Australian soldiers blinded in a German gas attack at an aid station near Villers-Bretonneux, France; May 27, 1918.
The Germans were using mustard gas at Villers-Bretonneux. A mild dose would result in the eyelids swelling up to the point where the casualty would be temporarily blinded, more severe exposure could damage their eyes to the point where they’d be blind permanently.
Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen, officer in the German Army, wearing the Totenkopf (skull and cross bones) which was part of German military gear since the 18th century
Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen (6 December 1849 – 8 November 1945), born August Mackensen, was a German soldier and field marshal. He commanded with success during the First World War and became one of the German Empire’s most prominent military leaders. After the Armistice, Mackensen was interned for a year. He retired from the army in 1920 and was made a Prussian state councillor in 1933 by Hermann Göring. During the Nazi era, Mackensen remained a committed monarchist and sometimes appeared at official functions in his First World War uniform. He was suspected of disloyalty to the Third Reich, although nothing was proved against him at this time.
I’ve always found it a nice detail how he continued to show up in his old imperial Prussian officers uniform long after the empire had fallen. (Prussia was one of several states that unified and became Germany in the late 1800s. Before that there was no one country called Germany, it was Prussia, Bavaria, etc.)
Here he is at the funeral of Wilhelm II in 1941:
It’s funny to think about how much things have changed in the world, in just about every single way possible, from 1940 to 2014. Think about it… and yet, we all still do stuff like posing our dogs wearing human things.
Because that stuff is always hilarious, regardless of what else is going on.
Pretty beautiful if you think about it.
Hiter, Speer and entourage mesmerized at the Schwerer Gustav. Largest and Heaviest artillery ever used in combat; ca. 1941
Also know as Dora, Krupp was responsible for its development. It saw very little combat as the gun proved to be a logistical nightmare. Stands as the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest artillery piece ever built by weight and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery.
The Schwerer Gustav could fire armor-piercing rounds weighing over 7,000kg (~15,000lb) with a muzzle velocity of ~700 m/s (~2,400 ft/s)
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?”
Polish concentration camp survivor weeping near charred corpse of a friend, in Leipzig, Germany; ca. 1945
This photo was taken by Margaret Bourke-White (who was the first female war correspondent in WWII. Also she’s also the photographer of the iconic Kentucky Flood photo.) She was a badass with a robotic heart. I could have never done what she did and maintained her love of life and compassionate nature.
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)
Flamethrowers had two fuel lines. The line he is lighting is cigarette with is sort of like a pilot line. It is a smaller fuel line that stays lit and can produce a bit of a larger flame when its trigger is pressed. The second line is for the big fire. This contains a thicker gelatinous type of fuel. So the flamer will pull the first trigger making the pilot flame larger, then pulls the second trigger emitting the thicker fuel which gets lit by the pilot flame raining hellfire upon anyone in its path. So technically its not really a blowtorch, but just a little pilot flame.
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.
Once the castle had been taken, Dusenberg took off his helmet and removed a flag he had been carrying for just such a special occasion. He raised the flag at the highest point of the castle and let loose with a rebel yell. The flag waving overhead was not the Stars and Stripes, but the Confederate Stars and Bars. Most of the Marines joined in the yell, but a disapproving New Englander supposedly remarked, “What does he want now? Should we sing ‘Dixie?'”
MG Andrew Bruce, the commanding general of the 77th Division, protested to the 10th Army that the Marines had stolen his prize. But LTG Buckner only mildly chided MajGen del Valle saying, “How can I be sore at him? My father fought under that flag!”
LTG Buckner’s father was the Confederate BG Buckner who had surrendered Fort Donelson to then-BG Ulysses S. Grant in 1862.
*Well, if I ever go to war I’ll bring the flag of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I’ll die waving that flag!
Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father and only surviving family member, revisiting the attic; May 3rd, 1960.
August 1, 1944 was the date of Anne Frank’s last diary entry; the last paragraph reads:
Believe me, I’d like to listen, but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke, and then I’m not even talking about my own family, who assume I must be ill, stuff me with aspirins and sedatives, feel my neck and forehead to see if I have a temperature, ask about my bowel movements and berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can’t keep it up any more, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.
Yours, Anne M. Frank
Her family was captured 3 days later. Of the 7 people hiding in the Secret Annex, only her father survived the holocaust, and he had her diary published.
A virtual tour of the secret annex, for anyone interested.
Four German soldiers in bunk beds who had been woken up for a surprise photograph during World War I; ca. 1917.
I think it’s worth noting that the photo captured the men with their eyes closed because the method of illumination was a flash-lamp, which burned a bit of magnesium in a trough held up by the photographer. That light source burnt long enough for the men to react to it before the shutter was tripped on the camera, thus their eyes are closed.
Today if you were to take this photo with a digital camera and flash, you might capture them with eyes open, since the time between flash and shutter is much smaller and more instantaneous of an image capture.
Nazi General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad, Italy; ca. 1945.
General Dostler ordered and oversaw the unlawful execution of fifteen captured US Soldiers. The soldiers were sent behind the German lines with orders to demolish a tunnel that was being used by the German army as a supply route to the front lines. They were captured and upon learning of their mission, Dostler ordered their execution without trial. The US soldiers were wearing proper military uniforms and carried no civilian or enemy clothing and were in compliance with Hague Convention to be considered non-combatants after their surrender. Under the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, it was legal to execute “spies and saboteurs” disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms but excluded those who were captured in proper uniforms. Since fifteen U.S. soldiers were properly dressed in U.S. uniforms behind enemy lines and not disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms, they were not to be treated as spies but prisoners of war, which Dostler violated. They shot the Americans and buried them in a ditch by their field headquarters.
The general was convicted and sentenced to death by an American Military Tribunal. The trial found General Dostler guilty of war crimes, rejecting the defense of superior orders. He was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad on December 1, 1945 in Aversa. The execution was photographed on black and white still and movie cameras.
*You can see this photo being taken at 1:22 here:
Stahlhelm, the stages of the helmet-making process of Stahlhelms for the Imperial German Army; ca.1916.
In both World Wars, the most distinctive feature of the Germany army uniform was the item that has come to symbolize German militarism in even remotest corners of the world – the helmet, the Stahlhelm. Here, on a table set up outside a steel helmet factory in Lubeck, Germany, a display is set up, showing the varying stages of the helmet-making process for Stahlhelms for the Imperial German Army.
4 year old Joseph Schleifstein, who survived the Holocaust by being kept hidden by his father, from Nazi officials inside Buchenwald concentration camp, is seen here shortly after his liberation; ca. April 1945
“For a time, Schleifstein was hidden by his father with the help of two anti-fascist German prisoners, but he was eventually discovered. The SS guards took a liking to him and came to treat him as a “camp mascot”, having a small camp uniform made for him and having him take part in morning appells, where he would salute the guard and report, “All prisoners accounted for.”
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.