Russian trenches in the forests of Sarikamish, WWI; ca. 1914-15
The Battle of Sarikamish was an engagement between the Russian and Ottoman empires during World War I. It took place from December 22, 1914 to January 17, 1915 as part of the Caucasus Campaign.
The outcome was a Russian victory. The Ottomans employed a strategy which demanded that their troops be highly mobile and to arrive at specified objectives at precise times. This approach was based both on German and Napoleonic tactics. The Ottoman troops, ill-prepared for winter conditions, suffered major casualties in the Allahuekber Mountains.
Afterward, Ottoman leader Enver Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians and the battle served as a prelude to the Armenian Genocide.
French Cuirassiers only a year before WWI would begin, looking much the same as they did under Napoleon; ca. 1913
And for most of that first year of fighting in WWI, they continued to look like this. French soldiers were massacred because of these dated outfits.
At the outbreak of war the French Army retained the colourful traditional uniforms of the nineteenth century for active service wear. These included conspicuous features such as blue coats and red trousers for the infantry and cavalry. The French cuirassiers wore plumed helmets and breastplates almost unchanged from the Napoleonic period. From 1903 on several attempts had been made to introduce a more practical field dress but these had been opposed by conservative opinion both within the army and amongst the public at large. In particular, the red trousers worn by the infantry became a political debating point. Adolphe Messimy who was briefly Minister of War in 1911-1912 stated that “This stupid blind attachment to the most visible of colours will have cruel consequences”; however, in the following year, one of his successors, Eugène Étienne, declared “Abolish red trousers? Never!”
British soldier with experimental body armor meeting with his medieval counterpart; ca. October 1917
Before the First World War, no military used true protective helmets; Pith helmets and Pickelhaubes technically are helmets, but offer very little protection against bullet fragments and shell splinters. Similarly, any armor used previously to the First World War would be of medieval-inspired designs, for instance in the armor found on heavy cavalry. Even the French helmet from that conflict was designed with medieval aesthetics in mind.
In the First World War context, modern body armor would have primarily been used for machine gunners and others in static positions exposed to heavy small arms fire. This, though, is the most modern in appearance and design that I’ve seen – the groin protector is surprisingly sophisticated.
The First World War was the true introduction of so much modern military equipment on a vast scale: helmets and body armor designed for modern threats, gas masks, tanks, fighter and bomber aircraft, light machine guns, submachine guns, semi-automatic battle rifles, and more. The Second World War, with the exception of the nuclear bomb, offered more incremental improvements than revolutionary ones.
Body of French boy blown into a tree by German shellfire at Avocourt Wood (Battle of Verdun); ca. 1916
circus elephant from a Belgian zoo is put to work on a Belgian farm during World War I. Horses and mules were drafted to aid in the war effort, which left a shortage for farmers in Europe; ca. 1915
German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans, published in 1915.
The basic Pickelhaube, as seen in the photo, was made of hardened (boiled) leather, given a glossy-black finish, and reinforced with a metal trim. Starting in 1892, a light brown cloth helmet cover, the M1892 Überzug, was issued for use during manoeuvres and active service. The Überzug was intended to protect the helmet from dirt and reduce its combat visibility, as the metallic fittings were highly reflective. As you mentioned regimental numbers were then sewn or stencilled onto the front of the cover.
This photo was most likely staged to generate evidence that countered Great Britain’s aggressive propaganda campaign against the German occupation of Belgium. Given this assumption there would be little reason for these men to don their Überzug.
As the war progressed, and Britain’s blockade limited Germanys leather supply, the economic factors you mentioned drove the government to produce Pickelhauben from thin sheet steel. However by 1915, as demand rapidly outpaced supply, pressurized felt and even paper was used to construct pickelhauben
By 1916, the Pickelhaube was slowly replaced the the new Stahlhelm (steel helmet) which offered greater over-all head protection.
Today in 1918, Manfred von Richtofen, World War I’s greatest flying ace, was shot down in his Red Fokker Triplane by a single bullet through his heart. Here is the Red Baron in a sweater in happier times; ca. 1917
He landed in enemy territory, and the RAF gave him a funeral with full military honors, befitting a legendary military aviator such as himself. It’s strange how a sense of professional respect can transcend the hatred of enemies, especially in the case of an enemy who had personally killed so many RAF pilots.
He was a dangerous enemy, but he was truly admired.
Soldiers posing with unexploded German shells exactly 100 years ago; December 16th, 1914
The raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, which took place on 16 December 1914, was an attack by the Imperial German Navy on the British seaport towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby. The attack resulted in 137 fatalities and 592 casualties, many of whom were civilians. The attack resulted in public outrage towards the German navy for an attack against civilians, and against the Royal Navy for its failure to prevent the raid.
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:
Russian infantry take cover during their battle against the Austro-Hungarian army, at the beginning of World War I; ca. August 1914
American soldiers celebrate the Armistice and the end of the fighting; Nov. 11, 1918
In some sectors, fighting continued right up to the moment before the cease fire. The last soldier killed as an American who charged German positions only a minute to 11am, when the Armistice came into effect.
(The American, Henry Gunther, apparently had been demoted earlier, and was desperate to redeem himself, so it was a last chance at glory, but generally speaking, many officers felt that it was proper to continue fighting right up till the end. If for whatever reason the cease fire didn’t work, they wanted to be sure they were still placed well.)
A few reasons why the Hundred Days Offensive was so successful:
- The Kaiserschlacht offensives had massively overstretched the Germans. Ludendorff had aimed to use reinforcements from the now defunct Eastern Front to smash through the Allied defences and end the war before the Americans could arrive in large enough numbers to turn the tide of the war. Instead what the Kaiserschlacht achieved was giving the Germans control of large swathes of tactically unimportant land in exchange for their last reserves and the deaths of many of their best soldiers who had been grouped into the stormtrooper brigades and suffered disproportionate losses. Furthermore as Operation Michael et al were smashing through the Allied positions, the Germans came across Allied supply dumps and started looting and getting drunk, seeing how well the British and French soldiers were still living compared to conditions on the German side and how even after all the efforts of the Kaiserschlacht the war continued, German morale started to suffer serious degradation. This combined with the almost disastrous conditions of the German Home Front where the British blockade was destroying the Home Front and people were coming close to starvation. Unrest and political upheaval grew with every month and although the German Army would fight until the very end it was suffering from serious morale problems by the end as commented upon by British soldiers when capturing Germans during this period.
- Allied tactical improvement. The operations planned during the Hundred Days were so much more sophisticated than the blundering at the Somme or the Nivelle Offensive. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had been on a ‘learning curve’ since ’14 adapting to the modern state of war and increasing their tactical ability with every battle fought and every lesson learned. Although battles such as the Somme had been a disaster they had taught the British important lessons and even by early ’17 you can see a clear improvement in British tactical planning. By ’18 the Allied armies (especially the British) had absorbed these lessons and developed the beginnings of true combined arms tactics. Infantry tactics had become devolved to the men on the ground and focused around the platoon rather than large formations of men. This allowed the infantry to be much more efficient and reactive compared to the botched large formation basic orders of the Somme for instance. Each infantry platoon was also far more heavily equipped than their equivalent in ’14-’17 with more machine guns and grenades than ever before. Behind the lines the artillery had mastered its art, was able to fire bombardments without being able to see the enemy to maximise surprise (using maths to calculate their position), was now extensively using hurricane bombardments to further maximise the surprise and was heavily using creeping barrages and leaping barrages. It had become so effective at co-operating with the infantry that a barrage could timed to perfectly match the advance of the infantry, covering their attack on the German trenches and giving the Germans no time to react until the advancing infantry were upon them before then lifting forwards to the German rear lines to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their positions under attack. Elsewhere tanks were present in ever increasing numbers supporting the infantry and enabling them to break through trenchworks while providing mobile heavy fire. It’s important to note these were not the speedy panzer divisions of ’39-’45 and still performed a support role to the infantry. Finally aircraft were being used in increasing numbers, doing innovative things such as air-dropping supplies, dropping smoke bombs over the battlefield and chasing and strafing retreating German soldiers preventing them from regrouping once a breach had been made in the German lines. At the same time Whippet Tanks, which were more mobile versions of the main British tank (although still far from what we’d consider mobile) were also involved in widening and exploiting any breaches made. All these factors combined: improved infantry tactics, massively improved artillery tactics and increased and innovative usage of tanks and aircraft combined to give the Allies almost the precursor of modern warfare and something that the Germans had no reply to. They could now easily break into German lines and make advances of 5/6 miles a day in some cases but this would be useless if it wasn’t tied to improved strategic decision making.
- At the same time strategic decision making improved massively. Rather than simply batter the same positions for months at a time even though the chance for breakthrough had ended, as soon as the first few days of an assault were over and the breakthrough slowed down the Allies switched their point of attack. While this was happening all the Allied armies were attacking at the same time, the British from Flanders and Northern France, the French in the centre, the Americans in the south in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This constant stream of hammerblows across the entire front and the constant switching of the focus prevented the Germans from reinforcing their positions and no sooner had one breakthrough been halted, another would open up somewhere else on the front. This stretched the Germans so much that by late October it had broken them into a full on fighting retreat. Behind this huge exertion of resources and manpower was the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies, to enable such a concerted and continuous chain of offensives required a huge amount of resources and by this point of the war the Allies (now with America on full war footing) were massively outproducing the Germans in almost every metric possible.
So the reasons why the Hundred Days was so effective was the declining state of the German Army and it’s failure to win the war with the Kaiserschlacht, the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies and finally their ability to put together the lessons of the past four years into true battle winning tactics that look more like the tactics of ’39-’45 than they do the tactics of ’16 and before. America’s entry into the war wasn’t so much the ‘turning point’ in terms of their military contribution, that was still relatively speaking lesser than the British and French even in November ’18 but more in terms of forcing the Germans to launch the Kaiserschlacht in early 1918 and gamble on victory before the Americans could arrive in large numbers. Unfortunately that gamble failed for them and weakened the German Army, then when the Allied launched the Hundred Days, the culmination of four years of bloody lessons, there was only going to be one result.