May 7, 1915 Lusitania

American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

By Spring of 1915, WWI had already devolved into the slugfest of trench warfare that would bleed nation states white and destroy empires. Imperial Germany had held off of unrestricted submarine warfare, believing the tactic would bring the United States into the war against them. Yet this war could not be won on the battlefield alone. They had to make it a war on commerce, to choke of their adversary’s lifeline. Besides, the German view was that ostensibly peaceful shipping was being used to ferry war supplies to the allies, which were going on to kill Germans on the battlefield.

Lusitania warningGermany adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 18, 1915. The German embassy took out ads in American newspapers, warning that ships sailing into the war zone, did so at their own risk. That didn’t seem to bother anyone as they boarded RMS Lusitania.

Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship afloat when she was christened in 1904. They called her the “Greyhound of the Seas”, in 1915 she could still outrun almost anything big enough to pose a threat. Lusitania left New York for her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing on May 1, 1915, carrying 1,959 passengers and crew, 159 of whom were Americans.

All ships heading for Great Britain at this time were instructed to travel at full speed in zigzag patterns, and to be on the lookout for U-boats, but fog forced Captain William Turner to slow down as Lusitania rounded the south coast of Ireland on May 7.

The German U-boat U-20 commanded by Captain Walther Schwieger had targeted Lusitania by early afternoon.  At 1:40pm the U-boat fired a single torpedo. The weapon struck Lusitania on her starboard side. Some believe a second explosion was caused by the ignition of ammunition hidden in the cargo hold, others say that coal dust had ignited. Whatever the cause, there is near universal agreement that a second explosion rocked the ship. The damage from this second explosion was catastrophic.

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Lusitania quickly began to list, and sank in 18 minutes. There had been enough lifeboats for all the passengers, but the severe list prevented most of them from being launched. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died, including 128 Americans. 100 of the Americans, were children.

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American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

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In what’s been called his “too proud to fight” speech three days later, President Woodrow Wilson said “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, and American entry into WWI was averted. The final provocation to war came in January 1917, when the “Zimmermann Telegram” came to light. A communication from the German Foreign Minister to his ambassador in Mexico, the Zimmerman telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event of war with the United States, in exchange for “an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

Zimmerman noteUnrestricted submarine warfare was resumed the same month. In February a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California off the Irish coast, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew. President Wilson asked for a declaration of war in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 2. From the text of the speech, it seems the Germans were right. It was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare which provoked the United States to enter the war against Germany, which it did when Congress declared war on April 6.

The German view that Lusitania carried contraband ammunition was vindicated as well, but at the time that was far into their future. Decades later, formerly secret British papers revealed the presence of contraband ammunition in the holds of the passenger liner. Divers explored the wreck in 2008, located under 300′ of water off the Head of Kinsale. On board, they found four million US made Remington .303 bullets, stored in unrefrigerated compartments in crates marked “butter”, “lobster” and “eggs”.

Lusitania, ammunition

A personal postscript to this story:  On several occasions, my folks hired an elderly Irish woman to babysit my brothers and me when we were kids, back in the ’60s.   As a little girl, Mrs. Crozier was living in Kinsale, back in 1915. Like the rest of her village, she ran out to the cliffs that morning to watch the great liner sink.  It was only nine miles off the coast and could be seen, clearly.  She must have thought I was a strange kid, but I couldn’t get enough of that story.

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.

May 3, 1915 The Poppy Red

No free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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Dr. John McCrae with Bonneau

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of WWI, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Dr. McCrae had the option of joining the medical corps based on his training and his age, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer. McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This would be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched one of the first chemical attacks in history, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed, in near-constant fighting that lasted for over two weeks.

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Alexis Helmer

Dr. McCrae later wrote to his mother, describing the nightmare. “For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. He composed this poem the next day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance.war-poppies

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Moina Michael

Moina Michael was browsing through the Ladies Home Journal when she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. Two days before the armistice.

She was so moved that she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope, calling her poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”.

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The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life in the “Great War”. Since then, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars.

I keep a red poppy pinned to my laptop bag, and another on the visor of my car. Both serve as reminders that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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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 29, 1915  The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

As chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his larger and somewhat slower buddy (Imperial Russia).

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Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling that nation’s ground forces into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

Ypres SalientField Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans met with ruin, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called the place Leper.  Today we know it as Ypres (Ee-pres), since battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. To the Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force, the place was “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. The scale of the casualties are hard to get your head around.  Over four years, several hundred thousand sons of Germany, Great Britain and France were killed in the battles for the Ypres Salient – a battlefield only 24 kilometers, square.  100 military burial grounds or more, contain their mortal remains.

YpresThe second Battle for Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four-mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines.

Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff slithered along the ground and poured into trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30.  BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, and another 3,973 by April 29. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of this place, but such became possible in the early months of 1916.

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First established in 1881, the “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiments) of the British Army, at this time stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient.  The unit came across a printing press.  Corporal George Turner, who’d been a printer in civil life, got the thing going. The Forresters began a trench magazine, a PDF of which may be downloaded HERE.  The first edition of the Wipers Times published on February 12, 1916.  The paper included poems and reflections, news, “adverts” and the blackest of humor.

Written for fellow soldiers, some of the in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 102 years later.

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Richly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” included “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

Old Masters

There were advertisements for barbed wire cutters with built-in umbrellas, for the most discerning of gentlemen.

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classifieds has got to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

Miss Minnie WerferUnits of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened the load of the “War to end all Wars”, with some kind of unit journal.

Some officers were not amused by the underground paper, and thought its publication should be banned. Others believed that it kept some semblance of morale in the trenches. One pointed out that “humour is what distinguishes us from barbarism.”

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner headline on that final edition read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times Headline

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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”.

 

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April 13, 1917 A Sealed Train

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov

By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

With the American declaration of war in April 1917, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch, before the US arrived in force.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family.  Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

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Lenin makes his way to the sealed train which would take him out of exile. April 13, 1917.

In the midst of this chaos, the Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station.  A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

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Lenin was in exile at this time, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia.  British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”  Lenin turned to a friend.  “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

Sealed Train

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland.  The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year.  The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the arrival of the AEF.

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Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands.  Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject, if not the understatement of the century:  “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

Sealed Train Locomotive
The locomotive which carried the ideological infection of Communism. from exile in Switzerland, to the Imperial Russian heartland
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 4, 1926 Sergeant Stubby

America’s first war dog, “Stubby”, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’, participating in seventeen battles on the Western Front.

By the last year of WW1, the French, British and Belgians had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

sgt_stubby_7America’s first war dog, “Stubby”, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’, participating in seventeen battles on the Western Front.

Stubby looked like a terrier of some kind, similar to a pit bull.  Nobody knows anything more about him.  He showed up a stray one day, at Yale Field in New Haven Connecticut, where a group of soldiers were training. The dog hung around as the men drilled.  One soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy, began to take care of him. when Conroy’s outfit shipped out in 1917, Stubby was hidden on board.

Stubby saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, located and comforted the wounded, and even once caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. The Hun, who’d been sneaking around behind allied lines at the time, was mapping trenches for artillery bombardment.  The Bosch was found spinning in circles with a large, muscular terrier affixed to his behind.   He was easily disarmed, but it took a considerable amount of coaxing before Stubby could be persuaded to let go of that German’s rear end.

sgt_stubby_5Stubby saw his first action at Chemin des Dames. Since the boom of artillery fire didn’t faze him, he learned to follow the example of ducking when the big ones came close. It became a great game to see who could hit the dugout, first.  After a few days, the guys were watching him for a signal. Stubby was always the first to hear incoming fire.  We can only guess how many lives were spared by his early warning.

images (47)After the Armistice, Stubby returned home a nationally acclaimed hero, eventually received by both Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Even General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the AEF during the war, presented Stubby with a gold medal made by the Humane Society, declaring him to be a “hero of the highest caliber.”

Stubby toured the country by invitation and probably led more parades than any dog in American history:  he was promoted to honorary Sergeant by the Legion, becoming the highest ranking dog to ever serve in the Army.

Old age finally caught up with the small warrior on April 4th, 1926, as he took ill and died in his master’s arms.

Sergeant Stubby and a few of his contemporaries were instrumental in inspiring the creation of the US K-9 Corps, just in time for World War ll.

 

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April 2, 1917 Known but to God

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been under 24/7 guard since 1937, heedless of hurricanes, howling blizzards and bone-chilling cold. Guards come from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard”. Established in 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the United States military.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.

On June 28, 1914, a tubercular 19 year old leveled his revolver in Sarajevo, and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie.

What followed should have been at worst a regional conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, as the two settled issues going well beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, mutually entangling national alliances were invoked, as mobilization timetables moved vast armies according to predetermined schedules.

download (44)The coming cataclysm would lay waste to a generation, and to a continent.

The catastrophe of WW1 could have been averted as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had gone past the point of no return. By the time it was over, 18 million were dead or vanished and presumed dead, and another 23 million, maimed.

The United States entered the conflict on April 2, 1917, leading to casualties of its own numbering 321,467.

The idea of honoring the unknown dead of the “War to End Wars” originated in Europe. A British Commonwealth soldier was the first to be so honored, laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on Armistice day, November 11, 1920.

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In 1921, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring its unknown dead. One unidentified soldier was selected each from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel American cemeteries, and carefully examined in case there be any clues to their identities. The remains were transported to the Hotel de Villes, where wounded combat veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal Sergeant Edward F. Younger, had the honor of performing the final selection.

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Edward F Younger recreates his selection of the Unknown

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Younger entered the room. Slowly, he circled the four caskets three times, finally stopping at the third one from the left.  There Sgt. Younger placed a spray of white roses, drew himself to attention, and saluted.

With flags at half-mast and its stern decked with flowers, the cruiser USS Olympia received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921. There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the same catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.

funeral-13-300x225On November 11, Armistice Day, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed on this unknown soldier the Medal of Honor, and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed, each in their turn, their nation’s highest military decoration: the Croix de Guerre of Belgium, the English Victoria Cross, le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France, the Italian Gold Medal for Bravery, the Romanian Virtutes Militara, the Czechoslavak War Cross, and the Polish Virtuti Militari.

With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12 ton marble cap placed over the tomb of the unknown. On the west facing side there is an inscription:

Here Rests In

Honored Glory

An American Soldier

Known But To God

Two years later, a civilian guard was placed on the tomb of the unknown.  A permanent Military guard would take its place in 1926.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been under 24/7 guard since 1937, heedless of hurricanes, howling blizzards and bone-chilling cold. Guards come from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard”. Established in 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the United States military.

Every movement of the guard is a series of “twenty-ones”, in deference to the 21-gun salute:

Tombguard.org explains: “The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins“.

unknown-soldier1

In 1919, both AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch of France had been adamantly against the treaty at Versailles. Germany had been defeated, they argued, but not Beaten. The failure to defeat Imperial Germany on German soil the pair believed, would once again lead the three nations to war.  Meanwhile in Germany, the “Stab in the Back” fiction destined to become Nazi party mythology, was already taking shape.

On reading the treaty, Foch said “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!”

He was wrong.  By 36 days.

 

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