Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Great War: Perspectives on the First World War

The Great War: Perspectives on the First World War (2003) edited by Robert Cowley is a collection of thirty articles taken from The Quarterly Journal of Military History. As a collection of articles, the book does not provide a chronological history, but instead provides a number of stories that the editor believes should be of interest to the reader. This certainly provides a bias that the editor wishes to impose upon the reader.

Unfortunately, the articles are written by historians, mostly college professors, who have never experienced combat and who were not veterans of WWI. As a result, they often make assumptions or draw conclusions that are questionable. The lack of footnotes and references throughout the book is a serious shortcoming for any reader with scholarly interest. It is quite surprising that articles from a Journal, mostly written by professors, would have such a glaring omission.

My Rating: Good (***). The advantage of a collection of articles put together by an editor is that they give the reader a good snapshot of the war. The disadvantage is the depth of each article is not enough to gain a thorough understanding or picture of an event or period.

Origination of Terms

"In 1921, Colonel Charles a Court Repington ... published his war diaries under the title The First World War" (p. xiv).

"The name seems to have originated in the deliberately misleading explanation given to the inquisitive who saw on of the secret machines under wraps and traveling by rail: 'It's a tank.'" (p. 352)

"... 'gone west' was the soldier's phrase" that someone was killed. (p. 477)

Poor Training

"...the British crews, in their determination to achieve the highest possible rates of fire in gunnery competitions, had removed anti-flash devices from the trunks without realizing that cordite flash in the turret labyrinth posed the gravest danger to dreadnoughts. A third of the British battle cruisers would be destroyed as a result." (p. 159).

"... only one pilot in every fifteen has a better than even chance of surviving his first decisive combat--but after five such encounters, his probability of surviving increases by a factor twenty. Only about 5 percent of fighter pilots become aces, and this tiny minority tends to run up large scores at the expense of their less gifted opponents." (p. 260)


"Russian General Aleksei Brusilov ... recognized that the bludgeoning tactics of the Western Front would not work here. He counted on deception and surprise. He would rush his reinforcements not to places where resistance stiffened but to places that showed weakness." (pp. 217-218) "... he picked men for their ability, not their position in society." (p. 219) "Brusilov sadly noted that 'In war, it is no new discovery that a lost opportunity never returns, and we had to learn this ancient truth by bitter experience.'" (p. 226)

"[A] general who had the initiative to see the frontline obstacles for himself--from the rear cockpit of an airplane, a first in the Great War." (p. 244)

"The system of defense from shell holes had the advantage that the enemy's artillery had no recognizable target in the isolated shelters and machine-gun nests. It had to batter a whole area of ground, using an immense quantity of ammunition, instead of a known and easily located trench-line." (p. 352)

"... the Italians, in their 1911-12 war with Libya, were the first to use the airplane as a military tool, primarily for reconnaissance." (p. 257)

"... a [German] reserve captain named Bernhard Reddemann ... began to design, build, and test a number of prototype flamethrowers. ... Richard Fiedler, an engineer from Berlin who had been working on a similar concept. ... Fiedler's designs were accepted by the German Army. " (p. 311)

"[General Erich] Ludendorff's plan called for a fluid, flexible offensive, like an onrush of water sweeping irresistibly forward, swirling past large obstacles to gain territory and maintain initiative. ... 'We chop a hole, the rest follows'." (p. 394) "The spearhead troops--called Stosstruppen, 'storm troopers' ... were instructed to use the contours of the terrain and rush forward in small groups. Command decisions were to be made by officers on the spot, not by some general ensconced miles from the action." (p. 395)

"... the 210mm Pariskanone, with its 118-foot-long barrel, was the most sophisticated weapon of the Great War. The gun put a man-made object into the stratosphere for the first time in history: In its three-minute flight, a shell would reach a height of twenty-five miles, or some 130,000 feet. By the end of the war, modified versions of the gun could reach a distance of 100 miles, a record not exceeded until the 1960s." (p. 405)

"German artillerists had solved the problem of aiming guns accurately at night without registering fire, which had previously announced offensives on both sides." (p. 422)

Poor Leadership

"German leaders at all levels, from the young men in charge of companies and batteries up to the silver-haired commanders of divisions and army corps, were able to out command, and thus outfight, their French counterparts." (p. 36)

"Ivan Bloch, in his work La Guerre Future, published in 1898, had forecast with amazing accuracy that the power of modern weapons would produce deadlock on the battlefield and that the resulting attrition would destroy the fabric of the belligerent societies. Bloch's thesis was widely known and much discussed in military periodicals. But since he was saying in effect that the military was now faced with a problem it could not solve, it was unlikely that many soldiers would agree with him." (p. 12)

"On November 18 [1914] a week after his offensive had shut down [Ypres], Falkenhayn visited the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. He announced that the war could no longer be won and suggested that Germany initiate peace overtures. Bethmann-Hollweg turned him down, in effect pronouncing the death sentence for a generation." (p. 39)

"Max Heinz, A German who served at Vimy (and lived to write about his experience), could not contain his anger: In those days even the simplest infantryman had the feeling that his life was being played with--I can find no other word for this insensate squandering of human lives--in a manner which cannot be sharply enough criticized. Or should we give another name to this kind of leadership which flings company after company into the front line during the most severe bombardment--hunting them to their death without sense or reason?" (p. 71)

"[French] General Charles Mangin ... at Verdun in 1916 his willingness to pitch his division into costly attacks would win him the nickname of 'the Butcher.'" (p. 82)

"... in its continued reliance on these murderous offensives, the French command nearly destroyed its own army." (p. 86)

"The codebreakers had by this time expanded slightly and taken up the quarters in the Admiralty Old Building that soon gave them their unofficial name: Room 40, OB. ...But some of Room 40's effectiveness was lost due to excessively tight control by the director of the operations division, Captain Thomas Jackson. Boorish and self-opinionated, Jackson distrusted civilians' ability to deal with naval affairs and was unpleasant to them." (p. 150)

"No British commander on the scene had the initiative to attack on his own when the position was ripe for plucking, and when Aylmer's headquarters behind the lines was queried by telephone, the orders came back: 'Stick to the program.'" (p. 211-213) Not allowing commanders on the field to make their own decisions led to the British defeat at Kut.

"[General Maurice] Sarrail bombarded his subordinates with messages insisting that fighting spirit would overcome barbed wire. He relieved one general who had the initiative to see the frontline obstacles for himself--from the rear cockpit of an airplane, a first in the Great War." (p. 244)

" ... in the BEF sector there was no doubt that the [Somme] offensive had lost very heavily, so that the overall casualty ratio was around seven to one in favor of the German defenders" (p. 327).

"[General] Haig and the BEF's high command over the years [forced] the infantrymen to walk slowly across no-man's-land while carrying seventy pounds or more, thus offering themselves as easy targets to be mowed down by German machine guns." (p. 330)

"... the most influential military historian [Basil Liddell Hart] of our time would spend the rest of his life elaborating on the original lessons of the Somme. In eighteen days he had seen enough of generals who bungled and missed chances by what he called the rigidity of their own inertia" (p. 348)

"Cavan even persuaded Rawlinson to take a look for himself. At dawn one morning the two generals actually trudged 150 yards or so beyond the frontline wire. Rawlinson agreed that a general attack was impossible. But Haig overruled him. The attacks--and the casualties--continued." (p. 358)

"General Sir Arthur Currie, commanding the Canadian Corps ... his precise, schoolmaster's mind forecast that the assault Haig requested would cost 16,000 casualties. ... the Canadian Corps [had] 15,634 killed and wounded, almost exactly the figure Currie had predicted" (p. 387)

"Haig was a stubborn, inarticulate man, insensitive to the sufferings of others." (p. 396)

"The Marines advanced in massed formations unseen on the Western Front since 1914. Incredulous German machine gunners mowed them down in windrows. ...The Marines eventually captured Belleau Wood, after the French pulled them back and treated the Germans to a fourteen-hour artillery barrage that smashed the place flat. Pershing rewarded Harbord for his incompetence (there were 50 percent casualties) by making him commander of the 2nd Division in place of Bundy, who had stood around during the battle without saying a word while Harbord and Brown made their bloody blunders." (p. 424)

Failure to Meet Obligations

"Italy, which had joined the Entente in May, initially accepted responsibility for protecting the delivery of food and medical supplies to the small Albanian ports where the refugees had congregated. But when it came to the crunch, Italy's admirals were unwilling to risk their ships.

The AEF Fighting Ability

"The U.S. 6th Engineers, who had been building roads and bridges behind the lines at the start of the attack, dropped their shovels and picked up rifles to assist the British at Amiens, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first American unit to engage the Germans on the Western Front." (p. 401)

"In the vanguard were American divisions, fighting under French generals. This little-studied Aisne-Marne offensive proved the courage of the American infantrymen ... over 90,000 Americans were dead or wounded." (p. 425)

"Too often, Americans found their flanks exposed by the failure of a French division to keep pace with their attack. ... The climax of this messy operation was on August 27, when an isolated company of the 28th Division was annihilated in Fismette, on the north bank of the Vesle River. Bullard had tried to withdraw the soldiers--they were the only Americans on that side of the river, surrounded by some 200,000 Germans--but [French General] Degoutte, now commander of the Sixth Army, had revoked the order." (pp. 425-426)

"The intelligence section of the German IV Reserve Corps filed a major report praising the valor of the Marines and predicting glumly that their tactical skill might soon match their heroism: 'The Second American Division must be considered a very good one and may even perhaps be considered as a storm troop. The different attacks on Belleau Wood were carried out with bravery and dash....The qualities of the men individually may be described as remarkable. ...They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries. ...the words of a prisoner are characteristic--We kill or get killed!" (pp. 446-447)

Questionable Conclusions

The author (Cowley) questions the truth of "The Massacre of the Innocents". (pp. 37-49). He presents some good points, and is probably accurate that the event had become a bit of legend rather than accuracy, and I am sure that the Germans needed the propaganda the event provided. However, his criticism of the event is relatively shallow and not scholarly. Cowley fails to establish enough support for his position. A qualified historian would have researched the event more thoroughly in Germany to acquire indisputable evidence.

Cowley also chides the accuracy of the numbers for the Langemarck Cemetery. I have been to that cemetery also, and suggest anyone in the area attend. I think it is well done as the Viet Nam War Memorial in the USA and there are some similarities. Cowley attempt to discredit the number of bodies buried by the fact it comes to "Nine men per square foot" in one area of it. His position is poorly thought out and contradicts the history of WWI. The vast majority of the victims were killed by artillery. Many were left of the battlefield for long periods of time, and therefore subjected to further ravages of the battlefield. The bodies were not originally buried at the Langemarck. They were buried at a number of cemeteries throughout the Ypres area. However, the residents of Belgium were quite angry with the Germans for invading their country and for the war, and they felt the numerous cemeteries were eyesores and lowered the value of their property. Therefore, they required the Germans to inter the numerous bodies into a few relatively small cemeteries, Langemarck being one of them. This was done over ten years after the war and the relative state of decomposition of the bodies had a long time to occur and well as the fact there were very few whole bodies. So while Cowley computes "Nine men per square foot" it probably a very conceivable number given the body parts recovered and over ten years of decomposition.

Cowley further questions the myth of "The Innocents" signing in battle and walking arm in arm. I don't think any serious student of military history would insist that green recruits would be brave enough to sing while walking into an artillery barrage and enfilade machine gun fire. They may have exited the trenches singing for confidence, but once the noise of the battlefield was upon them and the first members of their wave fell, it is obvious the singing would have stopped. So yes, it was an exaggerated claim so the focus of the massacre would not be on the stupidity of the commanding officers, but on the bravery of the young combatants.

Cowley uses the claim the "Innocents" walked arm in arm is false since "how could they carry a rifle" is totally missing the point. So what if they did not walk arm in arm. That is not relevant to the discussion of whether green recruits were naive in their introduction to battle and whether they were signing or not. Cowley also questions the number of "students" killed in the battle, stating "Recent research indicates that only 18 percent were". Of note is that the "Recent research" was not Cowley's, and similar to all of the articles, all facts and claims are devoid of footnotes and references, a minimum requirement for any scholarly publication.

The large number of casualties that occurred at Ypres is well documented. Even 18% of the total being students is quite a significant number. Without adequate reference and discussion about the 18% figure, it is impossible to determine what it included. Does it include only those soldiers who were in college or high school when they joined the army? How about those that recently graduated or dropped out of school. Officially, they are not students, but fall into the same age group. Cowley unfairly characterizes the 6,313 names of youth as only being about 1,000 students. A poor conclusion without adequate basis of fact.

The editor (Cowley) states "It is no accident that many of those responsible for the Holocaust were veterans of the trenches." (p. xiv). This statement shows the editor cannot be taken seriously as a historian. He is trying to justify German WWII atrocities. Hundreds of thousands of American troops had the same experience, but they did not commit atrocities. The editor made a totally irresponsible statement with no basis whatsoever.

The author states "we will never know" whether ground fire or another pilot killed the Red Baron. (p. 283). Unfortunately, the author does not watch the Discovery Channel which investigated all claims and scientifically proved that ground fire from a machine gun provided the lucky shot.

The author states "A speech his staff wrote for him to make at Lafayette's tomb on July 4, 1917, ended with the oratorical high note, 'Lafayette, we are here." Pershing crossed it out and wrote 'not in character' beside it. He let one of his staff officers who spoke good French say it instead." (p. 420) This is contradicted by other history books that state Pershing said he wished he thought of saying it. His staff officer was quite articulate and stole the show. The book, Over There by Byron Farwell (also in this blog) states on page 94: "Charles E. Stanton, a quartermaster lieutenant colonel, who was, as Pershing said, 'somewhat of an orator,' announced, 'Lafayette, we are here!' words later attributed to Pershing himself, who called it a 'striking utterance' and one he wished had been his. I am not sure which report is accurate, but without footnotes and references, it is difficult to support the author's position.

Some interesting facts raised by the authors:

  • "A battalion of Greeks, complaining that they had enlisted to fight Turks, not Germans, had to be forced to attack by Algerian tirailleurs, 'riflemen,' with fixed bayonets." (p. 84)
  • The small German cruiser, the Magdeburg ran aground in the Gulf of Finland and had to be scuttled. Russian Lieutenant Galibin "searched the wreck of the Magdeburg. He found a locker in Habenicht's cabin and broke it open. Hidden deep within it was the German codebook, forgotten in the excitement of the catastrophe. Galibin removed it ... The Allies thus came into possession of the key cryptographic secret of the Imperial German Navy" (p. 149) "...new [German] foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann ... would distract America by getting Mexico to wage war on her. ... He put his proposal into code and cabled it on January 15 via Sweden to the Western Hemisphere. ...The British intercepted the message, and Room 40 deciphered it. [The British] had a propaganda weapon of the first water ... [and] gave it to the Americans. ...The story made headlines in papers all over the nation on March 1. ... Five weeks later President Wilson--who had been reelected just months earlier on the slogan 'He kept us out of war'--went up to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to 'make the world safe for democracy' by declaring war on Germany." (pp. 152-153).
  • Theodore Roosevelt sons, "First Archie, then Theodore, Jr., were badly wounded in the fighting along the river. Ethel's husband, Dr. Richard Derby, had a series of narrow escapes as he worked on the wounded in an aid station just behind the lines. ...Quentin [was shot down and killed] over the Marne ... with two machine-gun bullets in his brain." (p. 299-301) "For soldiers fighting to make the world safe for democracy, the death of a former president's son was symbolic proof that Americans practiced what they preached." (p. 302) "Ted Jr., also served in World War II, earning a Medal of Honor as a brigadier general at Utah Beach on D Day; he died of a heart attack in July 1944." (p. 303)
  • "... a Canadian, Dr. Gerald Bull, entered the international arms market in the 1970s. ... He developed a series of experimental guns ... which succeeded in shooting a projectile 112 miles into low space. ... On March 22, just outside his Brussels apartment, an unknown assassin shot him twice in the head" (p. 409).
  • "Pershing also decided to make an AEF division ... twice the size of an Allied or German division. ... Unfortunately, he did not double the size of the new division's artillery" (p. 419)
  • "General Summerall, by then the commander of the V Corps, [marched] the 1st Division across the front of the 42d Division to get there first. In the darkness and confusion, the 1st Division captured Douglas MacArthur, one of the 42d's brigadiers, who looked like a German officer because of his unorthodox headgear." (p. 431)
  • "I [was supposed to] lead the squad. I kinder think they almost led me." Medal of Honor winner, Corporal Alvin York, had a better idea of leadership than probably anyone in the AEF based on recent studies of successful leaders.
  • "The unreality was underscored by the way you found out that your husband or son had died ... If you were lucky, an official letter or telegram brought you the news. But sometimes you simply glimpsed the name of a loved one on a huge casualty list posted on a city wall, or your last letter to the front came back to you stamped 'Dead--Return to Sender." (p. 477)

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