Most historians of the war argue that poison gas on the battlefield was a failure and usually measure its effectiveness based on its lethality. But Tim Cook argues in No Place to Run that this may be true in that gas was not a “war-winning weapon,” but historians should remember that gas was a much more “complicated and nuanced weapon.” It was far more effective at removing men from combat and leaving fear and unrest among its survivors. One soldier wrote that “it is a terrible and hateful sensation to be choked and suffocated and unable to get breath: a casualty from gun fire may be dying from his wounds, but they don’t give him the sensation that his life is being strangled out of him.” Thus, gas was effective for many reasons other than its lethality.
One, it was a weapon of fear. There was no escape from gas on the battlefield, there was no way to tell if you were actually out of range of the gas cloud, or it would be trapped in the buried earth of an artillery shell blast, or even spending a night in a respirator because a sentry mistook fog for a phosgene gas cloud. As Cook’s title notes, there was “no place to run.”
Two, gas was primarily a casualty-causing agent rather than a killer. Cook notes that in 1918 when the Germans were using mustard gas, British gas casualties rose to from 7.2% in 1917 to 15% of total casualties. Yet, at the same fatality rates from gas dropped from 3.4% in 1917 to 2.4% in 1918. Gas wounded soldiers required their comrades to bring them off the battlefield, clogging up supply lines, aid stations and weakening the manpower available to actually continue an offensive. Or, imagine heading to the frontlines while passing the lines of gurgling, choking men who would never die from their wounds but would never recover either. The fear of gas was a far more important weapon than the casualties inflicted.
Even gas casualties statistics are misleading. The British army reports somewhere between 1.1 and 1.3 million gas casualties in the war, of which 91,000 died. This is not as large a number as you might think. Mostly it looks as if gas warfare was ineffective. For example, if the Germans released 600 canisters of chlorine gas and only caused 50 British casualties, this would be seen as a failure. Yet that attack would force the entire line of British soldiers to wear respirators for the duration of the battle – drastically changing the nature of the engagement even without the statistics to prove success.
Both armies on the Western Front (dont know much about other theatres) quickly adapted to the reality of gas warfare. Soldiers were trained to put on masks and protective gear quickly and without thinking – even a few seconds could save you from decades of agony or death. Intensive gas training was increasingly a part of an effective unit’s ability to fight on the battlefields of the Western Front, as there was always the fear of gas in any battle by the last years of the war. Soldiers had to act without thinking – the second the whistle blew that gas was spotted, or when a gas shell landed 5 metres in front of you, you had to immediately adjust your gear or put on your mask, and then keep fighting. Any hesitation could be lethal. Total gas warfare, when both sides began using choking gas, tear gas, and gas that burned any skin it came in contact with, meant that armies had to be trained at many levels. Small things like Doctors removing contaminated fabric from the wounded to avoid gas burns had to be “learned” in medical services dealing with gas casualties. Still, total preparation did not stop gas casualties. Hiding gas shells in the midst of a high explosive artillery barrage could catch soldiers unaware, or gas stuck in shell holes, or gas mixing with the mud and water of the trenches. Days after an attack, a soldier might be discovered dead after digging a hole to rest in during the night, or severely burned as water shifted in the muddy landscape onto a soldier as he slept.
Cook’s work on gas warfare stands out as one of the few historical studies that belie the established narrative in the Canadian literature on the war. I am not sure how other nations’ historians have treated it. Unlike other Canadian historians of the First World War, such as Duguid and Nicholson, Cook’s writing on gas warfare provides depth to the history of the weapon as more than simply an immoral tool of war. He argued that the “gas environment” where a soldier had to fear a gas attack at any moment, or endure fighting within the gas cloud, had had dramatic consequences for all the soldiers of the war. Cooks attempts to re-imagine the entire soldier experience of the trenches as one equally marked by toxic gas as by artillery shells and machine gun bullets. The image of the war he describes presents an important but subtle difference from what other historians have written. It is an atrocious world where the brief moments of courage do little to overcome the unending horrors of gas warfare. It was “like water rotting wood,” Cook writes, “not often immediately deadly, but … constant, insidious, and demoralizing.” His picture has little in common with the image of the successful, deadly, and honourable Canadian soldier. By the end of the war during the Hundred Days, Cook argues that “the Canadian way of war was steeped in poison gas.” Consider that 1 in 4 American casualties were from gas warfare, which demonstrates how the lack of proper gas protocols in the unbloodied American army severely affected their fighting capability. Gas warfare was a reality of the Western Front, one to which armies had to adapt or perish. So while most historians, and popular memory, acknowledge the pervasiveness of gas warfare in the First World War, few address its totality and its effects on tactics and operations.
Gas warfare wasn’t technically banned until the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and even still chemical agents have been used since the First World War. The Italians used it against the Abyssinians in the 30s, Japan used it against the Chinese, there are unconfirmed reports that Egypt used it against Yemen in the 60s, the United States’ use of napalm in Vietnam, allegations of Soviet use in Afghanistan in the 80s, and of course Iraq using it against Iran also in the 80s. One of the biggest fears of the American Army as it entered Iraq in the First Gulf War was being confronted with chemical warfare.
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?”
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.
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”
The bright uniforms worn by French infantry in the early months of the war, alongside a reckless doctrine of attack at all times, help explain the staggering losses sustained by the French Army. By the end of 1914 they had lost nearly a million men killed, captured or wounded. Lantern slide from a box of 73 lantern slides, one of two boxes associated with World War One, Western Front, 1914-1916. Published by Newton and Company, 3 Fleet Street, London. One of 29 boxes of lantern slides. Associated with World War One, Western Front (1914-1918).
Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces with gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack near Chapei in the Battle of Shanghai; August 1937.
The Machine Gun in this picture is a Japanese Type 11 Light Machine Gun.
To understand the Type 11 you have to understand the standard issue rifle. In WW2 if you were issued a Rifle in any army except the United States and their Semi Auto M1’s then chances are you would be issued a bolt action rifle. In a semi or automatic weapon recoil or gas works the bolt, in a bolt action you do it by hand. These kind of Rifles fired slowly, they prized accuracy with long barrels and high velocity rounds. Japan used the Type-38, a 9lb, 1.2 meter rifle with a 31 inch barrel and with the 40 centimeter bayonet it was taller than the average soldier.
The reason I bring up the rifle is the loading system, the rifles magazine unlike modern Assault Rifles the magazines was internal, not detachable and usually held 5 rounds. To load it you used a charger/stripper clip, shown here andhere in a rifle. The clip holds the rounds together, to load you push down on the ammunition stripping them off the clip and into the magazine. Now most Machine Guns use detachable magazines, strips or belts in which rounds need to be loaded onto, if you are in battle and the rifles or machine guns run out of ammo then each round would need to be hand loaded onto a belt, mag or clip to share, time consuming, especially while being shot at… unless you develop a system where the rifle and machine gun can share, one like the Type 11 which is loaded with Stripper Clips.
The Type 11’s loading system is a hopper pictured here and a diagram here. The five round clips are inserted in the top to a maximum of 6, the gun eats them from the bottom. With this system any rifleman can refill the machine gun and the machine gun ammo supply can be distributed if needed. The hopper can also be continuously topped off allowing for uninterrupted fire.
The hopper system used however had three problems on the Type 11. 1. If dust and dirt got in the gun would fail, spare hoppers were carried for this reason. 2. Every 5 rounds needed to be loaded, a tedious task especially if your loader should die. 3. The gun proved temperamental to the high power munitions used by the rifles and would wear out or jam, a low pressure round was developed, this complicated supply and made sharing ammo less common and more for emergencies.
The Type 11 was first produced in 1922 it served at the squad level with 1 per and was the first Japanese gun to do so in real numbers. Most of them would serve in Chinese Theater though their appearance in the Pacific was not unheard of and the ones in the US right now are usually captured examples. The Type 11 was replaced as the main Light Machine Gun by the Type 96/99 Light Machine Gun which arrived in 1936. The 96 featured a more conventional top mounted 30rd magazine like the Bren and a quick change barrel, it used the same low pressure rounds. The Type 11 served as the main squad gun for 14 years, it would be produced for 19 before every factory switched over.
Some quick facts:
- Approximately 30000 were made in total.
- The gun fired a relatively slow 400rpm or about 61/2 rounds per sec.
- It weighed about 25 pounds loaded.
- Fired 6.5x50mm rounds.
- It was bipod mounted and had a combination pistol grip and stock.
- The barrel had cooling fins to absorb heat.
- The hopper had a built in oilier to lubricate rounds.
- There was an anti aircraft variant the Type 81
- The Type 11 had a seldom used tripod designed for it, few pictures exist but here is one.
Bonus Fact: The Type 96 had an ammo counter on the magazine, an advantage made possible by being a top loader.
A corporal aims a Colt M1895 atop a Sri Lankan Elephant. The M1895 was developed by John Browning during the 1890s, it was a belt-fed, air cooled, gas operated machine gun. As the weapon was air cooled it did not require the water cooling system used by the Maxim Gun, as a result it was much lighter weighing just 35 lbs.
The M1895 was lever actuated which meant that the gun was cocked by retracting the lever and once the first round was fired the propellant gas was tapped from a gas port several inches from the muzzle this gas pushed the lever down and swung it back towards the receiver to cock the gun for the next round. If the gun’s tripod was set too low, or impeded by cover, then the lever would catch any obstruction, as a result it quickly became known as the ‘potato digger’ by troops. There looks to be more than enough clearance on top of the elephant.
While there is historical precedent for the use of elephants in warfare for over 1000 years, used by the Persians, Alexander the Great, Indian Sultans, Siamese warriors who mounted Jingals (small guns often mounted on walls) on elephants well into the 1880s, and later by the British Army in India as pack animals capable of carrying mountain guns and supplies over difficult terrain. Why the corporal is atop the elephant is a mystery but it was never a weapons platform adopted by the US Army.
In June 1944, the Red Army captured the German Army Group Center. This was called Operation Bagration. 185 Soviet divisions with 2.3 million soldiers surrounded and captured or killed the 800,000 members of Army Group Center.
A month later some of the German POWs were transported to Moscow to display to the Soviet people.
Here is a Soviet film of the parade:
The parade was followed by trucks ceremoniously washing the German filth from the streets. The POWs were then transported off to work camps.
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.)
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.]
The field marshals and generals captured at Stalingrad were treated relatively well, with their own quarters near Moscow, but the rest of the army prisoners were marched to Prison camps on the Steppes and the Ural mountains near Siberia as well. The prisoners were often made to walk through the plains and snow by the Russians, and those that were too slow and weak were often shot. If they were unfortunate enough to pass by a hostile village, they were usually beaten and robbed by angry mobs on the way.
The German Sixth Army was eventually scattered to more than twenty camps from the Arctic Circle to the Southern Deserts. Some were marched, others were herded into trains. One train carried thousands of Germans from the Volga to Uzbekistan. They basically crammed the prisoners inside with little food or water, and they would often resort to killing each other for scraps of food. Another train that was destined for the Pamir mountains had almost half its passengers dead on arrival.
A few Germans remained in Stalingrad to reconstruct the city, but they were hardly cared for either. Typhus killed many and it was recorded that the Russians buried forty thousand corpses in a mass grave in Beketovka by March.
As you can imagine, having starving men crammed into these prison camps was a recipe for disaster. It was estimated that from the three month period of February to April 1943, over four hundred thousand prisoners (German, romanian, Hungarian, Italian) had died. The Russians simply let many of them starve to death. Camps would receive food trucks every third day, and by that time the inmates were beating each other to death to eat. There were instances of cannibalism amongst the soldiers. It became so bad that anti-cannibal squads of Captive officers were actually armed with crowbars to hunt them down.
Others were more creative with their survival methods. A group of italian soldiers who were locked in Ice Cold Rooms actually propped dead corpses up in chairs and pretended to engage in conversation with them. The guards made a daily count of the ‘prisoners’ in the cell, and the still-living prisoners ate well from the extra rations.
The treatment of prisoners started getting better by May 1943. Nurses and Doctors were sent to the camps to care for the survivors, and political agitators also sent in to indoctrinate the prisoners against Fascism and to become pro-communist. In most cases, those who turned against Hitler had a specific goal in mind. Cooperation meant extra food.
As for the period of internment, someone else with closer sources can confirm, but it seems like the prisoners were released gradually over the years, the first trickle of prisoners started being released after the Berlin Airlift in 1948. It was to such an extent that by 1955, there were only 9,626 prisoners left in the camps that were directly connected to Stalingrad (with 2,000 having actually fought there)
For these prisoners, it was West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer who got the process started. He flew to Moscow to meet with the leaders of the Soviet Union in 1955 to plead with them to release the prisoners.
Moscow’s stance throughout this period was that they no longer held German Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union, only war criminals of Hitler’s armies, ‘convicted’ by Soviet Courts for crimes against the Russian People in General. But after negotiations with Bulganin and Khrushchev, Adenauer was eventually able to secure the release of the last of the Stalingrad prisoners by September 18th 1955, who began their final journey home.
[Source: Enemy at the Gates : William Craig]
A Punt Gun, used for duck hunting but were banned because they depleted stocks of wild fowl; ca. 1920’s.
Called the “Punt Gun,” this firearm of unusual size could discharge over a pound of shot at a time, and dispatch upwards of fifty waterfowl in a single go. A punt gun is a type of extremely large shotgun used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for shooting large numbers of waterfowl for commercial harvesting operations and private sport. “Used for duck hunting” isn’t the right expression for aiming this piece of artillery in the general direction of a flock of ducks, firing, and spending the rest of the day picking up the carcasses.
How they were used:
Pretty much by the end of World War II, most people fighting for Germany in Berlin were part of the Hitler Youth and therefore under 18. Lots of stories came back from soldiers that saw teenage girls manning artillery cannons and 12 year old boys firing at Russian soldiers.
It’s really shocking when you realize that these people aren’t always grown men; in fact, lots of the time it’s quite the opposite.
“16 years old when I went to the war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died,
And I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time that a year in the line,
Is a long enough life for a soldier.”
– Motorhead – 1916 (Which is a surprisingly sad song!)
“Belle survived the war thanks to her caretaker, Yevdokia Dashina. In 1941 water was turned off throughout the city and Belle’s pool was empty, so her skin began to dry out and crack. Every day, Dashina would drag a 40-liter barrel of water from the Neva river and rub the suffering hippo with camphor oil. Eventually, Belle’s skin healed and she was able to hide underwater through the air raids.” (Source)
*In this case, none of the zoo animals were eaten, but some, like Betty the elephant, died during the air strikes (sad picture warning!) Most of the cats and rats were indeed eaten, unfortunately.
*An adult hippo night should receive from 36 to 40 kg of feed. But during the blockade she ate 4-6 kg of a mixture of herbs, vegetables and press cake, adding there 30 kg filings, just to fill her stomach. (The zoo workers also shared their rations with the animals.) If you see this picture of Belle from 1935 you can tell that she lost a lot of weight. So she probably didn’t have “enough to eat”, but enough not to starve to death.