world war i: western front

Armistice Day

Armistice Day is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, and coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

Tunnel Warfare 

Under enemy lines.

Since ancient times, armies have used mining and tunneling as a way of besieging their enemies. In classical antiquity, armies dug tunnels under enemy walls, and then set fire to timber in the tunnel, causing the shaft to collapse and with it enemy wall. Armies came up with increasingly ingenious ways to use tunnels, or to fight back against them. In 285, Sassanid Persians used poison gas to kill Roman engineers tunneling under their walls. In medieval times, gunpowder became the weapon of choice to place under enemy lines, blowing them sky-high.

The Western Front of World War I was essentially a medieval siege battle on a massive scale, and thus tunnel warfare surfaced again in history. Digging was a way of getting around the strategic impasse of trench-fighting. From the very beginning, the armies employed former miners in crude operations, digging under enemy lines, placing TNT in the mine-shafts, and then blowing up enemy trenches from below. Or tunnels could dig secret entrances into No-Man’s Land or enemy trenches, allowing soldiers to cross into enemy territory safely.

How it worked.

By 1917 tunnel warfare had become a complex and sophisticated operation. Britain recruited professional coal miners from Wales and Australia, as well as the “clay kickers” who had designed the London underground. Germany and France employed miners of their own, each side mining under enemy lines, or searching and destroying the underground tunnels of their enemies.

French sappers listen for vibrations that would detect enemy German diggers.

The most effective case ever was on June 7, 1917, when the British began the Battle of Messines by detonating 19 mines, with over 1 million tons of explosives, under German lines. The noise could be heard in London, 140 miles away. It was the loudest noise produced by humans in history up to that point, and the deadliest non-nuclear explosion of all time.

One of 19 mines goes up at Messines, June 7 1917.

Tunnel warfare was a deadly business. It came, first of all, with all the natural risks of mining. Shafts could collapse suddenly, burying sappers alive. In the clay soil of Belgium, where the water table was very high, mines flooded almost instantly, and soldiers spent laborious hours pumping out water. Complicated breathing apparatuses might be necessary for when oxygen ran out. Furthermore, sappers worked underground with massive quantities of dynamite. An accidental spark here or there and thousands of tons of TNT could blow up.

A sawn-off Lee Enfield rifle for underground fighting.

Even more risks came from the enemy. When one side mined, the other side dug counter-mines. Sappers listened for vibrations from underground, and if they heard the enemy digging, they could rig another tunnel to blow in the enemy excavation. Or, like the ancient Persians, they could find the enemy sap and siphon in gas. And sometimes the methods of war underground were truly medieval. Sometimes enemy sappers ran into each other underground, suddenly bursting through an underground wall. In these cases, nightmarish subterranean conflicts took place in the pitch dark, as man killed each other with knuckle-dusters, knives, and sawn-off bolt-action rifles.

A crater formed by one mine at Messines Ridge.

Battle of Cambrai

A British tank crossing a trench in maneuvers.

November 20 1917, Cambrai–The British had been using tanks in battle for over a year.  While they had occasionally been quite effective on a tactical level, they had not yet produced the breakthrough that had been hoped for.  The staff of General Byng’s Third Army had devised a plan for a surprise attack with massed tanks around Cambrai that hoped to do just that, which Haig approved in mid-October.

The plan called for over three hundred tanks, to be moved up to the front the day before so as to not alert the Germans. There would be no preliminary bombardment, not even a registering of artillery ranges–the artillery would be calibrated electrically beforehand.  The ground was dry around Cambrai (unlike at Ypres), and the German troops in the area were not first-rate–Cambrai was occasionally nicknamed the “Flanders Sanitarium,” a place for recuperation from the fighting around Ypres.  The Germans had some intelligence reports of an impending attack, but the complete lack of accompanying typical British preparatory actions meant the attack would come as a complete surprise.

At 6:20 AM, a huge rolling barrage erupted on a six-mile front with no warning but the sound of the tanks’ engines.  The tanks followed close behind, spewing machine gun fire as they went.  The infantry advanced behind the tanks, crossing the enemy trenches on bridges dropped by the tanks, supporting them and clearing out any pockets of resistance that remained.  On the left and right of the British attack, the British advanced up to five miles, in some places breaking through the entirety of the Hindenburg Line; the way to Cambrai was open. However, there were not enough reserves to exploit the breakthrough immediately, and the cavalry had difficulty making it through the barbed wire and other wreckage of the battlefield.

The British were also stymied by extreme delays in the center, around Flesquières, where the British commander kept his infantry 150-200 yards behind the tanks, believing that this would keep them protected from German artillery fire that was sure to fall on the tanks.  This meant that the tanks were entirely unsupported by infantry as they went over a ridge, and the Germans were able to concentrate fire on the tanks and knock out eleven of them.  The local German commander had been especially worried about tanks and had trained his artillery to fire on moving targets.  One artillery sergeant was able to take out five tanks before the infantry caught up with him; in other cases the tanks were taken out by machine guns with armor-piercing rounds or even individual soldiers with cluster grenades.  The resulting delay meant that the British were not able to break through in the center as they had elsewhere.

Nevertheless, in a single day the British had advanced further than they had in several months at Ypres, with perhaps 2% of the casualties.  Church bells rang in Britain for a victory, the first time since the start of the war.

Today in 1916: Alexeyev Leaves Stavka Due to Illness
Today in 1915: Yuan Shikai Offered Chinese Throne by Handpicked Assembly
Today in 1914: Camel Patrols Clash in Sinai

Sources include: John Keegan, The First World War; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.

“Hell Fighters” from Harlem by H. Charles McBarron

The segregated 369th Infantry Regiment, “Harlem Hellfighters”, go into action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The institutional racism of the US military saw the 369th put under French command, where, equipped with French arms and uniforms, they were treated with considerably more fairness than they had been by the US.

(National Guard)

“Bloody April”

An enhanced and colorized photo of the aftermath of the crash of Capt. Thistleton’s plane in No Man’s Land.

April 1 1917, Arras–The British were planning an offensive at Arras, to slightly precede Nivelle’s main push along the Aisne.  In the leadup to the offensive, the British greatly increased their use of air power in the area, not only over the front lines but also into German territory, in an attempt to establish air superiority.  It was hoped that this would deny the Germans any aerial reconnaissance of British preparations, and once the offensive began, British planes could provide close air support, artillery spotting, and disrupt the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the front.

However, the Germans had a distinct advantage in the air at this time in the war; while no longer as dominant as they had been during the “Fokker scourge,” the Germans were better trained, better organized, and had better planes.  Despite a large British superiority in numbers, the Germans were able to inflict disproportionate casualties.  As they mounted, the month soon became known as “Bloody April,” with squadrons losing multiple pilots a week, and new pilots often being killed in their first few days.

Even in the lead-up to the offensive, British fliers were suffering inordinate casualties, to the point where some squadrons thought none of them would survive the war.  In a morbid attempt to raise morale, one squadron, led by Capt. Reginald Thistleton, started a tontine, a scheme in which everyone would pay in £50; the last survivor of the squadron would receive all of the money, plus any accrued interest.  

Thistleton himself would not benefit from the scheme; his plane was shot down after no-man’s-land on April 1.  Although he survived the crash, and his batman, William Woodhouse, even attempted a rescue (pictured above), he was killed by a German sniper shortly thereafter.  In revenge, Woodhouse went on a solo trench raid, supposedly killing up to 50 Germans singlehanded before returning to the British lines.  Woodhouse was awarded a Victoria Cross for his efforts.

While casualties were high during “Bloody April,” most members of Thistleton’s squadron did survive the war, and the tontine grew greatly in value.  There were even some suspicions that the members of the squadron were being killled off so the last survivor could collect on the tontine, these proved to be unfounded.  The identity of the last survivor is unknown to this author, though it is known that Lance Corporal Woodhouse was one of the last two survivors.

Today in 1916: Spring 1916: Strategic Overview
Today in 1815: Italian Army Advances on Bologna; Cobbett Urges Peace With France

First Use of Mustard Gas

July 12 1917, Ypres–The Germans had been using gas warfare since early 1915, with its western debut at Ypres to great effect that April.  Effective countermeasures, largely in the form of gas masks, prevented future breakthroughs solely due to the use of poison gas, though it remained a deadly nuisance for both sides.  Embracing this aspect, the Germans developed and deployed a new weapon whose main purpose was to cause pain to and incapacitate enemy soldiers.

Mustard gas is a blistering agent that would cause few immediate symptoms, but several hours later would result in painful chemical blisters and burns all over the body, eye damage, and lung damage if inhaled.  Gas masks, if worn, would only prevent the latter two effects.  Technically a fine aerosol rather than a gas, it would also eventually fall to the ground and cover surfaces, potentially causing future exposure.  While this made it more difficult to attack areas exposed to mustard gas, this was little problem for a defending army.

On July 12, the Germans used mustard gas for the first time, firing 50,000 rounds of gas shells at the British lines near Ypres, where the Germans had observed a British buildup in progress.  Nearly 2500 British soldiers were gassed; of these, only 87 died, though many others suffered debilitating chemical burns.  The British first called this new weapon “Yellow Cross;” the French, “Yperite.”

Today in 1916: German Merchant Submarine Offloads Cargo in Baltimore
Today in 1915: British Celebrate Destruction of SMS Königsberg
Today in 1914: Final Assassin Apprehended in Montenegro

Real-Life Action Heroes: The 5 Most Heroic Individual Battlefield Feats In The History Of War

War is brutal and horrifying, but every now and then, individual soldiers act so courageously in the face of death and bloodshed that their brave actions get remembered for decades, and even centuries, afterward. Here are the five most heroic individual battlefield feats in the history of war.

1. U.S. soldier Charles Pack shoots a clutch free throw in the annual United States Army vs. ISIS basketball game: Every year, American and ISIS soldiers put down their guns and pick up a basketball to determine who’s the more powerful squad. And in 2015, Pfc. Charles Pack hit a free throw with only two seconds left to put the U.S. team up for good, crushing ISIS’ hopes for a major strategic victory over the United States.

2. Soviet sniper Sergei Vasiliev kills 17 Nazi soldiers in a conga line with one shot during the Battle of Stalingrad: With only one bullet left in his magazine and 17 heavily armed Nazis marching toward him, Sergei Vasiliev had to think fast. He began humming an infectious Cuban ditty, which caused the fighters to form a conga line and allowed Vasiliev to fire a single shot that dispatched them all and earned him 17 medals.

3. British soldier Carol Sweeney has the idea to start a T-shirt company while surrounded by al-Qaida: In Iraq, circa 2005, Pvt. Carol Sweeney was surrounded by al-Qaida militants completely by herself. Thinking quickly, Sweeney decided to start her own custom T-shirt company right there on the spot. Al-Qaida was so impressed by her entrepreneurial spirit that they not only let her go, but loaned her $20,000 to help get it off the ground.

4. U.S. Gen. John Pershing leads the attack on the Western Front during World War I even though he wasn’t really feeling it that day: No one was expecting much from Gen. Pershing during the day he really wasn’t feeling it. Even his soldiers talked about how they were expecting to die that day, but somehow, despite waking up groggy and just feeling awful in a general sense, Pershing powered through and led the attack on the Western Front to perfection.

5. Nazi Pvt. Johannes Wald defeats eight Allied battalions with a pistol, which we don’t talk about as much. ’Cause yikes: During World War II, Johannes Wald was a lowly foot soldier, who—oh boy—volunteered for the German army the moment the war broke out and defended an entire Bavarian village armed with nothing but a standard-issue handgun, while shouting—you’re not going to like this—“I love Hitler!” Historians don’t tend to bring it up, because, you know, it’s very bad to be a Nazi, and typically it sucks when they win anything. But you’ve got to hand it to Johannes here: This was some straight-up Rambo business.

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New Guinea during World War I — The Battle of Bita Paka and the Siege of Toma,

While World War I typically brings up scenes of trench warfare from the Western Front. However World War I was fought by people from all over the world on battlefields all over the world. Before World War I, New Guinea was divided in two, the northern half controlled by Germany, the southern half British (administered by Australia). The islands of New Guinea were especially important for Germany because they were home to many supply and communications stations for the German East Asiatic Squadron, a fleet of cruisers which harassed Allied shipping in the Pacific and Indian Ocean throughout the war. 

As soon as the war began, the Australian government and military began planning for an operation to seize New Guinea. It would become the first independent Australian military operation and result in the first Australian casualties of the war. The operation was conducted by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, consisting of 3,000 soldiers and sailors. Australia was quickly able to seize most of New Guinea without resistance, however at a radio station at a small village called Bita Paka on New Britain Island was a force of 61 German soldiers and 240 native police who were determined to fight.

On September 11th, 1914 a force of 500 Australian soldiers approached Bita Paka intent on capturing the radio station. There they were met by the German and native soldiers who fought a retreating skirmish, until eventually the settled into trenches and fortifications. The Germans had intended to draw the Australians into a trap, a  pipe mines which were to be detonated when the Australians advanced across a road. However the Australians were able to locate and disable the mine, foiling the German plans. 

With superior numbers, the Australians were able to quickly outflank and overwhelm the German lines. The Germans retreated 19 miles through the dense jungle to the village of Toma, hoping to hold out until the East Asiatic Squadron arrived with reinforcements. However, the Australians would follow them with a 12 pounder artillery piece and commence bombardment of the village.  Most of the native soldiers fled in panic, convincing the Germans to surrender. One German officer named Hermann Detzner escaped into the jungle with 20 native soldiers, where he spent the rest of the war in hiding.  At the end of the operation six Australian soldiers were dead and four wounded. The Germans suffered 1 German officer dead, 30 native soldiers killed, and 11 wounded.