December 25, 1914 A Truce to end all Wars

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

The start of the “Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was different.  Had you been alive in August 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi. The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

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First Battle of the Marne, September 1914 H/T Britannica

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Russian soldiers, WW1, H/T BBC

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives. All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called a “Storm of Steel”.

775px-Stabilization_of_Western_Front_WWIOn the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…Silent Night.

The Tommies saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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Christmas day truce of 1914 published 1915 London illustrated news

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

o-TRUCE-facebookCaptain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

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Ypres, Christmas Truce, Hat tip http://www.Bitaboutbritain.com. Thanks, Mike.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible. Yet, there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season. Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

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Pvt. Ronald MacKinnon, H/T National Post

Even so, evidence exists of a small Christmas truce in 1916, though little is known of it. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed 
by Thomas Hardy

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The Duke Of Cambridge Visits Staffordshire & Birmingham
Christmas truce memorial, National Arboretum, Staffordshire, England
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December 13, 1941 Cook’s Assistant

There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) aboard Royal Navy ships.

naafiNAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI on this day in 1941 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

The U-559 crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with Junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

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With the submarine sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down from the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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With the sub beginning to sink, the canteen assistant called for his shipmates to get out of the boat, but the other two were trapped. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, did not escape.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard with the revelation of his true age.  He never was discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the HMS Belfast.

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By 1945 he was Leading Seaman Tommy Brown, home on shore leave when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his youngest sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award of the United Kingdom system of military honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George medal.

Fasson Memorial

None of the three would ever learn that their actions had helped to end the war.

For German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk off the northwest approach to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

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Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the American shooting season. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

According to USMM.org, the United States Merchant marine suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any other American service branch during WW2.

enigma2Early versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.

French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, \methods which were later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.  Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally jealous of security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.  The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

By early 1942, all M4 machines were in place.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  Like the flipping of a switch.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the foggiest notion of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was disastrous.

BletchleyThe beginning of the end of darkness came to an end on October 30, when a ship’s cook climbed up that conning ladder.  Code sheets allowed British cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used by the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves, were under attack.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until years after his death.  Winston Churchill would later write, that the actions of the crew of Petard, were crucial to the outcome of the war.  There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

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November 18, 1944 The Cages of Münster

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. This was a list of topics, an academic work.  Ninety-five propositions framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such theological issues were matters of life and death.  The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast on the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at Rothmann’s growing influence, church authorities banned him from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February of 1532, and installed Rothmann as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time, would be different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist he could get hold of “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20% of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, and the “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warning those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in an attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534, but Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

200px-MuensterHinrichtungTaeuferThe prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, his “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square and physically torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers. Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

The bones were removed some fifty years later, but not those cages.  The old steeple was torn down and a new one built around 1880, and those three cages, reinstalled.

British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church on November 18, 1944, knocking the highest, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third, hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Thirty years ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

 

 

 

August 5, 1942 Old Doctor

The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children. Janusz Korczak and his orphaned children were last seen boarding the train to the Treblinka extermination camp on August 5 or 6.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and himself a lifelong learner, a student of pedagogy, the art of science of education, and how children learn.

Korczak10lat0001Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (the sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which he wrote children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital, where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

220px-Janusz_KorczakKorczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design, hiring Wilczyńska as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was born to be an educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by his social inferior. It was thought that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

JK2The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books, along with another seven on pedagogy and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

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Warsaw became the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe within the following year.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

There were nearly 200 of them on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came for their “Resettlement to the East”.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, awaits.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak, and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead, but again he refused.

The man who refused freedom to die with his orphaned children was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5 or 6, where all 200 were murdered, the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”. — Mary Berg, The Diary

July 31, 1917  Did we really send men to fight in That?

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time, and coining the term ‘genocide‘.

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Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold of surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on the defeat of Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east, and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive had produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

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Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn apart.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed TrainMassive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.

general

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

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German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized, by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of claiming grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

Passchendaele, aerial
Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud, and a village barely recognizable, after its capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?!  The soldier turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy” whom his government had sent sent to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which the poet is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet – by Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon“Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’…that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?”

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July 14, 1987 The Other Hitler

William Patrick Hitler petitioned President Roosevelt for permission to fight on the American side, receiving permission in 1944.  Drafted into the Navy, the induction officer asked his name.  The reply came, “Hitler”. “Glad to see you Hitler,” the officer replied, “My name’s Hess.”

Suppose for a moment, that Gallup or Ipsos were to conduct a survey, naming the top ten bad guys, in all history. One name I daresay would top every list, would be that of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party leader, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler himself wouldn’t have the term, “Nazi”. That was bitter insult, coined long before the rise of the Nazi party. In German, Hitler would have referred to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP for short.

Alois Johann Schicklgruber was born on June 7, 1837, to the 42-year-old unmarried peasant Maria Schicklgruber.  The boy’s father was known to her, the priest wrote “illegitimate” on the baptismal certificate. Johann Georg Hiedler married the peasant woman when the boy was five.  By ten, Alois was sent to live with Heidler’s brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler. Three years later, Alois  Schicklgruber moved to Vienna where he worked as a cobbler’s apprentice, finally becoming a low level civil servant in the Austrian Finance Ministry.

There are plenty of variations on the Hiedler family surname. ‘Hiedler’ apparently derives from an Austro-Bavarian dialect, meaning one who lives by a Hiedl, or underground spring. Other derivations come from the German Hutte (hut), as in “one who lives in a hut”.  Be that as it may, the variations appear to have been interchangeable.  Common variations included Hitler, Hiedler, Hüttler, Hytler, and Hittler.

5025565e94b0d956cd32e9326850bdf6There are plenty of tales regarding the man’s paternity, but none are any more than that. Alois Schicklgruber ‘legitimized’ himself in 1877, adopting a variant on the name of his stepfather and calling himself ‘Hitler”.

Historian Alan Bullock has described Alois Hitler as “hard, unsympathetic and short-tempered”. He seems to have had a problem with marital fidelity, as well. Alois was thirty-six when he married Anna Glasl-Hörer, the 50-year-old, invalid daughter of a customs official. By age 43, he was carrying on with the 19-year-old servant girl, Franziska “Fanni” Matzelsberger, with whom he had an illegitimate son, Alois Jr.

Alois Sr. was for all intents and purposes ‘married’ to the Matzelsberger girl for the next two years, while his lawful wife Anna, sickened and died. Hitler, 45, married Matzelsberger, age 21 in May, 1883. The couple’s second child Angela, was born two months later.

Sixteen-year-old Klara Pölzl moved in years earlier as household servant, and no woman was going to do to the new Mrs. Hitler, that which she had done to another woman.  Frau Hitler demanded that the “servant girl” be sent away but Pölzl would return the following year, as Fanni herself sickened and died.

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Pölzl was by this time pregnant with the first of the couple’s four children, but there was a problem. There are many candidates for Alois (Schicklgruber) Hitler’s biological father. If Hitler’s step-father was in fact his real sire as implied by the name change, that made Klara Pölzl his first cousin once removed, at least by law. The couple was too close to marry.

Alois petitioned the church for a humanitarian waiver. The waiver was granted and Klara Pölzl became the third Frau Hitler in January 1885. The first-born child was born five months later.

Adolf Hitler as an infant

The future leader of the National Socialist Party was born fours later, by that time the only child born to his mother Klara.  Her first three children Gustav, Ida and Otto, all died in childhood.

Alois Hitler, Sr. seems to have been a thoroughly unlikable man, lording it over neighbors and brutalizing his own family. Historian Robert Waite notes that, “Even one of his closest friends admitted that Alois was ‘awfully rough’ with his wife and ‘hardly ever spoke a word to her at home’.” The man would berate Klara and children alike, and apparently beat them on a regular basis.  Alois Jr. left home never to return, following a violent argument with his father. The elder Alois swore that he would never give the boy a single mark of inheritance, over what the law required. The youngest, Adolf, grew up a frail and sickly child, doted on by his mother and often at the center of violent rages by his father.

Alois-Hitler-2
Alois Hitler

Alois tried to browbeat his youngest into following him, into the civil service. The boy feared and detested his father, and wanted nothing to do with him.  Adolf Hitler would follow the path which would bring him to that list of the great monsters of the 20th century, as his brother Alois Jr., made his own way in the world.

Some apples don’t fall far from the tree. Alois Hitler Jr. went to Ireland, where he met Bridget Dowling at the Dublin Horse Show. Nothing more than a poor kitchen porter at the Shelbourne Hotel, Hitler managed to convince her that he was, in fact, a wealthy hotelier, touring Europe. The couple eloped to London in June 1910. Bridget’s father William threatened to bring Hitler up on charges of kidnapping, and only relented when Bridget pleaded with him to stop.

It was a decision she would come to regret.

Dowling-Hitler
Dowling-Hitler

The couple had their only child in 1911, William Patrick Hitler. Alois left home in Liverpool in May 1914 to establish himself in the safety razor business.  He had become violent by this time and begun to beat the boy.  Bridget refused to go with William’s father and would end up, raising the boy alone.

War descended over Europe in 1914, when the elder Hitler met and (bigamously) married his second wife, Hedwig Heidemann.

heinz-640x462
Heinz Hitler was captured by Soviet Forces in 1942, and tortured to death

Alois’ second marriage  produced a son, Heinz, who went on to become a committed Nazi. In 1933, William moved to Germany, in an effort to take advantage of his uncle’s rise to power.  He got a job at an Opel factory and later worked as a car salesman, but  badgered his uncle for a better job. At last, he threatened to sell embarrassing family stories to the newspapers, if Uncle Adolf didn’t do something to improve his “personal circumstances”.

Ironically, Nazi party regulations precluded Adolf Hitler himself from proving his own “Aryan Purity”, based on his father’s unknown paternity.  For years, Hitler had been dogged by hushed speculation about “Jewish blood”.  Quiet rumor became front-page headline this day in 1933, when Austrian newspapers published reports that the German Chancellor, sworn enemy of all things Jewish, was himself, a Jew.  That same day, all political parties but the Nazi party, were banned from Germany.

William-Patrick-Hitler
Pharmacists Mate William Patrick Hitler

Der Führer of the fledgling thousand-year Reich promised his nephew a “high ranking post” in 1938, in exchange for renunciation of his British citizenship. Suspecting a trap, the younger Hitler fled Germany, traveling to the United States in 1939. William Patrick Hitler petitioned President Roosevelt for permission to join the American side, receiving permission in 1944.

Drafted into the Navy, the induction officer asked his name.  The reply came, “Hitler”. “Glad to see you Hitler,” the officer replied, “My name’s Hess.”

William Patrick Hitler served honorably for the duration of the war, holding the rank of Pharmacists Mate (a designation later changed to Hospital Corpsman) and earning a purple heart in the process.    Hitler’s half-brother Heinz was captured by Soviet forces in 1942, and tortured to death. Their more famous uncle took his own life in 1945 and died, childless.

Ironically, Hitler’s childhood home in Liverpool was destroyed in the last air raid of the Liverpool Blitz, in 1942.

IMG_20170811_0005-300x207
Alexander

Wishing to live a life of anonymity, “Willy” Hitler changed his name to William Patrick  Stuart-Houston at the end of the war, and married fellow German emigre Phyllis Jean-Jacques in 1947.  The couple made a home in Patchogue, New York and raised four sons: Alexander Adolf (b. 1949), Louis (b. 1951), Howard Ronald (1957–1989), and Brian William (b. 1965).

William Patrick Stuart-Houston, nephew to one of the worst dictators in history and a man who fought with honor on the side of his uncle’s mortal enemy, died this day in 1987, leaving no grandchildren.

Alexander Adolf Stuart-Houston,, an American social worker, dismissed speculation of a pact to end the Hitler line. There was no such agreement among the last four boys in the family.  Things just turned out that way.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 22, 1918 Our Gallant and Worthy Foe

The Red Baron was buried by his enemies, with honors, on April 22, 1918.  British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers.  Other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words:
“To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. Cavalry quickly became obsolete, as the war of movement ended and armies dug in to avoid what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors that “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Red Baron, mascotFollowing four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two-seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one too went down over enemy territory, and couldn’t be confirmed.

Richtofen achieved his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. Manfred ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B. Many more silver cups would be added to the collection, before he was through.

Manfred got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy planes that April alone, four of those in a single day. Richtofen was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day.  German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies were going to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Red BaronEver aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft a brilliant shade of red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, or “’Le Petit Rouge’” and finally, the name that stuck:  “the Red Baron”.

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Manfred von Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning reflexes, Richtofen became the top ace of WW1. In an age when  even a few air combat victories were exceptional, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Despite the popular link between Richthofen and his Fokker Dr.I, he only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three-quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross (below, left), and the Halberstadt D.II (right).

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, and lead to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flight

Richthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, the Red Baron was shot once through the chest with a .303 round, managing to land in the beet field where he died, several minutes later. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

Red Baron Crash SiteThe RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting Richthofen down, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed him, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery. Just who killed the Red Baron, may never be known with absolute certainty.

Manfred von Richtofen was buried by his enemies, with honors, on April 22, 1918.  British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers, other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.