Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Eyewitness: Through the Periscope: RMS Lusitania


Clear bow-shot from 700 meters. . . Torpedo hits starboard side close abaft the bridge, followed by a very unusually large explosion with a violent emission of smoke (far above the foremost funnel). In addition to the explosion of the torpedo there must have been a second one (boiler or coal or powder).

The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn apart, fire breaks out, a thick cloud of smoke envelops the upper bridge. The ship stops at once and very quickly takes on a heavy list to starboard, at the same time starting to sink by the bow. She looks like she will quickly capsize.

Much confusion on board; boats are cleared away and some of them lowered to the water. Apparently considerable panic; several boats, fully laden, are hurriedly lowered, bow or stern first and at once fill with water. . .



Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger's War Diary, 7 May 2015

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928
Reviewed by James M. Gallen


Russia in Revolution: 
An Empire in Crisis 1890–1928

by S.A. Smith
Oxford University Press, 2017

The Russian Revolution is one of—and arguably the most significant—sequels of the Great War. Russia In Revolution is the 38-year story of an empire whose chronic state of crisis led to a series of revolutions that transformed its country and shook the world. From the 1860s and especially the 1890s Russia's aristocracy strove to maintain its nation's status among European powers by industrialization, development of agriculture, expansion of railroads, and modernization of the military. While contributing to the Russian economy, this energy also created new social classes such as more prosperous peasants, industrial workers, commercial and industrial capitalists, and professional middle classes whose demands for their day in the sun destabilized the traditional societal balance.

Shooting During the February Revolution

One clear point from Russia in Revolution is that it was war that undermined the stability of the Russian state. The progress being made in Russian society raised expectations but did not prevent the critical mass of discontent that made revolution inevitable. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the slaughter of the Great War heated the civic borsch to the point of overflow.

The 9 January 1905 march of 150,000 workers and their families to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar was met by troops who opened fire killing 200 and injuring 800. Word of Bloody Sunday spread throughout the land, setting off months of strikes, rebellions, demonstrations, and political organizing. The fusion of labor movements with the educated middle class and gentry raised demands for a constitution, civil rights, and an end to the war with Japan. Loyalty of the generals provided time for the tsar to promulgate the concessions, establishing a Duma that eased the pressures and enabled the modernization of the country to resume.

The outbreak of war brought a surge of patriotism and fealty to the tsar. As visions of victory receded from view the lengthening casualty lists, food shortages in what, at the advent of the war, had been the world's greatest exporter of grain, and rampant inflation led to strikes that disrupted war production and gave greater cohesion to the voices of discontent. Demands for an end to the war and economic improvement, particularly in the renamed capital of Petrograd, resulted in more troops firing on protesters, the organization of political committees, and intrigue within the Duma. The generals, who had held the line for the tsar and his regime in 1905, switched to the Duma, forcing the abdication of the tsar on 3 March 1917, after only 12 days of unrest.

May Day, 1917: Posters Calling for a World Proletariat and the End of Capitalism

The March revolution was more of a disintegration of the regime than a defeat by an organized opposition. The pieces were picked up by the Duma-authorized Provisional Government, in which Alexander Kerensky played a major role along with military groups, labor unions, local soviets, and regional authorities. The challenge facing the Provisional Government was to consolidate power in its hands by gaining support from splintered power centers advancing disparate and conflicting policies. Lenin arrived in Petrograd on 3 April, a month after the abdication of the tsar, on a sealed train provided by Germany to transport him from exile in Switzerland.

The Provisional Government's determination to fulfill its obligation to the Allies by continuing the war led to the Kerensky Offensive of 18 June to 6 July that was a disaster on both the military and the domestic political fronts. Dissatisfaction with the war gave the Bolsheviks and other groups an issue with which to consolidate opposition to the Provisional Government, resulting in the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Once in power Lenin sought to extricate Russia from the war in a way that would wreak the least havoc on the country he now governed. It is pointed out that he justified some of the territorial concessions demanded by Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, at least in part, because of his belief that revolution would spread across Europe, erasing national boundaries through the withering away of the state that would follow the ascension of Communism.

The Bolshevik triumph was neither thorough nor final. Through October 1922 the "Whites," consisting largely of officers and supporters of the ancient regime, fought with Western aid and intervention, to restore Russia as it had been; however, the support of the population for the Reds finalized their victory and a hold on Russia that would last for over 60 years.

Author S. A. Smith has drawn upon recently released documents along with other materials to compose in Russia in Revolution. He examines the revolution from all facets, including ideological, political, ethnic, economic, military, and personal. Readers will find themes that figure so prominently in other accounts of the revolution, such as the contribution of Empress Alexandra and the role and murder of Rasputin, dispatched in a very few paragraphs. Smith has provided us with a thorough study of an empire that tore itself apart and slowly put the pieces back together again into a country that would immensely affect history, doing so in the course of being an historical cul-de-sac going from capitalism to communism and back to capitalism. Smith concludes that the Russian Revolution ended in tyranny, raising questions about justice, equality, and freedom, spawning revolutionaries (including Ho Chi Minh) who took its spirit to other lands. Despite the magnitude of the Russian Revolution's ideals and tragedies, Smith posits that future historians may find the great revolution of the 20th century in China, not Russia.

James M. Gallen

Monday, September 18, 2017

An Economic Rationale for America Entering the War

Editor's Note:  I've always been suspicious of economic arguments about the origins of the First World War, especially America's later entry.  This excerpt from a paper sent to me by the late Latin American specialist Professor Robert F. Smith, PhD, and  is the first such argument that seems credible to me.  

His argument:

By 1916, both Britain and Germany were still active in the region and Britain had begun planning for a postwar boom, foreseeing that military expenditures could be turned toward commercial endeavors.

French Commerce and Industry
Secretary Étienne Clémentel
Hosted the 1916 Paris Conference
The June 1916 Paris Economic Conference fueled American fears of a postwar European financial surge in Latin America.  Allied governments agreed to the conference out of a desire to plan a postwar economic order that included a crippled and subjugated Germany.  They wanted to coordinate a program that punished Germany economically for its warmongering and kept the nation from regaining its commercial preeminence when hostilities ceased.  The conference spoke of dividing the world into regional spheres of influence.  

To reach this goal, the Allies agreed to tighten their economic sanctions against Germany and continue those sanctions after the war.  Senator William Stone of Mississippi was alarmed by the Conference’s position, pointing out that while it was proposing commercial warfare against Germany, it was also planning a system that could easily be turned against the U.S.  Stone’s concern was validated by the fact that the U.S. was neither invited to the conference nor mentioned as part of the postwar economic order under discussion.  The magazine Iron Age editorialized that “even in the midst of war (the Allies) were planning for a new era of industrial expansion (and the U.S. was) doing nothing to prepare for this challenge.”   The Paris Conference made Americans realize just how vulnerable they were in foreign markets, especially Latin America.   Despite preoccupation with the war, Britain and France had not lost sight of their interests overseas.  Yet, while Americans were concerned with Allied financial activities, the U.S. ultimately declared war on Germany because Germany was the greater threat to wartime and postwar economic prosperity.  Latin America was not the focus of this concern, but it became a battleground.

Germany’s militarism, added to its control of critical industries, made that nation a greater threat to the U.S. than the Allies. Government analyst Thomas Norton wrote in 1915 that “the dominance of Germany in the dyestuffs production and commerce of the entire world is so marked and inherently of such potential might that it does not hesitate to make itself felt whenever and wherever an effort is made toward emancipation from its control.”   The German chemical trust owned over 4,500 chemical patents in the U.S. alone.  A German cartel also controlled the prices of copper in the world, which was a threat to American electrical interests. Wilson, and the U.S. in general, was feeling hemmed in by German commercial activities. German submarines also limited the safe travel of Americans.  While neutrality should have protected U.S. merchants from German attack, U-boat captains often destroyed a ship rather than risk surfacing to question that ship’s nationality.  American fear turned to anger when civilians on the ships Lusitania and Sussex were lost to German torpedoes.  

By 1917, random German U-boat attacks had become a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson, and many Americans with him, began to believe that German militarism and commerce did not constitute a safe future for the world.  “An economically healthy Europe that was able to participate actively in world affairs,” wrote Historian Burton Kaufman, “was essential if President Wilson was to achieve a postwar community of nations predicated on the principles of liberal capitalism and peaceful commercial competition.” Germany did not fit into that model, and if victorious, would surely construct a new economic system with its allies to the detriment of the U.S. No matter who won the war, a huge postwar economic battle would ensue, with the US caught in the middle.  Action was needed, and unrestricted submarine warfare ensured that American actions were directed at the German Empire.

Cartoon Published Just Before the President's War Message

The protection of American financial interests and trade was a critical factor in leading Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war on Germany on 2 April 1917.  He reasoned that the “present German submarine warfare against commerce” was both “warfare against mankind” and “against the government and people of the United States...” Moreover, he said, “one of the things that has served to convince us that the Prussian autocracy was not and could never be our friend is that from the very outset of the present war it has filled our unsuspecting communities ...with...criminal intrigues...(in)...our industries and our commerce.” Though all of Europe was a threat to American interests in Latin America, Germany was the greater threat to American interests in general.  War, however, would give the U.S. an opportunity to promote its interests in that region specifically.

Source: "Capturing Commerce: America’s Great War Front in Latin America"


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Eyewitness: Serbians Storm Kajmakčalan, September 1916, Part II


Editor's Introduction


E.P. Stebbing (Scottish Nat. Mus.)

Edward Percy Stebbing (1872–1960) was a pioneering British forester and forest entomologist in India. He was among the first to warn of desertification and desiccation and wrote on "The encroaching Sahara". He spent 1916 on the Macedonian Front as a transportation officer for the Scottish Womens' Hospital volunteer ambulance organization supporting the Serbian Army.   He was just behind the front line at Ostrovo during the most critical operation of 1916, the capture of Kajmakčalan Peak, today  located almost precisely on the Greek-Macedonian border.  After the war he published an account of his service at the Serbian Front in Macedonia.


The Battle of Kajmakčalan resulted in a victory for the Allies against the Central Powers.  The Serbs, led by General Živojin Mišić, commander of the Serbian First Army, were victorious against the Bulgarians, finally taking the key position, but at a huge cost to the Serbs. Few battles have been fought at such heights. Kajmakčalan, with its twin peaks, is, at its highest point, 8200 feet. And once a certain height was reached, the battle was hand to hand.  (Heroes of Serbia Website)

Bulgarian Troops Counterattacking

Stebbing's Description of the Fighting, Part II

(The initial part of this account appears in the 16 September 2017 posting at Roads to the Great War.)

September 25th.—The day was quiet with intermittent artillery fire. The attack opened fiercely tonight to N.E., N., and N.W., with the usual accompaniment of star shells, flares and machine-gun, bombs, and rifle fire. It lasted for several hours and a fiercely contested battle was evidently taking place.

September 26th.—The attack of last night continued into the early hours of this morning and was especially fierce in the direction of Starkov Grob. Throughout the day there were occasional outbursts of artillery fire which increased after nightfall with fierce bursts of small arms fire.

September 27th.—The heavy firing on night of 25th-26th September was the fiercest engagement which has yet taken place. It was hand-to-hand, the Bulgarians counter-attacking the Serbians to recover lost trenches on the heights. The enemy came on four times and got into the Serbian trenches, only to be thrown out. It is rumoured, however, that the Serbians lost portions of trenches they had previously taken. The latter had 500 killed and 1000 wounded, and they say that the Bulgarian losses were far heavier, which is probable, as they were the attackers, and the ground up there is almost devoid of cover. Wounded from this fight were brought down to the hospital to-day, amongst these the Serbian colonel. Colonel Stojchitch, previously alluded to. He told me that the fighting had been of the fiercest with the bayonet and no quarter given. To make matters worse, the ammunition ran short, probably owing to the block on the railway.

I rode out to a hill a couple of miles away in the late afternoon, from which a fine view of the whole upper part of Kajmaktcalan is obtained. The Serbian batteries were firing salvoes on to the crest, whilst the bursting shells of the Bulgarian batteries dotted the slopes below, searching the Serbian lines. The night was comparatively quiet, but star shells and flares were constantly sent up, each side doubtless expecting an attack.

Heard this evening that orders had been issued to give the Serbs a couple of days' rest before the final
assault is made. The Serbian colonel told me that they are now up to the upper line of trenches very near the crest. He said that the fighting was of the deadliest. His regiment, 2500 strong, had suffered severely in these advances, numbering now only 950 ; that he had had 30 officers killed and as many wounded, including himself, he being in a forward trench at the time. I saw the place later.

The Crown Prince of Serbia Visiting the Hospital Area

September 28th.—Practically no firing to-day. The Serbs are resting and their batteries waiting for more ammunition. Heard to-day that General Wassitch has determined on a big push in two days' time to clear the Bulgars off the crest of Kajmaktcalan, and finally pierce this stronghold.

September 29th.—I went up to the Drina dressing station some five miles or so below the firing line. The guns were quiet up here, and the mountains, putting on their autumn tints, were glorious. The road up the Drina is described later.

I had heard from Captain Gooden, liaison officer, that the grand attack was to commence to-night and remained in Ostrovo to watch it. Already the shades of night had fallen on the lower parts of the mountain, but the summit was bathed in soft yellow light from the rapidly setting sun. Soon this turned to blood red, a fitting pall for the night of carnage which was so soon to take place up there on the heights. The night bid fair to remain clear and starlight. As often as not during the past fortnight the upper part of the great mountain has been enshrouded in mist. From our position we could only see the flashes of the guns and the reflected light of the star shells, flares, bombs, etc., for a swelling in the upper part of a spur below the crest hid the actual scene of the fight and deadened to some extent the noise of the rifle and machine-gun fire. The bursting of the Bulgar shells was distinctly visible, ceaselessly searching for our batteries. We sat and watched the great fight for some hours. Now and then the telephone spoke, but there was nothing definite yet. The fight continued throughout the night, but the sound decreased in the morning, possibly due, we thought, to the fact that the wind was blowing from the south up on to the crest. No news had come in to say that definite success had been attained, no news that was given out at any rate. 

Memorial Chapel Atop Kajmakčalan


Through  the day the guns waxed and waned, and in the camp, to which I had to return, as one went about the work one feverishly wondered how things were going up there. In the evening just before supper anxiety was set at rest. A telephone message came through, saying that the Serbs had captured the crest and that the Bulgarians were in full retreat down the steep northern slopes of Kajmaktcalan. We were all, Serbians and British alike, very jubilant that night, and there was great festivity in the Serbian camp and our hearty congratulations were not wanting.

The Serbians had still much hard fighting in front of them where Monastir was to fall, and that fall was to be directly attributable to their magnificent efforts and extraordinary pluck. But they never fought a better fight than when the 3rd Royal Serbian Army, to which we were so proud to belong, captured the crest of Kajmaktcalan after an Homeric contest, and once again set foot on the beloved soil of their native land.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Eyewitness: Serbians Storm Kajmakčalan, September 1916, Part I


Editor's Introduction



E.P. Stebbing (Scottish Nat. Mus.)

Edward Percy Stebbing (1872–1960) was a pioneering British forester and forest entomologist in India. He was among the first to warn of desertification and desiccation and wrote on "The encroaching Sahara". He spent 1916 on the Macedonian Front as a transportation officer for the Scottish Womens' Hospital volunteer ambulance organization supporting the Serbian Army.   He was just behind the front line at Ostrovo during the most critical operation of 1916, the capture of Kajmaktcalan Peak, today  located almost precisely on the Greek-Macedonian border.  After the war he published an account of his service at the Serbian Front in Macedonia.


The Battle of Kajmakčalan resulted in a victory for the Allies against the Central Powers.  The Serbs, led by General Živojin Mišić, commander of the Serbian First Army, were victorious against the Bulgarians, finally taking the key position, but at a huge cost to the Serbs. Few battles have been fought at such heights. Kajmakčalan, with its twin peaks, is, at its highest point, 8200 feet. And once a certain height was reached, the battle was hand to hand.  (Heroes of Serbia Website)


Stebbing's Description of the Fighting


About the middle of September the real attack on  the Kajmaktcalan [ed. note–Stebbing is using a rough transliteration of the Serbian] and Starkov Grob positions began.  The fortified crest of the former mountain, with the  equally strong Starkov Grob one to the west, formed the key to the whole position. Once taken it meant that the Serbs could descend on the other side in the direction of the Monastir plain, though there would be plenty of hard fighting to undertake on the Cherna before they reached that point. It was on September 18th that I saw the real commencement of the attack on Kajmaktcalan.

Serbian Troops on the March

Something took me into Ostrovo on a brilliant morning. We had beautiful autumn weather for the most part during the next month. The slopes of the great mountain lay bathed in sunlight with fleecy cloud masses here and there, in part composed of smoke from the batteries. These were hard at work. The bursting shrapnel from the Bulgarian guns could be distinctly seen, as also our batteries firing up over the ridge searching for the Bulgar batteries on the far side, hidden in almost impenetrable ravines ; their guns hauled up to this great height at the expense of almost superhuman labour. To get our own batteries into their present position, as I subsequently saw for myself, was a task which no one would have dreamt of attempting before this war. The bombardment on this morning was very severe, much more so than it had been for many a week past, on and off. Away to the west the cannonade was also very heavy. This was to culminate in the assault on Fiorina which fell on this night. The Kajmaktcalan mountain mass rises sheer up due north of Ostrovo at a distance of about a couple of miles. It looks an impossible place to get troops and guns up into.

Italian, Serbian, and Russian Officers Assigned to the Sector

The battle of Kajmaktcalan is usually given as having been fought and won on September 18th. But this is not the date upon which the final summit was won. I describe this battlefield in a later chapter from notes made at the time of visiting it. The taking of the three successive lines of trenches on the slopes and crest of Kajmaktcalan and the Starkov Grob position to the south-west took the best part of ten days or more. Being encamped so close and within sound and view of the mountain, I daily recorded the various phases of the battle as the news came in to us by telephone. Also many of the seriously wounded from the battlefield came direct to us, brought down from the field dressing station on the Drina immediately below the fighting line. I had the good fortune to become great friends with a colonel of one of the infantry regiments, Colonel Stojchitch, who was badly wounded in the arm in one of the fierce fights up on the great mountain side. The actual crest was taken on September 30th. Truly was it a fight fit for gods up there, far above tree level on the stony and rocky slopes in the bitter cold of late autumn, and all honour to the men who fought it. It was the Army to which we belonged that was fighting up there,  and we followed the fortunes of the great contest, as they waxed and waned, with close attention and anxiety ; for until the Bulgarians were turned out of there, the fortunes of our hospital were still in the balance. Retreat would be impossible for us and none were keen on becoming prisoners to the Bulgars.

Kajmakčalan Viewed from the Village, Peak Obscured by Clouds & Artillery Smoke

The following daily record as jotted down in my diary is of interest :

September 19th.—Artillery fire broke out heavily during the night.

September 20th.—A severe action was fought tonight up on Kajmaktcalan, preceded by heavy gun fire, with the first machine-gun, bombing, and rifle fire heard up there.

I was told that the Serbians were attacking the first of the three lines of trenches protected by wire entanglements. For three hours the turmoil continued. The Serbians were enfiladed by machine-gun fire and lost heavily. My little bell tent faces north over Kajmaktcalan, and I lay on my cot looking across to where the great mountain mass cut the dark vault of the heavens, studded with brilliant stars. The slopes were flickering with the flashes of the guns and the star shells, whilst the crest gleamed dull red. One hoped to see it all a bit nearer one day. Some progress was made, we heard.

September 21st.—A stormy wet thundery day. Kajmaktcalan is hidden in dense cloud masses. It must be bitter cold work for both sides carrying out modern war at that elevation under such conditions. A lull in the firing. It is quite strange to be without the sound of guns in our ears.

September 22nd.—The guns commenced firing again this afternoon, the visibility having improved. The check, owing to the mist, has been rough on the Serbians, as it has enabled the Bulgarians to strengthen their positions.

Bulgarian Counterattack Against the Peak

September 23rd.—Guns have been at work all to-day, and to-night a fierce engagement, the hottest we have had for several nights, is taking place up on Kajmaktcalan. 

Sunday, September 24th.—Heavy fighting took place on the mountain this afternoon. The progress is slower than was anticipated.


Part II of this account will be presented tomorrow. . .

Friday, September 15, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Col. Hiram Bearss, USMC


Col Hiram I. Bearss, had the most varied career of any officer of the AEF. As a temporary colonel he arrived in command of the Base Detachment of the 5th Marines. He had already been approved for a Medal of Honor for services in the Philippines in 1901, which was awarded in 1934. With duty at St. Nazaire he was also made CO of the base, including several U.S. Army labor companies. When Col Doyen assumed command of the newly created 2nd Division, Bearss commanded the 5th Regiment of Marines, then the 4th Brigade. "Hiking Hiram," as he was known, was relieved in February 1918 when Wendell Neville arrived to command the 5th  and Doyen returned to the brigade. 

Bearss was placed in command of the 3d Bn, 9th Infantry of the 2nd Division, especially to train this polyglot unit composed of mainly recent immigrants. He did a fine job and later became CO of the 9th Infantry at Toul. He was assigned to duty with the 2nd Division and then to the 6th Marines as assistant to the regimental commander. Because he was over in grade he eventually was transferred as CO of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division. 

He led them admirably at St. Mihiel, where the 26th Division helped close the salient, and later at Marchville where he earned a DSC.“His indomitable courage and leadership led to the complete success of the attack by two battalions of his regiment at Marcheville and Raiville. During the attacks these two towns changed hands four times, finally remaining in our possession when the enemy withdrew. Under terrific machine gun and artillery fire he was the first to enter Marcheville, where he directed operations. Later, upon finding his party completely surrounded, he personally assisted in fighting the enemy off with pistol and hand grenades.”  Later,  he assumed command of the 51st Brigade, 26th Division. 

Retiring as a brigadier general, he was also the recipient of the Army & Navy Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Honor (officer); CdG, Palm and a CdG, Silver; and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. A Fletcher-class destroyer, commissioned in 1944, was named after him

Bearss died 28 August 1938, in an automobile collision in Columbia City, Indiana, while en route from Chicago to Peru, Indiana. He was buried at Peru in Mount Hope Cemetery

Details courtesy of George Clark

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Recommended: The Russian Origins of Strategic Air Operations


By Scott Palmer, Western Illinois University
Presented at:  Russia's Great War and Revolution



Igor Sikorsky's 1911 Pilot's License (Sikorsky Archives}

Imperial Russia was an unlikely location for the launch of an aeronautical revolution. Although, by the eve of the Great War, the country’s military force boasted one of the world’s largest air fleets with some 260 aircraft at its disposal, this quantitative strength masked significant qualitative deficiencies. Virtually all of the machines that the Imperial Air Fleet possessed had been purchased directly from foreign manufacturers or were non-native models built under license in Russian factories. In almost every instance these craft represented obsolescent models. In the worst cases, they included aircraft marked by serious performance and design flaws. The difficulties facing Imperial Russia’s prewar aircraft industry did not, however, preclude true innovation. In the years that immediately preceded the onset of hostilities, Igor Sikorsky demonstrated that despite Russia’s lack of productive capacity, the country’s inventors were capable of matching (and even surpassing) the most advanced concepts and designs emerging from Western European workshops.

Like many early aeronautical pioneers, Sikorsky developed a fascination with flight as a young boy. While enrolled as an engineering student at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, he read reports of the Wright brothers’ famous 1908 demonstration flights in Paris. Inspired by news of the Americans’ success, Sikorsky abandoned his course of study in order to devote full time to building his own airplanes. Over the next sixteen months, while working out of a barn on his father's estate, the young designer produced a series of monoplanes and biplanes each more airworthy than its predecessor. The culmination of these early efforts was the S-6 B, the first functional hydroplane designed by a Russian. For this design, Sikorsky earned a 30,000 ruble prize from the Russian War Ministry and considerable fame. In less than four years, Sikorsky (age 23) had emerged from obscurity to become his nation’s most celebrated aircraft constructor.

Sikorsky’s meteoric rise caught the eye of Mikhail Shidlovskii, a member of the State Council and director of the Russo-Balt Carriage Factory. One of Russia’s leading industrialists, Shidlovskii had built a reputation as a visionary entrepreneur through his pioneering work in the nation's nascent automobile industry. Shidlovskii was a rare commodity in late Imperial Russia: a generous patron with money to spare. Impressed by the performance of Sikorsky’s airplanes, and sensing a business opportunity, he agreed to support the young designer’s vision for a revolutionary new airplane: a large, multi-engine craft containing an enclosed cabin for the crew.

With financial backing provided by Shidlovskii, Sikorsky labored throughout the autumn and winter of 1912-1913. The four-engine airplane that emerged from his workshop the following spring was enormous by contemporary standards. Initially dubbed The Grand (later re-christened The Russian Warrior), the machine surpassed 60 feet in length. It was graced with a wingspan approaching 90 feet and weighed nearly two tons. The Russian Warrior could accommodate up to 12 passengers, inclusive of the two man crew required to operate the behemoth. More impressive still, it could lift in excess of 1,600 pounds and stay aloft for hours at a cruising speed of up to 55 miles an hour. At that time the largest airplane in the world, Sikorsky’s creation represented a major accomplishment for Russia's hard-pressed aviation industry. The triumph was short-lived. Less than two months after its public unveiling, the Russian Warrior was destroyed at a military competition when the motor of a Russian-made biplane, flying overhead, came loose. The 80-horsepower engine fell to the earth, landing on the Russian Warrior parked below.

 Sikorsky's Il’ya Muromets (Courtesy of Von Hardesty)

Undeterred, Sikorsky set out to construct an even larger (and improved) airplane. Unveiled in the spring of 1914, the Il'ya Muromets was, like its predecessor, a stunning achievement in airplane construction. Possessing a wingspan some 20 percent larger and capable of lifting more than 2,000 pounds, the Il’ya Muromets represented a significant improvement over Sikorsky's first multiple-engine airplane. Of particular interest were the changes made by Sikorsky in the design of the aircraft's fuselage. Unlike the cabin of the Russian Warrior, which sat atop the plane's central frame, the passenger hold of the Il’ya Muromets was incorporated into the fuselage. This design innovation would serve as the model for all future military and civilian passenger craft. More impressive still were the dimensions of the new compartment. Over five feet wide and six feet high, it was capable of comfortably accommodating up to a dozen people. The plane was specially equipped to meet passengers' needs on long-distance flights. The fuselage was divided into several compartments complete with wicker chairs and small tables. The airplane also included a sleeping cabin and an observation platform, which was mounted toward the rear of the craft. Additional features included a generator for producing electric light to illuminate the cabin, a heating system, and, in another aviation first, a toilet.

On 23 May 1914, the main Military-Technical Administration placed an order with the Russo-Balt Factory for the delivery of ten aircraft at a cost of 150,000 rubles apiece. However, the onset of hostilities in August 1914 brought into stark relief the continuing inability of Russian native factories to produce quality aero engines in sufficient quantity. By the time that the war commenced in August 1914, only two of the Muromtsy had been completed. Growing delays in the shipment of engines from Great Britain and France made it impossible for the Russo-Balt factory to deliver completed aircraft to the military by contractual deadlines. Faced with the prospect of sinking further resources into an expensive machine offering as yet uncertain military advantages, state officials elected in early November 1914 to cancel the army’s contract for the remaining aircraft scheduled for delivery.

With the prospect of bankruptcy looming thanks to the impending cancellation of the 1.5 million ruble order, Shidlovskii intervened with military officials in an attempt to salvage the Il’ya Muromets program and his company. In late November, he petitioned the General Staff to allow him to take personal command of the military's existing aircraft. Noting that his experience overseeing production of the planes as well as his status as a veteran naval officer qualified him for the post, Shidlovskii argued that with improved supervision and the proper training of aircrews, the military potential of the airplane behemoths would finally be realized. Perhaps recognizing that it had nothing to lose from this unorthodox request, Stavka agreed. The cancelled contract with Russo-Balt was re-instated. On 14 December 1914 the General Staff ordered the formation of a unified "Squadron of Flying Ships" (Eskadra vozdushnykh korablei, or EVK) that would consisting of 12 Muromtsy (ten in active service, two in reserve) once the planes emerged from the factory. In the meantime, five existing aircraft were dispatched to the town of Iablonna, not far from Warsaw. Shidlovskii was promoted to the rank of major-general and placed in command of the squadron. To assist him with overseeing the training of flight crews, he enlisted the aid of the airplane's inventor, Igor Sikorsky.

Shidlovskii proved to be an effective commander. Although the program continued to suffer from production delays and the doubts of some skeptical commanders, once engaged in regular service, the EVK demonstrated that “heavy aviation” held considerable promise for the nation’s military forces—and not simply as a reconnaissance instrument. On 28 February 1915, while undertaking an observation flight along the Vistula River near the town of Bobrzhin, a single Il’ya Muromets dropped over 600 lbs of explosives upon German ground forces. Given that previous aerial bombardments had amounted to little more than a pilots tossing an errant grenade or two over the sides of their aircraft, the scale of the attack undertaken by Sikorsky’s aircraft was truly historic.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ground Zero: Cleopatra's Needle, London


Contributed by Steve Miller

Gotha G.IV bomber (Photo from WingNut)

With zeppelins  too vulnerable to weather effects and British antiaircraft defenses, the Germans switched to Gotha bombers for their attacks against London. Daylight Gotha attacks were also vulnerable, so on the night of 3–4 September 1917 an attack of 11 bombers against London was launched. The scars of that bombing are today most visible along the River Thames on Victoria's embankment at Cleopatra's Needle.  One passerby riding a tram was killed in the explosion.


The Setting Today (Steve Miller Photo)

Location (Google Maps)


1917, After the Bombing (IWM Photo)


The Damage, Still Visible Today  (Steve Miller Photo)


Detail  (Steve Miller Photo)

The Wikipedia article on Cleopatra's Needle has  much interesting information on its history and remarkable transport to England from Egypt, 1877–78.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Armenian Golgotha
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf


Armenian Golgotha: 
A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1918

by Grigoris Balakian 
Translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag
Knopf, 2009

Armenians in a Deportation Column, Starting Out

The author of Armenian Golgotha, Grigoris Balakian, was born in the north-central highlands of Turkey, about 75 miles from the Black Sea, into a very well educated family actively seeking reforms for the treatment of minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Originally, after graduating from the Sanassarian Academy, Balakian attempted to follow a career in engineering by attending Mittweida University in Saxony, Germany. However, after a year he felt compelled to return to Turkey and become a priest (1901) in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Here he had a meteoric career, rising to very influential positions where he furthered the goal of achieving better rights for Armenians on the international level as well as within the empire. In 1914, when the Great War started, he was in Berlin studying theology. It is at this point that Balakian's memoir begins.

Although brief, the opening chapters present a very clear picture of German reaction to the war's start as well as the author's own confidence that Germany would triumph over its enemies. Those reactions, which he was sure would translate to the peoples of the Ottoman Empire because of the close political relations, were his rationale for making an immediate return to Turkey. When he arrived in Constantinople he found that the opposite was true. Although the ethnic Turks were ready to go to war on the German side, the Armenians seemed to be backing the Allied nations through tacit remarks, attitudes, and demeanors. When Turkey entered the war as Germany's ally, the innuendos were translated into audible words. At one point, the author noted that one could see the Armenians' opinions of who should win the war—when the Germans won a victory they seemed to be sad but when the Russians won, there was rejoicing in the streets.

But these views did not translate to the church or politicians who adamantly supported the government headed by the triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Mehmed Talaat, and Ahmed Jemal. Armenian parliamentary representatives and the hierarchy of the church went to great lengths to assure the government of the Armenians' loyalty to their cause in national language newspapers and from the pulpit. But there were doubts, especially when Armenian volunteer units were found fighting for the Russians in the Caucasus.

The hammer fell on April 1915 after a series of military losses in the Caucasus when Mehmed Talaat ordered the arrest of the Armenian intelligentsia of Constantinople. Balakian was among that group. Talaat cited two reasons for the arrests: first to stymie any thought of dissent that might lead to a revolt by the Armenians and, second, to protect the Armenians from the wrath of the Moslems who had been called to a holy war against non-believers. The author and 250 compatriots, noted authors, statesmen, scientists, and scholars, were transported by various means into the interior and some of the most desolate spots in the empire.

They were held in dilapidated facilities and reduced to starvation rations. After a few days, the killing began. Balakian describes in minute detail how Turkish officials received orders to transport this or that person to another location. Sometimes the person would be taken off individually, under guard, or a group or ten or 20 would be put together and marched off. The outcome was always the same. Somewhere, far enough away not to be seen, the individual or group, after the guards had disappeared, were set upon by mobs of Turks led by bandits fomented with religious zeal. Balakian, gleaning the information from Turkish officials who watched or participated in the attacks, reports the rampages in more detail than some readers may want. At times his descriptions are extremely vivid.

This ordeal of culling the Constantinople group continued through 1915 and into 1916. The author managed to survive through the kindness of the very officials who were his keepers and the executioners and local inhabitants who were opposed to the slaughter. Balakian recorded the names of those who were killed, their murderers' names when known, and the ordeals of being moved from place to place. He also recorded narrations, which amount to confessions, by Turkish officials who describe how provincial Armenians were killed whether in a mob frenzy or through starvation and dehydration in desert marches. At one point the author states by 1 January 1916 "of the 2.5 million Armenians in Turkey, only a few hundred thousand were left" (page 120).

Deportation Column, Thinned Out

Finally, Balakian, after nearly a year in captivity, decided to make an escape—and what an escape. He masqueraded as a railway worker and a German engineer and soldier (German companies were still constructing the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway despite the war). There were times when he was nearly found out, but, at the last minute, a benevolent person shielded him. Eventually he managed to get back to Constantinople, where he hid out until the end of the war.

Armenian Golgotha first appeared in 1921 in Armenian and caused quite a stir. By the 1930s, it was a standard reference work for other books about the genocide of the Armenians. The English translation was well received. Its value to a student of the Ottoman Empire's inner workings is immeasurable, as are the conclusions one can draw from it regarding conflict among religious groups in the Middle East.

Michael P. Kihntopf

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some Fresh World War I Images

Some days,  I just get tired of the same old photos from the war and I go searching through online archives to see if I can spot something that captures my eye.  Here are some of the "Finds" from my latest excursion.

Kepi Worn by Kiffin Rockwell, Lafayette Escadrille ( National Air & Space Museum)



Memorial Matchbox for Horatio Kitchener (Smithsonian)



"The Edge of Belleau Wood," J. Andre Smith (National Museum of American History)



Suffragette Procession, Washington, DC (National Museum of American History)



Turkish Artillery Column Marching Toward the Suez Canal (NY Public Library)



German Soldiers Bathing in the Laon Canal (NY Public Library)



Insignia for French Aero Squadron, SPA (Spad) 75 ( National Air & Space Museum)



Guard Detail, 369th Infantry (NY Public Library)



Sopwith Snipe ( National Air & Space Museum)



Sunday, September 10, 2017

100 Years Ago: The Death of Zeppelin L-48



The Ancient House Museum in Norfolk has on display an unusual object in the form of an aluminum frame. It came from a German zeppelin, the L-48, belonging to the German Navy, which took part in an attempted air raid on London on the night of 16 June 1917.

The L-48 was a new "Height Climber" zeppelin, stripped of excess weight, and containing 55,800 square meters of flammable hydrogen gas with a length of 196.5m. It could travel at 60 mph and fly as high as 20,000 feet, much farther than British anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes could reach. Tactically the zeppelin would fly at lower levels, using faster winds to approach its target, and then ascend to safer heights before dropping its 6,000 pound bomb load. The zeppelin had 19 crew, based mainly in two gondolas attached to the bottom of the airship. Some crew could also be sited on machine gun platforms on the top of the airship and others in passages inside the structure of the airship itself.

After the First Zeppelin Raid on King’s Lynn, Jan. 1915

The very first fatal zeppelin air raid on Britain had taken place over Norfolk in January 1915, causing damage to Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn and resulting in four dead. Since then, British defenses had improved, with the introduction of searchlights and antiaircraft artillery. The invention of the incendiary bullet in 1916 meant that zeppelins were now much easier to shoot down, if they came within range of fighter aircraft. 

On the night of 16 June 1917, the L-48 was one of four airships sent to attack London. After dropping bombs on Harwich, the airship tried to return home by heading east. However its compass had frozen at the high altitude and, unknown to its crew, it drifted north in the dark along the Suffolk coast. The airship was caught in searchlights and antiaircraft guns opened up, although the zeppelin was too high to be harmed by these.

The L-48 Crash Site

Several aircraft took off to attack the airship, but, although firing at the zeppelin, the planes could not gain the altitude to inflict any damage. In an effort to escape British airspace before dawn, the zeppelin captain gave orders to descend to reach more favorable winds. Captain RHMS Saundby, in his aircraft, noticed the descent beginning and attacked again. His bullets hit the zeppelin this time, the tail of the airship ignited, and the huge airship began to fall to earth, lighting up the sky as it did so. The vast structure crashed into the ground at Holly Tree Farm in Therberton, near Leiston, Suffolk.

Three of the German crew managed to jump out of their gondola as it hit the ground and then watched in horror as the flames consumed the entire zeppelin, as well as their 16 fellow crew members.

Crew of L-11 of Which 17 Were Transferred to L-48
L-48 Commander, Kapitänleutnant Franz Georg Eickler, Is Not Present 

In the next days crowds of locals came to view the wrecked zeppelin, and a local photographer arrived to take pictures of the airship.  The entire structure was dismantled by the Army and removed for military study. The piece of aluminium frame on display in the Ancient House is one of only two surviving significant parts of the zeppelin now known to exist, the other being in Theberton Church.


Source: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Friday, September 8, 2017

What Happened at the Spanish Lock?



Spanish Lock, Nieuport, Belgium; Still in Operation

The Belgian Army, after the losses of the Liège and Namur fortresses, retreated into the “National Redoubt” of Antwerp, where it was vainly hoped that its huge double ring of forts would enable a successful defense. German “super heavy” artillery, however, outranged that of the forts, so the "redoubt" proved untenable. King Albert confronted the painful necessity to evacuate Antwerp in order to preserve the remains of the Belgian Army as a fighting force. Otherwise, he risked his forces either being destroyed by the Germans or having to cross the border and be interned in neutral Netherlands.

On the morning of 8 October King Albert issued his evacuation order in response to increasing German pressure. The withdrawal was made in some confusion over the next 48 hours, with the majority of the Royal Marine Brigade withdrawn. The additional British Army force, which meanwhile had landed at Zeebrugge, was placed under the command of Sir John French of the BEF, and ordered to cover the Belgian Army retreat and then move from around Ghent toward Ypres. The remains of the Belgian field army, dispirited and in some disorder, joined civilian refugees clogging the roads to the coast or made their way into Holland.  After more than two months of continuous action against overwhelming odds they were exhausted and needed rebuilding, but they still existed.

One proposal for the Belgian Army was withdrawal west of Calais into France to regroup. Albert saw two great dangers in this. He knew that any attempt to take his army under French command would be resisted by his Dutch-speaking soldiers (who made up most of the lower ranks), and he also saw that if he abandoned Belgian soil he could be usurped as king. It was finally agreed that the Belgian Army would concentrate in the Nieuport-Dixmude area, just inside Belgium, with the French Marines of Admiral Ronarch on their right in Dixmude. By 14 October the Belgian Army started to prepare positions along the Yser, and it would be this small strip of Belgium that would be defended by Belgian soldiers, commanded by their own king, until the end of the war.

The Area to Be Inundated

As the Belgian engineers began constructing defenses along the Yser they became aware of French intentions to flood the low ground near Dunkirk, a move which would risk the Belgian forces being trapped by water behind them and by advancing Germans to their front. The obvious solution was to inundate the low lying farm land running from Dixmude, some nine miles inland, to Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, thus producing a major obstacle to stop the German advance.  This low-lying ground was below high tide level and even the canalized rivers flowed between embankments, their water levels higher than the surrounding land.

On the evening of Sunday 25 October Belgian Army engineers started preparing the area to be flooded. Exhausted soldiers, working with whatever materials were at hand, made the railway embankment watertight.  In the small hours of the 28th, the final part of the plan was executed when the Spanish lock at Nieuport, now under German observation during daylight, was secured in the open position to allow the rising tide to move inland.

The Germans launched eight infantry regiments on a six-mile front on 30 October in an attempt to force the railway embankment before the rising water defeated them. In the little village of Pervyse, Belgian soldiers of the 13th and 10th infantry regiments together with a battalion of French Chasseurs repelled the attackers and took 200 prisoners. The Germans succeeded in taking Ramscappelle but, realizing the water behind them was still rising (ankle-deep in the morning, the water was knee-high by midday), started to filter back across the rising flood. The inundation continued to rise while the last few isolated farms still held by the now-marooned enemy were taken.

The Flooded Area During the War

On morning of the 31st, a Franco-Belgian attack was launched against the Germans in Ramscapelle, but General von Beseler, commanding the German Third Reserve Army Corps, had already ordered a withdrawal across the Yser. This defeat for the Germans, engineered in no small part by two civilians who were familiar with the lock system, was one of the decisive setbacks of the Great War. It was never reversed: the Channel ports supplying the British Army never fell and an immovable anchor was set on the northern end of the emerging Western Front. Farther south on this same day the fighting west of Ypres was giving the German Army one last opportunity for a breakthrough that could flank and roll up the entire Allied position, but that's another story to be told.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Humanity of Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front

A long time ago I was the membership chairman for the Great War Society and had the pleasure of reviewing every membership application.  Those forms included the standard question about what got the applicant interested in the First World War.  By far, the most popular response was having read, or seen the movie version of, All Quiet on the Western Front.  This wasn't too surprising to me then because both are classics of their form.  

However, I recently picked up a copy of the book, which I had last read to prepare a book report for Mr. Finnegan's English Class in 1963 and have some new impressions. What struck me anew most powerfully was the appeal of the central character and main narrator, Paul Bäumer. From the opening passage, we know he is not going to pull any punches about how grim things are at the front, so we trust him completely as a commentator. We learn he's a good soldier: suffering without complaint, hard-edged and dutiful, and utterly faithful to his mates.  Paul's special quality, though, is that he leaves us believing that—should we ever be caught in an impossibly inhuman situation like the Western Front, 1914–1918—it may still be possible to hold onto some threads of human decency.  Below are some passages I liked, but,  of course, my hope is that you will pick up the book and read it again.


Paul's Unit Undergoing a Gas Attack


We First Meet Paul in the Chow Line After 14 Days of Fighting

Our gang formed the head of the queue  before the cookhouse. We were growing impatient, for the the cook paid no attention to us.

Finally Katczinsky called to him: "Say, Heinrich, open up the soup-kitchen. Anyone can see the beans are done."

He shook his head sleepily: "You must all be there first." Tjaden grinned: "We are ALL here."

The sergeant-cook still took no notice. "That may do for you," he said.  "But where are the others?"

"They won't be fed by you today.  There either in the dressing station or pushing up daisies."

The cook was quite disconcerted as the facts dawned on him.  He was staggered. "And I have cooked for one hundred and fifty men ——"

Comradeship Under Fire

We are little flames poorly sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. Then the muffled roar of the battle becomes a ring that encircles us, we creep in upon ourselves, and with big eyes stare into the night. Our only comfort is the steady breathing of our comrades asleep, and thus we wait for the morning.


Watching Some Russian POWs

An order has turned these silent figures into our enemies; an order could turn them into friends again. On some table, a document is signed by some people that none of us knows, and for years our main aim in life is the one thing that usually draws the condemnation of the whole world and incurs its severest punishment in law. […] Any drill-corporal is a worse enemy to the recruits, any schoolmaster a worse enemy to his pupils than they are to us.


Life at Home Is Now Repellent

It is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits. . . . They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise” . . .“I must think of Kat and Albert and Müller and Tjaden, what will they be doing?” Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless—I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.  I ought never to have come on leave.

Conversation with a Dead Frenchman
[Paul has just bayoneted a soldier who jumped in his trench and is dying alongside.]

The Scene from the Film Version

The silence spreads. I talk, I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly, ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response
– it was the concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I see your wife, and you face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, camarade!  We always realize too late.