May 3, 1915 In Flanders Fields

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, McCrae enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. He had the option of joining the medical corps based on his age and training, 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.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic battle lasting over two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“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”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, what this looked like in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of 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 a medical field ambulance, just north of Ypres.  McCrae called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”.  Today, the composition is better remembered as:

In Flanders Fields

Moina Michael: We Shall Keep the FaithIn Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

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Dr. McCrae had succumbed to pneumonia by this time, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), at Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part.

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina MichaelOh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

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.  The “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, a war where the death toll from a single day’s fighting could exceed that of every war of the preceding one hundred years.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Nor the prices paid by our ancestors, to get us here.

 

Did You Know?
In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were used as offerings to the dead.
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April 25, 1915 ANZAC Day

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire. 

Europe was unprepared for what was to come in September 1939.  Wags called the eight months ending in May 1940 the ‘Phoney War”. The “Sitzkreig”. The outbreak of the “Great War” was different in August 1914, as war exploded across the European landmass. 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. 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 over 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.

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.

A million men were transported by all sides to the ancient textile town of Ypres, “Leper” to the Dutch and “Wipers” to the Tommies, for the purpose of killing each other.

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75,000 men from all sides lost their lives in the month-long apocalypse at Ypres while, all along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

With stalemate on the western front in early 1915, Allied powers considered opening an offensive in another theater. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Central powers by this time, against whom Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas was asking for help in the Caucasus. A Naval expedition was decided upon to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara and taking Turkey out of the war.

Despite misgivings, naval bombardment opened on the Dardanelles on February 19, 1915. A month of French and British shelling failed to force the straits and Allied planners fell back on amphibious invasion.  The table was set for the eight month disaster known as the battle of Gallipoli.

489,000 French and Commonwealth troops were fed into the abyss, including some sixty five thousand Australians and New Zealand forces collectively known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. or ANZACs.

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire.  Commonwealth forces fought heroically, thousands of individual stories including the famous “Six Before Breakfast”, pre-dawn actions leading to as many Victoria Crosses.   Despite all of it, the landing was a fiasco, stranding thousands of men, vehicles and vast quantities of stores on the beach.

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The traffic jam, was horrendous.  With the water behind them red with blood, ANZAC forces attempted to force the high ground despite determined fire from Turkish forces under Mustafa (Atatürk) Kemal.

A bold strike designed to knock the Ottomans out of the war became a stalemate, the blood soaked campaign dragging on for eight months.

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By the end of 1915, Commonwealth forces suffered some 302,000 casualties.  While the Gallipoli campaign made little difference in the course of the war, the actions of the ANZACs left a powerful legacy.    In time, this date became that rarest of days, a solemn day of remembrance shared by two sovereign nations, a part of the national identity of both countries.

With the beginning of WWII, ANZAC Day became a day to commemorate the lives of Australians and New Zealanders lost in all wars, the meaning of the date broadened to include those killed in all military operations in which the two nations have been involved.

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Gallipoli Landing, April 1915

ANZAC Day was first commemorated at the Australian War Memorial in 1942 but, due to government orders preventing large public gatherings in case of Japanese air attack, this was a small affair with neither march nor memorial service.

For the wounded, the dead and the maimed of that day one hundred four years ago today, ANZAC Day remains an occasion for solemn remembrance, from that day to this.

April 24, 1916 The World is Mad

In the early days of the Great War, the Endurance expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton disappeared into the ice pack, within sight of the Antarctic continent. Theirs was a 497-day struggle for survival, re-emerging twenty months later to learn, the war wasn’t over. Millions were dead. Europe had gone mad. The world had gone mad.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

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The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded across the continent, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic. Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

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The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

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H/T GreatWarPhotos.com

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island. It was December 5.

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The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent. The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for 497 days.

zeppattwarsaw2hThe disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.

Endurance trapped in ice, 1916

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, with no way to know she had only six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

World War I. 7th May 1915. An illustration of the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by German U-boat U-20 off the old head of Kinsale, Ireland.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

 

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That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”. The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

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The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

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The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

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The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20, ten days after the temporary German suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare . They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked clothing  rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

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The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.  Six days later, Italy turned on her future ally and declared war on Germany.  At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit him like a hammer.  “The war isn’t over. Millions are dead. Europe is mad. The world is mad“.

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A Trivial Matter
“The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica’s Vostok station”. – H/T LiveScience.com

April 22, 1915 From Trench Warfare to Modern Chemotherapy

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground. 

According to Greek mythology, the malevolent centaur Nessus attempted to force himself upon Deianeira, wife of Hercules (Herakles).  Seeing this from across a river, Hercules shot Nessus with an arrow, poisoned by the venom of the Hydra.  In a final act of malice, the dying centaur convinced Deianeira his blood would make her husband, faithful for life.  Deianeira foolishly believed him, coming to realize her error only as her husband lay dying by the tainted blood of his victim.

Bauer_-_Hercules_Nessus_DeianiraBoth sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt, in AD178.

The French were first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War: August, 1914.

1D7Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915 at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised a new and fresh hell, unimaginable to contemporary and modern reader, alike.

Gas

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

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Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the apocalyptic race war pitting the Teuton against the Slavic states of the Soviet Union – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

Animals in World War1

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937.  

“ I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”. – Franklin D Roosevelt, in a letter to the United States Senate

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

main-qimg-6cec6b7ffb5cac17681e9f4e14d99d61-cGreat Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting retaliation should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

dog_gas_masks_02The Geneva Protocols on 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM, when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

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43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Mustard_Gas-_Sketch_to_Illustrate_the_Effect_of_Mustard_Gas_on_Horses_Art.IWMART4942.jpgDeath comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to suffer chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode remained shrouded in secrecy.

At the time, the chemical disaster at Bari was all but unknown.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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Dr. Alexander identified mustard as the responsible agent.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells. Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells.  Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

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Dr. Sidney Farber, regarded by many as the “Father of Modern Chemotherapy”

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there were 7,377,100 male cancer survivors in the United States as of January 1, 2016 and another 8,156,120, females.

 

A Trivial Matter
German chemist Albert Niemann discovered cocaine in 1859, and went on to document the poison effects of sulphur mustard around the time of the American Civil War. In 1913, British and German civilian researchers were accidentally exposed to mustard and had to be hospitalized. The German military obtained notes about the incident and promptly went about weaponizing the stuff.

April 6, 1917 US Enters WW1

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

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Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone, where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

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“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland. German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

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Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  The first put their people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”, a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace”.
Signed, ZIMMERMANN

zimmerman-noteThe “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

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Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4,000,000 rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

Lusitania, ammunition

Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Rankin would be elected to a second (non-contiguous) term in 1940, just in time to be the only vote against entering WWII, following the Japanese attack on the United States’ Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

 

A Trivial Matter
“Although their exact policy varied throughout the war the German U-boats racked up a total of 12,850,815 tons of shipping sunk. The highest total for a single year was 1917, when unlimited submarine warfare resumed and 6,235,878 tons was sunk”. H/T Historyhit.com

March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

The Lion of Africa, the German officer and conquering hero of WW1, who once told the upstart Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by 1914.

general-paul-von-lettow-vorbeckAt the outset of the “Great War”, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Stationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the famous Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerrilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

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To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with combat-related injuries.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

Askari-on-MarchAt one point in the battle for Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true.  This guy held his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

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Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercorn, as drawn by an African artist. H/T Wikipedia

Returning home after the war, Vorbeck was greeted as a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in World War One, “der Löwe von Afrika” (the Lion of Africa) alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k yourself.” Describing the interview afterward, Lettow’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.

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Following such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His two sons killed in service to the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

letvorIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

 

massaquoiA Trivial Matter
Following years of colonial, military and diplomatic interaction, romantic relationships between Germans and Africans, were inevitable. Though rare as hen’s teeth, Adolf Hitler’s Reich included the children of such relationships. One such was Hans J. Massaquoi, a self-described “kinky-haired, brown-skinned, eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blonde and blue-eyed kids filled with patriotism”. Though prohibited from joining by racial “purity” laws, the eight-year-old Hans was entirely caught up in the excitement of the Hitler Youth.
Mr. Massaquoi tells his unusual and fascinating story in Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.

March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.