While examining the past will not allow us to exactly predict the future, we can identify patterns whose parts could prove useful in understanding contemporary affairs. By considering a key cause of World War I, the War of 1866/Austro-Prussian War, we may be able to see similar patterns in present events and forecast how they could shape the future.

Here, Lieutenant Colonel Sean H. Kuester tells us about Germany and the War of 1866, and contrasts this with Russian actions over the last decade.

The Battle of Koniggratz in the War of 1866/Austro-Prussian War.

The Battle of Koniggratz in the War of 1866/Austro-Prussian War.

"We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let's face it, is mostly the history of stupidity." 

-Stephen Hawking

 

Stephen Hawking may be right.  Nevertheless, in an effort to change the would be historical trajectory he describes, let’s take a stab at the past to craft a better future.  For the next year, we will remain in the centennial window of World War I (WWI); one of the greatest man-made catastrophes in history.  As such, it’s appropriate to refresh ourselves on how this momentous upheaval came to pass with a view toward understanding goings on in our own time.

There is quite a bit more to WWI’s causes than the standard fare of rigid mobilization schedules and Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination.  While these explanations capture immediate catalytic events, they neglect less visible yet more significant (in their predictive value) underlying causes.  It is in these underlying causes where the true extrapolative lessons lie and where modern strategists may seek insights for contemporary happenings.  One of the underlying causes occurred 71 years prior; the second war of German unification, also known as the War of 1866.  This seven week clash was in its own time, and remains today, replete with both strategic and tactical portents.

However, rather than being viewed as a singular incident it is better regarded as one of several successive gales in a gathering storm of national intent.  This interconnectedness of events as indicators is a salient lesson.  Given the conflict’s brevity and the fact that it occurred in the wake of the political upheavals of the 1848 European liberalist revolutions, most leaders failed to see the more profound implications of this war.  As a result, one of the foundations for WWI was quietly laid.

Waged between Prussia and Austria over the territory of Schleswig-Holstein, which Prussia and Austria won from Denmark in 1864, this short decisive war resulted in the Prussian state securing hegemony over the German speaking peoples of Europe.  Perhaps more importantly, however, the struggle dampened liberalizing effects born out of the revolutions of 1848, namely broad popular support for more representative style governments.  This dampening effect was combined with Prussian influence gained through battlefield preeminence and breathed fresh life into autocratic rule which would manifest itself ultimately in the visage of Germany’s powerful Kaiser.  The temporal extension of this autocratic system allowed an inordinate amount of power to be placed in the hands of a very aggressive and ambitious few.  While the Prussian victory in 1866 did not represent a tectonic shift in the continental balance of power it did indicate one of the first strategic tremors in the second half of the 19th century in Europe.

Prussia would further unify the German peoples by defeating France in 1870-1871, placing itself at increased variance with the great European powers.  Through degrees, which Europe saw but did not directly contest, Prussia consolidated the myriad German speaking states, subdued its weaker neighbors, appeased larger states and in time carved out an empire that challenged the continental order. Viewed in this light, the War of 1866 was the first major point of departure from German disunity to unity. 

 

Lessons for today?

Are we witnessing manifestations akin to the above scenario today?  The case of a resurgent Russia is instructive.  In 2008 Russia tested the world’s tolerance for her application of force to protect her so called privileged zone of influence when she invaded Georgia.  The world complained, even elevating their outrage to “serious concern,” but did little else. Perhaps the world was not prepared to imagine that only 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia could pull this off.    

Western democracies bogged down in Afghanistan seemed disinclined to affix themselves to another conflict and confirmed their assumed passivity regarding a major force on force challenge on the continent; especially one so far East.  Like the War of 1866, the Russian invasion of Georgia was a whirlwind, lasting only 5 days.  Ending as quickly as it started allowed nations to surreptitiously go back to those affairs occupying them before.  Russia had nimbly reasserted herself on Europe’s political stage.  The aftermath is comparable to the relative calm that enfolded Europe after 1866.  This calm in both cases was, of course, a phony edifice concealing loftier designs.

Six years later Russia annexed Crimea and the world complained again.  NATO complained loudly.  However, three years on Russia still controls the Crimea and has flexed her might in the Middle East as well.  She, like late 19th century Germany, seems single-minded in steadily gathering her strength to become a global force.

 

 

What next for Russia?

Just as the War of 1866 was not the first nor last act of national intent to achieve Germanic unity, we must ask ourselves, where will Russia cast her gaze next?  The West seems to remain fixated on the stalemate in the Ukraine and Crimea and equally as frustrated with Russia’s involvement in Syria.  In spite of Russia’s clear successes in these areas will the west clumsily glower in those directions? With so much NATO effort on the Alliance’s eastern periphery, will Russia truly attempt to expand “Gray Zone” warfare into the Baltics or deeper into the Ukraine?  Or, might Russia pursue something less obvious and less interesting for the West? 

Perhaps an attempt to consolidate her authority in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is the next increment of expansion; Putin commemorated the Russian-Georgia War by visiting Abkhazia this year.  This is clear diplomatic signaling that this region is in Russia’s sphere of influence.  Or perhaps Russia will attempt something still less predictable such as working to tilt Moldova in her direction.  Moldova has parliamentary elections in 2018, and has been a traditional geopolitical halfway point between East and West.  Or possibly Russia will be content expanding her influence east into the Central Asian Republics (CAR) where she can both grow her prestige, increase economic opportunity, and avoid substantial NATO interference while simultaneously frustrating NATO efforts in Afghanistan.

The point is this: much like 19th century Germany, 21st century Russia possesses a long range national vision that certainly has stages and designs western strategists can discern.  The Georgian War, the annexation of the Crimea, and Russia’s enthusiasm in Syria are not random acts of opportunity, just as the War of 1866 was not uncalculated opportunism.  Russia’s next move will be no less premeditated.

 

21st century railways

Inclining back to the War of 1866 with a view toward a phenomenon that resided below the strategic echelon, another observation may serve to reframe current events.  One major feature of the War of 1866 was the growing ability to concentrate troops by rail to achieve mass at a point of one’s own choosing.  In Arden Bucholz’s book, Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871, he concludes that rail usage was one component of a technological revolution in military affairs.  What then is the significance of rail today?

The key factor of rail in 1866 was that it provided a means to rapidly concentrate that era’s defeat mechanism (land power) where it needed to be before the adversary could counter it. The object for modern strategists, however, is to uncover the 21st century’s comparable means that can deliver this era’s defeat mechanism. 

One modern equivalent of this ability to concentrate a defeat mechanism may be found by splicing two rapidly evolving concepts: the swarm attack and cyber warfare.  The potency of cyber warfare is self-evident and on the rise; its working definition is now generally well enough understood too.  A useful initial definition of a swarm attack is provided by Sean J. A. Edwards in his 2004 RAND dissertation, Swarming occurs when several units conduct a convergent attack on a target from multiple axes.” Swarm attacks are generally viewed as being physical attacks, but that interpretation is now incomplete, outmoded and likely on the cusp of shifting.

The railway of the 21st century may be the internet with the coin of the realm being digitized information and operations (think banking data and air traffic control systems) and the ability to message or influence (think online news, social media and email servers).  So how do swarm attack and cyber warfare conjoin together as a defeat mechanism?  Imagine a scenario where distributed cyber operatives (hackers) use the internet to deliver malware.  Envision further that instead of attacking one sector such as happened in 2015 against the Ukrainian power grid, cyber operatives simultaneously attack multiple sub-systems of a larger more complex system.

What if operatives, for example, instantaneously targeted the health system, telecom industry, natural gas sector and electrical grid?  In fact, such a scenario already played out – this year.  The attack began in Europe and spread to over 100 countries.  The motive in this ransomware attack appeared to be the accumulation of bitcoin.  Imagine though, if the motive had been more sinister, with broader and a longer duration impact being the objective.

Digitally delivered defeat mechanisms can be designed to achieve something akin to what the US Army’s Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0, Operations, calls disintegration which is “…to disrupt the enemy’s command and control system, degrading its ability to conduct operations while leading to a rapid collapse of the enemy’s capabilities or will to fight…specifically targeting…command structure and communications systems.” While it is difficult to imagine a state being “defeated” in the classical sense by a cyber-attack it is easy to conceive use of the internet “railway” to “collapse” a state or institutions’ critical capabilities or as part of a broader campaign or preliminary strike.

 

The War of 1866 in retrospective

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.  This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions and thus they necessarily have the same results.”  Machiavelli may have been no less jaded than Stephen Hawking regarding the record of mankind’s past.  He did, however, see merit in studying the past.  This work subscribes to Machiavelli’s outlook that clues to the future can indeed be found in the past if strategists ask the right questions and use their imagination.   Historical patterns often repeat themselves.  World War I was not the result of spontaneous combustion. The fuel for this fire was gathered and plainly stacked for all to see over the course of half a century.

The War of 1866 was a primary underlying cause for WWI even though it occurred seven decades previous.  While it did alter the strategic landscape in its overall result, as a single event it did not make WWI inevitable.  Conversely, if viewed as one rung on a larger German ladder of national purpose and aligned with earlier and subsequent events, the case for a European showdown is strong.   Embedded within the conflicts’ day to day operations innovations such as rail transport gave a marked advantage to the state visionary enough to exploit it.

Comparing and contrasting the War of 1866 and other events that contributed to WWI with the case of today’s resurgent Russia is educational.  Considering how modern technology might be leveraged by a state like Russia is equally educational.  Strategists must constantly engage in these types of academic exercises in the pursuit of “why.”  As Phillip A. Crowl concluded in The Strategist’s Short Catechism: Six Questions Without Answers the future cannot be exactly predicted by studying the past; yet, as Crowl goes on to say, “…the study of history will help us to ask the right questions so that we can define the problem – whatever it is.”

 

What did you think of this article? How are events of the last decade comparable to events before World War One?

 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

In the early days of World War One, the Germans planned to march through Belgium as part of their plan to win the war. The Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up much resistance; however, events did not quite turn out that way. In the second of a two-part article, Frank Jastrzembski continues from part 1 and tells the tale of the heroic Belgian defense of its homeland in 1914…

General Gerard Leman., the Belgian in charge of the defense of Liege.

General Gerard Leman., the Belgian in charge of the defense of Liege.

General Leman set up his headquarters in Liege on July 31, 1914. On August 3, he ordered the destruction of the bridges, tunnels, and railways connected to Liege as the German forces began to flood across the small Belgian border. The next day the German Army of the Meuse arrayed for battle outside the ring of forts. An ultimatum was sent out to allow the Germans to enter Liege. Leman boldly refused the demand to surrender.

The Third Division occupying the trenches between the easternmost forts was attacked by the units of the Army of the Meuse. The German officers arrogantly launched their assault shoulder to shoulder as if organized on a parade ground against the sheltered Belgian defenders. The German assault was cut to pieces with the help of Belgian machine guns placed in the adjacent forts. At Fort Barchon, the Belgians mounted a counter strike and threw the wavering Germans back with their bayonets. The German attackers withdrew bloodied and completely stunned by the dogged Belgian resistance.

The Germans mounted a daring attempt to capture or assassinate Leman on August 6. A detachment of thirty German soldiers and nine officers dressed as British soldiers drove up to Leman’s headquarters. One of Leman’s aides, Major Marchand, soon caught on to the trap and alerted the headquarters, but was subsequently shot down. The surprise German attack carried Leman’s headquarters, but in the confusion Leman escaped to Fort Loncin, west of the city.

 

Closer to Liege

The German high command decided on the realignment of their strategy by focusing on capturing the city of Liege itself. Thousands of German reinforcements were soon flooding to the outskirts in an attempt to make a concentrated breakthrough past the forts into the city. After refusing to surrender once again, Liege was shelled on August 6 by a Zeppelin LZ-1, killing nine civilians. The Germans would become vilified for the atrocities committed against the Belgian population. With enough pressure, there was a breakthrough between Fort Fleron and Fort Evegnee on August 10, putting the Germans in range of Liege itself.

The Third Division was controversially sent to join the main Belgian Army in Louvain. The reasoning behind this move was that it would be better suited if it joined King Albert and the main army rather than being bottled up within the forts and surrounded. The movement of the Third Division to join Albert left Liege with weakened defenses as German reinforcements continued to strengthen their chokehold around the city.

The few Belgians in Liege were eventually forced to surrender the city. Even though the city was in German hands, the forts were still intact, and the guns of the forts controlled the roads coming in and out of Liege. The German’s held Liege with approximately 120,000 men, but could not move in and out of the city without being under persistent artillery from the forts. The Germans could only move undetected at night and in small parties.

In the meantime, the Allies sluggishly reacted to honor their guarantee to protect Belgian neutrality. The French, under General Joseph Joffre, were too infatuated with attacking through Alsace-Lorraine, and were indifferent to the genuine threat on their left in Belgium. The British, who decided on sending an expeditionary force of four divisions of infantry and cavalry, were slow in transporting these men across the channel to help the besieged Belgians.

 

A new weapon

General Erich Ludendorff, the new commander of the Fourteenth Brigade, realized the Belgian forts were not going to surrender even with Liege occupied. He decided on a method other than sacrificing his men in useless frontal assaults. He ordered up some 305 mm Skoda siege mortars borrowed from Austria, and a 402 mm howitzer produced by Krupp steelworks. None of these steel behemoths had been used in combat before. The 402mm Krupp weighed 75 tons and had to be transported by rail in five sections then set in concrete before going into action. It would fire up to ten 2,200 lb. projectiles per hour. It had a range of up to nine miles and was fired by an electric charge with a 200-man crew.

On August 12, the German government relayed another message to King Albert demanding the Belgians surrender. “Now that the Belgian Army has upheld its honor by heroic defense to a very superior force,” the Germans arrogantly indicated, they asked that the Belgians spare themselves from “further horrors of war.” King Albert refused to reply. The massive siege guns were soon unleashed on each fort in succession.

The forts had a major weakness in their design. They were vulnerable to artillery attacks from the rear. The siege guns took two days to assemble, and on August 12, they began to pound the remaining forts in detail.

The massive shells decimated the defending concrete and steel forts and buried the defenders. The forts could not return fire as the German guns were out of range. The defenders of each fort were forced to hunker down and withstand the bombardment. On August 13, three of the forts fell. Fort Pontisse withstood forty-five shells in 24 hours of bombardment before it was taken by an infantry assault. Fort Chaudfontaine surrendered with only 75 out of 408 still alive from the hellish shelling. By August 14, all forts east and north of the city had fallen.

After the eastern forts were reduced, the siege guns were brought up against the forts positioned to the west of the city. Fort Boncelles survived a 24-hour bombardment but soon fell on August 15 leaving little more than particles of concrete and scraps of metal. The bombardment left clouds of poisonous gas. By August 16, eleven of the twelve forts had fallen. Only Fort Loncin remained.

 

The last battle

General Leman had positioned himself in the last standing fort. The bombardment lasted for three days, from August 12-15. In an interval between the bombardments, the Germans sent emissaries under the white flag to try and convince Leman to surrender the garrison. Leman refused all demands. On August 16, Loncin was hit by a 420 mm shell that penetrated the magazine and exploded, demolishing the fortress.

German soldiers then entered on foot after the explosion. The majority of the garrison was buried in the debris, including their commander. Leman later vividly remembered the effects of the explosion as, “Poisonous gases seemed to grip my throat as in a vise.”

Hopeless as the situation was for the Belgians, they attempted to hold on to the fort. The last twenty-five or so Belgian defenders still able to stand were found in a corridor preparing for a last ditch effort to ward off the Germans. In another instance of tenacity, a corporal valiantly tried to drive the Germans back single-handily by firing his rifle in vain with one good arm, as his other arm was dangling wounded at his side. In a show of compassion, the Germans threw down their weapons and ran to the aid of the Belgian soldiers. Of the 500 defenders in Fort Loncin, 350 were dead and 150 wounded.

 

Fort Loncin in the aftermath of the battle.

Fort Loncin in the aftermath of the battle.

The General

The Germans came upon the lifeless body of General Leman pinned beneath a block of stone. “Respect the General, he is dead,” uttered a nearby weeping Belgian adjutant. When it was realized that Leman was actually not dead, his lifeless body was carried out of the fort unconscious by German soldiers to General von Emmich. When he regained consciousness, Leman was said to have proudly pronounced, “It is as it is. The men fought valiantly. Put in your dispatches that I was unconscious.” Moved by his heroic proclamation, General von Emmich replied, “Military honor has not been violated by your sword. Keep it.”

Leman was transported to a prison in Germany. From his prison in Germany, Leman wrote to Albert pledging, “I am convinced that the honor of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts…I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.”

The day after the fall of Fort Loncin, the German Army resumed its march through Belgium toward France. Though unsuccessful at Liege, the Belgian forces had delayed the German advance for two priceless days in its sweep toward France. The German invasion was stopped dead in its tracks on the Marne River on the outskirts of Paris in September of 1914. The chance of a quick German victory faded away and trench warfare began in earnest.

Leman was kept as a prisoner of war until December 1917, when due to his failing health, he was released to travel to France. After the war, he returned to Belgium with a hero’s welcome for his heroic defense of Liege. He retired to the city he was born and fought to defend. He died on October 17, 1920.

Some may argue that the importance of the two-day defense of Liege is inconsequential. However, the Belgians helped to dramatically alter the outcome of the 1914 campaign. The Times of London declared that Belgium earned “immortal renown” by helping to shatter the superstition that the German armies were invincible. Today Fort Loncin is a grave to roughly 300 of those who died and remain buried in the wreckage.

 

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Further Reading

Davis, Paul K. Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges from Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Donnell, Clayton. The Forts of the Meuse in World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Horne, Charles F. The Great Events of the Great War Part Two. Volume II ed. The National Alumni, 1920.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2007.

Meyer, G. J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York City: Delacorte Press, 2007.

Pawly, Ronald, Pierre Lierneux, and Patrice Courcelle. The Belgian Army in World War I. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts. World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006. 

In the early days of World War One, the Germans planned to march through Belgium as part of their plan to win the war. The Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up much resistance; however, events did not quite turn out that way. In the first in a two-part series, Frank Jastrzembski explains the heroic Belgian defense of its homeland in 1914…

The Defense of Liege by W.B. Wollen. Source: available  here .

The Defense of Liege by W.B. Wollen. Source: available here.

All that stood amid the concrete wreckage of Fort Loncin were roughly twenty-five battered Belgian defenders out of the original 500-man garrison. The small portion of surviving Belgian defenders were gathered together in a shattered corridor. Soiled with dust, they stood anxiously clutching their rifles and awaiting the onslaught of German soldiers swarming over the rubble of the once formidable fort. Today a monument stands at the fort celebrating their heroic defense with the inscription, “Passer by... go say to Belgium and France that here 550 Belgians sacrificed themselves for the defense of freedom and the salvation of the world” based on the epitaph by Simonides for the Spartan dead at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC:

Go tell the Spartans passerby,

That here obedient to their laws we lie.

 

Brave Little Belgium

The German invasion through Belgium in August of 1914 was presumed to have been an effortless undertaking. The German soldiers and their officers were stunned by the tenacious defense the Belgians exhibited. The soldiers of the Belgian Army were jokingly referred to as “chocolate soldiers” for the way in which they would melt away in combat from any determined opposition. The Kaiser once said to a British officer, “I will go through Belgium like that!” slicing his hand through the air. However, this gallant little nation shocked and inspired the world with their dogged stand against an enemy invasion force that outnumbered them roughly fourteen to one. “Brave Little Belgium” became a rallying cry around the world signifying a free nation defending their sovereignty against an aggressive German invader.

The Belgian Army was ill prepared to face the juggernaut of the German Army. It numbered seven divisions amounting to 117,000 men, with only 93,000 considered combatants. The Belgian forces in the forts surrounding Liege numbered around 4,500 men, with the mobile Third Division stationed in the city composed of 25,000 soldiers.

The Belgian Army was considered one of the most decrepit armies in Europe. The cavalry still wore early nineteenth century uniforms, with the infantry sporting shakos, bonnets, or bearskins as headgear. In some instances, machine gun crews were drawn behind teams of dogs. What the Belgian forces lacked in size and modern equipment though, they more than made up for in their tenacious willpower to defend their borders.

 

Schlieffen Plan

The neutral nation of Belgium found itself positioned in the center stage of a colossal conflict when the Great War broke out in August of 1914. The German General Staff dusted off the Schlieffen Plan geared to strike a devastating blow to their French enemies. They sensibly anticipated that France would naively concentrate an offensive toward Alsace-Lorraine along the Franco-German border. The German General Staff was delighted when the French proceeded to overextend themselves in this aggressive movement.

While France was preoccupied with this maneuver, the Germans concentrated their soldiers on the opposite side on the Ardennes in an aggressive flanking movement. The heavily wooded Ardennes would shield this movement, allowing German infantrymen to boldly sweep around the French left flank and crash into Paris. The movement would allow them to outflank and strike the French Army from an exposed position. This was a brilliant strategy aimed to end the war with one swift and devastating strike.

One of the many major flaws in the Schlieffen Plan was underestimating the opposition of the neutral nation of Belgium. In order to successfully implement the Schlieffen Plan, German soldiers would have to move through Belgium. This movement would allow for the easiest route to travel through northern Germany into France. An ultimatum was sent out on August 2 with a twelve-hour window to reply. The Germans demanded that the Belgian King, Albert I, grant them military access and allow their infantrymen to march through Belgium uncontested. Albert was skeptical of German intentions, and flatly refused, asserting that if they entered Belgian territory their neutrality rights would be violated.

The Germans moved into Belgium nevertheless, deliberately violating Belgian neutrality. The Belgian’s only hope was to contain the German Army long enough for French or British support to arrive. If a stand was to be made, it would be done at the formidable fortresses surrounding the city of Liege.

 

Liege

The city of Liege was strategically located on a high bluff overlooking the Meuse River. Twelve massive triangular forts surrounded Liege, forming a circle of thirty-six miles in circumference. Each fortress was located a distance of six miles from the center of Liege. The fortresses were two to three miles apart, with fortifications dug in between to form a connected chain. Fourteen guns were located in each fort under revolving iron turrets and secured in concrete. Built to garrison around 200 men, these forts were made to withstand direct hits from the heaviest of artillery. World opinion viewed the position the most fortifiable in Europe, and expected it to hold out at least nine months against any serious military threat. 

Albert named his former teacher at the Belgian War College, Gerard Mathieu Leman, as the overall commander of the forces surrounding Liege. He could not have selected a better man for the defense of Belgium. At sixty-three years old, the commander would be fighting literally in the city of his birth in 1851. In the prelude of the battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, Abraham Lincoln claimed the newly appointed Pennsylvanian commander George Meade would “fight well on his own dunghill.” Albert must have had the same predispositions of Leman.

In his youth, Leman was admitted to the Belgian Military School in 1867 and proved to be a brilliant student. He opted to serve in the engineers upon his graduation in 1872. In 1880, he was placed in command of the Belgian Royal Engineer Corps. In 1898, he was made professor of mathematics and fortifications at the Belgian Royal Military School. The scholarly papers related to mathematics and siege warfare published by Leman earned him world renown. In 1912, he was made a lieutenant general. Leman was described as a somber, distant man who inspired respect rather than devotion.

Albert appointed him a permanent member of the National Defense Council. This gave him command of the Third Division and the Liege fortified zone on the border with Germany. He zealously studied the approaches to the Ardennes and Meuse River crossings in anticipation of the German invasion. Albert gave Leman a direct order to hold Liege “to the end”. This was a daunting task for the inadequate force he had at his disposal.

 

Preparation for the attack

Roughly 60,000 soldiers were detached from various units in the German Second Army to form a special striking force to attack and neutralize the forts surrounding Liege. The Army of the Meuse, as it became known, consisted of six brigades under the command of General Albert Theodor Otto von Emmich. General von Emmich was convinced the Belgians would quickly submit.  

General Leman set up his headquarters in Liege on July 31, 1914. On August 3, he ordered the destruction of the bridges, tunnels, and railways connected to Liege as the German forces began to flood across the small Belgian border. The next day the German Army of the Meuse arrayed for battle outside the ring of forts. An ultimatum was sent out to allow the Germans to enter Liege. Leman boldly refused the demand to surrender.

The attack then began, and the Belgians offered much greater resistance than the Germans had imagined. Next time we will continue this little-known tale… Find out what happened here.

 

Did you find this article interesting? If so tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

Further Reading

Davis, Paul K. Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges from Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Donnell, Clayton. The Forts of the Meuse in World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Horne, Charles F. The Great Events of the Great War Part Two. Volume II ed. The National Alumni, 1920.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2007.

Meyer, G. J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York City: Delacorte Press, 2007.

Pawly, Ronald, Pierre Lierneux, and Patrice Courcelle. The Belgian Army in World War I. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts. World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006. 

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.

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

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…

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

 

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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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Rebecca Fachner starts a series of articles on World War I by considering how close family ties between many European rulers may have contributed to the outbreak of war – like a family squabble on a grandiose scale.

 

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, and over the next few months there will be plenty of articles and books that deal with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the diplomatic machinations between the various countries after the Archduke’s death, and the outbreak of hostilities a few weeks later. One of the most interesting aspects of the beginning of the war is how most of the major powers seemed completely prepared for war, but stunned that war broke out so quickly. It is then, worth considering the political situation before the war to understand why the situation fell apart in the way it did, with the speed that it did.

Queen Victoria in 1887. Her relatives were closely connected prior to World War I.

Queen Victoria in 1887. Her relatives were closely connected prior to World War I.

Many people have compared World War I to a bar fight; there is even an internet graphic floating around that imagines the entire war as if the countries involved were drunks fighting at a bar rather than nations. If the war itself was a bar fight, the political situation leading up to the war is best characterized as a family squabble. Part of the reason that a comparison to a family makes sense is that the European political landscape at that time was in some ways like that of a large family. King George V of Great Britain was a grandson of Queen Victoria, first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany through his father and the Kaiser’s mother. He was also first cousins with the Tsarina of Russia, Empress Alexandra, herself a granddaughter of Victoria. To make family dinners even more complicated, George was also a first cousin of Alexandra’s husband, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; their mothers were sisters. His own sister was married to King Haakon of Norway, whose brother was King Christian X of Denmark, both of whom were cousins of both George and Nicholas. George and Wilhelm also had cousins in the royal houses of Greece, Romania and Spain. Confused yet? Well, almost every European royal family was related to almost every other European royal family, and untangling the branches of the family tree is a complicated endeavor, to say the least.

In an age when Europe was dominated by kingdoms and emperors, minor family disagreements became a huge problem. We all have family members that we don’t like too much for whatever reason, that’s the nature of families. But it is one thing if you don’t like your annoying cousin Nick or don’t trust cousin Bill, but when you all run countries, your dislike becomes both political and very important. Suddenly, the fact that you don’t trust your cousin has major policy implications for your government’s relationship with him and his government. This is not to suggest that pre-war alliances were purely based on family discord, or that the world lost millions of lives because of family drama. Two of the major players in the story were not linked to this large family: France because it no longer had a monarchy and Austria-Hungary because its rulers weren’t closely entwined in Queen Victoria’s royal circle. Since the war actually started between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, the non-family political situation was clearly very important too.

 

Why war broke out

As almost all histories tell us, World War I was the product of entangling alliances between the various powers, and their inability to stop the chain of events from overtaking them in the wake of the Archduke’s assassination. That is true; however, the crucial piece is not the entangling alliances, but the inability of each country in Europe to stop the train wreck as it was happening. The manifest weakness of many of the hereditary rulers of Europe was lethally exposed in 1914, along with their lack of diplomatic skills, their poor management style and general incompetence.

It is impossible to say whether better and more skilled (i.e. merit based) rulers would have been able to stave off a war, but it does seem clear that letting nations behave like a dysfunctional family is not the way to international harmony. Unfortunately it took an awful lot of lives to convince world leaders that international conferences shouldn’t look quite so much like a family reunion. One of the most enduring legacies of the war is that it ultimately toppled a number of the monarchies in Europe, perhaps because the conflict exposed the problems of hereditary rulers to such an extreme extent. Hereditary rule is like rolling the dice with your leadership, sometimes you roll a Peter the Great or Frederick the Great; at other times you roll a Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm. Taking that kind of chance might have been a good idea at some point in history, but in an age of warfare on a massive scale and increasingly deadly weaponry, the major powers needed more skilled diplomats to manage international affairs, not to mention better military commanders.

 

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In this brilliant article, Bill Edwards-Bodmer tells the tale of the Konprinz Wilhelm, a converted German ship that terrorized Allied shipping in the Atlantic during World War I. Well, until it had to dock in Hampton Roads, Virginia – so leading to a fascinating interaction, including the formation of a German village on American soil.


On the morning of April 11, 1915, residents in Hampton Roads, Virginia awoke to a stranger in their midst. Looming just off Ocean View at Norfolk was the gray, rusting behemoth of a ship, Kronprinz Wilhelm. Despite its battered appearance,Kronprinz Wilhelm was something of a celebrity, and a mystery.  For the past 8 months, the German luxury-liner-turned-commerce-raider had been terrorizing Allied shipping during the opening year of World War I. Now here it was in Hampton Roads, seeking much-needed repairs and refuge from the British navy lurking just beyond the Chesapeake Bay. 

Kronprinz Wilhelm    in Hampton Roads, April 11, 1915

Kronprinz Wilhelm in Hampton Roads, April 11, 1915

The Ship

In its heyday, Kronprinz Wilhelm appeared as one of the grandest passenger liners of its era, sleek black and sparkling white. Named in honor of the young heir to the German throne, the ship was launched on March 30, 1901 by AG Vulcan Shipbuilding Company at Stettin, Germany. Kronprinz Wilhelm was one of a small, but prestigious, group of ships known as “four-stackers”; renowned for their size and the fact that they had four funnels or smoke stacks (Titanic was part of this group as well). Built for speed, Kronprinz Wilhelm plied the Bremen-New York route, setting record times for Atlantic crossings. The ship was advertised as part of the “Royal Family” of the North German Lloyd Steamship Line and its lavish accommodations made it especially popular among wealthy passengers. Prince Heinrich of Prussia even chose to sail on Kronprinz Wilhelm on an official state visit to the United States in 1902. But this was no ordinary steamship anymore. On the morning of April 11, 1915, the ship presented a naval appearance, painted dark gray and stained and scarred from months of hard service at sea. 

Kronprinz Wilhelm    as passenger liner

Kronprinz Wilhelm as passenger liner

At the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, Kronprinz Wilhelm was docked at New York. Recently overhauled, the ship had been scheduled to make a passenger run to Bremen in early August, but all North German Lloyd passages were cancelled in late July, as tensions mounted in Europe. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, the ship’s captain, K. Grahn, received orders to take on supplies and proceed at once to sea, with a second set of sealed orders to be opened once clear of U.S. waters. Immediately, Kronprinz Wilhelm began to take on extra quantities of coal, food, and other provisions. At 8:10pm the following evening, assisted by eight tugs and empty of any passengers, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed out of the harbor towards the Atlantic. Speculation mounted as to what the ship was up to. The New York Times andWashington Post both noted that the ship was officially cleared by U.S. Customs to sail for Bremen.  Both papers also pointed out that this was highly unlikely, with the Post article stating, “What she might really do after passing out of the harbor, however, was a question…”(1) Both papers surmised that Kronprinz Wilhelm was heading to refuel German navy vessels at sea.  Adding to the mystery was a large, unusually shaped crate on the ship’s forward deck, which, according to the New York Times, “might very well cover a naval gun, mounted for use.”(2) Alfred von Niezychowski, a lieutenant on Kronprinz Wilhelm, makes no mention of the mystery crate in his memoir, The Cruise of Kronprinz Wilhelm Wilhelm.   

 

Rendezvous and Transformation To Commerce Raider

Once at sea, Captain Grahn opened his sealed orders and saw that he was to sail to a specified rendezvous at sea with the German cruiser SMS Karlsruhe. When the two ships met on August 6, Karlsruhe transferred two 88 mm guns and other arms and ammunition to Kronprinz Wilhelm in exchange for coal and provisions. The liner also received a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Paul Thierfelder, formerly Karlsruhe’s navigation officer. With this change in command, Kronprinz Wilhelm officially became an auxiliary cruiser in the German Navy. Its mission: to hunt down and destroy Allied merchant shipping.

The rendezvous with Karlsruhe almost proved to be the undoing of both ships. As the Germans were nearly finished transferring supplies, they spotted a British naval vessel, the cruiser Bristol, heading for them. The German ships quickly pulled apart, and the chase was on. Bristol gave chase to Karlsruhe, but the wireless operator on Kronprinz Wilhelm picked up British messages and knew that other British ships would soon be on the path of the commerce raider. Niezychowski described in his memoir how the crew in the boiler room, the “fiendlike toilers,” kept up a furious pace shoveling coal into ship’s hungry fires to keep steam up and put distance between Kronprinz Wilhelm and the British ships.(3)

Once clear of danger, Captain Thierfelder ordered the crew to continue the transformation of Kronprinz Wilhelm into a war ship. Before meeting Karlsruhe,Kronprinz Wilhelm was painted a dull gray to help disguise its identity and aid in camouflage at sea. Now the crew set about removing glass and wood paneling to prevent flying shrapnel in the event of battle. Mattresses and carpeting were used to pad vulnerable areas on deck. The first-class smoking room was converted into a sick bay and the “now purposeless grand saloon, which from a chamber of palatial magnificence was thus brutally metamorphosed into a reserve coal bin.” Carrying extra coal was of particular concern as the ship burned through it at the furious pace of 500 tons a day. The crew also mounted the two 88 mm guns, nicknamed White Arrow and Base Drum, to the port and starboard sides of the forecastle. A movable machine gun, called the Riveter, was installed on the bridge.(4) Kronprinz Wilhelm was now ready to prey on Allied shipping.

 

First Prize

It didn’t have to wait long. On the night of September 4, the crew spotted a one-funneled steamer that turned out to be the British merchant ship Indian Prince. After a brief chase, the British ship surrendered. Passengers and supplies, including the always-needed coal, from Indian Prince were transferred to the German raider. Passengers were given rooms in the first-class accommodations on Kronprinz Wilhelm. Later accounts from prisoners taken by the German raider attest to the hospitable treatment they received aboard Kronprinz Wilhelm. And after all of that, needed supplies had been brought over, the seacocks on Indian Prince were opened, and the British ship soon slipped beneath the waves.Kronprinz Wilhelm had taken its first prize.

Over the next 251 days, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed 37,666 miles around the south Atlantic and destroyed some 60,000 tons of Allied shipping from fourteen ships, a majority of which were either British or French.  Most ships were scuttled by opening their seacocks and/or exploding dynamite in the bottom of the hulls. On one occasion, though, Captain Thierfelder decided ramming was the best option, and set about cutting the British schooner Wilfred M. in two by plowing the massive German ship straight through the much smaller sailing vessel. Word ofKronprinz Wilhelm’s path of destruction reached Allied authorities, and the British sent several ships to the Atlantic to track down and destroy the German raider.

Crew of  Kronprinz Wilhelm  with souvenir from prize

Crew of Kronprinz Wilhelm with souvenir from prize

Kronprinz Wilhelm    approaching  Wilfred M    .

Kronprinz Wilhelm approaching Wilfred M.

Kronprinz Wilhelm    ramming  Wilfred M.

Kronprinz Wilhelm ramming Wilfred M.

Wilfred M.    after ramming

Wilfred M. after ramming

End of the Line

Kronprinz Wilhelm was able to elude the British for months, but soon the raider’s luck, and coal, ran out. With supplies of coal and provisions rapidly dwindling and the ship’s engines needing repair from months of continuous service at sea, Captain Thierfelder decided to head for a neutral port for repairs and replenishment of coal and supplies. Thierfelder ultimately decided upon Newport News, Virginia, where another German commerce raider, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, had recently interned. 

Upon reaching the Virginia capes, Thierfelder found British ships waiting for him. Under the cover of darkness on April 10, Thierfelder made a daring dash between the waiting British vessels, which never spotted the German behemoth. Kronprinz Wilhelm anchored in Hampton Roads on the morning of April 11.  Upon arriving,Kronprinz Wilhelm had less than 25 tons of coal left in its bunkers and many of the crew were suffering the effects of beriberi, a disease brought on by lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. The ship was soon allowed to proceed to the shipyard at Newport News to receive basic repairs and receive coal. After staying beyond the deadline imposed by American authorities, the German commander decided upon internment rather than risk capture by the British Navy waiting just outside the Chesapeake Bay. Soon thereafter, the German raider was moved across Hampton Roads to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, where it was interned, the same place that Prinz Eitel Friedrich was also interned.


Eitel Wilhelm

During the early months of internment, the German sailors were allowed liberal leave from their ships and mingled with the surrounding communities. However, after several crew and officers escaped, leave policy was restricted and the Germans were confined to their ships and the immediate area of the shipyard. Beginning in January 1916, men from both ships, who numbered about 1,000, constructed a miniature German village on unoccupied land in the Navy Yard from scrap materials found around the shipyard and on their ships. This little village, named Eitel Wilhelm after both ships, included not only houses but other buildings and services a typical German town of the time would have, including a church, school, gymnasium, other public buildings, and police and fire departments. The Germans also had farm animals, a small zoo, vegetable gardens, and a village newspaper. The village became something of a local tourist attraction. Visitors were charged an entrance fee, with the proceeds benefiting the German Red Cross. The German sailors also crafted toys and other souvenirs, along with baked goods, that were sold to visitors.

Despite American ties to the Allies and being future enemies, the German sailors and Eitel Wilhelm were quite popular with locals and Americans in general. Accounts of the commerce raiders and the village appeared in national newspapers and magazines, such as the Literary Digest. The story of the German raiders added a bit of romance to an otherwise very unromantic and destructive war. American resentment of British overbearing tactics, including stopping American ships, in controlling the seas contributed to the German ships’ popularity. The German commerce raiders were seen as the underdogs fighting the British bully.(5)

Familial and ancestral ties also played into the German sailors’ popularity.  Many Americans, including Virginians, were of German origin.  More immediately, a number of the German sailors had relatives who had recently immigrated to the United States. Historian Phyllis Hall has noted that many letters from relatives arrived at the State Department requesting permission for their relatives in the village be allowed to visit.  Overall, thousands of Americans visited Eitel Wilhelm over the next eight months.(6)

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    Eitel Wilhelm with ships in background

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    Tourists at Eitel Wilhelm

Tourists at Eitel Wilhelm

By August 1916, with the United States increasing its preparations for war, it was becoming clear that the village would have to go to make room for increased wartime related work at the Navy Yard. American authorities destroyed the village and the German raiders and sailors were transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the German sailors became prisoners of war and were moved to Fort McPherson in Georgia. The ships were confiscated by the U.S. and became troop transports during war; Kronprinz Wilhelm becoming USS Von Steuben and Prinz Eitel Friedrich becoming USS De Kalb.

 

You can read more about American involvement in World War I in the article: The tale of the last American World War I Battle – That took place for a bath. Click here to read it.

 

Finally, if you enjoyed the article, tell the world! Like it, tweet about it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…

References

  1. Washington Post, August 4, 1914.
  2. New York Times, August 4, 1914.
  3. Alfred von Niezychowski, The Cruise of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1931), 24.
  4. Edwin P. Hoyt, Ghost of the Atlantic: the Kronprinz Wilhelm, 1914-1919, (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1974), 18-21; quote from Niezychowski, 28.
  5. Phyllis A. Hall, “The German Village at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” Olde Times, v.2 no.5, Summer 1987, 5-7.
  6. Hall, 5-7.

 

Finally, the images in this article are courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia.