Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Victory Liberty Loan and “Little Zeb”

Monday, September 14th, 2015


With the end of World War I the United States federal government faced a bit of a dilemma, it had borrowed significant amounts of capital to finance the United States war effort and with the war concluded it needed a bit more borrowed capital to square things away.  The U.S. federal government also wanted to borrow the money at attractive interest rates, to bring in financiers, but to do so without the risks of borrowing on the open capital market in what experts thought might be an economically difficult post-war transition period.  Hence the final liberty loan drive, the so-titled “Victory Liberty Loan.”


Begun in April 1919 the goal of this bond run was for the U.S. federal government to raise a total of $4.5 billion with gold-backed bonds, paying 4.75%, and redeemable in four years.  (The government had an option to snap them back after three years if it wished.)  As a bonus all interest paid on these bonds was exempt from income taxes.  The bonds sold well, aimed mainly towards businesses and wealthier individuals look for save havens for their money, but the campaign was considered lackluster by people of the period.  Previous liberty bond issues had posters oriented towards patriotism, showing individuals fighting, striving, surviving and the evil Hun being blasted or defied.  As the top example shows, this bond run was more emphasized on a “Eh, I could get behind that” outlook.


However the United States federal government, leaning on the army, did have one particularly darling promotional effort that did capture the hearts of the American people, “Little Zeb.”  “Little Zeb” was a Renault FT of French construction, deployed with American forces in World War I, that was shipped around the country by train to roll around the countryside and get people excited about buying the final bond issue.  The tank was used to not only drum up enthusiasm but also get small towns involved – “Little Zeb” put in several appearances in Colorado where pictures were snapped of it.


“Little Zeb” though was also more than a promotional piece, it was a window into the future of warfare, although few realized it at the time.  The Renault FT, and later US M1917, represented a revolution in tank design.  Prior to these vehicles tanks in World War I were based around the core of ideas of “big, heavy, massive armor, multiple guns, slow.”  The Renault FT was conceived of as a light tank, built and designed by the French, and to be used in “swarm tactics” to overwhelm the enemy.  It was more lightly armored, faster than other tanks, had a turret in which was mounted its main gun, and carefully designed tracks that could operate more effectively over difficult terrain.


Take a good look at that design, although obsolete by World War II this light tank was the defining look for what a “tank” would become and its roots are still present in modern armor design.  The tactics also used for this vehicle were the opening examples of what would later become the modern version of Germany’s “war of movement” using armor in World War II.  (The misnamed “blitzkrieg” model of warfare.)

On a final note, although obsolete by World War II this tank was still in use by many nations in the early 1940s, it had been copied, both legally and illegally, the world over because it was a charming little tank.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on Liberty Bonds, the Renault FT tank, entry in “Birth of a Market” on U.S. securities, and Images of America, Early Glenwood Springs by Cynthia Hines and the Frontier Historical Society, pp. 120

Why you have to be careful with history – the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918

Monday, July 27th, 2015


I’m a sucker for “pop history” and I make it a point to read interesting looking books when they come up, doubly so when they are focused on United States history.  I grabbed the edition of the Untold History of the United States for young readers, to enjoy a quick read and get a handle on the material being presented to teenage readers.  One item in particular I found interesting was the report that in 1918 to help deal with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 was passed that allowed “loose women” to be forcibly detained for examination for STIs and forcibly quarantined in the event of their being found to have an STI till it was cured.  The author claimed that over “20,000 women were so detained” – a factoid I found repeated on various websites talking about the act.


Now the US did launch a sizable media campaign against STIs during World War I, including efforts like the lovely poster above, and it appears probable that women were detained under the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, but if you dig below the surface outrage you’ll find a more complex picture.  The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 actually was one of the first federal block grants for public health research, a funding bill that included a sizable chunk of money distributed to various states to study STI spread, treatments, and provide education about STIs.  The grant required state boards of health that took the money to have their state legislators pass laws that met several minimal requirements including:

“The spread of venereal diseases [STIs] should be declared unlawful”

“Provision to be made for control of infected persons who do not cooperate in protecting others from infection”

“The travel of venereally infected persons within the State to be controlled by State boards of health by definite regulations that will conform in general to the interstate quarantine regulations”

All nasty provisions and, probably, all enforced against female prostitutes or other women suspected of “loose morals.”


The problem though, is that this is not a clean story of “evil federal laws passed that incarcerated women with STIs” as the book above, its original documentary, and online sources would like to argue.  Instead it is a patchwork of laws and enforcement actions undertaken by states that voluntarily took money from the federal government.  Therefore these actions need to be examined on a state-by-state basis, a more detailed and demanding analysis that would require a more careful examination of local histories, archives, and realities.  It also though changes the narrative from “evil federal expansion of powers” which the original book presented it as and instead shifts it towards “states, with incentives, using the far broader powers to arrest individuals for activities we today find uncomfortable to consider crimes.”


My key point to all this is actually pretty simple – the act did exist but its reality is more complicated and requires a more careful discussion than sources put forward.  To my eye the larger issue in this is the broader authority states have to pass laws such as this, and how in the 1910s and 1920s it was socially acceptable for such regulations to be passed by states.  It ties into broader, and less comfortable, discussions that impact us today about federalism and state power versus the more constrained federal power, as well as the position of governments in the space of regulating public morality and public health.

But that doesn’t square with a nice “evil federal government” story so the nuance is lost in the interest of shock value.

On an unrelated note, I think that last STI poster is my personal favorite.

Sources:  Google Books Landmark Legislation entry mentioning the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, actual text of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 at JSTOR, article that mentions the law by a professor of law at Duke University, NIH timeline entry confirming the passage and high-level purpose of the law



Plan 1919 and the Pedersen Device

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Pedersen_deviceThere is nothing quite like a good “wonder weapon” story and the Pedersen Device of 1917 fits that criteria.  Developed by John Pedersen his device was designed to modify the standard M1903 Springfield Rifle to shift it from a standard bolt-action weapon into a modified semi-automatic weapon instead.  The core issue was the slow firing rate of the M1903, which required an infantry men after each shot to retract the bolt, expel the fired cartridge, and return the bolt into firing position which chambered a new round.  Pedersen understood, as did the military, that in the combat environment of the trenches of World War I this slower firing speed was a problem for infantry men rushing across contested territory between entrenched positions.  Furthermore the M1903 Springfield did not allow soldiers to fire “from the hip” as they moved and required a soldier to halt while advancing to shoulder the weapon and properly fire it.

Pedersen made his device with the goal of taking an existing weapon platform, which the military was struggling to produce in sufficient quantities, and modify it, rather than requiring the deployment of an entirely new weapons system.  This modification also allowed the original M1903 bolt assembly to be inserted into the rifle, allowing the weapon to be switched between “semi-automatic smaller cartridge mode” which had shorter range but higher shot rates, and a “single-shot larger cartridge mode” for sniping and fixed position defense.  The United States Army was quite excited by the prospect and bought the rights to the modification, which was carefully concealed to allow it to be a surprise for the enemy.


General John Pershing, Commander of all the Armies United States, was favorable to the new device and included it as part of the planning for the proposed 1919 Offensive.  He requested large stocks of the modified ammunition and hundreds of thousands of the devices, as the new weapon was a key part in a broader plan to redefine the warfare of World War I.  Plan 1919, developed by J.F.C. Fuller, a British staff officer, was an ambitious plan to shatter the German western defenses through a radically new method of fighting.  An armored column of tanks, supported closely by aircraft and fast mobility infantry, would punch a hole through the German trench lines and race to capture and destroy German military headquarters for that section of the front, disrupting command and control.

In turn a follow-up general offensive, with tanks leading the way, close air support, and infantry following in trucks with fast firing weapons, would push through a narrow front in the German lines, pushing them apart and racing to capture key strategic targets within the combat area.  Slower military forces would then follow-up on the offensive, capturing and isolating key German military units bypassed in the initial thrust and therefore forcing the German military to either rapidly fall back or be annihilated.


If that sounds familiar to you it should – it is the basic outline for the German method of war, war of mobility (also misnamed as blitzkrieg) – which the German General Staff developed in the later 1920s to a fuller potential.  Their work though was inspired by the 1919 Plan, which post-war they learned about and studied in detail.

The Pedersen device did not survive the rigors of war however, tested in 1920 in Panama it was found to have flaws and the military had moved beyond converting M1903 Springfields into a new goal, developing an entirely new rifle with inherent semi-automatic qualities.  (Eventually taking the shape of the M1 Garand rifle by 1932.)  With the development of the Garand however the Pedersen device was obsolete, but considered too dangerous to be simply sold to the general public, who could modify surplus Springfield rifles and vastly increase their firepower.  So the Pedersen devices in storage, thousands of them, were simply burned in a huge surplus reducing bonfire.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Pedersen Device and Plan 1919


American Protective League

Monday, November 24th, 2014


In 1917 the United States was faced with a challenge, on 2 April 1917 Woodrow Wilson had asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war, by 6 April 1917 he had it in hand, and the United States faced a war with Germany.  At the time the United States had a massive population of first and second generation German-Americans and concerns were raised that these individuals might form a solid source of sabotage and espionage against the United States.  Furthermore the U.S. government did not have the federal manpower to investigate the sheer number of individuals suspected, so a new organization was needed to fill this perceived gap in federal enforcement.  Fortunately an organization had already been created to handle just such a situation, the American Protective League, organized by an Chicago advertising executive named Albert M. Briggs and informally approved by Wilson on 30 March 1917 in a cabinet meeting to serve as a semi-official extension of the Justice Department.  The theory was that citizen volunteers could provide the needed manpower to allow the government to rapidly expand its ability to examine its citizen base for disloyalty and cut the risk of sabotage and espionage.


Claiming a peak membership strength of 250,000 members the American Protective League deployed its volunteers to serve as spies on the entire population of the United States, claiming that over 52 million Americans lived in a city which had an active American Protective League presence.  After quickly exhausting any risk of sabotage or espionage the American Protective League instead focused on rooting out domestic “disloyalty” and reported on individuals who shirked on voluntary activities to support the war, who broke food ration regulations, who engaged in “slackerism” or “defeatism” in vital war industries, and those who expressed “defeatism” or who supported “political views” that were in opposition to the goals of the United States in a time of war.  To put it more simply – anyone who didn’t have wholehearted support for the United States in World War I was subject to being reported to the Justice Department and pursued by federal agents.  Combine that with the broad sweeping powers granted to the government under the respective Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and you had a perfect combination for civilian participation and legal crushing of individual political and social rights throughout the United States.  But of course it got so much worse…


In 1917 and 1918 local police agencies used American Protective League members as auxiliaries or deputies, as the local laws permitted, to engage in more “direct action” activities to deal with “disloyalty.”  In Chicago the police used League members to beat members of the International Workers of the World (IWW members of “Wobblies”) who attempted to protest or hold meetings.  In Arizona members of the League, along with vigilantes, locked 1,200 IWW members and their “collaborators” (families) into box cars, rolled them over the border into New Mexico’s desert, and abandoned them with no food or water and a warning to not return on pain of death.  Local Arizona authorities supported, and applauded, the action.  In Illinois the army used support from the American Protective League to extract confessions from twenty-one African-American soldiers who were accused of “assaulting white women.”  No records exist on the methods used to extract these confessions.

As well throughout the United States members of the American Protective League made a point of hiding their members in key factories and production centers to sniff out any sense of disloyalty in the workforce.  They even got into such mundane activities as “helping screen jury members” prior to a trial, as testimony before Congress showed.

The American Protective League was disbanded after the war when the government no longer felt it necessary and the leadership of the Justice Department changed, however the government did maintain the extensive files the League’s members helped it collect.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the American Protective League, testimony before the House that discussed American Protective League Activities, entry at Sewanee University on the American Protective League, Salon article on the American Protective League, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

World War I Intrigue – Felix Sommerfeld in Mexico and the United States

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014


The key question in World War I after the initial conflict of 1914 was resolved was what role the United States would end up playing in the conflict, for Great Britain, France, and Russia the United States was a key supplier of credit, munitions, arms, and secondary equipment needed to sustain their herculean efforts in the conflict.  In turn, for Germany, working to prevent the United States from contributing to the conflict to any greater extent, and keeping the United States from entering the conflict, were key goals until 1917.  One example of this effort is the mysterious work of Felix Sommerfeld (pictured above on the far left), who from the period of 1908 through 1918 Sommerfeld worked as a German agent in Mexico and the southwestern United States.  Sommerfeld was trained as a mining engineer and had a very colorful background prior to entering German service, including spending time in the United States as a prospector, briefly as a U.S. soldier in the Spanish-American War (he deserted), and also fighting as a German soldier during the 1900-1901 German expedition to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion.  How Sommerfeld ended up working as a German agent is a mystery but from 1908 through 1917 he was very busy in Mexican politics, specifically working as an illicit arms merchant funneling U.S. weapons into the Mexican Rebellion and sending regular reports on the situation in Mexico, and U.S. policy towards Mexico, back to Germany.

In the tumult of the Mexican Revolution Sommerfeld ended up initially working for the Mexican government under President Madero (1911 – 1913) where he served as the head of the Mexican Secret Service and used that position to build a massive spy network within the United States.  He also had connections with several famous mercenary soldiers and recruited them to help suppress an uprising against Madero in 1912.  With Madero’s fall in 1913 Sommerfeld left Mexico under the protection of the German ambassador and got involved in the new movement to overthrow Mexico’s new leader, Victoriano Huerta.


As part of that effort he drummed up financial and military support for Pancho Villa, the northern Mexican military leader and political focal point of one major effort to overthrow Huerta.  The question that comes up, and cannot be answered, is did Sommerfeld have any influence on Villa’s decision to launch a raid into New Mexico in 1916 in an attempt to bring the United States into the Mexican civil war?  Villa did the raid in the hopes of dragging U.S. forces southwards into Mexico deep enough to provoke a conflict between Huerta’s forces and the U.S. military, a conflict that might destabilize Mexico and bring Villa a new opportunity at winning a leadership position in Mexico.  For Sommerfeld, and Germany, a 1916 U.S./Mexican war would have probably kept the United States tied up during a critical point in World War I and cut the availability of United States support to France, Great Britain, and Russia.  Had the plan succeeded and the United States intervened with a massive military force, it might have changed the course of the war.  As it happened the U.S. sent in a token force and the situation was defused.

Sommerfeld was arrested eventually when the United States entered the war, he fades from history after the end of the war.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Felix A. Sommerfeld, entry in Revolutionary Mexico:  The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution by John Mason Hart, review of the book Hiding in Plain Sight by the CIA, and entry in the Life and Times of Pancho Villa by Friedrich Katz.

World War I – 1914 – Now What?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014


It is 2014 and this date marks the century mark of the Great War, or World War I for those who don’t mind spoilers.  Mid-October 1914 marked the end of what was later called the “Race to the Sea”, a series of flanking maneuvers and brutal contact battles between the German Army and mainly the French army, working with the remains of the British army, in a desperate bid to get to an open point where either side could resume the offensive.  Behind both armies was left a long thin line of trenches, marking the end of easy ground maneuvering between both armies and the closing of the earlier rapid advances at the start of the war in August 1914.  Traditionally at this point most articles on the subject focus on a long series of individual brutal battles and close with an observation that by late October 1914 the French and British began their next attempt, a series of short sharp mass battles to try and break the enemy trenches before the winter closed in and ended serious campaigning between the two sides.  (Another spoiler, the French and British did not manage to successfully breakthrough and end World War I in late 1914.)


What is key to remember is the context of the Race to the Sea period, Germany had just given the Russian army on its eastern front a series of backhanded smacks that had sent the Russians reeling in late August 1914 but that victory had been due to a combination of excellent German luck and terrible Russian planning and implementation.  The Russian army remained a threat, and in late October 1914 was still lurking as a real risk that Germany, wrapped up in its major efforts on its western front, might face a sudden Russian surge that, at worse, crushed Germany and at best tied down additional German resources.  So for the German military leadership this time in October 1914 they were facing a serious strategic nightmare, on the one hand they had not successfully crushed the French, but they had captured a huge amount of valuable territory and French industrial resources, withdrawing from it would seem to signal a failure of their war efforts which, by all logic, had been successful.  Granted they hadn’t knocked the French out of the war by capturing Paris but France was severely weakened, if Germany could just hold on long enough the thought was France would not be able to maintain the war.  As well Germany still hoped in 1915 that a method for a certain breakthrough in the west would occur.

Meanwhile they would continue to smack around the Russians as needed and work with their ally, Austria-Hungary, to keep the Eastern front contained.  It wasn’t until later Germany completely shifted gears and made the major focus of the war knocking Russia out of the conflict.

But what is fascinating is by October 1914 Germany, France, and Britain were locked in a savage problem, neither one could disengage from the war but none of the three had a sure-fire technique to regain the initiative and end the war.  Germany needed to resolve the war so it could turn on Russia, out of fear that Russia would field a massive doom army that would smash Germany.  France needed the war to continue to regain its lost territories, and Britain needed the war to continue to re-ensure Belgium and Holland were independent again ending the threat of German control of the key European ports for invading England.

Yet none of these three powers had any clear means to proceed – and the trenches which were a defensive holding stance till things were figured out became the dominant factor in the western European front.

Sources:  Mental Floss article on the Race to the Sea, Wikipedia entry on the Race to the Sea and Paul von Hindenburg

The 1915 Bomb Attack on the U.S. Capital Building

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Meet Eric Muenter, instructor in the German language at Harvard University and World War I independent saboteur for the German cause.  Muenter’s early history is not particularly well known, he was a German immigrant to the United States who found work as an educator, got married, and had a child on the way in 1915 when he became impassioned about the German cause and enraged at what he perceived as the United States meddling in the war, meddling he saw as prolonging the war and preventing Germany from bringing its war to a favorable ending.  As a German nationalist Muenter was unwilling to allow this to continue and he developed a plan to alert the United States public that they needed to end this “illegal and immoral” intervention in a European war.  Muenter decided that he would wage this necessary demonstration upon the United States and bring American intervention into the war to an end.


Muenter began by poisoning his pregnant wife with arsenic, it is unclear why he wanted to kill off his wife and unborn infant but once he had murdered them Muenter fled his hometown to avoid arrest and traveled to Washington D.C. to plant a bomb in the United States Capital building.  On 2 July 1915 Muenter was able to sneak into the Capital building with a timer detonator and three sticks of dynamite, he was not able to get into the actual Senate chamber itself, it was locked, but he was able to get into the Senate Reception chamber and hide his bomb within the room.  At twenty minutes before midnight on 2 July 1915 the bomb went off and badly damaged the room, including wrecking the telephone switchboard that served the Senates needs.  Muenter had hoped his action would spark a backlash in the United States against the war, he explained his actions in a letter to the Washington Evening Star, however prior to its publication he continued his plan of individual sabotage by planting a bomb aboard a munitions ship, the S.S. Minnehaha and then attempting an assassination.


His target was J.P. Morgan, American financier/banker and one of the most visibly influential financial leaders in the United States.  Muenter blamed American banks and financial institutions for prolonging the war, and violating the principle of United States neutrality, due to their heavy lending to the Triple Entee nations, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy.  Muenter planned to kill Morgan to put a fear of lending to the Western European nations into American bankers, he was able to get into the Morgan’s mansion and met Morgan himself in the front entrance, where Muenter opened fire.  Muenter’s aim wasn’t very good and ended up shooting Morgan in the “groin region” as a later article delicately alluded, apparently Muenter also merely upset Morgan who attempted to subdue him.  Muenter fled but was captured – either by the local police and/or Morgan’s servants.

Muenter was arrested but before his trial killed himself in his jail cell.  Apparently he initially attempted suicide by cutting his wrists using a small bit of metal he pried off of a pencil eraser, the effort though failed.  Afterwards he resorted to killing himself by falling, as a 1942 article on him colorfully states:  “he climbed a latticework of prison bars and dived head first to the concrete floor, dashing his skull to pieces.”

Muenter was not an official agent of the German government nor were his actions sanctioned, but he is just one example of World War I sabotage undertaken to undermine the American effort in World War I.  The German government was far more creative in its sanctioned efforts, like the time it destroyed an entire island off the coast of New York.

Sources:  Wikipedia on Eric Muenter, Senate history entry on Muenter, Harvard Crimson 1942 article on Muenter, and DC Crime Stories article on Muenter

Kurdistan – 1920 Edition

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014


With the ending of World War I in 1918 one of the key issues facing the Allied powers (originally the Triple Entente) was how to construct the new post-war world, and to do so in a way that achieved several goals:  disarming Germany as a threat to the balance of power/European peace, passing the cost of the war off the backs of the victorious powers, providing territorial gains to those victorious powers to justify the vast scope of the war, and also attempting to settle some pesky pre-war ethnicity and cultural division issues.  The last goal was specifically attempted by the Allied powers to address the rising power of modern nationalist movements among various unique cultural and ethnic groups that had for previous centuries been part of larger heterogeneous empires and now were seeking the power to control their own fate in territories they had either traditionally occupied or had come into control over during the war.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one such entity but another one that was carved up was the Ottoman Empire, which the Allied powers planned to slice and dice into a series of semi-independent kingdoms and zones of influence to both enrich themselves and provide outlets for rising local nationalist movements.  (The United States, represented at these conferences by President Woodrow Wilson, was generally focused on other areas and mainly sought to ensure that nationalities he felt deserving of independence were granted sovereignty or at least semi-sovereignty.)  One of the ethnic/cultural groups so considered for elevation to new nationhood was the Kurdish populations in what is today modern northern Iraq and modern southern Turkey.


Embodied in the Treaty of Sevres of 10 August 1920 a chunk of territory was designated by the treaty to be directly under the control of a new nation-state, Kurdistan being the “working title” kicked around by the Allied powers for the new state.  The core of the plan was for a region of Kurds to hold a referendum vote to determine their future position or status, a vote expected to embrace a new statehood, and a truncated area of territory in modern Turkey was to be set aside for the new Kurdish state.  The Ottoman Empire agreed to the new terms and the Kurdish state was to be part of the area in the region under the “influence” of Great Britain.  (Based on the actual example of Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s this would have probably meant that Kurdistan would have been allowed a form of “independence” after granting Great Britain considerable economic and military concessions.)

However this plan fell apart, despite the Treaty of Sevres being signed by all the parties involved, due to the minor problem of revolution…


Specifically Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a successful Turkish military leader and statesman who was able to successfully lead a nationalist revolution to remove the last remnants of the Ottoman state in Turkey and establish Turkey’s mainland borders at their pre-war limits.  By doing so he also negated any idea of a new Kurdistan and was able to force the Allied powers to sign a new treaty in 1922, the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended the Turkish internal war he was leading and set the stage for Turkey’s modern, repressive, policies towards Kurdish populations within their borders.  (Similar policies have also been used by Syria and Iraq in past decades.)

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Treaty of Sevres, the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Kurdistan, an article on the Kurdish people by the Washington Post, and an article by World News on Gertrude of Arabia

World War I Brilliance by Necessity – the Brusilov Offensive of 1916

Monday, March 17th, 2014


This picture seems to scream “Damn right I’m a bad ass” and it is fitting for Aleksei Brusilov – the designer of one of the most effective offensives in World War I, the most effective on the Eastern Front and probably the most successful of the entire war.  As most people know World War I was a war of grinding mass infantry battles, generals focused on a particular set of tactics – lead off an offensive with a heavy artillery pounding to destroy the enemy entrenchments, then send in waves of infantry to occupy the theoretically pounded trenches and, ideally, break through the trench line and into clear ground beyond for a swift, decisive offensive.  Ideally you also amassed huge numbers of infantry in a narrow area to give your assault the weight necessary to overwhelm any defenders left in the opposing trenches.  The problems with these tactics were multiple however:  first, and foremost, the artillery tore up the ground between your trenches and those of your opponent, breaking up the infantry advance and also making it increasing hard to get reserves into the battle to hold the ground you smashed.  Furthermore your enemy by 1915 had learned to keep their reserves in specially designed deep shelters so they could pop out once the artillery bombardment let up to greet the oncoming infantry assault with their own artillery, machine gun, and small arms fire.  The only solution generals could think of was to increase the amount of artillery fire in the hopes of obliterating the opposition and leaving vacant ground, a plan that wasted huge amounts of material and failed to win battles.

Brusilov in 1916 had a unique problem to solve however, on his military front he did not have a large number of men to overwhelm his opponent with in waves of troops and he didn’t have the sort of massive stockpiles of ammunition needed for a multiple week long bombardment of the enemy positions.  Scarcity forced him to get highly creative, so his offensive combined some radical ideas:  first carefully preparing massive shelters near the front lines for his reserves, to keep them safe and also put them very close to the battlefield.  Second, using camouflage to conceal his buildup of troops.  Third, spreading his offensive out over an extremely broad front so that his opponents would not know where the main thrust was taking place, and therefore have to scatter their reserves to cover a large area of battle.  But finally, and key, he refined how artillery was used and how infantry advanced.  Rather than waves of men pouring into battle he instructed his soldiers to advance carefully, in looser formations, firing as they advanced and covering each other as they moved into the enemy positions.  Artillery would fire only a short, very intense barrage against carefully selected targets and working in close coordination so that the infantry would be supported by the artillery fire, not face ground churned up into muck by indifferent firing.


The offensive began on 4 June 1916 and rapidly turned into a massive success, the defenders, unprepared for these novel tactics and unable to halt the advance fell back, several enemy units facing Brusilov simply collapsed and surrendered as his infantry overwhelmed their positions.  This offensive gained huge amounts of ground and actually changed the strategic balance of the war for a short period of time, it is considered the greatest military catastrophe the Austro-Hungarian army faced and led to Germany taking a very firm hand in controlling the Austro-Hungarian armies for the rest of the war.  The Russian army for the next year was halted by German units, stiffening the resolve of the Austro-Hungarian forces to fight.  So the question is with this offensive taking place so successfully why didn’t the other armies allied with Russia, or those of Germany and Austria-Hungry, adopt these tactics and change the nature of the war?

Honestly because Brusilov’s offensive was seen by the professional military on both sides as a fluke, in their eyes it worked despite doing everything wrong, and would have worked even better if they had been able to pour in more soldiers, on a narrower front, with more artillery.  In fact many generals simply pointed at this offensive as an example of why they needed more resources to fight, because obviously if an offensive in strength so close to parity with the defenders could work in a fortunate moment, how much better would an offensive work on a similar fortunate moment in the future if more of the “correct” tactics were used?  Sadly even Brusilov himself feel victim to this line of thinking, his future offensives utilized increasingly older and less successful tactics as he tried to expand on his earlier success.

The only other major offensive to use similar ideas was the major 1918 German offensive in the west – however even they, although using “shock-troops” for rapid advancement through weak points in the enemy line, ended up using heavily artillery and wave attacks for their major effort.  (Which also failed.)  It wasn’t until World War II that some of the ideas of rapid movement and mutual covering of troop advancement, plus combined arms, came into its own.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on Brusilov Offensive

World War I as a Bar Fight

Monday, March 10th, 2014


First, full props for whomever developed this, it is adorable, and only needs a few modifications to fully capture the wonder that is World War I:

“Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there” – they forgot to add – “When Germany isn’t looking Japan steals his hat and put’s it on his head.”  [Capture of German holdings in China.]

“At one point Britain and Germany look at each other and each flips out a knife, the fight stops for a moment and everyone looks on, Britain and Germany take a few fake stabs at each other, put the knives away, and then carry on as though nothing happened.  Everyone else joins back in.”  [Battle of Jutland]

“Mexico, looking beat up and sitting near America, gets called to by Germany – ‘Hey mate if you jump in here and help me with the guy next to you I’ll cover your bar tab!’  Mexico looks up from his drink, looks at America, who scowls at him, looks back down at his drink and replies ‘I’m good here, thanks.'”  [U.S. 1916 intervention in Mexico and the Zimmerman Telegram.]

“The United States calls out several times ‘Mates, I’ve got a plan to stop all this, it’s a really good plan.  Guys, come on, guys, seriously, GUYS!’  Then he wades in and smashes German with a bar stool after France and Britain have been whaling on Germany.  When Germany falls over America looks down at him and says ‘Told you I had a plan to end all this, ass.'”  [Wilson’s 14 points]

“China asks for Germany’s former hat back, since it was originally stolen from him, and now Japan stole it.  Everyone ignores China who sits back down and looks depressed.”  [Post-war settlement and China’s requests for territorial integrity ignored.]

Of course they missed my favorite part – when France, Britain, and America carve out bloody chunks from Germany and Russia and craft them into lovely new crying babies that quickly become teenagers and start punching each other while everyone looks on tiredly.  [For those who can’t guess – Versailles Treaty and the creation of new shiny nations.]