world war i: western front

“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

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.

British Take Messines With Largest Mine Explosion of the War

A destroyed German trench at Messines.

June 7 1917, Messines–British sappers had been digging under the German lines in the Flanders clay since 1915, and had been specifically preparing for an attack on Messines since early 1916.  The ridge at Messines (although really more the crest of a gentle slope) dominated the southern flank of the Ypres salient.  By the end of May 1917, the sappers’ work was more than ready, nineteen mines had been placed under the German lines, and the British Second Army was ready to take advantage of the explosion that would result.

At 3:10 AM on June 7, the nineteen mines were detonated within 20 seconds of each other.  Taken together, it was the largest deliberate explosion until Hiroshima, and is the most deadly non-nuclear explosion in history, killing over 10,000 Germans in the front lines.  A German observer recalled that nineteen mushroom clouds

rose up slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multicolored columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters into the sky.

The explosion destroyed many of the long-standing landmarks on the battlefield, including Hill 60, site of the first major sapping operation.  The explosion was reportedly heard as far away as Dublin; in Lille, it was mistaken for an earthquake.

A creeping barrage followed to pound whoever survived the explosion into submission.  The British infantry and tanks that followed afterwards were able to seize their objectives of 1-2 miles distant within hours, their largest obstacle often the large craters made by the initial explosion.

The operation was mainly a tactical one; there were no real plans to attempt a major breakthrough. Although Haig was eager to push the attack beyond the initial objectives, commanders on the ground were less sanguine as to their chances, and any opportunity soon slipped by.  The next week saw the usual deadly round of counterattacks, but the British held their ground.

From Haig’s perspective, the victory at Messines was highly important for two reasons.  First, it distracted the Germans from the French mutinies, as Pétain requested of him (though there is no indication the Germans were aware of them).  Secondly, it secured the British right flank at Ypres, where Haig was eager to launch another offensive later in the summer.

Two of the mines laid were never detonated. One was set off by lightning in 1955; thankfully the only casualty was a single cow.  The other still remains unexploded under the battlefield.

Today in 1916: Fort Vaux Surrenders at Verdun
Today in 1915: Inaugural Meeting of UK Dardanelles Committee

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; John Keegan, The First World War; Arthur Banks, Atlas of the First World War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World 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)

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.

Failure of the Nivelle Offensive

A French soldier pictured in the ruins of a shattered village along the Aisne, in early May.

April 20 1917, Rheims–Nivelle had promised when proposing his offensive, that if it should not succeed, it would be called off within forty-eight hours.  This appealed to the politicians (especially Lloyd George), who were wary of a repeat of the months-long bloodbath of the Somme or of Verdun.  However, now, more than four days into the offensive, there was little sign that Nivelle wanted to, or even could, halt the offensive.  Part of this was tactical necessity; as certain positions were very exposed or under active counterattack by the Germans, a halt to the fighting could not be called unilaterally.  Mainly, however, Nivelle realized that to call the offensive off entirely would be to admit failure and all but end his military career.

Therefore, the fighting, and the pretense of an overall offensive, continued.  Nivelle wrote to the British: “Although the progress of the attack is less rapid than we had hoped…I anticipate no halt to the operation.”  On April 20, Nivelle directed further attacks for the time being to be directed on small scales, at more local objectives.  However, he continued to hold out hope that another big push would achieve the desired breakthrough, and ordered more troops into the front lines in preparation for a major attack.

In the first ten days of the offensive, the French suffered 134,000 casualties (the bulk of it on the first day alone), for gains that only served to straighten the German line.  The French medical service had been expecting at most a sixth of this number, and was overwhelmed.  Many of the wounded could not be attended to properly, or were left out in the rain and the German bombardment.  The Germans had suffered as well, losing over 16,000 PoWs and somewhat fewer overall casualties than the French, but the impact on French morale was palpable.

Today in 1916: Russian Expeditionary Force Arrives in France
Today in 1915: Armenians Besieged in Van

Sources include: E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory; Richard M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason.

4

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. 

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.

Germans Begin General Withdrawal to Hindenburg Line

French troops greeting French civilians left behind by the Germans in Noyon, within a half hour of its liberation on March 18.  The French flag flying was likely kept in hiding for over two years of German occupation.

March 16 1917, Noyon–Since early February, the Germans had been preparing to shorten and strengthen their lines by willingly evacuating a large salient between Arras and the Aisne, surrounding but far larger than the ground lost on the Somme last year.  They had made sure that the Allies would not be gaining any ground of much use, however, destroying all the infrastructure and buildings they could find, damming rivers, leaving booby traps and fouling wells.  Anyone who could be useful for the war economy was taken further behind German lines, leaving the French with children, the elderly as additional mouths to feed.

Many Allied commanders had realized the Germans were planning a retreat by early March, and it had become increasingly obvious in the past few days. Even Nivelle had realized what was going on by the 15th.  The Germans abandoned the front lines in the wee hours of the 16th, leaving the French to face empty trenches.  The Allies soon followed, but could not maintain the same pace over ground that had been wrecked by years of fighting and deliberate German scorched-earth policies. Nevertheless, the few soldiers still left who had fought in the first months of the war, it felt like August or September of 1914 again; no longer stuck in trenches, they were moving over open country.  Cavalry commanders were excited at the prospect of chasing down the retreating Germans, though a lack of forage and water ultimately prevented the cavalry from being effective.

Nivelle had refused to believe that the Germans would give up this ground; Noyon lay only 40 miles from Paris.  The politician George Clemenceau would exhort the readers of his paper: “Monsieurs, les Allemands sont toujours en Noyon.” (Monsieurs, the Germans are still in Noyon.)  When Noyon fell two days later, Nivelle supposedly cabled Clemenceau, telling him “Monsieur, les Allemands ne sont plus en Noyon.” (Monsieur, the Germans are no longer in Noyon.)

Today in 1916: Last Supply Ship Arrives in German East Africa
Today in 1915:  Universal City Grand Opening Marred by Aviator Death

Sources include: E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory.

A makeshift “chalet” created by French soldiers near their network of trenches during World War I. The trenches unexpectedly became a key feature of the western front and dominated the fighting, killing millions. Soldiers assigned to the smelly, muddy, and vermin-infested trenches often did whatever they could to add a touch of home to their environment.

“A Portuguese gas sentry standing by SOS rockets used in the case of gas attacks at Neuve Chapelle”, 24 June 1917

The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was the main military force from Portugal that fought on the Western Front, during World War I. Portuguese neutrality ended in 1916 after the seizure of German merchant ships resulted in Germany declaring war. The expeditionary force was raised soon after and included around 55,000 soldiers.