This was a paper that I wrote last year for school but I have edited it to suit the blog better. I hope you enjoy it because I spent around two months researching:
The great European powers had fought a bloody struggle for three years prior to the United States joined the First World War. When the US declared war in 1917, their military was in a shambles and was completely unprepared for a modern war. In 1916, their army numbered around 100,000 men, an insignificant number compared to the European nations. However, the US’ involvement in the First World War allowed them to complete a necessary transition to modern war by learning lessons they would implement in later conflicts.
The last major war the United States had been involved in before 1914 was the Civil War, which cost the country around 600,000 lives. The tactics of that time were up-to-date for the Crimean War (1853-56) and were of ‘Napoleonic’ style. meaning troops would march in long lines towards one another and pour volleys into each other. These battles were preferably fought on open ground and discipline of formation was crucial. These tactics were severely outdated by World War 1.
By 1914, the US had been involved in two small wars: the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. The Spanish-American War ended quickly, as the US defeated both the Spanish Army and Navy in Cuba and the Philippines. However, most fighting was conducted by the US Navy, so the infantry gained little experience. On the battlefields of France in 1917, an experienced navy would provide no advantage. A Filipino named Emilio Aguinaldo led a rebellion in the US-occupied Philippines, and the war lasted from 1899 to 1902. The US Army finally had its chance, but was shockingly defeated in the jungles in one of the most brutal wars in American history.
In 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian student, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, sparking a conflict that would span the globe. The US tried her best to avoid war, but John Keegan describes what forced a break in their neutrality:
“Two events changed America’s outlook. The first was a German clumsy approach to Mexico, proposing an alliance, baited with the offer to return Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, if America went to war against Germany; this [was the] ‘Zimmerman Telegram’ […] The second was Germany’s decision to resume the unrestricted U-Boat campaign: sinking merchant shipping without warning in international waters.”
On April 6th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany; the US had officially entered World War I. Wilson was reluctant to join the Entente after the American debacle in the Philippines, but he was eventually forced into doing so as a way to ‘preserve democracy.’ Yet Germany had little reason to be afraid of the US since the American forces were lacking drastically in quality compared to the German war machine.
German suspicions were right; the US Army was in no position to fight a European war. The German Naval Minister, Eduard von Capelle, derided the US by saying, “They will not even come because our submarines will sink them. Thus from a military point of view means nothing, and again nothing, and for a third time nothing.” The Americans mustered in just 107,641 men in 1917, surmounting to the 17th smallest army in the world. Their army was less in number than Belgium, who had been wiped aside by the Schlieffen Plan in 1914. The Germans had twenty times that number on the Western Front alone, with more arriving in late 1917 thanks to the Russian Civil War and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The only American troops of quality were the Marine Corps, spread thinly across Central America, Cuba, the Phillippines, and Guam. They only numbered 15,000 men.
Wilson appointed John J. Pershing as commander of the new American Expeditionary Force (AEF), but even Pershing’s tactics were outdated, as he had graduated from West Point in 1886. The tactics he had learned were of the Civil War, and would be of no use in Europe. If American troops had gone into the First World War like this, they would have suffered tremendously. In 1914, French troops tried this tactic at Mulhouse, suffering horrifying casualties and in just two months, had lost 200,000 men. Pershing’s needs for the AEF were simple: he wanted 3 million men in France, to fight on the offensive, and absolutely no Anglo-French intervention.
When the first American troops arrived in France in June 1917, the Entente forces had varying opinions of the men who had come to their aid. Lieutenant R.G. Dixon of the British Army first spotted the American troops and recalled them as being “infantry, all wearing very broad-brimmed hats, and marching in a very sloppy manner from Poperinghe. We sat up and gawped at them.” Dixon’s first encounter with an American officer did not impress either, as the attitude of the Americans was far from what they expected. The American is quoted as scoffing “Say Buddy, how far is it to this lil’ old shootin’ gallery of yours?” The French, on the other hand, were more welcoming to the AEF. Lieutenant Charles Chenu lauded “we fought alongside them, admired them, loved them.”
The Entente powers influenced America to adopt new uniforms. The US Army in the Spanish-American War wore a blue tunic with khaki or light-blue pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and leather boots. By WW1, the uniform had changed drastically to conform to modern styles. They wore an olive-drab tunic and pants, puttees, a steel helmet, and leather boots. The new uniform provided better camouflage than the blue Americans had worn since the Continental Army of 1776, and the helmet protected the wearer from shrapnel. The US also changed their weaponry and technology prior to the war. The M1903 Springfield was sent into action, replacing the complex breech-loaders that preceded them. Machine guns were also produced. They used the French Chauchat, the US-made Hotchkiss, and sometimes Lewis guns. Artillery also underwent drastic changed, as the French 75mm field gun replaced muzzle-loading cannon. Tanks and airplanes came into production as well, and some American pilots, like Eddie Rickenbacker, made their names as aces on the Western Front.
The Americans began fighting in Eastern France in 1918 at the Battle of Belleau Wood, with the USMC leading the attack. On September 10, the US fought independently against German forces at St. Mihiel. Their combined army assault on Pannes ant Bois de Thiacourt ended superbly with the Renault tanks and American infantry capturing their objectives with ease. Their final major test was the Battle of Meuse-Argonne which lasted from September 26, to November 11 , 1918. The battle began with a 3,980-gun barrage, inspired by the British. The terrain was horrific and a nightmare for organisation, as some pockets of American troops (ex. ‘The Lost Battalion’) became cut off in the brush. The flexibility of US troops in the Argonne was key, and if they had not been able to adapt, it is certainly possible they would have suffered a defeat. Hunter Liggett’s I Corps pushed German forces across the Meuse River, allowing the troops time to lick their wounds. 50,300 men lost their lives and 65,000 died of disease in the campaign. The First World War had given America a costly, yet necessary, experience of modern war.
Thanks to the technology and tactics that had been developed in WW1, the US had a much better grasp of the realities of modern war. In 1926, the US invaded Nicaragua and had a chance to flaunt their new strategies in the field. The USMC was used to begin an attack, just like in Belleau Wood. The key to success in Nicaragua was flexibility, which had been developed in the Argonne forest. One US company managed to march around 30 miles in one day. The fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua was a direct result of the style of warfare that developed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, and it would be implemented again in Melanesia, Guadalcanal, and Vietnam.
In 1939, World War II broke out, but this time, America was prepared to be involved. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Selective Service Act in 1940 in an attempt to gather more forces in case of involvement. In 1940, the army numbered 269,000 men, and the next year, the ranks swelled to 1.4 million. US troops engaged enemy forces in small squads, utilizing machine guns to increase firepower. Combined arms attacks in Italy and France proved to be very successful, as were the USMC in the Pacific. WWII also saw a great increase in tanks and aircraft in lieu of their resounding success in the First World War.
The US involvement in the First World War allowed them to undergo a major transition from the old 19th century style of warfare to the style of modern war. The uniforms of American troops changed drastically from a traditional blue to a practical drab. Helmets and new weapons were introduced as well altered tactics with more stringent rules on formations which maximized the soldier’s effectiveness. The involvement also was important in saving the lives of millions of young American men. The truth is that the Americans would have been butchered in France if they had not adapted to modern war. Though thousands gave their lives for their country, the involvement in the First World War changed warfare for the United States and later led to the saving of millions of lives.
Bonk, David. St. Mihiel 1918. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publishing. 2011.
Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York. Basic Books, 2002.
Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-18. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
Neidell, Indiana. “The USA Before Joining World War 1: The Great War Special.” Youtube. Nov. 9 206. Web. Jan. 26, 2017.
Osburn, Patrick and Marc Romanych. The Hindenburg Line. New York: Osprey Pulishing, 2016
Yockelson, Mitchell. Forty-Seven Days. New York: New American Library, 2016.
Votaw, John. The American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publshing, 2005.
While New Zealand sits some 11,000 miles (18,000 km) away from London, they gave their heart and soul for the Empire during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the contributions of Australia or Canada in the war, but never New Zealand. The NZ Division underwent tests of strength in numerous battles, most notably the Battle of Crete in 1941 as Blitzkrieg swept through the Mediterranean. New Zealand also produced an air force which would play an important role in the Pacific. From the deserts of North Africa to the chilly shores of Normandy, the Kiwis would stamp their mark on the war.
New Zealanders beared the brunt of the German Fallschirmjager attacks on Crete in May of 1941. With German and Italian troops in Greece, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth forces travelled to help protect the Balkans. Greece had been ultimately captures by Hitler’s forces and an airborne assault on Crete was imminent. Over 7,000 men of the New Zealand Division were stationed on the Mediterranean Island. Fallschirmjager landed in Crete on the 20th of May, fighting for the airfields around Malerne. A counterattack was launched three days later, but failed after their battalions became pinned around the airfields. Capt. Charles Upham, however, was awarded with a Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. A new defensive line was organised, but German attacks on Galatas pushed them back and forced many supply issues. Another counterattack was launched, failing once more to defeat the Germans. The New Zealanders fell back once more and a new line was created at “42nd Street” named for the engineers who built it. A massive German attack on AZNAC positions was held, but the Allies retreated in the night. Many troops were sent to Egypt at night by ship once the Royal Navy arrived. By the 30th, most troops had retreated from Crete.
With NZ and British troops in Egypt, the battles for the desert began. In Operation Crusader, New Zealanders captured important coastal towns from the Germans while main British attacks by the 8th Army were underway. At Point 175, the New Zealanders suffered their heaviest casualties of the war, but they still pressed on towards Tobruk. Unfortunately, they were smashed back into Egypt, suffering 2,500 casualties total. At Second El Alamein, the NZ Division broke through German lines and forced them to retreat. They captured hundreds of German prisoners before pressing on towards Tunisia in late 1942. The New Zealanders would be sent to Italy in 1943, fighting through the country. New Zealanders were present at the disaster at Monte Cassino in 1944, eventually pressing onto Trieste. The Kiwis even had a minor presence at D-Day, protecting the fleet from the air and at sea.
In the Pacific, New Zealand felt threatened by Japan’s growing presence, especially after the 1942 attack on Darwin, Australia. Thousands of New Zealanders joined the ranks and were sent to Africa, but a fair few remained on their hemisphere. They fought in the Dutch East Indies and also provided airbases to the United States for attacks on Japan. Kiwis arrived on Guadalcanal after the battle as an occupying force and proceeded to capture more of the Solomon Islands in 1943. The 4th Division later returned home in 1944.
New Zealand’s navy, the RNZN, provided needed support to British operations in the South Pacific. HMS Achilles and HMS Leander were sent to fight at the Battle of River Plate in 1939. These ships were named HMS since the title HMZNS wasn’t created until October 1941. Some 7,000 sailors would join the Royal Navy as they helped in the Normandy Operations of 1944. The RNZN also fought in the naval battles for the Solomon Islands.
Another component of New Zealand’s forces, the RNZAF, numbered a mere 102 planes at the outbreak of war in 1939. Immediately, their efforts greatly increased as they formed new pilot schools in Taieri, New Plymouth, and other locations. Some Kiwis formed a part of the RAF, becoming No. 75 squadron. More RAF squadrons were formed of New Zealanders and they managed seven squadrons total in the RAF. With Japan’s entry to the war in 1941, the NZ airmen became involved in the battle for Malaya and Singapore. Worries about an Axis invasion of the nation prompted a massive anti-invasion campaign. Kittyhawks arrived in 1942 to reinforce the RNZAF and in November, the NZ pilots engaged Japanese pilots for the first time above Guadalcanal. Over the next few years, they received better equipment and supplies. In 1945, the RNZAF mostly aided US air assaults on Japan as escorts. By the end of the war, they numbered some 42,000 personnel. Three pilots received the VC for their gallantry in the war: Lloyd Trigg, Leonard Trent, and James Ward.
One important New Zealander in the war was the aforementioned Charles Upham, who won two Victoria Crosses. Only three people, including Capt. Upham, have won multiple VCs. The Christchurch native won his first VC in Crete as he single handedly charged a machine gun nest with grenades in hand. Upham destroyed the bunker and quickly destroyed another, before finally finishing off a German Bofors gun. He soon grabbed a wounded comrade and ran back to his line. The next year, Upham won his second VC at the Battle of El Alamein. He commandeered a Jeep, driving it into the German line and firing his machine gun wildly. Despite his wounds, the captain spotted German units for the Commonwealth troops who had become separated from the main force. He was wounded again and continued to fight before his capture. He was even transferred to Colditz, one of the most notorious German prisons of the war. Upham was later quoted to have said “I don’t want to be treated differently from any other bastard,” showing how humble the soldier really was.
While New Zealand is not as noticeable as the USSR or Britain, they still provided much needed aid for the Allies in the war. Without contributions from minor nations, the world may have fallen to fascism and not been the way it is today. Thanks to the bravery of men like Charles Upham and other Kiwis, the world was made a safe place for all of us to live to this day.
Nick Lloyd released his new book just before the centennial of the Battle of Passchendale (also known as 3rd Ypres). Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and death as British and Dominion troops clashed with Germans over a small ridge and a few wooded plots of land. Names like Polygon Wood. Poperinge, Langemark, and Menin Road became etched in history as some of the bloodiest spots of the entire war. The churned up countryside of Flanders became home to the bodies of 670,000 soldiers and millions of horses. This gruesome battle would put the new British “bite and hold” tactics against the might on the Hindenburg Line.
The book opens with the failure of the Nivelle Offensive by the French in the spring of 1917 and then gives a small description of the Battle for Messines Ridge. These two battles help one understand the background for the Battle of Passchendaele and illustrates the new tactical revolutions the British command underwent. Every chapter opens with a quote about the battle and uncovers some of the feelings of general and private alike. One harrowing quote that opens a chapter is an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his parents: “Our dead were lying in heaps. It was the worst slaughter I had ever seen.” Another quote in the book was by Hermann von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht. Kuhl said that “no division could last more than a fortnight in this Hell.” Passchendaele is full of primary sources from both the British and the German forces. Lloyd, a professor at Kings College London, has great access to the collections of the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives. He also traveled to Germany to collect sources at the Bundesarchiv and the Bayerisches Hauptstaatarchiv. He also has sources from the Australians and Canadians, who played a major role in the latter stages of the battle. The book has about two Victoria Cross citations per chapter during the battle showing the incredible heroism in the face of danger. Lance Corporal Walter Peeler and Sergeant Lewis McGee both captured German machine gun bunkers by themselves under fire at Poelcappe and Zonnebecke. There are plenty of other amazing stories of soldiers such as them in the battle. Lloyd’s maps are very good too, indicating the objectives which troops were ordered to take. The photographs are very good and one which was very striking was Polygon Wood during the battle, completely leveled by the scars of artillery. The book really shows the internal struggles between the English command. The conflict between Haig and his subordinates caused many problems, as did the fights between the Army generals also, notably Henry Plumer and Sir Hugh Gough. Lloyd’s writing shows how horrible the battle was for a common soldier, shuffling closer to death in a wet, muddy hole. I have used Lloyd’s other books in historical essays and the amount of detail you can gather from his books is astonishing. This book continues that trend. A perfect blend of historical sources, bravery, high command, and gripping battle descriptions make this one of the standout history books of the year. The book also ends quite abruptly without any description of future events, which bothered me a little.
There is not much that I have a problem with in the book. I initially had some problems recognizing when the Battle of Passchendaele officially started. You could easily read a good deal into the book thinking you were still at the Battle of Messines Ridge. Another point which sometimes bothered me was the cutbacks to the Italian Front. The Battle of Capporetto was happening during the Battle of Passchendaele, so Lloyd mentions the fighting in Italy every few chapters. It doesn’t make much of a difference with or without it. Capporetto simply reveals a little more of the character of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.
Passchendaele is a great book to fill in a gap on the Western Front history section. A book like this really needed to be published to tell how much this battle influenced British tactics and damaged the mind of the common soldier. The book also reveals how much of a stalemate the war was in late 1917. Many people simply label the German troops as poor at this point, simply due to the knowledge of the Entente victory in 1918. This is not true. German forces showed incredible resistance and strength during the battle, taking back the ridge within two weeks. Nick Lloyd is a great author and this book makes it to the top of the tree for the holidays this year.
Switzerland has always been a nation synonymous with neutrality, but they almost found themselves at war in 1914 with Germany and France at their borders. The Swiss were worried the French would try to use Switzerland as a shortcut to Germany, but the Germans attacked Belgium and France before any skirmishes erupted. These figures are great for doing any early war “what if?” scenarios.
Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.
O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.
Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.
For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.
Emigre units made up a sizable portion of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Emigres were foreign troops in British service who chose to form regiments of a similar group.
One of the most notable units of emigres was the Kin’s German Legion, or the KGL. Made up of predominately Hanoverians, the KGL was created in 1803 from the remnants of the French controlled areas in Germany. The House of Hanover, who were in control of the British crown, helped to influence many Germans to choose the path of Britain rather than fighting for their new French leaders. The KGL consisted of 8 battalions of line infantry, 5 regiments of cavalry, and 6 batteries of artillery. There were about 14,000 troops in the KGL- the most of any emigre unit by far. They served throughout many campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, notably in the Peninsula and in the Hundred Days. They fought at Bussaco, Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo. They were most notably involved in the fighting at La Haye Sainte, described in The Longest Afternoon.
The Royal Corsican Rangers, a unit of riflemen formed on the island of Corsica, began in 1794 with the aid of Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli. By 1798, British General Ralph Abercromby made them an independent unit as they began to fight in Italy against Napoleon’s forces. Most notably, the Corsicans clashed with French troops at Maida in Sicily. The unit was stationed in Corfu later on until they were disbanded in 1817. Another of the Emigres was the Royal Sicilian Regiment founded in 1806 with 1,300 troops. Maj.-Gen. John Stuart created the unit who served on Malta and on their home island of Sicily.
One of the more famous and peculiar units was the Chasseurs Britanniques, made up of deserters from France. Many of them were people who were targeted in the revolution or people who were not allowed back in France. Over 1,700 troops fought in the Chasseurs Britanniques and they served widely around the world. They fought in the Egypt Campaign, in the Peninsula, and in the War of 1812 in the United States. The unit was disbanded in 1814 after Napoleon’s first exile.
The King’s Dutch Legion (KDL) was formed in 1799 after King William V left Holland after the French invaded and created the puppet state of the Batavian Republic. William V’s legion consisted of 5000 infantrymen and artillery and the unit served in the 1798 Irish Rebellion before they were disbanded in 1802. Another Dutch-inspired unit was the Regiment de Meuron because they were in Dutch East India Company (VOC) service. The Swiss mercenaries numbered about 900 and were transferred to the British after the formation of the Batavian Republic. They fought both in the Peninsula and in the United States.