May 3, 1915 Keeping the Faith

“Oh! 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.”. – Moina Michael

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.
Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Based on his age and training, Dr. McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. 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 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 bloodletting lasting more than 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”.

ypres (1)
Stop and imagine for a moment please, what this looked like, what this horror smelled like, in color.

Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend on May 3, fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance just north of Ypres, he composed this poem, the following day.  He called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember Dr. McCrae’s work as:

In Flanders Fields

In 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 Michael

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. Over a long career Michael worked in nearly every part of the Peach State’s education system.

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

Two days before the armistice.

John McCrae lay in his own grave by this time, having succumbed to pneumonia while serving in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

49a1160c9141869ce025a820a599ef56--flanders-field-lest-we-forget

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 honor of the dead. She scribbled a response, an ode to an act of remembrance on the back, of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! 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 brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

ubbkvmk (1)

A century and more has come and gone since the events, told in this story. The red poppy is now an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in All wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. It’s a reminder of where we come from, the prices paid to bring us to this place and to always keep the faith, with those who have come before.

April 13, 1917 A Sealed Train

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 and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever.   Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow.  Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone  produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1-Timeline-1917

By 1916 it was widely understood that the German war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place.  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 teetering on the edge of the precipice.

The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.

By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.

ww1-d-727-russians.jpg
German propaganda postcard depicting Russian peasants begging for food. With the size of the Russian empire and the difficulty in transportation, the propaganda wasn’t far from the truth.

Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. 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 radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

March 8, 1917 A Political Plague

In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

images (61)
Lenin

The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.

Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.

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

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”.

Lurching toward 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 and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites destined to bring down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.

Sealed Train

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war, and none too soon. With the United States entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the American Expeditionary Force.

On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs. The Romanov Dynasty was no more. It was the end of Czarist Russia. The death toll of human beings murdered by the totalitarian state which would rise to take its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

Romanov
Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

March 18, 1917 The Concrete Fleet

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

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

The war borne 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. A 1928 academic study 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.

barque
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.

The US was a late arrival to the “War to End All Wars”, as yet nominally neutral. On this day in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war and the Congress’ affirmative response, was a scant three weeks away.

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war with the need for new ships, greater 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 can 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.

Violette 1
VIOLETTE 2
Violette 3

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 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.

W-Ordnance-1-2
“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 seen what that looks like, 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.

imrs
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.

ebf8e74d80a6015db77f3178ec937bf23bf8c407
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.

1920px-Sapona_Panoramic
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.

postcard_insurance
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.

55fda32fbd86ef15008bb8a3-750-433

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.

1122x900
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.

February 3, 1917 Sink the Housatonic

n the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California and now the Zimmermann telegram…the events combined to become the last straw.  On April 2 the President who had won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war” addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, requesting a declaration of war.

The June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion combined with slavish dependence on timetables to effect the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  

Remember the 1960s counterculture slogan “what if there was a war and nobody came”? In 1914, no one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so, there was war.  By October, the “War to End All Wars” had ground down to the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

Both the German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed populations at home and to prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, the two powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Naval surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” the statement continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned including 128 Americans. 100 of the dead, were children.

lusitania-sinking

Reaction in the United States and the United Kingdom alike were immediate, and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. For their part the Imperial German government maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, as the embassy pointed out ads were taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning

Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing itself. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, was unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to comment, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

On February 3, 1917, SS Housatonic was enroute from Galveston Texas to Liverpool England bearing a cargo of flour, and grain. Passing the southwest coast of England the liner was stopped and boarded by the German submarine U-53.

American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry. Housatonic he said, was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed. The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship while German sailors raided the American vessel .

Based on what was taken, WWI vintage German subs were especially short on soap.

Abandoned and adrift Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast. Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the same day. Four days later a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  It was a diplomatic overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part:

“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…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California and now the Zimmermann telegram…the events combined to become the last straw.  On April 2 the President who had won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war” addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, requesting a declaration of war.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

January 31, 1918 The Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in. The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

ww1navybritish-shipbuildingmapbritishisles2

Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, only one of which ever caused damage to a German U-boat, and that was a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

battlemayisland_fearless1
HMS Fearless

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 men.

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage along with the Scout Cruiser, HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February 5 and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

800px-may_island_memorial_anstruther

The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and to deprive the propaganda bonanza, to the Germans. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story had passed on.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years before there wasn’t a German, in sight.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Just the black and forlorn humor, of men at war.

January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys that they are literally slower than cold molasses. In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

molasses-floods-boston.jpg7_

If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40-feet high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from foundations. Horses, wagons and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people struggling in the brown deluge, speeding across the North End. Twenty municipal workers eating lunch in a nearby city building were swept away, parts of the building hurled some fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen, alive.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

4944688057_166d60fb7a_b
The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water. You can propel yourself through the stuff but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as ketchup or molasses, behaves differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear” in response to pressure. You can’t propel yourself through a non-Newtonian fluid. The stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps would be able to swim out of a sea of that gunk.

firefighters-tried-to-wash-the-molasses-away-with-freshwater-but-would-later-find-that-briny-seawater-was-the-only-way-to-“cut”-the-hardened-substance.-paranormalsoup-300
“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first to arrive on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing which was leaking so badly the company painted it brown, to hide the leaks.

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

December 1, 2013 The First Full Day of Forever

Something sacred and wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it, at the time.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the end of World War One. Before they had numbers. “The Great War”. The “War to end all Wars”. There is barely a piece of 20th century history, you cannot trace back to that conflict.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would be no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would remain in this alternative universe, mere fields. The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would today run all of China, and not some communist cabal.

In Flanders Fields

The modern boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife are nothing new those conditions would exist in a very different form, if not for those boundaries.

World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in human history (WWI ranks only number 5), was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.

He was off, by something like 36 days.

It’s hard to know how any of us can be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, how we can know where we want the country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been. It’s a principle reason to study, history. It’s why I believe something wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it.

In the summer of 2013, over 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”. There those children collected samples of the sacred soil from those fields of conflict.

_77985394_020167620-1

The soil was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. 70 sandbags were transported to London and brought to Wellington Barracks, the central London home to some of the most elite regiments in the British military, regiments dating back to the time of the English Civil Wars who gave so many of their own, to the soil of Flanders Fields.

There at Wellington Barracks next to Buckingham Palace a garden was being built. The soil of the Great War would nourish and support that garden, planted to be made ready for the following year, and the solemn 100-years’ remembrance of the War to end all Wars.

_71447576_soil4_getty

That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.

I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our own future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and brought it to that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our shared history alive, and never let it fade into some sepia-toned remnant of a forgotten past.

November 11, 1918 The 11th Hour

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front with riots at home and mutiny, in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

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.  Wiser heads could have prevailed, the diplomatic crisis of July resulting in nothing more than a policing action in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them sang patriotic songs as the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.

140604153439-19-wwi-main-timeline-0604-restricted-horizontal-large-gallery
The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Over the next four years a generation would be chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

battle_of_the_somme_in_pictures_1
Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

cher-ami
Cher Ami

Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.

18-03-23-thumb
First division Rags

First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns while frantically building a protective rock wall to shelter himself from what the German soldier Ernst Jünger later called, the “Storm of Steel”.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden and would serve out the war not in a frying pan but as mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, none were given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet serve they did, some nine million animals making the supreme sacrifice.

WW1-animals
British Army mules in the mud of the western front, 1918

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front with riots at home and mutiny, in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned from a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

original-french-postcard-showing-the-wagon-in-which-the-ww1-armistice-M1B0DJ

The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The Germans believed they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war. He had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 rail cars and 5,000 trucks.

1200px-Waffenstillstand_gr

With 2,250 dying every day on the Western Front, Foch informed Erzberger he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11 and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over in just a few hours?

the-last-soldier-killed-in-wwi-died-one-minute-before-the-war-ended
The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

7fe16b6c9f770b107480c9ca6c28e87c

Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred-three years ago today all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him. He’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

Sargeant-Henry-Gunther

After eight months on the front lines Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch remarked “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

On a personal note:
Norman Francis Long

PFC Norman F. Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake, my brother Norm, was born.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery.  Section 41, grave marker 2161.

At 63 I remember still, the pleasures of a little boy fishing with his grandfather. Just as I myself will one day take my granddaughter fishing and a bridge some sixty years in the building, will have been crossed.

Rest in peace, Grampa.  You left us, too soon.

October 26, 1918 Code Talkers

The history of the Navajo code talkers of World War 2 is well known but by no means, unique.  Indigenous Americans of other nations served as code talkers during WW2 including Assiniboine, Lakota and Meskwaki soldiers serving in the Pacific, North African, and European theaters of the war.

During the twentieth century, the United States and others specially recruited bilingual speakers of obscure languages, applying those skills in secret communications based on those languages.  Among these, the story of the Navajo “Code Talkers” are probably best known.   Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker. The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII. Japanese code breakers never got close.

The United States Marine Corps recruited some 400-500 Navajo speakers who served in all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Navajo code talkers took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps from 1942, to ‘45.

160907143620-navajo-code-talkers-3-exlarge-169.jpgThe history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is well known but by no means, unique.  Indigenous Americans of other nations served as code talkers during WW2 including Assiniboine, Lakota and Meskwaki soldiers who did service in the Pacific, North African, and European theaters of the war.

Fourteen Comanche soldiers took part in the Normandy landings.  As with the Navajo, these soldiers substituted phrases when their own language lacked a proper term.  Thus, “tank” became “turtle”.  “Bombers” became “pregnant airplanes”.  Adolf Hitler was “Crazy White Man”.

The information is contradictory, but Basque may also have been used, in areas where no native speakers were believed to be present.  Native Cree speakers served with Canadian Armed Services, though oaths of secrecy have all but blotted their contributions, from the pages of history.

The first documented use of military codes based on native American languages took place during the Second Battle of the Somme in September 1918, employing on the language skills of a number of Cherokee troops.

The government of Choctaw nation will tell you otherwise, contending that Theirs was the first native language, used in this way.  Late in 1917, Colonel Alfred Wainwright Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment. They were a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

The Allies had already learned the hard way that their German adversaries spoke excellent English, and had already intercepted and broken several English-based codes. Colonel Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying. If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

ChoctawCoders
Choctaw soldiers in training in World War I for coded radio and telephone transmissions

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector. One captured German officer later confirmed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success. We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were embedded within multiple companies of infantry. Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and by runner, many of whom were themselves native Americans.

As in the next war, Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase. When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”. Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

Choctaw code talkers

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that phrase wouldn’t come about, until WWII. At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, simply described what they did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma. The last was a native Chickasaw. The youngest was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War. Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was all of sixteen, the day he enlisted.

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name translates as “man killer” in the Choctaw language. Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 Germans in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed. Let Private Oklahombi‘s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded him by Marshall Petain, tell his story:

“Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades”.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. Some guys are just not to be trifled with.

choctawwarmemorial

September 26, 2021 Gold Star Mother

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day. 

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals on the street, and ask them:  

Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  

I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up, for sure, and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima. Maybe a Normandy. 

I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

80th-Div-No3

The United States arrived late to the “War End all Wars”, entering the conflict in April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

US_Marines_during_the_Meuse-Argonne_Campaign
US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx, and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered and the two economies, nearing collapse.  Tens of thousands of German troops were freed up and moving to the western front, following the chaos of the Russian Revolution.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

Gun crew , 1918
“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of the offensive, with the objective of cutting off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  This was to be the largest operation of the AEF, of World War I. With a half-hour to go before midnight September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment, against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas attacks, and another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

dc582ea834d6854175ae8bb8b2a316b1
Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

MeuseArgonneTraffic

Fighting was renewed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1, including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners, by Corporal (and later Sergeant) Alvin York.

20150618_wp_meuseargonne_ABMC_0146
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

The Meuse-Argonne offensive lasted forty-seven days, resulting in 26,277 American women gaining that most exclusive and unwanted of distinctions. That of becoming a Gold Star Mother.  More than any other battle, in American military history.  95,786 mothers would see their boys come home, mangled.

gold-star-mothers-monument-at-the-putnam-county-veteran-memorial-park-james-connor
Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

George Vaughn Seibold was born in the nation’s capital, Washington DC,  At 23, Seibold volunteered when the US entered the war, in 1917. He requested a flying assignment and, as the US had no aerial force in the war at that time he was sent to Canada to be trained, on British aircraft.

George Vaughn Seibold

He was assigned to the 148th Aero Squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps and sent off for combat, in France. George sent a regular stream of letters back home to his family. George’s mother grace Darling Siebold would do community service visiting wounded servicemen, in hospital.

And then one day, the letters stopped.

The Siebold family inquired but, as aviators were under British control US authorities, could be of little assistance. Grace continued to visit the maimed from the war “over there” but now in the vain hope that George might somehow appear, among them.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 11, 1918, George’s wife in Chicago, Catharine (Benson) Siebold received a box, marked “Effects of deceased Officer 1st Lt. George Vaughn Seibold”. The family later learned that George was killed in action over Baupaume, France, August 26, 1918. His body was never recovered.

Grace believed that grief turned inward was corrosive, and self destructive. She continued to visit the wounded but now she founded a group of other mothers, who had lost sons in military service. The group not only gave comfort to these women but an opportunity to reach out, and help the wounded. They named the organization after the gold star families hung in their windows, in honor of their dead.

On May 28, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that American women were asked to wear black bands on the left arm, with a gilt star for every family member who had given his life for the nation.

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day. 

In recent years both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump have signed proclamations, setting this day aside as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

GoldStar1

At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, (272 U.S. Army nurses died of disease in the great War) that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  At this time the United States Army website reports  “The Army is dedicated to providing ongoing support to over 78,000 surviving Family members of fallen Soldiers”.

Gold Star Mother’s commemoration, Arlington National Cemetery, 2015

Seventy-eight thousand, out of a nation of nearly 330 million.  They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

%d bloggers like this: