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Ferdinand Foch, National Child Health Day, and The Mess in Korea

Well, it comes around every year at exactly the same time: 2 October.  No malice, no threat implied or intended, but around it comes.  And, providing North Korea doesn’t do something stupid, it will come around again.  But, on this day in 1187 Saladin captured Jerusalem; John Andre was hanged in Tappan, New York in 1780; the Texas War for Independence started at Gonzales in 1835; Mohandas Gandhi was born in India in 1869; Operation Typhoon (Fall Taifun for you purists out there), the last German offensive towards Moscow, began in 1941; the comic strip “Peanuts” was first published in the US in 1950; and Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court in 1967.  Also today, for whatever reason, is National Fried Scallops Day in the US.  But, today, I’m talking about one of the boldest commanders that many of you have never heard of, and the health of children.

Foch instilled a renewed interest in French military history while commanding the French War College, and a pragmatic approach to the Napoleonic campaigns and the disasters of 1870-71.

Ferdinand Foch was born at Tarbes, in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of southwestern France in 1851, a year of great turmoil in France.  Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew to the first emperor, dissolved the National Assembly and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French weeks after Foch was born, not that one had anything to do with the other.  Foch’s father was a French civil servant, and in the early years of his life Ferdinand might have followed his father, but the Franco-Prussian War intervened.  Young Ferdinand, nearly nineteen when the war began, joined an infantry regiment in 1870 but saw no action.  Still, the military bug must have bit him hard, as he managed to enter the elite École Polytechnique in 1871, selecting the artillery branch. Because there was a shortage of junior officers, Foch was commissioned in 1873.  Later, Foch attended the cavalry school at Samur.  Apparently keeping clear of the Dreyfus affair, Foch instilled a renewed interest in French military history while commanding the French War College, and a pragmatic approach to the Napoleonic campaigns and the disasters of 1870-71 against the Germans. He may have had some influence on Plan XVII in 1913, the same year he took command of XX Corps at Nancy.

…my center is yielding, my right is retreating; situation excellent, I am attacking.

Exactly a year after his appointment to corps command, Foch led his troops into battle against the Germans.  Soon he was commanding an army, and before long his famous “my center is yielding, my right is retreating; situation excellent, I am attacking” message flashed across newspapers all over France.  Soon, Foch was second in command of half the French Army.  While the northern front held in no small part because of Foch’s tenacity, his superior’s heavy-handed lack of imagination was in part responsible for the failed Artois offensive in 1915, but Foch was soon packed off to Italy because of it.

Of the Versailles treaty,  Foch prophetically referred to it as a twenty-year armistice.

Despite his boss’s dislike of Foch, the British and Belgians thought highly of him, as did most of the rest of the French Army because he consistently won against the odds.  After the disastrous Nivelle offensive of 1917 and the work stoppage/mutiny that followed, Foch was called back to Paris as Chief of Staff of the French Army.  In 1918, as the crisis of the German 1918 offensives eased, the Allies agreed to serve under a single military chieftain–Foch. It was Foch who approved the American Meuse-Argonne Offensive, who exhorted the Allies to keep the pressure on the collapsing Germans in the last summer of the war, and it was Foch who accepted the German surrender at Compiegne. Of the Versailles treaty,  Foch prophetically referred to it as a twenty-year armistice.  Ferdinand Foch died in Paris 20 March 1929, and was buried with Napoleon at Les Invalides.

…a gentle reminder from the Health Resources and Services Administration that there are more than 74 million children living in the US.

National Child Health Day was proclaimed by the US Congress in 1928, and originally was on 1 May.  In 1960 it was changed to the first Monday in October, likely because of the May Day association with the USSR’s annual celebrations of their military might.  While no one can say with a straight face that they don’t want to observe such a thing, a gentle reminder from the Health Resources and Services Administration that there are more than 74 million children living in the US. The HRSA is the primary federal agency to improve access to health care in the United States. Begun under the Reagan Administration in 1982, the agency also oversees the blood, organ and bone marrow programs in the US.  One of the goals of the HRSA is to “improve health equity.”  Now, “equity” is defined simply as “ownership.”  Who would be responsible for health if not the individual, in which case…huh?  I can see it in children, but for grownups?  If we are not the masters of our own fate…who is?

Though I don’t believe that any national leader would want to immolate his country–seriously–it would appear as if Kim Dong Il no longer cares.  

This is being written the day after Labor Day, 2017, and as of this morning there still was a North Korea.  Though I don’t believe that any national leader would want to immolate his country–seriously–it would appear as if Kim Dong Il no longer cares.  Yes, he wants more resources for his stumbling economy, and he wants to be treated as a player in East Asia.  But if he keeps on his current course, he doesn’t have the resources or the time to do anything but make a mess, if a large one, and assure that his will be the last Kim regime in Korea.

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The K9 Corps and National K9 Veteran’s Day

Well, there’s a lot to say about 13 March, but I’m only covering war dogs today.

There isn’t a field of endeavor that humans haven’t involved dogs in. Animal husbandry, farming (property protection), human assistance (leader dogs for the blind date back to Roman times), laborers (pulling everything from carts to wagons), motive power (treadmills), foot warmers and clowns. And of course, war.

The ancient Egyptians and Chinese bred dogs to act a sentinels, as shock weapons, and to attack enemy livestock and pack animals. Despite their ancient history, use of military dogs was haphazard before WWI, and even then there was little organization in their training or husbandry. Military dogs become more widely known after the Great War when an abandoned German Shepard named Rin Tin Tin was brought to America and became a movie sensation in the 1920’s. By 1942, there was enough demand for war dogs in the United States that the US Army Quartermaster Corps formed an official organization unofficially named the “K9 Corps” as outlined by Edmund Gregory on 13 March 1942.  Regular training centers sprang up everywhere, preparing thousands of dogs for all branches of service, including the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Primarily German Shepards were used, but Dobermans, several breeds of Huskies, Labradors and herding dogs were used as sentinels, scout and patrol animals, sniffers for mines and casualties, and some (mostly privately owned National Guard members) as trackers and prisoner herders.

The Americans were not alone in using dogs in WWII, of course.  The Germans used them for routine sentinel duties; the Soviets trained some as anti-tank mines (which didn’t work); the Italians used them in Africa to control rats; the Belgians to tow machine guns; the Norwegians and Icelanders for search-and-rescue.  The only major belligerents that made no official use of dogs in WWII were the Japanese.

After WWII most military organizations turned their dogs over to the military police, which is where they are in the US armed forces today. By 2008, there were over 500 dog handler teams in the Army, and an unknown number n the other branches. The USO and VA use dogs as greeters and as therapy for returning human vets.

So today, 13 March, is marked as National K9 Veteran’s Day. As much as the dogs who serve two masters (their handlers and their country) are valued, many are simply destroyed when they reach the end of their useful lives, usually about five years.  An organization called SaveAVet.org is out to change that, finding homes for “the other forgotten soldiers” who have done their bits and just want to live out their lives by the fire. Click the link and see if you can help.

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Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

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Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…

 

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20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

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16 November: Failed Offensives

Two different conflicts, two failed offensives in 1863 and 1944, both involving American forces trying to stay ahead of the winter weather.

In east Tennessee in 1863, James Longstreet with about 15,000 men detached from Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee was trying to make the best of his orders to attack the Federal stronghold at Knoxville, encountered a Federal column near the old haunt of Andrew Jackson at Campbell’s Station on 16 November.  Ambrose Burnside’s 16,000+ men from his Department of the Ohio arrived at the junction of the Concord and Kingston roads southwest of Knoxville.  Burnside’s men were on their way to reinforce the tiny garrison at Knoxville, and fought of an attempted double-envelopment with relative ease, especially since they had been forced-marching for three days were just coming out of march order.  Scholars disagree with the meaning of Campbell’s Station, with some holding that Longstreet could have taken Knoxville with a single rush had Burnside not made an appearance in time.  Others maintain that with Burnside so close behind it seems unlikely that Longstreet would have been able to simply walk unimpeded the next thirty miles (essentially three days march).  Total casualties for both sides was about a thousand men.

On 16 November 1944, Operation Queen, aimed at capturing the Rur (or Roer) River dams in Germany and penetrating the Siegfried line, began.  Despite heavy bombing the offensive was slowed by heavy German resistance, especially in the Hurtgen Forest.  For more than a month the American 12th Army Group under Omar Bradley slogged forward in miserable weather, fighting for every hamlet and patch of trees that reminded some veterans of the Great War.  While the Americans were making steady progress, it was slow.  Still, nothing that the Allies did against the West Wall was easy, and yet Walther Model’s Army Group B was not about to commit their best troops, then being husbanded for the Ardennes Offensive being planned for mid-December.  The result was the steady deterioration of the German’s position and the equally steady decline of American energy and patience.  When the offensive was called off on 15 December when the German counterattack began in the Ardennes, they had not quite reached the dams.   Casualties were about 38,000 for the Americans and probably equal for the Germans.  The most important takeaway for Operation Queen was that the Americans were still making complex plans against sagging but still stolid German defenses.  Further, Allied failure to detect the withdrawal of some of the German’s best mobile formations somehow failed to reach the right ears at the right time.

Today, like Campbell’s Station, the Rur campaign leaves scholars discussing possibilities against realities.  East Tennessee was a thorn in the Confederacy’s side, and after the loss of Chattanooga it became a logistical base for the Union invasion of the Confederate heartland   The Rur dams were important not because they crossed the Rur but because they kept the upper Rhine valley from flooding, potentially blocking and Allied moves into the Ruhr.  Both were defended by pickup units.  Neither fight achieved what was intended.

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11 November: Nat Turner, VMI, George Patton, and The War to End All Wars…That Wasn’t

It is axiomatic for a  military history scrivener such as myself to write about the end of World War I on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day.  And I shall…in a moment.  First we should take a moment to consider that other things happened on that day in other years, both before and after.

In 1831, a Virginia slave, lay preacher and mystic named Nat Turner interpreted from the two solar eclipses of that year that the time was right for a slave rebellion.  There had been eleven such risings in the United States since 1712, the latest before Turner’s was in South Carolina known as the Denmark Vesey revolt in 1822.  On 21 August 1831, the revolt began.  For two days the seventy slaves and free blacks that participated in the rising ravaged farms and homes in Southampton County, Virginia, eventually killing some sixty white men, women and children.   As local militias rounded up and arrested the rebels, Turner hid out until 30 October.  Tried for servile insurrection rather than murder, Turner was hanged on 11 November 1831.  The Nat Turner Revolt, as it has been called since, sent a chill through the slave-holding South second only to the the more successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 that resulted in hundreds of slave owners being brutally murdered.  New and repressive laws were passed restricting slave social activities and what few liberties they had.

In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in Lexington.  Originally one of several Virginia arsenals set up after the War of 1812, the first President was Claudius Crozet, a French-born graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique engineering school who had taught at West Point.   VMI has produced some of America’s best soldiers, including George C. Marshall, Lemuel Shepard, Leonard Gerow, and John Jumper.

On this day in 1885, in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton Junior was born.  Georgie, as he was called by his family, always had a marital career in mind.  He attended VMI as an undergraduate before being accepted at West Point.  Graduating 46th in a class of 103 in 1909, he was branched to the cavalry.  Patton always had a mind of his own, and a private fortune to back it up, so his career was only limited by his ability to get higher postings.  While he was a superb organizer and tactician he had little patience for those who disagreed with his plans, including his superiors.  Patton did not understand that the larger the units the bigger the politics and public exposure, and refused in some cases to be anything other than his own vision of marital glory.  Even as he rose in the ranks the consensus was that he was useful, but not indispensable.  As a tactical commander he was useful: as a senior officer, less so.  His death in a traffic accident in 1945 put a counterpoint on a style of soldier who had outlived its usefulness.

And on 11 November, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, the killing did not yet stop, not for several days.  Parts of the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the Americans had been attacking since September, were out of communications, and the German forces in Africa wouldn’t get the word of the surrender at Compiegne.  Aside from that, Russia was in civil war, Germany was in revolution, and Austria and Hungary were in chaos,  Worse, the 1918 Influenza was still killing people at a rate that made the Western Front seem…amateurish…and was not a respecter of non-combatants or borders.  While the war caused some ten million dead directly, the influenza probably killed one hundred million, affecting one in four people on the face of the earth before it died out in 1921.

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Two Events, One Result, Neither Planned

A century after the fact, we have to reflect on the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915, and the British official release of the Zimmerman Telegram text to the United States on 23 February 1917 two years and five days later as little more than a coincidence.  At the time it was little remarked on, but still it gives pause, and raises a question: what joins these two events?

The answer is American relations with Germany.  By the end of 1914, it was clear to German planners that their earlier calculations for army planning and fleet building were based on gross miscalculations.  The army was too small to fight France (and its colonies), Russia and the British Empire all at once, and once Belgium was added the ground manpower advantage was nearly 3:1 against Germany.  Their long-dead architect of the “beat France, then Russia” motto of German strategic thinking, Alfred Von Schlieffen, would have been aghast at Helmuth von Molke’s dilution of the first offensives of 1914, and the arrival of a strong BEF at the frontiers had been, in his time, impossible to predict.

Worse, Alfred Von Tirpiz’ “risk fleet” theory that kept the German fleet just large enough to worry but not (theoretically) threaten Britain depended on a Royal Navy close blockade of the European coasts, so that the occasional German sortie could thin them out.  But, this didn’t happen.  This meant that German warships would always be outnumbered, and that the distant blockade of Europe, from the outset, was more effective at denying Germany vital foodstuffs and raw war materials.  While Europe could withstand a protracted war, Germany could not, either by design or by temperament.

But Britain was also dependent on food and raw materials from overseas.  In declaring that her submarines would no longer be bound by “cruiser” rules, Germany expected to be able to warn neutrals off of carrying cargoes to Britain, and to sink enough imperial shipping to bring Britain to the conference table with more sensible demands.  Though some Germans, notably Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, also felt that such a move would antagonize the United States, the risk was worth the gain…if it worked.

Unfortunately, a lucky shot on 7 May 1917 brought forth the very worst in the Americans.  Off Old Kinsale Head, Lusitania caught a torpedo from U-20 and sank, killing over a thousand people, including over a hundred Americans.  Germany had promised it would observe cruiser rules in regard to the fast liners; in turn, Lusitania was listed on the German identification books as a merchant cruiser or troopship (which she was to become had she survived).  Who was at fault here?

The American public and President Woodrow Wilson said Germany was.  After the sinking of Arabic with the loss of three American lives on 15 August 1915, the German government demanded that submarines observe cruiser rules with all ocean liners, and on 18 September the Imperial High Seas Fleet withdrew the submarines from commerce warfare.

American rage over policies “worse than piracy” lingered, for the most part, until Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare again on 1 January 1917.  But shortly afterwards, the Americans and British, at about the same time, became aware of a German plot to involve Mexico in a war against the United States.  The German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, transmitted a telegram to the ambassador from Germany, Heinrich von Eckardt, In it, Zimmerman mentioned a plan for Mexico to go to war against the United States, with German help, so that they could reacquire lands that the Americans had won in the Mexican War four generations before.  On 23 February 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Arthur Balfour, delivered the text to the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Page.

It has been claimed that a precursor to the National Security Agency had already intercepted the cable (sent through a diplomatic wire via New York) and was waiting for the British to say something official.  In the shadowy worlds of signals intercept and wartime diplomacy, this is credible.  But the reaction to the content, when released to the public on 28 February, was nothing short of astounding.  Germany at first denied it, but finally admitted that the message was genuine.  But it had all the international credibility and validity of a treaty scribbled on a cocktail napkin.  Nothing was settled, Mexico had no knowledge of the overture and had not solicited any such alliance or agreement.  But the die was cast, and the road to war for America was, from that time onward, short.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

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Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

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HMS Dreadnought Changes Everything ca 1906

On 10 February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched amid great fanfare…and consternation.  What’s another coal-fired battleship when the Royal Navy already had scores of them afloat?

To begin, Dreadnought, the brainchild of John “Jackie” Fisher, was not just another battleship, but a revolutionary advance on naval architecture.  at somewhat under 19,000 tons, she was bigger than the Lord Nelson class that was under construction at the time, and had heavier longitudinal bulkheads.  But mere size and bulkheads were not enough.  She carried ten 12 inch/45 caliber guns in five turrets for main armament and over her short service life several quick-firing gun arrangements.  Other battleships before Dreadnought carried as many as five different sizes of “main” armament, making ammunition supply a nightmare and compromising the most important thing a battleship had to do: destroy other battleships.  Before Dreadnought, some commentators doubted that a typical battleship carried enough ammunition to sink their counterparts.  With four Parsons turbine engines (Dreadnought was the first battleship built with turbines), she was fast–at 24 knots, close to the speed of some destroyers. With Krupp cemented steel armor in an 11 inch armor belt, she was built in less than a year, albeit with a great deal of stockpiling and prefabrication.  Dreadnought represented everything that British naval supremacy and industrial might had meant since Trafalgar.

Navalists for years had talked about combining speed with gun power in a warship, but Fisher was the first to finish his.  Japan with the Satsuma class and the Americans with the South Carolina class would closely follow, but it was Germany that became most alarmed.  And therein lay the biggest challenge: Wilhelm II demanded that his Imperial German Navy be a challenge–if not a threat–to British naval supremacy, for reasons that are debated still.  But British policy at the same time demanded that the Royal Navy be as large or larger than the next two navies combined.  This meant that if Germany, Japan, and the United States (other powers had long before given up on the “battleship race”) built fleets of modern battleships in response to Dreadnought, regardless of diplomatic status, the Royal Navy had to build more.

And Dreadnought was only the first.  Every battleship completed afterwards–there would be more than a hundred–were called “dreadnoughts” or “super-dreadnoughts” after the introduction of oil furnaces, and every one before her launching “pre-dreadnoughts.”

Germany soon unveiled a plan to build a fleet of battleships and supporting vessels that in twenty years would exceed the dock space available in all of Europe.  The competition between Germany and Britain, and soon thereafter between the US and Japan, heated up before WWI to meet the demand for more and more ships, guns, engines, fuel sources and armor plate until the shots at Sarajevo in the spring of 1914 sparked the fire that would end–arguably–only in 1945.

So what happened to Dreadnought?  She was the only one of her class built, and throughout her career she was a maintenance challenge.  Apparently she leaked rather severely, and spent much of her career in the waters around Britain.  She was a notorious sucker of coal, needing her bunkers filled at least every four days even in good weather.  She was, however, the only battleship to sink a submarine when in May 1915, she rammed and sank the German U-29.  The only shots he ever fired in anger were at German aircraft headed for England.  She was broken up in 1923.

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“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.