Seventy years ago this past June, the armies of the Allies — young men who had grown up in the shadow of the previous war — landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.
The connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.
And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.
Brave Little Belgium
When photographer Jeffrey Gusky was given exclusive access to records all but forgotten of the underground cities of World War One lying beneath private farms in France, he had no idea what to expect or the impact it would have on others. Now captured in thousands of striking images, Gusky has titled the collection The Hidden World of WWI. The beautiful art and emotionally charged inscriptions, carved in stone by WWI soldiers, have been virtually untouched for almost 100 years. They are a direct human connection between then and now.
Gusky, a Dallas emergency physician, fine-art photographer and explorer, is believed to be the first person to bring to light the large number of underground cities beneath the trenches of WWI. The Hidden World of WWI reveals the artifacts, sculptures and evocative graffiti left behind by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Landowners determined to preserve the past have zealously protected these underground treasures for decades.
Messages to the Future
“Seeing these subterranean cities for the first time was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Gusky says. “Finding hundreds and hundreds of messages to the future, written by soldiers in their own hand, made time seem to stand still. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the people who trusted me enough to share their secrets about these places. It was also amazing to realize that while some people knew about some of these spaces, no one knew about all of them.”
It was one of the largest conflicts in history and World War 1 claimed the lives of a vast number of military personnel and civilians. 16 million people perished with a further 20 million wounded.
To commemorate the centenary year of World War 1 the Post Office Shop blog team have been researching the General Post Office’s participation in the Great War and the lives of the Post Office employees that were involved.
The Post Office’s contribution to military operations during the war was on a scale that had never been seen before, with 75,000 Post Office employees serving in some of the most hostile environments during World War 1 and 8,500 of these employees lost their lives fighting for their country.
The Post Office actively encouraged their staff to join in the war effort. Of the 75,000 men who left their jobs with the Post Office on our home shores 12,000 of these brave men joined the Post Office Rifles Regiment which had been in existence since 1868. (Pictured: The Post Office Rifles marching in London, 5 July 1919. Click to enlarge).
During the Great War the Rifles fought at many of the major battles including Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele which were fought with the intention of strategically restricting the supply of munitions to the army of the German Empire.
Many stories of the individual soldiers who fought these battles will have been sadly lost in the carnage of these hostile battlefields. However, one of these soldier’s stories made it home and is still remembered today due to the kind deed of a German soldier. During a battle near the town of Longueval, 300 Post Office Rifles were killed. The wife of one of these men by the name of Captain Home Peel, was sent a letter by the German Soldier E.F Gayler informing her of his death so his fate was not left unknown on the frontline.
One member of the Rifles, Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for a series of brave maneuvers. One of these maneuvers included the daring act of capturing an enemy machine gun position by taking on 12 German soldiers, killing three of them and causing the rest to flee the melee.
These brave soldiers who contributed to winning the Great War and their stories are being commemorated by the Post Office with a series of blog posts on the Post Office Shop blog and a range of commemorative products.
The conspirators who spread out along Sarajevo’s Appel Quay on the morning of 28th June 1914 – trying not to fiddle with the pistol and the bomb under their jackets, wondering about the cyanide dose that they had been given – have become tokens of world politics. One token, in fact, as we only remember the one who fired the successful shots, and not the other angry young men like Cabrinovic and Cuprilovic. (Does it help that it was the one with the short name who got lucky? Would our memory of twentieth century history be different if the Archduke’s car had happened to stop instead in front of Mehmedbasic – who was also, incidentally, the Muslim among the conspirators?)
Gavrilo Princip’s father was a peasant rebel whose neighbours laughed at him because he refused to drink and swear, and who didn’t want Gavrilo (pictured) to go to primary school. Photos of him in traditional peasant dress seem more than a generation away from the cheap urban sophistication of Gavrilo in his suit.
Young Princip almost went to Austro-Hungarian military school, but took a different path, perhaps prompted by the epic poetry he’d been given as a school prize. He was 18 when he was expelled from school for threatening other students who didn’t want to go on a protest with him. He was still a teenager as he stood by the Miljacka river, waiting for destiny to come chugging round the corner, and watching for the police agents he’d so far avoided during his weeks in Bosnia.
Nedeljko Cabrinovic was doubted by his fellow-conspirators; his bomb was taken away from him the day before the assassination attempt. Walking to his assigned position during the morning of the 28th he met a friend, had his photo taken, flirted with some girls. But he’d also given away his possessions to his family; money to his grandmother and to his sister. Teenagers; idealists – recruited and fired up by older, wiser men who stayed in the shadows and were not risking their lives that morning.
In 2011, American author, Kathryn Atwood, wrote a book entitled Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Now, comes a prequel to that title, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics.
When one thinks of the Great War, invariably the first images to spring to mind are, understandably, that of soldiers in the trenches, men with shellshocked eyes carrying their wounded comrades, soldiers with gas masks. Women, with the exception of nurses, rarely feature among the iconic images of the war. Atwood, in her finely-crafted book, attempts to redress the balance.
Nurses, resisters, soldiers and journalists
Kathryn Atwood’s book, although aimed primarily at the ‘Young Adult’ market, is a fine read for all. Her introduction provides a brief overview on how the war started and the changing role of women as the conflict progressed. The book is then divided up into sections where we are told the stories of some incredibly brave women. We have a section on nurses, resistance and espionage, women soldiers and journalists. Some, like Edith Cavell (pictured), are still remembered but most have been forgotten, partly, says Atwood, because their stories have been eclipsed by the very women they helped inspire during the Second World War.
The stories are indeed remarkable. We have, for example, Louise Thuliez, whose resistance work in Belgium was discovered by the Germans and stood trial alongside Cavell. Following the war, she was decorated by French president, Georges Clemenceau. We have Emilienne Moreau who, just 16-years-old, single-handedly managed to warn a company of Scottish soldiers that they were walking straight into a German ambush. Days later, she shot dead two Germans with a revolver. Incredibly, a quarter of a century later, following the fall of France in June 1940, Emilienne resumed her resistance work.
On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.
The ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.
The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American. Continue reading
In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers and on Christmas Day went on the offensive against the Russians, launching an attack through the Caucasus. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II sent an appeal to Britain, asking for a diversionary attack that would ease the pressure on Russia. From this came the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign.
The British planned its diversionary attack, to use the Royal Navy to take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where they could attack Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. By capturing Constantinople, the British hoped then to link up with their Russian allies. The attack would, it hoped, have the additional benefit of drawing German troops away from both the western and Eastern Fronts. The Dardanelles, a strait of water separating mainland Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula, is sixty miles long and, at its widest, only 3.5 miles. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, insisted that the Royal Navy, acting alone, could succeed. On 19 February, a flotilla of British and French ships pounded the outer forts of the Dardanelles and a month later attempted to penetrate the strait. It failed, losing six ships (three sunk and three damaged), two thirds of its fleet. Soldiers, it was decided, would be needed after all.
ANZACs Continue reading
On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, French and Algerian soldiers, fighting together, noticed a strange yellow-grey-coloured cloud floating across no man’s land in their direction. As it descended over them, many collapsed, coughing and wheezing, gasping for air, frothing at the mouth. Men nearby watched as their colleagues fell to the ground in agony yet there were no gunshots to be heard and they appeared not to be visibly wounded in any way. Seized by panic, they bolted, throwing away their rifles, and even their tunics so that they might run faster, leaving a hole some four miles wide. But the Germans, wary of stepping into the cloud of poison gas protected only by their crude gasmasks, felt unable to exploit the opportunity. This, with 400 tones of chlorine gas, was the world’s first successful chemical weapon attack, resulting in the deaths of some 6,000 Allied soldiers.
This new terrible weapon was inhumane, cried the Allied generals, only to be using it themselves within five months. Britain’s first use of chlorine gas, at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, was not a great success. Sir John French and the British commanders had banned the use of the word ‘gas’, believing it too provocative a word; instead they called it the ‘accessory’, a vague euphemism if ever there was one. Having waited for a favourable wind, they released the gas from cylinders. But the wind turned and the gas ended up causing greater causalities among the British than it did the Germans. (Pictured, segment of the painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent. Click to enlarge).
Fritz Haber Continue reading
When Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he quickly grew to rely on the services of a former First Sea Lord, by then supposedly retired: Admiral John Fisher. Between them, Fisher and Churchill were to revolutionise the Royal Navy, just in time to facilitate its successful prosecution of World War One. Fisher had predicted a 1914 war with Germany as far back as 1911.
Once war broke out, he returned to the position of First Sea Lord in a formal capacity, though he resigned after less than a year. He and Churchill had fallen out over the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, about which he was never an enthusiast. Fisher is regarded as one of the most influential admirals of his generation. His partnership with Churchill is an often neglected aspect of the pre-war period.
John ‘Jacky’ Fisher came from a colonial family who had fallen into debt. He therefore joined the navy at the age of only thirteen, by when his father had died. He grew estranged from his mother. He married, and had four children, three of whom were in turn to marry admirals. He was a forward thinking, sometimes impatient man, frustrated by the conservatism and patronage that was rampant in the navy. He was also extremely religious, an aspect of his make up which could sometimes affect his judgement.
First Sea Lord
His first tenure as First Sea Lord had been between 1904 and 1910. It was a period of retrenchment and transformation. Amidst much outcry, Fisher freed up resources by scrapping or mothballing dozens of elderly ships, and instead invested in new technology. Modern turreted ‘Dreadnought’ battleships and the new concept of battlecruisers were the result.