History Friday: The Deathly Wood

(The historic WWI Battle of Belleau Wood is a part of the background in A Half Dozen of Luna City … and for your edification – an essay on it, which will feature in the latest Luna City chronicle.)

1918 was not the year that the 19th century died; died in all of its boundless optimisms and earnest faith in advancement of the human condition. For Europe – cynical, cultured, hyper-superior old Europe – that could be said to happened two years earlier, along the Somme, at Verdun, in the tangled hell of barbed wire, poisoned gas and toxic, clay-like mud, the burnt ruins of the centuries-old Louvain university and it’s priceless library, destroyed by German ‘frightfulness’ tactics in the heat of their first offensive. Perhaps the 19th century died as early as 1915. It depended on which front, of course, and the combatants involved, still standing on their feet, but wavering like punch-drunken, exhausted pugilists. One may readily theorize that only blood-drenched enmity kept them propped up, swinging futilely at each other, while the lists of casualties from this or that offensive filled page after page of newsprint; all in miniscule typeface, each single name – so small in print, yet a horrific, tragic loss for a family and community hundreds of miles from the Front.

All this was different for Americans, of course; sitting on the sidelines, gravely concerned, yet publicly dedicated to neutrality, and firmly at first of the conviction that Europe’s affairs were not much of Americas’ business. But softly, slowly, slowly, softly – American sympathies swung towards the Allies, even though there were enough first- and second-generation Americans among German and Irish immigrants to have swung American public opinion among non-Anglo or Francophile elements towards maintaining a continued neutrality. After all, it was a war far, far, away, and nothing much to do with us … at first. But events conspired; the brutality of the Huns in Belgium (documented by American newspapers), unrestricted submarine warfare which extended to American shipping (and, inevitably, American casualties), and finally, the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram – and in the spring of 1917, President Wilson formally requested of Congress that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany be considered and voted upon. Said declaration was passed by an overwhelming margin, and by summer of that year, American troops were arriving in France – first in a trickle, then a flood.

The Belleau Wood was a forested tract thirty or so miles northeast of Paris; a hunting preserve in a stand of old-growth European forest, the refuge of wildlife, and for those whose favored recreation was hunting them. At the northern edge of the forest was two-story octagonal hunting lodge; built of stone, it was a place to shelter hunters for a night, during momentary bad weather, or a hearty meal, mid-hunt. Until the spring of 1918, it had been relatively untouched by a war which had turned acres and acres of French and Belgian farmland into muddy, barbed-wire entangled wastelands – many of which are still poisoned and unsafe, a hundred years after the end of that war. That forest tranquility ended when the expected German spring offensive slammed into the Allied lines – lines which now included the Americans – and punched through to the Marne River. The Germans had hoped to break through before the sufficient of the American Expeditionary Force arrived to make a difference in the wars’ outcome.

Late in May, German forces reached the Paris-Metz main road – and if they managed to break across the Marne and reach Paris, that one last throw of the dice would pay off for Germany; perhaps in victory, or perhaps in a negotiated and face-saving settlement with the equally exhausted and embittered French and British.

An experienced career soldier, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing commanded the US. Expeditionary Force. He had rejected British and French demands that the Americans be parceled out piecemeal among Allied units, and essentially fight under the command of French and British officers. This would not do – likely Black Jack was polite yet forceful about it. (His nic came from him having commanded a troop of black cavalry early in his career as a young officer.) The AEF’s 3rd Division went into the line to counter the German advance at Chateau Thierry – the 3rd Division, which included a brigade of Marines, had initially been held in reserve – was brought forward in a hurry. The Marines were pretty much seen as a second-class by the Army brass, according to some accounts: good enough to do rear-guard and support duty, and only thrown into what was expected to be a quiet sector because every able-bodied American serviceman was needed, in the face of the German spring offensive. Checked by stiff resistance at Chateau Thierry, the German advance poured into the woods, where the 3rd Division had just arrived. Retreating French troops, exhausted from the fight to keep from being overrun, urged the Americans to do likewise, whereupon one of their officers is supposed to have riposted, “Retreat, Hell – we just got here!”

Of course, the newly-arrived American troops were keen as mustard; champing at the bit, as it were – especially the Marines, few of whom were of the career old breed. Many were recent volunteers. Up until that moment, the Marines had been a rather small, and somewhat specialized service; more inclined to security on board naval ships and at US embassies abroad, perhaps a small punitive expedition where American interests were concerned in South America and the Caribbean; a military constabulary, rather than hard-charging infantry. Still, it was a service that took pride in having been founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775, recruiting at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, beating the official establishment of the US Army by more than a decade. (Yes, there was a Continental Army during the Revolution, but it was more like state militias seconded for service in the colonies’ united cause. The US Army wasn’t quote-unquote officially established until the 1780s. Upon this kind of minutia are friendly service rivalries built.)

Throughout the month of June 1918, the Marines fought with bitter tenacity through the deathly woods; sharpshooting at first, with deadly effect, and eventually to point-blank range, then with bayonet, knives, and hand-to-hand. They kept the Germans from moving out of the wood, and then fought them back, yard by yard, trench by trench. The trees in the forest overhead, the boulders at their feet were shattered by machine-gun and artillery fire. The stench from the bodies of the dead – too many to bury, under the existing conditions in the early summer heat – revolted the living to an unimaginable degree. And still – they went on, clawing back the wood to Allied control. More Marines were killed in that single month than had been killed in action since their founding in 1775. The Corps would not face another butcher’s bill to equal it until the taking of Tarawa, a quarter of a century later, and half the world away. It was a special kind of hell, this fight in a 200-acre French woodland, fought by relatively untried young troops, motivated by pride in service, by devotion to comrades, and by the leadership – which in many instances devolved onto NCOs, and even individual Marines, like Sergeant Dan Daly, a scrappy Irish-American career Marine (who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – twice, for actions in the Boxer Rebellion, and then again in Haiti). In legend he is said to have rallied the troops with a shout of “For Chrissake, men, come on; do you want to live forever?!” (Or similar phrasing. The war correspondent Floyd Gibbons later wrote that he had heard a similar expression shouted by a senior NCO, and the legend attached itself to Dan Daly.)

In the end, the Germans were driven from the woods, at a horrific cost; 10,000 casualties among the Marines, including nearly 2,000 dead. There is no definitive record of German dead, although there were around 1,600 Germans taken prisoner. But the Marines had clawed back the deathly woods, blunted the last-ditch German offensive … and in November of that year, Germany threw in the towel. By agreement, it all came to a temporary end on the eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month. Such were the enmities and resulting bitterness that the armistice held only for the time that it took for a baby boy born in that year to grow up and serve in his turn. The shattered forest was christened anew after the battle; now it is called the Wood of the Marine Brigade and is an adjunct to a American war cemetery. The American 4th Brigade was recognized by the French government by the award of a military honor, the Croix de Guerre. To this day, active-duty Marines serving in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments are authorized to wear the French fourragere – an elaborate garnishment of looped and braided cords – on their left shoulder as part of their dress uniform, in honor of that unit’s service in the Deathly Wood, a hundred years ago. And to this day, successfully completing Marine Corps basic training means completing the “Crucible” – a 54-hour marathon march on short rations and little sleep, featuring grueling marches, obstacle course and team-driven combat-problem-solving exercise – some of which was drawn on the experience of the fighting in the deathly woods, a hundred years ago.

32 thoughts on “History Friday: The Deathly Wood”

  1. I ‘m reading (listening to) Pat Buchanan’s book on the world wars, “Churchill, Hitler and the unnecessary war.”

    I agree with him that we should have stayed out of WWI and the British should have., as well. I told a friend, a retired British Army doctor, that we should have stayed out of WWI. He looked shocked so I assured him they should have stayed out, too.

    Buchanan blames the British for being mean to Kaiser Bill but I disagree. He was an arrogant man with insecurities about his British relatives.

    He built the German High Seas Fleet and that had more to do with the war than anything the Brits did.

    Buchanan is too sympathetic to the Germans. Had the British stayed out, and they might have if the Kaiser had not botched Bismarck’s alliances, there might have been Franco-Prussian War II. I have been impressed with some reading about French machinations with Russia around the time of the Serbian crisis.

    I have just begun but it sounds like Buchanan also blames Churchill for both wars. The idea is ridiculous in WWI.

    Churchill tried to prevent WWII by standing up to the Germans. It was Chamberlain who brought about the war with Hitler, partly through weakness and then by a futile gesture with Poland that might qualify for “Animal House.”

    I agree with Buchanan that the two world wars destroyed European civilization and we will not survive it intact.

    He agrees that there were many heroes in WWI but the point is that there need not have been.

  2. A very good summary that ignores the fact that nothing in that wood was worth 10,000 Marines. The British and French had spent nearly 4 years bitterly contesting every inch of ground at the cost of millions of dead and wounded to produce a stalemate.

    A far smarter tactic would have been to fall back and let the Germans come to us while having to push supplies and men over ground that was all but impassable. When the pressure from the German offensive forced exactly that on most of the front, the advance petered out after a few miles with the Germans then unable to resist counter-attacks.

    The entire allied experience of WWI was to beat on the fists of the Germans with our face. Every offensive started with the first trench line giving way at this or that point only for the attackers to face the next line with 4 or 5 beyond that at the same time that support was prevented by the impossibility of traversing no-mans land under intense artillery fire. Beyond this, the terrain was so cratered and torn up that it was all but impassable to feet and hooves let alone wheeled transport.

    At the same time, the British government was holding back the most recent tranche of draftees to restrain the High Command from using them as justification for another futile “offensive”. This is according to Churchill who was then head of war production.

    Every time American strategists lift their sites from the destruction of the opposing force and start to play at defending this or that piece of ground or worrying about symbolism, except as something to goad the enemy into doing something stupid, we pay the bill in blood.

  3. Mike K….Gary Sheffield’s fairly recent book,’ Forgotten Victory’, is a rather revisionist analysis of WWI. He argues that–contrary to common opinions–the war, although tragic, was not futile, and that the British Army was not the incompetent organization as which it has often been portrayed, but rather was an institution which develop the ability to learn and to adapt.

    Worthwhile reading, we should have a discussion of it here sometime.

    I recently got a copy of Fritz Fischer’s ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’…apparently, the author (himself a German) argues that German’s intentions in WWI were far more malevolent than the presently-accepted view. (I say ‘apparently’ because I haven’t really read it yet, very difficult going)

  4. “He argues that–contrary to common opinions–the war, although tragic, was not futile,”

    I’m not so much arguing that it was “futile” but that it need not have occurred.

    I’m not asking for the British statement to be soothsayers but just they were too confident.

    Germany was brutal. The destruction of the Library of Louvain was a world history tragedy.

    Occupied therefore by the Germans the city was relatively peaceful for six days until 25 August. On that date German units to the rear of the city were attacked by an initially successful Belgian force advancing from Antwerp.

    Panicked, those German troops under fire withdrew to Louvain, which in itself caused confusion to German soldiers stationed in the city. Shots were heard amid fearful cries that the Allies were launching a major attack.

    Once it became clear however that no such Allied attack was underway or even imminent, the city’s German authorities determined to exact revenge upon Louvain’s citizenry, whom they were convinced that contrived the confusion that day.

    The German form of retaliation was savage. For five consecutive days the city was burnt and looted. Its library of ancient manuscripts was burnt and destroyed, as was Louvain’s university (along with many other public buildings). The church of St. Pierre was similarly badly damaged by fire. Citizenry of Louvain were subject to mass shootings, regardless of age or gender.

    The German’s enthusiasm for “Schrecklichkeit” was rightfully condemned.

    The question was whether the British were right to go to war.

  5. I just finished Massie’s book Dreadnought, which traced the development in almost excruciating detail of the dreadnought class of destroyers. Among other things he covers the events and personalities of the people in England, France, and Germany leading up to the initiation of WW1 and the Battle of Jutland.

    From him, I was left w/the following impressions of the start of WW1, which more or less jibes with my memory from Tuchman’s Guns of August.

    1. The French and the British had no formal alliance and only a gentleman’s agreement to defend each other from an attack. This despite the strong desire of the French to have a much stronger commitment.
    2. The Germans, or at least the German military were convinced that war was inevitable and the sooner it started, the more likely they were to win it. They expected Russia’s modernization to eventually make the war unwinnable.
    3. The British probably would have stayed out of the war except for their commitment to Belgium’s neutrality. And once that was violated, they still gave the Germans several hours (10, I think) to back off.
    4. The only thing I can think of to blame Churchill for the war was his bringing the fleet to readiness. There was a complication that a year or two earlier, the British had pulled out most of their big ships from the Mediterranean; the French, at more or less the same time, pulled their ships out of the Atlantic. Each had the expectation, never formalized, that the French would cover the Med and the British the Atlantic.
    5. The British PM, Asquith, felt honor-bound to join the French, but since there was no formal alliance, he could do nothing.
    6. From Tuchman (I think), I recall a story that the Kaiser asked the military to stop the invasion of France. The refusal was based on the impossibility of halting the carefully planned mobilization.

  6. Churchill is very much on record in “The World Crisis”, which also includes extensive sections on the peace conference and the interventions in the Russian Revolution and the Middle East.

    The British withdrawal to the Atlantic was explicitly to counter the German naval expansion.

    Imperial Germany started the First World War just as deliberately and with the same goal of annexing large areas of western Russia (Poland and Ukraine)as Hitler. Churchill asserts above that Germany was on the brink of bankruptcy from the military expansion in 1914. Hitler was in the same boat in 1939.

    The assassination of the Arch Duke was a convenient, although not very plausible, pretext since the assassin was an Austrian subject and it took place on Austrian soil. The record shows that Germany did everything short of holding a gun to Franz Joseph’s head to prevent any sort of outcome short of war. The Serbs actually capitulated to Austria’s ultimatum before the Austrian invasion. Austria refused to take yes for an answer.

    American troops were significantly engaged for far less than a year. That was the first and, I hope, last time that we supplied troops without insisting on overall command.

  7. A lot of people seem to be arguing that fighting in WW I or WW II was “unnecessary” for the US or Britain.

    If these wars were “unnecessary” for the US or Britain, surely they were unnecessary for Germany. Yet I don’t see any of these people arguing that Germany should not have started WW I or WW II.

  8. “If these wars were “unnecessary” for the US or Britain, surely they were unnecessary for Germany. Yet I don’t see any of these people arguing that Germany should not have started WW I or WW II.”

    People are implicitly putting themselves in the shoes of the decision-makers in their *own* countries, US or UK, who had not control over what Germany decided to do or not do, but had to deal with things as they were.

  9. Yet I don’t see any of these people arguing that Germany should not have started WW I or WW II.

    Oh, I have. There is a whole chapter on my medical history about Wilhelm’s father Frederick, who died of laryngeal cancer because his wife, a daughter of Victoria, insisted that English doctors treat her husband when German doctors had developed more advanced methods for such cancers.

    Wilhelm was intimidated and jealous of his English cousins. His father was 100% German and not intimidated although he was very pro-English, having married an English princess. Had his father lived, there would probably have been no war. Bismarck had united Germany and was content with the borders and the absence of colonies.

    Wilhelm fired Bismarck and abrogated Bismarck’s treaty with Russia. He was so unstable that his ministers often did not tell him everything that was going on.

    Mobilization was certainly a reason why, once begun, it was every hard and dangerous to stop.

    Massie’s book, which I read years ago, is excellent. His subsequent book, “Castles of Steel,” is also excellent.

    I forget which book I read that went into French maneuvers that made war more likely in 1914.

    World War II was simply, as Mort Saul once said about the Korean War, World War 1.5. They will be seen in history as a 30 years war like that ended by the Treaty of Westphalia but less successfully.

  10. I have been listening to more of Buchanan’s book and he seems to be backing off his allegation that England and Churchill were at fault in 1914.

    He seems to blame the Kaiser (which I do, too) and Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal foreign minister.

    I agree that the German High Seas Fleet ended the English-German alliance that had defeated Napoleon and kept the peace after Waterloo for 100 years.

    Whether Grey was equally culpable, will have to wait until I read a biography of Grey.

  11. The American dominance of the Twentieth Century is at least partially because we lacked the millions of bomb and shell craters of the rest of the developed world.

    Counting up the monetary costs of the wars and applying a suitable compound interest rate would yield a number for the cost in gold. The human cost is not computed so easily.

    Looking at the surviving primary aggressors, Germany and Japan, versus the victors, it’s hard to make a case that aggression comes at much of a price. The attempt to enforce reparations on Germany between the wars failed spectacularly.

  12. Mike K…”Wilhelm was intimidated and jealous of his English cousins. His father was 100% German and not intimidated although he was very pro-English, having married an English princess. Had his father lived, there would probably have been no war.”

    The English princess, Vicky, was herself a pretty interesting person. Albert was devoted to her and spent much time on her education. Both Albert and Queen Victoria favored a marriage between Vicky and Crown Prince Fritz (Wilhelm’s father), happily, it turned out to be very much a love match as well. Vicky was a liberal, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, having something to do with liberty.

    There might have still been a war of some kind if Fritz had become Kaiser instead of Wilhelm…for one thing, there were a lot of people in France looking for a rematch, following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War…but I doubt it would have been the huge-scale *world* war that it turned out to be.

    Fritz had no use for anti-Semitism, and on a couple of occasions responded to anti-Semitic outbreaks by attending Jewish events, wearing his Field Marshal’s uniform.

    Queen Victoria does not come off very well in the biography of Vicky that I read; she comes off as an extreme micro-manager of all her children, especially Vicky, and with such a temper that Albert was often reduced to writing her letters rather than talking with her.

  13. Also, there was much weirdness in Vicky’s relationship with her son Wilhelm. As an adolescent, he took to writing her letters that are hard to interpret other than erotically. Vicky apparently didn’t have any idea how to handle this, and responded by ignoring those passages and writing in her usual way about intellectual and political subjects.

    Wilhelm’s tutor was rather obsessed with the need for better treatment of the working class, and frequently took his charge to visit factories and workshops. This teaching may have had something to do with then-Kaiser Wilhelm’s policy proposal, portrayed in a Kipling poem the Chicago Grrl Margaret posted here:


  14. There might have still been a war of some kind if Fritz had become Kaiser instead of Wilhelm…for one thing, there were a lot of people in France looking for a rematch, following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War

    It took some very clumsy fumbling for Wilhelm II, once he had discharged Bismarck, to rupture the relationship with England and to denounce Bismarck’s treaty with Russia.

    There are arguments that Germany feared the modernization of Russia, which was proceeding well until the Bolsheviks took over.

    Again, Bismarck seemed the most competent since Metternich as European relations.

    I’ve found a biography of Lord Grey that I will read. Maybe that will provide some insight.

    Had France provoked war, England would likely have remained neutral. France was the traditional enemy and Prussia/Germany was the ally.

    Wilhelm reversed that , as even Buchanan admits.

  15. the biography of Vicky that I read indicates that Queen Victoria was pro-German during the Franco-Prussian war.

    Germany was an ally until Wilhelm II botched his country’s foreign policy.

    France was the traditional English enemy going back to William the Conqueror.

  16. Allow me to second “Forgotten Victory”.Well worth the read. To get further background on the incredible accomplishment of Imperial Germany in managing to ally Great Britian with her two greatest 19th century rivals, look into “The Scramble for Africa”, by Thomas Packenham.

  17. “The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark is the best recent book about the causes of the war that I’ve seen. I agree with the British Ambassador to France at the time, Lord Bertie, that the country most culpable for starting the war was Russia. Of course, once hostilities had started, he sang a different tune, but here’s what he had to say about Russia’s mobilization in his diary when he heard about it:

    “It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians. Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained. Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs? What rubbish! And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.”

    A day later he wrote,

    “I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it. The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war. I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia. If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.”

    Bertie was exactly right. Serbia was complicit in arming and sending the terrorists across the border to attack the royal couple, Austria had convincing evidence to that effect before the war started, and France had been arming the Serbs and egging them on. One can hardly claim that the terrorist attack was unreasonable as a casus belli against Serbia. The idea that Serbia acceded to all the demands in the Austrian ultimatum is nonsense. The ultimatum and the Serbian response can be found online. Read them and see for yourself. The Serbian reply is full of equivocations, and commits her to very little. I doubt that the Kaiser wanted war. He had turned down von Schlieffen earlier when he had advocated a preemptive strike on France. Regardless, however, the Russians left him little choice. He could either meekly back down and leave Austria to her fate, or come to her aid against Russia. If he did that he could be virtually certain that France would eventually attack him when he was engaged with Russia. Germany certainly committed some serious blunders. As von Tirpitz, the architect of her Navy noted in his memoirs, she was stupid to be the first to declare war. She would have been much smarter to wait for Russia’s declaration. Her Schlieffen Plan was suicidal if it didn’t work, because the violation of Belgium brought England into the war. Throwing aside the British alliance she could have had wasn’t very smart, either.

  18. Excellent piece. I do tend to concur that that war, and its aftermath, is what is destroying the West.

    I strongly recommend reading “What We Lost In The Great War”, a now 25yo article from American Heritage magazine.

    I believe that the Classical Liberals of Europe, so proud, so arrogant, went into that war believing they were God’s chosen, that they were a “better man” whose destiny was to bring The Enlightenment” to the rest of the world.

    Seeing that they could be just as stupid and savage and senseless as humans had ever been, they turned on themselves, their rage becoming self-hatred, and morphed into PostModern Liberals. PML targets the very underpinnings of the West, Christianity and the Inheritance of Classical Greek Thought and ideal. It is a social cancer aimed at the destruction of The West and everything it stands for. And it has been very poorly opposed for a century, now.

  19. ““The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark is the best recent book about the causes of the war that I’ve seen”

    I’ve ordered it.

    I’m still listening to Buchanan’s book. He is a good writer and, while I disagree with him on this one, it is worth reading (listening to ).

  20. I remember watching a series on WW1 (Netflix) last year and what astounded me was how different things became – from 1914 – to 1918. Not just the aircraft, which developed from spotter craft to fighters (initially to get the spotters) and bombers. But the tactics.

    The British were just as brutal as the Germans.

    I had always thought it was the sinking of the Lusitania that drew us in but that was 2 years earlier. I read a good book on that by Eric Larson.

    I think – what you said Sgt Mom – about the 19th century ending in 1915 is pretty true. The war up to then was brutal; from the Somme on it was monstrous.

    I am sure most of you have seen this video of a French aviator taking a balloon craft over France in 1919; the landscape looks like the moon. Small wonder the French were so vindictive after with Versaille (which was a large reason for the rise of Hitler and WW2). This aviator was later killed by the Gestapo in WW2.


    Germany was simply hollowed out with no damage to the cities. I was also surprised – due to the British blockade – how many German civilians starved – I heard 500,000? But that seems high.

  21. Bill, I did some research of German/Austrian civilian casualties of the blockade while working on my post about Captain von Trapp’s memoir:


    Estimates range from 400,000 to 700,000 in Germany, and another 450,000 throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire.

    The numbers are for ‘excess deaths’…presumably, these must be estimates including increased mortality, due to mortality, from common diseases, etc, not just the specific diagnosis ‘starved to death.’

  22. Then Germans were in high spirits in 1914. They had no doubts. I think the English also had high spirits but that was more the upper classes which were devastated. I have read Tolkein’s book about WWI and his friend who joined the Navy was the only one unscathed.

  23. I have an Internet acquaintance who is from Britain. He said that many small towns lost their entire generation of young men, because in the “heady days” of 1914, many enlisted under the PAL system; friends allowed to serve in the same units.


    He has a friend living in France who has one of those giant craters on his property. There is quite a story to those.


  24. Mike for me the numbers of the fallen in World War I are staggering, particularly from 1915.

    . I believe just in one day at the Somme over 50,000 were killed. I read something in the last day or two that made me smile a bit. They were comparing German trenches to French trenches and the Germans were downright luxurious. I guess that was the engineering in them.

    Can you imagine living in those day after day with the mud, water, rats, and filth.

    A great uncle of mine, Peter Wilson, died in one of those trenches a week before armistice. And one of his letters home he said if he could just have a bath. He was killed by a sniper. Stick your head up and get shot I think they used a lot of periscopes.

  25. Part of the problem in WWI was the primitive state of military medicine.

    I have a lecture I’ve given a few times on Civil War medicine but I haven’t studied WWI medicine as much.

    Still, WWI was the first war when more men died from wounds than disease. The first in world history.

    Tetanus was a major problem the first year because Belgians used horse manure as fertilizer. There was no tetanus in the US Civil War because horse manure, in spite of the huge number of horses, was not used by farmers, at least in the South where most combat was. After 1915, tetanus antitoxin was widely used and immunization with toxoid was begun for troops. In WWII there were only 6 cases the entire war.

    Blood transfusion was introduced only in 1917 by the Canadians who had learned it from Americans. In 1918, the Americans came in with transfusion a standard treatment. In the early years of the war, “Wound Shock” was not understood as being a result of blood loss. A heroic British doctor studied wounds and wounded men and concluded it was blood loss. His name is in my medical history book.

    Triage was a term invented by Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon who invented the military ambulance. The British did not attempt to operate on abdominal wounds until after the Somme. Intestinal suture was new since the Franco-Prussian War but was not unknown in civilian practice, especially by the Germans. I don’t know much about German military medicine in WWI.

    After 1917, with transfusion and operation on abdominal wounds, mortality improved.

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