Heroic Austrian naval officer Baron Von Trapp and his family inspire musical Sound of Music
Austrian Baron Georg Johannes von Trapp
commanded Austrian Uboats in World War One
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
The Austrian Navy? How is that possible? Isn’t Austria is landlocked? Yes, but it wasn’t when the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed. That multi-ethnic state collapsed after World War One. Territories ruled by the Austrian Emperor included Slovenia and Croatia which bordered the Adriatic thus giving access to the sea.
Above is the longest reigning Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who reigned from 2 December 1848 – 21 November 1916. He was also King of King of Hungary and Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; and retained the heriditay title of King of Jerusalem one of the kingdoms established by the crusaders in the Middle Ages.
In 1806, the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, a very loose federation of Germanic states and principalities, finally collapsed. Since the Habsburgs had usually supplied the Holy Roman Empire with its Emperor, the Austrian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs, became the successor state. There is an old saying in history that the Holy Roman Empire was neither “Holy” nor “Roman” nor an “Empire,” all of which is substantially true.
Whenever you come across a historical figure whose title was “Elector” then that person was one of the seven princes and kings who elected the Emperor.
Austro-Hungarian main naval base at Pula shown by red arrow on map above
The Austrian Empire or Austro-Hungarian Empire had a substantial navy with almost 36,000 officers and men and a large number of ships, including dreadnoughts and submarines. They did well considering that there wasn’t a common language in the Habsburg Empire. Educated people spoke German like the Austrians do today of course but others refused out of sense of nationalistic identity, the Magyars in Hungary being some of the most uncooperative.
singing von Trapps in Vermont in 1946. While pictured as a sweet and loving person in the Sound of Music, Mrs von Trapp was something of a dragon and ordered everyone around.
The most famous officer of the long defunct Austro-Hungarian Navy is Baron von Trapp. He and the singing Von Trapp family were made famous in the movie “The Sound of Music” which is loosely based on their story. Baron von Trapp was an outstanding Austrian submarine commander in World War One. He made 19 war patrols and sank 11 cargo ships, a French cruiser and an Italian submarine.
After the proclamation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867 with the Emperor of Austria becoming the King of Hungary as well as Austrian Emperor, the fleet was known became known as the “Imperial and Royal War Navy.”
That phrase in German is “kaiserliche und königliche Kriegsmarine,” abbreviated as k.u.k. which how the fleet was known. The k.u.k. operated mainly in the Adriatic Sea but during World War One also positioned itself as a “fleet in being” which could enter the Mediterranean if so chose and dispute French, British and Italian control.
Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts At Pula before World War One.
Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis
The fleet was based at the port of Pola, now Pula, in Croatia, then part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. After its defeat in World War One and the collapse of the empire, Hungary was deprived of all of its territory along the Adriatic and hence no longer had ports for Imperial and Royal fleet which was dispersed.
Austro-Hungarian fleet on maneuvers circa 1912
(photo courtesy Wikipedia)
A former commander of the k.u.k. was Admiral Horthy who proclaimed himself Regent of Hungary after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is how a land locked country of Hungary came to be ruled by an admiral for decades.
If you have an interest in learning more, substantial detail on the k.u.k. can be found here:
“A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).” photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
The Royal Irish Rifles was a regular British Army regiment recruited primarily in the northern Irish counties and one of the eight regular British regiments raised and stationed in Ireland before the partition of the country. The regiment was stationed in Belfast.
These men have obviously finished taking rations to the front line trenches since few are carrying anything and they would not be so relaxed if they were close to the front line. Usually the ration parties went up at night. A communication’s trench would be exactly that: a trench running perpendicular to the main trench. No trenches were dug in a straight line. They were all dug in a zig-zag pattern so that if the Germans overran a trench, they couldn’t shoot every soldier in the trench.
First day of the Battle of the Somme British troops go over the top. Many were hit as they climbed out of their trenches.
The first day of the Somme has become a symbol of military incompetence. Both British and French artillery had pounded the German trenches for days but this only gave the Germans notice that an attack was being prepared. German engineers had created very deep and fortified dugouts for their infantry which Allied artillery shells did not penetrate.
British troops leaping a trench on first day of the Battle of the Somme. If the first wave captured a trench the second wave then took their turn. They leapt over the captured trench and endeavored to capture the next one.
When young British subalterns stood up and blew their whistles to signal their men to go over the top, many never made it very far from the trenches since they were shot down by German machine gun fire as soon as they exposed themselves. Numbers of men were killed as they were climbing up out of their trenches and fell back in, on top of the other men waiting to climb the ladder.
20,000 British soldiers were outright killed on that first day. 40,000 were wounded.
Incredibly, sixty percent of all officers in the attacking formations were killed.
Most of these were young men, 19, 20,21, who went first as officers are supposed to do. Thus exposed, the young officers were mowed down.
The First World War never should have happened and need never happened. But events got out of control, politicians maneuvered for their own personal advantage, various states made impossible demands on each other. As in World War Two, it was the Germans who fanned the flames and launched the Great War for which they paid dearly. But so did everyone else.
The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July 1916 until sputtering to and end in November of 1916. Many of the men who went over the top were young conscripts. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.
War is often incredibly foolish and causes more problems than it solves. World War One was the most tragic event of the 20th Century since it set in motion forces which turned the century into the bloodiest in history.
Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill meets women war workers at Georgetown’s filling works near Glasgow during a visit on 9 October 1918. Churchill came into Lloyd George’s cabinet, known as the Second Coalition, as Minister of Munitions.
Churchill was forced out of the cabinet by H.H. Asquith since the Conservatives would not come into a coalition with the his Liberal Party if Churchill remained in the Cabinet. This was painful, to say the least, for both men. Asquith is actually responsible for the launch of Churchill’s career. He appointed him to a series of powerful cabinet posts from Home Secretary to President of the Board of Trade to First Lord of the Admiralty.
Although the decision to force the Dardanelles was made by the entire cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, Winston Churchill is somehow given the entire blame for what became a disaster. In spite of their later denials, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher, and the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Kitchener, were in favour of this plan. After the war, a Royal Commission cleared Churchill of blame for the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign.
As you can see from the map above, Churchill’s plan was for the Royal Navy to use old battleships to force their was from the Aegean through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara. From there they would have easily taken Istanbul and opened up the Black Sea to maritime traffic. The Turkish Navy was too small to have stopped them although at that point all Turkish warships were being commanded by German naval officers. (Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, by Vincent O’Hara).
The best and shortest explanation of why this was a sound idea and what it was could have achieved is given by Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith. Violet Asquith was the daughter of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and in spite of her youth, he often discussed complex matters of state with her because of her brilliance and keen understanding of British politics. She was one of the most extraordinary women of her time.
Portrait of the brilliant and perceptive British politician and author Violet Bonham-Carter, neé Asquith, 1915. In December 1964, she was elevated to the peerage in her own right as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (15 April 1887 – 19 February 1969).
She met Winston Churchill when she was 18 and they remained friends for rest of their lives. In the last several years of his life, she was one of the few people who would be invited to sit with him and her presence cheered him. She herself was an extraordinary woman and the only female friend he had. The last telegram Churchill sent in his life was one congratulating Violet on her elevation to the peerage. She was brilliant, thought by many to be almost as good a speaker as Churchill and had a personality of steel. All of this appealed to Churchill.
“Winston Churchill As I Knew Him” is her memoir about the early years of friendship between them from 1906 until 1915. She describes the rationale behind the campaign. “Once the fleet had broken through the Straits (the Dardanelles) into the Sea of Marmora the Greeks and the Bulgarians, hungry for spoils, might join us in attacking Turkey (at that time allied with Imperial Germany); Italy might be weaned from her neutrality; Rumania would not stand alone. The Balkan States might form a united front to sweep the Turks from Europe. But what mattered most was to help Russia in her desperate need. When Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell we could release her shipping bottled up in the Black Sea. She could export her grain to us ad we could send her arms and ammunition.”
It was a bold plan. But for the lack of will of the British Admiral commanding the task force of old battleships assembled to run the Dardanelles, it probably would have worked and would have changed history. Certainly Baroness Asquith believed this to her dying day. She thought this was the worst mistake made in the 20th century.
No question that Admiral David Beatty would have successfully forced the Dardanelles. At this point there were no Turkish soldiers on the small spit of land known as Gallipoli. Unfortunately, it didn’t work because the Royal Navy’s fighting instinct had atrophied over a century of ruling the waves without challenge.
I am convinced that Admiral, the Earl Beatty of the North Sea, would have forced the Dardanelles had he been in command. In spite of his errors in command in his many engagements with the Germans, he certainly never lost his nerve. In fact, if anything, he went at the Germans too quickly without waiting for his other ships to come up in support.
Some battles are never over and the Battle of Jutland is such a battle. One the 100th anniversary of the Jutland, the Telegraph of London published the following by Nick Jellicoe, Admiral John Jellicoe’s grandson.
Nick Jellicoe standing over his grandfather’s nval uniformCREDIT: NMRN/BNPS
(London Daily Telgraph)
Even Nelson could not have done better at Jutland than my grandfather
Britain’s military greatness was founded on its maritime power – and yet in the First World War, while the Royal Navy maintained a crucial economic blockade on Germany, there was just one great sea battle: Jutland.
One hundred years ago on Tuesday, the fleets of Great Britain and Germany confronted one another in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. To this day, controversy rages over what exactly happened and which side, if any, won the day.
The Kaiser claimed victory, citing heavier British losses in men and ships. But numbers are misleading: yes, the Germans suffered smaller absolute losses – but these represented a far higher percentage of their strength and so were difficult to absorb.
However, the Germans got their version of the battle out while the British were still at sea. The Admiralty bungled its communiqués so badly, it took five revisions before Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty and a former journalist, was recruited to get the British story across.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, reaching the top of a flight of steps on board a battleship. A small group of sailors is stood below looking up at him whilst a capital ship sails astern of the ship. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
So what really happened? My grandfather, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanded the British Grand Fleet that day and his reputation has arguably never recovered. True, Jutland wasn’t the second Trafalgar the public had expected.
But Jellicoe’s achievement – that of maintaining naval surface supremacy – was quickly lost in the hunt for scapegoats for the failure to secure an outright victory. Those who, like Churchill, had formally approved his written tactical intentions two years previously now accused him of having been too cautious.
The sea was in Jellicoe’s blood through maternal connections back to Nelson and Phillip Patton, an Admiral of the Red. His own father went to sea aged 12 and Jellicoe joined the Navy at 13, passing out of Britannia, with a first-class certificate two years later, in 1874. His career advanced rapidly; but it was under Jacky Fisher that his expertise in gunnery and understanding of ship design developed.
Aged 31, Jellicoe was promoted Commander, then became second-in-command to Admiral Tryon on the ill-fated HMS Victoria (later involved in a fatal collision). Eventually, Jellicoe became Chief-of-Staff on Admiral Seymour’s – unsuccessful – relief expedition to the beleaguered legations in Peking. Friendships with future adversaries would survive war; but after a second brush with death (Jellicoe was shot in the chest leading an attack against Boxer troops), he was invalided home.
To meet the emerging German threat, Fisher as First Sea Lord worked on re-balancing Britain’s naval power centred on Gibraltar and the Channel. But the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 (Jellicoe was on the design team) fuelled a new naval arms race. Jellicoe, meanwhile, had a spell as Director of Naval Ordnance, during which he uncovered poor quality in British munitions. However, his tenure was too short to make a difference, and this left the Fleet at a disadvantage as it faced the enemy at Jutland.
The battle itself was fought late in the day, May 31, 1916. The visibility was appalling, induced by a combination of North Sea fog, lingering cordite fumes and chemical smoke screens. Often, only two ships could be seen at any moment. The battle began ignominiously with the destruction of two British battlecruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary. Later that evening, Horace Hood’s Invincible and an older armoured cruiser, Defence, also blew up.
But it was not all bad. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who commanded the Battlecruiser Squadron, lured the Germans back to Jellicoe, who masterfully deployed his 24 dreadnoughts into a five-and-a-half-mile long battle line, twice catching the leading German ships in a “T”, a classic naval warfare tactic.
But Jellicoe did not follow the German battle turns. He judged that he would not have caught them, and also feared that, in the thick fog, he might steam straight on to mines dropped in their wake. As dusk began to fall, he turned his fleet away from a massed German torpedo attack.
Many later saw this as his biggest mistake. Some naval strategists argue even now that he should have turned towards the torpedoes. But Jellicoe was concerned that a 25,000-ton dreadnought’s lack of manoeuvrability would have made them a sitting target for the German torpedoes.
Indeed, not one hit home. However, it meant that Jellicoe lost contact with the rest of the fleet.
Not willing to fight a night action where, in his mind, too much was left to chance, he steamed to where he thought the badly damaged German fleet would run. But even though Admiralty codebreakers knew where the Imperial High Seas Fleet intended to go, they failed to pass these vital signals to Jellicoe. When morning broke, no German ships could be found. They had returned to port claiming victory, perpetuating a myth that has lasted to this day.
For many years, it was averred that that the Grand Fleet wasn’t really engaged at Jutland. But the statistics tell a different story: in the first 75 minutes, the British scored 17 heavy hits against the Germans’ 44. In the last hour of battle fleet engagement, the opposite was the case: 49 to 3. Fourteen British and 11 German ships were sunk, with thousands killed on both sides.
Why had losses been so catastrophic? To begin with, magazine safety was sacrificed for gunnery speed and unstable cordite charges were stacked outside battle-cruiser magazines. A single spark could rip a whole ship apart. The protective scuttles through which cordite was fed to the guns were seldom used and even, in some cases, removed.
Furthermore, Fisher put emphasis on speed and gun caliber, thereby failing to give the battle-cruiser enough armoured protection. Jellicoe had privately voiced concerns about these weaknesses.
I seriously doubt that, under the conditions that day, a Nelson would have done any better. He knew that a failure at Trafalgar only risked a third of British naval assets, whereas Jellicoe was, in Churchill’s famous words, “the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.
The entire complement of British first-line ships was deployed at Jutland, and both sides were fighting with new and mainly untried technologies – long-range gunnery, fire control systems, torpedoes, mines, new ship designs.
The stalemate at Jutland convinced the German high command that they could never win a fleet-to-fleet action. Instead, they aggressively resumed unrestricted submarine activity as the only chance of winning a war bogged down on the western front.
Defeating the U-boat menace became Jellicoe’s next task; and yet, despite great success, public opinion had turned against him. Even though half the Admiralty Board threatened to resign, he was sacked on Christmas Eve 1917.
For a country used to great naval victories, Jutland was a disappointment. On the other hand, without the lessons learned that day, the Navy would have been even less prepared than it was for the next war. Progress was made in independent divisional and night-fighting tactics, destroyer tactics, gunnery, signals management, magazine protection and ordnance and officer training.
This was Jellicoe’s legacy; and fittingly, when he died in November 1935, the flags of the Royal Navy, the French Marine Nationale and Hitler’s Kriegsmarine were all lowered in tribute and respect.
detailed article with slide shows and photographs here:
Rakish, occasionally reckless, always recognizable, and a fighter in the tradition of Lord Nelson, Admiral David Beatty became the most well known figure of the Royal Navy in later World War One and afterwards.
Admiral David Beatty was keenly aware of the value of public relations however often he decried the popular press. He complained in letters to his wife and friends about that damn fellow Filson who is here….(that is, aboard his then flagship, HMS Lion). He was referring to Filson Young who was a journalist and war correspondent who wasn’t important but knew a lot of important people and managed to get himself into all sorts of places. He talked himself into being commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-Lieutenant and had himself assigned to HMS Lion with the express task of writing about Admiral David Beatty.
This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds since Young had known Beatty for several years and hero worshiped him. Beatty theoretically found all this annoying mind you, he hardly wanted some hero worshiping journalist like Filson Young around. Except he did and he liked Filson so he invited Filson Young to become part of personal staff mess over which Beatty presided like a king. So as much as he complained, he was usually available to talk to Filson who was aboard HMS Lion during the Battle of the Dogger Bank. In the early twenties he wrote an impressive book still worth reading today: With the Battlecruisers.
Admiral Beatty, later Admiral of the Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, later First Sea Lord and elevated to the peerage as Earl Beatty of the North Sea, was looked on by the public as the ideal of a true Royal Navy officer with the ‘Nelson touch.’ Handsome, controversial (but not too controversial), always wearing his naval cap with his trademark “Beatty tilt,” he was instantly recognizable. Beatty was a handsome man and a warrior. Women were strongly attracted to him and he was strongly attracted back. His private life was considered scandalous (which it sort of was) which only made him more interesting.
Battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable explodes at Jutland on 31 May 1916. Only two sailors out of a ship’s company of 1,019 survived.
“In the distance the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable sinking after being struck by shells from the German battlecruiser Von Der Tann first in “X” magazine and then once she had limped out of the line she was hit by another salvo on the foredeck, the resulting explosion then destroying her. All but two of Indefatigable’s crew of 1,119 were killed in the blast.”(Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Three of Admiral David Beatty’s battlecruisers— HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary, and HMS Indefatigable —were hit in vulnerable areas not protected by sufficient armour, by German shells during the battle of Jutland and literally exploded. Only a handful of officers and ratings from the three ships survived. Beatty’s own flagship, HMS Lion, was hit repeatedly by German shells which did significant damage.
HMS Lion on the left with waterspouts from enemy shells surrounding her. To the right, battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary explodes after German shells penetrated one of her powder magazines.
Beatty and HMS Lion had been pounded by the German navy before in the Battle of the Dogger Bank when German ships temporarily put HMS Lion out of action. Fortunately, since the battle was in the North Sea, HMS Lion did not have to steam far to reach port once the engines were brought back online. Nonetheless, after this experience and Jutland, Beatty had been in more action exposed to death and danger on an open navigating bridge than any other British admiral.
battlecruiser HMS Lion at sea (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The battlecruiser, a fast, lightly armoured but carrying heavy guns, was the brainchild of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky Fisher, First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 (that is, the professional head of the Royal Navy) who subsequently served disastrously in the same position from 1914 to 1915.
“Their speed will be their protection,” was Fishers’s unrelenting slogan: a dictum now as flawed as the refusal of combat with a nominal equal was unthinkable.”
Thus writes the brilliant naval historian, Professor Andrew Gordon, of the battlecruiser concept, in his magisterial work: The Rules of the Game—Jutland and British Naval Command.
HMS Dreadnought, circa 1906. The booms lashed to the side of the ship were designed to hold anti-torpedo netting. (US Navy Archives)
Fisher was a brilliant and far-sighted naval officer who in his first term from 1904 to 1910, was responsible for the modernization of the Royal Navy including the construction of the first modern battleship, HMS Dreadnought. Upon commissioning in 1906, the revolutionary design of the ship immediately rendered obsolete all other battleships in the world including all the pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy.
Fisher’s second major brainchild was the battlecruiser. He forced this design through a skeptical Admiralty only to see his design proven disastrous at Jutland on 31 May 1916.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Richard Beatty, PC, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. (Privy Counsellor, Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Order of Merit, Grand Cross of the Victorian Order, Distinguished Service Order) Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. From the Collection: THE ROYAL NAVY IN THE HOME WATERS, 1914-1918
During that battle, the Admiral Commanding Battle Cruisers, David Beatty, was more than startled when the battlecruisers around him started exploding. After the second of his battlecruisers exploded, Beatty turned to his flag captain on HMS Lion and said, “something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today.” And there was.
You can read book after book on the Battle of Jutland but it was Beatty who found and pinned the German High Seas fleet and led them toward what should have been its destruction by the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe. In doing so, Beatty was in action with his battlecruiser squadron far longer than the heavy battleships of the Grand Fleet.
The battlecruisers were not designed to fight it out with battleships but this is what happened in any event. Beatty has been criticized for being overly aggressive but that is specious. The culture of the Royal Navy was once the enemy was sighted, you went at them. It was the responsibility of the heavier ships to come up in support as fast as they could. In this Jellicoe failed.
But the biggest failure was that of the battlecruiser design and concept. It was a disaster. Unfortunately, after scrapping enough ships to meet their obligations under the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty, the Royal Navy was left with three of the newer battlecruisers: HMS Hood, HMS Repulse, and HMS Renown. Of these three, only the Renown was taken out of service and rebuilt with all of her major flaws corrected including thickening the armour over her magazines. While the other two were taken out of service for refits, neither spent two years in the dry dock being completely rebuilt and re-engined as did the Renown.
HMS Hood at sea. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The result wasn’t surprising. HMS Hood became a victim of plunging fire from the Bismarck. A shell went through the three inches of steel which formed the armoured deck over the aft powder magazine. It ignited the magazine and the ship blew up and sank in less than two minutes.
HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and a symbol of the might of the British Empire. Since the Hood spent so much time on “goodwill” tours throughout the world showing the flag, she was the most well known warship in the world. That she simply blew up was a shock to the British public and people throughout the world. (Only three men out of 1600 survived).
In a disastrous nightmare, HMS Repulse accompanied the KGV class battleship Prince of Wales, to Singapore and was sunk by the Japanese in the early days of the Pacific campaign.
This left only HMS Renown which for many months served as Admiral James Somerville’s flagship while he commanded the famous Force H from Gibraltar. (The ‘H’ doesn’t stand for anything). HMS Renown survived the war because she survived the bombs and the shells which hit her whereas the Hood and the Repulse did not. A sad story of a class of ships which should have been taken out of service entirely once their vulnerability at Jutland became clear.
On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Eighteen, the armistice which ended the killing of the First World War went into effect .
Ten million young men perished in that war, never to write the poetry of their lives.
The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London, in November 2004 (with wreaths laid down on Remembrance Day). Photo Chris Nyborg.
The British Legion, a veterans organization created after World War One, known then as the ‘Great War’, began the tradition of selling red poppies once a year to assist veterans. The first British Legion Poppy Day was held in Great Britain on 11 November – Armistice Day – 1921. Several organizations for veterans in the US including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly adopted the symbol as did veterans’ groups throughout the British Empire.
The red poppy came to symbolize youthful death in battle because of the haunting poem, In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by Surgeon-Major John McCrae, MD, First Field Artillery Brigade, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Surgeon-Major John McCrae, 1st Brigade CFA, Canadian Field Artillery, Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
McCrae had been operating on wounded soldiers for seventeen days in a row during the terrible slaughter of the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between 22 April and 25 May 1915 near the Belgium city of Ypres in the province of West Flanders. This furious struggle, now long forgotten, was fought between the French Army, with their British allies, against their common enemy, Imperial Germany.
German storm troopers, led by an officer, emerge from a thick cloud of phosgene poison gas laid by German forces as they attack British trench lines. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Courtesy of the Guardian of London.
This battle was fought over control of the Belgium city of Ypres and lasted for thirty-three days. It merits a footnote in history because it was the first battle on the Western Front where the Germans used poison gas. The use of such gas is a war crime and had been forbidden by the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. Germany was a signatory to both treaties.
Red poppies blew across the battlefield during the slaughter.
The poppy is a flower whose seed lies dormant in the ground. It only blooms in warm weather when the soil is rooted up. Because the ground of Flanders had been rooted up by days of artillery fire, there were red poppies blooming in profusion all over the battlefield. There were so many poppies that the wind would often catch the fragile flowers and blow them in waves over the blasted soil.
Hence the first line: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…” (not ‘grow’ as many seem to write)
Major McCrae was deeply pained by the death of a young friend, killed the previous day by random artillery fire. Sitting outside his field dressing station the next day, McCrae was looking over the cemetery in which his young friend had been buried. He took a pad and wrote what became the most famous poem of the war. The poet himself died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918 and is buried in France.
Surgeon-Major John McCrae’s grave, Wimereux Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France
“In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Because this poem is often thought to be an anti-war poem, expressing the futility of war, the third stanza is usually left out. You will understand the reason when you read it:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“Things fall apart two thirds of the way through…and we suddenly have a recruiting poster rhetoric…We finally see – and with a shock – what the last six lines really are: they are a propaganda argument – words like ‘vicious’ and ‘stupid’ would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace.”
Fussell also points out the symbolism in England long associated with the red poppy: homosexuality. In the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, Patience, which opened in 1881, he calls our attention to the following lyrics:
“…if you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand, everyone will say, As you walk your flowery way, …what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”
One need not be a gay man, such as myself, to immediately understand the symbolic reference.
Fussell’s erudition as a scholar of English literature is never more evident than in his parsing of Two Loves, a poem written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas, one time lover of Oscar Wilde. In a dream, the poet discovers in his garden a beautiful naked youth who has lips, ‘red like poppies’. Desperate to know who this lad is, the poet beseeches the youth to tell his name and finally the youth says, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” This last being the polite way of saying ‘homosexuality’ in decades past.
So decades before the red poppy became the symbol of youthful death in battle, it had long been associated with homosexual love. Professor Fussell suggests the poet unconsciously expresses a certain homoeroticism in connection with his young friend in the poem.
“…Short days ago…We lived…Loved and were loved, and now we lie…”
Professor Fussell was a combat veteran himself. He was drafted into the US Army in 1943, at age 19. In October 1944 he landed in France, as part of the 103rd Infantry Division. He was wounded while fighting in France as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and Veterans Day in the United States take place on 11 November because this is the yearly anniversary of the armistice which ended the actual shooting in World War One. The peace talks and the Controversial Treaty of Versailles came months later.
The armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year of Our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred Eighteen.
Ten million young men had perished in the war, never to write the poetry of their lives.
Thanks to my special correspondent in New Orleans, Bob Warren, for sourcing this blog post.
M1 Submarine Monitor lost with all hands on 12 November 1925
“M1 was the only one to enter service before the end of World War I but did not see action. She was captained during her sea trials by experienced submariner Commander Max Horton after his return from the Baltic.”
(comments Charles McCain: Max Horton was one of the great fighting admirals of the Royal Navy. For most of World War Two he held the critical position of Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches. This command controlled all convoy escorts in the North Atlantic and was the largest operational command in the Royal Navy in World War Two–eventually comprising more than 300 warships). You can read my detailed article about Admiral Sir Max Horton here: http://tinyurl.com/MaxHorton-by-Charles-McCain
From “War History Online”
“During the last months of the first world war, the Royal Navy built the M-Class submarines. These were diesel-electric submarines with a rather unique feature; they had a 12-inch gun mounted in a turret forward of the conning tower and the M-class submarines are sometimes called submarine monitors.
They were initially intended to bombardment the enemies coast, but their role had been changed before detailed design begun. The new idea was that the submarine could engage merchant ships with the gun while remaining at periscope depth. Alternatively, it could surface and fire the gun, rather than with the use of torpedoes. At that time, torpedoes were considered ineffective against moving warships at more than 1,000 yards distance.”
Comments Charles McCain: “Monitors usually refer to surface ships built with one large gun and used to bombard enemy coast. The Royal Navy built a number of monitors in World War One. They would anchor in the English Channel off the coast of France or Belgium and fire on pre-designated targets. These monitors had large ballast tanks on both side of the hull under the waterline. Once anchored, the ships would flood the opposite ballast tanks from the direction of fire which had the effect of tilting the ship five or six degrees which gave the guns a longer range.
The generic name for monitors, comes from the USS Monitor of American Civil War fame.”