Tagged: WWI

The Battle of St Mihiel

With the success of the British offensive at Amiens, Gen John “Blackjack” Pershing requested an American-led offensive against the salient at St Mihiel. The reduction of the salient would prevent the Germans from shelling the newly liberated Amiens rail line and significantly ease Allied logistical problems. Foch approved, but as the unexpected success of the Amiens offensive began to unfold, told Pershing to plan for a general offensive by the end of September, and scrap the St Mihiel. The general offensive from the Meuse-Argonne would make the St Mihiel salient untenable and an offensive unnecessary. Pershing disagreed, mostly because the St Mihiel salient spilt the American forces. As they stood, only the southern American troops would be under American army command for the general offensive; the northern troops would fall under French command. If the St Mihiel salient was reduced Pershing could feasibly construct an American army group of two American armies, commanded by himself, which would put him on par with Haig and Foch. He enlisted the help of France’s greatest American advocate, Marshal Petain to make it happen. Petain and Pershing argued that if the troops in the St Mihiel salient were captured, they would be unavailable to defend against the general offensive two weeks later. Furthermore they assured Foch that the St Mihiel offensive would not affect or delay the general offensive from the Meuse-Argonne two weeks later. Foch relented, and approved the first American led army level offensive of the Great War.
On 10 September 1918, two American corps attacked the flanks of the salient while a French corps under American command attacked the apex. Pershing was not going to let this attack fail and secured an overwhelming amount of support in terms of tanks, artillery and planes. Despite the fact that the St Mihiel salient was not overrun since the Germans captured it in 1915 and the Germans built it into a fortress, the Americans made good progress. The Germans put up stubborn resistance but more out of habit than anything else. They had been ordered to withdraw to shorten the line on the 8th of September, but took their time. On 12 September, America’s premier division, the 1st US Infantry Division, drove from the south and linked up with the 26th “Yankee” US Infantry Division (of Sgt Stubby fame), which closed the pocket.
At a cost of 7,000 casualties, Pershing inflicted 17,000, mostly captured, and secured his flanks for the upcoming general offensive. The Allied logistics were eased considerably by the shortening of the line and the push east. Most importantly, Pershing, his commanders, and his staff gained invaluable experience for the larger and more complex general offensive that was to occur at the end of the month.

The Battle of Amiens: “A Black Day in the History of the German Army”

In 1815, Emperor Napoleon I returned from exile on the island of Elba and retook power in France. For the next 111 days the fate of Europe hung in the balance, until he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. “The Hundred Days” determined the future of Europe for the next century.
103 years later, the fate of Europe again hung in the balance. By August 1918, the “Kaiserschlacht” or the German Spring Offensive was contained and the British Expeditionary Force was no longer threatened with isolation. The threat to Paris ended with the French and American defense at the Battle of Chateau Thierry, and then the German salient was rolled back with the Franco/American victory at the Battle of Soissons. But the German Army was still full of fight and heavily reinforced with victorious troops from the Eastern Front. The Germans prepared for local Allied counterattacks, but expected to handily throw them back. They would then wait out the rest of the year while U-boats starved Britain into submission. In the spring of 1919, Germany’s conquered territories in the East would allay the shortages on the German home front and provide the necessary supplies to defeat the exhausted French and inexperienced Americans.
Unexpectedly, on 8 August 1918, the British Third and Fourth Armies assaulted the German lines at Amiens. The Germans in the Amiens’ sector saw none of the indicators that the Allies planned to attack there: No noticeable build up, no lengthy artillery preparation, nothing. Meticulous British staff work got the entire Canadian Corps, nearly 40,000 men, trained, rehearsed and in their assault positions with Germans completely ignorant of their whereabouts. Tactical and operational surprise was complete. The British had learned the lessons of the past year, and put them all in effect for offensive at Amiens. Radio deception, sound ranging, photo graphic reconnaissance, pin point artillery targeting, rolling barrages, platoon and company rehearsals, engineers and labor battalions for road repair, and the inclusion of more than a thousand tanks in the assault all contributed to what Gen Ludendorff called, “A black day in the history of the German Army.”
The Canadians, Australians, and British troops split the front wide open. German casualties were high, and most notable was the number of surrendered Germans. The German Army was tired and the morale of the divisions that had been on the Western Front for the last three years was extremely low. They surrendered en masse. Only the German divisions recently transferred from the East could be relied upon. The offensive stalled when attacking troops outran, not their supplies as was usual for the last three years, but their artillery support. Nonetheless, the British offensive at Amiens was a success beyond the wildest expectations of Sir Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch, the British and French commanders. The Battle of Amiens was the opening move of the Allied general offensive on the Western Front. Ferdinand Foch expected the general offensive to end the war by the spring of 1919. He was wrong.
The Allied offensive in the autumn of 1918, like Napoleon’s attack into Belgium in 1815, is known to history as “Hundred Days Campaign” and like its predecessor a century before, changed the face of Europe for the next one hundred years.

The Battle of Belleau Wood

During the May conference of Allied leaders, Gen. Pershing made his feelings on the integration of the American troops into British and French formations exceptionally clear when he told Gen Foch, the Supreme commander of the Allied armies, that he was willing risk the Allies “being driven back to the Loire” instead of any amalgamation. Pershing was sympathetic to the threat of the German Spring offensive, but he and his staff felt that the Allied sense of imminent doom was overblown. Pershing had already sent three regiments of the 93rd US (African-American) Infantry Division to the French (since his Southern troops wouldn’t train with them) where they acquitted themselves well. In May of 1918, the Americans had only five divisions sufficiently trained and properly equipped to fight in the trenches: the 1st which was committed to conduct the first American offensive of the war at Cantigny, the 2nd and 3rd whom were regular formations, with the 2nd “Indianhead” Division a composite of regular US Army and Marine Corps brigades, the 26th “Yankee” Division of New England National Guard units which was still recovering after being mauled by the Germans at Seicheprey in April, and finally the 42nd “Rainbow” Division known so for consisting of National Guard units from across the country.
Just as the 1st Division was consolidating its position at Cantigny on the night of 29/30 May, the Germans launched Operation Blücher-Yorck, known to history as the Third Battle of Aisne. The German assault was the next phase of their Spring Offensive and was intended to prevent any Allied reserves from affecting their main effort to isolate the British further north. In two days the Germans drove the French over the Aisne and Vesle Rivers, and were driving hard for the Marne, which was as close to Paris as they were in 1914, four years earlier. In spite of his previous reluctance, Pershing offered the two divisions training closest to the Marne, the 2nd and 3rd, to the French. Pershing wanted them to operate as an American corps, but he had neither the time to train a corps’ staff nor a general to command it (The 1st ID’s commander, MG Robert Bullard, was the only real choice at the time and he was needed at Cantigny). So the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Infantry Divisions went into the line under French command, along the Paris-Metz highway about forty miles northeast of the French capital.
Like their cavalry predecessors on the old American Frontier, they arrived just in the nick of time.
On 31 May, a machine gun battalion from 3rd Infantry Division transported by trucks arrived at Chateau-Thierry just in time to prevent the Germans from seizing the main bridge over the Marne River there. This stand forced the German momentum west where the 2nd Infantry Division replaced the defeated French units. The 2nd was a composite unit that consisted of one US Army brigade of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments, and a US Marine brigade of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. On 2 June, the Germans broke through on the Marine’s left and the division reserve of the 23rd and one battalion of Marines quickly marched the intervening ten km and went directly into a counterattack. The tenuous line was restored by dawn. The Americans moved into a 20 km line , the first ten of which from Chateau-Thierry to Vaux, was held by the 3rd, with the 2nd to their west. The Marine Brigade’s sector included a small forest, Belleau Wood.
The next day the Germans attacked through Belleau Wood to cut the Metz-Paris highway and seize the Marne River crossings further south and west. The French in Belleau Wood collapsed. Just beyond the woods were some grain fields where the Marine Brigade, under artillery fire, dug-in using their bayonets and hands (This is the original reason American infantrymen are issued entrenching tools). The French ordered the Marines to dig in further to the rear, but the commander of the Marine Brigade, Army BG James Harbord countermanded the order and told the Marines to “hold where they stand”. Nonetheless, the retreating French urged the Marines to fall back. One defiant Marine company commander, Cpt Lloyd W. Williams, retorted “Retreat? Hell, we just got here”. From their shallow foxholes, the soldiers and Marines fought off continuous German attacks for the next two days, particularly through the grain fields in front of the Marines.
The German-held Belleau Wood stuck into the Allied lines and provided an excellent staging area for attacks to the south and west, and moreover was one free from Allied observation. A deliberately prepared German attack from the Wood would inevitably be successful, and thus it needed to be retaken. The French 167th Division was tasked to cut the roads leading into the woods from the north, while the 2nd US Division, specifically the Marine Brigade, cleared Belleau Wood.
On the morning of 6 June 1918, the Marine assault on Belleau Wood began with American and French artillery shattering the formerly picturesque hunting preserve while a Marine battalion assaulted Hill 142 to prevent enfilading fire into the French assault that began simultaneously to the north. Unfortunately, only two companies were prepared to assault on time and they paid dearly for the third’s tardiness. Furthermore, Belleau Wood was an obvious target for an Allied counterattack. And the poor American reconnaissance, which consisted solely of the 6th Marine Regiment’s intelligence officer sneaking into the German lines, a courageous act of limited usefulness borne of desperation to know something, anything, of German strength in the Wood, failed to identify a newly arrived and well dug-in veteran infantry regiment.
The two Marine companies assaulted directly into the teeth of the German defenses. Only the Marines’ tenacity prevented the attack from failing just after it began. The stunned Germans inflicted setbacks and casualties on the Americans that would have sent equivalent French or British assaults back to their trenches in abject defeat. In one’s and two’s junior officers and NCOs rallied the broken elements of the two companies and continued the assault or held fast against the relentless German counterattacks, until the rest of the battalion arrived. Nevertheless, Hill 142 changed hands several times that day, and was only secured late that afternoon after nearly 14 hours of continuous fighting, much of it hand to hand.
The rest of the Marine Brigade began the main assault on Belleau Wood at 1700. Unfortunately the grain fields were as deadly to American as they were to the Germans previously. Advancing in well-ordered lines, the Marines were initially massacred. But again they persisted into devastation that hitherto would have sent Allied soldiers scurrying back in retreat. Of note was Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, already a twice honored Medal of Honor recipient for actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Haitian Insurgency, yelled “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the pinned down men of his machine gun company. Any American penetration, no matter how small, was subject to an immediate German counterattack. Hand to hand fighting raged all along the edge of Belleau Wood into the night. When the sun rose the next day, the Marine’s had a toehold but at a horrible cost, over 1000 casualties – the most the Marines had sustained in a single day in their history up to that point.
The Germans weren’t going to give up Belleau Wood without a fight. It was essential to successful continuous advances toward Paris. Throughout June 1918, parts of five different German divisions fought the Marines of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments in a desperate bid to recapture Belleau Wood or at least prevent the capture of it in its entirety from the slow and costly, but unrelenting, Marine advance. Throughout the next three weeks the Marines assaulted the German defenses in Belleau Wood five more times and the Germans counterattacked just as many, with one actually colliding with a simultaneous Marine assault. The Germans flooded the area with mustard gas on several occasions. One German private wrote home to his mother, “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
The terribly reckless fellows of the 4th (Marine) Brigade of the 2nd U.S Infantry Division finally cleared Belleau Wood on 26 June 1918, despite everything an entire German corps could throw at them. That afternoon, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, whose men finally emerged from the east end of Belleau Wood, sent a succinct message to the brigade commander,
“Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely”
The Germans would be back, but not anytime soon. Later, the French officially renamed Belleau Wood to “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” or “Wood of the Marine Brigade”. The Germans reportedly referred to the Marines at Belleau Wood as “Teufelhunde” or “Devil Dogs”. Though this is still unconfirmed by any official historical documentation, it didn’t stop the United States Marine Corps from adopting the moniker wholesale and unconditionally. After the battle, Pershing stated “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” He also said of the battle,

“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”

The Battle of Cantigny

When the Germans started the Kaiserschlacht, the 1918 Spring Offensive with the troops released by victory against the Russians on the eastern front, Gen Pershing was under immense pressure by the British and French to get American troops into the trenches in number. The British wanted the Americans as replacements for Allied casualties. The Commonwealth commanders wanted smaller American formations i.e. battalions and brigades, to augment British and French divisions, just as they were doing. The French just wanted the Americans to enter the lines in any form whatsoever despite any deficiencies in training, though they supported Pershing’s views. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing was under explicit instructions from President Wilson that Americans would fight under their own flag and in their own formations, and not as part of another national army. To this end, Pershing told the French that the Americans wouldn’t be ready to assume a portion of the front until late 1918, or more probably 1919.

In mid-April 1918, only five American divisions were trained to the point where they would be effective in the trenches, despite hundreds of thousands of Americans arriving in France each month. Under pressure from the French, Pershing relented and the American troops were placed at the seam between the British and French armies just south of Amiens and just north of Paris. Previously in the war, whenever the inexperienced American troops took over part of the line, they were specifically targeted by the Germans, with predictable results. With rare exceptions, the Germans had their way with the novice doughboys, and the British and Canadians had no respect for the soldierly prowess of American troops. According to many a British officer, American soldiers may have been good at subjugating Indian tribes, but they were a detriment to the continuity and contiguousness of the front on a modern battlefield.

The French recommended a small American counterattack to exhibit the battle prowess and state of American training. The attack would take some pressure off the British, who were suffering from the bulk of the Spring Offensive, and announce to the world that the Americans were finally capable of offensive operations. Of the five available divisions, Pershing chose his favorite, the 1st, to make the assault. The selected objective was a small German salient around the town of Cantigny, which sat on high ground that offered the Germans excellent observation of the surrounding area.

The commander of the 1st US Infantry Division, Maj Gen Robert Bullard, chose the 28th Infantry Regiment supported by two companies of the 18th, with machine guns, artillery and engineers from the division troops to conduct the attack. Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall (you might have heard of him) wrote the 34 page operations order detailing the movement, rolling barrage schedule, and the general scheme of maneuver. The Americans rehearsed the attack for three weeks prior. The Germans spotted the two American companies that arrived in the trenches a day early. They pounded them with artillery. Nevertheless, the 28th went “over the top” at dawn on 28 May 1918.

The French were wedded to a successful American assault. They didn’t want to squander the immense advantage that America gave the Allies in men and material if the British were knocked out of the war, which was the aim of the Spring Offensive, and would result in the Americans taking over their portion of the front. A successful American attack would put them in the line that much faster, and most importantly, where the French wanted. So the French supported Bullard’s assault on Cantigny with prodigious amounts of artillery and transport. With the copious amounts of French support, the 28th secured their assigned trenches and dugouts, and cleared the cellars of Cantigny of Germans. That night there was a great celebration in Pershing’s headquarters.

The German artillery wasn’t to disrupt the American attack, it was to presage Operation Blücher–Yorck, the third phase of the Kaiserschlacht. The German operation aimed straight at Paris in order to pull Allied troops away from assisting the British farther north. All along the front, French units demanded support. The French artillery and the dedicated resources to the 1st US Infantry Division disappeared on the night of 28/29 May. Overnight, Cantigny became solely an American operation.

The German counterattack started shortly thereafter, and the 28th screamed for more support. Several requests to pull back to the original 27 May start lines were sent. All were refused: American national pride and the fate of the American Expeditionary Force was on the line with this single battle. The 28th had to hold, and Pershing needed to assure that that happened with just American resources. The Americans had relied on French support since they landed in the country 11 months before. No more – the Americans were on their own.

For two days and nights the novice 1st US Infantry Division slugged it out at Cantigny with waves of German attackers. The final German assault came at dusk on 30 May. The next morning, Cantigny was still in American hands, albeit tenuously. Nonetheless, the amateur Americans proved they had what it took to fight, and prevail, on the Western Front. There would be no more talk of amalgamating the American troops into the French or British armies. They had received their baptism of fire. The 1st US Infantry Division, soon to be known as “The Big Red One” from their distinctive shoulder patch, proved they could stand their ground in the face of the best the veteran Germans could throw at them. The Americans had finally entered the First World War in earnest.

With a few limited exceptions, the Allied offensives on the Western Front were all failures. The naïve, but enthusiastic, American army inoculated with the bloody and hard won experience of the Allied failed efforts, would soon go on the offensive… and surprise the hell out of the Germans.

The Harlem Hellfighters and Black Death

In late April 1918, the German troops opposite the French in the Argonne Forest began a series of trench raids and reconnaissance patrols in preparation for the third phase of the Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher–Yorck, whose objective was Paris. The Germans were surprised to find not French troops but African American soldiers of the 369th US Infantry.

Formerly known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the 369th was re-designated when they got to France in the First World War. The 369th was recruited primarily from Harlem, where 50,000 of New York’s 60,000 African Americans lived. When they landed in France on New Year’s Day 1918, the regiment was assigned supply, labor and support jobs because many of the American regiments from the South refused to train with them. When the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March, the French were in need of men to fill their trenches. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was under orders from President Wilson that American troops were to fight together, and not used as replacements for British and French casualties. Pershing recognized that because of the discrimination, it would be difficult to assign the 369th to an American division. By assigning the 369th to the French, under the strict provision that they fight as a regiment, Pershing was assisting his distressed French allies and getting the 369th into the fight, while still adhering to the letter of Wilson’s orders, if not the spirit.

In early April 1918, the 369th was assigned to the 16th French Infantry Division. Because American equipment would be difficult to get in the French army, the 369th turned in all of their American equipment, except their uniforms, and drew French equipment, including weapons. They were then assigned to partner, man for man, with a French regiment for three weeks of grueling training behind the front. In the mid-April 1918, the 369th took their place in the trenches opposite the Germans.

On the night of 15 May, a 24 man German patrol crept through No Man’s Land opposite the 369th. In a small listening post to the front of the American trenches, Pvts Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts heard the distinct clip of wire cutters. Johnson told Roberts to run back to the trenches to warn the rest. Just as he departed the first German grenades landed. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel in the hip and back, but Needham was nearly killed. Johnson threw his own grenades. Then as the Germans charged, he shot three with his French rifle, the last with muzzle directly in the chest of the German. Johnson then noticed two Germans trying to carry off Needham. With no time to reload (the French Labille Rifle only had a three-round magazine), Johnson pulled his US Army issue bolo knife, essentially a Filipino machete, disemboweled one German, and then sunk the heavy blade into the skull of the other. By this point the rest of the German patrol arrived, so Johnson attacked them too. His aggressiveness and ferocity surprised them. In the ensuing melee, Johnson suffered 21 separate wounds, but drove the Germans off and saved Needham.

The German patrol stated later that they had been assaulted by “Black Death”, and the name showed up in propaganda specifically directed at Johnson. The name stuck.

The French awarded both Johnson and Needham the Croix de Guerre, the first American soldiers to receive the honor in the First World War. Over the 191 consecutive days of combat the 369th fought in, their French partner referred to the unit as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. That name stuck too.

The Harlem Hellfighters hold the honor of having served the most time in combat of any American unit in the First World War. President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson on 2 June 2015. The medal was received by the New York National Guard, as there was no next of kin.

Kaiserschlacht: The Spring Offensive

By 1918, the British blockade forced a near famine on the German population. Imperial Germany would be starved into submission by 1919. However, the peace treaty with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk formally took Soviet Russia out of the First World War and freed up hundreds of thousands of German troops for the Western Front. Since the early winter, American troops arrived in French ports at the rate of 200,000 a month. Erich Ludendorff, ostensibly known as the First Quartermaster-General of the Imperial German Army but in reality the brains behind the entire German war effort, devised a plan to defeat the British and French before American numbers, and industrial and agricultural capacity could be brought to bear.

Using the divisions released from the Eastern Front, Ludendorff’s offensive sought to split the British and French armies by driving for the English Channel. Once the surrounded British Army was rolled up from the south or its ports captured, the British Army would assuredly surrender, and the French would be forced to sue for peace. The “Kaiserschlacht” or “King’s (Caesar’s) Battle” would consist of three separate offensives: Operation Michael launched on the Somme to split the British and French Armies, Operation Georgette near Ypres to seize the Channel Ports, and Operation Blücher–Yorck to draw French and American reserves south.

The Spring Offensive used “Stormtrooper” tactics perfected against the Russians but on a much larger scale. Whereas previously the best and fittest German troops in a division were specially trained and formed into stormtrooper battalions to infiltrate the enemy trenches and seize strongpoints at the outset of the attack, for the Kaiserschlacht Ludendorff formed entire Stormtrooper divisions. On paper, this seemed a good idea, but actually encouraged the wasteful use of these elite troops against unimportant targets. Being specialist formations, the Stormtrooper divisions forced the basic tactical formation i.e. the lowest level where a single commander controls all of his combined arms formations and specialist attachments, back to the corps level. Since the advent of gunpowder, the basic tactical unit became increasingly smaller: In 17th and 18th century, it was the army. In the 19th, the corps system allowed Napoleon to conquer Europe. By 1918, the smallest combined arms formation was the division. In a First World War division assault zone, not every strongpoint or trenchline was a key piece of terrain, where the stormtroopers were needed. Normally, whatever positions the stormtroopers bypassed were reduced by regular line infantry. By having entire stormtrooper divisions, this forced the elite units to assault positions that could have been taken by regular units, incurring unnecessary casualties and tiring them out. The entire offensive was a gross misuse of a limited resource.

On the foggy morning of 21 March, 1918, Operation Michael unleashed Ludendorff’s Stormtroopers in the Cambrai sector after a short vicious bombardment of key terrain and strongpoints, artillery positions, and Allied command and control centers. In a single day, the Germans recaptured all of the terrain that the British had spent the last three years taking. Within two days, the British Army was in full retreat.

However, the assaults wore down the all-important stormtrooper units. Moreover, the British retreat wasn’t a rout, and the British just withdrew from tactically insignificant terrain, while reinforcing vital areas. Furthermore, Ludendorff “reinforced success”, while nominally a great idea, in the context of the Western Front in 1918, all it lead to were meandering uncoordinated forward advances along paths of least resistance. Within days, the important British defenses had to be reduced by the line divisions (who were stripped of their best men for the stormtroopers) in costly frontal assaults while the exhausted stormtrooper divisions continued the advance over ground mostly abandoned by the British. The Germans had no exploitation force and the speed of a man walking was simply not fast enough to break out before the British and French reacted, who were mostly operating on interior lines (Breakthrough Theory would come to fruition 15 years later with improvements to the tank, motorized transport, and “Blitzkrieg”). The British defended these key points for many reasons, most of which had to do with logistics. While the Germans advanced unprecedented distances which made for great headlines, their supplies couldn’t keep up. Finally, and not insignificantly, the British blockade effectively grounded the German air force for lack of fuel, giving the Allies an immense advantage in reconnaissance.

Operation Michael cost the Allies and Germans 250,000 casualties each, but could not isolate and destroy the British Army. Operation Georgette got to within 15 miles of the Channel ports, but was slowed by last stands from the Portuguese Expeditionary Force, and British, French, and Australian reinforcements that poured in later. Operation Blücher–Yorck was blunted by French and American troops, including the US 1st Division, after some initial success, but failed to draw away significant troops from the main effort, Operation Michael, to the north. In these operations the Allied and German casualties were about the same, a combined 300,000. However, the Allied casualties were replaced in a few months by American troops; the German casualties were irreplaceable, especially in the Stormtroopers divisions who took a disproportionate percentage of losses.

By the end of June, Ludendorff simply ran out of men. There were more in the East which could have been available, but they were “Germanizing” and “civilizing” the vast tracts of Poland, the Baltic States, and Belorussia seized from the Russians. There was no time to reorganize them and bring them west. In July, Ludendorff called off the offensive. The Kaiserschlacht was a body blow to the Allies, but one from which they quickly recovered. The German Army was hollowed out, and unable to conduct further large scale offensives. The conclusion of the war was just a matter of time. The end of The Great War was in sight.

The Spanish Flu

The rapid spread of disease among the cramped conditions of military cantonment areas has been a problem for armies since time immemorial. The unprecedented scale and rapidity of the US military’s expansion in the wake of the America’s entry into the First World War made it especially susceptible. The US Army and Marine Corps, to include the National Guard began the war with 218, 265 men in uniform. Just 16 months later there were more than four million. Every one required the creation of brand new facilities to house, feed and train them. The cramped and sometimes unsanitary condition were ripe for outbreaks of disease.

In 1917, several outbreaks of the flu ravaged American training camps. Not especially noteworthy at the time, on 4 March 1918, company cook Pvt. Albert Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas with the flu. But Pvt Gitchell contracted a new strain dubbed H1N1, and he was first documented case of the virus. Unlike previous flu outbreaks which were generally only fatal to young children, the previously sick or the elderly, H1N1 targeted healthy adults, and was highly contagious. More than 500 cases were reported at Camp Funston and nearby Fort Riley over the next few days

The H1N1 flu virus quickly spread across the country with the troop trains. Just a week later on 11 March, the first case was diagnosed in Queens New York, where troops prepared to depart overseas for France. From New York, it spread to all parts of the globe.

Wartime censors kept the flu outbreak out of the newspapers and off the radio in countries that were fighting. However, the morale of the civilian population was not a concern in neutral countries, such as Spain. The flu epidemic dominated the headlines of Spanish newspapers, especially after Spain’s ruler, King Alfonso XIII, contracted the sickness. With the greater press attention, the world began referring to it as the “Spanish Flu”. A second deadlier wave broke out in August of 1918.

The H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic infected nearly 1/3 of the world’s population between March and November, 1918. Reported cases dropped off dramatically that winter. But in the space of just nine months, nearly 80 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu, or about 5% of world’s population.

The Bolshevik Revolution: Red October

On 25 October 1917, (7 November according to the Gregorian calendar) radical socialists called Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Leon Trotsky hijacked and precluded a wider socialist rebellion against the Russian Provisional republic led by Alexander Kerensky.

In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated after the massive casualties sustained on the Eastern Front, mostly during the failed Brusilov Offensive in late 1916, and the resultant second and third order effects back home. A Provisional Government was formed, but to coordinate action of the middle and far left in the Provisional Government, a separate Petrograd Soviet, or worker’s council, was formed and chaired by Leon Trotsky. The Petrograd Soviet was based on other soviets that ruled locally in many parts of Russia. Petrograd, modern St. Petersburg and the capital of Russia at the time, was one of Russia’s most important cities, along with Moscow, and its soviet, and by default Trotsky, wielded outsized influence.

During the summer, the Provisional Government weathered several rebellions but in September and October 1917, Russia was wracked by massive strikes. On 23 October 1917, the Bolshevik Central Committee of the 2nd Congress of Soviets, which was meeting in Petrograd, resolved that the time was ripe for revolution, which was planned for two days later to coincide with the arrival of a flotilla of destroyers crewed by pro-Bolshevik sailors and marines.

On 25 October, Red Guards, specially formed paramilitaries consisting of armed factory workers, peasants, and deserters from the army and navy, seized strategic locations throughout the city in a near bloodless coup, as most of the Petrograd garrison joined the insurrection. That evening they seized an abandoned Winter Palace, the symbol of Russian Imperial rule. Kerensky fled earlier in the day to find military forces loyal to the Provisional Government specifically Cossack units outside the city. But since the Red Guards controlled the railroads, telegraphs, and the chokepoints around the city, Kerensky ended up borrowing a car from the American Embassy to flee. He managed to make his situation worse when some soldiers loyal to him fired on a unit that could have been persuaded to join his cause, and this act made him seem very Tsar-like in the eyes of many.

The next day, the Bolsheviks announced to the 2nd Congress of Soviets they had seized Petrograd and the Winter Palace. But instead of immediately forming a Constituent Assembly for a new constitution, the Bolsheviks announced that rule of Russia would be immediately given to the deputies of the local soviets. The Mensheviks and most of the Socialist Revolutionary Party walked out in protest, but Trotsky taunted them on the way out, “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!” But Trotsky was right, they were used, and when they were no longer needed, discarded. As many groups found out later much to their detriment (Lenin famously referred to them as “useful idiots”).

A new Constituent Assembly was elected from the Bolsheviks, the remaining Socialist Revolutionaries, and their allies, but even that was quickly disbanded when it proposed reforms that took power away from the soviets. Within a month, private property was confiscated, wages were fixed, and all forms of social hierarchy that didn’t stem from the barrel of a gun were abolished, such as military rank and noble or educational titles, the first secret police, the Cheka, were established, and the “hammer and sickle”, a proposed symbol unity between the worker and peasant, was adopted. The Bolsheviks would immediately seek terms with Imperial Germany, resulting with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Soviet Russia’s participation in the First World War, and began the Russian Civil War.

The Great Emu War

Grizzled veteran of the Great Emu War
After the First World War, Australian veterans were given land to farm in Western Australia. In late 1932, the increased irrigation, the cleared and cultivated land, and the not-yet-harvested crops proved to be an attraction for emus. Emus are large flightless birds indigenous to Australia, and only slightly smaller than an ostrich. In October 1932, great feathered hordes of emus descended upon the farms of the Wheatbelt region in their annual migration from the coast to the interior.
The emus ate the crops, trampled the land, destroyed property, and made a horrible cacophony. Angry Diggers attempted to fend off the invaders, but these direct descendants of dinosaurs seemed to absorb rifle shots, and scattered before they could be brought down. Moreover, the farmers’ fences proved no obstacle to the avian menace, and provided infiltration points for fences’ original targets: rapidly breeding and garden and crop annihilating rabbits and dingos.
In late October 1932, a section from the Royal Australian Artillery under command of Major GPW Meredith with a few Lewis guns was ordered to stop the Emu Menace. However, rains prevented Meredith’s operations from commencing. Despite Mother Nature, on 3 November Meredith attacked. Meredith found great flocks of emus, perfect for slaughter by the machine guns. Unfortunately, emus did not act as soldiers did assaulting trenches in the First World War. As soon as Meredith’s Lewis guns opened fire, the emus scattered. In the great flocks of hundreds, the soldiers managed to kill only a few.
Most distressingly, the emus reformed out of contact and continued their pillaging and brigandage of the farms. Meredith would find them, set up, kill a few, and frustratingly have to repeat the process as the emus dispersed and evaded. He attempted to ambush the emus at a dam where the emus congregated in the evenings for a drink, but even this proved futile as the emus just found other places to patronize. Within a few days, the emus stopped traveling in great numbers and dispersed into the countryside in smaller groups. Furthermore, each small group seemed to have a leader, an alpha emu that usually stood over six feet with “a great dark plume” who watched over his emu flock, and warmed of the soldiers’ approach. Meredith attempted to motorize his firepower by bolting the guns on automobile hoods, but unlike the biplanes of the First World War, a moving vehicle jostling about the countryside was not a stable firing platform. On 8 November, the disconsolate Meredith withdrew from the area of operations.
Round One to the emus.
After the farmers complained to their representatives in the Australian Parliament, Meredith was sent back the next week, by direct order from the Minister of Defense. This time however, Meredith spent his time wisely and organized an anti-emu militia formed from the farmers. The renewed effort by Meredith’s machine guns and the farmer’s marksmanship had a greater impact. For the next three weeks, Meredith’s counter insurgency claimed the lives of over 300 emus, and possibly more due to the emu’s distinct lack of medical care for their wounded. But it still was not enough. The Australian press was having a hoot with the story, and the negative press for the “The Great Emu War” caused Meredith to be recalled in December.
Round Two to the Emus.
Despite appeasing the emus and halting direct military operations, the emus refused to curtail their deprivations of the Wheatbelt. The farmers continued to request military assistance, but the Australian government refused to authorize boots on the ground. They were unwilling to pay the political cost for a direct decades long War with the Emu. However, they didn’t surrender. The emu were akin to Napoleon’s corps and required forage to operate, so local governments invested in new emu/dingo/rabbit-proof fencing for the farmers. In essence, the new fencing isolated the emus from their logistics hubs. More importantly though, the Australian government issued a bounty on proof of every dead emu. In the mid to late 1930s, scalp hunting emu bounty hunters descended upon the Wheatbelt. Many tens of thousands of emus were killed over the next decade, giving credence to the impossibility of Meredith’s task, but ending the Emu Menace to the farmers.
Round Three to Australia.
Mission Accomplished.

America Enters the Trenches

 On 18 October, 1917, the first battalions from the 1st Division (US) left their training camps around Gondrecourt for the front at Sommerville, France. As part of their training, the American units would relieve the French 18th Division in the trenches. The “trench rotation” was a complicated night relief in place, and was old hat for French and British units after three years, but new for Americans unused to the realities of modern war on the Western Front.
The Sommerville sector was considered a quiet part of the front and used to rest and recuperate tired veteran units, or ease new ones into the war. The American battalions, with their attached machine guns and support units, would spend three days in the second line French trenches to familiarize themselves with the sector, then occupy the first line trenches for a week. As part of the training, these ten day rotations were done under French officers. American officers maintained command of companies and platoons, while French officers and staffs controlled the battalions and brigades, as the American counterparts watched and learned. The American 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment entered the French second line trenches on 21 October 1917, and the first shell fired in anger by American artillery during the First World War was shot the next morning in support by Battery C, 6th US Artillery. Three days later, the battalion entered the first line trenches opposite the German army across No Man’s Land.
The Germans knew something was going on and planned to find out during the next rotation. On the night of 2 November, just as the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry was settling into their muddy trenches after relieving the 1st Battalion, the Germans raided for prisoners. They isolated the targeted American sector with artillery and Sturmtruppen (specially trained German assault troops, or “Stormtroopers”) flooded the trenches of F Company. The Germans killed three, wounded four, and took ten prisoners back to their lines. Those soldiers were the first American casualties of World War One.
The Americans wouldn’t be surprised again. Another raid two weeks later was beaten back with heavy casualties. By the beginning of December all of the 1st Division’s battalions had rotated through the trenches and were trucked back to Gondrecourt to finish training. Their stint in the trenches wasn’t long, but it was long enough to let the surprised Germans know the United States was now truly in the war.