World War I was a stage for many battles, big and small. Often overlooked or overshadowed by the more famous battles taught in the classroom, the fighting on the Italian Front proved to be very important for Italy’s reputation as a country and its inhabitants. It led to a significant loss of life, the absorption and reclamation of new territories, domestic unrest, and new alliances… for a while.   Georgie Broad introduces World War One's Italian Front.

Italian Alpini troops in 1915. From the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Italian Alpini troops in 1915. From the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Italy enters the war… But only just

In the years leading up to World War One, Italy had been allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, a group more commonly and widely known as the “Triple Alliance”. Italy and Austria-Hungary had canonically be considered foes since 1832, and this tension showed in the August of 1914 when the Italian Government refused to enter the war alongside Austria-Hungary, and politicians began to consider the advantages of backing the Allies.

Many at the time, citizens and people in power alike, believed that Italy’s entering into the war at all was a bad move for the country. Even so, Italy as an entity was a relatively new nation state, becoming a unified country only after the
Risorgimento in the nineteenth century, and as a result, it was eager to establish itself on the European political scene as a force to be reckoned with. This ambition was all very well and good, though compared to other European powers (especially the countries Italy would be fighting should it enter the war), Italy lacked major industry. Most of its economy remained agriculturally based. But most importantly, it lacked a competent military. Such was the indecision that two groups formed – the “neutralisti” (who wanted to stay out of the war and who formed a majority), and the “interventisti” (who wanted Italy to enter the war). After much debate, those who wanted to enter won the debate, helped by the backing of Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino. With the promise of territorial expansion and resources from Britain, on May 3, 1915, Italy ceased to be a part of the Triple Alliance, and 20 days later declared war on Austria-Germany.

 

Early battles on the Italian Front

Fighting along the Italian Front was comprised of several battles, many of which took place in the Isonzo region. As was widely suspected, the Italian Army proved to be militarily inexperienced, leading to Italian officers overcompensating for their lack of military prowess with risky and overly aggressive tactics. Despite the fact that the Austrians were heavily outnumbered, the early battles in the Isonzo region lasted over two years and caused a significant loss of Italian life. As unequal as the number of troops was, the armies eventually reached a stalemate and the battles bogged down to the most base trench warfare.

 

Meanwhile, on the home front….

This turn of events made the controversial Italian involvement in the war even more unpopular, causing the already angry neutralisti to start saying “I told you so”. This attitude started to spread to the wider Italian population from Pope Benedict XV to the poorer citizens living in the small, far flung foothills of the country. While disapproval from the Pope was damning enough, it was in fact the unrest among the average citizen that caused more problems for the Italian war effort. Rumors of the lack of progress and high death rate began to spread around Italy, fuelling opposition in the population. It also led to the refusal of some to enlist and the rejection of conscription. Meanwhile, desertion in the army itself reached its highest ever level.

Such a high level of opposition eventually forced the awkward resignation of Italy’s Prime Minister and former avid supporter of Italy’s entry into the war, Antonio Salandra. Salandra was replaced by the ageing Paolo Boselli, which turned out to be a rather bittersweet progression. Boselli was the political equivalent of beige paint; he possessed no immediately obvious initiative, charisma, or talent – but he was a safe bet. He was not exactly the morale boost Italy needed, but any leader was better than no leader at all.

 

Later battles and victory

After the early battles that took place in the Isonzo region led to a stalemate, Italy’s bullish officers got tired of waiting and launched a counteroffensive in 1916, known as the Asiago Offensive. Alas for the Italians, this offensive resulted in no real gains.

However, the situation did improve with time. Later in 1916, fighting continued in the Isonzo and eventually the Italians captured the town of Gorizia. This was exactly the shot of morale that the Italian Army so desperately needed. From then on, victory for the Italians seemed a more realistic prospect, and in 1918, two vital battles occurred that secured the Italians victory for good. The Battle of the Piave River left Austrian troops in dire need of supplies and Italian troops in grave need of reinforcements (which eventually came from Britain, France, and the USA). After Italy received reinforcements, Armando Diaz – an Italian general - launched an offensive over the River Piave on Vittorio Veneto. This attack crushed the Austrian defensive line, resulting in an eventual truce flag being sent to Italian commanders on November 3, 1918, along with Austrian requests for peace terms. It was accepted, and fighting along the Italian front ceased.

 

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The Christmas Truce is one of the few positive events of World War One that is still widely remembered today. Here, Rebecca Fachner explains what happened during Christmas 1914, and how soldiers on different sides in the war showed their common humanity.

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   Frohe Weihnachten und glückliches Neujahr (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in German). From a festive World War One card.

Frohe Weihnachten und glückliches Neujahr (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in German). From a festive World War One card.

The Christmas season is now upon us, and with it, the true story of a true Christmas miracle, the Christmas truce in 1914 in the midst of World War One. 

The beginnings of World War I have already appeared in this space, and by December 1914, Europe was 5 months into the most brutal warfare that anyone could remember. It seemed that humans lost control and that the world had been turned upside down. Everyone was now realizing that they were in for a long war. Gone were the predictions of a 90-day war, of easy victory, heroism and bravado. As December began, troops on all sides grasped that boasts of “home for Christmas” were not going to be anywhere close to a reality.  All sides were beginning to understand that they were enmeshed in a protracted battle, and that it wasn’t going to remotely resemble their pre-war dreams of glorious battles for king and country.  This conflict had been and would continue to be brutal, degrading and all but unbearable.

By December troops were dug in along the Western Front in trenches that stretched for miles, staring down the enemy in their own trenches. In between was a no mans land of barbed wire and dead bodies. Trenches were typically between 90 and 275 meters (100 to 300 yards) apart, so the enemy was very much within visual range. The week before Christmas British and German troops began to exchange season’s greetings, and sang Christmas carols together. In some places, troops began to actually go into no mans land to give gifts of food, cigarettes and souvenirs. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many troops ventured out of their trenches to greet their enemies, converse and enjoy holiday cheer.  Some used this as an opportunity to recover bodies that had been left in no mans land, and there were reports of several joint burials.  In many places, however, the celebration was much more lively, and shared meals were reported, as well as several soccer (or football in British English) games.  Most of the football games were comprised only of allies, but here and there along the front, enemies came together to organize football games together.

British and German troops together during the 1914 Christmas Truce. December 26, 1914.

British and German troops together during the 1914 Christmas Truce. December 26, 1914.

 Different truces

The name for it, the Christmas Truce, implies some sort of official truce or formal recognition of the events, but in fact there was really nothing of the sort.  These truces were in no way official, nor were they encouraged or even sanctioned by the command structure of either side. Rather they were spontaneous demonstrations of Christmas cheer from troops who had a desire to put down their weapons and celebrate with their enemies.  The truce did not encompass the entire Western Front, it was much more individual and grassroots led.  Some units did not observe a truce at all; in fact, in some places there was fighting over the Christmas period.  In some areas the Truce was little more than a completely informal ceasefire for the day, nothing formal, just an observance of the holiday.  Others used the opportunity to collect their unburied dead.

It must be said that the Truce was mainly between the British and the Germans on the Western Front.  The French did participate, but to a much lesser degree, possibly because the Germans had actually invaded their country. There was even a Christmas Truce in the East, which looked very different when compared to that in the West. In the East, Christmas celebrations were complicated by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated later, in early January. The truce in the East was more formal, too, with the impetus coming from somewhere in the Austrian military hierarchy.  The Austrians had the idea for a ceasefire, and the Russians responded positively, and so the Austrian army was ordered not to fire unless provoked on Christmas.  One unit in Galicia even brought a Christmas tree into no mans land, and in several places the two sides met to exchange gifts of schnapps and food. A few days later, when the Russian troops celebrated Orthodox Christmas, Austrian troops held their fire to allow the Russians to celebrate.

 

Christmas 1915

The Christmas Truce was not received as well by the military hierarchy on the Western Front. Both sides independently agreed that the Truce had been an inexcusable breach of military discipline, and a frightening opportunity for significant fraternization with the enemy. Military command was worried that the Truce was a tacit renunciation of the war and of non-cooperation by the enlisted, while it gave troops the opportunity to humanize their enemy. For this reason, Christmas 1915 looked very different, with many commanders forbidding fraternization, and some even ordering raids and artillery bombardments specifically for Christmas. There were very small-scale attempts at a truce in 1915 and later, but they were largely unsuccessful. 

The Christmas Truce of 1914, 100 years ago this Christmas, is a wonderful example of the human spirit triumphing over the brutality of war. It provides an all too rare glimpse into the human side of World War One, something apart from the killing and suffering.

 

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Now, you can read Rebecca’s article on how World War One’s Eastern Front differed from the Western Front here.

In spite of the fact that they were constructed centuries before the start of World War One, Medieval castles had a role to play in that war. The grand old structures were useful defensive locations and could be used to attack the enemy. Here, Rowena Hartley tells us the story of two castles in southern England and how they were used in World War One.

 

The First World War saw a great change in British society as the population, economy and industry were mobilized more than ever before. Yet it was not only the modern parts of society that were affected. Like many countries in Europe, Britain is dotted with the remains of old castles and forts that had been specifically made for defending and housing the troops from as early as the Middle Ages. With the threat of invasion from Germany, these old castles once again came into use as a place to house troops and mount defensive operations. 

St Mawes by J.M.W. Turner, circa 1823.

St Mawes by J.M.W. Turner, circa 1823.

The south coast of England was naturally viewed as the most vulnerable to invasion as it lay closest to France. Therefore the southern ports and estuaries had to be defended against potential attacks. If they had fallen this would have given the Germans a safe place to harbor their ships; and in the case of an estuary, a river that could lead them to cities and strongholds further inland. Given the history of Britain, many of these ports have been the sites of vicious battles in the past and so were tactically significant for the same reasons they were in WW1.

The castles of Pendennis and St Mawes lay either side of the River Fal in Cornwall, South West England. Together they are a perfect example of how castles were repurposed from the medieval era to suit the purposes of modern warfare.

A twentieth century gun in front of the Tudor Pendennis Castle. Author's image used with author's permission.

A twentieth century gun in front of the Tudor Pendennis Castle. Author's image used with author's permission.

Pendennis and St Mawes under the Tudor Kings

In the mid-16th century England was faced with the threat of invasion from continental Europe, although in that time it was from the Catholic countries of France and Spain. The Protestant king, Henry VIII, needed to have military buildings which could match his taste in powerful enemies; this led to an explosion in military spending and castle building especially along the south coast.

Pendennis and St Mawes were built from 1539 to 1545 with a central fort and gun tower to hold the cannons and a small garrison of soldiers. These types of castle were known as Device forts or Henrician castles; this meant they were comparable to the machine gun nests of trench warfare -good for killing at a distance but not easy to defend at close quarters. The cannons housed in Pendennis and St Mawes were capable of shooting half way across the River Fal so access to the estuary was near impossible without a ship incurring serious damage, especially as St Mawes was built in a clover-leaf pattern so that it could target as much of the estuary as possible. Yet the castles were vulnerable to an attack from the land, especially when compared to vast fortresses and towns of Europe that could survive sieges of months (such as Boulogne in France which withstood Henry VIII’s attack from July to September 1544).

Throughout the Medieval era there were various advances in castle building and naturally each country attempted to keep up with such advances. The greatest advancement of the 16th century was the creation of Trace Italienne, also known rather less impressively as star castles.  As the name suggests these castles were built without the straight squares or rounded curves of previous designs but rather with triangular walls that jut out from each other meaning that there were no blind spots for the guns as each triangle of the star could be seen and shot at from another of the triangles. In siege warfare this meant that the enemy could not use battering rams on any part of the castle without being victim to near constant attack.

After the death of King Henry VIII his Protestant successors, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, also suffered from the paranoia that the country would be invaded by the powerful Catholic countries. This meant that they began to adapt Henry’s castles to accommodate these architectural advancements. The cloverleaf design of St Mawes meant that it was already relatively well equipped for such warfare but Pendennis’ close central fortress was relatively vulnerable. So at the end of the 16th century Pendennis was redesigned to accommodate the technological advances. The central fortress largely remained unchanged in design but a new outer wall was added in the distinct star castle shape and a moat was dug with the excess earth being used to add height and padding to the outer fortifications. The castle was now able to defend the River Fal as well as survive an attack from the land.

The later Pendents buildings, where World War One and Two soldiers' barracks were located, taken from the castle barracks. Author's image used with author's permission.

The later Pendents buildings, where World War One and Two soldiers' barracks were located, taken from the castle barracks. Author's image used with author's permission.

Testing the Fortifications

However, unlike the castles of Europe (especially Italy where the Trace Italienne originated), English castles were rarely fell victim to sieges. It was only truly Elizabeth’s vastly expensive fortifications at Berwick-Upon-Tweed that defended the border between England and Scotland that actually tested the star castles on British soil. Although Elizabeth’s successor effectively united England and Scotland leaving this vast castle practically pointless other than as a testament to the expensive military tastes of the Tudors.

Therefore it was not until the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 that Pendennis and St Mawes were tested, as they were Royalist strongholds supporting King Charles I against the republican Oliver Cromwell. The more recently developed Pendennis castle survived a 3-month siege and only surrendered when the men ran out of food. However, St Mawes failed to play to the castle’s strengths; instead the commander, believing that the republicans would attack by sea, aimed all of his guns towards the River Fal only to find Cromwell’s men knocking on his gates after a highly successful land attack. Despite their failure in the Civil War, no further changes were made to either castle, as they were believed equal to their role of defending their corner of the south coast.

From the 17th century to the early 20th century there were not too many serious threats of invasion, but Britain managed to successfully aggravate the majority of countries in Europe and beyond, which was enough cause to keep a small garrison to man both castles in case of invasion. No great changes were made to the outer fortifications but the insides of Pendennis castle were modernized in the Georgian era, especially as Falmouth, the port town at the foot of Pendennis castle, was benefiting from trade in the British Empire. St Mawes remained largely untouched and while Pendennis stands apart on a hill side the smaller sister castle is almost obscured by the residential buildings running up to its gates.

 

St Mawes Castle from the River Fal. Author's image used with author's permission.

St Mawes Castle from the River Fal. Author's image used with author's permission.

Improving and Rearming

Since the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England had not faced too many serious threats of continental invasion and so, despite the events of the English Civil War, the castles of Pendennis and St Mawes had not been updated to deal with more modern weaponry. This changed with the outbreak of the First World War; although the Germans never landed on British soil the fear of naval attack was very great. Naturally new and purpose built defenses popped up in reaction to the First World War, such as trenches and “Pillboxes” (small camouflaged huts made of stone which provided a hidden shooting space). Yet, however newly built these defenses were, they were still basically lumps of stone and mud which were far less purpose built than the great defensive structures of the 16th century.

So why take the time to build new defenses when you live in a country dotted with well-fortified and highly serviceable castles in key tactical locations. Pendennis and St Mawes, as well as countless other castles across Britain and Europe had stood for hundreds of years and it is testament to the original architects and tacticians that very little was done to change them to suit the very modern First World War.

St Mawes saw no great structural changes. Machine guns and modern artillery weapons were installed and aimed across the River Fal to deal with any naval threat, and many of the old canons still remained in its grounds during the war. Deeper trenches were cut along the outside fortifications, although whether these followed previous patterns is unclear, and an old gunpowder store was then filled with the shells and bullets common to modern warfare. Across the river far greater changes were under way Pendennis was the command center for artillery defenses in West Cornwall and so needed up to date equipment in order to effectively defend the headland. Yet whilst some minor fortifications and underground bunkers were added little else was done to modernize the castle itself. Georgian buildings which stand across from the castle, but within the fortifications, housed soldiers who were being trained before leaving for the trenches of Belgium and France, but even here the buildings were only changed in minor details as this area had originally been built to house a garrison. Further small changes were made upon the outbreak of the Second World War, but after the modernization during World War One, little changed. The castle and barracks housed British and American soldiers who updated a few guns and installed equipment for identifying and firing upon submarines and enemy vessels.

There is a tendency to look upon the First and Second World Wars as revolutionizing warfare. After all, the advances in guns, machine guns and bombs were vast. Yet the centuries-old castles that dot the European countryside were still used to house garrisons and mount defenses. These castles were used to support soldiers as well as protect against gun and cannon fire, making them very useful defensive bases. I wouldn’t argue that they’d survive a modern nuclear attack but the bunkers would make them a far safer bet than nearby settlements. It appears that despite the increasing modernization of warfare, old rules still apply. The recent wars in the Middle East faced as much difficulty as the European empire builders centuries before, no one would invade America without expecting fierce grass roots resistance, and most people know not to attempt attacking Russia in winter. The trenches, tanks, planes and advanced artillery of the First World War may have changed the parameters of warfare but in many cases the scenery remained the same – and only slightly more camouflaged than the grand stone buildings of the medieval era.

 

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References

The Siege of Leningrad and the Battles for Moscow and Stalingrad in World War Two (WWII) are well documented, but very little, certainly in the West, has been written about the Eastern Front during World War One (WWI). Apart from the crushing blows to the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Army at Tannenberg, the Masurian Lakes and the German Army’s march east, the only other battle that ever seems to get a mention is the short lived Brusilov offensive in June 1916.

Here, the author Frank Pleszak returns to the site and tells us about the little known Battle of Vileyka in September 1915.

 

During WWI there was significant fighting and demonstrations all along the eastern front from Riga on the Baltic Sea in the north all the way south to Romania, and once Romania entered the war, right down to the Black Sea. My dad was born and raised in a small Polish village about 100 kilometres east of Vilnius near to Lake Naroch (in what is now Belarus). Though he never mentioned it, there was a huge, and to the Russians catastrophic, battle there in the spring of 1916. It was of such importance that the historian Norman Stone said of it “Lake Naroch was, despite appearances, one of the decisive battles of the First World War. It condemned most of the Russian army to passivity”.

The ‘Battle of Lake Naroch’, the ‘Russian Spring Offensive of 1916’, occurred following the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ when the Eastern Front had settled down into positional trench warfare. It was an ill conceived, poorly planned, and disastrously executed Russian offensive across a front of nearly 100km over a series of frozen lakes and swamplands. Its intention was to bring Vilnius into striking distance in an attempt to draw German troops east and away from their offensive on the Western Front at Verdun. The Russian 2nd Army massively outnumbered the Germany XXI Army Corps, almost 450,000 infantry to 75,000 but suffered staggering losses of more than 120,000 while the Germans lost about 20,000. After two weeks of bloody and futile fighting in the most appalling conditions the battle came to an end with the Russians having only captured a tiny area to the south of Lake Naroch.

Fighting at Ladischky-Bruch during the Battle of Lake Naroch.

Fighting at Ladischky-Bruch during the Battle of Lake Naroch.

Forgotten?

There is almost nothing written about this battle in the west and it is in danger of being lost to history. In a small effort to prevent this happening I have researched the battle from both sides and almost completed a book on the subject that should be published later this year.

Other than the Brusilov campaigns, Russia did have some other battlefield success. In fact in the lead up to the Naroch debacle, the battle for the small town of Vileyka, where the German advance east was stopped and then pushed back is considered by some to be one of the most significant military victories ever achieved on Belarusian soil. There will be a chapter with detailed information in my forthcoming book, but I include a summary here…

 

So, following on from the success at the second battle at the Masurian lakes at the end of February 1915, the German X Army, commanded by General von Eichhorn, after heavy fighting, had by mid-August, taken the strategically important fortress at Kaunas but then found the capture of the city of Vilnius altogether harder.

After regrouping to the north of Vilnius, supplemented with additional reinforcements, von Eichhorn’s X Army bypassed Vilnius and towards the end of August broke through Russian General Radkevich’s 10th Army in the so called Swenziany (Švenčionys) gap. Elements pressed on east through the city of Postavy towards Hlybokaje, but the bulk of the force headed south-east towards the City of Maladzyechna (Molodechno) and the primary objective; the city of Minsk.

By mid-September, amidst stiff opposition, General von Garnier’s VI Cavalry Corps (H.K.K.6.) had captured the towns of Vileyka and Smorgon. The 3 Cavalry Division moved on towards Maladzyechna, some units even approached the west of Minsk, and others had penetrated to the east of Minsk and attacked a bridge along the Beresina River south of Borisov. Stavka, the Russian high command, were clearly concerned. Not only was Maladzyechna an important railway cross roads but it also contained important secret government and military installations. 

German cavalry attack at Vileyka.

German cavalry attack at Vileyka.

On 17 September, as the German X Army began to surround Vilnius, Russian forces were withdrawn and the city ceded to the Germans. But as the German Army marched east their supply lines had increased and become severely stretched. Russia’s had shortened and their material losses were made good from increased production at home together with supplies from France and England. The Russian 2nd Army, devastated at Tannenberg and then obliterated at the Masurian Lakes, had re-formed and re-grouped, and under General Smirnov were given the ‘honour to finally halt the German advance’.

 

Back on the front foot

The H.K.K.6.’s rapid advance had left them vulnerable. Whilst they had easily crossed the rivers, streams and swamps their infantry and artillery support struggled over rivers with bridges blown up by the retreating Russians. The Russian 10th and 2nd Armies struck back, and immediately halted the German advance before Maladzyechna, and then pushed them back north along a 40km stretch of the River Wilja from the town of Vileyka to Milcza where they were slowly reinforced with advanced infantry units of the 115 Infantry and eventually 75 Reserve Divisions.

Extent of the German X Army Advance East.

Extent of the German X Army Advance East.

By 22 September the town of Smorgon between Vilnius and Maladzyechna had been recaptured by a combination of a Russian 10th Army offensive together with Russians withdrawing from Vilnius. The Germans were exhausted and hungry, most of their artillery and supplies of food and munitions were still far behind their front. The Russians counter-attacked at Vileyka. Smirnov’s 27th Army Corps commanded by General Balanin had moved into positions to the south of Vileyka along the southern bank of the River Wilja and bombarded German positions. At 16:00 an infantry company supported by a machine gun company attacked across the railway bridge south of the town, scattering the German defenders that enabled two companies to ford the river and through the night occupy high ground to the southwest of the town.

By the early morning of 23 September all the Russian artillery, including two heavy batteries, had assembled to the south of Vileyka and by the same time further infantry had crossed the Wilja near the village of Olszyna just to the east of Vileyka causing a distraction to the German defences. Taking advantage, a further three infantry brigades were moved quickly from reserve to consolidate the breakthrough.

Russian Artillery.

Russian Artillery.

The Germans regrouped and counter-attacked the positions to the south and west, but even more Russian Infantry was brought up to assist. The German action was brave but futile and by mid-afternoon as the Russians massed ready to storm Vileyka from the south, southwest and west of the town the Germans stubbornly repeated their attacks. At 16:00 massed Russian artillery began bombarding the outskirts of the town and at 16:30, as the wooden houses burned, Russian Infantry moved forward from the south. Within minutes they had driven the Germans back towards the centre of the town. Fierce hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting took place at almost every building but by 17:00 the centre was under total Russian control. Dogged German resistance prevailed around the cemetery and at the nearby prison but with the assistance of targeted Russian artillery the fighting quickly moved to the northern outskirts where a German howitzer was captured. The Germans fought desperately to recover the lost gun but Russian support arrived and repeated German attempts failed.

Russian Map of attack (original dates in Julian format).

Russian Map of attack (original dates in Julian format).

At the same time Russian units moved, largely unopposed, around the west of the town preventing any German withdrawal to the west. Fighting within Vileyka concentrated along the northern perimeter and particularly around the railway station where a furious firefight erupted with the station changing hands several times. More Russian units moved in from the southwest and eventually cleared the remaining resistance around the cemetery before moving to the northern edge of town where they helped capture the station.

 

The closing stages

20 kilometres to the east at the village of Sosenka Russian cavalry failed in an attempt to capture the bridge over the River Wilja that was guarded by a single company of 80 German defenders. But nearer to Vileyka Russian infantry had crossed the Wilja around the village of Kasuta and within 4 hours had forced the German X Army back along the road towards the town of Kurzeniec, capturing the villages of Kaczanki, Hrycuki, and Kłynie together with several light field guns in the process.

Further Russian infantry crossed the Wilja capturing the villages Chołopy and Małmhy on the eastern outskirts of Vileyka. The remaining Germans were surrounded on three sides and their support was too far back to assist. Their position was hopeless so during the night all remaining units were withdrawn to new positions north of Vileyka around the village of Wołkowszczyzna.

The battle for Vileyka was effectively over. The Germans, overstretched without supplies, exhausted and hungry, struggled on for a few more days but with increasing demands from the Western Front it became clear that the prospect of any further German short-term progress to the east was unrealistic. On 25 September General von Hindenburg ordered a halt to the advance east, withdrawal of all the forward troops along the River Wilja back to positions around Lake Naroch, and for the establishment of permanent defensive lines (Dauerstellung) which were developed through the winter of 1915.

Isolated but bloody fighting erupted periodically in sections along the whole of the new front through the winter and early spring of 1916. Both sides continued to build up their forces and prepare for battle, but neither were prepared for the onslaught that eventually came in the March of 1916. The Russian success at Vileyka was not to be repeated; in fact, despite overwhelmingly superior forces they were so badly beaten that the consequences were drastic and far reaching…

 

 

Frank Pleszak has written a book about his father’s journey from near Lake Naroch via the GULags of Siberia to England entitled Two Years in a Gulag.

It is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

You can also hear an excerpt from the book in our related podcast here.


Frank has also almost completed a book on the Battle of Lake Naroch. His YouTube presentation is here. He is working on a history of the Polish 2nd Corps – Anders Army. Finally, Frank’s Twitter handle is @PolishIICorps.

World War One broke out 100 years ago in the summer of 1914. So to commemorate the Great War we have a created a special World War One issue of History is Now magazine. The new issue of our interactive magazine features a wide range of articles about that war, plus a few extra surprises…

The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now.

Click here for information on the iPad/iPhone | Click here for information on Android

Here is what our editor has to say…

It was 100 years ago, in the summer of 1914, when declarations of war were made in the most destructive war that the world had ever known. This war was of course World War One. It was not known in August 1914 that fighting would go on for over four more years and claim millions of lives. Many expected that the war would be over by Christmas, but they were ever so wrong. This issue of the magazine is a Great War special, with a particular focus on personal and original stories. After all, most of us are surely familiar with the political and military history of this war.

We start with a tale that began with a photograph of a soldier and how one historian then traced back her roots. She shares a fascinating story of a band of troops in World War One with us. Then we go further afield to the most powerful woman in the British Empire during the war years, Gertrude Bell. She played an immensely important role in the Middle East in the period. We follow this up with a short article about the roles that the closely linked European royal families of the time may have played in fomenting World War One. It is a quite original viewpoint.

This issue is not just about the Great War though. There is an article on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famed fireside chats and how they helped rouse the US out of the Great Depression and on to victory in World War Two. On a different note, we take a look at segregation in the US and how events turned violent in one particular town following a decision to desegregate schools in 1970.

Then it is back to World War One. We have a podcast on a president who fought in the war, Harry S. Truman, although he was to play a more important role in events some thirty years later. We also consider the motivations that different people had in joining the war as part of an article by an author of a book on the conflict. Finally, we share an original and fascinating exhibition that is taking shape. The exhibition will commemorate the 1916 Battle of the Somme through the letters of one particular soldier.

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With all of that, I’m sure that you will enjoy this month’s History is Now magazine.

Click on one of the links below to enjoy the magazine today…

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George Levrier-Jones

The Eastern Front in World War One is often largely unknown to many Westerners. The situation there was quite different to that on the Western Front. Here, Rebecca Fachner follows up on her articles on Royal Family squabbles here and the spark that caused war to break out here.

 

The 100th anniversary of the first summer of World War One rolls onward, and with it commemorations of battles that everyone in the Western world seems to know instinctively - the Marne, the Somme, Ypres…  The war on the Western Front is very much alive in the Western consciousness, but what is so often forgotten is that it was actually a two-front war in Europe. Germany was not only fighting in the West against the French and British (and eventually the Americans), but also in the East against the Russian Empire.

Russian troops on the move to the front line. From National Geographic magazine, volume 31. 1917.

Russian troops on the move to the front line. From National Geographic magazine, volume 31. 1917.

As a fighting force, the Russian Empire was extremely contradictory. They were a formidable foe, but at the same time a very worrying ally. Their one huge advantage in warfare was the sheer numbers of troops that they had at their disposal. It was truly a staggering amount of men, millions upon millions of Russian troops, a “mass of bodies ready to bleed” in the words of one historian of the period.[1] The main disadvantage for the Russians was everything else. The army had miserably poor leadership, was woefully underfunded and was technologically backward. In the years before the war, the Allies, especially France, had spent enormous sums of money trying to improve Russia’s technological capability.

Railroads had been a particular target, as the movement of troops to the front as quickly as possible was of paramount importance. France knew that German war plans hinged on Russia’s inability to mobilize their troops and so planned on attacking France first, then moving on to Russia only after the French had been defeated. Therefore, if Russia could respond more quickly, and force Germany to divert troops in their direction earlier, so much the better for France.  Their efforts did do some good, but not enough, as was painfully demonstrated in the opening days of the war. It took weeks for the Russians to assemble a fighting force along the German and Austro-Hungarian borders.

 

DIFFERENCES WITH THE WEST

Russia began the war by invading eastern Germany. It was able to do so as Poland was not an independent country at this time meaning that Russia and Germany were contiguous. The first major engagement of the war was the Battle of Tannenberg, which was a resounding defeat for the Russians. The next week at the Battle of Masurian Lakes, the Russians were pushed back further, and would not fight on German soil for the remainder of the war. Despite the inauspicious beginnings, the Russians did enjoy some success, particularly against Austria-Hungary in the fall of 1914. By 1915, however, the Germans had made the Eastern Front their top priority and began to hurl troops at the Russians, managing to turn the tide of the eastern war permanently in their own favor. Russia never again enjoyed a significant advantage.

The geography of the war in the east was very different when compared to the west. Rather than a compressed front line, the Russians and Germans were eventually fighting over an area of more than a thousand miles. This spread the fighting, placing a much larger burden on military supply chains than in the west, and making Russian transportation problems an even bigger issue as they began to have supply problems soon after war broke out. One small, seemingly trivial problem added to the frustration, namely that Russian railroads were, and still are, on a different track gauge than parts of Europe further west. Railroad tracks in Europe (and almost everywhere else) are 4 feet 8 inches apart from each other, but in Russia the tracks are 5 feet apart. This means that trains from Europe don’t work in Russia and vice versa; to this day, if you are travelling by railroad into Russia it causes delays at the border. This created all kinds of chaos for supplying both armies and moving troops. All told, it generally slowed down the war in the east. Additionally, because the front line stretched over so large a territory, trench warfare, something that is so closely associated with the war in the west, was not a factor in the east. There was no need for trenches, as the armies had so much more room to maneuver.

Another significant and often remarked upon problem for the Russians was the personality of the men making the key decisions. Tsar Nicholas was a weak and largely ineffective leader, and enjoyed far too much command authority for a person with limited military experience. His two top commanders, Grand Duke Nicholas and Minister of War General Sukhomlinov, hated each other and constantly tried to undermine the other, often to the detriment of their command.  One of those commanders, it must be said, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich, was an extremely dedicated and able military commander, frustrated by the duplicity of his counterpart and the ineptitude of his boss.

 

THE TSAR TAKES CHARGE

This was not a recipe for success, and as the Russians continued to lose, blame was shifted around and around the command structure. Eventually the Tsar, frustrated and exasperated, decided to move to army headquarters to take personal command of the military. He hoped that his presence would inspire both the troops and the command structure and turn the tide of the war. On the face of it, this was not as poor a decision as it turned out to be, and at least the Tsar’s heart was in the right place, so to speak. Unfortunately, Nicholas’ presence had the opposite effect, and he was blamed by many for every single thing that went wrong with the war from that point on. This severely undermined his authority, not just with his army but also with his people, who had previously believed that the Tsar was close to divine, and blamed all the military failures on his generals. With his very visible presence at the head of his army, Nicholas was exposed as ineffective and weak, and the Russian people had no choice but to blame him for the manifest failures of his strategy.

Compounding the Tsar’s image problem was that he had left his wife in control in his absence. Empress Alexandra was dangerously unstable, and extremely unpopular, partly due to her association with the monk Rasputin; it was widely thought that she was under his direct control. Alexandra quickly assumed many of the governmental duties that her husband had left behind, which was very unfortunate, as she had little political acumen and no experience in government. What she did have was an unshakable faith in Rasputin, and a stubborn refusal to grasp how widely he was mistrusted and disliked. Alexandra careened from one disastrous policy to another, dismissing competent ministers and replacing them with self-serving yes men. Events continued to spiral out of control, and after years of war and shortages, poor management and an ineffective monarchy, it is actually extraordinary that the revolution didn’t happen sooner.

The Russian Revolution, at least the first one, didn’t end the war. The first Russian Revolution, in February 1917, deposed the Tsar but the Provisional Government that took his place did not want to end the war. Alexsandr Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, had the makings of a political genius, and it is one of the frustrating what-ifs of the Russian Revolution to wonder what he might have achieved, but he was intent on continuing to prosecute the war. This proved to be the undoing of both the Provisional Government and Kerensky, as they underestimated just how war weary Russia was, and suffered the consequences when the Bolsheviks launched the October Revolution, promising, among other things, to end the war.  The Bolsheviks sued for peace, and the Germans forced them to sign a humiliating treaty, ending the war in the east.

 

A clip about the 1916 Battle of Lake Narocz on the Eastern Front is available here on the site.


[1] Massie, Robert Nicholas and Alexandra: the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. P. 302

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Airplanes evolved at a rapid pace during World War I. With this evolution, came a growing number of daredevil pilots who took great risks. Possibly the most daring of them all were the balloon busters, fearless pilots who did an often forgotten task.

 

The First World War was unusual in many ways. One was that, for the first time in military history, the air became a battlefield. No longer were combatants confined to land and sea, now they could exploit the military potential of what in 1914 was a relatively new invention – the aircraft.

The sheer speed at which aircraft evolved from barely more than powered gliders into fully-fledged weapons was staggering. In 1914 aircraft were so fragile and underpowered that carrying even the weight of a machine gun was usually beyond them. By 1918 there existed fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft, while the weapons and tactics had evolved. In 1914 a typical dogfight often consisted of one aircraft from either side with pilots firing their service pistols at each other. By 1918 aircraft were stronger, faster, more agile and carried machine guns, bombs, and rockets. In only four years combat flying evolved from two pilots with pistols using the same aircraft for any and every purpose into fully-fledged air forces with custom-designed aircraft flying and fighting in huge numbers. It was a common theme among those veterans who survived that, by 1918, if there weren’t at least fifty or sixty aircraft involved in a dogfight, it wasn’t a proper dogfight.

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     Belgian pilot Willy Coppens, balloon buster of the First World War.

Belgian pilot Willy Coppens, balloon buster of the First World War.

BALLOON BUSTERS

The fighter aces became heroes overnight, but seldom lived to enjoy their celebrity. Men who became household names at the time are almost entirely forgotten today. Manfred von Richthofen (the famous ‘Red Baron’) lives on as the most famous fighter pilot of all time, but few remember Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, James McCudden, Rene Fonck or Werner Voss. But one elite group of fighter aces are especially neglected today, the ‘balloon busters’.

So who were they, what did they do, how did they do it and what military value did they have? Simply, they specialized in flying high-risk missions behind enemy lines to destroy enemy observation balloons. So high were the risks that many balloon busters attacked either alone or with only one or two fellow pilots. Squadron commanders recognized the extreme risks by making balloon busting missions largely voluntary, although pilots could be ordered to attack balloons if they were proving particularly troublesome to friendly ground troops.

Balloons were highly valued for several reasons. They could hover at high altitudes and monitor enemy behavior, spotting troop movements, new supply and munitions dumps, whether the enemy were stockpiling supplies and munitions, and if they were moving fresh troops forward to defend against an upcoming offensive or mount one of their own. Their other standard purpose was artillery spotting. Gunners often lacked a direct view of the enemy due to distance, weather conditions and geographical factors like ridgelines and hills. To accurately shell enemy targets they needed balloons to literally ‘call the shots’ by spotting where shells landed and directing gunners accurately on to important targets. Balloons were immensely valuable for intelligence gathering and artillery spotting. Protecting friendly balloons while destroying enemy balloons became increasingly important as the war ground on.

 

The targets, enemy observation balloons.

The targets, enemy observation balloons.


DANGEROUS REWARDS

Balloon busters attacked balloons in addition to flying regular combat missions. Nowadays, people thinking of First World War aces usually think about those destroying enemy aircraft, the dogfighters. One thing separating most balloon busters from regular fighter aces was that many of the war’s most famous aces actively refused to attack balloons at all. Manfred von Richthofen never attacked a balloon. Top-scoring British ace Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock scored his first ‘kill’ by destroying a balloon, but found the job so dangerous that he never attacked another. French ace Rene Fonck, top-scoring Allied ace of the war with 75 confirmed kills, never shot down a balloon.

It could also be readily argued that hindering enemy intelligence gathering and artillery spotting was often of greater value than dogfighting, shooting down one or two enemy aircraft if they were lucky and then returning to base. Granted, deaths of famous aces such as Richthofen, Major Lanoe Hawker (himself killed by Richthofen) and American balloon buster Frank Luke caused some damage to enemy morale, but the vast majority of aircrew killed died with little recognition outside of their squadrons, families and friends. Destroying observation balloons had genuine influence on the local progress of the war. Shooting down novice enemy fighter pilots and very occasionally killing a leading enemy ace simply didn’t have the same value.

So how did they do it? They checked reports of balloons sighted behind enemy lines, examined intelligence on enemy defenses, plotted the least-dangerous route to their target and attacked. Fortunately, pilots had some specialist weapons to assist them. These were designed to take advantage of the chronic German shortage of helium, the non-flammable gas often used by Allied balloons. In the absence of helium, German balloons usually used hydrogen but, while hydrogen is lighter than air and as good as helium for lifting a balloon, it is explosive when mixed with air and any kind of flame. Even a cigarette end could cause a hydrogen-filled balloon to explode. The first of these specialist weapons was the Le Prieur rocket designed by French officer Yves Le Prieur in 1915. This was simply a larger form of firework rocket containing a charge of gunpowder and tipped with a sharp iron spike to pierce a balloon just before the gunpowder detonated. Le Prieur rockets were unguided and woefully inaccurate at more than 120 feet from their targets, but they were also the first air-to-air missiles in military history and cutting-edge weapons for their time.

Pilots on both sides also used special incendiary bullets containing phosphorous. The incendiary bullets gradually replaced rockets owing to their greater accuracy and range. Using them, however, carried a particularly nasty risk. Downed pilots whose aircraft were found carrying incendiary ammunition were likely to be summarily shot by their captors rather than taken prisoner. Some pilots carried written orders from their commanders explicitly stating incendiary ammunition was exclusively for use against balloons and not for strafing runs on trenches, infantry columns or other human targets, but this didn’t stop balloon busters risking summary execution - assuming that they survived being shot down to start with. Another specialist weapon, equally likely to incur summary execution, was the phosphorous canister used by flying over a balloon and dropping the canister like a normal bomb. Ground troops had particular loathing for phosphorous canisters and especially for pilots who used them. They carried 20 pounds of white phosphorous and could easily miss a balloon entirely, landing instead among defending ground troops with horrifying results.

 

TACTICS FOR ATTACK

Pilots also developed specialized tactics. They never flew straight and level when attacking balloons, usually preferring a shallow dive at high speed, making a single pass and escaping rather than risk a second attempt. Enemy defenses were usually too heavy for any pilot wanting to survive to attack a balloon more than once. Some pilots favored flying deep behind enemy lines before circling round and attacking from within enemy territory. Enemy gunners often opened fire much later rather than risk a friendly fire incident and pilots could make a single high-speed pass while headed for their own lines, making a successful escape much more likely. On larger-scale raids often involving multiple aircraft and multiple targets, one group would attack the balloons while another remained as ‘top cover’, circling at higher altitude to defend against enemy fighter patrols. Enemy fighters were often assigned specifically to patrol balloons, providing both physical defense and a deterrent to all but the bravest or most reckless enemy pilots.

The frequent fate of would-be aces. Balloon buster Heinrich Gontermann’s Fokker Triplane, destroyed on a balloon busting mission.

The frequent fate of would-be aces. Balloon buster Heinrich Gontermann’s Fokker Triplane, destroyed on a balloon busting mission.

You might think that balloon busting was already dangerous enough without any additional risks. Unfortunately for balloon busters the job of enemy defenders was to make it as dangerous as humanly possible. Balloons were connected to the ground by a winch allowing them to an agreed height and no higher. Heavy anti-aircraft guns used clockwork shells designed to explode at altitudes set by their gunners and gunners always set them to explode at roughly the same height as the balloons they protected. As if heavy guns weren’t bad enough, balloons were almost always held below 3,500 feet, the maximum accurate range of light and heavy machine guns. Balloons were invariably protected by a half-dozen or more machine guns of varying calibers. Infantry were also encouraged to fire rifle volleys at any enemy aircraft diving within range. One weapon particularly feared by Allied pilots was the Hotchkiss 37mm gun firing five shells at once. The shells glowed bright green as they came up in clumps, leading Allied pilots to nickname them ‘flaming onions’.

One particularly nasty weapon was the booby-trapped balloon. These were used by both sides and deliberately left at a tempting altitude for enemy fighters. Instead of a human observer a straw dummy dressed in uniform was placed in the basket. The remainder of the basket was filled with a 500-pound explosive charge detonated from the ground. First World War fighters were immensely fragile by today’s standards and being anywhere near such large explosions frequently proved fatal. The booby traps did occasionally backfire on their users, literally in the case of Belgian ace Willy Coppens. Coppens attacked a balloon that was strangely unprotected by ground fire and, like many pilots before him, didn’t realize the balloon was manned by a dummy until it was too late. Unfortunately for the Germans, the bomb failed to explode while Coppens shredded the hydrogen-filled balloon with incendiary bullets. The bomb-laden basket, now itself thoroughly alight, promptly descended into the middle of the German positions where the impact and fire finally detonated it causing considerable casualties on the ground. Coppens, the highest-scoring balloon ace of the war, regarded it as one of his luckiest escapes while the opinion of the defending Germans is unrecorded. This is probably just as well.

The grave of Frank Luke, probably the First World War’s most famous balloon buster.

The grave of Frank Luke, probably the First World War’s most famous balloon buster.

A DANGEROUS LIFE

Despite the undoubtedly extreme risks, many ambitious young pilots tried their hand at balloon busting. Given its extreme danger and spectacular nature balloon busting was the quickest route to fame and medals for young fighter pilots wanting to make their name. Many died. Some tried it once or twice before sticking to conventional dogfighting and a few made it their specialty. Belgium’s Willy Coppens was the highest-scoring balloon buster of the war. France’s Henri Bourjade, the Royal Flying Corps’ Anthony Beauchamp-Proctor and German pilots like Erich Lowenhardt and Heinrich Gontermann destroyed hundreds of balloons between them. Most famous of all was the American Frank Luke, whose career lasted only eighteen days before his death, during which he destroyed fourteen balloons and also shot down four German aircraft. For ambitious young pilots wanting fame and rapid promotion, balloon busting seemed like the fast track to immortality. For most of them it was really the fast track to their graves.

 

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References

http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/balloon_busters.php

Guttman, Jon; Dempsey, Harry. Balloon-Busting Aces of World War 1. Osprey Publishing, 2005

Shores, Christopher; Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920 Grub Street, 1990.

Hart, Peter: Aces Falling: War Above The Trenches, Phoenix Books, 2008.

Lee, Arthur Gould; Open Cockpit, Grub Street, 2012.

Lewis, Cecil; Sagittarius Rising, Pen And Sword Books, 2009.

 

Image Sources

http://simhq.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/3878426

http://www.sabix.org/bulletin/b28/kerisel.html

http://www.pourlemerite.org/wwi/air/gontermann.html

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9233

Rebecca Fachner continues her series of articles on World War I by looking at how an assassination in an age of assassinations led to the outbreak of one of the most destructive wars of all time. You can read Rebecca’s first article in the series on Royal Family squabbles here.

 

Just a couple of days ago, June 28, marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a city that was then a (reluctant) part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his assassin was Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist who was part of a terrorist syndicate called the Black Hand, who were determined to assassinate the Archduke. It is important to note that some members of the Black Hand were quite closely associated with members of the Serbian government, and it is possible that Serbia knew about and even funded the assassination attempt. At least that is what Austria-Hungary chose to believe in the aftermath of June 28. Ironically, the assassination attempt was almost a complete failure. Several members of the Black Hand were stationed along the Archduke’s tour route, and the first attempt on him was a bomb thrown toward his touring car. The bomb killed several soldiers and onlookers, but did not harm the Archduke or his wife. After recovering from their ordeal, the Archduke and his wife insisted on visiting the victims in the hospital, and as they headed to the hospital their car stalled. Princip happened to be in a café across the street, heard the commotion and seized his moment. 

Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand. By Achille Beltrame and published in the  Domenica del Corriere  newspaper.

Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand. By Achille Beltrame and published in the Domenica del Corriere newspaper.

ELEVATED STATUS

By all rights, neither Ferdinand nor Princip should have gone down in history. The assassination, while of course tragic and potentially politically destabilizing, should have remained an internal Austro-Hungarian matter, making the two men at best a minor footnote in European history. Moreover, it was an age of assassination. In the fifteen years prior to 1914, the kings of Italy, Greece and Spain had been assassinated in addition to the Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Prime Minister of Japan, and the President of the United States. Who outside of their own countries can now identify any one of these men? With so many assassinations taking place in this period, why is it this one that is remembered?

The memory of Princip and Ferdinand looms large because of what followed from the assassination. This particular assassination has gone down in history as the short-term cause of the First World War, setting off a chain of events that led Europe into war. It really wasn’t a cause so much as an excuse; Europe was poised for war, many wanted war, even if they wouldn’t have admitted it, and there had been several incidents in the recent past that almost resulted in war. With Europe primed and ready, it was only a matter of time before something finally sparked a fight, and this was it.

Austria-Hungary was stunned and distraught by the assassination, not unreasonably, but the leadership dealt with their grief and indignation by looking for revenge. Austria-Hungary wanted to make the Serbians pay, and within a month issued a set of demands designed to bring Serbia to heel, and gave them forty-eight hours to comply or risk war. Serbia did not want war, but the Austro-Hungarian demands were simply too intrusive, as they were certainly designed to be, and Serbia rejected the most egregious of Austria-Hungary’s demands. Both Austria-Hungary and Serbia had sought assistance from their much larger allies/protectors, Germany and Russia, respectively, so both knew that if it came to war they would not be fighting alone. Russia, enjoying its role as Slavic protector, actually called for a partial mobilization first, but insisted that it was only a mobilization against Austria-Hungary. Germany begged Russia to halt its mobilization, and then declared war on Russia. Two days later, on August 3, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally, France.

 

THE ESCALATION CONTINUES

Germany was then faced with a serious dilemma, albeit one completely of its own making, as there was no good way for them to invade France without going through Belgium. Germany asked Belgium for permission to march their army through Belgium into France, which seemed from a German perspective to be a reasonable request. Amazingly, the Belgians did not agree, and politely declined to allow a massive foreign army to run roughshod through their sovereign territory. Germany invaded anyway. This alerted the British, who had signed a treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, and Britain declared war on August 4. While this was all going on there were frantic letters and telegrams being written between the major powers, visits being arranged, peace conferences proposed, all in an effort to stop or slow down the march to war.

Three days after Britain declared war, on August 7, the British Expeditionary Force arrived on the continent, and the Battle of the Frontiers began. The Battle of the Frontiers was a complex affair that took place in several stages and ultimately lasted until mid-September. In the East, by contrast, events moved at a significantly slower pace. The Russians were a formidable enemy, but a very slow moving and technologically backwards one, and it took several weeks for their mobilization to be complete. By August 17, the Russians had fully mobilized and began invading eastern Germany. On August 23, the Battle of Tannenberg began, lasting for a week and becoming the first in a long line of humiliating Russian defeats. 

By August 23, therefore, less than two months after the assassination of the Archduke, Europe was completely at war. Germany was dug in on two fronts, and massive battles were taking place on a continent that had been completely at peace less than 60 days prior. And over what? A dead heir to the throne of a middle tier power, some national pride, and several very itchy trigger fingers. There are so many points along this timeline in which events could have conceivably, even plausibly, gone a different way. Austria-Hungary could have reacted differently, Germany and Russia could have stayed out of each other’s way, Germany could have ignored France or forced them to be the aggressor, or Germany could have avoided Belgium and therefore the British.

The likelihood is that it wouldn’t have mattered if things had gone slightly or even very differently; war was virtually inevitable and if this series of events had not brought about a conflict, something else would have done. Nonetheless, one wonders whether Princip, spending the war in his prison cell, felt responsible for the carnage, or if he even realized his role in starting the greatest war Europe had ever seen.

 

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Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

We hear a lot about the male heroes of the frontline in World War I, but less has been written about the women who also served during that war. Women were involved in a wide number of organizations that were essential to the war effort. And in this article, we tell the story of organizations and people from Britain who played essential roles both on and near the frontline. 

World War I heroine Edith Cavell

World War I heroine Edith Cavell

 

It emerged within the first few weeks of the outbreak of war that there was a great shortage of qualified nurses and others who could support with medical assistance in places such as field hospitals. Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses were then sent from Britain to France but had to be over the age of 23. Many lied about their age so they could set out on an ‘adventure’ which proved to be a naïve mistake. Often, many women who ventured across the English Channel returned home as injured and broken as the men who were fighting at the Front.

When the nurses arrived in France life was far from enjoyable. After a long and grueling journey, they found old dwellings, a shortage of food, and uncomfortable surroundings.

Meanwhile, back in Britain many hospitals were set up in country estates; the most famous of these was probably the estate of the Duchess of Rutland and her daughter, socialite Lady Diana Cooper. Lady Cooper was a VAD nurse - when it suited her - if you believe reports from the time. However, this was not a unique case as many privileged and wealthy girls would volunteer for these services and many accounts have been told about how they would spend the day serving tea to the wounded and recuperating soldiers only to return home and have their own tea poured out by the parlor maid!

This was an experience that gave these privileged women a new outlook on life; it brought a whole new meaning to life as they realized that there was a freedom beyond the restrictions of an aristocratic existence. For many this sparked a turnaround in their lives and gave them a new found ambition to do something with their lives – one of the many turning points for the aristocracy during this period in time.

The same would be applied to the less privileged as they realized that they could play roles other than working in factories.

Alongside the VADs, there was another important organization called the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Members of the FANY would go to the Front and set up soup kitchens, drive ambulances, and work in field hospitals. Like the VADs, members of the FANY had to be at least 23. There were no formal regulations that they had to follow but they would salute an officer of rank just out of respect, although this was an optional formality.

Meanwhile, VADs were only human and made mistakes like the rest of us. Many unused to household chores didn’t know how to mop a floor properly, let alone make tea; however, they did more than act as nurses. Some went beyond the call of duty by composing letters home for the injured men. Many soldiers could not read or write so this provided a valuable service on what could always be their final contact with home.

Somebody who went even further beyond the call of duty was Edith Cavell. An experienced British nurse, she travelled to Belgium and whilst tending to the wounded, she also helped Allied servicemen escape to freedom from German-occupied Belgium. She was eventually caught doing this and was court martialed for her actions. Fondly remembered as a patriotic, brave woman, she famously said ‘I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.’ Edith Cavell never received any formal decoration for her efforts before she was executed by a firing squad.

She was just one of the many brave heroines who strived to change lives in whatever small way they could.

 

By Ruth Roberts

 

You can read another article on World War I by clicking here. It’s about the secret underground battle of tunnel warfare.

Our mental image of the First World War usually excludes the army of tunnellers who toiled beneath the trenches. We picture the war in grainy, treeless black and white landscapes or stern portraits of men in heavy uniforms. Mud, trenches, heavy artillery and rows of wooden crosses come to mind, overflown by fragile biplanes and the menace of Zeppelins.

The tunnellers are forgotten. That’s because there are so few photos of a dark, dangerous activity that most contemporary soldiers preferred to ignore.

A more common view of World War I - British soldiers in a German trench during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

A more common view of World War I - British soldiers in a German trench during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

The impact of tunnel warfare 

On June 7 1917 the British attack on the Messines ridge, in south Belgium, began with the detonation of nineteen huge underground explosions beneath the German trenches. Each one literally ripped a hole in the German defenses, making it easier for the advancing British to achieve their objectives.

Every explosion was caused by an underground mine, created by digging a tunnel and then filling it with explosives. When it was detonated, the mine destroyed everything above it.

Around 10,000 German soldiers were never accounted for after the battle of Messines and many of them were probably killed when the mines erupted. The explosions were so loud they could be heard in London, over 130 miles away.

Unexpected and devastating, mines were impossible for the individual soldier to defend against. Because of their work, tunnellers were both respected and reviled.

 

Lochnagar Crater in 2012 - Created by a British mine in 1916

Lochnagar Crater in 2012 - Created by a British mine in 1916

The difficulties of tunnel warfare

Much of the First World War involved fighting over a relatively narrow strip of land running from the Swiss border to the English Channel. Carved up into a web of trenches and dominated by machine guns, going underground was one of the few options for outflanking the enemy.

Both sides dug miles of tunnels. They started from behind their own lines, cut through the rock below no man’s land and ended, or even emerged, below or near the enemy trench.

Sometimes rival groups of tunnellers met, as their paths collided. Short, sharp encounters followed, out of sight, which usually ended in one side blowing up the tunnel. Some of those who fell remain entombed in the passages they helped construct.

The tunnellers biggest enemy was carbon monoxide, the silent killer that also stalked the coal mines where so many had worked before military service. The canary is one of the least remembered of the animals that served the British army, but many died as a primitive, but effective, method of detecting gas.

 

One of the many tunnels under Vimy Ridge

One of the many tunnels under Vimy Ridge

The First World War tunnels today

Sections of tunnel are open to the public at Vimy Ridge in France, where the geology made tunneling easy and prolific. While many passages stretch out across the battlefield towards the enemy, they were also used as accommodation and storage, and some signs of these uses still remain.

In 2011 a major project began to excavate part of the Somme battlefield, at La Boisselle in France. This was one of the most tunneled areas during the First World War and the site is within a stone’s throw of Lochnagar Crater, a deep hole blown in the earth by a mine in 1916 and still very visible today.

The British created twenty-one mines at Messines in 1917 but only detonated nineteen, because the others were outside the area of battle. The locations of the remaining two mines were lost until, in 1955, one went off during a thunderstorm. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But one mine, with the power to gouge a hole in the Flanders countryside, remains undiscovered to this day.

 

By Andrew Knowles

This article originally appeared on Andrew’s site infamousarmy.com, an excellent personal research blog on British military history from 1789 to 1945. Click here to see the site.

 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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