Captain Francis Crozier – Commander of HMS “Terror”; ca. 1845
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in 1796 into a wealthy family in the Irish linen town of Banbridge, County Down. His father, George Crozier, was a prominent solicitor who acted for Ireland’s most powerful land-owning families, and he was named after Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira.
In 1810, three months before his 14th birthday, Crozier enlisted in the Royal Navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic wars. On one of his earliest voyages, his ship became lost in the Pacific Ocean and unexpectedly arrived at tiny Pitcairn Island, where the crew met the sole surviving mutineer from the Bounty.
After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the Admiralty turned to exploration in an attempt to find work for its ranks of idle officers and to expand the British Empire. Arctic discovery was a key ambition during this energetic burst of exploration, which produced men such as Franklin, Parry, the Rosses and Crozier.
Crozier’s first polar expedition came in 1821, when he volunteered to join Parry’s attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, a feat that had eluded sailors for centuries. They returned after two years without success, but Crozier went north again a year later when Parry took the vessels Fury and Hecla on another vain bid to locate the passage. Disaster was only narrowly averted when Fury was wrecked in Prince Regent Inlet, and the entire party limped home on board Hecla.
In 1827, Crozier joined Parry and James Clark Ross in an arduous slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily laden boats, trekked for more than 1,000 kilometres, but advanced only 275 kilometres north because the remorseless drift of the pack ice carried them steadily south. It was akin to walking the wrong way up a fast-moving escalator, and the men survived thanks largely to the depots earlier laid down by the diligent Crozier. But the ‘furthest north’ record of 82° 45’ stood for almost half a century.
On successive journeys, Crozier demonstrated his reliability and an aptitude for the painstaking business of magnetic and astronomic readings. In 1827, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1843. His prominent sponsors included the astronomer Sir John Herschel and Sir Francis Beaufort, creator of the Beaufort scale and one of the co-founders of the Royal Geographical Society.
Crozier’s most accomplished feat was the mammoth four-year journey to Antarctica in Erebus and Terror with James Clark Ross, which arguably ranks as the 19th century’s most outstanding voyage of maritime discovery. He captained Terror and never lost a man – a rare achievement at the time.
Setting out in 1839, the Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great journey made under sail, penetrating the pack ice of the Southern Ocean and discovering vast tracts of the Antarctic continent. It also bequeathed many of the now familiar geographical names to the Heroic Age of Exploration, including Mount Erebus, Ross Island and McMurdo Sound. The Great Ice Barrier, where Scott’s party perished in 1912, was so named because it presented a barrier to Erebus and Terror (it was re-named the Ross Ice Shelf in the 1950s). And Cape Crozier, the windswept headland on Ross Island that was later immortalised by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book on Scott’s expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, is now renowned for its emperor penguin colony.
However, the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll on both Crozier and Ross. On their return, witnesses were shocked at the way their hands trembled – the tremors so pronounced that they could hardly hold a glass.
Sadly, Crozier was also suffering from a broken heart. On the voyage south, the ships had stopped at the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where Crozier fell deeply in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of the old explorer Sir John Franklin, who had been appointed the island’s governor. His repeated proposals of marriage were rejected because Cracroft refused to become a captain’s wife. ‘She liked the man, but not the sailor,’ her aunt once confided.
Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845 when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in Erebus and Terror. Although Crozier was the most experienced polar captain still serving, the Admiralty gave command of the expedition to Franklin, an overweight 59-year-old who hadn’t taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. It was a snub that hurt Crozier, and he probably should have chosen that moment to retire from exploration. But in a vain attempt to appeal to Cracroft, Crozier volunteered to travel as Franklin’s deputy and assume command of Terror.
In his last letter home, a melancholic Crozier wrote: ‘In truth I am sadly lonely.’ More pertinently, he was worried that the expedition had sailed too late in the season and also questioned Franklin’s leadership, writing that ‘[Franklin] is very decided in his own views but has not good judgement’.
Erebus and Terror crossed Baffin Bay during the summer of 1845 and entered the treacherous Arctic waterways of Lancaster Sound with 129 officers and men aboard. They were never to return.
Disaster struck in 1847, when the ships became trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait. Shortly after, Franklin died and command of the expedition passed to Crozier. The ships were abandoned in 1848, and it was Crozier who inherited the hopeless task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks; years later, examination of their bones revealed that some had resorted to cannibalism in the struggle to survive.
Crozier’s death march ripples with historical significance. At one point, the survivors reached the narrow Simpson Strait that runs between King William Island and mainland Canada. Unknown to Crozier, the strait was the last piece of the jigsaw that – at that point – made up the Northwest Passage. A little over 50 years later, the Norwegian Amundsen navigated the strait during the first navigation of the passage and graciously flew his ship’s colours in salute.
According to native accounts, a few desperate souls from the Franklin expedition clung to life for several years after the ships were abandoned, but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the imperturbable and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to succumb.
The preserved body of Royal Navy stoker John Torrington who died in 1846 during Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition in the Canadian Arctic; ca. 1984
Petty Officer John Shaw Torrington (1825 — 1 January 1846) was an explorer and Royal Navy stoker. He was part of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, but died early in the trip and was buried on Beechey Island.
Torrington was a part of Sir John Franklin’s final expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route to Asia, via the northern edge of North America. They set off from Greenhithe, England in two ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, on 19 May 1845. The trip was expected to last about three years, so the ships were packed with provisions which included more than 136,000 pounds of flour, 3,684 gallons of high-proof alcohol and 33,000 pounds of tinned meat, soup and vegetables. However, after late July no one heard from or saw the crew again.
Since Torrington was one of the earlier of Franklin’s crew members to perish during the arctic expedition, he was buried in a tomb beneath approximately five feet of permafrost by his fellow men.
As a result of the subzero arctic temperatures, Torrington was preserved remarkably well with identifiable features including bright, pale blue eyes and skin that was still intact despite bruising and yellowing. A fellow crew member who had died around the same time and was buried next to Torrington also showed minimal signs of decomposition.
A full, four-hour autopsy was performed on Torrington’s body in 1984 with the permission of living descendants. The procedure was performed out in the open arctic air; it consisted of dissecting and sampling each of the body’s organs,bone examination, and extraction of hair, and nail samples for analysis. The autopsy team then re-dressed and re-buried the body in its arctic tomb.
Torrington had developed a fatal case of pneumonia prior to the disappearance of Franklin’s expedition. Bone tissue samples taken from the body in 1984 also revealed that Torrington had lead poisoning; a common condition of arctic explorers of the time due to early canned foods as a primary food source. Additionally, inspection of the lungs also indicated that Torrington was likely a cigarette smoker, a plausible theory as he came from an industrial region of Britain. The lead poisoning and history of smoking would have worsened the symptoms and severity of pneumonia thereby leading to Torrington’s demise around 1846.
Torrington’s body was bound with strips of cotton to hold the limbs together during preparation for burial:
The tinned wrought iron plaque nailed to the lid of John Torrington’s coffin. The inscription reads: ‘John Torrington dies January 1st 1846 aged 20 years’:
The coffin containing John Torrington. The arrow points true north:
Allied soldiers mock Hitler atop his balcony at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin; July 6th, 1945
With the final victory over Nazi Germany achieved, soldiers and allies of the British, American and Russian armies mimic and mock Adolf Hitler and his ideas on Hitler’s famous balcony at the Chancellery in conquered Berlin. The photo is taken on 6th July, 1945 (1945 (about 2 months after Germany’s surrender, 1 month before Hiroshima and the day after the Phillipines were liberated). Corporal Russell M. Ochwad, of Chicago, plays the part of Hitler on the famous balcony of the Chancellery, in Berlin, from which the former Nazi leader had proclaimed his 1,000-year empire. A British and Russian soldier stand on each side of Cpl. Ochwad, while American and Russian soldiers cheer at the little get-together.
A patient in a restraint chair at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, Yorkshire; ca. 1869
Troops of the eight allied nations during the Boxer Rebellion.
The Boxer Rebellion, Boxer Uprising or Yihetuan Movement was an anti-imperialist uprising which took place in China towards the end of the Qing dynasty between 1898 and 1900. It was initiated by the Militia United in Righteousness (Yihetuan), known in English as the “Boxers,” and was motivated by proto-nationalist sentiments and opposition to foreign imperialism and associated Christian missionary activity. The Great Powers intervened and defeated Chinese forces.
The uprising took place against a background of severe drought, and the disruption caused by the growth of foreign spheres of influence. After several months of growing violence against the foreign and Christian presence in Shandong and the North China plain, in June 1900 Boxer fighters, convinced they were invulnerable to foreign weapons, converged on Beijing with the slogan “Support Qing government and exterminate the foreigners.” Foreigners and Chinese Christians sought refuge in the Legation Quarter. In response to reports of an armed invasion to lift the siege, the initially hesitant Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxers and on June 21 declared war on foreign powers. Diplomats, foreign civilians and soldiers as well as Chinese Christians in the Legation Quarter were placed under siege by the Imperial Army of China and the Boxers for 55 days. Chinese officialdom was split between those supporting the Boxers and those favoring conciliation, led by Prince Qing. The supreme commander of the Chinese forces, the Manchu General Ronglu (Junglu), later claimed that he acted to protect the besieged foreigners. The Eight-Nation Alliance, after being initially turned back, brought 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, and captured Beijing on August 14, lifting the siege of the Legations. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside ensued, along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers.
The Boxer Protocol of September 7, 1901 provided for the execution of government officials who had supported the Boxers, provisions for foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing, and 450 million taels of silver—more than the government’s annual tax revenue—to be paid as indemnity over the course of the next thirty-nine years to the eight nations involved. (Source)
Batterie Mirus, Guernsey; ca. 1942
Batterie Mirus was an artillery gun emplacement built in Nazi occupied Guernsey, disguised as a cottage to fool aerial surveillance.
(Background: During World War II, the Channel Islands were the only part of Britain captured by the Nazis. During a long and brutal occupation the Nazi’s essentially turned the islands into stationary battleships, pouring more concrete into fortifications and gun emplacements than was poured in the rest of the Atlantic Wall combined. The largest guns in The Channel Islands were situated in Guernsey, at the Batterie Mirus. They had a range of around 51km, meaning they could theoretically hit the coast of France.)
Canadian Soldiers take back a wounded from the front during the battle of Passchendaele; ca. November, 1917
Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Launcelot Kiggell, reportedly broke down and wept when he finally visited the Passchendaele battlefield in the autumn of 1917, saying “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
A captured soldier suffering from Shell Shock, The Somme; ca. 1916.
We often joke about “I’ve seen some shit”, but this is a representation of a visceral and downright frightening reality that someone people had to experience. I can’t imagine being subject to something so extreme that my brain had to shut everything down just to cope. His eyes are so hauntingly tragic.
Nothing in history prepared those men for what they faced.
“The worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no… no life. That would break my heart.” -Eugene Sledge Sr. (hoping to convince his son not to enlist in the Marines)
A British soldier gives a “two-fingered salute” to German POWs captured at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Egypt; ca. 1942
The “two-fingered salute”, is commonly performed by flicking the V upwards from wrist or elbow. The V sign, when the palm is facing toward the person giving the sign, has long been an insulting gesture in England, and later in the rest of the United Kingdom; though the use of the V sign as an insulting gesture is largely restricted to the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. It is frequently used to signify defiance (especially to authority), contempt, or derision. The gesture is not used in the United States, and archaic in Australia and New Zealand, where the finger tends to be used in such situations instead.
Here’s a report on the behavior of British POWs during the war, hopefully making it the Britishest thing you’ve read today.
The mass infantry charges in World War One.
Massed infantry attacks in the Great War were typically carried out for one of the following reasons:
- To apply pressure on a certain part of the enemy’s line to prevent those troops from being able to rotate out and reinforce another sector (as in the Somme Offensive of 1916, for example; the British push in the summer was intended in part to stem the flow of German reinforcements being sent to the ongoing siege of Verdun).
- To wear down the enemy through sheer, dogged attrition.
- Plenty of attacks were done in hopes of taking certain ground (ridges, bottlenecks, etc.) that would make a breakthrough easier in the future.
(A typical infantry assault on the Western Front from a British perspective.)
First, it had to be decided where the attack was going to take place. Not just anywhere was worth the effort. Would the ground achieved in a theoretical victory be worth holding? Would the topography of the region lead to the creation of indefensible salients? What type of troops do we have on the opposing side? Prussians? Bavarians? Saxons? Have they just rotated in, or have they been there for a while? What have they been doing themselves while they’ve been there? What’s the weather going to be like? What attacks are being planned for nearby sectors? What kind of support can we expect? These are just some of the questions that had to be asked.
Once a sector for the attack had been chosen, the preparations had to begin. Parties of men from the forward line would go out at night to ensure that there were sufficient (though not obvious) gaps at precisely-determined spots in their own line’s barbed wire installations to allow everyone to get through once the attack began. They’d also ever-so-cautiously try to creep up to the enemy wire and cut holes in it, too, for the same purpose. Ammo stores had to be checked and rechecked, equipment thoroughly inspected, all the stuff you’d expect. I won’t bore you with the cleaning protocols in the trench itself.
Now, “surprise” attacks in any sense that we might currently mean when using the term were basically impossible in the Great War, at least on the Western Front. If the enemy didn’t notice the increased bustle in your forward lines – not to mention lots of new troops being brought up to support the attack if it was going to be a large one – he sure as hell couldn’t fail to notice the artillery barrage that would typically precede the attack.
The nature and intention of such barrages varied from case to case, and there were different schools of thought as to how best to employ them even at that. They were necessary as a prelude to an infantry advance because walking into a wall of alert, functioning machine gun nests is not a way to win a war. The barrage would keep the enemy’s heads down while the troops would muster, and would throw the enemy line into a state of disruption and chaos on a practical level. Even a limited barrage of only a few minutes’ duration was useful; the machine guns employed by the Germans at the time could only effectively rotate 30 degrees, so knocking out even a couple of them could create “safe zones” towards which the infantry could proceed to punch through. They’d still have to contend with rifle and small-arms fire, but that was a reality all along the line.
Different types of barrages preceded different types of attacks. The lead-up to the Somme Offensive I mentioned above saw the German lines shelled continuously, day and night, for an entire week. Other attacks might have one lasting only a few minutes. Still others would be accompanied by what was known as a “creeping barrage,” where the shellfire was co-ordinated to fall just in advance of the attacking troops, keeping the Germans suppressed until the last possible moment. It’s worth knowing that artillery accounted for over half of all the deaths in combat throughout the war, and something like three quarters of injuries.
With the artillery roaring away, the first line would prepare to advance. The men would get up onto the firestep in the trench near their respective ladders and await the signal to go over the top. What happened next depended upon both the objectives in play and the stage of the war at which it took place.
Early on, it was more common for soldiers to move forward slowly, trying to maintain an unbroken line of advance. This owes something to the tactics of bygone centuries, certainly, but it was also a practical necessity. The war was still young enough that accomplished veterans did not exist; the entire BEF at the war’s outset was only 100,000 strong, and the need for more, more, more men, as soon as possible, everywhere, meant that the amount of rigorous, professionalizing training they could receive before being sent out was minimal. It was thought (often correctly) that expecting initiative, cunning and intuition from untested privates was a dangerous way to go about it, and the battle doctrine was adapted to the material they had at hand.
The slow line-advance kept everyone in sight of their commanding officer and aware of where they were. It allowed messages to be passed down from man to man if need be. It permitted excellent rifle-fire opportunities – in the war’s early stages, British rifle drill was still so absurdly good that it was even more dangerous than machine gun fire.
It had lots of reasons behind it. It was still awful and amazingly dangerous.
As the war went on, thankfully, everyone involved (who had lived) began to learn from their mistakes. Principles that we now take for granted were developed. With more experienced, better-trained soldiers and a better understanding of what could be accomplished by the weapons involved on both sides, infantry charges began to take on a different character. The single line was abandoned in favour of small, semi-autonomous groups – still technically in a line, I guess, but able to function well out of one as well. Advancing was done with all seemly haste, and with an eye for judicious use of terrain. Most importantly, the advance would be conducted under covering fire: one group under cover would suppress the German line while another advanced still closer. In this leap-frogging fashion, the line went forward.
“Mixed” is the best term I could apply to it, unfortunately. While there was undoubtedly a learning curve (usually thought to be most pronounced from 1916 onward), early large-scale attacks were not well-managed and did not typically succeed. The methods involved were successful when measured against the first two of the three rationales I listed so far above, but in terms of the third – breaking through – they were not.
Breakthroughs were sometimes achieved all the same (the British at Cambrai, for example, or the Germans along a long front during the Ludendorff Offensive of Spring 1918), but following up on them was difficult. The idea was to establish a thoroughfare through which cavalry and more infantry could be dispatched and take the enemy in the rear. It didn’t work out, though the idea itself is sound enough.
Many have asked if it could all have been done differently, and the answer is most certainly “yes.” What that different approach might look like is another matter…
As with most things, it varied greatly from man to man. Certainly it was terrifying for many, as the memoirs and novels of the war amply demonstrate, but others perceived it with ambivalence or even delight.
Here are some standard accounts, if you’d like to read up on it:
- Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (fictionalized memoir; written by a veteran; trauma narrative)
- Ernst Junger – Storm of Steel (fictionalized memoir; veteran; author seems to have positively reveled in the experience)
- Robert Graves – Goodbye to All That (highly fictionalized memoir; veteran; very dim view of it all)
- Frederic Manning – The Middle Parts of Fortune (novel; veteran; ambivalent; amazingly good)
- Henri Barbusse – Under Fire (very fictionalized memoir; veteran; almost a horror story)
- A.O. Pollard – Fire-Eater: Memoirs of a V.C. (memoir; veteran and Victoria Cross winner; greatly enjoyed the war)
- Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front (novel; veteran and fraud; deeply cynical about the experience)
Finally, if you’d like a far more comprehensive and detailed view of infantry tactics of this time, you’d do well to look into Erwin Rommel’s Infantry Attacks and Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18. Rommel’s views on the matter were admittedly idiosyncratic, but it’s an amazing document all the same; Griffith’s volume is far more recent (1994) and offers a detached academic overview rather than a first-hand account.
Life in the trenches:
I have the daily schedule of one Captain Geoffrey Bowen with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers on September 3rd, 1917.
I’ll be giving some context in brackets throughout for reading sake:
8.pm. Started [wake up] 9.30 p.m. Arrived. [at trench] 11 p.m. Company arrived. 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Round the line [ie: checking on men, checking positions, maintaining quality control across the line] 3.15 a.m.-4.15 a.m. Sleep 4.15 a.m.-6.am. Stand to. [Night watch, essentially] 6 a.m.-6.30 Reports [from lower level officers] 6.30a.m.-9. Sleep 9 a.m.-9.30 Breakfast: bacon, eggs, tinned sausage 9.30 a.m.-10.10 Round the line 10.10 a.m.-12. Reports, etc. 12.30 p.m. Lunch: Steak, potatoes, beans, sweet omelette 1.45 p.m.-2.15. Daylight patrol. 2.15 p.m-2.30. Sleep. 2.30 p.m.-3.40. Gup [gossip, idle chat] with the C.O. 4 p.m. Tea, bread, jam. 4.30 p.m.-4.35. Sleep. 4.35 p.m.-5.10. Entertain 'Bowes' 5.10 p.m.-5.15. Sleep. 5.15 p.m.-5.25. Trench Mortar Officer reports. 5.25 p.m.-6.15. Sleep 6.15 p.m.-6.35. Entertain Brain and Padre [Chaplains, implied work on mental and religious health] 6.35 p.m.-7.30. Sleep. 7.30 p.m.-8. Round the line 8 p.m.-8.15. Dinner: steak, potatoes, tinned fruit and custard. 8.15 p.m.-9. Round the line 11.30 p.m.-12.30 a.m. Sleep. 12.30-2.30 a.m. Intensive sniping [under fire] 2.30-5 a.m. Sleep.
It’s not nearly as dramatic as you may think. The unfortunate truth for Hollywood is that most of WWI was sitting around improving defenses and doing basically nothing. The conditions were horrific the entire time for most parts but you were not constantly getting out of trenches and charging enemies most of the time. One of the biggest jobs of men on the front is to constantly check, repair and lay down barbed wire outside of their trenches. This was generally done at night for obvious reasons and generally required hundreds of men to cover the workers doing this. At first they had to use mallets and even if they tried to muffle the sound by putting sandbags between the mallet and the stake to hold the barbed wire down, it was still noisy business. This brought the attention of many snipers. Eventually a corkscrew type of device would be universalized which would allow men to ‘screw’ the stake into the ground silently.
However the amount of fighting and what fighting you got depended on your sector. There were generally two types, quiet and loud sectors. Loud sectors were ones where the trenches were extremely close to the Germans — at times less than 25 yards away but usually no further than 100-200 yards away. You are in constant threat of rifle fire but not so much artillery lest each side hits their own men. So your entire existence is painted by avoiding snipers, being under sniper fire, and having bursts of machine gun fired in your general direction in your daily life. The quiet sectors were generally very different. You could easily be 600-800 yards away from the other trench and both sides adopted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and your greatest threat would be random artillery barrages from miles away. Capt. Dugdale described the experience:
Time passed very peacefully, as the Germans were very quiet. My battalion snipers had the time of their lives; never before had they been given such targets. We literally kept a game book of hits for hte first three days; after that the Germans did not show themselves so much; also they started to retaliate.
Wiring was carried out nearly every night, but not in the style we were accustomed to in the days of the Somme. Our men did not creep through the wire carrying coils of wire, stakes, etc.; instead, a general service wagon was driven into No Man’s Land with the materials on board, which were dumped out when required. At first we expected bursts of machine gun fire every minute, but nothing happened. It must have become a well-established custom, as the enemy did the same thing themselves; we did not interfere.
Nonetheless in the general, the Germans were very keen on disrupting workers parties; particularly with machine guns and offensive patrols. The need for quiet was imperative but not always followed by the more reckless green horns. One account by Henry Gregory describes a particularly loud worker party shouting orders and joking with each other while his company was covering their duties. After about 30 minutes of it the Germans (who were previously pretty quiet) got fed up and unleashed a massive mortar barrage and machine gun attack on the position, killing dozens of men who had no reason to.
Conditions in the trenches were universally awful however. That is one universal thing that can be applied. Many trenches had water up the knees of men and you would have to wade around in this grungy, dirty mud water all day and everything you had would be almost constantly wet. When digging new trenches it was not uncommon to get a sudden and sharp scent of a dead body lying there for weeks or months as you pierced his flesh in the dirt, especially in when repairing trenches taken over from the enemy after large artillery barrages. Everything, once you got up to the front, had to be carried by hand for obvious reasons. Usually in the dark. In knee to waist high water. While being shot at by snipers consistently. You can imagine the frustration and how it could wear on a man.
That’s really what made the war so horrible. You didn’t attack all that much if you were a soldier but your life was still a miserable hellhole. You sat in a crappy trench while being shot on constantly by snipers or being bombarded constantly by artillery depending on where you were — if you were in a perfect spot both at once! You were constantly slightly hungry because of poor rations and if someone slipped and dropped a box of steak in water they were done for and you had just go without. Something that happened enough for men to justify writing about it as a part of their experience. However, for all that, the actual combat was pretty minimal and dare I say cushy, especially for quiet sectors. Your duties if you were a rifleman were essentially forward patrols from time to time and covering worker parties (usually the two duties were combined) which was a dangerous job but not really an all out attack and otherwise maintaining the trench system through constant labor. If you were a machine gunner or a sniper your life was essentially to sit in one spot for hours and harass the enemy and discourage them from performing their own maintenance or making them do it under great duress. And if you were an officer your job was basically to walk around and make sure everyone was doing their job correctly.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about how trench warfare worked. At first it was a crude type of deal, the Generals were literally learning on the fly. The original tactic through 1915 and 1916 was essentially bombard the enemy trench with so much firepower that they couldn’t possibly survive and then mop up the rest with your infantry. This was basically what The Battle of Somme was supposed to be — one of the biggest failures of the war where the British men advancing quickly found that the artillery barrage did nothing to the enemy barbed wire and the Germans just huddled up underground ,waited for the barrage to stop, and then just manned their machine guns again once the assault started. Things like the creeping barrage were developed as well where basically the artillery would ‘creep’ to the German trench as the infantry marched behind it. The idea was that the artillery would hit the trench and within seconds be struck by British and French troops in the immediate aftermath.
Again, the issue was coming with that all out artillery barrages where the men were marching was a horrible strategy. This is most demonstrated at the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, where the British attempted to break out of the Ypres salient in Belgium by taking surrounding ridges. The British absolutely unloaded artillery on these positions and when the men went into battle the ground was so utterly destroyed the entire battlefield was composed of flooded craters. The men were literally getting stuck in the mud and could barely move and they were cut down endlessly. The battle was only a half success, only capturing a few ridges with egregious casualties no one predicted even at this stage in the war.
In many ways WWI was an artillery war, but it was a war that was won in the development of infantry doctrine. What generals realized by 1918 was that artillery can not win this war. It could not single handedly destroy the enemy like they believed and the principle of combined arms was developed. Combined arms stated that every component of the army must be used together in equal parts to support each other and win the battle and that’s precisely what happened. Artillery was used in short, concentrated bursts and barrages not meant to obliterate the enemy defense but just shock them and generally create temporary weak points. Infantry stopped being a force that charged into trenches trying to overwhelm a position “shattered” by artillery but rather began doing something we are more familiar with — squad based infiltration tactics. Small squads of men would independently infiltrate enemy weak points, neutralize key points and create an open path for friendly mortars and flamethrowers to move in to create a combined mortar, machine gun and flamethrower assault on the more fortified positions with the infiltrated elite troops attacking from all sides inside the trench as well. Combined with aerial reconnaissance, armor to shield advancing infantry, and short but sweet ‘hurricane’ barrages trenches became all but a stepping stone in the March 1918 offensive by the Germans and then for the Allies in the Hundred Days counter-offensive in August which ended the war.
Holmes, Richard, “Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front “
Simpson, Andy “Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life and Death in the Trenches of the First World War”
An English girl comforts her doll in the rubble of her bomb-damaged home; ca. 1940
These reminders are important for future generations (like us) to not take peace for granted, and to remember that it’s easy to clamor for war if it’s someone else’s house and nation that’s about to get bombed, but when the tables are turned and the bomb whizz over your head, this mechanized mass murder, or whatever watered down PC name war-hungry politicians may give it, is a whole ‘nother beast.
Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
[*History got a little breaking news this morning that one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition has been discovered in the Canadian arctic.]
Photo of sentencing from the Nuremburg trials. The name of the offender and their punishment next to them, Hess is hidden because Goering was standing up, he received life imprisonment; Oct 1st 1946.
Pretty much all of them served their sentences, and a couple were apparently repentant.
Sentenced to hang:
- Hermann Goering: Committed suicide on the 15/10/46, the day before his execution. (He took a potassium cyanide pill the night before his execution was to take place. He had requested a firing squad like a soldier would receive instead of hanging like a commoner and was denied.)
- Fritz Sauckel: Hanged on the 16/10/46.
- Alfred Jodl: Hanged on the 16/10/46. (One of the three French judges later declared that Jodl should not have been found guilty and hanged. In 1953, the denazification courts in Germany reversed the verdict and returned all of his confiscated property to his widow.)
- Arthur Seyss-Inquart: Hanged on the 16/10/46. (Interesting point, his reaction to the sentence was “Death by hanging… well, in view of the whole situation, I never expected anything different. It’s all right.” He was the last to be hanged and remarked: “I hope that this execution is the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War and that the lesson taken from this world war will be that peace and understanding should exist between peoples. I believe in Germany.”)
- Joachim von Ribbentrop: Hanged on the 16/10/46.
- Wilhelm Keitel: Hanged on the 16/10/46. (Last words “I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than 2 million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons – all for Germany.”)
- Ernst Kaltenbrunner: Hanged on 16/10/46.
- Alfred Rosenberg: Hanged on 16/10/46. (He was asked if he had any last words and replied “No”.)
- Hans Frank: Hanged on 16/10/46. (He was reportedly very calm and quiet, viewed his sentence as atonement for his sins and gave the last words: “I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.”)
- Wilhelm Frick: Hanged on 16/10/46. (He was the most afraid and unsteady, and his last words were “Long live eternal Germany”)
- Julius Streicher: Hanged on 16/10/46. (He was entirely unrepentant, and gave 4 last statements: “Heil Hitler” at the foot of the gallows, a mocking reference to the Jewish festival Purim as the noose was secured, “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day!” as the bag was put on his head and “Adele, meine liebe Frau!” as he was dropped.)
Sentenced to life
- Erich Raeder: Freed on 26/9/55 after nearly 9 years due to ill health. Died 6/11/60.
- Rudolf Hess: Committed suicide by hanging on 17/08/87, aged 93. (He spent his last 41 years in prison, presumably well. He lived a long time, after all. And then one day, after four decades of confinement, he finally just said, “Whelp, this is it,” and did himself in at 93.)
- Walther Funk: Freed 16/5/57 after 10 years due to ill health. (Died of diabetes three years later.)
Sentenced to 10-20 years
- Karl Doenitz: Served his 10 year sentence, (and died 24 years later.)
- Baldur von Schirach: Served his 20 year sentence, (retired alone due to his wife divorcing him in prison, and died 8 years later.)
- Albert Speer: Served his 20 year sentence. (He chose not to return to architecture, but instead became an author. He personally accepted responsibility for the Nazis crimes, and anonymously donated most of his book royalties to Jewish charities (Up to 80%). Died of a stroke in 1981 while visiting London to appear on the BBC. *He is quite an interesting character. He’s known by some as “The Nazi Who Said Sorry” because he seemed to genuinely regret being involved with the whole thing. His testimony at the Nuremberg Trials is a fascinating read, if you’ve got the time.)
- Konstantin von Neurath: Released 7 years early from his 15 year sentence due to ill health. (He returned to his family home and died of a heart attack 2 years later.)
Child in a British concentration camp during the Second Boer War (1899–1902).
For those of you that don’t know, here is a brief lead up to the Boer wars:
In 1795 the British took over the Cape Colony for the Dutch during the French Revolutionary Wars. The colony was restored to Dutch rule in 1804 by the Treaty of Amiens and retaken by the British in 1806. This colony was important to protect trade routes to Britain from the east, especially India. The Dutch settlers in the Cape were known as the Boers. The Boers ignored the new governors and moved away from administrative centers, remaining as independent as possible.
Hostilities started to develop in 1823 as the British changed English to the official language. These escalated further in 1833 when the British passed equality laws, making slavery illegal. This was deeply unpopular will the Boers whose economic stability relied on farming using slaves. Although promised compensation for the Brits they soon learnt that it could only be picked up from London.
In the following years thousands of Boers left British territory to continue farming using slaves. Two new states were formed the Republic of Transvaal and a couple years later the Orange Free State.
The British continued to expand their territory, fighting small wars and skirmishes with the Boers and other Africans.
In 1867 diamonds were discovered near the Vaal River, 550 miles northeast from Cape Town. Tens of thousand of people from around the world flocked to the area.
In 1875, Lord Carnarvon attempted to organize a federation between the Brits and Boers (similar to the Brits and French in Canada). The idea was rejected by the Boers.
In 1877 the British annexed Transvaal non violently, they accepted this because the Boers were near war with the Zulus and couldn’t risk fighting a war on two fronts. This raised Anglo-Boer tensions once again.
The Zulus, who had gathered a sizable army of around 40,000 and now had firearms, were seen as a threat to British and given an ultimatum to disband their army. They failed to do this and reluctantly in 1879 7,000 British with 7,000 Black African levies fought a short war effectively ending the Zulu kingdom.
Now the Boers enemies had all been defeated by the British the Boers resentment grew further for the British and they wanted their independence back.
In November 1880 a Boer man refused to pay a tax and his wagon was seized. When his wagon was to be sold a group of armed Boer took the wagon back and assaulted the sheriff. British troops sent after them but were fired upon.
In December 1880 Transvaal declared independence and began besieging British garrisons in the region and so the First Boer War began.
The Boers being farmers were excellent hunters and riders. They fought using camouflage and stealth to snipe at British red coats.
*Fun Fact: The Boers fought in guerrilla groups called kommandos. Winston Churchill was captured by the Boers and out of respect for their skill he later named British special forces ‘commandos’.
Who won the War of 1812?
Officially, the US went to war due to the British not respecting US citizenship when pressing sailors into service in the Royal Navy. The British claimed that any British subject was eligible for impressment (ie forced conscription) and that any man born a British subject continued to be a British subject. This included a sizable portion of the US population of the time, as many had been born before the peace treaty of 1782 and thus theoretically had been born as British subjects. Emigres were also subject to this treatment, and there were occasions where Royal Navy officers did not give a damn and just impressed American citizens who had never been British subjects.
Unofficially, the war hawks wanted to see an annexation of British North America (Canada). [The subject was openly debated in the US before the war. Jefferson claimed the conquest of Quebec was “a mere matter of marching” while Clay openly said that militiamen from Kentucky on their own could capture Upper Canada. Major General Brock certainly knew the war was coming, prepared accordingly and knew the US would invade Canada. In fact, his intelligence was so good that he got news of the war before the US troops across the border, something which he used for a surprise attack.]
The US invasions of Canada failed, the British hunted down or blockaded the US navy (a few frigates managed to slip out and the USS Constitution had some spectacular victories) and blockaded the US East Coast, preventing trade and causing widespread discontent, especially in the maritime-dependent New England states, who seriously started to discuss secession from the US.
The peace treaty at Ghent 1814 did not include any gains for the US – at least not officially. The treaty included no provision that the Royal Navy was to respect US citizenship, however, the end of the Napoleonic War had led the British to stop impressment from foreign vessels anyway, so the goal was achieved, king of.
British North America remained in British hands, and eventually became Canada, independent from the US.
The British war goals were to get the US to stop fighting them, without giving anything away, as they had bigger problems back home with Napoleon running rampant all over Europe, in which they succeeded.
The US war goals, to force the British to accept US citizenship as immunity to impressment was achieved, although not officially, while Canada remained unconquered.
While the US did not lose territory, I’d say they lost the war as they were unable to achieve the goals they went to war over. The British, while not gaining anything, did achieve their war goal.
So, it is either a draw (neither side lost anything) or a British victory (as they achieved their war goals and the US did not).
The first abdication was originally conditional. Tsar Alexander had then proposed that Napoleon be exiled to Elba. Even after the unconditional abdication, the marquis de Caulaincourt convinced Alexander to keep the proposition open. Napoleon wasn’t seen as a criminal, an upstart perhaps, but his rule was legitimate and the wars were often declared by the Coalition.
There wasn’t widespread support for Elba, and most diplomats and politicians had their own ideas on where to send him. The United States, Corsica, Sardinia, and the British fort of St. George on Beauly Firth were other possibilities. Alexander insisted on Elba as it would put him at an advantage to Austrian interests, and the other nations went along with it due to the other choices not being entirely pleasing — along with some threats from Alexander that were Napoleon not sent to Elba he would rescind his support for the Bourbons.
When Napoleon escaped, he was declared as much as an enemy of humanity and that he would banished from Europe if captured. He could, in theory, be executed. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Prussians stated that he would be executed if captured by them. For personal reasons, Napoleon refused to surrender to the Austrians and Russians — though they were unlikely to execute him. Napoleon made his way to Rochefort where he planned on embarking to the United States, though he delayed in doing so and the British blockaded the port in the meantime. Napoleon sent his aides to the captain of the HMS Bellerophon to see what terms he might get for surrendering to them. Captain Maitland suggested that asylum in England may be possible, but would have to clear it.
After some deliberation, Napoleon decided to surrender himself to the Bellerophon. When it arrived at Torbay, Napoleon was kept on board — an amusement for sight seers to come and see. The British government debated what to do with him. The three main figures (being the Prince Regent, Prime Minister, and Secretary of War) all hated him and previously instructed the Bourbons that they should execute him. They declared Napoleon a prisoner of war, which put Bonaparte in a grey area of legality. He couldn’t technically be a prisoner of war since Britain and France were no longer at war. Napoleon was no longer considered to even be a citizen of France. The possibility of him being tried and executed as an outlaw or pirate was raised, but then he couldn’t have been detained as a prisoner of war.
The government’s response to this scenario was to exile Napoleon to St. Helena as a retired general on half pay. Napoleon’s response to this was bewilderment and confusion, stating that if his coming aboard the Bellerophon was simply a trick to make him a prisoner, Britain had shamed itself. One of his remarks was, “They may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the Church as well as the army.” The Allies approved of the action, though the British Parliament later admitted that the government had no legal basis for Napoleon’s exile.
So, specifically as for why Napoleon wasn’t executed basically comes down to the unique position he was in. The concept of war criminals wasn’t yet around, and Napoleon was neither a figure that could simply be executed nor given asylum. If Napoleon had been given a *writ of habeus corpus, he could have been put on trial. However, the British government didn’t want the possibility for Napoleon to be let off, so they quickly decided to exile him. Even that was outside of their legal jurisdiction, but it caused a lot less fallout than an execution would have.
[*Napoleon technically had received a writ of habeus corpus. A sympathetic former judge came up with an excuse (an admiral failing to perform his duties) to have Napoleon appear as a witness in a trial. The writ was obtained, but Napoleon was whisked away before he could set foot on land.]
What flak and anti-aircraft fire looks like form the air; the thin lines are shrapnel and the thicker lines are tracer shells. Royal Air Force bombing raid over Brest, France, January 31 1941.
A German makeshift grave for a fallen British paratrooper, Operation Market Garden, Arnhem; April 15th, 1944.
The grave of an unknown British airborne soldier at Arnhem, photographed after its liberation 15 April 1945.
THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH-WEST EUROPE 1944-45 The grave of a British airborne soldier killed during the battle of Arnhem in September 1944, photographed by liberating forces on 15 April 1945. On the cross is written in German “unknown British soldier”.
*Market Garden has some of the most logic-defying choices and decisions made. One thing that really stands out to me was the utmost respect the Germans had for the heroic and honest defense the beleaguered English troops put up.
“A Bridge Too Far” by Cornelius Ryan is one of those rare books that can give insight into the craziness, the heroism and the tragedy that comes with the turning points in history. Really worth the read for anyone.
“One of the 1.7 million Germans killed during the Great War”; ca.1917
The way they searched for dead bodies following the First World War was seriously revolting. A Company of Soldiers would be deployed in Line abreast, armed with 6 foot long metal spikes. They would then observe the ground to their front, anywhere the vegetation looked particularly green and lively, they would stab the spike into the ground as deep as possible, then rip it out and sniff the end. If it smelled of decomposing flesh, they dug.
And sometimes they didn’t even do THAT. I remember reading an officer’s account of experiencing a heavy barrage. He mentions entering a dugout at the beginning of the barrage and noticing the heavily decomposed body of a French soldier, in the old-style uniform (red pantaloons), sticking out of the side of the trench. After a couple of hours, he emerged to find the decomposed body of a German soldier in the same place. The shells had churned up the ground, re-burying the French soldier and bringing up the German.
Hitler’s Pants being burnt by the allies after the war; ca 1947
The Nazis had carefully preserved the pants from the Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt and the allies inherited them after the war. They were concerned that if they put them in a museum they’d end up becoming a shrine to Hitler so they burnt them instead.
A self-firing rifle improvised by the Anzacs during their evacuation from Gallipoli, used to deceive the Ottomans into thinking that the Anzacs still occupied their trenches; ca. 1915
Fire was maintained from the trenches after the withdrawal of the last men, by rifles arranged to fire automatically. This was done by a weight being released which pulled the trigger. Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.
Such devices provided sporadic firing which helped convince the Turks that the Anzac front line was occupied long after thousands of men had crept down to the beaches and escaped. British generals estimated that half the force would be lost in any attempt to withdraw because the Turks could not fail to notice as the trenches were so close. In the event, the Turks were so deceived that 80,000 men were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.