles in the north staggered to conclusion with Mte Santo finally secured by General Capello's Second Army, Third Army was ordered to attack again on the Carso. After some initial progress, they reached the outskirts of Mte Hermada in the last days of May but eventually were halted and pushed back by stiff Austrian counterattacks on 6–8 June  as reinforcements arrived. Elements of the Catanzaro Brigade refused to advance in a last futile attack on Mte Hermada and were subsequently formally decimated as punishment in July. After taking 157,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured), it was time for General Cadorna to adjourn the bloodletting.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory

by Martin Marix Evans
Pen and Sword, 2005

Stretcher Bearers Crossing the Inundated Battlefield

Passchendaele (also Third Ypres, July–November 1917) was and remains a controversial battle, with participants and historians feuding over its strategy and outcome over the past century. Martin Evans retells the story, ultimately arguing for Passchendaele playing a positive role in helping the Allied cause to eventual victory.

As a Pen and Sword publication, Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory focuses entirely on the battle. Readers seeking contemporary geopolitical context, social history, or diplomatic analysis should look elsewhere. Instead Evans offers a meticulous examination of military events, including a detailed probe of geography (including the soil conditions, which proved horrendous), order of battle, and events on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Evans offers a good account of disputes among British commanders, notably the divide between campaign organizer General  Sir Douglas Haig and operational leader General Hubert Gough. The latter famously argued for caution and slower timetables at key moments (61). The campaign's bogging down depressed Gough badly but left Haig energetic and demanding (139–140, for example).

Evans makes excellent use of primary sources, like this vivid depiction by 2d Lt. D.G. Browne of the Allied bombardment's effects :

The [German] front line was not merely obliterated: it had been scorched and pulverized as if by an earthquake, stamped flat and heaved up again, caught as it fell and blown all ways; and when the four minutes' blast of destruction moved on, was left dissolved in its elements, heaped in fantastic mounds of mud, or excavated into crumbling pits already half full of water. There cannot have been a live man left in it. At our point of crossing there was nothing to be seen which remotely resembled a trench; before us yawned a deep muddy gulf, out of whose slimy sides obtruded fragments of splintered timber, broken slabs of concrete, and several human legs clothed in German half-boots…(43)

Or this scene of classic horror:

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning…And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me…(76)

The book is profusely illustrated by period photographs. Some are quite striking, like the ruined tank (44) or the classic Menin Road shot (107). Was Passchendaele an Allied victory? Evans carefully makes the case for yes, largely by hedging his claims and identifying enormous Allied challenges ("If, then, this was a victory…In the long run…it was not without value" [249]). First he shows that the terrain was terrible for both infantry and machine and that summer 1917 saw unusually bad weather, worsening the scene still further, leaving the ground soupy and nearly impassable (62, 156). Second, Evans reminds us that it saw the use of many technologies which were experimental or in early days at the time, even though most became wartime staples by 1918, such as radio (7).

Most important of these technologies was the tank, which was still in early trials, and often malfunctioned badly around Ypres. Evans offers many rich accounts of tanks bogged down in confusion, mud, or mechanical failure, along with fascinating details, like soldiers laying down long tapes for tank drivers to follow (38), especially when drivers couldn't see well enough to avoid going off-road (111). Tanks did score some successes, but were sometimes misused on inappropriate terrain (62–67; 80; great anecdote 69–70) or in numbers too small to be effective.

One captain notes this sad view of the new technology during the course of the campaign:

Any plan for using [tanks] as fighting weapons appears to have been abandoned. In an endeavor to find a job for tanks, my two were being sent forward to be used experimentally as tractors for hauling guns and supply sledges…(123)

Third, new tactics were beginning to surface at Passchendaele. The massed charges of 1914 were gone, and in their place practices emerged such as focusing machine gun fire against strongpoints (79). Creeping barrages were improving (106). The Germans were also developing new tactics in response to Allied pressure, like lightly manning a front line as a "forefield" from which survivors of an attack could easily retreat to enable an artillery response (134).

Australians Wearing Box Respirators, Ypres, 1917

Fourth, the Allied offensive around Ypres drew down German resources strategically. Ludendorff sometimes viewed the Allied attack as hurting his ability to exert force elsewhere, as in the Italian theater (130), and found British persistence to be depressing (148). Arguably this contributed positively to the cause, as other Allied offensives failed badly during this time, Nivelle's and Kerensky's in particular. And yet the Allies failed to effect a breakthrough, despite gaining some ground, and they suffered horrible casualties

Evan's Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory is therefore useful but does suffer from some problems. It lacks any footnotes, and instead asks readers to write in for sources (ix)! Furthermore, the maps—ah, how frustrating they turned out to be. On the one hand I'm delighted to see so many of them, around 20, in a short book. Unfortunately nearly all are period maps, lovingly reproduced, but not always helpful. Some of the originals were clearly huge, and suffer too much data compression by being crammed onto a half page (the two on 143 might be the worst examples). Several original sketch maps do serve well enough (74), but others are more useful as glimpses into commanders' thinking, and less as aids to the reader.

As for Evans's conclusion, it feels persuasive to me, especially in the larger geopolitical context, and given the Allied learning curve with new technology and tactics. Recommended for any student of the Western Front.

Bryan Alexander