In four short years, from 1914 to 1918, over 10 million men and women serving in armed forces on fronts around the world were killed, while double that number were wounded, disabled and disfigured; and at least another 7 million civilians lost their lives as well. Most died horrific deaths. But as time passes by we tend to forget, a century later, how many sacrifices were made day after day on both sides of one the most deadly conflicts in human history. Civilized Productions has produced a wonderful choral album, Sacrifice and Solace, which features an octet called the Toronto Valour Ensemble who sang these carefully selected and uniquely composed songs from that era. It is available on CD Baby. The simple translation of the Arabic word "jihad" is struggle.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Struggle for Tolkien

100 years ago, according to Wikipedia, in January 1917 J. R. R. Tolkien, on medical leave from the British Army during #WW1, begins writing The Book of Lost Tales (the first version of The Silmarillion), starting with the "Fall of Gondolin"; thus Tolkien's mythopoeic Middle-earth legendarium is first chronicled in prose.
He delayed enlistment until completing his degree and, upon completing his Finals, was then commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15 July 1915. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for eleven months, and on 2 June 1916, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for transportation to France.
On 5 June 1916, Tolkien boarded a troop transport for an overnight voyage to Calais. Like other soldiers arriving for the first time, Lieutenant Tolkien was sent to the British Expeditionary Force's (BEF) base depot at √Čtaples. Lieutenant Tolkien left √Čtaples on 27 June 1916 and joined his new unit at Rubempr√©, near Amiens. Tolkien found himself commanding enlisted men who were drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire.
Tolkien arrived at the Somme in early July 1916. In between terms behind the lines at Bouzincourt, he participated in the assaults on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig Salient. On 27 October 1916, as his battalion attacked Regina Trench, Tolkien came down with trench fever, a disease carried by lice, common in the dugouts and was invalided to England on 8 November 1916.
Tolkien's battalion was almost completely wiped out following his return to England. Being deemed medically unfit for general service, he spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties. It was at this time that his wife Edith bore their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien. In a 1941 letter, Tolkien described his son John as "(conceived and carried during the starvation-year of 1917 and the great U-Boat campaign) round about the Battle of Cambrai, when then end of the war seemed as far off as it does now".
In his preface to the second edition of The Lord Of The Rings, denying his book's relevance to WW2, Tolkien wrote: "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."
The sacrifices made by the many who served in The Great War, and lost so much, shall not be forgotten.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Struggle for US Involvement

When the Somme Offensive came to its soggy and cold conclusion in November of 1916, German leaders were certainly considering the implications of US troops entering the war on the side of the Allies, as they had courted Mexico's involvement by first plotting (in true spy-like fashion) the return of General Huerta to Mexico to establish a pro-German regime, which had been foiled with his arrest in New Mexico in 1915, but a century ago actually sought permission to use a Mexican port for a U-boat base.
The Germans used spies in the US during #WW1 and, upon discovering the extent of Germany's blatant anti-American activities, such as the involvement of German embassy staff in the (failed) bombing of a bridge between Maine and New Brunswick and creating a $1,300,000 fund to be used to induce longshoremen and munitions workers to go out on strike, President Wilson's decided to publish the Secret Service's files to keep the American public duly informed of the dangers they faced.
In October 1916, U-53 stopped at Newport, Rhode Island and then sank five British and neutral ships just off American waters, all in accordance with prize rules, while American destroyers nearby rescued survivors. U-boats had been expanding their reach over the course of the war, even though their targets had been narrowed by politics.
The possibility of U-boat operations on the American side of the Atlantic having been proven, Germans began to investigate increasing their presence. They understood using American ports could be problematic, given their previous activities.
German strategists saw Mexico as a useful distraction should America enter the war. so, on 12 November 1916, the German ambassador to the United States cabled his counterpart in Mexico City, saying that “the Imperial Government [of Germany] would see with the greatest of pleasure the Mexican Government’s consent to…a [U-boat] base in its territory.”
According to Wikipedia, the Zimmermann Telegram (or Zimmermann Note) was an internal diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event of the United States' entering World War I against Germany.
The proposal was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence. Revelation of the contents enraged American public opinion, especially after the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann publicly admitted the telegram was genuine on 3 March, and helped generate support for the United States declaration of war on Germany in April 1917.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Struggle for Seven Miles on the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, conceived by Allied generals in 1915 to enable their amassed forces to break through the German lines from the outset, in fact lasted 141 days and was certainly one of the wars' bloodiest. It was a horrific battle fought along a 15-mile front that cost both sides over one million dead and wounded. Their efforts were officially halted in mid November a hundred years ago, sadly, without gaining much ground, having carried out the final battle on the River Ancre.
In early 1916, while also eagerly tunnelling underground and reporting on enemy positions and troop movements (as well as fighting) well overhead, the entrenched armies facing each other from across No Man's Land were being bombarded nightly and daily. Although the generals' original intention was to end this vicious stalemate, when the Germans attacked Verdun, the French found themselves desperate for a relief engagement and relied on the British and their Commonwealth armies to strike a hard blow and weaken the German Army.
When the massive combined offensive was launched, the British troops were enthusiastic patriotic volunteers yet poorly trained by commanders experienced in (for lack of better terminology) colonial warfare. Upon the battlefield today visitors will find the huge Memorial to the Missing of the Somme - and the names of 72,085 soldiers killed, blown to mist or buried in the mud of Northern France with no known grave.
Nearby, there is another memorial, an obelisk which commemorates the actions (and losses) of the 18th Eastern Division, whose men finally captured Thiepval in September - demonstrating successfully new tactics in doing so, which would prove invaluable to their renewed efforts in 1917. Initially, on 01 July, the 32nd Division's 96th Brigade were tasked to capture the "Spur" at Thiepval. In short, they were massacred within minutes of launching their assault.
By August, in response, the Germans were able to divert 42 divisions to the Somme.
As the battle progressed, recognising changes were needed in the field, certain commanders, such as British Major-General Maxse employed a creeping barrage, as well as launching the attacks of his 18th Division later in the day, rather than at dawn. Thus, when they achieved their objectives of capturing enemy trenches, machine-gun emplacements and numerous strongholds, remaining daylight would be minimised and soldiers would be able to take cover in the darkness. It was Maxse and his men, after three days of intense fighting, who took Thiepval.
A few months later, the now-popularised 'creeping barrage' was used at Ancre, for example, with great success while troops stormed the various heavily-fortified German positions and crossed the river. The 51st Highland Division eventually took Beaumont Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division took Beaucourt and captured 7,000 German prisoners as winter set in.
The lessons that were learned at great cost during the Somme were duly analysed in the coming months by the British, who then issued two manuals in February 1917 and by April the Allies were a much more effective fighting force. However, over those 141 days, the Allies had advanced only seven miles and failed to break the defensive lines of the Germans (though indeed inflicting incredible casualties), who by March had retreated to the infamous  Hindenburg Line, as opposed to resuming fighting once again along the Somme.

The war was still, a century ago, two years away from being won.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Struggle for Native Recognition

When war broke out over hundred years ago, in 1914 men from among the Native populations in Canada were not welcome to join the Army and in fact the Canadian government stopped Natives from signing up. Nonetheless, and thankfully for Canada and the Allied war effort, according to War History Online, the best sniper of #WW1  was Francis Pegahmagabow, who was a Canadian First Nation hero of the war, and most decorated, one of only 39 soldiers (from the 600,000 who served) to be awarded the Canadian Military Medal and two bars for valour.

He signed up at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, joining the 23rd Northern Pioneers and actually survived the war, and was laid to rest in an old cemetery on Wasauksing First Nation in 1952.

Shortly after his arrival in Europe, Pegahmagabow saw action during the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front, and it was during this battle that he began to establish a reputation as a sniper and scout. Later, when his battalion took part in the Battle of the Somme, Pegahmagabow was wounded in the left leg.

He recovered in time, however, to return to the 1st Battalion as they moved to Belgium. Over the course of their next two battles which spanned almost a year, Pegahmagabow carried messages along the lines, and it was for these efforts that he received the Military Medal. Initially, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Albert Creighton, had nominated him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing the disregard he showed for danger and his “faithfulness to duty,” however, it was later downgraded.

On November 6/7, 1917, Pegahmagabow earned a Bar to his Military Medal for his actions in the Second Battle of Passchendaele. During the fighting, Pegahmagabow’s battalion was given the task of launching an attack. By this time, he had been promoted to the rank of corporal and during the battle he was recorded playing an important role as a link between the units on the 1st Battalion’s flank. When the battalion’s reinforcements became lost, Pegahmagabow was instrumental in guiding them to where they needed to go and ensuring that they reached their allocated spot in the line.

Later in the war, on 30 August 1918, during the Battle of the Scarpe, Pegahmagabow was involved in defending a German attack at Orix Trench, near Upton Wood. His company was almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded. In an effort to prevent a disaster, he took it upon himself to bring up the necessary supplies. Braving heavy machine gun and rifle fire he went out into no man’s land and brought back enough ammunition to enable his post to carry on and assist in repulsing heavy enemy counter-attacks. For these efforts, he received a second Bar to his Military Medal.

In November 1918, the war came to an end and in 1919 Pegahmagabow was invalided back to Canada. He had served in the military for almost the whole war and had built up a reputation as a skilled marksman. Using the much-maligned Ross rifle, he was credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Struggle for a Film Audience

While the Battle of the Somme was winding down in October a hundred years ago, having claimed the lives of 157,000 British and her allies' soldiers, over 20 million people across Britain (and around the world) had watched a film produced by W.F. Jury, which had been released in August 1916 and distributed by the British Topical Committee for War Films. Simply called The Battle of the Somme, it was a silent black and white film that ran over 74 minutes in length, divided into 5 parts.
Two cinematographers had been tasked a year earlier by the British Topical Committee for War Films (endorsed and fully supported by the War Office) to shoot newsreel footage of the efforts that were underway in France to defeat Germany. One of the two (Edward Tong of Jury's Imperial Pictures) having fallen sick in the field was replaced by John McDowell, of the British & Colonial film company, and together with Geoffrey Malins were on location when British artillery gunners opened up on June 24 and began their bombardment of German positions.
When they had arrived in France Tong and Malins filmed soldiers in the rear diligently stockpiling munitions and eagerly marching to frontline trenches, commanders addressing their troops and local farmers tending their crops. Months later, McDowell and Malins captured the preemptive barrage and the detonation of the mine under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. They also included in their film re-enactments of tending to the wounded, going "over the top", soldiers advancing through No Man's Land and the treatment of captured prisoners.
Significantly, on 01 July 1916, Malins was attached to the 29th Division (VIII Corps) and was in the vicinity of Beaumont Hamel, in order to film the mortar shelling of Hawthorn Ridge, which he did as German bombs fell nearby. When the order was given to go "over the top", Malins had been filming the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers waiting to advance, many of whom would be dead within the next 24 hours, before heading back at dawn to famously film the massive explosion of the mine underneath the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt minutes before Zero Hour.
Although his equipment was cumbersome (and was damaged) and the camera hand-cranked in those days, he persevered, and throughout the early days of the battle continued to shoot historical footage and left for London a week later, but was returned soon after to film new sequences of additional shellfire (a tactic still in its infancy) and troops advancing from their trenches, though staged for the camera, near St Pol.
McDowell was assigned to an area further south near the villages of Fricourt and Mametz with the 7th Division (XV Corps), where their actions proved more successful than units in the northern sector, which were being annihilated. The success of the 7th Division enabled McDowell, who was posted to cover the vicinity of Carnoy and the dressing-station at Minden Post, to critically film the captured German trenches near Fricourt and Mametz, especially useful for the War Office as effective propaganda.
The film, comprising its five reels, was quickly edited and first screened a month later in August at the Scala Theatre. Preceding its screening, however, a letter from (soon-to-be Prime Minister) Lloyd George was read, to "see that this picture, which is in itself an epic of self-sacrifice and gallantry, reaches everyone. Herald the deeds of our brave men to the ends of the earth. This is your duty."
Originally planned to be a joint Anglo-French offensive to liberate territory in northern France, when the Germans suddenly launched their own attack at Verdun, for the British troops under General Haig (who had stated his preference to allocate his own limited resources to re-capture land in Belgium to access vital seaports; keeping in mind, Britain had declared war on Germany in defense of Belgium) the Battle of the Somme was never intended to actually end the war, but to put their forces in a better position by the end of the year, to push on in 1917, while also relieving the intense pressure felt by the French at Verdun.
Today, lest we forget, at the entrance to the Sunken Road, where on 01 July the Lancashire Regiment were wiped out (the position was held through the night by just one officer and 25 men; the battalion having lost 163 killed, 312 wounded and 11 missing), is a huge white Celtic cross commemorating the men of the 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who finally took Beaumont-Hamel on 13 November 1916, five days before the Battle of the Somme was mercifully declared over.
Its solemn inscription reads:
The mighty heroes of the Great War
The heroes who went before us

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Struggle for the Italians

Not all battles in 1916 were being waged along the Western Front. While the Somme Offensive was nearing its conclusion, slowing in the mud, and French forces were still fending off the Germans at Verdun, the Italian army on 10 October launched the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo against the armies of the Austro-Hungarian empire, trying to extend the bridgehead gained in prior months at Gorizia.
The various battles fought along the Isonzo River fell in the eastern sector of the Italian Front, in present-day Slovenia. During #WW1 the river - running north-south - was located mainly inside the borders of Austria, its head was, however, at the head of the Adriatic in Italy, flanked on both banks by mountains. The Austro-Hungarians held the higher ground and had fortified their positions. The Italians were fighting an uphill battle from the outset.
Following promises made by Allied leaders during the Treaty of London (26 April 1915), Italy then entered the war intending to annex Littoral and northern Dalmatia, as well as the territories of present-day Trentino and South Tyrol with a surprise offensive. Unfortunately, their actions soon bogged down into trench warfare at high altitudes, amid extremely cold winters.
At the time of the Eighth Battle 100 years ago, keeping in mind the regions sought by Italy when the Treaty was signed over 45% of the 1.5 million people were Italian speakers (the rest were Slovenes, Germans and Croats), many thousands of re-settled civilians were dying of malnutrition and facing the prospect of freezing to death in refugee camps in the mountains.
With respect to the fighting along the coastal plain of the Isonzo, the Italians, led by Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna, could not achieve any success and, as with their earlier attacks, heavy casualties required that their 2-day initiative be called off pending the army's recuperation. The year prior, from October to November, the Italians amassed 1,200 heavy guns and had launched their Third and Fourth Battles of Isonzo, which ended in early December due to lack of munitions and much-needed supplies for the troops.
Although nothing strategically was gained by taking Gorizia during the Sixth Battle, apparently morale and spirits along the Italian line were boosted. The subsequent battles of the Isonzo in the following months accomplished little - except wear down the simply exhausted armies of both nations.
It should be noted discipline in the Italian Army was harsh, with severe punishments for infractions not known in the German, French, and British armies. Also, shellfire in the rocky terrain caused 70% more casualties per rounds expended than on the soft ground in Belgium and France. Thus, as with the forces on the Western Front, tunnels were built into the rock of the Dolomites, and even through glacial ice, attempting to break the stalemate by going underneath No Man's Land and placing explosive charges beneath enemy positions.
Sadly, on 13 December 1916, a day known as 'White Friday', 10,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches in the Dolomites. In a war of attrition, the Italian soldiers who survived the nine offensives waged through to the end of 1916 had seen 70,000 of their comrades killed and in the two offensives of 1917 they would see another 76,000 more die.
Not surprisingly, the number of casualties during the numerous and admittedly disappointing battles of the Isonzo were enormous for the Italians from 1915 to 1916, but the worst was yet to come. In 1917, with the Pope calling for an end to the war, a joint German and Austro-Hungarian assault broke through the Isonzo line, which destroyed the Italian Second Army and removed 275,000 Italian soldiers from the battlefield, almost all of them captured.
In total, incredibly, there were 1.2 million casualties suffered along the Isonzo.