Category Archives: Canada

D-Day Surprise: No Horses!

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1399-1420:

In the afternoon, the English, I recall, insisted for some reason on sending a German-speaking English army priest in among us [German prisoners] to listen to any spiritual concerns we had; this was met with derision. I still recall the face of the army priest, who was very angry at his reception. We heard explosions and detonations from inland and from the beach throughout the day, and naval bombardments from offshore, the shells of which travelled over us with a sound like an express train going past, and always the sound of engines: planes, tanks and trucks, never stopping for a moment.

In the evening, we were taken out of the square and led to the beach. The guards made no attempt to blindfold us or to prevent us seeing the situation. The scale of the operation then became clear to us all, and most of us fell completely silent at what we witnessed.

The sea wall area was being worked on with armoured bulldozers, creating a huge ramp for vehicles to drive up. There were many destroyed vehicles and tanks, some still burning. I saw my bunker, which was collapsed in the frontal part, over the 88mm embrasures; there was smoke drifting from the rubble.

The beach was completely full of transports, including many vehicles we had not seen and we did not even know how to describe: amphibious trucks, tanks with flotation screens, enormous landing craft that were unloading whole columns of jeeps and tanks, directly onto the sand. The English had already cleared a wide lane through the beach obstacles – how they did that so quickly, I have never understood, perhaps with linked explosive charges – and this lane was an absolute highway on the wet sand and out into the sea itself. There were still many bodies, which were lined in large groups on the sand and partly covered with tarpaulins; despite our lack of religion, many of our men crossed themselves as we passed these.

One thing in particular struck many of us as amazing: all along the beach, there were no horses!

This was a surprise for you?

Yes, we found it astonishing. This huge army had brought with it not one single horse or pack-mule! All their transport was mechanised. It may sound bizarre today, but this impressed us greatly, showing that the Allies had no need of horses anymore, as they had such huge oil resources and production capacity. Because, of course, the German armies used horses for transport on quite a large scale right up until the end of the war, due to limited fuel and constraints on mechanised vehicle production. Every German unit had its stables and veterinarian officer, and here were these English without that need at all. For us, this symbolised the Allied capabilities.

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1918: Respect for German Gunners

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2481-2488, 4523-4538:

Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans: for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought. Within days of reaching the front with his division, Captain Grady saw a German plane fly low over the lines and drop a note addressed to their Commanding Officer. ‘Goodbye 42nd Division,’ it read, ‘hello 77th’. ‘Jerry sure is there with the humour,’ wrote Grady. For Frank Holden, his respect and admiration for the German soldier was summed up in his experience at Boucanville with 82nd Division. It was commonly said that the location of their battalion headquarters was well-known to the Germans, and that they could probably shell it any time they wanted. The divisional staff would joke about the time when three large shells – huge 210mm rounds – landed in a direct line near to the battalion headquarters; two shells behind, one in front. But no matter what the Germans did, they never moved their headquarters, simply because ‘we thought if we did then the Germans would drop a 210 on us just to show us that they knew that we had moved’.

For every group of cowed, shivering soldiers, there were others in the German Army who would not give in; those who were disputing their progress every day, inch by inch: the spine of the German defence, her machine-gunners. These men were both feared and respected. ‘The gunners were brave men,’ wrote T. H. Holmes, a Private with 56th (London) Division, ‘because firing the gun meant revealing the position of it, and up would come a tank and invariably shoot the post to pieces, and then trample it flat. I saw a ghastly mass of crushed heads and limbs tangled up with twisted iron. They said some of these machine-gunners were chained to their weapons.’ Another British soldier, a member of the Machine-Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs how these men repeatedly occupied the best positions with the most deadly fields of fire, and consequently always proved extremely dangerous. Like many soldiers, he soon became used to the sight of machine-gunners crushed beneath tanks. Although it was not true that these men were chained to their weapons – the strap that the gunners wore was often mistaken for some kind of restraint – their courage was legendary. On one occasion, a Canadian, R. H. Camp, came across a gunner who had fired off all his ammunition. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, but Camp was amazed by what happened next. ‘He stood up in his hole and started taking his gun to pieces and he was throwing the pieces at us, anything he could get a hold of. We knew then of course that he was out of ammunition and we up and rushed him.’ Just as the Canadians were about to get to grips with him, their officer ran up shouting. ‘Don’t stick him boys! Don’t stick him.’ He got out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and then put it in the German’s pocket. ‘Don’t touch this man, he’s brave.’ He then told the German to make his way back to the rear. The note was a signed declaration of the machine-gunner’s courage and a guarantee that he would not be harmed.

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1918: The Americans

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2489-2509:

At first glance the doughboys looked little different from their British and French associates. They wore a version of the British tin helmet and used the small pattern box respirator. They ate bully beef. They fired French or British weapons, often Lee Enfields, Lewis guns or Chauchats, and threw Mills bombs. They went into action alongside French tanks – Renaults or Schneiders – flew French or British aircraft – Spads or Sopwith Camels – and grew to love the French 75mm field gun, the legendary soixante-quinze. But in other respects the Americans were remarkably different. While both British and French Armies recruited mainly from remarkably cohesive home societies (excepting, of course, their colonial contingents), Pershing’s men were drawn from the full spectrum of US society, and included many recent immigrants from Europe, Russia and Latin America, as well as Native Americans. A considerable number of black Americans also went to France, and although they were not permitted to serve alongside white soldiers and continued to suffer horrific racial prejudice, they did yeoman service on the lines of transport in France, helping to unload equipment and supplies, and doing the menial jobs without which Pershing’s army could not have survived.

The Americans were different in other ways too. They were much richer than their cousins in other armies. They could draw $30 a month, about ten times the pay of a French private, thus gaining the eternal jealousy of the poilus, who looked upon the arrival of the Americans with concern and insecurity. And in another odd, but still tangible way, the Americans differed from their British and French counterparts. They were big; physically big. Numerous commentators at the time noticed the physical presence of the first US soldiers, tall, well-built troops with high morale and an instinctive, almost cocky pride; the kind of soldiers that had not been seen on the Western Front since 1916, when Britain’s New Armies had entered the fray. For their commander, this was the key point. Pershing was confident that American valour – her aggressive frontier spirit – would be the answer to the stalemate in the west. When he had first travelled to France and met British and French commanders, Pershing had quickly come to the conclusion that their methods would never win the war. They were stuck in their ways, he would tell his subordinates, and obsessed with limited, artillery-heavy trench attacks. He wanted his troops to be trained, first and foremost, as individual soldiers and riflemen, able to think for themselves on the battlefield and engage the enemy on their own terms.

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1918: The Role of Gas

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2110-2134, 2146-2157:

Following up the German armies was never easy or without cost. As well as advancing in the face of shelling, booby-traps, and machine-gun and sniper fire, the Allied armies had to operate in a terrifying and dangerous chemical environment. Although shell and machine-gun fire accounted for the majority of casualties, gas evoked a fear that was unlike any other weapon and had a significant effect on how the war was fought. It had evolved much since the first chlorine gas had been released near Ypres in 1915, maturing into a weapon that was used with a remarkable degree of ingenuity and inventiveness. By 1918 all sides had incorporated gas into their battle tactics, with both front and rear sectors regularly being deluged with gas, which poisoned the ground and caused a constant trickle of casualties. Gas shells, containing either mustard or phosgene, would often be fired alongside high explosive, in the hope that during a bombardment – with its noise and chaos – the arrival of quieter gas shells would be missed. If any soldiers survived the bombardment, then a silent, deadly killer would still await them. Gas also offered a useful and effective method of counter-battery fire. Because it was very difficult to score a direct hit on enemy gun positions, gas shells were frequently employed to force gunners to don their respirators, which often impeded their accuracy and slowed their reactions.

For the Allies, the main problem was dealing with mustard gas – ‘the king of the war gases’ – which was used in increasing amounts by German artillery. As the retreat gathered momentum, German gunners fired thousands of these shells at their pursuers, using it as an area denial weapon, through which the Allies could not advance, or at least not without difficulty. As the historian Tim Cook has shown, ‘German gunners simply blocked out map grids and fired shells to saturate the whole sector, thereby eliminating that area from the front.’ Ever since its introduction in the summer of 1917, mustard gas had become notorious for its effectiveness at causing casualties because of its persistence and the lack of a foolproof countermeasure. The German chemical industry produced vast amounts of this effective and unpleasant chemical compound, while the Allies could only manufacture limited amounts by the summer of 1918. Mustard gas may not have been immediately fatal (particularly if there was only minor contact), but it caused a variety of painful wounds, including lung damage (if inhaled), blisters and burns on the skin, and conjunctivitis in the eyes. The shells would explode with a dull thud or pop, leading some inexperienced soldiers to mistake its arrival for that of a ‘dud’ shell. The liquid contents would then leak out, rapidly vaporize and form terrifying yellow clouds. Because it could go through wool and cotton, there was precious little protection from its symptoms, particularly if the liquid splashed you, and it lay there, settling in shell holes and trenches, often remaining active for weeks. It is little wonder that unless dealt with quickly the fear of mustard gas had a devastating effect on unit morale. All soldiers could do was put on their gas masks and try to get out of the affected area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this was sometimes easier said than done because German gunners had an annoying habit of creeping their gas barrages forward at the same rate as a man could walk. If you were particularly unfortunate, you could be exposed for hours.

The Americans – who began their own offensive in September – would also encounter the horror of mustard gas. Indeed, Pershing’s forces were particularly susceptible to gas attacks as they lacked the sophisticated and well-worn anti-gas doctrine of the British and French. Whereas the Allies had been gradually improving their protective measures since 1915 (and were well aware of how deadly chemical weapons could be), there was a lack of appreciation in the US Army of how easily gas could cause casualties. Gas accounted for 27 per cent of American losses in the Great War, a frighteningly high figure that, in part, explained the speed with which large US divisions were worn out at the front.17 One American officer, Frank Holden, a Battalion Gas Officer, experienced a gas bombardment that September. It was a terrifying few hours that revealed not only how inventive gas tactics were becoming, but also how difficult they were to combat. Holden knew that the Germans often fired tear gas (or what was known as Blue Cross gas) into areas where troops had concentrated, causing intense choking, sneezing and coughing. After Blue Cross had been deployed, German gunners would then deluge the target area with more deadly agents, many men often finding it impossible to keep their respirators on if they needed to sneeze or vomit. Holden’s battalion had marched into the village of Norroy when they came under a barrage of ‘sneezing gas’ (most probably Blue Cross). He immediately ordered all gas masks to be worn.

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1918: Canadian and Australian Shock Troops

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle 872-892:

The spearhead of the attack was entrusted to two of the most powerful and experienced corps in the BEF: the Canadian and Australian Corps. Both were large, well-equipped and battle-hardened formations with a growing reputation for professionalism, ruthlessness and above all success. It had been the Canadian Corps that had taken Vimy Ridge in April 1917, successfully storming one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front in little over three hours. Although the Australians never enjoyed success on the scale of Vimy, they prided themselves on their effectiveness and aggression, specializing in large trench raids that they called – somewhat misleadingly – ‘peaceful penetration’. The Australians had also recently conducted the Battle of Hamel on 4 July, a beautifully crafted combined ‘all-arms’ operation that took just over ninety minutes to overrun the village of Le Hamel and surrounding woodland with minimal casualties. These formations, as was rapidly becoming clear, were the ‘shock armies’ of the BEF. They were also semi-independent formations with powerful political support back home. Haig could not boss the Canadians or Australians around in the way that he was used to doing with British divisions.

As well as containing large numbers of well-rested, highly motivated and well-equipped troops, the Dominion corps were led by two of the most promising commanders in the British Empire: Sir Arthur Currie and Sir John Monash. In many ways they were typical of their homelands, being men who could only have found success and fame in the freer air of the Dominions. There was no way Arthur Currie, a teacher and failed financier, would have risen to Lieutenant-General had he joined the regular British Army. Likewise, the Australian, Sir John Monash, came from a family of Polish Jews and he had originally been a civil engineer when he joined the North Melbourne Militia before the war. Both men possessed fierce, inquisitive minds, eagerly devouring military knowledge because they knew the lives of their men depended on it. They understood and valued firepower and logistics and also recognized the importance of patience and preparation. Currie’s motto was a characteristic ‘neglect nothing’, while Monash described his theory of war as how ‘to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes’. The theory of war that emerged from the Dominion corps may not have been subtle; it may not have been as innovative as the tactical changes ushered in by the German Army, but it worked. And it worked at a tolerable cost in lives.

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1918: Influenza on the Western Front

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 650-667:

As well as the thousands of broken and bloodied men that came from the front, there was a frightening surge in cases of influenza across Western Europe. This was the first wave of the great ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic that wreaked such havoc and caused such fear, with up to fifty million people dying worldwide before the end of 1919. Influenza had always been present, but the number of admissions suddenly surged up during the last summer of the war. In the UK there had been somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 cases each month during the spring, but over 30,000 were registered in June alone. This epidemic took the form of the so-called ‘three day fever’, which was extremely infectious, and, as the British Medical History noted, would strike suddenly ‘so that barrack rooms which the day before had been full of bustle and life would now be converted wholesale into one great sick room’. Patients would experience a high fever, often up to 103 degrees Fahrenheit, before gradually returning to health within a short time. This strain was particularly virulent in the German Army. In the two months of June and July 1918, over half a million soldiers would contract the disease, most of whom were treated in specialized ‘flu infirmaries’ behind the lines. The illness usually began with chills and general malaise, before a fever took hold for 48–72 hours. This ‘lighter’ type of flu was usually not fatal – patients would generally recover within eight or ten days – and had died down by the late summer, and should not be confused with the much more lethal and dangerous strain that emerged over the winter of 1918 and into the following year.

This second strain of influenza was the killer. As the year progressed, Allied and German doctors began to notice new, more terrifying symptoms in their influenza cases. They would soon become familiar with a list of complaints that included bodily weakness and a throbbing headache, chest pains and a hacking cough. Usually blood-stained froth would be brought up and the patient would then show the usually fatal signs of cyanosis – the blue discoloration of the face that meant death was only hours away.

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1918: How the Great War Ended

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 305-326:

The campaign of 1918 remains one of the most important, yet least understood, periods of the war. Writing in 2011, the historian David Stevenson claimed that ‘whereas modern comprehensive investigations now exist into the outcomes of other modern conflicts, the First World War still lacks one’. It had begun on 21 March, when the thunderous opening of the German Spring Offensive shattered the trench deadlock that had gripped the opposing armies for the best part of three years. Having been able to redeploy large numbers of troops to France after the collapse of Russia, Germany’s leaders vowed to strike before the Allies, buttressed by powerful American support, became invincible. The aim was to conduct a massive attack in France, separate the British and French Armies, and win the war before Germany’s perilous strategic situation worsened even further. But this great masterstroke failed. Although manoeuvre returned to the Western Front and the German armies advanced deep into northern France, the Allies evaded this knock-out blow and held on. And it was in July, when Germany’s strength began to fade, that the Allies hit back, thus beginning the final campaign of the Great War: the Hundred Days.

When I began researching this period, the lack of a really satisfactory account of these final battles, particularly one that analysed the situation from the point of view of all the main warring sides, became immediately apparent. Although there have been many good books on 1918 – a personal favourite being Gregor Dallas’s epic 1918: War and Peace (2000) – their coverage remains patchy, selective and frequently drawn from a few well-worn sources. Anglophone historians have understandably focused on the battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force and have relatively little to say about the important roles played by the French or the Americans. Other writers have claimed that the war was effectively over by the summer of 1918 – meaning that the Hundred Days was not especially important – but this remains a narrow and selective approach dependent upon hindsight. The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly. Between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men. Indeed, casualty rates among British units were some of the worst of the war, leading many commentators to assume that nothing had been learnt from previous offensives; that it was the same old story of fruitless slaughter and sacrifice in 1918 as it had been in earlier years. This may not have been the case, but the death toll of those final days – increased tragically by the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ – remains remarkable and deserves greater examination than it has hitherto received.

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