A History of the First World War in 100 Objects

Review: A History of the First World War in 100 Objects, John Hughes-Wilson, 2014.History of the First World War in 100 Objects

A remarkably complete history of the war covering every major combat theatre – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – from mining operations below ground to air combat and bombing, from under the sea to the Battle of Jutland. It covers weapons and war financing, logistics and espionage, home front politics and war production, mutinies, the soldiers’ life in combat and behind the trenches and on leave, and artists and the war.

The format is simple. Each chapter has a full-page picture of an object, an inset talking about it, and anywhere from one to six pages of text, often with additional, smaller photos, covering the subject the object represents.

The objects are not always what you expect. For instance, a “body density map” is shown for a chapter on Western Front casualties, a fullerphone (a scrambler for voice and Morse signals passed on a wire), Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s boat (used in a raid on the Bolshevik fleet for which he won “the mystery VC”), and a harpoon gun used by interred German sailors at Scapa Flow to supplement their meagre rations with birds. Continue reading “A History of the First World War in 100 Objects”

Advertisements

The Bloody White Baron

Baron Ungern-Sternberg has held a fascination for me since encountering him in Mark Samuels’ story “A Call to Greatness”, so I picked up a biography of him.

Review: The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, James Palmer, 2008.61KdS6fLnuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

In 1921, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, convinced by oracles that he had 130 days to live, issued, as the “Incarnated God of War, Khan of grateful Mongolia”, his notorious General Order 15. (Numbered “15” for superstitious reasons. It was actually the first order issued by the paperwork-averse man born Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.)

It stated, among other things:

‘Truth and mercy’ are no longer admissible. Henceforth there can only be ‘truth and merciless hardness.’ The evil which has fallen upon the land, with the object of destroying the divine principle in the human soul, must be extirpated root and branch. Fury against the heads of the revolution, its devoted followers, must know no boundaries.

Chilling words, anathema to civilized values. Yet, being of a dark and pessimistic turn of mind, I wonder if we will, under some circumstance in the not-so-distant future, have to ponder its application. Continue reading “The Bloody White Baron”

Anthony Fokker

This one came to me from Amazon Vine, and I requested a review copy hoping to learn more about Fokker’s career in World War One.

Review: Anthony Fokker: The Flying Dutchman Who Shaped American Aviation, Marc Dierikx, 2018.Anthony Fokker

The key to this book is the subtitle. It’s a business history showing how Fokker the entrepreneur, promoter, and well-connected man, helped American aviation dominate the world after his own prominence as an aircraft designer was coming to an end.

If you are an aviation buff, you are probably not going to like this book. Dierikx spends a lot more time talking about Fokker’s houses and yacht than any of the technical sides of his airplane designs. He has already written one biography of Fokker and seems interested in using more recent material he’s uncovered to write a business history based on records in the Boeing Historical Archive which eventually wound up with Fokker’s business records from America. (Most of the ones from his European holdings have been destroyed, accidentally or deliberately.)

You get a lot more talk about lease agreements, stock swaps, and loan amounts than you do climb rates, airspeed, and cargo capacity. Continue reading “Anthony Fokker”

The Angel of Mons

My look at Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” concludes with a review of a book detailing how Machen’s fiction became a modern myth.

Review: The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, David Clarke, 2004.Angel of Mons

On September 29, 1914, Arthur Machen presented a bit of “indifferent piping” to the world, his story “The Bowmen”.

Twenty years later he found himself still talking about that piece of fiction, arguing that there was “not one word of truth in it”.

Machen’s story had become legend, one of the great legends of the twentieth century, claimed as true in history books and an official Belgium guidebook and from the pulpit. An army of angels saved the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation by the German Army at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The Germans were slowed (though more by the retreating BEF than at the battle itself), the Schlieffen Plan stalled, and the French and British achieved one of the pivotal victories of world history at the First Battle of the Marne.

Clarke lays out a clear, well-written chronological account on how Machen’s fiction became a legend of hope and conciliation, a story that stayed in the minds of the British military until the early days of the Cold War. Continue reading “The Angel of Mons”

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”, Arthur Machen, 1914.

The war was not yet two months old Arthur Machen when published his story. As the story alludes to, trenches were already being dug though, of course, they were not the extensive trenchworks that later in 1914 extended from Switzerland to the English Channel.

However other, later realities of the war, the ones that became iconic and symbolic shorthand in later stories of the fantastic, do not show up: muddy trenches, assaults into a leaden storm of machine gun bullets or the steel storm of an artillery barrage, or fields clotted with barbed wire. Continue reading “World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen””

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Cool Air”

“Cool Air”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1926.

While written a mere eight years after the war ended, H. P. Lovecraft’s still uses the Great War in the most general and allusive way possible.

The story is an updating of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. In that story, a man’s consciousness exists post-mortem and in his body because of an experiment in mesmerism.

Lovecraft’s brilliant Dr. Munoz has achieved the same effect and “lived” past his death 18 years ago by keeping his body temperature lowered with a refrigeration unit in a New York City apartment.

Dr. Munoz doesn’t look well even before his air conditioning fails, and he liquefies. (Lovecraft himself said the end derived not from Poe but Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder”.)

Before that, though, he has a visitor:

One September day an unexpected glimpse of him induced an epileptic fit in a man who come to repair his electric desk lamp; a fit for which he prescribed effectively whilst keeping himself well out of sight. That man, oddly enough, had been through the terrors of the Great War without having incurred any fright so thorough.

It’s the most general use of World War One in a weird story — to say that the uncanniness and horror of the story exceed even the horrors of the Great War.

 

More entries in this series are indexed on the World War One in Fantastic Fiction page.

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald
Gilbert Stuart MacDonald, 1889 – 1917

As I’ve mentioned before, there is not much of a tradition of military service in my direct ancestors.

One served in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. But he joined in August 1864 and was out in less than a year. The company was on “post and garrison duty” in Illinois during that time.

Before that I have to go back to the American Revolution for ancestors who were in the military (as well as ancestors who were Loyalists and had to flee to Canada after the war).

But among indirect relations on the Canadian side several saw combat. One was in the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War.

Two were involved in World War One. One never left Canada and served as a cook in a training camp.  (He was also an American citizen born in Missouri but drafted in the Canadian Army. I am unclear about the legalities involved.)

The other was Gilbert Stuart MacDonald who died 100 years ago today.

I was told he died at Passchendaele, so I took a couple of books on the battle off the shelf and read them for the anniversary.

Review: Passchendaele: The Tragic Victory of 1917, Philip Warner, 1987 and Passchendaele: The Untold Story, Robin Price and Trevor Wilson, 1996.

Americans give little thought to Passchendaele. Neither American soldiers or marines fought in it, and Americans generally don’t give a lot of thought to World War One. It is the American Civil War and World War Two which are important in American culture and thoughts.Warner Passchendaele

But the British and Australians and Canadians and New Zealanders definitely still think about it. It was, in some ways, the most horrible battle of the war.

The bare metrics of the battle don’t agree for battles Commonwealth forces fought in. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire provides some. It says Passchendaele lasted 105 days to the Somme’s 21 days. The Somme and the British offensive of August through November 1918 had more casualties than Passchendaele’s 244,000. Many other battles in the war exceeded its casualty average of 2,121 per day.

Nor was the battle the worst in the number of casualties measured against the ground taken or movement of the lines.

But it was the worse for the conditions it was fought in. (The fighting in the Italian Alps between Italians and Austrians, where avalanches and tunnels were part of the weaponry,  has its own unique, if smaller scale, horror.)

Some of the most iconic pictures of the war are from Passchendaele: men and beast moving across duckboards in a landscape of flooded craters and a few shattered trees. Men and horses really did drown when they stepped off those boards. Wounded men really did scream as they lay helpless in craters filling with water. Marches that would take an hour under normal conditions would take many multiples of that as men moved through the mud. Weapons clogged in the mud and rain; artillery shells had to be cleaned of mud before firing. Men waded exhausted across swamps under machine gun fire.

Passchendaele’s horrors came from the incessant rain and the nature of the battlefield.

It was fought on low ground, badly drained because of an underlying layer of clay. What little drainage work had been constructed before the war was destroyed by massive use of artillery, the highest density of shelling yet seen in the war.

Rain was expected around Ypres – the official name of the battle is the Third Battle of Ypres, but the rains were unusually heavy that year.

The battle started with a bang, a very loud bang, the largest explosion in history when 19 mines were detonated under the Germans at 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917. Over a million tons of ammonal explosive going off was heard as far off as London where David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, was working late in his office. To give an idea of the low topographical relief, one of the mines was under Hill 60, a German strongpoint a mere 60 meters above sea level.

Yet, the chaos caused by those mines, some sources say about 10,000 German troops were killed when they exploded, didn’t start the battle proper. General Douglas Haig’s offensive started on July 31, 1917 and ground to a halt, the Germans pushed off their “high ground” of Messines and Passchendaele Ridges and the Gheuvelt Plateau, on November 10, 1917.

I read Prior and Wilson’s book second, but I should have read it first. Even Martin Marix Evans, author of several books on the battle, points out in the February 2007 issue of Over the Top: A Magazine of the First World War (put out by the people who do the Roads to the Great War site listed on my blogroll), who disputes their conclusion that the battle lacked “discernible consequences or achievements”, admires the clarity of their presentation.Wilson Passchendaele

They break each phase of the battle into its own chapter with relevant, clear, small scale maps showing lines of movements and zones of operation for the Commonwealth forces. Warner’s book, a popular history, uses 1920 maps from French sources. While they sometimes show important villages and topographical features lacking in Trevor and Wilson, they don’t show locations of units. It’s even hard to discern the Menin Road that is so much a part of British memory (as much as anything of World War One is) and site of the Menin Gate monument. Continue reading “Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele”