First Over There_Book Review and more.

First Over There-The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I, Matthew Davenport

Thomas Dunn Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York

360 pages including notes. Select bibliography and index


I started to study WW1 back in 2012 as Europe prepared for the upcoming centennial of WW1 that would commence in August 2014.

I knew little of US involvement other than German unrestricted submarine warfare had brought us into the conflict and that our Marines covered themselves with glory in a place called Bellau Wood.

I also knew a little about “Black Jack” Pershing the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.). He was called “Black Jack” because he once commanded African American soldiers in our segregated army. His nickname was not a compliment but indicative of white prejudice toward black units and the white officers that commanded them.

Black Jack Pershing, Commander of all American forces in France.

Black Jack Pershing, Commander of all American forces in France.

I knew even less about European involvement other than a Serbian anarchist started the whole thing by killing an Austrian Archduke. I also knew that George Washington warned our new country to stay out of European entangling alliances of the type that launched the Great War.

(Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with a promise to keep us out of it. The country was highly isolationist; something we see growing today among many Americans. Teddy Roosevelt, the former President on the other hand was for intervention and worked tirelessly for it. Teddy was pro-British from the start as were American manufacturers who made munitions. They would have sold to anyone but because of the British blockade of Germany they were more than happy to make Britain and France their favorite customers. War is good business if you don’t have to fight.)

I also had some vague ideas about the bloodletting on the Western Front in battles such as The Somme (a British-German battle) and Verdun (a French-German battle).

I also knew about the Red Baron (a child hood hero) and the introduction of the tank to modern warfare and that the seeds of WW2 were laid down in the peace treaty imposed on Germany. Adolf Hitler was a corporal in a Bavarian Infantry Regiment.

Baron Manfred von Richtofen, child hood hero

Baron Manfred von Richtofen, child hood hero

What I lacked however was detail so I began to read quite a few books not only on the Western Front but also on the Eastern Front and the ramifications that followed Czarist Russia’s surrender to the Germans in 1917 and the beginning of the Soviet State-a State the US would be at odds with ever since even though Putin is not a Czar-he just acts like one. WW1 changed a lot of things; the effects of which we experience today.

The Germans won a huge victory over the Russians at Tannenberg, East Prussia in 1914 and by 1917 the Czarist government was falling.

The Germans won a huge victory over the Russians at Tannenberg, East Prussia in 1914 and by 1917 the Czarist government was falling.

1917 was a pivotal year.

When Russia surrendered it released dozens of German divisions for service on the Western Front where other German armies had been fighting the French and British for nearly three years in agonizing trench warfare that caused millions of casualties often for only yards of territorial gain.

Czarist Russian Artiillery

Czarist Russian Artiillery

From the German point of view the surrender of Russia came in the nick of time because the British naval blockade by the powerful Royal Navy was causing Germany to starve. German socialists were beginning to make noise and the population in general was weary of war as their empty bellies screamed for food.

At the same time Germany was trying to starve Great Britain via U-Boat warfare and while Germany did not want war with the US Germany felt it had to risk unrestricted submarine warfare to knock Great Britain out of the war. If that meant risking war with the USA (and it did) then the Germans thought they could use the released Eastern Front Divisions to launch an offensive against the British and French and beat them before the US could mobilize it’s huge population and create an army and get it to France in time to make a difference. It was a huge gamble and caused the British and French no small anxiety, as they were being bled white with massive casualties. The French Army had even started to mutiny and in many places along the front refused to advance any longer and only defend their positions.

In the Spring of 1918 the Germans launched a series of offensives designed to end the end war before the US could send over what would be a 2,000,000 man army.

In the Spring of 1918 the Germans launched a series of offensives designed to end the end war before the US could send over what would be a 2,000,000 man army.

The US had a tiny army in 1917 but upon the declaration of war the US moved quickly to expand the army to serve “over there.”

The first US Infantry Division to arrive was the 1st Infantry Division, nick-named the “Big Red One” for its shoulder patch and helmet insignia.

A Doughboy's helmet from the 1st Infantry Division-WW1 style.

A Doughboy’s helmet from the 1st Infantry Division-WW1 style.

The German offensive(s) in 1918 experienced various degrees of success against the British and French and both countries were anxious for American divisions to shore up defenses.

Although Black Jack Pershing was reluctant to oblige before American troops were ready (to serve under America he agreed to help the French around an obscure village called Cantigny.

Black Jack also realized that both the British and French were anxious to see how American forces would perform since the US had not fought a major war since the American Civil War that ended in 1865.

Pershing sent the only fully trained (May, 1918) unit he had, the 1st ID to Cantigny to relieve a shattered French Infantry Division of Colonial Moroccans.

The Germans had taken Cantigny and the French and Americans decided to take it back and it is here that author Matthew Davenport picks up the story.

The book is a remarkable tribute to the men of the 1st Infantry Division.

It is about what many call a soldier’s war-the view and experiences of the men in the trenches-the guys who were expected to take and then hold a salient around a shattered French town called Cantigny.

The planner for this limited offensive was none other than George Marshall the same guy who would lead the entire American Army in the next war (1941-45).

To insure success the French supplied the heavy artillery to shatter the German trench line and provide long range counter battery fire to silence German artillery.

The French also provided a new horror of war called the flame-thrower and provided assault teams to accompany the American infantry. The idea was to roast the Germans who had survived the massive bombardment in Cantigny in the basements of the buildings they occupied.

French flame throwers help clear Cantigny of German defenders.

French flame throwers help clear Cantigny of German defenders.

In addition to the flame throwers and heavy artillery the French also supplied another novelty and new weapon-the tank.

To accompany the American infantry and flame thrower teams they supplied 12 Schneider tanks-small enough by WW2 standards but effective enough by WW1 standards. The Germans had little defense against these new metal monsters of the battlefield.

French heavy assault tank-Schneider-1918

French heavy assault tank-Schneider-1918

The German defenders from a reserve infantry division did not stand much of a chance. Whole companies disappeared in the bombardment and follow up as the US infantry of the Big Red One went over the top.

1917: Americans troop in France during WW I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1917: Americans troop in France during WW I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The center US units did well and took Cantigny while the flanking units fared not as well since the German units on either flank were untouched by the bombardment. German machine gun fire caused American units on the flanks to go to ground and try to dig in short of their objectives. (The horror of trying to take a defended trench line manned by machine guns comes across loud and clear in the narrative.)

Nevertheless, the main objective was reached with relatively light causalities (by WW1 standards) and the lead US Infantry Unit dug in to receive the inevitable German reaction from German reserve formations and that’s when the real hell on earth began for the Americans who took Cantigny.

The French and American High Commands both realized the taking some ground could be easier than holding it because to take it back the Germans would employ essentially the same tactics the Americans had just used-a massive artillery bombardment supplanted by machine-gun barrage fire-a tactic that used heavy machine guns a bit like artillery in the sense that machine guns would continually sweep a trench line back and forth causing the defenders little opportunity to dig deeper and be better prepared to receive an infantry attack. To supplement the artillery and machine guns the Germans would employ effective sniper tactics that virtually ensured that anyone peaking over the trench line would get a bullet to the head.

These soldiers appear to be British or Commonwealth. The trench is deep and well prepared. The Americans at Cantigny had little opportunity to dig so deep once they took the village.

These soldiers appear to be British or Commonwealth. The trench is deep and well prepared. The Americans at Cantigny had little opportunity to dig so deep once they took the village.

Davenport states that his book is a tribute to the men, especially the men who died taking and holding a minor piece of WW1 real estate. As a result, due to his extensive research and access to dairies, letters home and archives the story of Cantigny and the Big Red One is an intensely personal story as he documents nearly man for man how soldiers died or in some cases how they recovered from some of the most horrific wounds you can imagine.

Frankly, there were times when a tear was brought to my eye as young soldiers in their prime of life were literally blown to pieces with nothing left to bury or others killed by machine guns as they frantically tried to escape machine gun fire by digging deeper. More than once I had to put the book down and take a break from the sorrow I was feeling for soldiers and families from so long ago.

Wounds are often horrific from any war and the INET provides numerous examples of the type suffered in WW1. This picture is mild and shows a Salvation Army worker helping a soldier with a head wound. He may be a lucky one if they send him home.

Wounds are often horrific from any war and the INET provides numerous examples of the type suffered in WW1. This picture is mild and shows a Salvation Army worker helping a soldier with a head wound. He may be a lucky one if they send him home.

For some reason and I’m not certain why a number of these recorded incidents involved soldiers from my home state of Wisconsin thus making me mindful and grateful of the fact I was born in 1953 rather than 1900!

When I was a child of maybe 12 or so my dad told me a story (dad served in WW2) about our early family.

My great-grandfather was a German immigrant to the US who arrived in 1875 or so. He settled in “little Germany” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and started a family having many sons all born between 1892 and 1904.

According to family oral tradition that I cannot verify the boys of draft age (in 1917) did not want to go. As German-Americans one generation removed they felt they would face cousins across the lines and didn’t want to do that.

Dad also told me that at least one did go “over there” and was crippled by mustard gas living out his days in a VA home and dying quite young. That too I have been unable to verify despite extensive searching.

True or not Davenport’s story became even more personal as I came to realize the plight of German Americans who loved their new land and wanted do their bit but at the same time realized there were relatives on the other side of the trench lines.

That all came kind to mind as Davenport reports the countries of origin of many of the men most of whom were 1st or 2nd generation immigrants from Russia, Germany and Italy to name a few. In this I think the US fielded a rather unique army of immigrants called back to the lands they or their fathers and mothers had just left in order to fight for their new country and new freedoms.

First to Fight is Davenport’s first book and it was excellent. It’s top notch military history but more than that it is as I said deeply personal as you come to care about those who he writes about-the relatives of the survivors as well as those who died for their country and were for the most part proud do it such was their patriotism.

The Big Red One would go to fight through many more battles before the armistice before coming home in September 1919.

The Division would be remobilized for WW2. It was perhaps our premier Infantry Division fighting in North Africa, Sicily and the Invasion of France as part of the Normandy invasion.

Today there is a museum for the Big Red One in nearby Illinois. It’s on my list to visit next summer.










War Toys_1

Below are three pics of some of my summer finds at rummage sales or antique stores. Although I’ve been a military miniature collector (and painter) for most of my life I never branched out into collectible war toys that were manufactured for most of the last century but are increasingly rare today.

The models below carry the brand  name Midgetoys. I confess that growing up I never heard of Midgetoys but probably saw them in the various “dimestores” that were popular in the 1960s like Woolworths or Ben Franklin.

http://www.esnarf.com/MTstory.htm  A little research turned up a link titled The Midgetoys Story.

Midgetoys were created by Al and Earl Herdklotz in 1948. The Herdklotz’s ran a machine shop and during WW2 and were involved in the war production industry like every other company in the US.

After the war the brothers got the idea of entering the die cast model field and came up with the idea of Midgetoys which obviously meant small scale (die cast models). Think of today’s Matchbox and Hot Wheels die cast models and you get the idea.

The brothers main competition back in 1948 was Tootsie Toy and to be competitive MidgeToys sacrificed interior detail in producing their models that spanned the range of cars, trucks, airplanes, trains and even early science fiction.

The brothers stopped production in 1968 making Midgetoys a collectible item for nostalgic toy collectors.

The two models below are from Midgetoys military line. The tank looks like the famous Sherman tank from WW2 and the Korean War while the artillery piece appears to be a 105mm howitzer.

According to the Midgetoys Story the brothers actually worked from blueprints supplied by the Defense Department to produce their models.

It appears that there were 12 models all together in the military line. I found mine in an out of the way antique store in Door County, WI and purchased both for around $10.00 not having the faintest idea if they were that. I did think it would be interesting to do a little detective work and find out something about Midgetoys.



A British Regiment Marches to War 1914

This postcard is the most expensive I’ve ever purchased at $11.00. It is unique in my limited experience and I could not let it go.

The card is not dated but given the subject matter I’d estimate the date of publication to be 1914 at the start of the Great War in Europe.

Regiment of the Prince of Wales on way to the Front

Regiment of the Prince of Wales on way to the Front

The front of the card shows a column of British soldiers in 1914 uniforms parading down what I’m assuming to be an English street. The card is partially colorized giving the card a modern look.

The card was published by Underwood and Underwood. Underwood and Underwood was an American company and an early producer and distributor of stereoscopic and other photographic images, and later was a pioneer in the field of news bureau photography. Wiki

The most interesting feature is the one-armed officer leading the column of soldiers.

The flip of the card tells the story of the one-armed officer. It reads: Regiment of the Prince of Wales on way to the Front. The Grenadier Guards to which to the Prince of Wales is attached are led by Major Trotter, who lost his left arm in the service in South Africa.

Major Trotter is Lt. Col. Edward Henry Trotter

Major Trotter is Lt. Col. Edward Henry Trotter

Although I am not absolutely certain I believe that Major Trotter is one of the four sons of Major-General Henry Trotter who died in 1905.  I believe that the Major pictured is Lt. Col. Edward Henry Trotter who commanded the 18th Bn. of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment during the early years of WW1. I do not have an explanation as to why the card says the Prince of Wales of Regiment as opposed to the King’s Liverpool Regiment on Wiki.

Trotter did have a commission in the Grenadier Guards so perhaps that explains the discrepancy or perhaps the caption simply misidentified the unit.

I do believe that Major Trotter and Lt. Col Edward Henry Trotter are the same persons given this clip from Wiki:

“After the outbreak of the Second Boer War in October 1899, a corps of imperial volunteers from London was formed in late December 1899. The corps included infantry, mounted infantry and artillery divisions and was authorized with the name City of London Imperial Volunteers. It proceeded to South Africa in January 1900, returned in October the same year, and was disbanded in December 1900. Lieutenant Trotter was appointed Staff captain to the corps on 1 January 1900, with the temporary rank of Captain in the Army,[1] and served as such until it was disbanded. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his services in South Africa on 29 November 1900.[2] In April 1902, Trotter returned to South Africa with a detachment of men from the Guards regiments.[3]

Trotter’s regiment took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Trotter estimated that his regiment suffered 500 casualties on the first day! The British suffered 58,000 casualties during the Battle of the Somme, 1/3 of them on the first day. Trotter would later die as German artillery shell landed near his command dugout.

The card is a reverse image of the below photograph. Fascinating little piece of history and the story of a British officer who served in two wars.


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Gallipoli and the Battle of Lone Pine (Australians at War) Revisited.

Adds detail to my last post.

If It Happened Yesterday, It's History


The Cemetery of Lone Pine on the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey.

On the 28th of June 1914, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne saw the Balkans yet again erupt into bloody battle. (Only recent had the second Balkans War concluded in 1913.) Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination which triggered a declaration of  war against her. This caused nation after nation to react, Russia backed Serbia, Germany backed Austria-Hungary and declared war on France, which led to Britain declaring war on Germany on August 5th 1914.

A world away in Australia, possibly only a few took much notice of the newspaper story about the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. No one dared to imagine that this would eventually lead to Australia joining the war effort and some 60,000 Australian losing their lives.

When a cable reached the offices of the Prime Minister and…

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Major Shaw, British 29th Infantry Division, Gallipoli, April, 1915

The beginning of Saving Private Ryan was, at least for me, twenty minutes of the most intense movie watching ever. It’s so intense and so realistic you feel compelled to turn away but cannot. The movie illustrated in full living color the hazards of an amphibious landing during the Second World War in all its horror.

The movie did what written memoirs often fail to do because the written word does not convey the horror like a picture can.

Yet, I recently read a brief account of one Major Shaw of the 29th British Infantry Division. Major Shaw recorded what the beach landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915:

About 100 yards from the beach the enemy opened fire, and bullets came thick around, slashing up the water. I didn’t see anyone actually hit in the boats, though several were; e.g. my Quatermaster-Sergeant and Sergeant-Major sitting next to me; but we were so jammed together that you couldn’t have moved, so that they must have been sitting there, dead. As soon as I felt the boat touch, I dashed over the side into three feet of water and rushed for the barbed wire entanglements on the beach; it must have been three feet high or so, because I got over it amidst a perfect storm of lead and made for cover, sand dunes on either side, and got good cover. I then found Maunsell and only two men followed me. On the right of me on the cliff was a line of Turks in a trench taking pot shots as us, ditto on the left. I looked back. There was one soldier between me and the wire, and a whole line in a row on the edge of the sands. The sea behind them was absolutely crimson, and you could hear the groans through the rattle of musketry. A few were firing. I signaled to them to advance. I shouted to the soldier behind me to signal, but he shouted back, “I am shot through the chest”. I then perceived they were all hit. A Brief History of the First World War-Eyewitness Accounts of the War to End All Wars, 1914-18

The Gallipoli Landings was the result of a good idea that was badly managed.  The idea was to launch an amphibious landing with British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and French troops on the Dardanelles in the hopes of taking Turkey out of the war and aiding Czarist Russia.

Men of the 11th battalion and 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, assembled on the forecastle of HMS London at sea off Lemnos, 24 April 1915. The next morning they would leave the London to land on North Beach, Gallipoli. Australian War Memorial A02468. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/gallipoli_landing

Men of the 11th battalion and 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, assembled on the forecastle of HMS London at sea off Lemnos, 24 April 1915. The next morning they would leave the London to land on North Beach, Gallipoli. Australian War Memorial A02468. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/gallipoli_landing

Everything went wrong and thousands of Allied soldiers lost their lives in a fruitless attempt to even get off the beach. Major Shaw’s account was only the beginning of the horror.

Eventually, defeat was admitted and the remaining forces were withdrawn. The clip below illustrates how the well-intentioned flanking movement turned into the slaughter of trench warfare.



The 54th Massachusetts and the Assault on Battery Wagner

Memorial to Col. Robert Shaw and the 54th Mass. in Boston

Memorial to Col. Robert Shaw and the 54th Mass. in Boston

Today in American Civil War History the 54th Regiment of  Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment of free blacks assaulted Battery Wagner. Battery Wagner was situated on a small island that guarded the approaches from the sea-side of Charleston SC. The regiment was the lead regiment in Strong’s Brigade and thus would take the bulk of the casualties. The assault was frontal made because of a marshy creek on one side and the sea on the  other. The approach was narrow and only one regiment at a time could fit in the space.

54th Massachusetts storming the works of Battery Wagner

54th Massachusetts storming the works of Battery Wagner http://www.masshist.org/online/54thregiment/essay.php?entry_id=528

The garrison of the fort was formidable consisting of Confederate Infantry from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Infantry strength was around 1000 muskets.

As if that was not bad enough the Confederates garrisoned the fort with numerous cannon, some of very high-caliber and deployed to cover the landward approach on Morris Island (most of which is under water today). A further battery of four 12lb howitzers covered the ground the assault would have to be made over.

The 54th Massachusetts was an “experimental unit.”  What this meant is that the white establishment of the north (for the most part) didn’t believe that “colored” soldiers of any race possessed the fighting qualities of white soldiers. This was the prevailing view even though many West Point trained army officers were well aware of the colonial soldiers of England and France and their fine fighting reputations.

The 54th had to overcome prejudice from their own side as well as living under the threat of execution by Confederate forces should they be captured. The threat of execution also applied to the white officers that led the 54th. Ironically, as manpower became a huge issue in the Confederacy the Confederate Congress authorized the establishment of black regiments in the Confederate Army although few were raised. There are surviving pictures of Black Confederate soldiers however.

The 54th went to war with the expectation that they would only be used as a labor battalion. It took political pressure from the Colonel of 54th, Robert Gould Shaw, whose family were powerful Boston aristocrats to get the 54th into action.

Eventually, the 54th was sent to assist the Union Army engaged in coastal operations along the South Carolina Coast. It was the intent of the Union Navy to seal off all the coastal Confederate ports with a blockade to prevent the Confederates from obtaining supply and armaments from Europe but primarily from Great Britain. The Union Army assigned to SC was part of the Navy’s larger ambitions to close the ports and Battery Wagner stood in the way.

The 54th made the assault on July 18th, 1863. They lost about 50% of their strength including Colonel Shaw and many of the white officers. The white regiments also suffered severely in the operation and after. The fort never fell and was abandoned later in the war as Charleston became outflanked on the landward side.

The 54th example was a success in the sense that it proved to skeptical white officers that black soldiers were every bit as competent and brave as white soldiers. Shortly after  the assault the North officially enrolled black soldiers (many liberated slaves) into the army. They were designated US Colored Troops and uniformed like any other US Regular Infantry. About 180,000 would eventually serve the Union cause. Sadly, US Colored troops were only paid $10.00 a month (for a pvt) as opposed to the $13.00 a month white soldiers received thus reflecting the continued prejudice against black soldiers.

The movie “Glory” starring Matthew Broderick (as Shaw), Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman tells the story well of the 54th Massachusetts. I watched in last night.

Below is a brief documentary from Discerning History that tells the story of the 54th role in the assault.

Other links of interest

Massachusetts Historical Society  (excellent website with many pictures of the actual soldiers who served)

54th Massachusetts Infantry (brief but to the point)

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Co. B. (an excellent re-enactment website)