March 16, 1914 A Crime of Passion

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We hear a lot in election years, about “Left” and “Right”.  “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. U5dtXeDhuSgqBYsRegyPZecZPy5MGQf_1680x8400By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now, the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, philosophical differences between the Left and Right of the period, would be recognizable to political observers today.

Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left-wing politician, appointed Prime Minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to other people. By 1911, both were divorced.  That October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs. Cailloux.

The political right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage conferred by France’s 40 million, compared with 70 million Germans.

Madame Cailloux

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic.  Cailloux fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Henriette_Caillaux (1)The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

There is a common but mistaken notion that Imperial Germany “started” World War I, but it isn’t so.  Kaiser Wilhelm was a famous “saber rattler”, but actually going to war with the other major European powers, was another matter.

It was Germany’s weaker ally Austria-Hungary which, having received vague assurances of German support, pursued a policy of unreasoning belligerence against  Serbia.

German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow was away on honeymoon, during key periods of the July crisis.  The Kaiser himself was out of touch, cruising the Norwegian fjords.  That cruise has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in history.

On being informed of the decision to mobilize, the Kaiser told his General Staff “Gentlemen, you will regret this.”

SMY Hohenzollern II, which Emperor Wilhelm II used on annual extended Nordlandfahrt cruises to Norway. All told, he spent four years living on board.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.  Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The trial ended in acquittal on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to have been a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

542375879In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which it sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year-old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

An event which could have resulted in little more that a policing action in the Balkans, was about to explode into the “War to End All Wars”.  Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon said “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July 1914, would not live to see the other side.


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

February 24, 1917  The Zimmermann Telegram

“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”.

On May 10, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson gave what came to be known as his “Too Proud to Fight Speech” in which he said:  “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Lusitania sinkingThough Wilson didn’t mention it directly, HMS Lusitania had been torpedoed only three days earlier with the loss of 1,198, 128 of whom were Americans.

No one doubted that the attack on the civilian liner was foremost on the President’s mind.  Back in February, Imperial Germany had declared a naval blockade against Great Britain, warning 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 announcement continued, “will also incur danger in the war region“.

Lusitania warningThe reaction to the Lusitania sinking was immediate and vehement, portraying the attack as the act of barbarians and huns and demanding a German return to “prize rules”, requiring submarines to surface and search merchantmen while placing crews and passengers in “a place of safety”.

Imperial Germany protested that Lusitania was fair game, as she was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

Nevertheless, the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war against Germany.

President Wilson was elected back in 1912, talking about the sort of agrarian utopia favored by Thomas Jefferson.  In 1916, the election was about war and peace.  Wilson won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, but it hadn’t been easy.  In Europe, WWI was in its second year while, to our south, Mexico was going through a full-blown revolution.  Public opinion had shifted in favor of England and France by this time.  The German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, threatened to tip the balance.

With Great Britain holding naval superiority on the surface, Germany had to do something to starve the British war effort.  In early 1917, chief of the Admiralty Staff Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff argued successfully for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the policy to take effect on February 1.

Anticipating the results of such a move, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann dispatched a telegram to German ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardt on January 19, authorizing the ambassador to propose a military alliance with Mexico, in the event of American entry into the war.  “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”.

housatonic-4-facta-nautica-1000x544The American cargo vessel SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England on February 3, and boarded by German submarine U-53.  Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who explained he was sorry, but Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”.  She would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American’s soap supplies.  Apparently, WWI-vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, the U-Boat towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been spotted, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

SS_CaliforniaPresident Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three 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.

In Mexico, a military commission convened by President Venustiano Carranza quickly concluded that the German proposal was unviable, but the damage was done.  British code breakers intercepted the Zimmermann telegram, divulging the contents to the American government on February 24.

images (22)The contents of Zimmermann’s note were published in the American media on March 1.  Even then, there was considerable antipathy toward the British side, particularly among Americans of German and Irish ethnicity.  “Who says this thing is genuine, anyway”, they might have said.  “Maybe it’s a British forgery”.

Zimmermann himself put an end to such speculation two days later, telling an American journalist, “I cannot deny it. It is true.” What Zimmermann had hoped that Americans would see as mere contingency, public opinion in the US saw as an unforgivable betrayal of American neutrality.

The combination of events was the last straw.  Wilson’s War Cabinet voted unanimously for a declaration of war on March 20.  The President himself delivered his war address before a joint session of Congress, two weeks later.  The United States entered the “war to end all wars”, on April 6.


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”.

Lusitania, ammunition

February 8, 1960 Of Dogs and Dolls

If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain the final stanza.

At 256 tons with a barrel of 111′ 7″, the German super gun hurled 38″ shells into the city of Paris, from a range of 75 miles. If you were there in 1918, you may never have heard of the “Paris gun”. You’d have been well aware of the damage it caused.  You never knew you were under attack from this thing, until the explosion. The lucky ones were those who lived to see the 4’ deep, 10’-12’ wide crater.

Paris Gun
“Paris Gun”, 1918

image1361Parisian children made little good luck charms, as “protection” from the Paris gun. They were tiny pairs of handmade dolls, joined together by scraps of yarn.  Their names were Nénette and Rintintin

The dolls were said to provide protection for their owners, but only under certain circumstances. You couldn’t make your own and you couldn’t buy them, they had to be given to you, as a gift. They also had to remain attached, or else the little dolls would lose their protective powers.

That July, one observer noted: “It is taking a long chance in these wild days of war . . . to go about unprotected by a Nénette and Rintintin. Curious little mascot dolls they are, that have taken Paris by storm. . . . But their charm is not to be purchased. Until you have been presented with a Nénette and Rintintin, you have not their sweet protection; and if you have the one without the other, the charm is broken.”

42ffc2cfe8f593f96a1bd77e07dcfc8cUS Army Air Service Corporal Lee Duncan was in Paris at this time, with the 135th Aero Squadron. Duncan was aware of the custom, he may even have been given such a talisman himself.

In the wake of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Corporal Duncan was sent forward to the small village of Flirey, to check out the area’s suitability for an airfield. The village was heavily damaged by shellfire, and Duncan came upon the shattered remains of a dog pound. Once, this kennel had provided Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) to the Imperial German Army. Now, the only dogs left alive were a starving mother and five nursing puppies, so young that their eyes were still closed.

Corporal Duncan cared for them, selling several once the puppies were weaned. He sold the mother to an officer and three puppies to fellow airmen, keeping two for himself. Like those little yarn dolls, Duncan felt those two puppies were his good luck charms. He called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.

Returning home after the war, Duncan placed the dogs with a police dog breeder and trainer in Long Island. Nanette contracted pneumonia and died, the breeder giving Duncan a female puppy, “Nanette II”, to replace her.


Etzel von Oeringen was born on October 1, 1917 in Quedlinburg Germany, trained as a police dog and serving in the German Red Cross, during WW1.  Left impoverished after the war and unable to support even a dog, his owner declined larger offers in preference to the most humane option, selling him to a friend in White Plains, New York.

Rin Tin Tin signed photoBetter known as “Strongheart”, Etzel appeared in silent films throughout the ’20s, becoming the first major canine film star and credited with enormously increasing the popularity of the breed.

A friend of silent film actor Eugene Pallete, Duncan became convinced that Rin Tin Tin could become the next canine movie star.  “I was so excited over the motion-picture idea”, Duncan wrote, “that I found myself thinking of it night and day.”

Walking his dog on “Poverty Row”, 1920s slang for B movie studios, did the trick. Rin Tin Tin got his first film break in 1922, replacing a camera shy wolf in “The Man from Hell’s River”. His first starring role in the 1923 “Where the North Begins”, is credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy.

Rin Tin Tin
Rin Tin Tin

Between-the-scenes silent film “intertitles” were easily changed from one language to another, and Rin Tin Tin films enjoyed international distribution. In 1927, Rin Tin Tin was voted Most Popular Actor by Berlin audiences.

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards, in 1929.  Inclined to take themselves oh-so seriously and wanting a human actor, the Academy threw out the ballots. German actor Emil Jannings got Best Actor on the 2nd ballot.

Rin Tin Tin appeared in 27 feature length silent films, 4 “talkies”, and countless commercials and short films. Regular programming was interrupted to announce his passing on August 10, 1932, at the age of 13.

An hour-long program about his life was broadcast the following day.

Suffering from the Great Depression like so many others, Duncan couldn’t afford a fancy funeral. By this time, he couldn’t even afford the house he lived in.

Duncan sold the house and returned the body of his beloved German Shepherd to the country of his birth, where Rin Tin Tin was buried in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, in the Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.

WW2 K-9 Recruiting poster, featuring Rin Tin Tin III

Duncan continued breeding the line, careful to preserve the physical qualities and intelligence of the original, while avoiding the less desirable traits that crept into other GSD bloodlines.

Duncan may have been obsessive about it, at least according to Mrs. Duncan. When she filed for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as co-respondent.

Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies.

Unique among the belligerents of WW1, the United States was the only country with no service dogs among its military forces.  The next war, was a different story.  The United States Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program in WW2, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort.

One such dog was “Chips”, the most decorated K-9 of the war.  Rin Tin Tin III, reputed to be grandson to the original but likely a more distant relation, helped to promote the program.

Rin Tin Tin was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Lee Duncan passed away later that same year.

At some point, Duncan had written a poem, one man’s tribute to a beloved companion animal, who was no more.

“Lee Duncan, 67, holds a pair of Rin Tin Tin’s descendants, Rin Tin Tin 5 and 6, in 1958”. H/T, for this image

If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain his final stanza.

“…A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
Is something I shall never know again;
And I must always be a better man,
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin”.


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


January 13, 1997 Buffalo Soldier

After the war, the town of Sommocolonia erected a Memorial, to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G, United States 10th Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunters became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on the trio. The two civilians were killed in the initial attack and Randall’s horse shot out from under him.

download (3)
Private John Randall

Cornered in a washout under some railroad tracks, Randall single handedly held off the attack with his revolver, despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder and no fewer than 11 lance wounds.

By the time help arrived, 13 Cheyenne warriors lay dead.  Private Randall was still standing. Word spread among the Cheyenne about a new kind of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

167090-049-69103B80On July 28, 1866, the Army Reorganization Act authorized the formation of 30 new units, including two cavalry and four infantry regiments “which shall be composed of colored men.”

The 10th US Cavalry, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the first unit of “Negro Cavalry”.  The 10th would soon be joined by the 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalry, all-black units which would come to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

While several all-black regiments were formed during the Civil War, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry depicted in the movie “Glory”, these were the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular Army.

ww1buffsoldThe original units fought in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Border War and two World Wars, amassing 22 Medals of Honor by the end of WW1.

The old met the new during WWII, when 1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, veteran of the Pancho Villa Expedition, WW1, WW2 and the Battle of Saipan, was sent to train with the Tuskeegee Airmen.

In the end, Matthews would prove too old to fly.  A member of the Buffalo Soldiers Drum & Bugle Corps, Matthews would play taps at Arlington National Cemetery, always from the woods. Blacks of the era were not allowed at “white” funerals.

Mark Matthews

Matthews retired shortly before the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded, part of President Truman’s effort to integrate United States’ armed forces.

In December 1944, the segregated 366th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division (colored), the Buffalo Soldiers, were fighting in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, in northern Italy.

On Christmas day, German soldiers began to infiltrate the town, disguised as civilians.  A heavy artillery barrage began in the early morning hours of the 26th, followed by an overwhelming attack of enemy ground forces.  Vastly outnumbered, American infantry were forced to conduct a fighting retreat.

1st Lieutenant John R. Fox, forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, volunteered to stay behind with a small Italian force, to help slow the enemy advance.

From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his own position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring artillery fire down on his head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.”

1st Lieutenant John Robert Fox deliberately called down American artillery on his own position

When American forces retook the town, Lieutenant Fox’ body was found with those of about 100 German soldiers.

Sandra Fox of Boston, his only daughter, was two-years old when her father went to war.

The King James Bible translates John 15:13, as “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  After the war, the town of Sommocolonia erected a Memorial, to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

Sommocolonia Memorial

In a January 13, 1997 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the family of 1st Lt. John Robert Fox.

1st Sergeant Mark Matthews died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005, at the age of 111.  The last of the Buffalo Soldiers was buried with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery, section 69, grave #4215.

The rank of General of the Armies is equivalent to that of a six-star general, the highest possible operational rank in the United States Armed Forces.  The rank has been held only twice in all American history, once awarded posthumously to George Washington, and once to an active-duty officer, John J. Pershing.

Memorial Day celebration in Washington, D.C.
1st Sgt. Mark Matthews, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers

Then-1st Lieutenant Pershing served with the Buffalo Soldiers from October 1895 to May 1897 plus another six months in Cuba, and came to respect soldiers of African ancestry as “real soldiers” in every way.

As West Point instructor beginning in 1897, Pershing was looked down upon and insulted by white cadets and officers, aggrieved over Pershing’s strict and unyielding disciplinary policies.  The press sanitized the favorite insult to “Black Jack”. The name they called the man, was uglier still.

During WW1, General Pershing bowed to the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker.

It seems that John Joseph Pershing understood what the northeast academic and the Ohio politician had yet to learn, a principle that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would spell out, some fifty years later

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools”. 

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

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim.

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

“The Blow on the Yser”, depicting the ‘Race to the Sea’. 6th in a series of postcards on the German invasion of France.

25 years earlier things had been different, at the outbreak of “The Great War”.  Had you been alive in August of 1914, you’d have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.

When governments make war on one another, it’s the Harry and the Fritz down the street, the every day Pierre and the Ivan, who must do the fighting.  And the bleeding.  And the dying.

France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre meets 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 at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

Angels of Mons

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

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks.

That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing a Christmas carol.  “Silent night.  The Tommies were the first to respond, singing ‘The First Noel”.  Then both sides joined together, in a rendition of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.


The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries.

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.


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

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

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of December 24-25, 1914, which lasted in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

christmas-truce-1914-400x186A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

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

christmas-military1-e1482512805772German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

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

1914-christmas-eve-truceEven so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

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

The Man He Killed

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 1914 Shackleton Expedition

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. “The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could 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.

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, 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.

Shackleton 5

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.

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.Shackleton 12

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 another 497 days.

The 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.Shackleton 7

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, not knowing that she only had six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

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 one day end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

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.Shackleton 10

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.

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.

Shackleton 9The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20.  They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting their long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad“.


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

November 11, 1918 Armistice Day

All sides combined suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours, between the signing and the cease-fire. Some have estimated that more men died per hour on that final day of the “Great War”, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

103 years ago this June, the Great War began with the assassination of an Archduke, the heir apparent to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The resulting conflict could have remained little more than a regional squabble, a police action in the Balkans.

It became anything but.

Many of the soldiers who went off in the early days, viewed the war as some kind of grand adventure.  Many of them singing patriotic songs, 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 Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “pal’s battalions”, to fight for King and country.

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out in pieces.

images (6)
The camera captures the last moments of a dying soldier, caught out in the open without a gas mask.

Any single day’s fighting in 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 month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day of fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

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

Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood of the trenches during the New Year of 1916-’17, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and the 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.

Starvation and malnutrition stalked the countryside, with riots on the home front and mutiny in the trenches.  Nearly every combatant saw the collapse of its national economy, or teetering on the verge of collapse.

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.

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

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

The Germans were shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that 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, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”.  He had no intention of letting up.

Foch now produced 34 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. They were 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 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

Crosses in the craterFoch informed Ertzberger that 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”. By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front, yet 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 that they could walk over in a few hours?

Others continued the attack, many 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 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…”

Trench lineAt least 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, 3,240 seriously wounded.

Still smarting from their 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 casualties.

All sides combined suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour on that final day of the “Great War”, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”. Maybe it was his recent reduction in rank, or maybe this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove. Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers 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 the Great War. The time was 10:59am.

Red PoppyMatthias 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 mistake. 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, he said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

He got it wrong, by 36 days.

Red poppies, tower of london
The red poppy of remembrance, surrounds the Tower of London.