Book Review – The Lafayette Escadrille – by Steven A. Ruffin

Lafayette-Escadrille-Cover

With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille.  This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war.  Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service.  Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle.  Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.

When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited.  In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall.  I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out?  There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.

This one does stand out.

First, it is a photo history of the unit.  Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit.  What he brought to the table was context.  Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University.  Ninety-percent are unlabeled.  Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there.   This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.

Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today.  I loved these then-and-now images.  It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.

On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.

On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too.  He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story.  This is always a favorite of mine.  Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.

My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only.  It’s not footnoted.  I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from.  And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining).  On a personal note:  He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!

Does Ruffin break new ground with this book?  Yes.  Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century.  He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.

The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95.  It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era.  If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com 

Centennial of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille

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Lafayette – we have arrived.  The Lafayette Escadrille

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Escadrille Américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille.  Sadly, most Americans know little of this unit today, but at the time, the exploits of these pilots in the Great War were daily newspaper articles.  In 1916, young boys wanted to be these heroes of the air and young men headed off the Europe to join them.  Ladies wrote them, sent packages and gifts, swooning over these young aviators.

America would not declare war for another year and it would be many months later before any American squadrons arrived and joined the fight.  In the meantime the men of the Lafayette Escadrille (and the broader Lafayette Flying Corps) would be the core of the American Air Service, the only combat-experienced American aviators.

While the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron whose ranks were Americans, they were led by a French commanding officer.  The unit is often confused with the Lafayette Flying Corps (which most men were joint members of.)  The flying corps was much larger and its member were Americans that were seeded into French escadrilles. Both of these volunteer organizations were at war long before America as a nation stepped up to the plate.

Many of the members of the unit began in the American Ambulance Service and the French Foreign Legion.  They came to Europe for many reasons, most believing that the war would be over in a few months.  When they formed the Escadrille Américaine it spurred an international incident because America was officially neutral.  The eloquent solution was to rename the organization to the Lafayette Escadrille.

Most of the original founders came from rich families.  There were a few rogues in the mix – namely men like Raoul Lufberry and Bert Hall; older more seasoned than the high society college boys.  The war they fought was one of bitter stinging cold open cockpits.   Parachutes were not part of their kits.  They flew planes that were spruce and metal covered with doped linen.  Their cockpits were not armored and often the men sat next to or on top of their fuel.  Death could come at any angle at any moment – yet that did not deter these brave men.

There was a romantic air about these men (pun unintended). Their mascots were two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda.  They had a bottle of champagne that was a “Bottle of Death” reserved for the last surviving member to toast his fallen comrades.  In may respects, their exploits were crafted for Hollywood.  Two movies have been made about the unit, but both sadly missed any degree of historical accuracy.

The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps were to become the heart and soul of the American Air Service.  Without these men, America’s aviation pursuits in WWI would have been a disaster – with countless more casualties.  The formation of the escadrille marked the start of a true US Air Force.

This week, the French honored the Americans at their massive memorial outside of Paris.  I received my invitation to attend but was too late.  That was okay.  I’ve had the honor to write about such men in my books Lost Eagles and The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies.  I have enjoyed the honor to chronicle exploits of such men.  And in this week, marking the centennial of the start of their incredible historical journey, I wanted to take a moment to remember what these volunteers did for the American Air Force.

The Impact of the Great War

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Patton and a Renault Tank 

I write books on the Great War and have for years, even before it became popular.  My newest one, Never Wars, has a chapter on an almost alternate history – where Germany won the war in Europe in a few months.  I view WWI as one of those unsung conflicts (in American history) because our involvement was so short-lived that it did not leave as much as an indelible imprint on our culture as other conflicts.

I speak at a number of venues on this subject and have been asked from time-to-time about what the impact of the Great War was on the world.  It’s a challenging question because of the scope.  I tend to think of the Great War as merely the “opening act” for decades of conflict and upheaval in the middle of the 20th Century – culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Against that context, the war did alter not only the face of Europe, but the world as a whole.

So, here’s my list of impacts (not listed in any particular order) about the ramifications and impacts of the Great War. I tended to focus on this from an American perspective – but tried to be fair and balanced.

The downfall of many Imperial families in Europe:

Prior to the Great War the ruling imperial families tended to have dramatic influence on what happened in Europe – if not the world.  The Great War changed that political dynamic.  The Kaiser was disposed and exiled.  The Hapsburgs in Austro-Hungary had their powers shattered as new states were formed.  In Russia, the Czar and his family were executed, effectively purging their bloodline.  The old status-quo of political power shifted from ruling families to some form of representative government.

The Great War built the Detroit auto industry:

The story of Henry Ford and the Model T is well known in historical circles.  What made Ford Motor Company – and upped the ante in auto competitiveness was The Rouge Complex.  At the Rouge, raw materials came in via the Detroit River to the Rouge River Basin, emptied, and were turned into cars and trucks at the other end of the facility.  Iron was turned to Steel, sand to Glass…everything.   I worked there in my early career.  What people don’t generally know is that it was all built by the Great War.

The Rouge was just a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye when the war broke out.  He secured a contract with the US Navy to build torpedo boats.  The logical place was his facility to do this was on his Rogue property.  Ford’s problem, the Rogue River basin was too shallow for boat construction.  He convinced the Navy to dredge it out for him.  They did, but by the time they finished, the war was over as was the need for a large number of torpedo boats.

Wiley old Henry had gotten the US Government to dredge the Rouge which allowed the massive cargo ships he wanted to drop off their raw materials in the complex.  The miracle of the Rouge was now a reality – all because of the Great War.

Communism moved from theory to reality:

Karl Marx came up with his theories of communism before the Great War, but no citizens had ever adopted the theories into practice on any scale until the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Ironically, it was the Germans that sent Lenin into Russia to ferment revolution and hopefully take Russia out of the war.  While it worked, it also created the future doom of Germany in the Second World War.

Aircraft as weapons of war:

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Aircraft provided the most vital role of the war – observation of the enemy.  With wireless sets, aircraft observers could direct artillery fire real-time against enemies that in the past could only be found with mounted cavalry reconnaissance.   Observation balloons could monitor troop movements and defenses from miles away.  Mounting weapons on aircraft allowed pilots to target observation aircraft/balloons and destroy them.  This led to the birth of the fighter aircraft.  A new dimension of combat came into being with the skies now part of the battlefield.  Aircraft could, by the end of the war, work in concert with ground forces in a crude combined arms manner that would drive military tactics to this very day.

Bombing- however crude, also came to realization in the Great War.  No longer did seas provide barriers for protection – Zeppelins crossed waters and could bomb cities in England.  Later bomber aircraft were created for carrying the war against distant enemies.   Strategic bombing evolved as a concept for waging war.

Perhaps most remarkable was the rapid evolution of aeronautics in the war.  Every 4-6 months a new generation of aircraft came into existence, with new capabilities and improvements.  In an age before computer simulation and testing, new planes were rapidly prototyped and put into production, more so than any other time in history.  The Great War altered the world’s perception and capabilities in regards to aviation.

The tank was invented:

The stalemate of trench warfare was broken by 1917-18 with the aid of a new technology – the tank.  Armored vehicles had been around since the start of the war but only in 1916 was the concept of a caterpillar tracks employed which would allow armored vehicles to transverse the mud of no-man’s-land and carry the fight directly to the enemy.

The first tanks were semi-mobile death traps; prone to mechanical failure and ponderously slow.  Alone they had impact.  Used with infantry support, the tank altered the tactics of warfare – allowing for the blitzkrieg of WWII.

I maintain that the tank alone did not end trench warfare.  If you look at the Kaiserschlacht offensive by the Germans in 1918, they used few tanks and were able to dramatically shift the front with sheer numbers and improved tactics.  What the tank did is provide a mobile combat platform that allowed smaller numbers of troops to defeat a comparable enemy.

Radio – the wireless — became a part of the battlefield:

Radio existed before the Great War but it underwent a technological leap in terms of application during the war.  Observers in aircraft and balloons used radio to transmit troop movements, adjust artillery barrages real-time, etc..  Radios became somewhat smaller and more durable as a result of the war (though still bulky by modern standards) which allowed their post war boom in the consumer market.

Submarines emerged as viable weapons of war:

While arguments can be made that submarines were used in earlier conflicts, they were never a serious threat until the Great War.  While the Germans are often credited with their employment of the U-Boats in the war, all major nations made great strides with their development of these weapons systems.  Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare was a contributing factor to the United States being drawn into the war – one of the rare times that a weapon system/strategy actually had political implications in a war.

Submarines in WWI were crude and dangerous.  Their torpedoes were not incredibly accurate, but they had stunning effects that we still are coping with today.  In 1914 the U-9 sunk three armored cruisers in a single combat action – sending ripples of fear into the Royal Navy that forced changes in fleet protection, an upturn in British submarine production, and the start of creating anti-submarine tactics.  The results were other pieces of new technology – hydrophones and depth charges.

Grenades became an integral infantry weapon:

Arguments can be made that grenades had been used in some form by the Greeks and Romans, but WWI created the fragmentation grenade (The British Mills Bomb) which spurred a wide range of spinoff designs by other nations.  Up until this time, grenades tended to be unstable and as much a threat to the thrower as the target.  The Great War changed that and by the end of the war, the hand grenade became a standard issued item in most armies.

Flamethrowers were invented and utilized:

While pundits will point to weapons like Greek Fire as the forefather of the flamethrower – the weapon itself did not become effective until it appeared on the Western Front outside of Verdun in 1915.  While an insidious weapon, it was effective against entrenched foes.

While the US and most nations do not use these weapons currently given the type of damage they inflict – they proved critical in WWII against entrenched and deeply tunneled Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Helmets became standard defense gear:

Metal helmets have existed from the era of knights, but were always deemed too impractical for large scale warfare.  By the time of the outbreak of the Great War, most armies offered cloth head protection or in the case of the Germans, leather.  By 1915 head protection made a huge leap forward with both sides issuing metallic helmets.  While not entirely proof against rifle fire, they offered some protection from shrapnel from artillery barrages.

Naval aviation is born:

I know that the Confederacy used a balloon from a floating platform, but that can hardly be considered as true naval aviation.  There were floatplanes prior to the Great War, but the vast majority of these were privately owned.  WWI changed that.  The Germans utilized Zeppelins to provide observation for their naval forces.  Naval aviation extended the view of the fleets beyond the horizon – altering the shape of naval warfare.

The largest hand-made construction project since the pyramids:

The trench lines of the western front literally were a ditch dug across the continent – by manual labor.  This engineering project had no overall plan or design, it was done out of desperation, yet the magnitude of this piece of manual labor has not been matched by human beings since.  Yes, we’ve built marvelous things, but nothing on the scale or scope of the trench system.  Just the amount of barbed wire (also pioneered in the Great War in large scale) laid was staggering in scale.  Yet after the war, it was merely abandoned and turned into farmland.  Today evidence of this project can only be seen in a handful of locations or from the air.

It proved to Britain that they could go to war as an Empire:

In previous conflicts, Britain had made use of some of its vast imperial troops in battles – but not the sheer numbers involved in the Great War.  Canada, Australia, India and other countries sent massive numbers of infantry to wage war for Mother Britain.  It proved that such efforts were possible and laid the foundation for WWII.

Naval mining becomes a strategy:

While naval mines were used in conflicts prior to WWI, it was in this war where they were used in massive numbers and used successfully.  Naval mines were much more effective in this war and consistent in their functioning.

Evolution of modern amphibious operations:

Amphibious landings have been part of warfare for centuries.  In the Great War the powers learned valuable lessons in how this type of warfare was to be conducted, and the types of equipment needed for successful landings against artillery and machineguns.  Gallipoli, while a botched invasion, became a classroom for leaders who went on to plan landings in WWII and Korea.

Camouflage plays a large-scale role on the battlefield:

The first six months of WWI were frightening when you consider the lack of camouflage.  Images of French troops in their blue uniforms, red pantalooms, bright blue piping – marching off against the enemy is tragic.  This image was not far off from reality though.  Camouflage was a concept that was born out of the necessity of battle.  By 1916 the armies had all begun to adopt new uniforms that allowed soldiers to blend in better with their surroundings.

And it wasn’t just on land – navies also adopted and experimented with camouflage patterns to make ship identification more difficult.

Machineguns and rapid-fire artillery emerge as dominant forces:

I put these on the list together deliberately.  Machineguns had been used in battle prior to the Great War, even in the Spanish American War.  On their own, they were deadly – but when you combined these with rapid-fire artillery, you are creating a battlefield environment where infantry advances are measured in yard not miles.  This combination forced the advances in tanks and aircraft as a means to circumvent the carnage that could be rained down on the common foot soldier.

The roles of Japan and Italy on the world stage were established:

Prior to the Great War Japan and Italy were seen as obscure observers in world affairs, cast to the edges of the world stage.  The war changed that.  By the end of the conflict, both nations had assumed more power and recognition globally than ever before.  While pundits might argue that they did not get much out of the Versailles Treaty, the fact that they were there was significant — especially in light of their roles in WWII decades later.

Gas warfare is deployed:

The use of toxic gases as weapons of war became the norm in World War One.  They proved so horrific that no one was even willing to use them in WWII (on a large scale).  The Germans, when faced with losing to the Soviets did not employ their gas stockpiles.  Gas warfare was indiscriminant in its victims and inflicted horrific injuries – to the point now that we consider it a “weapon of mass destruction.”

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The end of the Ottoman Empire – the roots of the modern Middle East problems:

While the Ottoman Empire was waning before the war, the Great War served as the death-blow to this government.  The Ottoman holdings became a number of nation states, some merely puppets of the European powers.  The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire left the Arab nations barely in control of themselves and their resources.  The lines of division driven by the peace at the end of the war carved up the empire into many of the nation states that exist today. In the post-war era, Palestine became a British protectorate and the British established the rights of the Jewish people there.  The implementation of the Balfour Declaration led for the first modern drive for a true Jewish state.  It created the foundation for many of the issues and conflicts that were to follow up to modern day.

Great Authors were inspired:

War tends to generate moving literature and that was certainly the case with World War One.  Veterans were often inspired by the carnage and chaos of war, or wrote about the conflict.  Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (an aviator of the famed Lafayette Escadrille) wrote a trilogy of novels about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty which fictionalized the events of this famous mutiny.  Earnest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in the war and his experiences led to the book , A Farewell to Arms.  More recently, historians believe that young JRR Tolkien’s exposure to the horrors of war helped inspire some of the darker aspects of The Lord of the Rings.

Last naval war of battleships:

Many people attribute the end of the Battleship era to World War II.  That may be true, though Billy Mitchell’s and other’s work demonstrating air power in the post-war era make a case that the doom of the battlewagons came earlier.

What no one can deny is that the Great War was the last of the era where large fleets of battleships engaged each other Trafalgar-style.  There were smaller battles, like Dogger Bank, but both sides of the conflict believed that a massive fleet-to-fleet engagement would happen to determine the course of the war.  In the Great War, Battleships, battle cruisers, etc., were the nuclear weapons of their era — strategic weapons that allowed nations to press their influence around the globe.

The Great War at sea was anticipated to be a massive fleet-on-fleet slugfest which would determine the winner of the war.  It was disappointing in that.  Yes, Jutland was a massive engagement which historians still struggle to frame in terms of victory (don’t get me started here), but for the most part it was inconclusive.  While battleships would sail again in WWII, they would never engage in massive engagements on the scale of Jutland.

Combat photography plays a key role:

While photographs were taken in wars prior to the Great War, it was in this conflict that they were an integral part of military planning.  Observation aircraft equipped with cameras and observation balloons took photographs of the enemy positions which were used for planning operations, targeting artillery, etc..  World War One ushering in the age of aerial reconnaissance photography which continues today with satellites and drones.

The war established military command structures for managing alliances:

Managing allies in a campaign or on a battlefield is always complicated and tricky.  The Great War experimented with command structures which would be critical in later wars.  There were issues on both sides in coordinating with allies.  In some cases, such as Germany and Austro-Hungary, the coordination barely existed at all.  In the case of the Americans, there was a defiant stand to have the American Army not roll-up under a French command.  While command structures were far from perfected in WWI, it gave the participants the experience needed for the next phase of war – WWII.

The peace created a civil war in Germany:

The post-war era in Germany was one were factions used the left-over weapons of war to wage battles against competing political ideologies.   Germany and parts of Poland became embroiled in civil war(s) which drew in veterans to fight to protect their local communities rather than their nations.  While often ignored by historians, several years worth of fighting took place which served to further destabilize a fragmented Germany.

A fragmented Germany which would be an impetus for its reformation in the 1930’s:

The Treaty of Versailles split up Germany as a means of punishment and formed new states such as Poland.  It was a series of actions that were destined to be undone and provided Hitler with a rallying point to unify Germany under his Reich.

Balloons were a force in warfare:

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While countries dabbled in the use of balloons for observation prior to the Great War, WWI became the only war where balloons played a strategic role in warfare.  Balloons provided real-time information on troop positions and movements.  Balloon pilots could telegraph artillery bombardment adjustments immediately.  By the post-war period observation balloons had become antiquated as the role of aircraft increased.  But the first and only “balloon war” was WWI.

The Armenian genocide laid the foundation for the genocide in WWII:

Turkey began the slaughter of the Armenian people in 1915 in a fit of ethnic cleansing.  Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians in seven years of genocide.  The world stood by and did nothing.

As part of his formulation for the Final Solution in WWII, Hitler reportedly has said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The war created the personalities that were to lead the world:

The Great War was a breeding ground for the leaders, political and military, that would guide the outcome of the next war. The list that could go into this spot runs the gambit from Churchill to Hitler and Rommel to Patton.   The experiences of WWI became the fertilizer for an upcoming generation of leaders that would guide events into the later part of the 20th century – and beyond.

What ones have I missed?

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Battle of Cambrai

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Mark IV Male tank – heading towards the green fields beyond…

One of the battles of the Great War that has always held my attention is the Battle of Cambrai – November 20 – December 7, 1917.  As autumn creeps to winter and we enter the anniversary period of this struggle, my mind once more turns to this battle.

My first exposure to the battle was the SPI wargame, To The Green Fields Beyond.  SPI taught a lot of armchair historians about war through their simulations.  I played the game twice and realized just how important this battle was – not in the Great War, but in the wars that were to follow.

Cambrai is often mislabeled as the first large-scale use of tanks.  It wasn’t, tanks had been used in battle since the autumn of 1916.  It was the first use of tanks in a combined arms strategy – where infantry, airpower, artillery, and armor worked on concert. The battle was not the grand strategic victory that the British had envisioned, but it was a foreshadowing of the blitzkrieg attacks that would dominate the early stages of WWII.

I’ve visited the Imperial War Museum and always have enjoyed seeing the Mark IV tank they had on display.  These things were beasts.  Twenty-nine tons they moved at painfully slow speeds topping at four mph.  There were eight crew who all basically worked on top of a huge hot engine.  The tanks were steaming pressure cookers for the crew.  At slow speeds they were almost always under fire.  The “Male” tanks mounted two six-pounders and three Lewis machineguns.  The “Female” versions mounted five Lewis guns.  Reeking of fuel and packed with ammunition, they were creeping targets that demanded enemy fire rain in on them.  Yet when I saw the tank at the museum, I realized just how small and cramped they really were.  It was hard to imagine five men, let alone eight, crammed into one of them.  It had to be exciting and frightening to crew one of these lumbering beasts.

The battle itself started out stunningly well for the BEF.  Six infantry divisions were supported by an unprecedented 437 tanks.  The tanks were equipped to lay fascines, bundles of sticks, across the trenches.  The vision was clear, the tanks could creep across the trenches with the infantry in close support.  Earlier use of tanks alone had proved that they were vulnerable without infantry support. The tanks were able to bring their guns to bear at deadly point blank ranges on the German defenders.

The battle initially was a stunning success, if anything it was too successful.  The heavily defended Hindenburg Line was broken.  Church bells rang in Britain in celebration.  The attack drove five miles into the German lines.  There were hopes, for the first time in years, of reaching the rear areas – the “Green fields beyond.”  While by modern standards five miles was nothing, in the later years of the Great War it was stunning.

Then the problems set in.  The tanks began to break down in large numbers. The British, for all of their planning, had not allocated the proper number of troops to exploit the breach in the German lines.  The Germans, employing new troops “Stormtroopers” and tactics, were able to counterattack and eventually would erase the British gains.

The ultimate impact of the battle was to reshape the thinking of the use of a tank as part of a combined arms operation.  The two weeks of fighting had changed how military planners viewed warfare.  Armor’s role was cemented.  The foundation for the tactics and tools of WWII were forged at Cambrai.

Veterans Day 2014

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Photo by Jon Barrett 

I write books on the Great War so Veteran’s Day has special meaning for me – being the 11th day of the 11th Month – timed with the Armistice that ended hostilities in that conflict.  WWI is a war that has (as a result of the centennial) only now started to get its due.  The Americans were there for such a short period of time that the war did not have the emotional impact that WWII did.  Yet we suffered 116,000 deaths from combat and other means along with another 204,000 wounded.  When you consider the short period of time US troops were in battle, these losses are staggering.  Remember – the US ground forces engaged in only two campaigns which spanned less than three months time.  At that rate, in only a year, the US would have easily passed the casualties in the US Civil War.

The stories of the men that fought in that war are no less harrowing and courageous as those of WWII.  In some ways it was a more horrific war.  The use of chemical weapons made battle deadly and crippling in ways we cannot comprehend.  When you look at the aircraft of the era, flying at high altitudes with limited oxygen, in frigid open cockpits – the romantic image gives way to the grim and bitter realities of that kind of fighting.

I am privileged to write about such men.  Recently I spoke at the Museum of the US Air Force for the League of WWI Aviation Historians on Frederick Zinn.  Fred was the subject of my award winning book, Lost Eagles.  A Galesburg/Battle Creek MI native, Fred was Michigan’s first aviator.  He was the United States first aerial combat photographer (in 1916, a year before the US joined the war).  Fred sent all of the replacement pilots to the front in WWI.  When the war was over, he pioneered the search for missing airmen.  In WWII (at over 50 years old) he established the systems for tracking and identifying missing airmen, all while serving as a counter-intelligence agent in the OSS in Europe (precursor to the CIA).

I arranged with the Museum to bring Fred’s uniform out from storage for the League members to see.  I like to think it made my lecture more tangible, more real.  When it came out though, there was a sense that Fred Zinn was there, in the room.  He stood before us, in that French aviator’s uniform, basking for a few moments in silent glory – praised and applauded by people that had a minor comprehension of the risks he had undertaken in a war that has been often forgotten.  I have no words to convey what it was like to stand next to that man’s uniform.

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During his life, Fred never claimed the accolades that he deserved.  He was a humble man.  His commitment was to the families of those men that remained missing – in both world wars.  Fred understood that Veterans Day was not just about the men and women who have seen battle – but it is about the families who bear burdens and emotional scars that most of us cannot comprehend.

On this Veterans Day let us remember not only those that have given their full measure for our nation –but those that are missing still, awaiting for us to bring them home.  Let us remember as well the families of our vets and what they have given up for our country.  Let us remember all of the Frederick Zinns – the silent heroes who, in their own ways, changed the world we live in.   Let us remember the wars, great and small, where blood has been shed in the name of freedom.

Review – To Crown the Waves – The Great Navies of the First World War

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I was at the meeting of The United States World War One Centennial Commission and Carl Bobrow won a book raffle and offered me the copy of To Crown the Waves – The Great Navies of the First World War.  Having authored a WWI naval book, Cruise of the Sea Eagle, I thought I’d dive into it.

Edited by Vincent O’Hara, W. David Dickson and Richard Worth, the book takes a look at each of the major combatant’s navies in the Great War.  This is not a book of naval battles.  Instead it is a well written and researched book that provides the history of these navies, their personnel, their doctrines, communications, intelligence, etc. Gunnery and construction philosophies are detailed in the book as is their perspectives on naval aviation, submarines, amphibious warfare, naval mines, and other areas of interest.  I was fascinated how the various navies tried to adopt the emerging technologies of torpedoes, submarines, and aircraft – some more successfully than others.

I was concerned at first that this was going to be a dry topic with the lack of battles.  I was pleasantly surprised at how downright readable the book was.  In fact, it was engaging.  Where most naval history books on the Great War focus on the fighting, this book delves into the why and how the navies fought.  You get chapters on some naval powers, like Austro-Hungary, which rarely get exposure. The historical context provided in the book really helped explain the roles that the navies played.

I found this book to be a welcome addition to my bookshelf (Thanks Carl!).  The tables and background are useful for a few research and writing projects I have in my queue.  The Naval Institute Press did a great job assembling the team of historians and authors on this project and the product is well worth reading.  The photos were not necessary and far too few in the book – but I know from my own experience as a writer, it can be hard to get the right images in the right number to support the text.  In this case, the broad perspective of the text made images challenging to obtain.

I give this book four out of five stars – a very good Great War read.  It’s a great entry-level book for historians unfamiliar with the topic.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission

This Saturday I had the distinct honor of attending a trade show sponsored by participants in the US World War One Centennial Commission.  I attended for the League of World War One Aviation Historians.  I was supposed to be an alternate but got pulled in.  I was lucky, another board member, artist Russell Smith was there along with Washington DC Area Chapter Leader and one of the Smithsonian gurus on the war, Carl Bobrow was there too.

I was not sure what to expect.  Most American’s have a distorted view about the Great War.  Oh, the Civil War or WWII, they know all about those.  The Great War – much less so.  Part of that is understandable – the United States (as a nation) basically showed up late to the dance – arriving in 1917 after three years of war already.  Our time in battle was brief – the war ended in Armistice in November of 1918.  We spent more time at the peace talks than we did in combat.

But American’s were in the war starting in 1914.  Forty-three Americans volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion the month war was declared against France.  Many joined the American Ambulance Service as well.  These brave young men were engaged in battle for years before the US formally arrived.  Many went into the French Air Service and became the heart and soul of the American Air Service, seeding it with seasoned combat veterans from the Lafayette Flying Corps and the Lafayette Escadrille.  The US Air Force was not born in the US – it was born on the bloody skies of France before the United States had even declared war.

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This was my first congressional commission and I was impressed.  I met a lot of people and it felt like everyone wanted to partner with our organization in some way shape or form.  The commission itself is a confederation of participants.  With no formal funding (another spark of brilliance by our illustrious Congress) they are a clearing house of sorts for any organization coordinating their activities related to the 100th anniversary of the war.

 

Here’s their site:  http://worldwar-1centennial.org/

We not only picked up some new members, some important connections were forged.  There was a great spirit of cooperation.  People were drawn in by Russell’s stunning artwork – and there is nothing more iconic for that war than the image of a biplane or triplane.  I invite you to check out Russell’s works too.   http://www.russellsmithart.com/  I am really excited about the PBS project on America’s First World War.  Hopefully it will be more accurate than the History Channel’s recent debacle (it couldn’t possibly be any worse.)

Having been there, I realized that the American’s don’t fully appreciate the First World War.  We’ve finally wrapped our hands around the Korean Conflict.  Vietnam is a war whose perspective in the American psyche has changed dramatically in my lifetime.  But the Great War is largely ignored.  But with over 100,000 US dead in the war, victims of bullets, shrapnel and gas…we cannot afford to ignore this conflict.  And while everyone is focused this year on the impetus of this conflict – we cannot simply take a second-seat the rest of the world in remembering this war.  This conflict changed the United States in many ways, ways which the commission will be engaging American’s to learn about.

Check out their web page and take part in the commemoration.  We cannot forget the men and women who fought in the Great War, nor diminish their contribution to our nation.   I strongly encourage you to join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well.  We have a big event in September in Dayton that runs right into the Dawn Patrol event at the Museum of the US Air Force.

http://overthefront.com/

Folks – it is time to get our history on!

The History Channel’s Horrible Presentation of The World Wars

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The History Channel’s representation of WWI aviation…

Having watched the recent History Channel show, The World Wars, I have to admit, I’m angered and frustrated by it.  I write books on the Great War and have won awards for them, so I don’t come at this show raw and uninitiated.

The parts with the speakers were, for the most part, accurate (though subject to debate at times). The historians on the show were, for the most part, good.

It was the narrative text and images/props used that were, in many cases, completely wrong.  Here’s a smattering of examples:

  • Patton alone did not come up with the idea of massing tanks.  The show went out of its way to make it appear that Patton invented the entire concept of armored combat.  My apologies to our British cousins who actually DID invent this idea.
  • It would have been nice of the Germans in WWI used Mauser rifles.
  • Patton’s tank in all of the WWI battle segments was a 1940 Stuart.  Now I’ll grant you, there are not a lot of Renault tanks floating round they could have used, but with CGI, they could have faked it.  Even with some cardboard and duct tape you could have tried to mock up a Renault.
  • In the segment on the Meuse Argonne Offensive, the narrator made the comment, “For the first time in the war the Germans were on the retreat.”  Seriously?   I guess the Marne didn’t count.
  • Contrary to the show, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton did not single-handedly win the Great War.  My apologies to our allies.  You almost got the sense that the French were not part of the war the way they portrayed it.
  • The invasion of Poland. While the show mentions that the Soviets invaded Poland as well, on the map, it shows Germany absorbing all of Poland, with no movement on the part of the Soviet armies. A decade ago my wife used to call the History Channel “The Hitler Channel.”  It appears they have wandered away from that when it came to Poland.
  • In the Battle of Britain segment, I particularly liked the images of American B-17’s being used by the Germans to bomb London.   Those crafty Germans!  Also, I was a bit surprised to see American P-51 Mustangs in the defense of Britain years before they were invented.
  • Pearl Harbor – showing twin engine bombers for the attack?  Oh, and the shot of the Japanese Navy ship on its way to the attack, it was a modern US cruiser (complete with her radar array) with a CGI Japanese flag.  It reminded me of the movie Final Countdown where the USS Nimitz goes back in time.
  • Douglas MacArthur was evacuated from Corregidor by airplane!  In reality, it was by boat but hey, at this point, why bother with reality?

After the MacArthur stuff I had to stop watching because it hurt too much.

 

Any school that shows this in their history class should have their teachers examined for drug use.  Unfortunately, many people are going to get their history from this show.  And yes, some of my points are minor, seemingly insignificant technicalities.   But they remain wrong.   Ignoring the mistakes is incorrect as well.

A great deal of the presentation is dumbed down and simplified.  I understand that, given the limitations of time.

I know the History Channel has long ago abandoned history, but this production shows a certain lack of laziness on their part.  I had high hopes after watching the Hatfields and McCoys last year, which was actually not too bad.   But The World Wars is nothing short of a mind-blowing fraud. They didn’t even use the accurate stock footage for the scenes.

A lot of people are going to watch this and assume it is correct because of the History Channel branding.  They have been ripped off, cheated of their true history, but this cobbled-together debacle.  This is, at best, a misrepresentation of history.   At worst, it is a farce.  It was as if they had a group of high school kids write the script and told them to hit Wikipedia or Google the wars as source material. Sadly, it would have been more accurate.  Chuckle now, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch.

I feel bad for the legitimate historians who appeared in the show.  I’m sure they filmed their segments without realizing how the final product was going to be portrayed.

Shame on you History Channel…you had an awesome topic with tons of great potential and completely mishandled it.

Wings of Glory – New Miniatures Review

By now you have probably guessed, I’m a junkie for Ares Games Wings of Glory.  The game utilizes cards to plan the movement of your miniature aircraft.  Battle is done by drawing damage cards.  The entire game system is one that can be mastered in a matter of minutes.

I’m a member of the League of WWI Aviation Historians, and a big part of our charter is educating about air combat in the Great War.  This game is an excellent way to get kids interested in WWI aviation.  I think even an eight year old could master the nuances of the game – it’s that simple. 

What makes the game work is the miniatures. Two weeks ago Ares released a new “wave” of miniatures for the game.  I picked up three out of the four as samples and thought I’d give readers of my blog a quick peek at the aircraft and offer my opinion of the miniatures.  Ares seems to be finally concentrating on some of the more well-known aircraft from the war, which was a treat with this release.   

First up, the SPAD VII.  Look, we all know that this was one of the workhorse fighters of the war.  As you can see in the image, this plane has a lot going for it.  Ares does an admirable job at the detail work on these tiny miniatures.  The one shown in this image is French ace Guynemer.  The other two SPAD VII’s in this release include Soubiran’s, of the Lafayette Escadrille, and one generic SPAD VII from 23 Squadron.  I’m sure you’re all wondering why I didn’t pick up Soubiran’s since I have written about the Lafayette Escadrille in my book on Bert Hall.  I’m not a fan of Soubiran personally – I have my reasons as a historian.  Let’s just say I thought it would be better to round out my aircraft collection with Guynemer’s SPAD VII. 

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Another classic aircraft miniature released in this wave was the Albatros D.II.  This comes in three separate miniatures:  Szepessy-Sokoll, Von Richthofen, and Oswald Boelcke’s machine.  The one pictured is Boelcke’s aircraft. (I have too many Von Richthofen aircraft in my collection.)  You have to admit that the detail around the engine is remarkable, when you realize that these planes are under two inches in length. 

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My final photo is of a Halberstadt CL.II.  I had just spent a weekend at a Chapter meeting of the League at the Smithsonian checking out their Halberstadt so I knew I had to get one of these.  This model shows Schwarze/Schumm’s CI.II.  The lozenge pattern, while not perfectly to scale, really does capture the effect quite well (though I know purists would point out that it is not quite right and that different patterns were used on different parts of the aircraft – remember, this IS just a game and you can repaint the miniatures if you want to.)   Other miniatures for the CL.II include one from Schlachtstaffel 23b, and Niemann/Kolodzicj’s machine.

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The only miniature I didn’t pick up or review is the Bristol F.2B Fighter.  This wone comes in three separate miniatures for the machines of Harvey/Waight, Arkell/Stagg, and Headlam/Beaton.  Maybe I’ll cover that one at a later time. 

Overall – Ares keeps scoring homeruns with these miniatures.  I recommend if you’re considering playing the game or just collecting the miniatures, these are great additions.  

Erroneous Myths of the Great War

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I’ve got your “wonder weapon” right here…

As we approach the Centenary of the Great War this summer, I have noticed an appreciable upturn of interest in WWI.  Having written several books on the topic, (go ahead, check Amazon.com) I have noticed, over the years, people referring to the war in terms of the myths that it has generated. 

Many of these myths are misinterpretations, accidental and deliberate, in terms of how people viewed the war.  Some have been perpetuated by bad history books and worse historians.  With no surviving veterans of the World War One, people often accept these myths as reality.  So here’s my semi-professional opinion of the larger myths that have come out of this conflict. 

The conflict was dominated by static trench warfare.  It is true that trenches became the norm, but that wasn’t until mid-late 1915 – the second year of the war.  The illusion that there was a single static trench-line on the fronts is a fallacy. 

The war had a great deal of mobility associated with it.  Prior to heavy entrenching, the armies were actually quite agile.  Even after 1915, campaigns altered the lines, in some cases dramatically.  Near the end of the war, large scale assaults caused massive changes to the front lines – despite the trenches. 

And the men that lived and fought in those trenches, did not do so for years at a time.  Both sides rotated troops in and out of the filthy trenches. 

On the eastern front trenches were dug, but the war was dominated by large moves by armies.  On the western front, there were shifts in the front lines despite entrenchments – and some of these were substantial – such as Germany’s 1918 offensive.  True – trenches were prevalent, but armies still advanced and retreated. 

The war was Germany’s fault.  Far too much has been written about the ignition of the Great War, but to lay the blame on Germany alone would be ignoring a great deal of history.  Britain, for example, declared war under the auspices of protecting Belgium.  In reality however, the fear of a victorious Germany unifying mainland Europe was more of a motivation.  The complex web of treaties and royal families all contributed to the war – but to lay the blame solely on Germany would be incorrect.  The Treaty of Versailles did lay the blame on Germany to bear, which is where this myth began. 

The men were sent to slaughter by incompetent Generals.  There were some loser Generals, I’ll give you that.  The issue was the same that was faced in the American Civil War – technology eclipsing tactics.  The leaders struggled to wrap their hands around the changes that technology introduced which required changes in tactics.  Aircraft, tanks, flamethrowers, chemical weapons, all dramatically changed the battlefield conditions.  Generals attempted to cope with these, but often they could not.  By the end of the war every army still maintained mounted cavalry under the illusion that they might be able to penetrate to the enemy’s rear and wreck havoc. 

The Generals were adapting as quickly as their predecessors had to changes in technology.  Decades of training and indoctrination were difficult to overcome but many did.  The illusion that the Generals rushed their men blindly to their deaths is one that is unfair in most cases. 

The Battle of Jutland determined British supremacy on the high seas.  Jutland was to have been this massive decisive naval battle. In reality, the Germans won the battle tactically and the British claimed victory strategically because the High Seas Fleet never sailed out to challenge the blockade again in large numbers But wait.

Jutland itself was a spectacular battle…but the real winner was British intelligence.  The British had access to German coded messages and could read them.  They knew the intended movements of the fleet real-time with their German counterparts.  This allowed them to sortie and fight Jutland in the first place. Without the access to coded messages, one wonders how Jutland might have played out.  In fact, it was this same intelligence apparatus that decoded the infamous Zimmerman Telegram which was instrumental in getting the United States into the Great War.

Jutland was won in an office in the Admiralty known as Room 40 where the German navy’s plans were deciphered and acted upon. 

The use of chemical weapons in WWI was so horrific that the Germans were afraid of using them in WWII.  Chemical weapons were effective at softening up enemy positions, but they were not the most effective way to kill large numbers of the enemy.   Almost all chemical weapons of WWI and WWII were delivered by artillery, and limited by range and weather conditions.  The Germans have maintained that they didn’t use chemical weapons because they knew that the allies had stockpiles of them as well which could be used in retaliation – negating any advantage they might offer. 

Granted chemical weapons have horrific effects on their victims, but both sides in the war issued gas masks and trained their troops for dealing with chemical attacks – should they come.  It is certainly possible that the German military commanders feared what the repercussions of using such weapons might be if they lost the war – but given the other horrors that the Nazi’s unleashed, these would have seemed inconsequential. 

Zeppelins were the wonder-weapon of the war.  I blame the movie Flyboys for this myth.  The image of a Zeppelin over a battlefield is more fiction than reality.  Zeppelins proved far to fragile to bomb the actual front lines.  While they were used to bomb London and other British cities, they generated far more terror (and propaganda) than they did damage.  While the image of a Zeppelin is often tied to the Great War, they proved to be so ineffective that the German Army turned over their Zeppelin’s to the Navy by the end of the war, acknowledging their ineffective use of them. 

The German Navy did effectively use Zeppelins for long range observation for their ships.  Their overall influence on the war itself is subject to debate.

The true “wonder weapon” of the war was the airplane…fighters, bombers, and observation.  At the start of the war airplane were in their infancy.  By the middle of the war they were directing artillery bombardments, bombing rear strategic targets and cities and making enemy movements visible.  Aircraft underwent multiple technological metamorphoses in the war, each one driving new technologies and techniques.  

The arrival of the Americans spelled the end for Germany.  This is a popular American myth but one that doesn’t quite hold water.  If anything, the arrival of American troops almost cost the allied powers the war.  When Russia stopped fighting the Germans rushed hundreds of thousands of troops to the western front.  They did this out of concern of the arrival of the American troops which might balance or tip the scales of the conflict.  The result was the St. Michael Offensive in 1918.  While misdirected, this offense had the potential to give the German’s a victory prior to the arrival of the rest of the American AEF.  It was a stunning success at first.  The relatively static trench lines were shattered.  Armies were on the movie again.  But logistics could not keep up with the advancing Germans.  Eventually the offense petered out. 

The arrival of American forces certainly were a shot in the arm for the allies and their fighting helped shorten the war.  But Germany was already starving and exhausted.  Even without the Americans it is conceivable that Germany would have been defeated (though it would have taken longer). 

The tank ended trench warfare.   The arrival of the tank on the battlefields is often heralded as the decisive tool that broke years of deadlock on the Western Front.  True, tanks allowed for penetration of the front – but Germany’s 1918 St. Michael Offensive did not utilize tanks to achieve a dramatic breakthrough.  Tanks were first employed in numbers in September of 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.  Due to losses (most mechanical) they failed to penetrate the enemy lines.  This was two years before the end of the war. 

Tanks provided for changes in tactics that helped allow penetration of the enemy lines.  The change of tactics, such as the German use of stormtroopers, altered the trench lines too.  Tanks played an important role in making warfare more fluid in the Great War, but it was not a burden they bore alone. 

The bottom line:  No single piece of technology broke the stalemate of trench warfare. 

The Russians played little part in the final outcome of the war.  I will grant you, the Russian war effort was managed sloppily.  The German victory of Tannenberg did not knock Russia out of the war though.  Hundreds of thousands of troops were tied up on the eastern front until 1918.  Only went outright revolution broke out in 1917 in Russia was it possible for German y to turn her gaze westward.  Germany sent Lenin back into Russia to formant revolution, but that fire soon got out of hand.  

The “red rebellion” spread into Germany too.  There was a last ditch plan to sortie the High Seas Fleet for a final strike against the Royal Navy.  The thought was that a strong decisive blow in one epic battle might break the blockade, sink the British Navy, and give Germany a better position at the peace table.  The only reason that this was not done was communist rebellion in the High Seas Fleet. 

Russia played an important role in the war, if not militarily, then politically.