german wire

Nearly 100 years after their heroic deeds, two World War I Army veterans were awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor, on Tuesday. Historians say Sgts. William Shemin and Henry Johnson hadn’t been properly recognized for their bravery under fire.

Discussing Sgt. Shemin’s service, President Obama says he “couldn’t stand to watch” as wounded comrades lay on the battlefield, in “a bloodbath.” Shemin “ran out into the hell of no-man’s land” three times to drag soldiers to safety.

Obama tells the story of Johnson’s bravery under fire after his position came under attack. It started with a “click,” the president says — the sound of Germans cutting through barbed wire.

“In just a few minutes of fighting, two Americans defeated an entire raiding party,” Obama said.

Harlem Hellfighter And Jewish Soldier Get Long-Overdue Medals Of Honor

Photo credit: Shemin Family Photo/U.S. Army
Caption: World War I veterans Sgts. William Shemin and Henry Johnson

Somme Bombardment Begins

British artillery firing at German barbed wire defenses.

June 24 1916, Albert–After nearly six months of preparations, the Allied effort on the Somme was finally to begin.  The French need to hold the Germans off at Verdun meant that the British would responsible for the vast majority of the offensive.  On June 24, a massive, one-week bombardment of the German trenches began.  It was hoped that the length of the bombardment would completely destroy the German lines (and perhaps leave the date of the infantry offensive unclear for any surviving Germans). 

Over 2000 guns would fire over 1.7 million shells over the next week.  The lighter guns were focused on destroying the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, while the heavier guns were to silence German batteries and destroy the German trenches and fortified positions.  The British anticipated that this week-long bombardment would obliterate the German line completely, but the results would prove otherwise.  A third of the shells were duds and did not even explode.  The shells directed at the wire only detonated upon hitting the ground, so they knocked the wire around rather than cutting through it, as intended.

The Germans had heavily fortified their lines, including the construction of massive, thirty-foot dugouts to house their troops on the front lines during such bombardments, and even the heaviest British shell could not penetrate them.  British reconnaissance raids over the next days reveled that the Germans “appear to remain in these dugouts all the time and are completely sheltered” from the barrage.

Today in 1915: First Battle of the Isonzo

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; John Keegan, The First World War.