The Zimmermann Telegram was the final piece that launched America into World War I. But what was the Zimmermann Telegram? And what were its consequences for World War One and beyond? Shelli Boyd explains.

Arthur Zimmermann, German Foreign Minister, whom the telegram was named after.

Arthur Zimmermann, German Foreign Minister, whom the telegram was named after.

What was the Zimmermann Telegram?

Until 1917, the US had remained officially neutral in World War I. And while some more Anglophile groups were more inclined to back the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, many Americans wanted the US to remain neutral. The position of neutrality in World War One was the platform that then-president Woodrow Wilson used to win re-election in November 1916, and he was determined to stand by it. However, several events made it difficult for President Wilson to stay neutral. And there was encouragement from the Triple Entente, who wanted the US to join the war against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

The first event that angered many Americans was Germany’s attack of the British liner RMS Lusitania in 1915. The sinking of the Lusitania killed 1,198 civilians, including 129 Americans. Other liners were also attacked by German forces. Still, President Wilson managed to stay neutral as Germany agreed to limit the damage from such attacks, although this did not last. In January 1917 Germany decided to re-launch unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to restrict food supplies in to Britain and leading to its surrender. The Germans knew this could encourage American participation in the war, and they hoped they could weaken Britain fast enough that any American response would be too late. However the Zimmermann Telegram also played a key role in US participation.

 

What was the Zimmermann Telegram?

The Zimmermann Telegram was a coded message sent by the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. In the telegram he proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico that could help Germany win the war and Mexico to regain territories previously lost to the USA: the US states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The reason it was sent was to divert American attention and support from Europe. Aware that America could enter the war following the approach of unrestricted German submarine warfare, Germany wanted to keep America and its resources occupied long enough with a war with Mexico so that it could weaken and defeat Britain. Mexico ultimately rejected the proposal due to internal instability and as it was very unlikely that it would defeat the US in a war.

The Zimmermann Telegram, though, was intercepted by British Intelligence. British code-breakers, notably Nigel de Grey, were able to crack the code quickly. However, the British, worried that the information would expose their intelligence network, including interception of American diplomatic communications, at first did not release the contents. After being sent on January 19, 1917, it was not until late February that the British had enough evidence – and a story about how it obtained the information - to share with the American Embassy in London. From there it went to Wilson.

The Zimmermann Telegram.

The Zimmermann Telegram.

When did America enter WWI?

President Wilson did not actually believe the Zimmermann Telegram when first informed of its contents, but the British had enough evidence to convince him. After Wilson, it was released to the American media and, of course, it triggered outrage among the American public. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was effective in convincing President Wilson to join the war, but just as importantly, it was the final piece that triggered the anger and support of American citizens. After all, it was just a few months before that the American public had voted for Wilson, who did not want to join the war. A month after the Zimmermann Telegram was revealed, the US was no longer interested in maintaining its neutrality in the war, and officially joined World War One on April 6, 1917 by declaring war on Germany.

 

The consequences of the Zimmermann Telegram beyond the war

A key consequence of the Zimmermann Telegram was to enrage American citizens and so encourage them to volunteer into joining the war. Alongside this, it made the Selective Service Act of May 1917 more acceptable to the American public. The Act supported the need for more soldiers through the draft, and required men aged 21 to 30 to register for the military. The United States was able to send large numbers of troops in 1918, which greatly helped Britain and France after Russia withdrew from the war (which happened formally in March 1918).

The Zimmermann Telegram also had serious impacts on the internal politics of the US. After entering the war, the Selective Service Act led to nearly 5 million American men joining the army, around 2 million as volunteers and nearly 3 million as part of the draft. Female workers often took over the jobs left by these men. The new-found economic status of women helped support the demand to give voting rights to women.

 

In Conclusion

The Zimmermann Telegram sparked the US into joining the World War I; however it was not the sole reason why they joined. The other factors were that the US was already under pressure from allies to join and due to the unrestricted warfare of Germany - the Zimmermann Telegram was the last straw.

The Zimmermann Telegram played a large role in World War I, in terms of how the American public viewed the war, and the timely inclusion of US forces helped the Allied Powers overcome the German Army.

 

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This article was brought to you by Shelli Boyd of CustomEssayMeister writing service.

Editor’s note: That external link is not affiliated in any way with this website. Please see the link here for more information about external links.

Immigration has been a regular theme to date during US President Donald Trump’s administration, but it has played a role throughout American history. Here, we follow on from past articles (on strained 19thcentury politics here and Chinese immigration here) and look at the use of anti-German propaganda in America during World War One.  Jonathan Hennika explains (his site here).

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

For political observers, the use of the migrant caravan working its way north to the United States border by President Trump and his supporters as a mid-term election scare tactic came as nosurprise. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.” Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016, at the Old Post Office Pavilion, Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C.[i] Such words were never spoken by the Chief Executive of the United Statesbeforethe era of President Trump. While addressing the delegates of the United Nationsin September 2018, President Trump proudly declared: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”[ii]

President Trump had been laying the groundwork for his imagined bogeyman for some time.  Reporting on a pre-election speech given by the President, The New York Times concluded, “President Trump’s closing argument is now clear: Build tent cities for migrants. End birthright citizenship. Fear the caravan. Send active-duty troops to the border. Refuse asylum. Immigration has been the animating issue of the Trump Presidency, and now…the president has fully embraced a dark, anti-immigrant message in the hope that stoking fear will motivate voters to reject Democrats.”[iii]

A tactic used in any campaign of fear of the foreigner is the labeling of the other as a threat to the American public or national security. Characterizing the caravan, the President declared at a White House Press conference, that it was made up of “a lot of young men…and a lot of men we maybe don’t want in our country…they have injured; they have killed.”[iv]While this type of scare tactic has been used before in American politics, nonehadachieved the level of an unassuming newspapermanfrom Colorado in 1916.

 

George Creel and the Committee on Public Information

On the eve of America’s entry into World War One, President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “It is not an army that we must shape and train for war. It is a nation… The whole nation must be a team.” Tounite the nation into the team needed to fight Nationalism and militarism that was at the heart of the First World War, President Wilson leaned heavily on the former muckraking journalist George Creel. Creel, an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1916, wrote a brief that came to the attention of the scholarly Wilson. The author/historian Jon Dos Pasos wrote the Creel brief, “summed up the arguments for and against official wartime censorship and suggested that what was needed was not suppression, but expression; in other words, a publicity campaign to sell the war to the nation.”[v]Early in the creation, Creeland the Committee for Public Information (CPI) decided the United States was fighting to save democracy for the world. If the United States was the hero, a villain was needed. After the sinking of the cruise ship Lusitania, the Kaiser and unrestricted submarine warfare made it easy for Germany to play theroleof the villain. 

By 1910 the Library of Congress estimated the German-bornpopulation in America to be 2.3 million.[vi]As with all ethnic groups that came to America, the German community was close-knit, often reading newspapers or attending church services that were primarily in German. At the onset of the United States entry into the war in 1917, Americanization came to German sounding street or city names by renaming them in honor of the General in charge of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing or honoringthe innocent victim of German militarism, neutral Belgium.

As Creel and his propagandists poured out an anti-German message soon there appearedsubtle changes in the German influence on the melting pot of American culture.  The German staple sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage. The banning of Germanlanguage instruction in public schools and colleges was commonplace. The ban was the central point of discussion in the 1919 case before the Supreme Court Meyer v Nebraska. 

Esteemed German composers and conductors confronted the face of the fear campaign. KarlMuck, the conductor of the Boston SymphonyOrchestra,faced ostracization as a result of anti-German sentiment. After receiving a request by political clubs and civic organizations,out of Providence, Rhode Island Muckwas instructed by the founder and manager of the BSO to not open the October 30, 1916 performance with the star-spangled banner. Later performances had to be canceleddue to the anti-German backlash. Even the music of Wagner did not escape criticism, “the Wagner cult in music has naturally spread, together with the Kaiser cult in politics.”[vii]

 

Let the Images Speak for Themselves

Some of the most chilling anti-German themes came from the propaganda posters. In images that served as inspiration for the anti-Japanese campaign of World War Two, the German, or Hun, was portrayed as a hulking beast, raping and pillaging across Europe (see the above/below images).

The world recently celebrated the centennial of the Armistice.  Shortly after the war ended, America turned inward, shunning it’s new found place on the world stage. The world was changing; the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia; Germany fellinto a gripping economic depression as a result of the cost of the peace; and the militarism the world had fought against would see a resurgence in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Tojo’s Japan. While the world changed, the United States imposed even harsher immigration controls in the 1920s. The use of fear of the other, so easily demonstrated by George Creel, had a lasting impact and informedUnited States immigration policy into the 21stcentury, as evidencedby President Trump'srhetoric.

 

What do you think of the use of anti-German propaganda during World War One? Let us know below.


[i]Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), Kindle Edition.

[ii]UPI, Full text: President Donald Trump's Speech to United Nations, September 25, 2018. https://www.upi.com/Top_News/Voices/2018/09/25/Full-text-President-Donald-Trumps-speech-to-United-Nations/1511537892605/

[iii]Michel D. Shear and Julie Hirschefiled Davis, “As Midterm Vote Nears, Trump Reprises a Favorite Message: Fear Immigrants,” New York Times, November 1, 2018.

[iv]Ibid

[v]John Dos Pasos, Mr. Wilson’s War(New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1962), 300.

[vi]The Germans in America, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/rr/european/imde/germchro.html

[vii]J.E. Vacha, “When Wagner was Verboten: The Campaign against German Music in World War I,” New York History64 (1983): 173-4.

Further American anti-German Propaganda from World War One

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.

The story of an incredible person… From the racialized world of Jim Crow Georgia and the boxing rings of England and France to the killing fields of World War One and the celebrated jazz clubs of the Montmartre—Eugene Bullard lived an exceptional life.

Eugene Bullard with his pet in 1917 as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in France.

Eugene Bullard with his pet in 1917 as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in France.

Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895, Bullard, like most Southern blacks of his generation, seemed destined for a life of crude “shotgun houses”, low grade labor, perpetual deference, and limited social mobility. Jim Crow, the region’s racial caste system, proved insufferable as it subjected the region’s black residents to vitriolic racism, de jure segregation that was most certainly separate but anything but equal, and political disenfranchisement. Based on his skin color alone, Bullard was born into a lifetime of second-class citizenship. Part of being a second-class citizen meant living under the never ceasing threat of racial violence. In fact, the Jim Crow South’s predilection for terror tactics made an early, but paramount impression on the young Bullard. His father, a man known as ‘Chief Big Ox” for his vaunted strength and supposed Indian ancestry, was the victim of physical and verbal abuse at the warehouse where he worked (his father worked as a drayman and stevedore along Columbus’s riverfront). After remonstrating with the warehouse’s owner, W.C. Brady, the abuse persisted. Infuriated with the elder Bullard’s plea to Brady, the supervisor responded by striking “Chief Big Ox” with an iron hook. The physically superior Bullard subdued his assailant and calmly launched him into a storage cellar. Brady quickly realized Bullard’s innocence in the situation and engineered a compromise between the two men. However, later that evening, a drunken white mob surrounded the Bullard home, attempting to push their way into both doors. The elder Bullard waited inside with his shotgun in hand while the rest of his family huddled together in fright. Luckily the mob, apparently too inebriated to continue, disbanded, but Bullard, fearing for his safety, fled the city while the tensions cooled. The elder Bullard narrowly escaped what would have most certainly been a lynching, but the incident illuminated the horrid reality of Jim Crow so clearly that even young Eugene, still only a child, could easily understand: though no longer slaves, Southern blacks were hardly free.

 

To another place

Feeling, on one hand, the intolerable restrictions on black life in the South and the natural wonder lust of youth on the other, the young Eugene took to the road at the ripe age of eleven. Even in his adolescence, the headstrong Bullard desired to be his own man, and after traveling with a band of gypsies and using his skillful horsemanship to earn a wage on a number of farms in southern Georgia, he realized that such a goal could never achieved in caste conscious America. The racially liberal environs of Western Europe, the gypsies assured him, had no such color line. Thus after having his leg gashed open by a white passerby in downtown Atlanta for no reason other than that he was sporting a fashionable “Buster Brown” suit, Bullard hopped a series of trains and boats to Norfolk, Virginia where he would eventually stow away on a ship bound for Hamburg, Germany.

Yet he only made it as far as Aberdeen, Scotland. From there, he migrated south, finally arriving in Liverpool. His time in the English port city would be formative as it was there that he found steady pay in professions that, for one, entered him into tight nit professional circles and brought him a modicum of notoriety. His first venture was show business. Upon arriving in Liverpool he found work at the Birkenhead amusement park which proved to be his gateway into a much larger act—the Belle Davis’s Freedman’s Pickaninnies, a vaudeville act specializing in minstrelsy. Modern readers recognize such shows as highly offensive and otherwise demeaning, but Europe was not America. Bullard, always highly self-aware, had little reservations about mocking racial stereotypes because he realized that doing so in Europe did not reinforce any particular racial order or hierarchy. He found the laugh of the European void of the malice and perversity that characterized the contemptuous American laugh. Having a steady job and steady pay allowed him to try his hand at boxing on the weekends. By the turn of the twentieth century boxing had become the sport of choice for working class Englishmen, and a number of African American boxers had gained considerable fame across the channel. Perhaps the most popular was a young Southerner named Aaron Lester Brown who, like Bullard, fled the suffocating environment of the Jim Crow South, earning him the nickname the “Dixie Kid.” Bullard quickly became Brown’s understudy, and before long the two were touring across England and France on the same match card. While visiting as a boxer, he fell in love with Paris, a city that welcomed blacks and exhibited little apprehensions about black and white interactions. He eventually relocated to the city, becoming, in his mind at least, a proud Frenchman.

 

War

However, the blaring guns of August 1914 cut his boxing career short. At the age of nineteen, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He fought bravely at the Battle of the Somme, where he proved to be a highly efficient machine gunner. He would go on to survive the initial month of the bloody and prolonged battle of Verdun, but a month into the fighting, an incoming artillery barrage blew open a wound in his thigh as he was carrying a message from one officer to another. Though he would eventually be awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism, his service, at least as an infantryman, would end at Verdun. But Bullard would not be ousted so quickly. After finishing his convalescence, he enrolled in the French aviation school, becoming the first African American military pilot. He went on to fly a number of missions, registering at least one acknowledged “kill”.

America’s involvement in the war, however, re-introduced Bullard to the racism he thought he left behind. His accomplishments were not only ignored by the American press, but Edmund C. Gros, an influential American living in France, successfully terminated his piloting career almost as soon as it began. As American troops crossed the Atlantic, the American army sought to maintain the statutes of Jim Crow—black and white soldiers were kept separate, blacks were normally employed in menial services, and black troops were typically led by white officers. Bullard posed a threat to the standing system at home. A common Jim Crow assumption asserted that black men did not have the mental capacity to operate heavy machinery unsupervised, relegating them to mostly tenant farming and unskilled labor. Bullard, being a pilot, negated such a faulty assumption. More importantly, though, Bullard’s mere presence in France made American whites hoping to not upset the racial order uneasy. The French, while very accepting of black troops, were forced to comply with the American demands to take Bullard off the front lines, as they were desperate for the added American manpower. Thus while Bullard became a national hero in France, he was, if nothing else, scorned by the white American military establishment. Just as he was in his early days in Columbus, America’s involvement in the Great War once again designated him a persona non grata.

 

But Bullard would carry on. Following the war, he began playing drums for a black American jazz band. His new role would prove fortuitous as Parisian nightlife yearned for this new, inherently African American brand of music. With his proficiency in English and French and his wealth of connections in show business from his time with the Freedman’s Pickaninnies, Bullard became a valuable hiring agent for the jazz clubs of the Montmartre. He quickly befriended Joe Zelli, a nightclub impresario who owned popular clubs in New York and London. With the help of Bullard’s friend Robert Henri, the two obtained an all-night club license and went into business together. Soon Zelli’s, the chosen name of the club, became the most popular club in Paris. He then struck out on his own, buying the club, Le Grand Duc. Though his ownership of the club is contested, his presence in the Montmartre scene was undeniable. He mediated contracts and recruited the black American musicians teeming across the Atlantic, finding them work and introducing them to highly influential and wealthy patrons. Bullard’s time in the Montmartre put him in contact with celebrities like Jack Dean and Fannie Ward and even royalty as Edward Windsor, the Prince of Wales and heir to the English throne was a frequent guest of the Le Grand Duc.  

Sadly, whereas the First World War paved the way for Bullard’s entrance into an elite circle of artists and celebrities, the Second World War marked his exit. Fearing the Nazi regime and its racial intolerance, he fled to New York, an ironic twist in an already perplexing life. In New York, he offered to use his influence to help various activist groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But much to his surprise, he was an unknown. Very few Americans knew about his wartime career and even fewer knew about his time in the Montmartre. Already an older gentleman, Bullard spent his last days as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. In 1959 he was the subject of a special edition of the Today Show, where his wartime service and extraordinary life was put on display. But even then, he was introduced only as the building’s black elevator operator, not Eugene Bullard the vaunted prizefighter, jazz drummer, French national hero, celebrated pilot, or nightclub owner. He died soon after, in 1961 at the age of 66, thus ending a remarkable life that was both a triumph and a tragedy.

 

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Eugene Bullard being interviewed on the Today Show in December 1959.

Eugene Bullard being interviewed on the Today Show in December 1959.

References

Craig Lloyd, Eugene Bullard, Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).

http://www.blackpast.org/aah/bullard-eugene-jacques-1894-1961

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/eugene-bullard-1895-1961

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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.

 

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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. 

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

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

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

Italy enters the war… But only just

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

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

 

Early battles on the Italian Front

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

 

Meanwhile, on the home front….

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

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

 

Later battles and victory

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

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

 

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Over the course of 2014 we have had a great variety of fascinating blog articles on the site. Below are 5 of our favorites...

George Washington on his Deathbed by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851.

George Washington on his Deathbed by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851.


  1. In this sadly fascinating article, Robert Walsh considers an American battle that took place on the last day of World War I – and the absurd and terrible reason behind it. Article here.
  2. Nick Tingley writes here on a fascinating topic. He postulates on what could have happened had the 1944 Normandy Landings against Nazi Germany taken place in 1943. As we shall see, things may well have not turned out as well as they did… Article here.
  3. In this extended article, Rebecca Fachner looks at the story of King Henry VIII’s seventh wife – the one that got away. We venture in to the tale of Catherine Willoughby, one of the most enchanting women of her age and Henry VIII’s would-be wife.
  4. Helen Saker-Parsons considers the fascinating similarities between the sons of two very important men who were killed in tragic circumstances – John F Kennedy and Tsar Michael II of Russia. Article here.
  5. William Bodkin tells us the fascinating story of William Thornton, the man who wanted to resurrect George Washington after his death. Article here.

We hope you find those articles fascinating! And because we really like you, here is one more:

Tanks have been integral to armies since World War One. But over the years a number of prototype designs have been made that never quite worked. Here, Adrian Burrows tells us about the most bizarre tank designs… Article here.


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George Levrier-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Different truces

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

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

 

Christmas 1915

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pendennis and St Mawes under the Tudor Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the Fortifications

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

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

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

 

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

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

Improving and Rearming

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

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

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

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

 

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References

The article that needs no introduction! Following up on her previous pieces on World War One, including the spark that caused World War One to break out here, Rebecca Fachner tells us the 10 reasons why we are still fascinated by the Russian Revolution.

The Bolshevik  by Boris Kustodiev. 1920.

The Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev. 1920.

 1.     It is Bogo (Buy One Get One).

The Russian Revolution is the ultimate historical bargain; you get 2 for the price of 1. There were actually 2 revolutions inside of a year, the February/March revolution, which deposed the Tsar, and the October revolution that toppled the Provisional Government and brought the Bolsheviks to power.

 

2.     It was so much larger than life.

The Russian Revolution is all about contrast, which is what makes it so fascinating and unbelievable. The extreme opulence of the upper class and the Tsarist court, the wretched poverty of everyone else. There was such a huge gap between the “haves” and the “have not’s” that its actually staggering. Of course there was royalty and wealth in other countries, but the Russians cornered the market on royalty, excess and flamboyance. And the poor were just so overworked, starving and helpless. Poor is poor everywhere, but the poor in pre-Revolutionary Russia seem so much worse off than elsewhere.

 

3.     Rasputin.

Enough said.

 

4.     How did the Tsar and his government not see what was going on?

The Tsar himself represents another fascinating aspect to this entire historical episode. Has there ever been a man less suited to his position in life than Nicholas II?  He was not a ruler; he was indecisive, small minded, family oriented and lacked any forcefulness. His wife was similarly poorly placed in history, being unstable, hysterical and incredibly stubborn. Both were hugely lacking in self-awareness, which is the only explanation for how both Nicholas and his wife managed to completely ignore the unrest and unhappiness of their population. It takes a special kind of blindness not to see how the Tsarist government was teetering. In the ultimate historical irony, Nicholas would have been a perfect constitutional monarch, like his cousin George V in England, had he not been so dogmatically opposed to any constitution of any kind. 

 

5.     There is something for everyone.

The Russian Revolution is an incredibly accessible historical event, easy to understand and yet dense and scholarly all at the same time. It has fascinated popular historians, Hollywood and serious scholars because there are so many layers and so much going on. Movies have been made about the revolution (even cartoons), scholars have devoted entire careers to studying the Russian Revolution, and books of all types: popular history, memoir, even historical fiction have been written en masse about the Russian Revolution.

 

6.     Those poor, beautiful, doomed kids.

Everyone has seen one of the photos of the Tsar and his family, with the four beautiful daughters in their long white dresses and pearls, standing almost protectively around their parents and their little brother. There are so many pictures of the family, and as the girls get older they seem to look increasingly tragic and haunted. Maybe it is because we know what is coming for them, and we just can’t help but look at those pictures with a sense of foreboding. The revolution cost many lives, not to mention those killed in the first years of the Soviet government, but these four girls seem to represent the passing of an age and the lost potential not only of their young lives, but their parents entire reign.

 

7.     How did the Provisional government make the same mistakes their predecessors did?

The Provisional government took power in the chaotic and incredibly confused first days after the Tsar was deposed, and had the unenviable task of trying to form a new government under the absolute worst conditions: in the middle of a war, with almost no experience, and a population that was starving, sick and desperate for change. Many of the members of the new government had been in the Duma before the revolution, the very limited elected body that the Tsar had reluctantly allowed ten years earlier. Even those who had not been in the Duma were familiar with the problems of the Tsarist government, so how is it that the Provisional government proceeded to immediately make the exact same mistakes as the Tsar had? The new government continued Russia’s involvement in World War One, and spent their entire tenure fighting among themselves, rather than addressing the problems that had put them there in the first place. It is telling that the Provisional government was only in power for about six months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over with their promises of peace and bread. Russia wanted peace, and it is a mystery how the Provisional government failed to heed this.

 

8.     What other revolution ends with a street gang taking over an entire country?

The Bolsheviks were essentially a street gang, when you come right down to it. Both before the Tsar was toppled and after there were larger, far more prominent revolutionary groups in Russia, on every end of the political spectrum. The Bolsheviks were a relatively small-scale operation, until they suddenly took over St. Petersburg and then the rest of the country. How did they actually do that?  How did a gang of criminals and street thugs take over a country and then consolidate their power so quickly?

 

9.     We all know what comes next.

Part of the reason the Russian Revolution is so interesting, even now, is that we all know what comes next: Lenin, Stalin, the Bolsheviks and 70 plus years of Soviet rule. The revolutionary moment is so interesting because it is one of the great pivots of the twentieth century, and perhaps the greatest what-if.  Think about how different everything might have been if the Tsar could have saved his reign, or if the Provisional government could have transitioned smoothly into a more permanent democratic government. Had things happened even slightly differently, the twentieth century could have been a totally changed place.

 

10.  If it were fiction, no one would read it.

The Russian Revolution proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.  There are so many bizarre circumstances surrounding the Russian Revolution, the story is on such a grand scale and so completely unbelievable, that it has to be true. No fiction writer would ever invent a story this grandiose and farfetched, and if they did, no one would buy a book this preposterous. It HAS to be a true story.

 

Now, you can find out more about Rasputin here.

 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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