The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

Continue reading “The Russian Origins of the First World War”

The Suicide Battalion

This one I read solely because Gilbert Stuart MacDonald served in the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan). He’s my closest personal link to World War One combat. And not a very close one at that. If I understand genealogical terminology, he’s my fifth cousin three times removed.

Review: The Suicide Battalion, James L. McWilliams & R. James Steel, 1978.

As the authors point out at the very beginning, the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan) was not the only battalion to be designated the “Suicide Battalion” in the Great War. Its losses in the war were heavy. Of the 5,374 men who served in the unit during the war, 1,433 died and 3,484 were wounded. Only 457 were unscathed. But there are units on both sides of the war that could claim similar statistics.

This is a very personal book for the authors. McWilliams is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, home of the unit. Steel’s grandfather served in the unit.

The book is from Hurtig Publishers, founded by Mel Hurtig because he thought Canadians should have some Canadian history books in their bookstores instead of just American history books.

Continue reading “The Suicide Battalion”

Myths & Legends of the First World War

Review: Myths & Legends of the First World War, James Hayward, 2002, 2010.

I would have thought the marketing department would have went with the title The Cult of the Clitoris and Other Myths and Legends of the First World War. Perhaps too long?

In a very concise, readable book with all the academic appurtenances of footnotes, bibliography, index and even some photos, Hayward looks at the fake news and rumors that circulated during the war and the false judgements afterwards.

Understandably, like a lot of British histography on the Great War, it focuses solely on the Western Front.

“Spy Mania” looks at the many reports of German spies and saboteurs during August 1914. They were poisoning water supplies and destroying rail bridges. Concrete tennis courts and pools and building foundations were waiting for secret German artillery installations. German spies kept homing pigeons, forbidden them by the Aliens Restriction Order. They signaled offshore German submarines. Winston Churchill even got into the act into hunting down the later. While staying in the Loch Ewe anchorage on the HMS Iron Duke, he thought a searchlight on the roof of a nearby mansion was signaling enemy submarines. Soon a party of Admirals and Commodores found themselves going ashore in an armed party to investigate. Lest we be smug about this in the 21st century, I will direct people to the many contemporary reports of non-existent terrorist actions in Washington, D.C. on Sept 11th.

Or, at least, those were the stories going around. Carl Lody’s execution on Nov. 6, 1914 pretty much ended German spying in Britain. But every German butcher, hairdresser, waiters, watchmaker, prostitute, and governess was under suspicion. Accusations of being German spies and sympathizers were made against several prominent members of the government or their spouses including Lord Haldane, Baden-Powell, and Margot Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife.

Continue reading “Myths & Legends of the First World War”

The Great Scuttle

Knowing I was heading to Scapa Flow and hearing of this book’s release, I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon prior to my trip.

It didn’t come. On first arriving in Kirkwall, I went to the local Orcadian Bookshop. Of course, they had a copy.

Review: The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet, David Meare, 2019.

Lots of us have went on school field trips. I doubt any of those were as historic as the one the children of Stromness in the Orkney Islands took on June 21, 1919. From the deck of the Flying Kestrel, they saw more ships go to the bottom of the sea at one time than any day before or since.

There are, of course, other histories of that day. I reviewed one recently, Dan van der Vat’s The Grand Scuttle. Meara covers much the same ground as that book. We hear about the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, its time in Scapa Flow, its scuttling, and the salvage efforts that raised much of it.

What Meara brings, besides the concision of 96 pages and lots of beautiful photographs and paintings, some in color, is the local angle all but ignored before now – what the Orcadians said about that day.

Continue reading “The Great Scuttle”

The Grand Scuttle

Last fall I took a trip to the Orkney Islands in Scotland. In preparation, I took this book off the shelf.

I inherited it from a late friend of mine who had a keen interest in naval history and World War One history.

He tried three times to make it to the Scapa Flow Museum. Once he got no closer than London due to a missed flight. Another time he made it to the ferry port on the mainland, but the ferry wasn’t running. Another time, he made it to the museum – only to find it closed for remodeling.

I didn’t do much better. It was closed when I was there too.

This book, published by the respected Naval Institute Press, is still well thought of by historians. You can still find it in places in the Orkneys. It was in The Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall, and I believe I saw copies at the Stromness Museum when I nipped in for an all too short look at some of the artifacts from the Grand Scuttle.

Review: The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, Dan van der Vat, 1986.Grand Scuttle

The scuttling of the German Fleet on June 21, 1919 sank more marine tonnage in a single day than any time before or since.

Van der Vat’s book looks at the German High Seas Fleet from its beginning as a notion in the head of Captain Alfred von Tirpitz to its voyage to outer space.

Some parts of that story are relatively well known.

Histories of the war’s beginning often talk about the Anglo-German naval arms race as a cause of World War One, and van der Vat places too much emphasis on it. Germany lost that arms race by late 1912, and both sides knew it. But he does show it was a definite cause in the souring German-British relations before the war.

Certainly, German naval actions in skirmishes in the North Sea and, of course, the Battle of Jutland have gotten wide coverage.

Likewise, the actual scuttling of the fleet on the summer solstice has certainly been covered elsewhere. The nine German sailors who died that day – half shot in lifeboats as they left their sinking ships – are the symbolic last German casualties of the war.

Where the book shines is in its coverage of the fleet between the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice and the scuttling and the fate of the fleet after the scuttling. Continue reading “The Grand Scuttle”

Swarm Troopers

Long before I read David Hambling’s excellent Cthulhu Mythos fiction, I knew him as a popular science writer on weird or speculative science for Fortean Times and on military technology. I read his earlier Weapons Grade: The Revealing History of the Link Between Modern Warfare and Our High Tech World which I recommend as a look at civilian spinoffs – some social like the public relations industry – from military research and weapons. (I did not review it though.)

Before I read Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky, I decided to actually read this one which I got last year though it is several years old.

Review: Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World, David Hambling, 2015.51NFMTI0jwL

To paraphrase a prophet,

Beat your iPhones into swords, and turn your Christmas toys into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.

This self-published work draws upon David Hambling’s extensive writings about modern drone technology for various magazines. It may be four years old, but it’s still worth reading. The kindle versions has extensive links to various online resources, and Hambling’s blog swarm-troopers.com has kept current with news on the types of drones central to this story. Hambling’s presentation seems to almost be intended as a concisely written academic precis on the subject with an abstract given for each chapter.

I haven’t kept that current with developments in drone technology, so this book was valuable.

Valuable and frightening.

The first thing one learns is that militaries have been messing about with unmanned aerial vehicles since 1849 when an attempt was made to bomb Venice with unmanned balloons. The British military developed a remote-controlled airplane in 1916. Drones piloted remotely via onboard tv cameras were successfully deployed by the U.S. Navy in 1943. A Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (that would be DASH — this book is full of often strained military acronyms) was developed in the early 1960s. Continue reading “Swarm Troopers”

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”