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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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It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way

It was the first Sunday morning in April–6 April, 1862, and had been raining for days in south central Tennessee.  The boys from Illinois and Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa were just waking up.  Down the Tennessee River, to the north of the 35,000 man Army of West Tennessee’s encampment, Ulysses S. Grant was at breakfast in his headquarters steamboat Tigress.near William Cherry’s mansion..  The northern boys were in those pine barrens split by creeks and streams because Corinth, Mississippi  was important.  The junction of four rail lines was just a day’s ride to the southwest, and this flatboat near Pitts Tucker’s long forgotten saloon–called Pittsburg Landing by then, was the best boat landing closest to the only road to Corinth that was thought (wrongly, as it turned out) to be complete with adequate space for an army.

For six days before that Sunday a 40,000 man Confederate Army of Mississippi under Albert Sidney Johnson had marched through the mud and water to position itself to the south and west of Grant’s.  William T. Sherman, who was encamped at a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church,  “knew” that Johnston was cowering at Corinth, waiting for Grant’s army to come and crush them.

It was not quite five in the morning when it started.  A bunch of Mississippi boys from William H Hardee’s corps ran into a bunch of Missouri and Michigan boys from Benjamin J. Prentiss’s division in the dark.  The Unionists were outnumbered and fell back to their camps, where they found the rest of the division, likely all  of two thousand or so, just getting out of their tents and falling in on the company streets.  Few had ever seen combat before.  Many never would again, but the first thunderous blast from Prentiss’ two brigades into Hardee’s men at about a hundred yards was probably what Grant and his staff heard nine river miles away that made them end their breakfast and cast off for Pittsburg Landing.  The time was about 7:00 AM.

Prentiss’ men held on for probably 45 minutes.  His command gradually disintegrated as Hardee’s and then Braxton Bragg’s corps edged closer and closer.  His two batteries finally pulled out and the last of Prentiss’ stalwarts broke for the rear.

The other Federals shook themselves out of their tents as the noise grew: the “bayoneted in their tents” meme of Shiloh has always been a myth.  Sherman finally came to understand what all the fuss was about for the past three days that he had been getting reports of Confederate movement when his aide was decapitated next to him that morning.  “My God,” he is said to have muttered, “we are attacked.”  After that bit of understatement, he lost two horses and was wounded five times that day.  John A. McClernand, another Federal division commander, sent a brigade south to join Sherman’s open flank to Prentiss’ while Stephen A. Hurlbut and WHL Wallace shook out their divisions and marched to the sound of guns.

The Confederates drove into every successive Federal line like a rising tide, but it was 10: in the morning before Sherman and McClernand’s forces were overwhelmed.  By then Prentiss’s survivors had combined with Wallace’s and Hurlbut’s arriving men to form around a small pond, several stands of woods, a sunken road and a peach orchard, where they stood for the next seven hours against more than a dozen brigade-sized attacks.  Grant had told Prentiss to hold onto his position “at all hazards” because the road around it was the direct route to Pittsburg Landing.

Despite their early success, Johnston’s army was hardly a well-oiled machine.  The officers had hardly any experience with commanding men on drill fields, let alone a battle field: most brigades had yet to create a morning report.  Regiments and even whole brigades were often found simply standing around in the Confederate rear.  Much of the army’s ammunition was stuck in a titanic traffic jam on the Corinth road; the army’s medical director was down with pneumonia.  There was little coordination between the disparate forces slamming the Federals.

By 2:00 that afternoon Prentiss’ survivors, about a third of Grant’s artillery, and Hurlbut’s and Wallace’s divisions were holding off attack after attack in a position on the Federal left that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest when Johnston caught a hot piece of metal behind his knee that killed him in half an hour.   By that time the fight around the pond and the peach orchard had devolved into a maelstrom of screaming metal and choking smoke, dying men and frustration.

On the Federal right, with a yawning gap that might have accommodated a Confederate division, Sherman and McClernand built line after line of men and guns they could get to stand for a few minutes: at least nine lines in ten hours.  All along the fighting line on both sides the fight was a desperate race against time and exhaustion, hunger and dehydration.  Water sources near the fighting line, despite the recent rains, were quickly exhausted or polluted by the dead and dying.  Gunners urinated into buckets so the guns could be swabbed; infantrymen discarded muskets after they became too fouled to load.

Behind the Confederate lines Daniel Ruggels organized the elements of a grand battery that would pin down the Federal guns in the Hornet’s Nest so that an infantry attack could finally push the Federals back against the Tennessee River.  On the eastern shore of the river, separated by the swollen torrent, Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio was scrambling to get across, but was badly placed to load on the steamboats, having only partly arrived just the day before after a fifteen day route march.  Footsore and short on food, William A. Nelson’s division gathered steamboats for the half-mile crossing of the river.  Miles away to the north, Lew Wallace’s Federal division marched to the sound of the guns, but was delayed by confused interpretations of Grant’s orders and arguments as to routes.

By 4:30 Ruggels’ grand battery was forcing the Federal guns to pull out of the Hornet’s Nest.  The few Federal infantrymen still on their feet clung to what cover they could find.  At the Landing behind them, men and animals strained to unload the steamboats loaded with heavy artillery, ammunition and the odd infantry regiment.  Refugees from the battle started to arrive at the Landing and the bluffs above it soon after the battle commenced.  By nightfall thousands of frightened men, women and children huddled under the bluffs waiting for the fighting to end.  The roads and trails were jammed with traffic going both ways all day.

By 5:00 the Hornet’s Nest collapsed as parts of five Confederate brigades pushed into the woods, capturing guns and Prentiss, a dying WHL Wallace, men and a geographic feature that they didn’t need.  The only reason that Johnston, then his successor Pierre G.T. Beauregard had been mesmerized by the place was because the Federals were there: sidestepping it would have been easy.  But the Confederates couldn’t see that at this stage of the war, their tactical reconnaissance at that time was nearly non-existent and their staff work was abysmal.  But behind the Hornet’s Nest there had been building a Federal grand battery, called alternately Webster’s Battery (after Grant’s chief of staff John Webster) or Grant’s Last Line. By 5:30 a brigade of Nelson’s division had got across and positioned themselves near the Landing, anchoring Grant’s line on the river.  At the other end of the line, Sherman and McClernand shoved what men and guns in they could grab into a semblance of a fighting line.  In between were more survivors and a half a dozen gun batteries that had yet to fire a shot   As two Confederate brigades–one without ammunition–inched closer to Grant’s line at about 6:00, the line erupted in a storm of fire and metal that was heard at Savanna nine miles away.  The shock wave blew off men’s hats and broke a mule’s back.  The Confederate attack ground to a halt; the sun went down at about 6:15; Beauregard stopped offensive attacks at 6:30; Lew Wallace’s division arrived near the Landing at about 7:00.

Through the night Buell’s men and guns were hustled across, but it was a logistic nightmare.  Landing stages were too small; the guns and horses had to be manhandled and hoisted; crowds of refugees partly blocked the Landing; the rain started again at about 10:00; steamboat skippers, few of whom knew the treacherous Tennessee well, were reluctant to break the sabbath to brave the rain-swollen river in the dark with so much traffic on it.  But by daybreak about 12,000 of Buell’s 32,000 men were across, and another gun battery.  Grant still outnumbered him, with about 25,000 men and fifty-odd guns on the line.  But few of the Federal guns had horses for limbers, let alone caissons or ammunition wagons.  Buell had brought few reloads, using most of his cargo space to bring riflemen across.

During the long night the Confederates did little to consolidate their position, feed their men or even resupply them with ammunition.  There were some 20,000 casualties on this field, a charnel house of some eight square miles.  Through the night two Federal gunboats shelled the Confederate line, some say without effect   While the physical damage was certainly small, the morale effect was great.  Every shot fired reminded the Confederates that as long as the Union gunboats were on the river, they would not be able to cross.  The nearest bridge was forty miles away, up the river.

In the morning Grant and Buell attacked the Confederates and pushed them off the battlefield.  Until mid-afternoon on 7 April Beauregard expected Earl Van Dorn’s 18,000 men from across the Mississippi to march up the road from Corinth.  Little did he know that Van Dorn’s army had saluted the Confederate “victory” at Shiloh while waiting for steamboats on the White River some four hundred miles to the west that same morning.

In his retreat Beauregard left behind thousands of his wounded, which were just a fraction of some 23,000 casualties, including about 3,000 dead, in two days of fighting.  The numbers shocked both North and South, and staggered financial markets worldwide.  In two days more Americans had been killed and injured from 19 April 1775 to 5 April 1862.  But war wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Up until Shiloh war for Americans was a lark; an adventure of men and animals, colorful uniforms and precision marching, dancing flags and cheering crowds.  Battles were supposed to end in parades, not abattoirs.

Exactly fifty-five years later, America was at war with Germany.  Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a war declaration on 2 April 1917.  Congress voted on it on 4 April, and it went into effect on 6 April.  It had come after hundreds of Americans died in passenger ships that the Germans torpedoed without warning, after a veiled threat of a German alliance with Mexico and Japan, after America had offered to mediate a just peace in Europe over and over again since 1914.

For Wilson it was a personal disappointment, but the decision for war he felt became inevitable because of Prussian intransigence. Long striving for progressive principles,  Wilson, whose father was with the Confederate army briefly, earnestly believed that men and nations should work out their differences peacefully, with solemn treaties openly arrived at.  That such beliefs should end in places called Tannenberg and Verdun and Argonne was to Wilson and his fellow progressives an aberration of human progress.

Humanity wasn’t supposed to be this way.  But it was.

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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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“…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.