Category: united states

Metropolitan Museum of Art Armorers Aid US Arm…

The Sentinel’s Helmet, designed for limited use by soldiers in forward positions; it shows clear inspiration from late medieval pieces.  It saw some limited field tests in France; it proved to be very protective, but was simply too heavy.

August 4 1918, New York–Among the more unlikely contributions to the American war effort was that of the arms and armor staff at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Trench warfare and modern artillery meant that armor once again had use on the battlefield (beginning with steel helmets in 1915), and their expertise in this formerly-obsolete craft was prized once again beyond the art world.  After the United States entered the war, the Met’s curator of arms and armor, Bashford Dean, was made head of the newly-formed “Armor Unit,” and charged with designing helmets and other pieces of armor for American soldiers.  The museum’s work with the Army was made public on August 4, 1918.

A helmet needed to be adequately protective, cheap to manufacture, lightweight, and also visually distinctive from the British, French, and German helmets already in use; the helmets had become one of the major ways to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield.  One of Dean’s favored designs was his Helmet Model No. 5, pictured below:

Ultimately, despite its other excellent qualities, the design was rejected by American field commanders because it looked too similar to both the German and the British designs.  His next model (No. 8) went into mass production in November 1918, too late to see use in the war.

Dean’s group also designed armor for other parts of the body, though no more than a few examples before the end of the war.  Press coverage in August 1918 stressed the leg and arm armor being developed, noting the high incidence of wounds to such areas being seen in field hospitals.  To the modern reader, this seems like it may be an example of survivorship bias; those with wounds to more vital areas may not have made it to a hospital to begin with.

Sources include: The New York Times; The Metropolitan Museum of Art (includes image credit).

Fighting Intensifies on the Marne

Although mainly a French and American battle, four British divisions participated as well.  Two of them contributed to the attack on the eastern side of the salient that started on the 20th.  Running into heavy machine gun fire from concealed wooded positions, they were only able to advance a mile 

July 20 1918, Dormans–The French doubled their commitment to the offensive on the 20th, launching attacks on the German bridgehead south of the Marne at Dormans, and on the eastern flank of their large salient south of Rheims.  Eventually, essentially all available French reserves were committed to the fighting.  Mangin’s forces on the west side of the salient had broken through to open country, but this brought its own problems–recall that the most deadly period of the war was its first few months, before the trenches appeared.  They were out of range of their own artillery, few tanks were available (or even usable in the wooded terrain), and air cover was limited.  Lt. Clark, with Mangin’s American forces, noted: “Our position was wholly exposed to observation as the Boche had supremacy of the air…the Boche started to shell us out.  All they had to do was to direct fire from a balloon on a beautiful target.”  Supply problems, the summer heat, and three days of constant fighting also took their toll.  Lt. Clark again:

By noontime, [Lt.] Eddie [Blanchard] was going around with his mouth hanging open – an obvious victim of ‘shell shock’…We told him that he ought to go back for a rest but he maintained that he was all right.  Early in the afternoon we summoned an ambulance and sent him back to the hospital.  Later, we heard that he had died, so we divided up his usable belongings.  I think I got his bedding roll.

The Americans took far more casualties in each of the second and third days of fighting than they had in the first.

Nevertheless, the Germans were having the worse of it.  What few reserves they had were being thrown into the deadly open warfare as if it were a repeat of Passchendaele, and just one more counterattack would stabilize the line.  The three days of fighting so far had also cost them 20,000 PoWs, further losses that could not be replaced.  There was one bright spot for the Germans on the night of the 20th; they successfully evacuated their bridgehead south of the Marne, despite French infantry, artillery, and aerial attacks on their positions and river crossings.  

That day, Ludendorff finally admitted that his long-planned Operation Hagen, the next offensive in Flanders, would have to be called off, cabling Crown Prince Rupprecht: 

In view of the situation of the Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm [on the Marne] which…will absorb a still great amount of troops, and…the possibility of a British offensive action the Hagen operation will probably never come into fruition.

Today in 1917: South Slavic Exiles Agree to Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes

Today in 1916: Flemish Movement Organizes in Occupied Belgium
Today in 1915: Italians Capture Mt. San Michele
Today in 1914: Trial of Madame Caillaux Begins

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Gary Mead, The Doughboys.

Americans Suffer only Major Warship Loss of th…

The San Diego.

July 19 1918, Fire Island–After U-151′s stunning successes off New Jersey, the Germans continued their U-boat campaign off the Eastern Seaboard with the few U-boats they had with sufficient range.  In July, the U-156 laid a series of mines off of the southern coast of Long Island.  On July 19, the cruiser San Diego was about 9 miles south of Fire Island, en route to escort a convoy bound for Europe from New York.  She was of little military use in the convoy, as she had no real anti-submarine capabilities and would be outmatched against any modern German surface ships.  At 11:10 AM, there was an explosion on the port side, below the waterline.  She quickly took on a list and sank in twenty-eight minutes.  Six men were killed in the sinking; the remainder of the 1250-man crew were quickly rescued.

A local naval air reserve unit, comprised mainly of Yale students, was alerted to the possible presence of a German submarine, and attempted to find the culprit from the air.  They thought they found a submarine lurking on the seabed, and dropped some bombs. It turned out to be the wreck of the San Diego; thankfully they did not hit any of the survivors.  

The captain of the San Diego held that the ship had been torpedoed, and more outlandish theories involved German sabotage, but the most likely culprit has always been a mine from U-156.  The Navy has been conducting another investigation of the wreck that they had hoped to complete in time for the 100th anniversary to finally pinpoint the cause.  The wreck has been a popular one for divers due to its close proximity to New York.  However, as the ship capsized while sinking, it is upside down on the sea floor, making it very dangerous to explore inside; more divers have been killed while exploring the wreck than were lost in the sinking itself.

Two days later, U-156, by then off the coast of Massachusetts, would shell the town of Orleans on Cape Cod.  The attack would cause no damage (the shells falling harmlessly in a marsh and on the beach), but it would mark the only time the continental US was attacked during World War I.

Earlier Today: British Launch Carrier Attack on Zeppelin Base

Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel; The New York Times (includes image credit).

Allies Go On the Offensive

Infantry from the US 1st Division, shortly before the battle.

July 18 1918, Soissons–For some time, Generalissimo Foch had been preparing an attack on the right flank of the German salient stretching south from the Aisne.  When the Germans launched their latest offensive on July 15, Pétain tried to cancel the effort and move troops south to meet the German attack, but Foch countermanded the order; the attack would go forward as planned on July 18.  Preparations continued at night, and the Germans, who were preoccupied elsewhere, did not suspect a thing.  They were taken entirely by surprise when the French and Americans attacked behind a massive creeping barrage at 4:35 AM.  Private Francis, in the US 2nd Division, recalled:

I will never forget the sight when our artillery opened up. It was worse than any electrical storm I have ever seen.  The whole sky seemed to open up for it became as light as day.  This put new life into us and we went over as if we had just hopped off the trucks.  It was impossible to hear any one talk, and the artillery kept a continual roar day and night.  It seemed like thunder and it didn’t even let up for five minutes.

The infantry was also supported by 500 tanks, mainly quick-moving light French Renault models, although many of them were knocked out during the day.

Along a 27-mile front, stretching from Soissons south to the Marne, the French and Americans would advance up to five miles–in the words of one officer in the 2nd Division, it was “nothing but a hike.” French cavalry was present to exploit the breakthrough, but they could never quite be assembled in time and in the right place to make a difference.  Even in the open country beyond the Germans’ lines, a few well-placed machine gunners could quickly stop the advance.

The Allied attack greatly concerned Ludendorff, who had been planning Operation Hagen in Flanders with Crown Prince Rupprecht.  He sent what reserves he could to the area, and countermanded the movement of troops and artillery north to Flanders.  Apart from that, however, with German reserves running low, he “could only await further developments.”  General Lossberg, Chief of Staff of the Fourth Army in Flanders, would write that:

July 18, 1918 was the precise turning point in the conduct of the war.  The OHL’s failure to understand that the combat strength of the German army was already severely shattered…finally drove us to the position in which we found ourselves at war’s end.

Today in 1917: Finland Unilaterally Declares Autonomy from Russia

Today in 1916: UK Ratifies Treaty with Saudis
Today in 1915:  Second Battle of the Isonzo Begins As Italians Assault Karst Plateau
Today in 1914: Austrian Ambassador Szapary Tries To Reassure Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Gary Mead, The Doughboys; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.


                                                   LONG LIVE THE UNITED STATES!

100 years ago, in Paris, French school children and their
teacher celebrating Independence Day. Note: The “Vivent les Etats-Unis” sign; the correct spelling is “Vive les
Etats-Unis”. La Contemporaine,

Over One Million Americans “Over There”

American troops on the way to France on board the President Lincoln, before her sinking on a return trip.

July 2 1918, Washington–The United States had been in the war for over a year, but had only had a significant front line presence since late May.  Nevertheless, it was clear that the Americans would soon make a significant impact, if only with numbers alone.  On July 2, hoping “to give additional zest to our national celebration of the Fourth of July,” Wilson announced in the country’s papers that 1,019,115 troops had sailed for Europe from the start of the war through the end of June 1918, over 275,000 in the last month alone.  Only 8,165 of those were casualties so far (on net), including just 291 lost at sea (though one of those was this author’s great-great uncle), contrary to Admiral Holtzendorff’s promise that not a single American soldier would set foot on European soil. 

Today in 1917: Black Community in East St. Louis Attacked; Dozens Killed

Today in 1916: Russian Offensive Towards Erzincan
Today in 1915: Kaiser Approves Falkenhayn’s Plans for Limited Attack on Poland
Today in 1914: Princip and Accomplices Confess

Eugene Debs Gives Speech that Leads to His Arr…

Eugene Debs (left) pictured with Max Eastman (editor of The Masses) and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1918.  All three were indicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1918.  Debs’ praise of both in his Canton speech was used as evidence in his trial and appeals.  

In Eastman’s trial, his lawyer noted the irony that Eastman had gone to a federal judge to attempt to force the Post Office to mail The Masses: “Do men who are committing a crime go into a Federal Court and face a District Attorney and ask the privilege of continuing it?  A strange set of burglars!”

June 16 1918, Canton–The newly-enacted Sedition Act put a chill on free speech in the United States, especially for socialists and other anti-war activists.  The prominent Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who had run for President four times (getting 6% of the vote in 1912), recognized this at the opening of a speech to fellow Socialists in Canton, Ohio:

it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.

The remainder of the speech contains little that would seem seditious, though the praise of the Bolsheviks does jump out to a modern reader.  At most, he condemned war in the usual socialist terms:

…[T]he purpose of the Allies is exactly the purpose of the Central Powers, and that is the conquest and spoilation of the weaker nations that has always been the purpose of war….

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder….They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

He also praised many other activists who had been arrested for obstructing the draft, though he was careful to avoid noting that they did so.  Debs did go out of his way to note his, and his fellow socialists’, fervent opposition to the Kaiser:

Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? Why, we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born; and we are going to continue to fight it, day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth. Between us there is no truce—no compromise.

Nonetheless, Debs’ speech attracted the ire of Wilson and his Justice Department, and was arrested under the Sedition Act for this speech on June 30, claiming that the implicit intent of his speech was to obstruct the draft.  He was convicted on these charges in September and sentenced to ten years in prison a week after the armistice.  His sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court, though President Harding would commute his sentence in 1921.

Today in 1917: Last Easter Rising Prisoners Released

Today in 1916: Arabs Take Mecca and Jeddah
Today in 1915: Italians Seize Krn, Fail to Take Hill 383

Sources include: Michael Kazin, War Against War.

Marines Attack At Belleau Wood

A wounded Marine being evacuated from Belleau Wood.

June 6 1918, Belleau Wood–The Americans had only “just got here” when they began a counterattack against the Germans.  At 5PM on June 6, the Marines advanced on Belleau Wood across an open wheatfield behind a relatively anemic rolling barrage.  John Thomason recalled that 

[They] attacked across the open, losing hideously.  Platoons were shot down entire….They gained a footing in the rocky ledges at the edge of the Bois de Belleau, suffering much from what was believed to be a machine-gun nest at this point. They tried to leave it and go on, with a containing force to watch it; they found that the whole wood was a machine-gun nest.

With the Marines was the journalist Floyd Gibbons, who had rushed there from Paris that day just in time for the battle.  Gibbons would be seriously wounded in the battle; thinking he had died of his wounds, his piece on the battle was let past the censors unaffected.  In a later memoir, Gibbons recalled:

[Sgt. Daly read the order] quickly, then glanced along the line of the dug-in platoon.  He stood up and made a forward motion to his men.  There was slight hesitation.  Who in the hell could blame them?  Machine gun and rifle bullets were kicking up the dirt, closer and closer.  The sergeant ran out to the center of his platoon – he swung his bayoneted rifle over his head with a forward sweep.  He yelled at his men: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches!  Do you want to live forever?”

The Marines would take the town of Bouresches, but the Germans held on to most of Belleau Wood itself, and close-quarters fighting would continue for nearly three weeks, the Marines only being briefly relieved (by other Americans).  An American staff officer ordered his liaison with the French: “On that question of relief, leave that matter entirely to the French.  Do not insist on any relief.  The reports that we have show that conditions are not very bad.”  The Marine brigade suffered over 1000 casualties on the first day, and nearly ten times that number over the following weeks.

Today in 1917: Brusilov New Commander-in-Chief in Russia

Today in 1916: Arabs Attack Ottomans Near Medina
Today in 1915: Zeppelin Raid on Hull, Failed Raid on London

Sources include: Gary Mead, The Doughboys; A. Scott Berg (ed.), World War I and America; Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers.

New York Prepares For Air Raids

June 5 1918, New York–The sudden opening of the U-boat campaign off the New Jersey coast caused something of a panic in New York.  The harbor was shut down to shipping briefly, and on the night of June 4/5, New York introduced its first light ordinance, designed to hamper a possible German submarine-launched air raid.  Advertising and display lights were to be shut off, and shades should be drawn in buildings where possible.  On June 5, after a test flight by army aviators to test the effectiveness of the new regulations saw Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and other major thoroughfares clearly, certain (but not all) streetlights were dimmed as well.

The possibility that the Germans would attack New York with a plane launched from a submarine was extremely remote, as American officials acknowledged–the Germans had neither the capability nor the inclination to do so.  However, later in the summer, the Germans did consider a raid on New York with a long-range Zeppelin, similar to the one sent to Africa, though the proposal was quickly rejected.  The lighting restrictions on the shoreline also, perhaps inadvertently, could have served to hinder U-boat operations.  Although U-151 and her sisters mainly operated on the surface during daytime, at night lights on the shoreline allowed passing ships to be easily detected by their silhouettes; this would prove to be a major problem during the next war.

Today in 1917: Draft Registration Day in the United States

Today in 1916: Lord Kitchener Drowns
Today in 1915: Italians Finally Cross the Isonzo

“Retreat? Hell, We Just Got Here!”


Captain Lloyd Williams (1887-1918), pictured in 1909.  He would be killed during the fighting at Belleau Wood on June 12.

June 3 1918, Château-Thierry–Although, at the highest levels, the French were probably unwilling to throw fresh reserves into the grist of the German advance, they ultimately had little choice; the German breakthrough needed to be stopped.  Although Foch and Pétain still had the confidence of Clemenceau and the rest of the French government, it was unclear if this would last if the retreats continued.  In the days leading up to June 3, the French committed 27 divisions to the battle, including two American divisions, the 2nd and 3rd, Pershing having realized that his hope for a unified American army in France would have to wait.

The 3rd Division made their way north by rail as long as they could, without their artillery, then walked the last 15 miles to the Marne.  The first Americans reached Château-Thierry on May 31 and quickly joined a French colonial division already there.  The Germans ultimately took the town after heavy fighting, but the Americans’ main concern was to prevent the Germans from crossing the Marne there, which they did.  Other elements of the 3rd Division held the Marne over the ten miles to the east of Château-Thierry, and at Jaulgonne participated in a counterattack that destroyed a German bridgehead across the river.

The 2nd Division, comprised of one Army and one Marine brigade, had been preparing to relieve the 1st Division at Cantigny when they got their orders to move in the opposite direction, towards the new battlefield.  Rail transport was unavailable except for their artillery, so the infantry had to walk the whole way, on roads clogged with refugees and retreating French soldiers.  Upon reaching the zone of battle, the French wanted the Americans to immediately counterattack; the Americans, who did not yet have their supplies or artillery, disagreed and instead dug in along a twelve-mile line across the Paris-Reims road northwest of Château-Thierry behind the forward French positions.

On June 3, the Germans finally broke through the French lines.  A French major advised a Marine, Captain Lloyd W. Williams, to retreat, to which he replied “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here!”  The American line ultimately held against the desperate German attack.  Major Francis Evans recalled:

…When the Germans attacked at 5PM, we had a box seat….They came out, on a wonderfully clear day, in two columns across a wheat-field….The rifle and machine gun fire were incessant and overhead the shrapnel was bursting….It seemed for all the world that the green field had burst out in patches of white daisies where those columns were doggedly moving.  And it did again and again, no barrage, but with the skill and accuracy of a cat playing with two brown mice that she could reach and mutilate at will and without any hurry….Under that deadly fire and the barrage of rifle and machine gun fire, the Boches stopped.  It was too much for any men.  They burrowed in or broke to the cover of the woods.

The situation was similar across the rest of the German line.  The chief of staff of the attacking corps recalled:

Though we told ourselves and our men, “On to Paris,” we knew that this was no not to be….Our casualties were increasingly alarming; ammunition was running short and the problem of supply, in view of the large demands, became more and more difficult.  It became all too clear that actions so stubbornly contested and involving us in such formidable losses would never enable us to capture Paris.  In truth the brilliant offensive had petered out.

The Germans would go on the defensive the next day, while preparations were made for the launching of Plan Gneisenau, scheduled for within a week.

Today in 1917: Italy Declares Protectorate Over Albania

Today in 1916: French Declare State of Siege in Salonika
Today in 1915: Austrians and Germans Retake Przemyśl

Sources include: John Keegan, The First World War; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.