Given that 100 years ago men were fighting and dying in the opening months of what they would come to call the Great War and we call WWI, I decided to post one of the most famous and memorable poems to come out of that war. This poem is one of the reasons that the VFW sells Poppies today in their fundraisers. It really is true that the fields of Flanders are covered with Poppies in spring and summer. Every time I visit Flanders the poppies serve as a reminder of the slaughter that took place there.
In Flanders Fields
By John McRae
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.
First Manassas or First Bull Run as it was called in the North was the first major battle between land forces of the Civil War. The outcome of the battle also set the general pattern for battles in the first two years of the war. That pattern being tactical Union defeats with the Confederacy being incapable of following up on the strategic opportunities presented by their victories.
Forces Involved: Union – 28,450 troops under BG Irvin McDowell Confederate – 32,230 under BG Joseph Johnston and BG P.G.T. Beauregard
A key point is to remember that uniforms were not standardized on either side this early in the war. Both armies looked like multi-colored mobs and the lack of standardization was to increase confusion about unit identity on the day of the battle. Another Point to remember is that the Confederate forces were those of two different armies and neither army was completely engaged during the battle. Only about half of the Confederate forces took part in the decisive fight around Henry house Hill. The commanders of both armies but especially the Confederates comprised almost a who’s who of people that would be prominent later in the war.
The Opening Skirmish: On July 18th Tyler’s Division of the Union Army tried and failed to force Blackburn’s Ford across Bull Run on the direct route to Manassas Junction. He was supposed to just demonstrate in that direction while avoiding an engagement. Instead got into a fight with Longstreet’s Brigade of Confederates that was guarding the ford. Tyler continued the fight at the Ford until McDowell arrived personally and ordered him to break off the engagement.
The Confederates planned on standing on the defensive just south of the Bull Run River with the approximate center of their line being the stone bridge along the Warrenton Pike where it crosses the river. By contrast the Union planned a two piece attack with Tyler’s Division demonstrating along the river line while a Two Divisions would march around the Confederate flank, cross Bull Run at the Sudley Springs Ford and attempt to roll up their line from the confederate left.
The morning of the battle itself found the action beginning around 0800 as Tyler’s division demonstrated by the Stone Bridge. About 0900-0915 the Evan’s Brig. on the Confederate left flank began engaging the lead elements of the Union 2nd division as they approached Matthew’s Hill from the west. Evan’s was reinforced by two more brigades but the Union troops arrived too fast forcing the Confederates to engage as they came up and not allowing them concentrate. Around 1100 hours the Confederates were driven from Matthew’s Hill and retreated to Henry House Hill where the first units of Joe Johnston’s Army was arriving and they could establish a defensive line as the Union Army kept approaching.
As the Confederate troops attempted to establish their new position on Henry House Hill vital time was bought by the privately raised Legion of Wade Hampton which delayed the Union troops by about five minutes in a short sharp fight at the foot of the hill. Incidentally, Hampton’s Legion suffered the highest casualties of any unit engaged at First Manassas.
After the Confederates had retreated they established a defensive line in the shape of a an inverted semicircle. This shape allowed the Confederates to fire on the Union troops from three sides as they came up the hill in the assault.
It was at this time that Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname as his Brigade fought desperately and bought the remainder of the time necessary for the Confederates to consolidate their position.
The key and decisive part of the battle was the fighting that swirled around Henry House Hill in the afternoon from roughly noon until 1600. The Union army had gotten two batteries of Regular Army artillery in good position to fire on the Confederate lines.
As the fight developed the Union initially had a superiority of force of somewhere between 3 and as much as 5 to 1. If they had concentrated and attacked with an entire division or even an entire brigade they probably could have taken the hill and won the battle, but they did not d that. Instead, the Union troops advanced and attacked a regiment at a time.
As each Union regiment assaulted the crest of the hill they were repulsed and thrown back only to be replaced by a fresh regiment to whom the same thing happened. Throughout the course of the afternoon the Union troops continued to assault in the way until there was a mass of defeated mixed up Union regiments at the foot of the hill.
Keep in mind also that the Confederate troops were continually being reinforced as Johnston’s Shenandah troops were fed into the battle as they arrived from the railhead at Manassas Junction. Eventually the balance of forces started to swing against the Union.
The battle finally turned entirely against the Union hen the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart attack and overran the two batteries of Union artillery that had been so damaging to the Confederates all afternoon. This was doubly worse as the artillery was caught as it was displacing to get a better angle of fire on the defenders.
As the artillery was overrun fresh confederate troops of Jubal Early and Arnold Elzey followed the cavalry and plowed into the Union right collapsing it forcing the entire Union army to begin to retreat. The Union troops managed to retreat in fairly good order until they reached the Cub Run bridge where a destroyed wagon on the bridge itself caused a traffic jam forced the army to cross the creek on foot. It was here that rumors of confederate cavalry turned a retreat into a rout and then a rout into a panic. The only Union unit that maintained discipline was the 14th U.S. Infantry which kept its order and continued to fight serving as a rear guard for the entire union army as they fled the battlefield.
The Confederates were too exhausted to immediately pursue the defeated Union army and by the time they were rested the next day rain overnight had turned the roads into a morass and ruled out any effective pursuit. This allowed the defeated Union Army of the Potomac to regroup and reconsolidate in and around Washington D.C. in the next few weeks. The first Union campaign of the war had ended in failure. Casualties were actually fairly light for such a large battle, especially when considered by the casualties standards of later battles of the Civil War.
The latest month’s wackiness in the world of international relations, politics, and brinkmanship.
Iraqi Military Makes Gains North of Baghdad in Conflict With ISIS: It will be interesting to see how the response to the ISIS offensive plays out both in Iraq and in the wider world. The INA is a broken reed and any gains they make will be fleeting. I fully expect a stalemate to ensue shortly wherein Iraq is effectively partitioned. We are saying the beginning of bloody fighting. Think of it as Sunni Triangle II.
Ukraine Says Russia Has 38,000 Troops on Border Amid ‘Invasion’: The biggest news out of this story is not that Russia is massing limited numbers of troops on the Ukraine border or even that Russian SF agitators are probably already in Eastern Ukraine but that Gazprom has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine. Supposedly through traffic to the EU is continuing but who thinks they won’t shut that off too if the EU gets too froggy about their support for Ukraine?
Putin Backs Cease-Fire in Ukraine Amid Russia Army Drills: I am simply amazed at the level of duplicity displayed by Russia regarding events in Ukraine. I am even more amazed that the Western powers are not calling them on it. It is obvious that the rebels are getting arms from the Russians yet the European powers refuse to acknowledge that and when Ukrainian or US authorities say it aloud the silence from our supposed allies is deafening.
Ebola ‘out of control’ in West Africa: MSF: A new strain of the Ebola virus is a potential nightmare. It is 90% lethal and apparently the strain currently spreading through West Africa is more easily transmitted than previous strains although news reports are not explicitly saying that. If this virus ever becomes airborne transmissible, all bets are off.
Kerry issues warning after Syria bombs Iraq: In the most ironic thing of all, I have to wonder if some Western leaders are privately beginning to think that Assad is not that bad after all? At least Assad made sure that his corner of the middle east was fairly stable, and it is obvious that a large chunk of the Syrian people support him as well.
ISIS Tries to Grab Its Own Air Force: The significance of Balad falling would not be in ISIS control of aircraft, but in Iraqi loss of same. I find it difficult to believe that ISIS counts a large number of pilots in its ranks, much less pilots qualified to operate combat aircraft and the aircrew to keep them operational. The fall of Balad and Taji, were it to occur, would be a further symptom of how rotten the Iraqi army is. Of course, I called that ten years ago when I was helping to establish the first Iraqi training program for the INA we were rebuilding.
Poroshenko ends Ukraine ceasefire, says government will attack rebels: If Russia withdraws support for the rebels the separatists could be crushed within weeks. If however, Russia is just playing for time then this could last months yet. It is also significant that apparently someone has admitted that Russian control of European energy supplies is a major factor in the tepidness of the European response to blatant Russian aggression all along. Of course, the time for strong sanctions and pressure on Russia is now when energy needs are not as acute as they will be this coming winter.
Hamas rockets reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: I am curious to see if Israel will finally be smart, ignore international public opinion, and teach the Palestinian Arabs a brutal, bloody lesson they won’t forget for a generation. They probably won’t though. The Israelis will piss around, kill some Arabs, lose a few troops, and go back to the status quo. Western leaders, Israel included, refuse to face the bitter truth that the only thing Arabs understand is force, everything else is weakness.
Germany Cites Deep Rift With U.S. Amid Second Spy Case: If the allegations are true this is one of the dumbest possible things the US could do. Germany has been a staunch US ally since the founding of the FRG in 1949. What possible intelligence could be worth losing an ally?
Russia warns Ukraine after shell crosses border: The fighting in Ukraine continues with government forces slowly making inroads and regaining control of territory. The likelihood of cross-border incidents only increases as gov. troops regain control of territory and I would not be surprised if at some point Russia does not use such an incident as a causus belli to get involved and support their proxies.
From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army. It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914. Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.
The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele.
The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient. It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.
The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast. I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq. In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.
Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.
The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder. Plumer reputation among the troops however was different. He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.
The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive. The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines. These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.
A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded. The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.
A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked. (NOTE: preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)
The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders. The overall plan failed.
At approximately 3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded. The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.
The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.
On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from. The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.
German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.
Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.
The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 is one of those books that is going to end up a standard work for a long time to come. It is the single most comprehensive history of the Allied bombing of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII that I have seen since the strategic bombing survey published by the US government in the immediate post-war years.
I have a review copy of the book so the page counts may be a little different in the published version. The book itself is 561 pages with 78 pages of notes, a 26 pages bibliography, and an 18 page index. It is divided into six chapters. The first three chapters are a chronological account of the air war over Germany and the last three are thematic dealing with the logic of bombing and the campaigns in Italy and the occupied countries.
Every book about the war talks about the bombing campaign and most take for granted that it was effective at least partially in reducing Germany’s war-making ability. This book examines the war in detail and tries to establish the effectiveness, if any, of the Allied bombing offensive. The answer is mixed at best.
It has always struck me as odd that despite the expenditure of hundreds of tons of bombs and the devastation of the center and surrounding regions of most industrial towns in Germany, german war production continued to increase throughout the war. Indeed, the most productive war of the month in terms of number of tanks and aircraft constructed was march of 1945. Given that, how could it be said that the bombing campaign was successful as many historians and the leaders of the campaign claimed?
The point of bombing was not to kill civilians, but to reduce the war making capacity of Germany. What Dr. Overy makes clear is that while industrial capacity was negatively affected in the wake of many raids, what was lost was regained and then some so rapidly that production halts were temporary at best. he attributes this to two causes; one, bombing accuracy was abysmal, and two, the Germans were very good at repairing damage and getting production lines running again.
It was considered a good raid by the british if there bombs fell within 5 miles of the target and three Americans thought within 3 miles was good. Bombing accuracy was so bad because the bombers flew very high to avoid AA fire and in the case of the English, they flew at night. The lower the bombers flew, the more accurate they were but they also suffered horrendous losses at low altitude due to AA fire and German fighters.
Added to bombing inaccuracy, was the depth and responsiveness of the German Civil and Air Defense Systems. The Germans had a multitude of agencies tasked with dealing with raiding damage and the German people themselves pitched in to make things good. The striking thing is that the Germans could have been even more effective if they had streamlined their civil defense organizations and avoided having a plethora of agencies trying to do the same thing.
The story of the bombing of italy shows that where the germans were very good, the Italians were very bad and italian civilians suffered as a result. Of special interest is the discussion of the bombing of occupied countries and the response of the occupied people to the destruction and loss of life inherent in being bombed to get their freedom.
This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are knowledgeable about the Allied Bombing campaign of WWII. The book dispels some myths and puts the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in context to who the war was won and the Nazis defeated.