Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Messines Ridge 1917

Gentlemen, I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow but we shall certainly alter geography.
Major General Charles Harington, Chief of Staff of British Second Army, to correspondents during a press conference, June 6, 1917 

So far, the third spring of the First World War had not gone well for the Allies. The French Army was in the midst of a mutiny; Russia, the Tsar having just been overthrown, was a paper tiger; and the United States, which had declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, was unprepared to fight. It was agreed that there must be no letup in the perpetual pounding given to the Germans on the Western Front, and out of all the powers Britain—with no discontent in its army and navy, a stable government, and all the unpreparedness gone through years of being at war—was the only one that could do so.

That was the broad picture when Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), met with his army commanders on May 7, 1917. Haig thought that the best way to end the stalemate on the Western Front was by making a thrust through Flanders; he also believed that an offensive there would quell the discomfort caused by the submarine bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. At the beginning of the meeting Haig approached General Sir Herbert Plumer—a 60-year-old, plump, brilliant, detail-oriented, and professional soldier with a white moustache who commanded British Second Army and was dubbed by a subordinate as "the Cinderella of the [British] Army Commanders" and by his men as "Daddy" for his compassion towards them. What is the earliest possible time you can attack Messines Ridge?, Haig, referring to the 12-kilometer, seven-mile long promontory whose highest point was 85 meters (280 feet) tall that overlooked the otherwise flat countryside of Flanders, asked Plumer. Not skipping a beat, Plumer replied, "Today, one month, sir."

Now where did the capture of that ridge fall into Haig's scheme? As the field marshal told his generals that day "the objective of the French and British will now be to wear down and exhaust the enemy's resistance by systematically attacking him by surprise." Hence, assualts would continue in the Arras sector (the British had launched an attack there back in April), and an attempt to capture Messines Ridge would be made as a preliminary operation to ensure the Germans would not see the troop movements for the predominant push to the north, which would take place "some weeks later."

When Plumer returned to his headquarters after the conference, he resumed planning how to take the ridge. With the help of his Chief of Staff, Major General Charles Harington, who had "an extreme simplicity of manner [and]... a memory like a card index system," he had conceived an operation that had a limited objective: Messines Ridge, of course. The purpose of the operation was absolutely not to break the deadlock on the Western Front. From three axes of advance X and IX Corps and II ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), with XIV Corps in reserve would attack, moving across colored lines denoted on a map: the Red Line (Initial objectives); Blue Line (Intermediate objectives); Green Line (Second intermediate objectives); and finally the Black Line (Phase one culmination). Since the German occupied ridge created a bulge in the front lines, the final push beyond the Black Line towards a location a little east of the Sehnen Stellung—a defensive position known to the British as the Oosttaverne Line that resembled the bowstring to the bow that was Messines Ridge—would only see the employment of one division per corps. So, in essence, the operation involved "bite and hold" tactics—the capture of a small piece of ground followed immediately by consolidation to repel enemy counterattacks.

Nobody in Second Army, even the enlisted men, was ignorant of these plans. Every brigade practiced what they would do in the coming struggle in French fields six times. Officers and their men studied a model of Messines Ridge, a work by Cecil Thomas that was as long as two tennis courts. Then, on May 21, the preparatory barrage began, although Second Army's artillery had been firing more shells than usual since the beginning of that month. The skies above were teeming with Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots, who assailed the enemy below and fought his pilots in the skies and achieved air superiority for the British. Down below, machine gunners gave paths used by enemy ration parties plenty of led in the night. The Germans who had to withstand this torment were ordered to leave their concrete pillboxes unoccupied at daytime, the irony being the structures were a magnet for artillery fire and that a shell hole was less dangerous. Their units were at the front lines for two days instead of the typical five. "We were worn down so much that careful watchfulness... gave way to complete indifference," attested the adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Grenadier Regiment, 2nd (East Prussian) Division. "It was all the same to us if we met our fate... Our situation was desperate."

So, too, was the situation desperate at the headquarters of General Sixt von Armin, a capable infantryman who received many wounds and an Iron Cross in the Franco-Prussian War and whose German Fourth Army opposed the British at Flanders. Right before the British artillery fire became more intense on May 31, he declared that the enemy was about to launch an attack and he was unready to meet it. That dire forecast was supported by General Maximilian von Laffert—the commander of Gruppe Wytschaete, which held Messines proper, who, in 1874, started his career in the infantry, switched to the cavalry two years later, and was now back in charge of foot soldiers—when he conveyed in a message of June 4 that his men probably could not hold the outpost zone of their flexible defense if attacked. However, neither man intended to concede ground to the enemy, and acting on this information, Kronprinz Rupprecht, the commander of German Army Group North, sent Armin and Laffert more aircraft and artillery. Unfortunately for the Germans, the order—signed on June 6, the day before attack was to commence—was too little, too late.

Meanwhile, across no-man's-land at Plumer's headquarters, with the weather prediction certain, Zero Hour was promulgated that same day: 0310hrs. The clearing mist would offer his men to see 100m (330ft); Plumer insisted that a portion of Messines be seized an hour and 31 minutes later. The troops informed were New Zealanders from Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, and Wellington; Australians from New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland; Irishmen from Munster, Dublin, Inniskilling, and Ulster; Welshmen from every corner of Wales; and Englishmen from Lancashire and Lincolnshire, and London; Worcestershire and Wiltshire; Middlesex and Manchester; Durham and Dorset. They were given good nourishment before embarking for the front line in the dark, and as they were heading towards there a thunderstorm erupted, causing their uniforms and equipment to soak and frequent use of profanity as the pouring rain hit their helmets: tat-tat-tat-tat. Then came 12:00 A.M., June 7, 1917, the big day; around that time the rain ceased, and the moon showed itself, providing some illumination. In the vicinity of Wytschaete, nightingales were allegedly heard, no doubt reminding some soldiers of both sides of home, of the Prussian or Irish countryside, of a lover who loved the bird's beautiful call. Like all warriors about to go into battle, these men from every corner of Britain and her vast Empire were silent, nervous. Could I die in this battle? Will I be wounded? Will I come out of this fight in one piece? As for Plumer, kneeling by his bed, he prayed to the Almighty at 2:30. Despite these worries, some managed to fall asleep in the warm night. "One's nerves seemed to be strained to the breaking point," recalled Captain Oliver Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. "I approached the task of final testing with a feeling of intense excitement. When each proved correct I felt greatly relieved."

What Woodward was talking about had been in the making for almost two years. Since 1915, the British had been tunneling under the ridge, successfully tamping and priming under the Germans 19 mines, which had been lying dormant... until now. Woodward added, "Breathlessly we watched the minute hand crawl towards ten... Three minutes to go, two to go—one to go—45 seconds to go—10 seconds to go... and then FIRE!"
A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917. Note the British officer with an enemy map board.
Within 20 seconds at the anticipated time, all of the mines erupted. It was the largest explosion made by human beings until the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Geology department of Lille University thought it was an earthquake. It was felt by loved ones in London. One of the officers who pushed the lever to ignite the charge was thrown 6m (20ft) across the trench he occupied. Under the soldiers' boots, the Earth rocked. The Irishmen of 49th Brigade left their trenches at exactly 3:10, but the two mines in front of them exploded 12 seconds late, causing men to lose their footing and fall down as well as to be harmed by the huge chunks of earth raining down upon them. Lieutenant Brian Frayling's recollection of that moment would be put in the Imperial War Museum's sound archive: "The first thing we knew was a terrific tremor of the ground. It was quite fantastic. Sheet flame went up as high as St. Paul's; I estimated about 800 feet. It was white incandescent light." A tunneller whose name has been lost to history was even more descriptive:

In the pale light, it appeared as if the whole enemy line had begun to dance, then, one after another, huge tongues of flame shot into the air, followed by dense columns of smoke, which flattened out at the top like gigantic mushrooms. From some craters were discharged tremendous showers of sparks rivalling anything ever conceived in the way of fireworks.

The Germans agreed with such testimony. "Suddenly there was an enormous flash just where we had come from, to the right by St. Eloi and to the left of Messines," remembered Paul Schumacher of the 33rd Fusilier Regiment, who would have died in the onslaught had he not been relieved. "Blood red flames shot up into the sky and a dull crack and boom penetrated the roar of the guns. The earth heaved and rocked as though it was trying to tear itself apart."

A German prisoner captured in the battle, June 8, 1917
What followed was a counterbattery operation by the British heavy artillery, using gas for the most part. Then, in the darkness, the British infantrymen went "over the top," across the moist grass—that is, where there was moist grass on the desolate landscape that was no-man's-land—through the rising mist, toward the German trenches, a creeping barrage immediately ahead of them. Upon making contact with the enemy, notes the British Official History of the battle, British troops found him in some cases to be "cringing like beaten animals" and performing "fruitless attempts to embrace us."

At 5:00, the majority of Second Army made it to the Blue Line, which meant that there was an operational pause to allow ammunition to be replenished and artillery barrels to cool lasting two hours. It was around this time that the sun in the clear sky started to appear over the horizon. In the cool, humid air, the British dug in while mules, pioneer battalions, and reserve units arrived with barbed wire and other tools for the defense  "It didn't matter how tired you were," wrote Private Fagence of the 11th Battalion, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment. "You dug as fast as you could, because it was a matter of life and death to get some protection against enemy shell-fire."
A British munition carrying party on the move in the foreground while shells rain down upon the ridge in the background, June 11, 1917.
At 8:40, the Black Line, the top of the ridge, was reached. When Plumer was told of its capture by Harington, tears were in his eyes as he placed a hand on his shoulder. The casualty rate for Second Army was amazingly under five percent, and so far, the vast majority of the operation was going according to plan. 
Captured German trenches on Messines Ridge, June 11, 1917.
However, not everything had been so along the way.

Approaching White Chateau, now reduced to rubble and with pillboxes on its remains, the 47th (2nd London) Division encountered intense fire from the defending Prussians of the 61st Infantry Regiment. "It had been reduced to a large heap of broken masonry over the cellars," stated Private Frank Dunham of the 1/7th Battalion London Regiment.

Our company made an unsuccessful attempt to capture as the enemy had a number of machine guns... and these opened fire immediately the troops attempted to close in. Then the 6th Londons appeared on the scene. One of their leading company commanders... was strolling about the battlefield, carrying his cane and wearing a monocle. As he came level with our company he shouted, "haven't you captured this bally place yet?"

The Londoners tried to take that bally place again... and they were repelled again. Stokes mortars were brought up in support. Then they gave it another try, both the 6th and 7th Londons assaulting the Chateau simultaneously this time. One of their sergeant majors climbed pile of masonry and gave an enemy machine gun nest two Mills Bombs (British grenades) before throwing bricks at the Feldgrauen—he had no more grenades left—and directing a flanking movement through the fluctuation of his arms. The 64-man garrison capitulated. 

That wasn't the end of the Londoners' problems. They next had to take "Spoil Bank," a mound spanning 400m (1,300ft) that was located north of the Ypres-Comines Canal and had two machine gun positions on each end. Brigadier General V. T. Bailey sent the 1/21st Battalion (1st Surrey Rifles), 1/23rd Battalion (The Queen's), and the 1/24th Battalion (again, The Queen's) London Regiments, and after two assaults in which the attackers suffered heavily, a toehold on the western portion of Spoil Bank was seized. It was there that the British endured a deadly crossfire to their front and from Battle Wood. (The 23rd Division had been tasked to clear Battle Wood but it, too, was held up by fierce opposition.) Consequently, after two hours of this torment, the Surrey Rifles and Queen's Battalions abandoned what so much of their blood had gained so Spoil Bank could be pounded by their artillery. Despite this pounding, the Germans were actually augmented by the arrival of more Feldgrauen and still occupied Spoil Bank on the eighth.

The advance toward the Black Line was also not without acts of valor. The location of two machine gun emplacements in the outskirts of the village of Messines was identified by Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Battalion, New Zealand Division. Frickleton led his section into the friendly creeping barrage, giving the nests one Mills Bomb each. For his gallantry, he would receive the Victoria Cross.

While the British were busy consolidating at the Black Line, Laffert contemplated how best to respond to them. Eingreifentaktik—“intervention tactic," the Germans' defense doctrine which essentially called for an elastic defense—had failed him. All his preparations were of no use to him now. Instead of the expected 12 hours, the Vorwärtszone—“forward zone," composed of strong-points that offered mutual support to each other (Widerstandsnester) and, in the case of Messines, positioned on the crest of the ridge—had resisted for a mere hour, and the 3rd (Bavarian) and 35th (Prussian) Divisions, the Eingreif divisions designated to counterattack, had to relieve front line formations weakened by the perpetual preparatory shelling. Their replacements were the 1st Guards Reserve and 7th Infantry Divisions.

Therefore, those units were ordered to enter the fray. Both divisions had trouble embarking for the front. The 1st Guards Reserve Division, which had arrived at Flanders from Arras in the night, received orders to head toward Messines in the wee hours of the morning but it was unable to do so for a time since many of its men were still disembarking from their box cars. The 7th Division did not move toward the sound of the guns until 7:00 in the morning because it was held back at Gheluvelt by Armin, who believed (incorrectly) that the British would make a thrust toward Menin on the Ypres-Menin road soon after they commenced assailing Messines Ridge; it wasn't until Armin was certain their would be no secondary push that he sent it off to stem Second Army's advance.

Yet Laffert was terribly misinformed; events were beyond his control. Not only had the mines virtually annihilated the battalions holding the Vorwärtszone but they cut off communications with the front line, leaving Laffert in the dark. Thus he ordered the Eingreif divisions to counterattack, with only a vague notion of what he was facing and unaware that the British were well-entrenched and outnumbered him.

Beginning their assault at 1:45 P.M., 1st Guards Reserve Division's lead regiment met a hail of shell- and machine gun fire. The shells on impact spewed forth dirt and shrapnel in explosions that could hardly dwarf the detonation of the mines earlier in the day, killing the attackers or at least causing their uniforms to get a little dirtier. All the while machine guns riddled them with bullets or unintentionally peppered the ground with their fire, causing little wisps of dirt to jump up into the air. Three out of ten men managed to reach the safety of their lines unharmed. It was then wisely decided to not have the other two regiments repeat such gallantry.

Using a light railway, German prisoners help their captors
transport their wounded from Messines, June 8, 1917.
The 7th Division was fortunately spared that sort of slaughter, but it was still butchered nonetheless. On its way to the front, the division was subjected to a terrifying bombardment by British heavy artillery, which methodically discharged their missiles up and down its line of march as the Germans did a double quick, their comrades falling all around them. As this torture was happening, the 35th Division borrowed one of its lead regiment to aid in its defense  The remaining two regiments kept enduring the misery, and when they arrived at where the 2nd Infantry Division, to which the 7th Division was subordinated to, was (under the Germans' Gruppe system, the chain of command took backseat to an understanding of the tactical situation), the planned attack on Wytschaete was not feasible anymore and their ranks were far too worn down by the enemy artillery.

Exactly 12 hours after the operation had begun, Second Army's advance resumed. As mentioned previously, each Corps fielded one fresh division that had been held back in reserve during the initial thrust to the Black Line: the 4th Australian Division for II ANZAC, 11th Division for IX Corps, and 24th Division for X Corps. A creeping barrage once more ahead of them and supported by the few Mark IV tanks of II Brigade Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps (forerunner of the Tank Corps) that participated in the whole operation, the troops—carrying Lee-Enfields, with "rifle bombs" (Mills Bombs fired from a cup put on the end of the rifle) or bayonets attached, or Lewis light machine guns on their shoulders—pressed on to the Sehnen Stellung, their bodies and faces covered in sweat as the sun started going down in the west behind them.

The 24th Division's advance was a paradox. While its 73rd Brigade had some troubles due to Spoil Bank, its 17th Brigade's two leading battalions suffered a total of only six casualties! Their objectives were seized successfully if uneventfully.

A German machine gun position at OOsttaverne Wood that has
been destroyed by Second Army's artillery, June 11, 1917.

As for the 4th Australian Division, it had the most difficult proposition out of the three. The Australians had to advance through a labyrinth of communications trenches parallel to thick hedgerows, the bane of the Normandy Campaign of 1944; a multitude of pillboxes that had been virtually untouched by their side's artillery; and the Douve and Blauwepoortbeek valleys, which were full of gullies and folds that favored the defense  Also, the Germans in this part of the battlefield had received the lion's share of reinforcements. Losses among commissioned and non-commissioned officers were particularly high; the 49th (Queensland) Battalion lost all of its company commanders. The pillboxes had to be taken out one at a time with "fire and movement" tactics, the basis of which still survives today in the 21st-Century: a platoon's Lewis Gun crew and a nine-man section of rifle bombers gave the bunker suppressive fire while a "bomber" section swung around the pillbox in order to get sufficiently close without being detected so as to throw their Mills Bombs into the firing slit; the Australians were aided in this endeavor by the fact the creeping barrage cut the pillboxes off from their supporting entrenchments. Once this concrete obstacle was surmounted, men became beasts as the Australian Official History notes:

Temporarily half mad, their pulses pounding at their ears... the less self controlled are for the time being governed by reckless, primitive impulse. With death singing about their ears, they will kill until they grow tired of killing. The routing out of enemy troops from behind several feet of concrete is almost inevitably the signal for a butchery of at least the first few who emerge... It is idle for the reader to cry shame on such incidents for this frenzy is an inevitable condition in desperate fighting. Ruthlessness is a quality essential in hand-to-hand fighting.

Such ruthlessness was witnessed by Private Wilfred Gallwey, who had received fire in the rear from wounded foes he and his comrades had given mercy to, of the 47th (Queensland and Tasmania) Battalion that afternoon at Messines:

The gun in this blockhouse was now silenced... walked right up the place and a couple of men went to the entrance where the gun crew was found all huddled up inside. No time was lost here however and... men fired point blank into the group. There was a noise as though pigs were being killed. They squealed and made guttural noises which gave place to groans after which all was silent. The bodies were all thrown in a heap outside the blockhouse to make sure all were dead... It was a good thing this hornet's nest had been cleaned out so easily. Nearly all were young men.

A portion of the Sehnen Stellung was taken, but Blauwepoortbeek Valley remained in German hands.

Despite the rather slow progress, there were Australians who were able to maneuver more freely. They belonged to the 52nd (South and Western Australia & Tasmania) Battalion and were given the job of advancing through the Wambeek Valley along with Brigadier General A. C. Daly's 33rd Brigade, 11th (Northern) Division. However, there was no British brigade to attack alongside; the 33rd Brigade was tardy. Realizing he was facing only light opposition, a company commander of the 52nd turned his course to the left, capturing objectives that were supposed to be for Daly. Due to this move, the British, when they arrived at 4:30 P.M., were able to take Joye and Van Hove farms. Nevertheless, the company's move resulted in a gap in the 4th Australian Division's front one kilometer in length.

Then there was the 57th Brigade, on loan from the 19th (Western) Division to the 11th. Like the 17th Brigade, it had an easy time of it; Oosttaverne village fell 20 minutes into their assault.

There was still one last act to be played out before the curtains closed on June 7. At 5:30 in the afternoon, the Germans of the 1st Guards Reserve and 5th Bavarian Infantry Regiments counterattacked the 4th Australian Division's isolated 12th Brigade, then consolidating on both sides of "Hun's Walk," the Messines to Warneton road, and ahead of not only the division's 13th Brigade to the north but of their objectives as well. Onward the Germans charged, a sea of field gray coming towards the Australians. The sun was in front of them, its rays reflecting off their coal-scuttle helmets. They met a withering fire from defenders behind a hedgerow. The sound of Lewis Guns and Maxim 08/15s filled the air with its noise: taka-taka-taka-taka. Bolts of Mausers and Lee-Enfields alike went back and forth, ammunition clips being inserted into or old shell casings ejecting from the rifles before the bolt was pushed forwards and the trigger pressed once more. A gigantic Australian used his shoulder to steady his Lewis Gun as he fired. The Feldgrauen fell in heaps, and the ones still able to walk on their own two feet retreated.

As they were retreating, one of those mistakes of the damnable "fog of war" occurred. The Australians called in for artillery support, but since they were further than expected the barrage landed on them. Because they could not tell the artillerymen that they were firing on their own men, the Australians withdrew. Seeing them do so, the formations on their flanks followed their example. By 10:00 that night, the 4th Australian division, with exception of the 52nd Battalion, was back at the Black Line. (A similar accident happened to IX Corps when German reinforcements arrived, but the men were able to reoccupy their positions.) Lieutenant General Sir Alexander Godley, the English commander of II ANZAC who was a veteran of Gallipoli and would oddly enough a command a platoon in the Home Guard of 1940, ordered that the division, this time with the 3rd Australian Division, retake its objectives tomorrow.

British troops in their communications trench in Ploegsteert Wood,
located in the southern part of the battlefield, June 11, 1917.
On June 8, 1917, at 3:00 in the morning, the Australians tried to take back what they had lost. It was easy simply because the enemy failed to reoccupy what he had lost yesterday, the only resistance met being roving German machine gun fire from afar. The 49th Battalion was commanded to give the Blauwepoortbeek Valley another try, but it was in no condition to do so. When told of this predicament, Major General William Holmes, the 4th Australian Division's commander, gave his subordinates—Brigadier General C. H. Brand of the 4th Brigade, Brigadier General J. C. Robertson of the 12th, and Brigadier General T. W. Glasgow of the 13th—a call. What's going on up there? he asked them. They didn't know. "Well now," Holmes said into the mouthpiece; "it seems the only way is for us to go up and see. Get your hats and come along." By visiting the front line on that beautiful but hot day, a helmet ("hat") on his head, Holmes realized how precarious the 52nd Battalion's position really was. Eventually a solution was found: IX Corps would take over the area the 52nd was responsible for beginning at dusk today, which would allow the battalion to help the 49th take Blauwepoortbeek. As it was being relieved, their own artillery once again landed among them and the 3rd Australian Division, already suffering from an enemy barrage after German aircraft above discovered it building trenches, something the rest of Second Army was also doing that day.

The following day, on the German side, Armin conferred with his superior, Kronprinz Rupprecht of Bavaria—a lean, erect, and handsome man with a neat mustache and eyes that conveyed sincerity who was the Stuart heir to the throne of England (he was descended directly from Henrietta, daughter of Charles I) and had married a woman whose sister was the wife of King Albert of Belgium, whom he was fighting against. Laffert, it was agreed, would withdraw to a line between Warneton and Houthem, and if he wasn't assailed by the British, they might make the position permanent for him.

Of course, the men of the 50th (South Australia) Battalion and the supporting 45th (New South Wales) Battalion didn't know of this development when they commenced another attempt to carry Blauwepoortbeek on June 9. Despite the darkening atmosphere, the 50th was detected not long after they had set off. Next, the battalion blundered into the Germans' barbed wire, which had not been penetrated at all. For their part, a company of the "desperately weary" 45th and an enemy pillbox exchanged thrust and parries for the entire afternoon.

Suffice it to say that an attack by the 3rd Australian Division and elements of the 4th was by far more successful the following night. At last, all phase two objectives had been taken! However, it was not necessary. German prisoners imparted to their captors that they had been withdrawing in accordance with Armin's and Rupprecht's decision. Acting on this information, Plumer moved forwards his attack- the southern part of the Sehnen Stellung wasn't as advantageous as expected, causing him to formulate a plan to attain more gains—by 48 hours, from June 14 to the night of June 11-12. The assault was not as adrenaline-pumping as the previous ones had been; nothing much really happened that is worth noting, the exception being that Spoil Bank was finally in British hands. Two days later, on the 14th, the Battle of Messines officially ended.

British troops pose with a captured German artillery piece in the vicinity of Wytschaete, June 10, 1917. Second Army had expected to take as much as 120 German artillery guns. As it happened, the total was only 48, the majority victims of counterbattery fire.

"The capture of Messines Ridge by Plumer's Second Army was almost the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war," Sir Basil Liddell Hart stated in his 1970 book History of the First World War. "It was also one of the few attacks until late 1918 in which the methods employed... fitted the facts of the situation." He was right. True, Second Army did have its problems—of restrictions in communications, of an inadequate amount of contact between phase one and phase two divisions, which resulted in many a victim of friendly fire—but in spite of these obstacles it fought superbly. The engagement not only involved the age-old technique of mining, but foreshadowed things to come: the airmen functioned as the eyes of Second Army as well as dropped payloads on enemy installations, creating a "low level mayhem." By the standards of the Western Front, casualties had been light: Second Army had 24,500 hors de combat for the first twelve days of June; the German Fourth Army, 27,400 from May 21 to June 20. It is a thousand pities that such success was followed up by such failure...

Recommended Reading:

Groom, Winston. A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.

Turner, Alexander. Messines 1917: The Zenith of Siege Warfare. Oxford: Osprey, 2010. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Nez Perce War 1877: Its Origins and Outbreak

Westward the course of empire takes its way.
Bishop George Berkeley on America, c.1720s

It was the morning of June 14, 1877. A drunk man was riding in the direction of the Salmon River in Idaho territory. His name was Shore Crossing (Wahlitits) of the Nez Perce tribe, and what he was about to do was to worsen a conflict that had been in the making for a long, long time.

There was no conflict in the beginning, in September 1805, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition first made contact with the Nimiipuu tribe on the Weippe Prairie in modern-day Idaho. What to do with these strangers with bleached or very dark brown skin, with not only black but yellow and brown hair as well? the local inhabitants asked themselves. Their solution at first was to kill them, but a female member of the tribe by the name of Wat-Ku-ese convinced her fellow members that the mysterious travellers rescued her from their Blackfeet foes. Besides, they reasoned, the Blackfeet and Shoshone have rifles, something that Lewis and Clark had. Consequently, the Nimiipuu, despite having a reputation of being overbearing to everybody else (Nimiipuu translates to "real people" in English), treated the expedition amicably, offering droves of amenities with the hope of procuring rifles from Lewis and Clark in return. Mistakenly called the "Nez Perce" by Lewis and Clark, they eventually obtained the weapons, which, added with the horses they rode, greatly increased the tribe's prestige.

Other than the occasional fur traders, the Nez Perce rarely encountered the Americans. (The term "American" is used in this context to refer to people of the Caucasian race and European blood whose ancestors began settling on the East Coast of the United States in the 16th Century. The Nez Perce at this time never considered themselves Americans, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. advises that the continent's indigenous peoples be called by their tribal name if it is known.) That is, until 1836, when American missionaries established a school and a church on the Clearwater River, along whose banks resided the vast majority of the Nez Perce, many of whom subsequently became Christians. Relations between them and the Americans were cordial so long as the Americans did not settle on their lands. The Americans in turn considered the Nez Perce to be one of their few friends in the Pacific Northwest. When the Cayuse tribe massacred their missionaries in November 1847, the Nez Perce refused to help their neighbors against the United States in the ensuing Cayuse War, and when other tribes resisted being moved onto reservations and murdered American miners, beginning the Yakima War, they imparted to the U.S. Army 30 scouts.

Before that conflict, though, the Treaty of 1855 was signed. While the treaty required other tribes to cede their lands to the United States, the Nez Perce--although they had to sign it, too--were not; if settlers wanted to make a home on their land, they had to first attain the tribe's permission. The reason why Isaac Stevens, governor of the Oregon Territory, did not make the Nez Perce give up their land was due to their support in the Cayuse War and the fact that they had converted to Christianity in droves. Although Stevens had no bayonets to enforce his requirement, the Nez Perce, promised gifts by him instead, still complied. With all the gifts and their property respected, not to mention a lucrative trade with the Americans, the Nez Perce were quite content.

Not for long, though. Gold was discovered on their land at Orofino Creek in October 1860, and Americans hoping to strike it rich illegaly entered Nez Perce lands. To hinder this unathorized migration, the U.S. Army--with the tribe's consent, of course--built Fort Lapwai within Nez Perce territory in 1862. Unfortunately, the two companies that occupied the fort proved insufficient to stop the tide of gold rushers, so American authorities and Nez Perce leaders met within its walls in May 1863 to hammer out a new agreement. A new treaty, asserted the Americans, was necessary because the territory allotted to the Nez Perce was too vast to be protected by two very small formations. Suffice it to say that after further negotiations, in which most notably the Americans gave their word to give the Nez Perce gifts once more, the Christianized tribal leaders in the north, where the new boundaries would not do any harm, grudgingly put their signatures on the treaty. However, the Nez Perce to the south, whose Wallowa Valley the treaty would take away, refused to sign it. Hence, the Treaty of 1863, dubbed the "Steal Treaty" by the Nez Perce, split the tribe, with Treaty factions on one side and Non-Treaty factions on the other. For the Non-treaty Nez Perce, they ended any dialogue with the Americans and found solace in the "Dreamer Movement"; Dreamers in considerable numbers believed that some magical force would take the settlers off their property.

Still the settlers arrived, even when the gold rush petered out. However, and fortunately for the Nez Perce, the U.S. Government was slow to move the tribe to the reservation. Also, two cooler heads entered the stage: Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard and Joseph the Younger (Hinmuuttu-yalatlat). Howard- the same New Englander who poorly led the Union XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, headed the Freedman's Bureau, and helped to establish the university that bears his last name- took over as head of the Department of the Columbia in 1874 after his predecessor, Edward Canby, was killed by native Modocs; he felt that "these really peaceable Indians... have this poor valley [the Wallowa] for their own." Three years before Howard was given the job of dealing with the Non-Treaty Nez Perce, Joseph became chief of the Wallowa band upon the death of his father, Old Joseph; he called for mutuality. True, he did not want to concede the territory he had inherited from his father, but he understood that to wage war against an industrialized U.S. Army was pure and utter folly.
Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, when young
Sadly, working with the Americans was easier said than done. The settlers started farming, angering much of the tribe, who stated the practice "profaned the Earth Mother." Then, on June 22, 1876, a settler murdered Wind Blowing (Wilhautyah) when the two were bickering. On September 2, Ollokot, Joseph's younger brother who apparently possessed a much hoter head, demanded the criminal be turned over to the Nez Perce and that all Americans must vacate their Wallowa Valley in a week's time lest they want to face reprisals. Settlers said no, and started forming a militia. If that is the case, Ollokot replied, then the band would use force to get them to leave and immolate their homes.

Thankfully, like many 20th-century American western films, the cavalry literally came to the rescue. Just when a fight was about to begin, a company of cavalrymen made it to the scene, and the company commander cooled passions by forging a compromise. Promised that the murderer would be tried, Ollokot took back his ultimatum. Nevertheless, the case of Wind Blowing's death was dismissed because everybody sent by the Nez Perce, who were skeptical that the court would bring the convicted person to justice in the first place, failed to testify. The war clouds did not unleash their fury.

But the fact that they had even gathered worried Howard. Fortune, he thought, might frown the next time... if there's a next time. To prevent another such crisis between the Non-Treaty Nez Perce and the Americans, he decided to enforce the 1863 Treaty. Also, Custer's defeat in the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 hardened the hearts of many an American towards rebellious indigenous tribes; ultimatums like Ollokot's could not be tolerated anymore. So, on November 13, Howard met with the leaders of the Non-Treaty factions at Lapwai Agency. He told them that they would have to move to the Lapwai Reservation. To capitulate the Wallowa Valley and go to the reservation, Joseph answered, could not be done; tribal customs prohibited it. Unready for an outright response in the negative, there were no talks for six months while Howard contemplated his next move.

The Nez Perce, believing that it was just a matter of time before he made up his mind, moved for him. On May 4, 1877 the chiefs of the Non-Treaty bands--Looking Glass of the Alpowai, White Bird of the Lamátta, Toohoolhoolzote of the Pikunan, Joseph of the Wallowa, and Hahtalekin of the Palouse tribe (it was a relative of the Nez Perce)--arrived at Fort Lapwai to resume negotiating. Toohoolhoolzote did the talking for all of them, but his undiplomatic manner only served to anger Howard, who lost all of his willingness to continue the discussion; they must be on the reservation by June 15, he informed Toohoolhoolzote. "You will come on the reservation within the time I tell you," Howard shouted at him. "If not, soldiers will put you there or shoot you down!" For his obduracy, Toohoolhoolzote was imprisoned by Howard for a week.

You will come on the reservation within the time I tell you. If not, soldiers will put you there or shoot you down! That threat caused the other chiefs to comply with Howard's ultimatum. The Non-Treaty Nez Perce gathered their livestock and clothing, took down their tepees, and took along tools, both practical and spiritual. Then the Nez Perce- some mounted, some walking- embarked for the Tolo Lake, where they planned on conducting their customary Dreamer rituals before heading to their new home at the Lapwai Reservation.

Perhaps 590 Non-Treaty Nez Perce reached the Tolo Lake on June 3. Since the deadline for being at their new home was twelve days away, many of them opted to make the most of their freedom before it would be lost, which in some cases came in the form of binge drinking. Alcohol, as all world well knows, causes restraint to be virtually nonexistent for a time, and the Nez Perce were no exception, the chiefs temporarily losing their authority. One of those who drank too much was Shore Crossing of the Lamátta band.

Chief Yellow Bull, Nez Perce
So it was that as the sun rose over the hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys of Idaho on the day before the tribe had to be on the reservation that Shore Crossing and his friends Red Moccasin Tops (Sarpsis llppilp) and Swan Necklace (Wetyetmas Wahyakt) were headed for the Salmon. Drunk Shore Crossing wanted to avenge the death of his father Eagle Robe (Tipyahlanah) by killing his killer, Larry Ott, an American miner, but Ott was nowhere to be found; Shore Crossing quenched his thirst for retaliation by killing Richard Devine in his bed along with three others settlers whom he thought had harmed his people. His act inspired other members of the tribe to assail the Americans, and Yellow Bull (Chuslum Moxmox) led 15 fellow warriors of the Lamátta band rampaged the countryside in an orgy of murder, rape, and immolation. When Yellow Bull decided to end his bestial work, 14 Americans, including two infants, were dead and four women had been raped.

So began the Nez Perce War.

Recommended Reading:

Forczyk, Robert. Nez Perce 1877: The Last Fight. Botley, Oxford ; Long Island City, NY: Osprey Pub. Co, 2011.

Monday, June 4, 2012

John F. Reynolds

From soldiers, cadets and officers, junior and senior, he always secured reverence for his serious character, respect for his ability, care for his uniform discipline, admiration for his fearlessness, and love for his unfailing generosity.
Oliver Otis Howard

Ever since the Army of the Potomac had conceded defeat at Chancellorsville in May 1863, the generalship of its commander, Joseph Hooker, received heavy criticism from officers in the army's higher levels of command. All of the predominant dissenters- General Henry W. Slocum of the XII Corps, General Darius Couch of the II Corps, and John Sedgwick of the VI Corps- wanted Hooker to be replaced by George Meade, then the commander of the V Corps, but Meade was unwilling to participate in any conspiracy against his superior. Lincoln was also looking for someone else to lead the army, and he offered command of it to Couch, Sedgwick, and even Winfield Scott Hancock, a division commander. All of them turned it down, Couch citing poor health, Sedgwick and Hancock conveying that they thought themselves incapable of handling it. Consequently, the Lincoln Administration had to give the list of seniority another look; behind Couch and Sedgwick on that list, it discovered, was General John Fulton Reynolds.

General John F. Reynolds
It was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that Reynolds born on September 20, 1820, 50 miles from the town of Gettysburg, where an enemy bullet would cause him to breathe his last breath. Reynolds—the fifth of 13 children, four of whom did not make it adulthood—was a descendant of Irish and French Huguenots who had immigrated to America in the mid-1700s. His father had been and still was very prominent and successful: businessman, journalist, owner of the Lancaster Journal, member of the state legislature, and captain of the local militia company. As a boy, Reynolds was, to say the least, very active; he loved to ride, play sports, and garden, but while all these penchants were important for the development of a child, his parents believed that a good education was imperative.

So they sent him to the public school in Lititz, Pennsylvania. "I think I have improved very much since I am here," Reynolds wrote home, expressing his love of the school. Then, he and his brother became students at Long Green Academy in Baltimore, Maryland. Unfortunately, and unlike his attendance in Lititz, he had less fondness for Long Green, where he graduated from in 1835 at 15 years of age. The following year, his father, ever the staunch proponent of a good education, started considering other alternatives to further his son's academic career. While he was not poor, neither was he rich; hence he had to find an education institution that did not require a huge amount of money. Eventually he found West Point, and he asked a friend by the name of James Buchanan to help him get his son into there. The first attempt failed (John was too young), but the following year Buchanan managed to obtain an appointment, which John Reynolds accepted in a letter to the secretary of war on March 6, 1837.

Though the idea of John attending West Point was his father's, the son proved to love a military life. From cadet training camp that summer of '37 Reynolds conveyed his pleasure to his family: "I am pleased with my life here and think I shall continue to like it." Such a mentality did not reflect in his grades. As a member of the class of 1841, Reynolds graduated 26th out of 52 cadets.

In the autumn of that year, Reynolds went to his first assignment as a brevet second lieutenant in Battery H, Third Artillery, which was stationed at none other than Fort McHenry, Baltimore—birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He next moved around the state. Then, he was transferred to Florida and South Carolina, where his comrades included Lieutenants George H. Thomas and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom had graduated a year ahead of him and would along with Reynolds be destined for military greatness. They were followed by a posting at Corpus Christi, Texas, where Reynolds was at when hostilities began between the United States and Mexico.

In the Mexican War, First Lieutenant John F. Reynolds was assigned to the army of Zachary Taylor, and fought bravely in that conflict. He received two brevet commissions. The first, the rank of captain, came for his performance in the Battle of Monterrey in September of 1846; the second, the rank of major, for exhibiting "special gallantry" during the Battle of Buena Vista in February the following year. True, a brevet was temporary, but it paid a complement to Reynolds’s fighting prowess.

Despite the awards, Reynolds still had his worries. After all, he was 27 and still a bachelor. So on January 1, 1848 he wrote his sister June that any female Pennsylvanian who was "good looking, amiable, and have a small portion of what is usually termed common sense" would be taken into consideration. If the potential wife had financial means, there would be no objection from him.

The next month, the war came to an end. He found the garrison duty in New England, Louisiana, and New York boring and his salary to be very low, both of which saddened him. It was the pay especially that drove soldiers to don the coats of civilians once more, but Reynolds was not one of them; he chose to stay.

That did not mean that excitement was totally out of the equation. Reynolds became the stop-gap commander of two companies of the Third Artillery that participated in a journey along the Oregon Trail to Salt Lake City, which spanned 1,200 miles. In May of the following year, Reynolds returned to California as a captain.

That promotion was nice, Reynolds believed, but not as nice as filling a command vacancy in a light artillery company, a vacancy that was created when the previous leader—Braxton Bragg, who was a friend of Reynolds—was promoted to major. "I wish you could use any and all of the political influence you may have to get me that company," he wrote his lawyer brother James, who stayed in contact with James Buchanan, the same Democratic politician who had helped Reynolds get into West Point. Unfortunately, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott chose Robert Anderson to be Bragg's replacement. "Merit is no recommendation and political influence everything," Reynolds told James. "I may say that I have never been so disgusted with this army as within the last twelve months."

Despite his disgust, Reynolds, ever the good soldier, obeyed when directed to report to Fort Orford, Oregon, where he would assume command of Company H, Third Artillery. March of 1856 saw him for the first time fight against Native Americans when he successfully chased a group of them across unforgiving terrain. Then his dream came true: he was ordered to lead the light artillery company, which was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

However, his assignment did not last long, and he was soon back at the West Coast. He succeeded there, too, but this time his success was not of the career kind. When stationed near San Francisco in 1860, he met Catherine (Kate) Mary Hewitt, who was governess for a family. Reynolds was 39; Kate, 20. Yet despite their huge age difference, they eventually became lovers. She followed him when he had to return to the East Coast, residing in a Catholic school in the vicinity of Pennsylvania. There was one major obstacle, though: Kate was a Catholic; Reynolds a protestant. Couples back then had to have the same religious affiliation. Consequently, Reynolds never divulged the love affair to his family.

The assignment to the East Coast in the summer of 1860 wasn't just some regular old posting at a fort; indeed, Major Reynolds became the commandant of cadets at his alma mater, West Point. While it was a very honorable position to hold, Reynolds had qualms about his new job: "I have been on duty for a week trying to persuade myself that I shall like it." True, 15 years before Reynolds had thought that to be commandant would be fortunate for him, but times were different now. The great sectional crisis was nearing its peak; many cadets were from the south; and units were highly competitive among themselves. This was not going to be an easy task for an individual who had to enforce discipline. He did, however, becoming so strict that, according to him, there was "great rejoicing among the cadets at their being relieved of me."

While he was commandant, news came of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Although Reynolds was a Democrat with no moral aversion to slavery—when he heard that John Brown was to be hanged for his raid on Harper's Ferry, he remarked that "if they hang, along with old Brown... a few more of the abolitionist stripe, it would effectively stop the agitation for a time”—he was a staunch unionist who had been in favor of a compromise that might prevent a war between the North and the South. "What history will say of us, our government, and Mr. B's administration makes one wish to disown him," he told his sister Ellie. That Mr. B was none other than the family friend, James Buchanan.

Anyway, when the American Civil War began, Reynolds received an offer that was hard to refuse: aide-de-camp to none other than General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. He would have gladly accepted in the antebellum days, but there was war on, and he didn't want to miss out on the combat because he had to stay behind a desk in Washington, D.C. Later, on May 2, 1861, he was ordered to graduate the class of '61 early immediately. In July he became a lieutenant colonel in the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment; had it been up to him, he would have chosen "the artillery arm of the service, but could not refuse the promotion offered me under any circumstance, much less at this time, when the Government has a right to my services in any capacity." Then a telegram arrived from George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and soon to also be General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States: "Do you accept your appointment of brigadier general, and if so, when will you be here?" Arriving at the army's headquarters on September 12, Reynolds was given the First Brigade of General George McCall's Pennsylvania Reserve Division.

At the beginning of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Reynolds, who badly wanted to participate in the fighting, was sorely disappointed when his brigade stayed behind along the banks of the Rappahannock River. After a brief stint of 16 days as military governor of Fredericksburg and its surrounding countryside—where he treated the local populace respectfully, respect as well as reverence that was reciprocated by the people he governed—his brigade had its baptism of fire in the Battle of Mechanicsville on June 26, 1862, where the enemy attacked his flank and were repelled, convincing Reynolds that volunteers were the equal of regulars. "His coolness and bravery and his admirable disposition of the forces at Mechanicsville... are yet the constant theme of conversation about the camp fires," his aide, Charles Lamborn, observed to Reynolds’s sisters. "It is the highest aspiration of these men to fight again under General Reynolds."

Fortune frowned the following day when during the Battle of Gaine's Mill Reynolds became separated from his men and was captured the next morning. Taken to Libby Prison, where was put in a dirty room and interminably guarded despite his promises not to attempt escape, an arrangement that he considered to be the Rebel's most severe offense. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Fredericksburg protested against his treatment, sending to the authorities a petition signed by 27 prominent persons that requested his parole or exchange; of course, it urged Reynolds’s "treatment be as kind and considerate as was extended by him to us." He was exchanged on August 13, 1862 and took command of the whole division of Pennsylvania Reserves soon after.

Reynolds subsequently showed his mettle at Second Manassas and Fredericksburg, missing out on the Battles of Antietam and Chancellorsville. He was not a part of Antietam in September because he had to train the Pennsylvania militia; Chancellorsville in May 1863 because his First Corps was placed in reserve by Joe Hooker, the Army of the Potomac's third commander (McClellan was sacked in November 1862). John Pope, who was his superior in the Second Battle of Manassas, complemented Reynolds' conduct: "Brigadier General John F. Reynolds, Commanding the Pennsylvania Reserves, merits the highest commendation at my hands. Prompt, active, and energetic, he commanded his division with distinguished ability throughout all operations and performed his duties in all situations with zeal and fidelity."

Now it was June 2, 1863, and Reynolds was in the White House, in front of the commander in chief himself. Lincoln offered him command of the Army of the Potomac, but Reynolds answered that he "was unwilling to take Burnside's and Hooker's leavings." However, he added, he would accept command of that army on the condition that Washington cease meddling in its functioning. Lincoln could not accede to that condition. If that was so, replied Reynolds, he had to decline the president's offer. Consequently, Lincoln decided to "re-try" Hooker. After all, he said, he "was not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once; that he would pick the lock and try it again."


Jones, Wilmer L. Generals in Blue and Gray. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2004.

Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: a Testing of Courage. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.