Tag Archives: WWI

Book Review: The Month That Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel

[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]

Given that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, there has been a virtual flood of new books and scholarship on the war in the past few years. A flood that I sincerely hope does not stop anytime soon as the renewed emphasis on the war is starting to change the traditional view of the war. One area that has gotten particular emphasis this year is the Origins Controversy, as in, what really caused the war and who was responsible. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel is ostensibly an origins book but in many ways, it is not. The main goal of the book, as the author puts it in the preface, is to lay out the way that events actually unfolded making clear who knew what, and when they knew it.

The book itself is 431 pages of text divided into three topical parts with the majority of the book being part two, a day-by-day narrative of events in the final week of July, 1914. There are also notes, a list of works cited, and an index.

Entire forests have been dropped in the past 100 years writing books about World War I.  This is particularly so in the past 30 years since Joll and Martel’s The Origins of the First World War produced a virtual deluge of books and journal article presenting competing theories. Trying to explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June, 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to World War I is almost the platonic definition of impossible. Nobody has come to a satisfactory answer, there are arguments that it was the fault of just about any of the belligerents and many of them are very good arguments. But arguments is all they are. There is not now, nor is it likely there ever will be a definitive answer as to why World War I started when it did. Suffice it to say that there is more than enough blame to go around that opprobrium can be heaped on the leadership of all the belligerents.

This volume is not an origins book per se. That is, it does not seek to assign blame for starting the war. What this book is, is a step by step, detailed narrative of the events between the death of the Archduke on June 28th, and the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th. This is a straightforward account of when and importantly, what sequence things happened. The number of miscues, miscommunications, and diplomatic bumbles in July, 1914 is astonishing. The wonder is not why the war started when it did, but why it did not start sooner if the men involved were the highest quality diplomats Europe had available. Dr. Martell, lays out all these steps as they happened in a most engaging and readable way that pulls the reader along. I know what happened yet was compelled to keep reading because of the matter of fact way he writes.

What is abundantly clear in the narrative is that while Austria wanted to punish Serbia and eliminate them as a threat to the Dual Monarchy, they did not want a wider war.  It is equally clear that France, but particularly Russia, and to a lesser extent Britain, misread Austrian determination to deal with Serbia. Nobody except the Austrians really understood the lengths to which the Kaiser was willing to go to support Austria, Germany’s only true ally on the continent. Fault is not assigned in this book. The facts however, to the extent we know them, are laid out and it is left to the reader to determine what blame, if any, they assign to the various belligerents.

Diplomatic history, is one of the hardest types of history to write and make interesting. That difficult task has been accomplished in this work. I highly recommend The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 to anyone who wants an unvarnished narrative about July, 1914, possibly the most crucial month of the 20th century. This is an outstanding book that should be on the bookshelf of every student of World War I.

In Flanders Fields

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.

Some backstory on the Poem and Remembrance Poppies can be found on the In Flanders Fields page of GreatWar.co.uk

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

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.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

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.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

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.

Messines 4

Book Review: Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is one of the flood of new works coming out about World War I this year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the world’s first truly mechanized war.  This book explores the ten month (or eleven, depending on how you count it) battle of Verdun between the Germans and French from February to November 1916.

It consists of eleven chapters arranged thematically that examine different aspects of the battle from the operational movements of the forces involved to the way the battle was described in the contemporary press to the role of the battle in modern memory.  There is an extensive appendix on sources, a 29 page list of endnotes and a 20 page bibliography.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is not a battle history in the traditional sense of the word.  here is no bow by blow account of the opening days of the battle and the fall of the french forts at Vaux and Duouamont and the subsequent French recapture of much of the contested ground over the course of the battle.  The book is both more and less than battle history at the same time.  it examines the battle and the role it played in the course of the war from many angles both military and civilian.

I found the chapters discussing the views of the battle by the French and German commands especially revealing.  The standard account is that the Germans intended all along for Verdun to be a battle of attrition and that the French chose to fight so hard there as a matter of honor.  That myth is exploded in these two chapters and the way in which the battle became a matter of prestige and developed a logic of it’s own is explored in detail.  Given the level of casualties on both sides that the battle evolved into one of prestige makes sense.

Even more revealing is the discussion of the various ways in which the battle was portrayed by the media.  A good picture of the way in which the media can sway public opinion and force policy decisions is described in the media portrayals of the Battle at Verdun.  The last part of the book that examines the way the memory of the battle has been shaped and its amazing transformation from a symbol of french determination to a landmark of multiculturalism  and a monument to the futility of war is revealing in the extreme.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is well-written and logically presented and while it is not traditional battle history it is rewarding to read nonetheless.  Verdun was one of the greatest blood-lettings of World War I, though not the greatest as it has been said, that was the opening months of the war.  It is time for an objective re-examination of this supposedly pivotal battle that in the end achieved nothing of strategic significance, unless you think killing off a large cohort of enemy troops is strategic results.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I and even more to people who want to understand how the perceptions of wars and battles are shaped more by those who were not there than than by those who were.