World War I Centennial: The Titanic and an Ambivalent Alliance

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 12th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

April 15, 1912: The Titanic and an Ambivalent Alliance

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

The Titanic

On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the ocean liner RMS Titanic, en route from Queenstown, Ireland, to New York City, accidentally rammed an iceberg, tearing a series of holes in the side of the massive ship. The world’s largest ship was traveling at 22.5 knots – 26 miles per hour, near its maximum speed – and five of its sixteen supposedly “watertight” compartments were breached by the force of the impact. The compartments weren’t actually watertight – they were connected at the top – and water quickly spread from compartment to compartment. Five minutes after midnight on the morning of April 15, with the ship listing heavily to starboard, captain Edward J. Smith gave the order to evacuate the Titanic.

Tragically there weren’t enough lifeboats to carry all 1,320 passengers and 892 crewmembers; the 20 lifeboats provided could accommodate half that number at most. With the lifeboats going to “women and children first,” numerous crew members and male passengers were left to go down with the ship or plunge into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. As the band played on, the ship took on more water, broke in half, and finally sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.

The Titanic wasn’t carrying enough lifeboats in part because the relevant regulations hadn’t been revised in almost a decade. It had been eight years since the last major sinking of a passenger liner – the loss of the Danish SS Norge, with 635 people aboard, in 1904 – and while the size of passenger ships had increased dramatically in the intervening years, the complement of lifeboats had not. In fact, the Titanic was carrying more than the sixteen boat minimum required by the Board of Trade.

If other ships in the area had been closer to the Titanic (and received the message in time), their combined lifeboats might have been able to shuttle back and forth, ferrying passengers from the sinking ship to safety. However several ships weren’t paying attention to wireless messages: on board the SMS Carpathia, the wireless operator missed the first call for help because he was on the bridge. When the distress call finally got through, the Carpathia reversed course and covered the 50+ miles to the Titanic’s position in about two hours, arriving around 4 a.m., nearly two hours after the ship sank, to rescue 705 survivors from aboard the lifeboats. The rest of the passengers and crew, some 1,500 people, perished in the icy North Atlantic, victims of hypothermia and drowning.

The sinking of the Titanic foreshadowed the maritime disasters resulting from German U-boat attacks in the coming Great War – most prominently RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 out of 1,959 aboard. The captain of U-20, Walter Schwieger, attacked the Lusitania without issuing a warning or allowing its passenger and crew to evacuate to lifeboats – a breach of international conventions, resulting from the German admiralty’s policy of “unrestricted” submarine warfare. This “barbarism” elicited a wave of outrage in the United States, prompting the Germans to temporarily suspend unrestricted warfare. Their return to unrestricted attacks in February 1917 helped precipitate the entry of the U.S. into the war two months later.

On the positive side, public scrutiny of the Titanic disaster ensured that most ships were equipped with sufficient lifeboats, and also led to round-the-clock wireless monitoring, reducing the loss of life when other big ships were torpedoed during the First World War. Thus no passengers or crew were lost to drowning when the Titanic’s rescuer, Carpathia, was sunk by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-55 on July 17, 1918.

An Ambivalent Alliance

While the world reeled from the loss of the Titanic, the wheels of European diplomacy continued turning. On April 15, 1912, the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, proposed an alliance to the British foreign minister, Edward Grey, based on terms first discussed seven years before during the First Moroccan Crisis. In 1905 the British had proposed the alliance to the French; in 1912 it was the other way around.

France and Britain were longtime foes who had opposed each other from the medieval period into the age of colonialism. But in the face of growing German power, they set these tensions aside (at least temporarily) in favor of an “entente cordiale,” or friendly understanding, first agreed in April 1904. In effect, the British and French decided to resolve their colonial differences in places like Morocco so they could cooperate in Europe, stoking German paranoia about a conspiracy to encircle the Fatherland.

In May 1905, German fear of encirclement resulting from the entente cordiale drove Kaiser Wilhelm II to precipitate the First Moroccan Crisis with his infamous visit to Tangiers. As a signatory to earlier international agreements about Morocco, the German Empire could not be left out of decisions regarding the future of the country, he blustered – exactly what France and Britain set out to do in their diplomatic understanding. German opposition threatened to drive Britain and France apart, due in part to their different security situations: while France faced an existential threat from the formidable German army, Britain remained safely uncommitted behind the English Channel, protected by the Royal Navy.

Indeed, although the entente cordiale did much to bring France and Britain together, the British were typically leery of committing to an explicit military alliance, namely a defensive pact that would require Britain and France to assist each other if either were attacked by a third party – i.e., Germany. The most important reason was the longstanding British aversion to any foreign entanglements, especially treaties which might draw it into a European war.

The British were also skeptical about France’s formal military commitment to Russia, another longtime British foe. Nonetheless some British diplomats were pushing for the country to abandon its traditional isolation in favor of more formal alliances, leading for example to a formal alliance with Japan, directed against Russia, signed around this time.

It was in April-May 1905, during the First Moroccan Crisis, with international tensions running high, that the British foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, and other key figures in the British government made a vague offer of something resembling a military alliance to the French – or at least, that’s how the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, interpreted it. Precisely what Lansdowne offered the French is unclear: while the British foreign secretary said the French and British military leaders should consult each other about plans for cooperation in a war against Germany, his proposal probably fell short of an offer of alliance, which traditional British isolationists wouldn’t have accepted.

In any event, the offer came to nothing, as the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, was forced to resign under German pressure in 1906 – the price of German acquiescence in the First Moroccan Crisis (later viewed as a diplomatic defeat for Germany, as the entente cordiale survived the German diplomatic assault). Meanwhile in December 1905 the Tory government dissolved and Lansdowne left office as foreign secretary; at this stage, both of the principals involved in the negotiations were out of power. Nevertheless other French officials didn’t forget the idea: Lansdowne’s offer was more than Britain had ever ventured before, and the French rightly viewed it as another step towards ending Britain’s policy of “splendid isolation” from Europe.

Fast forward to April 15, 1912: as Britain and France scrambled to contain German power following the Second Moroccan Crisis, Cambon (still the ambassador to Britain) suggested to the British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs, Sir Arthur Nicolson, that France and Britain revisit negotiations for a possible alliance along the lines first laid out by Lansdowne in 1905.

In addition to being nervous about Germany itself, the French were concerned about British attempts – so far unsuccessful – to reach a naval arms limitation agreement with Germany. Such an agreement would remove Britain’s main reason for participating in the entente cordiale aligning it with France against Germany – something France was counting on for its own security.

The failure of the Haldane mission left Britain receptive to closer cooperation with France, but the British were as slippery as ever when it came to actually committing to an alliance. After receiving Cambon’s proposal on April 15, 1912, Nicolson passed the proposal along to the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, who expressed interest but said the idea would have to be debated by the full cabinet – where it was certain to face opposition from old school isolationists, as always. And with that, the alliance proposal ran into the political sands yet again.

But there was no denying the general drift of events: the simple fact was that the two countries were increasingly dependent on each other for security in the face of growing German power. While Britain remained reluctant to make a formal alliance, the British were eager to reach some kind of arrangement with France about the distribution of their naval forces. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was planning a major redeployment of the Royal navy which would bring key forces back to home waters from the Mediterranean, bolstering home defenses against the threat posed by the expanding German navy. This would leave the shipping lanes through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal, the lifeline to Britain’s colonial empire, exposed to threats from the Italian, Austrian, Turkish, and Russian navies – unless France stepped in to protect them.

Although the April 15 offer fell flat, in coming months Churchill and other British officials would enter into active negotiations with the French government aimed at coordinating their naval strategies – another step towards a de facto treaty of alliance which would involve Britain in a war between France and Germany.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

ww1
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
WWI Centennial: July 4 in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 312th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 4, 1918: CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE DAY IN FRANCE

In July 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, there were just 20,000 American soldiers in France—a rounding error compared to the French Army and British Expeditionary Force, with around 2 million men each. One year later, however, the picture had changed dramatically: By the end of July 1918 there were 1.2 million American soldiers in France, a figure that would rise to over 2 million by the war’s end in November 1918.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans billeted in French villages near the front, undergoing crash training in the French countryside, operating a vast logistics network connecting French ports of disembarkation to the “forward zone,” or relaxing on leave in big cities and scores of provincial towns, in many places France seemed completely transformed, to the degree that more than one observer remarked that by the end of the war Paris had become “an American city.”

U.S. supply routes in France, World War I
Erik Sass

While this was obviously an exaggeration, the influx of Americans was yet another culture shock for ordinary people in France, especially in rural areas unused to seeing visitors of any stripe—even from other parts of France—before the war. Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, wrote home on July 9, 1918, describing the sudden change in the small French village where he was stationed:

“For the last three days we’ve been surrounded by American soldiers (our blue streets changed in a short summer night to khaki color); they are simply all over the place—sitting against the houses, sleeping under the hedges, walking up and down and across the roads. When the café opens they rush in and get “lit up” and dance and sing and make improper proposals to the “doll” who brings them their sarsaparilla … They make a noise they call French.”

U.S. forces in Europe, World War I
Erik Sass

On July 4, 1918—just a few days after America’s victorious fighting debut at Belleau Wood had helped turned the tide of the fourth German offensive of that year—French soldiers and civilians across the entire country celebrated America’s Independence Day in almost hysterical fashion, apparently spontaneously but with plenty of encouragement from the national, provincial, and local governments. The U.S. flag was ubiquitous, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American author living in France:

“Everywhere, even in the quiet and deserted streets of the other quarters, were the American flags. There was no shop too small to show one. Bonnes on the way to market had the Stars and Stripes on their market baskets. Every taxi cab was decorated with the flag … It floated on the tram-cars and the omnibuses, it hung out of almost every window, and at the entrance of the big apartment houses … Crippled soldiers distributed tiny flags on all the streets.”

Paris was the epicenter of this countrywide fete, probably one of the few instances in history when one country celebrated another country’s national day with as much enthusiasm, or even more, as the natives. The celebrations in the French capital focused on a parade by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers who had just forced the Germans from Belleau Wood near the Marne, as part of the successful Allied defense against the third and fourth German offensives in May and June, and received a deafening reception from a crowd of several hundred thousand Parisians (top, the Marines on parade). Elizabeth Ashe, a chief nurse with the Red Cross, participated in the July 4 parade and described the event:

“The 4th celebration in Paris made that day a never-to-be-forgotten one for those who were privileged to take part in the ceremonies. For a week before we watched with the deepest interest the preparations which were made all over the city, in fact all over France. The Stars and Stripes decorated every building … Our flag was placed in the center, flanked on each side by French flags … Our splendid Marines got the ovation they deserved.”

Ashe and her subordinates joined the parade:

“To our delight the nurses were asked by the French government to march in the parade. It was the first time women have ever marched in a parade in Paris … I carried the flag, it was the proudest moment of my life, in fact don’t think I ever had that proud feeling before. But when we fell in line behind the Marines, our band playing Dixie and I held that banner on high the cheers of the crowd, “Vive l’Amerique,” I really felt that I had reached the supreme moment of my life … every now and then someone would dart from the crowd, saying: ‘I want to touch that flag.’”

However, as in the case of other combatant nations, it would be inaccurate to attribute undiluted patriotism and martial spirit to Americans involved in the war. Many American soldiers and civilian volunteers headed for the war zone nervously anticipated how their own personalities might change once they came face to face with the brutal reality of warfare. Others rejected the war outright on religious or moral grounds. “This whole business, far from being one of my choice, [is] by no means in accord with my bringing up or education,” wrote Donald E. Carey, an American soldier at Camp Custer on July 2, 1918. Another American soldier, Emmet Britton, a first lieutenant, worried that hatred would scar him psychologically:

“Right now I bear no personal hate toward the Hun but more of the feeling that I have had when sitting on a court-martial. The Hun has done wrong, therefore he must be punished. But no bitterness is in my soul and if I can fully do my duty without it entering into my heart I pray to God that I may do so. For bitterness is too liable to warp one’s outlook on life so that none of the beautiful things may be enjoyed.”

At the same time, Americans already serving in France found themselves undergoing their own personal transformations, as they remembered the reasons they initially enlisted and compared these with their subsequent experiences and outlook once in France. In a letter home on May 30, 1918, Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, noted that he had gained a firmer grasp on the reasons for U.S. participation in the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson had explained:

“Would I be content to see the war end in a German victory tomorrow? It would mean the end of all this misery and suffering, an end of sleepless nights, an end of crawling slowly thru pitch blackness alone and badly frightened, an end of being 3000 miles from home and in a strange land. But we have been long enough in France to have caught the Frenchman’s infectious love of his country and his hatred for the Boches and I decided then that if only France could be saved, if only the Germans’ wrongs could be avenged, I would gladly endure the discomfort, fears, and hardships of war for five more years. When we enlisted it was from no love of France and not from any poignant hatred of the Germans. It was a duty, a duty to be accepted gladly because thru its performance we should see new sights and experience thrills and strange sensations. Tonight all this is changed; the cause of France has become our own real cause and her hatred has become our own real hatred. We are no longer supernumeraries in a show; we are part of the cast itself.”

These feelings of affection for France were hardly universal, however, as Americans expressed a range of feelings about the host country they were now fighting to defend. Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering in YMCA canteens, described American attitudes (strongly colored by primitive conditions in rural France, as well as inclement French winter weather) in January 1918:

“Altogether we are inclined to take very pessimistic view at present of our surroundings. ‘This land is a thousand years behind the times,’ is the reiterated comment, and who can blame them, having seen nothing of France but these tiny primitive mud-and-muck villages? ‘It ain’t worth fightin’ for. Why if I owned this country I’d give it to the Germans and apologize to ‘em.’”

On the other hand, many Americans enjoyed new-found affinities with other Allies, particularly English-speaking soldiers from the British dominions Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the latter two designated ANZAC troops). According to observers from both hemispheres, Americans seemed to get along especially well with Australians. Kenneth Gow, an American officer, wrote home:

“I like the Britishers, particularly the Australians. The officers are all gentlemen. The Englishman has a reserve very hard to break through, but once it is down he is very much a human being … The Australians seem to be the particular cronies of all the American troops. They are more like ourselves than any of the other allies.”

In the same vein, Caspar Burton, an American officer, wrote home in September 1918, “The Americans and the Australians, I venture to remark, hit off better than any two forces in this whole war.”

Conversely, sectional tensions between soldiers from different parts of the United States persisted once in Europe, pitting northerners against southerners but also easterners against westerners. Emmet Britton, from California with the 363rd Regiment, wrote home disdainfully of being forced to bunk with signals officers from the East Coast on July 28, 1918:

“After five minutes I told them all to go to h—l and walked out hearing one of them say, ‘he must be one of those rough persons from that Western camp.” I turned around and told him he was ‘— right.’ Since then three other doughboys have joined me in misery and we are down in one corner, and the rest of the barracks have declared an armistice, but will have nothing to do with us—which just suits as, as they are all from the eastern states and don’t talk our talk.”

Overall, many diaries and letters home written by American soldiers and civilians, while acknowledging the horrors of war, express positive feelings about the conflict and their own roles in it, probably reflecting the fact that their participation was recent enough to retain the sense of novelty and adventure which had long ago worn off for European troops. Bowerman wrote on June 28, 1918:

“Say what you will, and admitting that war is a terrible thing, it still has its compensations for those who live. What has the war done for me? This—I have traveled in a ‘far country’; I have partially learned another language; I have met all manners and breeds of men and have learned true human values … I am living in a time when history is being made and am doing my infinitesimal ‘bit’ to help make it.”

Similarly, Mildred Aldrich, the American author retired in France who had endured four years of war (albeit as a civilian), expressed a common sentiment that the war, for all its misery, had led to a heightened appreciation of existence among those who managed to survive. “It is a great disaster. Of course it is,” she wrote. “But we are all terribly alive.”

PERILOUS CROSSINGS

As more and more Americans arrived in France, with monthly embarkations at U.S. ports peaking in July 1918 at 308,350, millions of young American men (and tens of thousands of young women volunteering as nurses, drivers, telephone operators, or canteen workers) had their first experience of what was, in prewar years, a literal rite of passage: the ocean journey to Europe. Now, though, there was nothing glamorous about it, as the specter of German U-boat warfare stalked the Atlantic.

Shipping net losses, World War I
Erik Sass

True, the Allies were making significant progress in the battle against the undersea scourge. A wide range of measures had helped turn the tide against German U-boats, including the implementation of the convoy system, with groups of troop and cargo transports heavily guarded by Allied warships and airships, which employed evasive tactics such as sudden, unpredictable shifts in direction. Other methods included increased patrols, submarine nets, and minefields to make key chokepoints impassable to subs, most notably in the Dover Strait at the eastern end of the English Channel; new technology like hydrophones and depth charges; and more controversial, unproven measures like “dazzle” camouflage, intended to confuse enemy U-boat commanders observing surface ships through periscopes (below, the U.S. transport Leviathan).

U.S.S. Leviathan in dazzle camouflage, WWI
Naval History and Heritage Command, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanks to this piecemeal strategy (below, an Allied convoy) and massive industrial mobilization, by the second quarter of 1918, greatly expanded American and British shipbuilding outweighed the total tonnage lost to U-boats, and the margin soared in the second half of the year. On July 4 alone, American shipyards launched an incredible 500,000 tons of new shipping (although much of this was a propaganda exercise organized with help from the U.S. Committee of Public Information, with prior launchings delayed and a large number of renovated ships included to reach the impressive total).

Convoy approaching Brest, WWI
Robert W. Neeser, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, Allied shipping was still under serious threat. Available British merchant tonnage was almost 5 million tons below its pre-war figure, while the French merchant fleet was down by a million tons and Italy’s merchant fleet, a key component in the Mediterranean shipping network, had lost a third of its total.

U.S. merchant marines in Europe, WWI
Erik Sass

These losses were somewhat offset by the confiscation of Central Powers vessels, the questionably legal requisitioning of neutral shipping from countries like the Netherlands; and America’s sprawling shipbuilding program. But the fact remained that the world’s total stock of available shipping was about 5 million tons lower in 1918 than 1915, a 10 percent decline—enough to massively impair the global logistics system in wartime, as many ships were forced to return from the warzone “in ballast,” contributing to overall inefficiency.

World merchant marine tonnage, WWI

At the same time, the Germans remained committed to an aggressive U-boat strategy to the end, in hopes of disrupting the transportation of American troops to the battlefields of France as well as deepening material privation among soldiers and civilians alike in Britain and France. As noted, the direst phase for the Allies had now passed, but U-boat production rose steadily into the last months of the war, reflecting Germany’s undiminished industrial might, meaning that the German U-boat fleet was at its largest in the final months of the war, with 177 in service in September 1918 compared to 166 a year before.

WWI submarine production
Erik Sass

Thus, the Atlantic crossing, usually a romantic experience or tedious necessity before the war, was nerve-wracking and perilous to the very end of the war (below, German submarine U-38, commanded by Wilhelm Canaris, later head of German military intelligence in the Second World War). By 1918 passenger ships had fallen under the same military discipline as troop transports, beginning with strict secrecy surrounding boarding and time of departure, to frustrate enemy spies believed to be reporting sailings to Berlin or directly to the U-boats via wireless—but they didn’t always enjoy the protection of the convoy system. William Edgar, an American trade journalist visiting Britain, remembered boarding ship in an unnamed American port in summer 1918:

“A hot night at an Atlantic port, with a violent thunderstorm preceding it, which failed to cool the air … It is no longer easy to embark on an Atlantic liner; all sorts of formalities must be complied with before one gains access to the ship. The place of embarkation is very quiet, and no friends are permitted to come down to say good-bye; they are not even told the ship’s name. Once aboard, it is impossible to return ashore … No one knows just when it will sail; there is an air of secrecy and mystery over the whole proceeding.”

German U-boat U38, World War I
Oberleutnant zur See Hans Wendlandt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Edgar then reported the ambient anxiety aboard ship as it raced at top speed, unaccompanied, across the Atlantic:

“By night the suspense becomes more acute, for the preoccupation of daily pursuits is absent. All are ordered below early, and the long evenings begin. The ports are painted black inside and out, and are closed when sunset comes; not a ray of light is permitted to escape from the ship to mark her course for the watchful and dreaded enemy. Below, in the brightness of one’s cabin, it is very still and silent; the muffled throb of the engines if felt and dimly heard … The ship is a hunted fugitive on the face of the waters, ever pursued from beneath.”

Most passengers necessarily adopted a somewhat fatalistic attitude and found that there were still things to enjoy in the ocean voyage, including the beauty of nature. Heber Blankenhorn, an American intelligence officer, described crossing the Atlantic in July 1918:

“I have seen stars overhead as I slept on deck and enjoyed magnificent sunrises. A deal of routine eats up our time, and brainless matters like sleep, meals, [and] drills consume the days. The ship at night rides like a great ghost, without a ray of light; stairs and companions are blind dark, with here and there an eerie purplish bulb to mark corners, but giving no light.”

U.S.S. President Lincoln, WWI
U.S. Naval Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The feelings of anxiety were certainly justified. Although the number of ships sunk was dropping, with dozens of U-boats at sea at any one time, a significant proportion of ships were still sent to the bottom, including some protected by convoys. Edouard Isaacs, a U.S. Navy officer captured by the German submarine U-90, recalled the sinking of the U.S.S. President Lincoln (a requisitioned German passenger liner, above) on May 31, 1918:

“We were finishing breakfast. Two bells had just struck. Suddenly the ship was rocked by a double explosion, the second following the first with scarcely a perceptible interval between … As I ran aft another explosion shook the ship. The first two had been forward, but this one was aft directly in my path. The force of the explosion crushed in No. 12 lifeboat and threw it up on deck not 10 feet from where I stood, but only showered me with water … At 10 minutes past nine I received the report that holds No. 5 and No. 6 were flooded and the water approaching No. 1 deck. I reported this over the telephone to the captain, who ordered me to abandon ship. At 9:15 all hands aft were off the ship in lifeboats and on rafts. The main deck was then within a few inches of the sea … In fact some waves were already washing over the deck … At 9:30 we were well clear, and the old ship, turning over gently to starboard, put her nose in the air and went down. As the waters closed over her we rose and gave three cheers for the President Lincoln.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
WWI Centennial: Americans Victorious at Belleau Wood
Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 311th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JUNE 6-JULY 1, 1918: AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT BELLEAU WOOD

“I am writing this—I have force to write this—because I am full of brandy. I am crying hard inside. It is more terrible than any one has written or told.” So began a letter dated June 12, 1918, from Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, to his mother. “The battle is still raging on a front of many miles. We are progressing foot by foot," He continued. "It is awful and I’m strangled by the affection in me for my poor comrades—for all the world. It is too awful. Tonight—tomorrow? How can anyone live in this hell?"

Harden’s wrenching letter echoed the feelings of tens of thousands of American soldiers experiencing their baptism of fire in the dramatic days of mid-June 1918. German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff had unleashed his fourth great offensive, Operation Gneisenau, and U.S. Marines and U.S. Army divisions—“devil dogs” and “doughboys”—fought to drive the Germans back from the Marne River in the Battle of Belleau Wood, from June 6-July 1, 1918. By late June the small forest was in Allied hands, and the Americans had proved their fighting mettle to the world (above, an illustration from Collier’s depicting U.S. Marines fighting at Belleau Wood).

OPERATION GNEISENAU

Operation Gneisenau (named for August von Gneisenau, a famous Prussian field marshal) was Ludendorff’s attempt to restore the momentum of his stalled third offensive, Blücher-Yorck, also known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. The movement had conquered a large amount of territory between Reims and Soissons, northeast of Paris, but failed to achieve its main goal of forcing the Allies to draw reinforcements from their reserves north of the Somme, in preparation for a renewed German attack on British forces there.

Map of the Western Front, June 6-July 1, 1918
Erik Sasse

The twin salients created by the tactical successes of Operation Michael in March 1918 and Blücher-Yorck in May held out the alluring possibility of a pincer movement on Paris by the German Seventh and Eighteenth Armies. At the same time, they were an enormous extension of the length of the German lines, threatening to overtax dwindling German manpower. Thus it was imperative to conquer the counter-salient held by the Allies in between, in order to shorten the German lines, seize control of the rail hub of Compiègne—key to sustaining the German supply system in the recently conquered areas—and maybe even set the stage for an advance on Paris.

In the first phase of Gneisenau the German Eighteenth Army would attempt to shatter the right flank of the French Third Army to prepare for a second phase, Hammerschlag (Hammer Blow), against the French Tenth Army, planned for two days later. Together, Ludendorff hoped the two phases would breach the French line, isolating the French First and Third Armies south of the Somme and capturing Compiègne; as in the previous offensive, he also hoped the threat of a breakthrough here would force the French to draw reinforcements from their reserve force behind the British armies in Flanders. At this point he could turn his attention to Paris or return to his original plan of smashing the British, now largely cut off from their French allies.

Gneisenau began at 12:50 a.m. on June 9, 1918, with another massive barrage by 2,276 guns firing 1.4 million shells in the first day alone, about a third of them containing various types of poison gas. Once again, the Germans made successful use of the pioneering Pulkowski method advocated by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller—a new mathematical technique that targeted artillery without the need to first “register” them to get the range (essentially practice shots which gave away the element of surprise).

However, this time around the German opening bombardment wasn’t as effective as previous ones, because surprise was now impossible. It was obvious to the Allies where the German blow would fall, and after the bitter experience of the first three German offensives, Allied commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch made sure that all the generals under his command obeyed his order to pull most of their troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve or withdrawing even further in order to stage counterattacks later, in line with the new doctrine of “defense in depth.”

The German infantry went over the top at 4:20 a.m., led as usual by battalions of stormtroopers employing infiltration techniques to break up the enemy’s defenses—but this time the Germans found the French already falling back and regrouping beyond the range of the German heavy artillery. By the late afternoon of the first day, the Germans had advanced up to 6.5 miles in places, a substantial gain by the standards of trench warfare but less than in Operation Michael or Blücher-Yorck; they had also taken only 5000 prisoners, much fewer than the first day’s bag on previous occasions.

The offensive continued to lose momentum on the second day, June 10, as some artillery was transferred from the German Eighteenth Army to the Seventh Army for the Hammerschlag attack, and French divisions began to arrive from other parts of the Western Front. But, crucially, none of these reinforcements came from the French reserve forces behind the BEF, as Foch judged (correctly) that he didn’t need to weaken the front’s northern sector in order to fend off the Germans in the middle. As a result, Allied defenses remained strong in the north, and Foch retained a large reserve force that he could employ in a swift counterattack following future German offensives.

The situation was still serious for the Allies on June 10, as the French 53rd Division disintegrated under German pressure, making it impossible to stage a planned counterattack. But the next day the French began to push back, as Foch authorized the newly appointed Tenth Army commander general Charles Mangin (nicknamed “The Butcher” for his alleged disregard for casualties during Verdun and the Nivelle Offensive) to mount a counterattack against the western flank of the German offensive, about 10 miles northwest of Compiègne. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, took part in the audacious French assault on German positions near the village of Courcelles-Epayelles on June 11, 1918:

“The enemy has seen our movements and is firing for all he is worth. The whole plain is showered with 105s and 150s. We can clearly distinguish three successive barrages … We think we must be dreaming. Is it possible that they have ordered the division to attack under such conditions? On we go, however, stopping occasionally to check on the men and to inspect the horizon … We are in the thick of the barrage, clods of earth are flying in all directions, fire and smoke swirl around us, we hasten to cross this wall. Swear words ring out everywhere, men stop, killed or wounded, but there is no stopping, we go on and on, we have to get through at any cost.”

As the battle unfolded, Desegneaux noted another example of an all-too-common tragedy of the First World War, as French wounded were left to die by comrades pulled away by the tide of battle:

“We move off again. We have difficulty in advancing through these huge cornfields, and from now on we do nothing but stumble across the wounded. They are abandoned here, amid the tall blades of corn, helpless. Those who can walk, flee towards the rear; those wounded in the leg, the stomach, or even more seriously patch themselves up while waiting for help. Help; when will it come? The regiment has moved on, will they find them in these huge fields, lying among the tall corn? How many are going to end up dying through lack of attention and will rot where they fell!”

Desegneaux also witnessed the arrival of French tanks, which occasionally made impressive advances but still suffered from the same shortcomings as their British counterparts. He watched in awe as French planes were outgunned by the Germans, who had once again achieved temporary air superiority in this sector:

“Suddenly, a shout: the tanks! They are big Saint-Chamonds, monstrous masses of iron, rumbling up the road in broad daylight. What a sight! The Boches concentrate all their guns upon them; it’s a deluge of fire. Some are destroyed on the spot, some are set on fire, some stagger along, trying to reach the plain, only to be blown up further on, others succeed in crossing the lines only to be brought to a crushing halt 100 meters later. In a quarter of an hour, it’s all over; this day will have cost us 37 out of the 40 tanks which were escorting the division. As soon as our tanks are no more, our attention turns to the sky, a swarm of German planes are attacking ours, about 10 in number. It’s a massacre. The guns chatter; our planes are outnumbered 10 to one. Five of ours are shot down immediately. We forget everything happening up front. With a lump in our throats, we watch these planes come crashing down in flames to the ground.”

Mangin’s counterattack was ultimately halted by enemy resistance, but it did force German Eighteenth Army commander general Oskar von Hutier to transfer two army corps to the army’s right flank in order to hold off the French, foreclosing any possibility of continuing its main effort further east. On June 12, Desegneaux was on the scene at Courcelles:

“I am at the northern edge of the village, the road is littered with bodies. It’s unbelievable. There’s a blown-up tank which is lying across and blocking the road. Inside are two burnt corpses, black, unrecognizable. Further on, bunches of men, legs twisted and mangled, or with gaping holes in their bodies, their eyeballs dangling out of their sockets, half their jaws missing, with terror written all over them. We can’t take them away, they are too numerous … All we can do is cover them with lime and then with a sheet or a blanket. We pick them up in mounds; but there are still more and more of them … Further on, I fall into a pool of coagulated blood, it stinks. There’s a dug-out beside it which has served as a first-aid post. The bodies are piled there in heaps, it’s awful—we are forced to move on.”

By June 12, Operation Gneisenau was stalled, just as it was supposed to be converging with the other arm of the pincer movement, Operation Hammerschlag, the westward attack by the German Seventh Army from the area near Soissons in the southern salient. In fact, Hammerschlag fared even worse: Once again, the French withdrew most of their forces before the German offensive began in the early morning of June 12, and Foch, no longer facing the threat of a real pincer movement, was free to transfer reinforcements to the French Tenth Army. Meanwhile, the French Third Army continued to counterattack the German Eighteenth Army further north, disrupting the planned advance and spelling the end of Gneisenau. By June 13, Ludendorff decided to call off both attacks. Germany’s fourth desperate bid for victory had failed.

BELLEAU WOOD

For the first time on the Western Front, U.S. troops played a key role in the overall Allied strategy to halt the German onslaught, with a hard-fought victory against enemy troops on the southern flank of the German Seventh Army at Belleau Wood. Although this was just one action among many in the Allied defensive strategy, by stopping the Germans and then driving them out of Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marines threatened the enemy’s position on the Marne and raised the prospect of further attacks against the Seventh Army’s southern flank. The battle continued long after Ludendorff called off Gneisenau, with the last Germans expelled from the small forest by July 1, 1918.

The American attacks were led by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division, which included 9500 Marines in the 4th Marine Brigade. They faced heavily entrenched German troops armed with machine guns in the woods, the village of Bouresches, as well as on a small rise (Hill 142) to the west. On taking over the defense of the area in early June, one Marine officer, Captain Lloyd Williams, famously disregarded French advice to retreat, exclaiming, “Retreat, hell, we just got here!”

After establishing a defensive line south of the woods, the Americans shifted to the offensive on June 6, 1918, employing “open warfare” tactics in the form of massed rushes against German positions—exactly the sort of tactics the European combatants had abandoned following the bitter experience of trench warfare. However, the fresh American troops, eager to demonstrate their courage, disregarded very heavy casualties as they mounted attack after attack, eventually engaging the tired and demoralized troops in fierce close quarters combat with rifles, pistols, and bayonets, turning the woods into a slaughterhouse (below, U.S. Marines in a shell hole in Belleau Wood in April 1919). Before one particularly bloody attack, gunnery sergeant Dan Daley encouraged his Marines with the rhetorical question: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?”

U.S. Marines in a shell hole at Belleau Wood, WWI
Collection of Adolph B. Miller/COLL1068, United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite major losses, by June 11 the Marines had reclaimed most of Belleau Wood. But the Germans clung tenaciously to the northern edge of the forest for several more weeks, resulting in nightmarish, chaotic combat characterized by hand-to-hand fighting, grenade duels, and bayonet rushes between shell holes and shattered tree trunks. Finally, the arrival of French field artillery helped dislodge most of the last German defenders from the woods by June 26, and the Marines completed mopping up and straightening the new defensive line by July 1. The battle had cost the lives of 1000 Marines plus another 4000 wounded—meaning more than half of the force fell in battle.

Belleau Wood was a milestone for the U.S. in the First World War, demonstrating America’s fighting mettle and earning it the respect of its French and British allies, who now understood that the great republic across the ocean intended to play a decisive role in the war. It was equally dispiriting for the Germans, as ordinary soldiers began to suspect that official propaganda—portraying Americans as an undisciplined, polyglot rabble—was far off the mark. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, transcribed a letter taken from the body of a dead German soldier at Belleau Wood, dated June 21, 1918. It gave a sense of the terrible privations, including hunger, experienced by German soldiers:

“About 400 of us are lying around here. We have one corner of the woods and the American has the other corner. This is not nice, for all of a sudden he rushes forward and one does not know it beforehand … Here one lies day and night without a blanket, only with a coat and a shelter-half. One freezes at night like a tailor, for the nights are fiercely cold. I hope that I will be lucky enough to escape from this horrible mess, for up to now I have always been lucky. The enemy sweeps every evening the whole countryside with machine guns and rifle fire, and then artillery fire … At present our food is miserable. We are now fed upon dried vegetables and marmalade and when at night we obtain more food it is unpalatable. It is half sour and all cold. In the daytime we receive nothing.”

Gibbons also transcribed a captured German intelligence report, based on interviews with captured American soldiers:

“The majority of the prisoners took as a matter of course that they have come to Europe to defend their country. Only a few of the troops are of pure American [Anglo-Saxon] origin; the majority is of German, Dutch, and Italian parentage, but these semi-Americans, almost all of whom were born in America and never have been in Europe before, fully feel themselves to be true born sons of their country.”

The nickname “devil dogs” (in German, teufelshunde or Höllenhunde, “hell hounds”) was supposedly bestowed on the Marines by German soldiers in recognition of their ferocity and zeal in this and earlier battles; the term is first mentioned in American newspapers April 1918, but some historians consider the alleged German origins apocryphal. The French government renamed Belleau Wood “the Marine Brigade Wood” in honor of its liberators, and today a fountain with a statue of a “devil dog” commemorates the battle (below).

A U.S. Marine drinking from devil dog fountain
Lance Cpl. Seth H. Capps, a member of the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, drinks out of Devil Dog Fountain following the 93rd anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, May 30, 2010.
Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough, United States Marine Corps // Public Domain

As always, American soldiers enjoyed engaging in the long-standing rivalry between the Army and Marine branches, and veterans were quick to remind newcomers of their “newbie” status. Vernon Kniptash, a soldier from Indiana with the 42nd Division, also known as the Rainbow Division because it included troops from dozens of states, noted in his diary on June 20, 1918:

“The 77th Div., the first draft division to reach France, is going to relieve us. They hail from little old New York and that’s all they talk about … They landed here in April and from the way they blow about themselves it would lead us to believe that they’ve been over here ever since the war started. The Rainbow boys told ‘em a few things to help ‘em out but they knew it all, didn’t need any pointers, said they could take care of the Bosche alright. Last night a long column of them, four regiments, passed our station on the way up to the trenches for the first time. They tried to kid us but didn’t have much luck. They yelled, “Fall in line and fight for your Uncle.” I called back, “You fellows ought to have come over when the soldiers did,” and they shut up like a clam. They went up singing but it’s an easy matter to sing on the first time up.”

TRYING CONDITIONS

American soldiers also faced the same trying conditions that their European counterparts had suffered over the previous four years. In June 1918 Robert J. Patterson, an American officer, noted the discomfort of ordinary American soldiers aboard French troop trains, which were in fact just repurposed open-air cars for transporting horses (below, members of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 147th Aero Squadron in Toul, France, in May-June 1918):

“The crowding of the soldiers into the cars beats anything I had ever seen. Each freight car was supposed to hold 40 men, which was fitting them in very tight; but in fact most cars held 50. None could lie down, and many could not even sit down on the floor. The choice places were in the doors, where men could sit and hang their legs out. The officers were fairly comfortable in compartments on ordinary French passenger cars. We were on the train three days."

U.S. Air Force personnel on the Western Front, World War I
U.S. Air Force photo, National Museum of the Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most American soldiers were still ignorant of the rules of trench warfare, and in many cases had received minimal training before being rushed into service. One sergeant with the 42nd Division—supposedly one of the better-prepared units in the U.S. Army—remembered encountering a shocking lack of preparation in some companies:

“While giving a short talk on the necessity of strict obedience, I was floored by one of the boys, who spoke for his four or five companies, that, although they were anxious and eager to do exactly what I said, if they didn’t, it would be because they didn’t understand, as their service and training was of the most meager. They had fired a service rifle about ten times, that is, about ten rounds. They had never fired a live hand grenade … They didn’t know what a rifle grenade looked like, and, to make it complete, had never had bayonet instruction.”

And still more were coming, with 278,664 American troops embarked for Europe in June, and another 308,350 in July, most of them aboard British or American ships escorted by the Royal Navy. As always, the sea journey presented its own miseries. Emmet Britton, an American officer, described the common woe of seasickness in a letter home dated July 1, 1918:

“The air was foul and 95 of the men were sick, and quite often we shipped a sea through the open hatchway, so there was about 6 inches of water all over. It seemed like one of Gustave Dore’s pictures of the Inferno with a flickering half-light showing the tossing, writing figures of close-packed men, suffering bodily discomforts and mental unrest. For none of them were allowed to remove a single garment, though it was stifling hot and the slept with their life-preservers on.”

It was probably little comfort to ordinary people, but conditions were even worse on the other side, as the food shortages resulting from the Allied blockade and wartime disruptions reached crisis proportions. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers and civilians faced starvation, provoking widespread food strikes in big cities and talk of revolution. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, confided in her diary in June 1918, “The food question is always the most important topic of the day. The less there is of it, the more do we talk of it … We ourselves have little to eat but smoked meat and dried peas and beans, but in the towns they are considerably worse off.” And Clifford Markle, an American medical officer held captive in Germany, recorded one heartbreaking encounter at the government-run restaurant where he worked in July 1918:

“Food conditions were extremely critical at this time. One example of the scarcity of food may be obtained from the following incident. A young girl, 14 years old, whose sister was a waitress in the restaurant, came into the kitchen weeping bitterly. Her sister asked her why she was crying. The little girl told her that she had had nothing to eat for three days, as she had been ill and so could not work in the dynamite factory, where she was employed, and therefore had no money to buy food tickets. If one didn’t work, one didn’t eat in Germany. The German woman who was cooking in the kitchen at the time heard the girl’s pitiful story, and told her to sit down at the table. The cook then gave her bread, potatoes, and bean soup … Of course, the rest of us had a little less to eat that night, but we did not mind, for the little girl needed it so much more than we did.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios