October 2015        

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Western Front Trip Report 5

In August, I led my second battlefield tour of the year, this time exploring sites east of Paris pertaining to the actions of 1915 and the major AEF battles of 1918. I was privileged to have along four different individuals who had relatives who served in five different U.S. divisions on the Western Front. It's my practice to always leave enough flexibility in my itineraries to allow time to visit sites of personal significance for my traveling companions. This particular tour was really a treat for me, because I got to explore, often for the first time, a good number of places off my usual routes. Here are a couple of examples:

At Molleville Farm — 29th Division Sector
East of the Meuse

Here I'm standing with my friend John Cloe, whose father helped capture the farm in the ravine behind us in October 1918 over four days of intense fighting. During the fighting on the surrounding heights for the better part of October, the 29th Division suffered as severely from enemy gas as any American division in the war.

Death Valley — 90th Division Sector
St. Mihiel Salient

This peaceful-looking little valley was captured by the soldiers of the 90th Texas-Oklahoma division in the first few days of the St. Mihiel Offensive. Among them was the great uncle of Mary Jane Koenig, who joined us with her husband Tim on the trip. This valley, located a few miles east of the American cemetery at Thiaucourt, was held by the division for several weeks afterward and would be the main supply artery for the division during this time. This road is about a mile behind the new front line, which was over the hill on the left side of this photo. This view also reveals just how precarious the position proved to be. In the distance can be seen the heights above the Moselle River. These were occupied for the remainder of the war by German forces. The enemy observers, therefore, were looking straight down this road the entire time. Their artillery exacted a terrible price from the units traveling this exposed route, which the Doughboys quickly named "Death Valley."

In future issues of the Trip-Wire I'll try to share photos and some details about our visits to battlefields where relatives of our other participants fought. Interestingly, I've discovered that the entire group always enjoys these stops at places that you would expect are particularly important only to one or two of the party. MH

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  • See our major article below on Page 2 on two upcoming national symposia.
  • Over the Front, Mid-Atlantic Chapter Meeting
    When:17 October 2015, All Day
    Where: National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
    Sponsors: The League of WWI Aviation Historians; click (email BobrowC@si.edu) for full program and details.
  • Local and Ongoing Events

    The interest in the Great War generated by the Centennial commemorations has led to an explosion of local events and ongoing displays of art and artifacts from the war. The Centennial Commission has taken on the job of providing a list of all these presentations they hear about. Click HERE to view the current list.


    Edith Cavell, the Most Prominent Martyr Figure of the First World War, Was Executed by German Military Authorities in Brussels on 12 October 1915 (article)

    Fall of 1915 on the
    Western Front

    It was in the fall 100 years ago that the Allies learned, undeniably, that there would be no quick or low casualty formula for breaking through the trench system on the Western Front. In late September they launched a double offensive on both faces of the main German salient into northern France. North of Paris a joint British-French assault was launched in Artois, which here will be labeled the Battle of Artois (French segment near Vimy Ridge) - Loos (British portion north of the French sector). In the Champagne at the same time two French Armies launched an attack (2nd Battle of the Champagne). In all cases, there were limited advances, that proved bloody and costly. Below on our Centennial page we provide a strategic overview of this campaign, but here are some sites that provide more details on the fighting.

    Capture of Souchez, Sept. 1915

    Map: Artois, 1915

    Battle of Loos

    Map: Loos, 1915

    Second Battle of Champagne

    Map: Champagne, September 1915

    The Rear Area During Fighting in the Champagne, 1915

    What's Going On Here?

    Somewhere in Blighty

    This is a shop that manufactured dummy heads of British soldiers to be placed behind loopholes in the trenches to attract fire from enemy snipers. According to WWI British sniping guru, Major H. Hesketh-Prichard, the best way to locate an enemy sniper was to "push a dummy head (papier-mâché works well) slowly above the parapet."

    These were used in a sophisticated fashion using trench telescopes matched to the double holes made in the hollow heads to get a precise line on the location of the enemy. Also, to give the dummy head an especially lifelike appearance, a cigarette was placed in its mouth, and it was smoked through a rubber tube.

    From a Kipling Classic

    One grave to me was given,
       One watch till Judgement Day;
    And God looked down from Heaven
       And rolled the stone away.
    One day in all the years,
       One hour in that one day,
    His Angel saw my tears,
       And rolled the stone away!

    Rudyard Kipling, "The Gardener," 1925

    Read the full story here: (link)
    (Actually, you'll need to read the story at least twice.)

    U.S. Centennial Organizations & Resources















    Support Worldwar1.com's Centennial Effort
    Shop at Amazon.com

    The Centennial Ticker

    Happy Birthday U.S. Air Force

    Happy 68th birthday (official date: 18 September 1947) to my old outfit, the U.S. Air Force. But while its standing as an independent service came only after World War II, the Air Force has its origins in the 1907 creation of the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps, its technical skills and traditions, building from that point. This, of course, means the First World War was a major influence on the development of the present-day Air Force.

    Lt. Col. William Thaw
    (USAF National Museum)
    One of the most important dynamics involved the first American combat flyers who served with the French Air Service, most famously, with the Lafayette Escadrille. It's a bit forgotten today, but a number of these veteran flyers, like Raoul Lufbery, transferred over to the American Air Service when the United States joined the war. They were the main conduit through which the new techniques of air combat, reconnaissance, and strategic bombing were transferred to the AEF's air service. One of the most important individuals in the history of the U.S. Air Force was one of these teachers and leaders, Bill Thaw.

    Lt. Col. William Thaw, pictured above in a revealing pencil drawing by Henri Farré, was a World War I flying ace who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. He may have been the first American pilot to engage in aerial combat. Flying a Nieuport, he scored his first victory in May 1916. Thaw was also responsible for the acquisition of the squadron's mascots, lion cubs Whiskey and Soda.

    Thaw learned to fly in 1913, while he was attending Yale University and became something of an aerial daredevil. His father, a successful businessman, bought him a Curtiss Hydro flying boat that he took to France for the Schneider Trophy races. When war broke out, Thaw gave his airplane to the French and enlisted in the Foreign Legion, flew with a French squadron, and eventually made his way to the Lafayette Escadrille. When America entered the war, he, along with 16 other pilots from the French Air Service, transferred to the American Air Service and joined the 103rd Aero Squadron, bringing along the "Indian Head" insignia from the Lafayette Escadrille. Thaw was named commander of the squadron, initially, and was later promoted to lead the 3rd Pursuit Group. He continued flying missions and was credited with enough additional kills to earn ace status. He was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his victories and leadership. After the war Thaw returned to his home town and became a successful insurance man until his early death in 1934 after a bout with pneumonia. Among the medals and war souvenirs his family found was the Lafayette Escadrille's famous Bottle of Death. That bottle, signed by most of the squadron, had contained an 80-year-old bourbon whiskey. Each time one of the unit's fliers scored an air victory he had been entitled to a shot from it.

    WWI Commission's Outreach to Congress Continues

    Dr. Libby O'Connell Addressing Congressional Staffers

    The World War One Centennial Commission's outreach to Capitol Hill continued last month. Commissioner Dr. Libby O'Connell briefed Congressional staffs on the impact of the war on today's world and the status of the Memorial design competition. Dr. O'Connell is an Emmy-winning TV producer and currently the Chief Historian for the History Channel.

    Two Outstanding WWI Conferences Coming Up!


    LOCATION & DATES: Hilton Lisle/Naperville, Lisle, Illinois, 2-3 October


    The 2015 World War One Historical Association and League of WW1 Aviation Historians Collaboration Symposium features the theme: "1915: Warfare Evolution; New Strategies and Tactics." The program includes speakers on Gallipoli, Armenian Genocide, U-boats, Western Front 1915, and several aviation topics, plus a model contest, reenactors, wargames, and vendors. This year’s symposium is dedicated to the memory of our past president, Len Shurtleff.


    Jack Tunstall: Eastern Front, 1915 (with an eye on Aerial Ops)
    Kelley Szany: In the Shadow of War: The Armenian Genocide 1915-1918
    Jon Guttman: Through, Above and Around: Arming the First Allied Fighters in 1915
    Dick Church: The Kaiser’s U-Boats: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, the Lusitania, and Will They Bring America into the War?
    Steve Suddaby: Aerial Bombing, 1914-1915: Crossing the Rubicon with Baby Steps
    John Mosier: Western Front, 1915
    Lance Bronnenkant: Early German Aces and the Interrupter Mechanism
    Paul Grasmehr: Gallipoli
    Also: 1st Infantry Div. Museum Tour, Friday pm; Modeling Contest, Re-enactors, Strategy Games and vendors


    $250 per person
    $40 for spouses to attend Friday night’s banquet.
    Hotel Booking Code: '2015 World War One Seminar'

    REGISTER AT: http://ww1ha.org/2015-symposium-registration/


    LOCATION & DATES: At the National World War I Museum and Memorial,
    6-7 November


    Explore the rising tensions in America and the globally escalating conflict that defined the world in 1915. Follow the trajectories of different countries around the world as the conflict escalated to total war, including fighting in the colonies and East Asia, stalemate in the West, Churchill’s disaster at Gallipoli, mobilization at home, and the polarization of American society around the issue of war.


    Mustafa Aksakal (Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and the Neshuhi Ertegun chair of Modern Turkish Studies)
    Gary Armstrong (Professor of Political Science at William Jewell College)
    Christopher Bell (Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia)
    Susan Grayzel (Professor of History at the University of Mississippi)
    Edward Gutierrez (Lecturer at Northeastern University)
    Jason McDonald (Visiting Assistant Professor of American History at Truman State University)
    Candice Millard (Author and former writer/editor at National Geographic magazine)
    Michelle Moyd (Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Bloomington)
    David Stone (Kansas State University/Naval War College).


    The registration for the symposium is:
       $195 early bird pricing (Deadline October 1, 2015)
       $245 per person (After October 1, 2015)
    A block of rooms is set aside at the Kansas City Marriott County Club Plaza

    REGISTER AT: https://theworldwar.org/learn/2015-symposium/

    25 September - 6 November 1915:
    Allied Offensives on the Western Front Fail

    In September 1915, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre initiated a double offensive on both faces of the German salient into France, north and east of Paris, in an effort to "rupture" the German position. In Artois a joint British-French effort, known in some sources as the Battle of "Artois-Loos" (map, locations 1 [British] & 2 [French]), resulted in limited gains and high losses. British losses of 60,000 killed and wounded around Loos alone stunned observers. The French attack to the south captured the key town of Souchez but failed again at Vimy Ridge.

    The accompanying failure — solely a French effort — in Champagne (map, location 3) to sever the main east-west rail line supporting the German front, however, sent greater shock waves through France. The massive national effort made there to provide logistical support, including millions of rounds of heavy artillery shells for a decisive breakthrough, had proved utterly inadequate to the challenge. The advance had moved the front merely four kilometers.

    Politicians' faith in Joffre began to wane and they looked to other theatres of war, like the Balkans, for deploying the nation's forces. For the citizenry, victory now seemed barely perceptible, beyond some distant horizon, and would be most assuredly astronomically costly to attain. For the French Army, the Western Front — France — had to be the decisive front, but what new rabbit could they pull out of the hat? The attritional warfare they had inadvertently fallen into was unsustainable. Official figures (probably on the low side) showed 191,000 French casualties in the double fall offensives, including 31,000 killed.

    The sole remaining option was to look to the British. In the winter of 1915-16 General Joffre would abandon French-only offensive operations and focus exclusively on encouraging and collaborating with his ally. Attacking side-by-side would enable the massing of troops and, more important, the artillery of both armies. Naturally, this had to be in a location adjacent to the British sector. Perhaps, somewhere around the River Somme? Yes, that should work nicely. Thus did the failures of 1915 lead to the "Big Show" of 1916.

    Announcing Our 2016 Centennial Battlefield Tour Schedule

    10% Discounts Available for Our 2016 Tours

    2 - 10 May 2016: Verdun In-Depth

    10% off ($340) if you pay by 2 November 2015, 5% if you send your deposit by that date

    14 - 21 August 2016: The Somme In-Depth

    10% off ($320) if you pay by 2 February 2016, 5% if you send your deposit by that date

    The full brochure covering both trips and registration details can now be downloaded at:

    Click on Title to Access Story
    Interview with Terrance Finnegan, Author of A Delicate Affair on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the WoëvreTrenches (Audiocast)

    Photos of Wreck of Titanic's Sister Ship, HMHS Britannic

    Where Did the British Army's VD Cases Get Sent?

    Eleven Ways the War Could Have Turned Out Differently

    Relics and Photos from the Italian Front's "White War"

    The Harrow School Light That Never Goes Out

    Review of The Cut, Independent Film Recalling the Armenian Genocide

    Germany's Jihad Experiment

    This Month's Recommended Great War Author —
    Stephen Harris

    Superb Unit Histories from the AEF

    Besides being a stylist superior to most military historians, Stephen Harris commands an important niche in WWI historiography. Four of his books recount the American experience in the World War from the regimental level. Most operational histories of the AEF focus on the divisional level. But American divisions at the time were huge — about 28,000 men. When describing, say, the advance of the 1st Division in the St. Mihiel Offensive, authors simply can't focus on the experiences of the men doing the fighting. On the other hand, books that feature individuals invariably lose track of the tides of war on the larger battlefield. For instance, when reading the excellent works we have reviewed here on Sgt. York, it's usually hard to understand what is transpiring in the rest of the Argonne Forest on that day he earned America's highest honor.

    Rock of the Marne

    Official Art, Col. Mc Alexander
    Marne River, 3rd Div. Monument

    Harris, however, bridges these shortcomings by focusing on particularly interesting regiments (of about 4,000 soldiers each). This allows him to incorporate personality sketches of many members of the unit from privates to colonels with a broad view of both the strategic situation and the specific tactical challenges facing the men. His first three works focused on three New York-based regiments from that state's National Guard that had distinctly different wartime experiences. The 107th "Silk Stocking" regiment of the 27th Division fought entirely under British command during their service on the Western Front. The 369th "Harlem Hellfighters," on the other hand, fought exclusively with French armies. The third, 165th, formerly the "Fighting 69th," served with the Rainbow Division under General Pershing.

    In his fourth and soon forthcoming work, Rock of the Marne, he crosses over from the National Guard to a regular army regiment, the 38th of the 3rd Division, which played a key role in halting the last German offensive of the Great War on the Marne River in July 1918. We will be doing a full review of this important work in the near future, but I have to add a personal note here. Since I've recommended Steve Harris's works to our readers in the past, and have visited the actual "Rock of the Marne" battlefield, he asked me to review the manuscript. After reading his proofs, I have a much better understanding of the incredible challenges and dangers those men deployed along the Marne River, and a profound admiration for the regiment's commander, Colonel Ulysses Grant McAlexander. Rock of the Marne has my personal 5-star recommendation. As does one of the earlier volumes in the series, Duffy's War, which I have previously described as "the finest American unit history from the First World War." Here is our literary editor David Beer's review of that work. MEH

    Duffy's War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan,
    and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War 1

    By Stephen L. Harris
    Published by Potomac Books, Inc., 2006

    If you want to get a real feeling for what is so often called the American Experience in World War One you could do little better than read the regimental histories by Stephen L. Harris, of which Duffy's War is the third volume. Duffy's War focuses on the New York National Guard's "Fighting 69th," which became the Army's 165th Infantry. The regiment was part of the 42nd Rainbow Division.

    Author Stephen Harris
    As its title implies, much of the book circles around the legendary Catholic priest, Father Francis Duffy, but "Wild Bill" Donovan (later to found the OSS), General Frank McCoy, the poet Joyce Kilmer ("Trees" and "Rouge Bouquet") who was killed, and others all play their part in the narrative. However, the main character, the one who permeates the book and brings home to us the unvarnished foot-slogging monotony of the war plus its dreadful combat horrors, is the band of New York Irish-Americans who make up the Fighting 69th. [Note: The New York 69th Regiment was redesignated the 165th Infantry Regiment for its time with the AEF.]

    There's no doubt the regiment Father Duffy became attached to was an Irish-American outfit. A veritable waterfall of Celtic names shower us as we follow the activities of the 69th—Conley, Connors, Donovan, Doughney, Finnerty, Flanagan and so on to O'Brien, O'Connell, O'Rourke, plus Reilley, Ryan, Shannon, Sheahan, Tierney, and many others. These sons of Irish immigrants — or immigrants themselves — form their own culture and national pride, love Ireland almost as much as their adopted land, and uniformly despise England. Many Americans questioned whether they would even fight in a war that put them on the same side as the British, and prior to the U.S. declaration of war a strong anti-war movement composed of Irish-American politicians and others existed in the United States. Yet these Irish-Americans answered the call in large numbers and became patriotic and effective soldiers.

    Before the regiment made its way to the front lines, where it spent some 170 days and suffered hundreds killed and thousands wounded, it first had to endure the rigors of days on the march through the Vosges Mountains. Although not particularly mountainous, the range is rugged enough and the 165th negotiated it in the dead of winter, covering 15 to 20 miles each day. We learn how ill-equipped the troops were for such weather and terrain. Much emphasis is placed on the hobnailed shoes the troops had been issued that split so badly that men hiked with frozen feet in the snow. During the four-day march five men died of exhaustion and mules dropped dead on the trails. Kitchens were stuck far behind in mud and snow and the men went hungry. Many were too tired by nightfall to want to eat anyway. Some begged for morsels from French villagers who watched a "ragged, shivering, and starving army" plod by. Even when they reached their destination, supplies lagged far behind. The medical officer found that many men had been unable to change their clothes, including underwear, for two months. Platoon commanders ordered their men to change their socks daily due to the danger of trench foot.

    The troops soon saw intense action at the front, taking part in five major engagements involving, as one soldier described it, many days of "savage attacks and counter-attacks." These are described by the author with unflinching impact, and although the book is 379 pages of solid history based on numerous sources, Duffy's War reads like an exciting historical novel as it moves along with countless details and insights and vividly brings major actions and characters to the forefront.

    Wm. Donovan and Father Duffy
    One such person, the poet Joyce Kilmer, recorded much of this action, and his observations were published as a memoir after his death. He was also moved to poetry by his experiences and wrote one of his best poems as a result of what happened — "In a Wood They Call the Rouge Bouquet." When Kilmer was killed in action on 29 July 1918, many comrades were greatly affected by his death, and they buried him with great respect where he had died, "between a grove of trees that ran along the bank [of the Ourcq River] and the wheat field. . . We sure hated to see him get killed." (p. 292)

    Meanwhile, never far from the action, the figure of Father Duffy looms in the background and often in the foreground. He is "among his boys in the muck." He is a comfort to the troops, realistic and godly but never pious or righteous. One private felt Duffy's courage inspired the troops in action because "Wherever things were the hottest there was Father Duffy, crawling around from shell hole to shell hole." The same private at one point saw Duffy "with red eyes burying our dead right out in the open. . . He was digging away with a pick by himself, just as cool as though planting potatoes in his backyard." (p. 353) Father Duffy, we learn, is not above getting involved in military shenanigans either and actively plots and schemes to get the leader he wants — Wild Bill Donovan, in command of the 165th Infantry once the war is over.

    Duffy Square, in the northern triangle of Times Square in Manhattan, is today the home of the good Father's imposing statue. The classic 1940 movie The Fighting 69th, starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien (as Duffy), still brings this brave band of Irish-Americans back to life for us, just as Stephen Harris's excellent book most undoubtedly does.

    David F. Beer

    Here are four of Harris's works — all strongly recommended, including his forthcoming Rock of the Marne that can be ordered now.

    P.S. Last month we recommended the award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery novels of Jacqueline Winspear. Since then, we have learned THE CARE AND MANAGEMENT OF LIES, published last year, has been named as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for 2015. (link)

    Reload page if any book covers fail to appear.

    The Lewis Gun

    The Remarkably Valuable Light Machine Gun

    An American design, originally turned down by the American Army, the Lewis gun was one of the most successful light machine guns of the war. Gas-operated and fed by a pan-shaped magazine holding 47 or 97 rounds, the weapon could fire .303-inch rounds at a rate of 450-500 per minute. Its sole handicaps were its complicated firing mechanism and 25-pound weight. As suggested in the graphic below, it was also used extensively in the air war. Over 50,000 Lewis guns were manufactured for use in World War I. The weapon was also used extensively by British Commonwealth forces in the Second World War. The illustration below — from Tony Langley's collection — also includes a drawing of the French Hotchkiss machine gun used by American forces when they entered the war.

    Mte Piana: A Bloody Battlefield —
    But Great Views for the Troops

    One candidate for title "World's Most Spectacular Battlefield" is certainly Monte Piana, located about 12 kilometers northeast of the ski resort of Cortina, Italy. At least it has some of the most dramatic views for the poor guys stuck in the trenches. Its aesthetic value derives from its confirmation — Monte Piana is a high plateau, mostly flat — but lower than the surrounding mountains, which are some of the most impressive of the Alps.

    Austrian Outpost

    During the First World War Austrians and Italians fought each other atop Monte Piana (7,625 foot elevation on the southern peak). This mountain of the Sexten Dolomites range was the scene of a slow but gruesome attritional war. The area overlaps the former 1753 frontier between the Republic of Venice (Serenissima) and Tyrol. A boundary stone is still visible on site.

    Austrian Trenches

    Immediately after the war's outbreak, in early June 1915, the troops of Standschützen tried to gain the dual summits. Heavy casualties took place on both sides and resulted in a stationary front line with the mountain's north summit occupied by the Austrians, the southern (slightly higher) summit by the Italians. The outposts, trenches, and tunnels of the opposing sides were only a few meters apart in places. The situation stabilized until the October 1917 battle of Caporetto forced the entire front south. Fourteen thousand soldiers, Italians and Austrians, lost their lives on this single mountain.

    Italian Memorial to the Fallen

    Source: La Grande Guerra

    Thanks to each and every one of you who has contributed material for this issue. Until our next issue, your editor, Mike Hanlon.
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