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”


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””

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. [Update: The detonation of the mines was not heard in England. The following artillery barrage was as per historian Simon Jones.]

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. [Update: Simon Jones says the German casualties from the mine were nowhere near this amount.]

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”

Under Fire

Review: Under Fire, Henri Barbusse, trans. Robin Buss, 1916, 2003.Under Fire

Barbusse’s novel has more memorable images and incidents than Ernst Jűnger’s World War One memoir Storm of Steel which I looked at recently.

Barbusse wasn’t writing down memories in a whirling, quick voice with a sometimes cold tone like Jűnger. Barbusse was crafting a message, propagandistic in parts, not for fellow veterans but the home front. And the war was not settled history when this novel was published.

Writing a novel, Barbusse can linger on his horrors and details, invent incidents if necessary. Indeed, he insists on the horror because he is trying to tell the French public what life in the trenches is really like for the French soldier, the poilu. Are they dressed adequately? Do they have enough to eat? Is war glorious and honorable?

No, answers Barbusse, to all the questions except, maybe, that there is honor in the war’s purpose.

Barbusse was a French socialist and pacifist who volunteered for the French Army at age 41. He was not the only volunteer with such leanings. I’ve talked about a similar writer, Adrien Bertrand, before. Socialists in every belligerent country on the eve of the war had to decide whether they were going to follow through with their talk of an international brotherhood of workers or fight for their country. En masse, they did the latter.

Barbusse saw combat over a period of seventeen months before an ailment of the lungs, dysentery, and exhaustion took him out of front line service and into a desk job. He was cited twice for bravery and during his convalescence in 1915 he wrote Under Fire, Le Feu in French.

It was first published in serialized form in 1916 in L’Oeuvre, a monthly literary journal. Such journals were not heavily scrutinized by wartime censors. When the installments were bound together as a book and published in January 1917, Barbusse reasonably argued it was too late to censor his message now.

The novel sold quite well, and it’s a gripping story seeming to drag only at its endcaps.

It opens, like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain did eight years later, in a Swiss sanitarium. On the eve of the war, “rich and independent men” have a vision of strange creatures, mud covered “shipwrecked men” on a plain “vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes”.

From that vision, Barbusse glides down, with the opening of the second chapter, onto the battlefield and to his narrator. It’s the literary equivalent of a descending crane shot in a movie but before writers thought in those cinematic terms.

That muddy plain becomes “a maze of long trenches” where, echoing the novel’s concluding vision of a new order being forged in the furnace of war, where “borders are eaten away”, the narrator and his comrades crawl “like bears”, and Barbusse evokes all the senses in his account with the flash of shells, the smells of latrines, the sticky mud.

Many chapters are thematic where Barbusse explains the war to the home front. One fellow soldier, Cocon, is something of a stats freak and he digresses on the logistics of war, the vast material shipped by rail and the necessary timetables, and the layout of trenches.

In the “Kit” chapter, soldiers talk about the possessions of their packs: standard equipment and scavenged additions and the letters and photos of loved ones.

There is, as in Albert Robida’s extrapolation of the war, The Engineer von Satanas, and Arthur Machen’s “The Dazzling Light”, the notion that human society and human progress is regressing in the trenches to medieval levels when Barbusse talks about the animal skins they are dressed in. Sometimes the regression is even further back. One soldier has abandoned his regulation ax for a primitive bone-handled one he’s found. He brandishes it “like some Neanderthal decked in tatters, lurking in the bowels of our earth.”

Barbusse vividly describes being under artillery bombardment, first aid stations, the notion of the “good wound” which will not kill or maim a man but take him home. Most of this occurs in the novel’s centerpiece, the “Fire” chapter, which starts on page 204 page of this 319 page book and runs for 50 pages.

We hear of truces to bury the dead and the letters the poilu send home and the lethal confusion of battle in the “International Trench” so close to the chaotic front that it is occupied by both sides at once.

Barbusse creates his most vivid and memorable effects in three incidents.

A young war orphan, Eudoxie, wanders the front lines and follows the poilu when they rotate to the rear. The narrator knows she is fascinated by Fouillade, a fellow soldier, but another soldier, Lamuse thinks she is interested in him. But, like so much else here, the matter ends in horror when Lamuse discovers her decomposed body at the front and tells of the “ghastly kiss” she tries to bestow on him.

At another time, the light of dawn shows the tree trunks at the top of a trench are really the decomposing bodies of Lamuse and three other soldiers who disappeared in another action.

Most memorable is when the troops are finally rotated from the firing trench. Relief is in sight as they make their way through the muddy, crowded trenches to the rear while shells explode around them.

Suddenly a tremendous explosion hits us. I shudder from head to foot and a metallic resonance fills my ears, while a burning, suffocating smell of sulphur enters my nostrils. The ground has opened up in front of me. I feel myself lifted up and thrown to one side, bent, stifled and half blinded in this flash of lightning. And yet I remember clearly: in the second when, vaguely, instinctively, I searched for my comrade-in-arms I saw his body rising, upright, black, his two arms fully outstretched and a flame in place of his head!

The soldiers speak of their loved ones and leaves sabotaged by circumstances.

And they speak with deep resentment about those not at the front, the men they have met who claim to have wanted to share their misery but are working well-paid jobs in factories or that they can better serve in the rear. They are the

rich and well-connected those who shouted: “Save France! – and let’s start by saving ourselves!

The soldiers have vowed that they will not lie when they return to the rear on leave. They will tell of their hardships and poor provisions. They will not tell stories of bravery and honor to calm the conscience of the government and civilians.

Yet, when they return home they find themselves doing just that. I wonder if Edmond Hamilton, author of “What’s It Like Out There?” where the survivor of a doomed Mars mission finds himself unable to tell the truth of what he suffered, read this book and was inspired by that chapter.

Barbusse tries to show us the war and the life of the poilu and implicitly claims realism. One chapter, where his fellow soldiers, finding out he’s writing an account of their life, tell him that he will never be allowed to realistically portray their profanity-laced speech (and, indeed, there is little profanity) ironically bolsters that claim.

The novel feels true in its depiction of the French soldier’s in World War One. But is it?

Certainly Barbusse’s fellow soldiers thought it was. His novel was popular with them. One proclaimed it a book “for the dead … for those who do not go over the top with a ‘smile on their lips’.”

One French soldier did not.

Norton Cru was a French citizen who taught French literature in America. When war broke out, he joined the French Army and served in combat until the end of the war. After the war he made a catalogue of 300 some books on the war and wrote Witnesses: An Analytical and Critical Essay on War Memoirs Published in French from 1915 to 1928. He shared Barbusse’s disillusionment with the war, but he was particularly critical of Under Fire. He thought it mixture of truth, lies, and half-truths with Barbusse getting even basic details of French military life, like uniforms, wrong.

I can think of at least three incidents which seem improbable. A dugout is collapsed with a single blow from a rifle butt. Insects alight on the bodies of a snow covered battlefield. Artillerymen run out to examine unexploded German shells to look at their fuses and patterns of impact to deduce the location of German artillery. (It’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never seen another reference to it and seems improbable in its details.)

For his part, translator Robin Buss, in his introduction, says Barbusse is a moral witnesses to the horrors of the Great War and does tell a truth. However, he also throws Rigoberta Menchú in the same category of “moral witnesses” who have a “special kind of memory and make special claims on our attention”. If, in 2003, he is still defending the fraud Menchú, his opinion doesn’t carry much weight with me.

The book winds down with a flooding, drenched battlefield that reminds one of Passenchendaele, a battle that Barbusse never served in and lay in the future after this book was published.

The final chapter, “Dawn”, indicts priests, financiers, banks, tradtionalists, lawyers, historians in their support of the war and the old order.

A soldier’s glory is a lie like everything in war that seems to be beautiful. In reality the sacrifice of soldiers is a dark repression. … If this present war had advanced progress by a single step, its miseries and massacres will count for little.

Barbusse talks his comrades around to the notion that a new order will be born out of the war, and, for the remainder, they must be “executioners”, “honest killers” of the old order and “choke it to death.”

It’s a naïve vision, little more than a continuation of the international socialist dream that was rejected in the warring countries at the beginning of the war. But it’s an understandable dream from a citizen of the country with the first modern revolution and its talk of remaking man in the Year Zero.

It’s also an understandable dream for those in the trenches, for those who have to believe their exceptional suffering must lead to an exceptional outcome, and Barbusse was to pursue it after the war when he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he died in 1935. I do not know if he died disappointed or if he thought that a new and better order was being forged in the blood and starvation of Stalin’s regime.