by Jamie Fischer
May – June 2019
On its 75th anniversary, it is a good time to talk about D-Day, one of the most significant operations in modern military history. I will assume that most readers of these pages are familiar with the basic outlines of the event. Here are some stories that have caught my interest over the years as I sought to understand the campaign.
By 1944, the Allies were working in concert with one another and their coordination was having a combined effect while highlighting some of their strategic limitations. For example, British and American operations in Italy, especially the landing at Anzio in January 1944, drew away German forces from Normandy even though they did not achieve the local success they could have. When Overlord gained a foothold, the Germans rushed divisions from the Eastern front which contributed to the success of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration launched at the end of June in the Ukraine. Originally, the Overlord landings were to be accompanied by simultaneous invasion in the south of France, codename Operation Anvil. This had to be cancelled initially because they were just not enough landing craft to support both these European operations AND the campaigns against Japan. When the fighting in France bogged down and the harbors clogged, the Allies returned to the Southern France options, transferred the resources, and launched Operation Dragoon.
Speaking of landing craft, their availability was affected by strategic decisions that had been made many months before. Despite our incredible industrial production, we could not do everything. The planners had made an estimate of requirements and the generals had to live with that decision.
Transport was not the only logistic challenge. Although many bright people worked miracles, some decisions had unintended consequences. As the fighting had stalled in the hedgerows, demand for ammunition increased so ammo became the priority for transport. The soldiers got the firepower they needed, but when they finally punched their way out in August and began to pursue the retreating Germans they needed fuel, most of which was still sitting in England. The situation changed too quickly for the upper level logisticians to respond. The famous Red Ball Express was their improvised solution.
One of the most incredible stories of D-Day that I have ever heard was of the two Korean Wehrmacht soldiers who were captured. That’s right, Korean. They had been drafted by the Japanese who occupied Korea as a colony, captured by the Russians in 1939 when there was fighting between the two along the Manchurian border, allowed to join the Russian Army, captured by the invading Germans, and permitted to join a German unit that was transferred to western Europe.
While we have gained general awareness of the civilian cost of bombing campaigns against our enemies in war, there were also costs to our Allies that should not be forgotten. As part of the broader actions designed to help the landings succeed, the air forces launched attacks (with approval of Free French leaders) against railheads, bridges, and troop concentrations in France. These actions undoubtedly inhibited the Germans ability to respond to the landings, but they cost more than 10,000 French civilians their lives.
Allow me to indulge in a personal memory of a D-Day anniversary. I was stationed in Germany in June 1994. My friend Mike and I were able to get some leave. My wife found a condo rental outside Caen. We took our van, bikes for the four of us and our two year old son. Our plan was to visit the key sites but avoid the crowds and dignitaries. If we found any roadblock, we parked the van, pulled out the bikes and hit the road. This technique allowed us to get to St. Mere Eglise to see the 82nd and D-Day veterans complete a mass tactical jump. We stood on a hilltop overlooking the drop zone with dozens of others, clearly excited by the spectacle. Out came the 82nd, the sky filled with mushroom-shaped canopies floating gently down. Then came the veterans, some jumping from C-47s, the same aircraft that had brought them across the Channel so many years before. One chute, two chutes, on and on they opened until one did not. Mike and I looked silently at each other as we saw the cigar roll (a chute that fails to catch air often looks like a large cigar) scream in. The people around us continued to oooh and aaaah. Our wives noticed our suddenly somber demeanor as we explained the poignancy of the moment: a survivor of D-Day and who knows how many other combat jumps had just fallen to his death on the golden anniversary of his personal entry into history. We walked away truly awestruck and spent the rest of the day in a subdued mood. When we returned to the condo that evening, I absent-mindedly flipped on the TV to the French news. I was greeted with a most amazing scene: before the French interpreter began the voice-over, I heard an elderly man explain in English how he was hollering at everyone to get out of the way as he rapidly approached the ground. It turned out that our D-Day veteran had survived his fall with nothing more serious than broken legs!
If you ever get a chance to visit Normandy, I recommend you get down on Omaha first, look around you and then walk from the beach up into the cemetery. The open beach followed by the rows of crosses serves as a stunning reminder. May their sacrifice never be forgotten.
Fifty Years Ago in Vietnam
Things were not going our way in many areas and our tactical successes where no longer making strategic sense. I believe you could argue that this time period is when the wheels really fell off US efforts in Vietnam.
On the home front, media, while honest, sapped morale: The New York Times published reports that the US had bombed NVA targets in neutral Cambodia expanding the scope of the war. Life Magazine did a photo spread showing pre-deployment photos of every one of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam the week of 28 May-3 June 1969. Members of the Senate lifted their self-imposed moratorium and began actively criticizing President Nixon’s policies. Members of the House proposed legislation asking the President to withdraw 100,000 troops unconditionally.
At the Paris negotiations, it should be no wonder that the North Vietnamese and NLF (Viet Cong) refused to budge on any of their key demands. They were winning. The US was seeking to extricate itself from the fighting and implement “Vietnamization” of the war by which ARVN forces would take more and more responsibility for the fighting.
In May, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division took a hill and probably killed several hundred NVA regulars at the cost of 40 US killed and over 100 wounded. Known now as “Hamburger Hill,” the battle exemplified everything wrong with the search and destroy philosophy. After pounding the ground to a pulp and losing dozens of Americans, the leaders withdrew from the position which the North Vietnamese occupied shortly thereafter. This kind of fighting continued all around Vietnam during these months. There is no doubt that US forces and their allies killed many more enemy than they lost even if the body counts were inflated. But as it became increasingly clear that there was no apparent victory in sight, it would be logical to ask the purpose of continued American casualties. By mid-June, MACV was announcing the withdrawal of over 30,000 troops.
It was also during this time period that military discipline was noticeably collapsing. Troops were, are, and always have been a rough bunch (even some Civil War soldiers got drunk, stole, and stragglers avoided battle), but by the summer of 1969, drug use, mutiny, and other ills were beginning to have a noticeable impact on our military effectiveness. I think this problem reveals less about the character of those who fight our wars and more about the responsibility of our political leaders to use us wisely.
What is interesting about these demoralizing events is that reputable polls showed a clear majority of Americans did not want us to “quit” Vietnam with a notable percentage even approving of greater efforts to win.
March – April 2019
In our last installment, I discussed the challenge of fighting in the cold… with the spring thaw upon us, we might as well explore mud and flood effects on military history. These are not limited to areas in the northern hemisphere, but all around the globe. Even at the National Training Center in the middle of the Mojave Desert, spring rains could trigger flash floods coming down from the mountains. When I was a young officer, some soldiers died of drowning when the wadi in which they took cover for the night filled with water, rolled their armored vehicle, and trapped them inside.
Mud is often seasonal whether it is caused by a spring thaw or monsoon. An interesting book, appropriately titled Mud: a Military History covers many of the impacts of mud on military operations. The author, C.E. Wood, organizes his analysis around types of mud and its effects. Everyone can imagine the difficulty of moving through mud. But Wood goes a bit farther, categorizing the effects of mud on aspects of war such as the Mechanical, Physical, Mental, and Medical. I remember how mud would not only gum up the tracks on our armored vehicles, but could get in boot seals and brake housings damaging the drive systems of our Humvees. The physical effects were more than just the slipping and sticking; mud tires you out. It gets under your finger nails, in your ears, your mouth, and your eyes. Constantly losing your balance or having to trudge through the muck for days on end can drain you mentally, too.
Mud affected Napoleon at Waterloo. Although it was not bad enough to hamper movement on improved roads, he waited to begin his attack until the ground dried out. You see, solid shot needs dry ground so it can bounce and do maximum damage to mass infantry formations. Some suggest his self-imposed delay gave the Prussians time to come to Wellington’s rescue.
If you are familiar with the travails of the Army of the Potomac as President Lincoln tried to find the right general, then you may have heard of the failures of General Ambrose Burnside. He is reported to have not wanted the job of commander. When he tried to initiate another “March to Richmond” in December 1862, he stumbled across the Rappahannock River through Fredericksburg and needlessly lost men assaulting the high ground on the far side of the city. But this did not cost him his command. No, that came in January 1863, when he tried to renew the offensive and cross the river at another place. The temperatures were mild. As his troops began to their move, the rain started, quickly turning the approaches of the crossing into a morass. Burnside’s “Mud March” went down in history as an example of weak generalship and cost him his job.
The trenches on the Western Front in the First World War are legendary for their muddy conditions. The Allies were faced with a geographic dilemma from the start: as the two sides engaged in the “March to the Sea” that set the trench lines in place after the Battle of the Marne stopped the German advance, the Germans were able to keep the higher ground along nearly the entire front. The marshy lower ground was crisscrossed with drainage canals that had made the land suitable for farming. As the lines solidified and the artillery destroyed the drainage system, huge stretches of trenches below the surface became the natural repository for all the excess water. Stories of men unable to crawl out of shell holes because of the mud only to drown as these craters filled with water are all too common. Boots gaining several pounds, weapons disappearing in the muck, soldiers tasting dirt in everything, and trench walls collapsing from the soaked soil were among the more dismal tales of mud in war.
In my mind, the most famous and significant mud in battle was the vaunted Rasputitsa of the war between the Nazis and the Soviets. This term applies to the muddy conditions that plague roads of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus during the spring (as the snow melts) and fall (before the rain turns to snow). The tanks of the vaunted German armor formations had narrow tracks perfect for the paved roads of Western Europe. In the mud and in open country, the weight distribution of this system could not hold up under the soft, wet ground. Meanwhile, Russian armor – particularly as the T34 came to the fore – had wider tracks that could hold more weight and still maneuver. Some suggest (and I agree) that Rasputitsa kept the Germans from capturing Moscow in 1941. It continued to plague them until they were able to learn from the Soviets and incorporate the wider treads in the Panzer V (Panther).
In a great anthology, America’s First Battles, Jay Luvaas tells the story of our Army’s first major battle against the Japanese on Papua-New Guinea in the Buna campaign from November 1942-January 1943. This large island north of Australia consisted of imposing terrain that took its toll on Americans, Australians, and Japanese alike It often took five or six hours to go one mile over hills, through neck-deep swamps of sucking mud, and thick jungle. On the narrow trails soldiers would walk in hip-deep water as the paths flooded with rain. The swamps made it next to impossible to maneuver around Japanese flanks and then troops were often unable to carry anything more than rifles and grenades to support their attacks. In these conditions, wet and muddy weapons often malfunctioned. Fatigued and sick soldiers became “too worn out to fight aggressively.”
In Korea, fighting forces experienced intense extremes in weather and terrain. We are familiar with stories about the bitter cold especially surrounding our ordeal at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. But mud was just as grueling during the rainy season particularly in July and August when rainfall averages over 12 inches per month and temperatures regularly hit the 90s. Mud hampered our operations during Operation Killer in February 1951 when unseasonably warm weather caused bridges to wash out, rivers to flood, and roads to turn into quagmires.
If you think of mud in Vietnam, rice paddies usually come to mind. These certainly limited mobility and were not pleasant to move through especially with added “fertilizer.” However, the rainy season and occasional typhoons really mucked things up for both sides making roads unusable, hills into slip ‘n slides, and trails into rivers. The US tried to use this weather pattern to its advantage, by seeding clouds and adjusting its operations to account for the weather but it did not help enough.
In more recent times, the flooding of Sava River to its highest level in 100 years delayed US entry into Bosnia from December 1995 to January 1996. Our unit’s liaison was one of the people who woke up to see his duffle bag floating next to him as the waters quickly rose. After several additional days of engineers working around the clock, an longer pontoon bridge was completed and the 1st Armored Division led the way into Operation Joint Endeavor.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The Viet Cong attacks launched in January caused the Paris Talks to stall in March while motivating President Nixon to threaten an end to the bombing halt and approve clandestine bombing of targets in Cambodia against NVA log bases along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC ground attacks continued across the country even as US and ARVN forces launched operations to eliminate bases, cut off infiltration routes, and reduce lines of communications. Letters from a veteran led to an investigation of the events at My Lai. President Nixon stated that he did not see force withdrawals as possible until there is a reduction of attacks and progress at the peace talks. A Gallup Poll indicated that 32% of the American public supported “going all out” to win the war; 26% favored withdrawal, 19% favored the current policy, and 21% had no opinion.
In April, US troop levels peaked at 543,400 with over 33,000 Americans killed which exceeded the total of the Korean War. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced efforts to “Vietnamize” the war. President Nixon’s honeymoon with public demonstrations ended as protestors took to the streets in several major cities. Congress also showed increasing signs of impatience although multiple polls supported his approach. Communist offensives continued in South Vietnam with fighting around cities, the DMZ, and along the Cambodian border. Peace talks went nowhere despite conciliatory offers from Presidents Thieu and Nixon. South Vietnamese workers were finding more and more mass graves of people murdered by the VC in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
January – February 2018
During my service, leaders, especially commanders, were expected to articulate a philosophy to share with the organization that they led so that everyone would have a better understanding of the expectations and personality of their leader. This would lead to smoother functioning of the team if everyone knew something about the boss and his or her priorities right up front. In the last half of my career, my philosophy closed with the statement “Keep your sense of humor… you could be at Stalingrad!” Of course that elicited some conversation, and the point was this: you cannot really say you are having a bad day when you remember that some soldiers have survived eating rats and sawdust, losing fingers and feet to frostbite, and having tens of thousands of very angry enemy soldiers trying to kill them! It’s all about perspective.
One of the things that I have always valued most about history in general and, particularly military history is that power of perspective. You can learn of the possibilities and the problems of the past. Perspective can help you understand the important difference between the real and the ideal. I truly believe that perspective can help inoculate you against stress when you realize that many of our struggles are normal or at least not as bad as some would have us believe.
So for this installment let me share with you some interesting extremes that have come from fighting in the winter. It seems appropriate that as I write this, we have just enjoyed sub-zero wind chills and a couple major winter storms.
There have been times in Western history when armies just did not fight during the winter months. The added difficulties in logistics support coupled with the stress on people and animals made an already risky proposition even more so. When they did fight, the soldiers often obtained their needs for food and shelter by pillaging local villages or farms which put an added burden for survival on the civilian population.
Most of us remember the story of Valley Forge and the suffering of the Continental Army there. Frozen feet, deadly disease, diminished rations, and struggling morale may have almost broke the rebellion, but a stronger, more determined, and professional army emerged from those trying times. We should remember that the important victories at Trenton and Princeton were also fought during December in the snow and cold.
You may be familiar with the French Army’s retreat from Russian in 1812. In the Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne, this French soldier talks about being reduced to eating raw horsemeat in the snow and cold with the blood of the animal forming icicles on his mustache and beard. Napoleon’s army suffered greatly from the cold weather, lack of shelter, and shortage of food.
The war between the Germans and the Russians from 1941-1945 is full of amazing stories of extreme cold. Tens of thousands of German soldiers were lost as casualties to frostbite because of inadequate clothing. The Wehrmacht had to keep vehicles running to prevent their fluids from freezing solid. And then there was Stalingrad, as bad, if not worse than the legends. It is hard to have pity on a ruthless invader, their suffering is small payback for the destruction they sowed.
Even before the Second World War had started, the Russians had learned the hard way about fighting in the cold without preparation when they attempted to invade Finland in November 1939. Although a relatively short and ultimately successful conquest for the Soviets, they lost more than 300,000 casualties including over 60,000 sick or frostbitten in the Winter War.
If you have never read the accounts of the experience of American Army and Marine units at the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950, you should review their story. Narrow escapes, frozen corpses stacked like cordwood, and great valor were the hallmarks of this encirclement and breakout early in the Korean War.
Fighting in the extreme cold is not easy, but with the proper equipment and technique, you can survive and even use the elements to help defeat your opponent.
Oh, by the way, one hundred years ago, while World War I may have been officially over, the fighting was not. As part of a larger Allied effort, the US had troops deployed in Russia around Archangel and Vladivostok where we would remain until the spring of 1920. Those soldiers also experienced the harshness of fighting in winter: in several engagements US troops battled Red Army units in waist-deep snow.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The year started with the inauguration of the fifth US President to deal with the situation in Vietnam. President Nixon had promised “peace with honor;” it would remain to be seen how that would work in practice. For while talks began again in Paris at the end of January after a controversy over the shape of the table and representation, the fighting continued. Both sides maintained their levels of military operations.
US and South Vietnamese forces remained active across the country. The 9th ID and four ARVN divisions conducted search and clear missions in the Mekong Delta to support pacification efforts there. Riverine forces were patrolling 150 miles of waterways along the South Vietnamese – Cambodian border. Marines and ARVN made an amphibious assault in Quang Ni province as part of a search and clear operation there. Other USMC units began Operation Dewy Canyon which would be their last major offensive in Vietnam.
The Viet Cong launched attacks throughout the country in January after another Tet holiday ceasefire. An assault on the headquarters of the 25th ID killed 38 soldiers while an NVA raid near the Demilitarized Zone killed 36 marines. These losses were notable parts of what was the deadliest month since August 1968.
November – December 2018
The war that had begun over 104 years ago, finally came to an end in November 1918. After months and months of stalemate, thousands of lives lost for a few thousand feet of ground, grand offensives that led to nothing, and an expansion of the war from a small part of southeastern Europe to almost the entire world, the fighting in the west had briefly returned to a period of movement. However, this time the Germans were grudgingly moving back toward their own borders as the Allies pushed their depleted formations out of France and Belgium.
At the beginning of November, Supreme Allied Commander, Marshall Foch had ordered the general offensive to continue along the entire western front. The Americans advanced across a broad area as the Germans pulled back to the Meuse River and beyond. Working with the French, they helped capture Sedan, scene of the Prussians’ great victory in 1871. The British were approaching Mons, where they had fought their first big battles in 1914. French units is Yugoslavia captured Belgrade from Austro-Hungarian troops even as the two sides agreed to an armistice negotiated in Italy.
As the German Army withdrew, their domestic situation continued to destabilize. The sailors who had mutinied at Kiel, were spreading their insurrection across the entire country. By the 7th, they controlled Berlin as the Reichstag called for the Kaiser’s abdication. On the 8th, German diplomats met with their counterparts at Compiegne, France to negotiate for an immediate armistice. The next day, the Kaiser relinquished the throne and fled to Holland.
Early on the morning of November 11, the two sides fighting in France agreed to terms. Among the key provisions were immediate withdrawal from all occupied lands to include the regions of Alsace and Lorraine that the Prussians had won in 1871, paying for the Allies to station troops in German lands south of the Rhine River, plus the turnover of thousands of heavy weapons and aircraft. The German delegation warned that the harshness of the agreement would have consequences. The Allies did not care. The guns would fall silent at 11:00 AM.
Firing continued with soldiers dying until the very end. The fighting did not stop everywhere, the Romanians had rejoined the war a few days earlier and grabbed some land from Austria-Hungary. Germans forces in Africa were still evading the British when they learned of the Armistice on the 13th and promptly arrange to surrender. Anti-Bolshevik forces were taking back lands formerly held by the Ottomans as Russia descended into Civil War.
It might be more accurate to say that the only place the fighting stopped was along the Western Front. For the next five years (even as diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Versailles), new countries formed by the end of old empires, ethnic factions within those new countries, and political factions within European countries old and new took up arms to stake their claims. From Finland south to Kuwait and from Ireland east to Ukraine, a series of smaller wars, revolutions, and civil wars flamed on and off killing thousands more. Even France and Britain were not immune as they sought to gain control of new territories picked up from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
As we leave the centenary of the First World War, it is important to remember the depth of the loss that all participants, particularly the Germans and the French felt. I believe a simple number can tell that story: 4.29%. That is the percentage of all war dead (military and civilian) suffered by France. To understand the impact, compare it to the US today: if we lost 4.29 percent of our 330 million, there would be over 14 MILLION dead. The effect these losses had on all the societies involved cannot be over-estimated, not to mention the disfigured, wounded, and displaced. Some smaller countries suffered even higher percentages, the Germans had the added dynamic of the appearance of victory until the very end. The treaty that formally ended the First War, while not directly responsible for the Second, did not lead to stability in Europe. One should not be surprised at the turmoil that followed.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
In November 1968, after announcing the end of bombing targets in North Vietnam, President Johnson directed an increase in air attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite over 100 attacks daily, almost 10,000 NVA trucks still moved along the routes south through Laos and Cambodia. South Vietnamese President Thieu declared that his country would boycott the peace talks because the NLF (Viet Cong) had been allowed to participate; it was later learned that supporters of presidential candidate Nixon had encouraged this in exchange for promises of better terms if he were elected. He was.
Division level ground operations continued all across Vietnam, increasing American casualties and reportedly killing ten times as many NVA. The US was definitely causing attrition of the enemy, but not enough to change Hanoi’s course. Meanwhile, procedural bickering continued, further stalling the peace talks. By December, the Phoenix Program was achieving success. Allied forces were finding caches and bombing suspected enemy assembly areas north of Saigon. As 1968 came to an end, there were over 530,000 US military in Vietnam. The 14,314 troops that died in Vietnam that year almost doubled the total Americans killed up to that point.
September – October 2018
On the Western Front a century ago, the situation rapidly evolved… or devolved if you were German. Allied attacks continued along the Somme, in some places punching through German defenses, in others advancing closely behind the Germans as they withdrew. By September 11, Hindenberg was advising the Kaiser that he must immediately seek a negotiated settlement. In less than two months, he and Ludendorff had gone from the cusp of victory in range of Paris to the verge of defeat as they pulled back along the entire front. A few days after Hindenberg met the Kaiser, the Austrians sent a request through neutral diplomats to President Wilson to negotiate a separate settlement.
The Allies only increased the pressure. Not only in additional places on the Western Front – but also in Italy, Macedonia, Serbia, Palestine, and Turkey – British, French, American, Belgian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Arab, Greek, Serbian, and Indian forces were fighting and advancing throughout September and October. The American Army, under General Pershing, attacked in the Meuse-Argonne. Finally, after much preparation and political wrangling, the US was playing a role as equal participant in the war.
On September 27, President Wilson made a speech reinforcing elements of his Fourteen Points and calling for an international body to help prevent future wars… a League of Nations. Meanwhile, Ludendorff, losing control of his emotions under the stress of these pressing events, was claiming total disaster and emphasizing the need for an immediate peace. He sent a representative to the Reichstag to explain that there is no chance the Allies would seek peace and that the only course was to resist until they were willing to negotiate. The members were stunned; they had seen the newspaper headlines just weeks before celebrating the Army’s continued success and now, suddenly, it was all coming completely apart. The imperial government was wavering; the Kaiser appointed a new, more liberal chancellor who requested peace talks with Wilson.
Over the next month, as the Germans conducted a general withdrawal and all Allied Armies advanced (to include the Italians) behind them. The Americans, French, British, Germans, Turks, and Austrians discussed among themselves and their foes the path to an ending of hostilities. When Ludendorff balked at Allied proposals, the Kaiser dismissed him. The German government communicated to President Wilson that they accepted his terms and awaited formal proposals for an armistice. While these incidents unfolded, the German Fleet prepared to steam out of port for one last great battle against the British Fleet. Knowing that the war was all but lost, the sailors engaged in passive resistance preventing the fleet from deploying. The British PM Lloyd George and French Premier Clemenceau disputed some of Wilson’s Fourteen Points which would lead to later challenges in the final treaties. By the end of the October, the Turks had agreed to an armistice and the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The US reached a grim milestone when the 900th combat aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam. On the ground, US and ARVN forces worked together in several campaigns which achieved some success in holding off NVA offensives across Vietnam. From mid-September to the beginning of October, US Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy units launched pre-emptive attacks along the DMZ to spoil anticipated PAVN offensives. MAC-V defended its use of defoliants in a news conference.
In October, the Navy launched its largest combined operation of the war working with their South Vietnamese counterparts and some Army units in Operation Sealord. This riverine mission continued for the next two years and sought to cut off NVA supply lines from Cambodia into the Mekong Delta.
Protests continued across the United States, in London, and at the United Nations. Both sides were jostling for position at the Paris Peace talks. The South Vietnamese government did not want the pressure to be let up on the North and did not want the Viet Cong included in negotiations. The US was trying to determine how much it could give up to extract itself from the quagmire.
At the end of October, President Johnson authorized the release of 14 NVA prisoners and ended Operation Rolling Thunder in an attempt to advance the peace process. Despite over 300,000 sorties (a sortie is one mission by one aircraft), the effects on North Vietnamese offensive capabilities in the South were minimal.
July – August 2018
One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1918, the Western Front still hung in the balance. By all appearances, the German juggernaut showed no sign of relenting: their large caliber gun (nicknamed Big Bertha) shelled Paris several times, their forces launched another attack toward the French capital, and the Americans were still not significantly committed to the fight.
Behind the scenes, leaders on both sides recognized that the situation was changing. German General Ludendorff was under increasing pressure to achieve a decisive result as his attacks experienced diminishing returns. Allied generals Petain, Foch, and Haig had intelligence that revealed the site of the next German offensive and prepared to blunt it. They were also positioning their armies to begin a broad counterattack against the German salients.
When the Germans assaulted in the Marne on July 15, the French were almost ready. They were able (with some steadfast American support) to hold on the flanks of the penetration, but lost ground in the center where units had not had enough time to adjust their positions. The Germans continued to hammer the center of the zone and made some headway, but by July 17, 1918, Ludendorff realized that his latest goals were beyond reach and suspended what would prove to be the last German offensive. He had gained much ground, seriously threatened Paris, and caused the Allies to lose over 1 million more troops, but he had lost almost as many as they did. The Americans were proving to be effective in battle and would make good the British and French losses, the Germans had nothing left and no allies in a position to help them.
The situation turned relatively rapidly. Growing Allied strength, thanks to increasing American deployments, allowed Petain, Haig, AND Pershing to almost immediately transition to the counteroffensive. Meeting on July 24, the Allied generals firmly believed that they had regained the initiative; the Germans would now respond to THEIR attacks.
By August 7, the Allies had driven German forces back to the line they held at the end of March. The next day, an offensive in the Amiens sector advanced six miles forcing thousands of Germans to surrender and disrupting their entire defense. Ludendorff referred to this collapse as the “Black Day of the German Army.” By midmonth, although German soldiers had rallied, the Kaiser and his generals accepted the fact that the war must be ended. Meanwhile, the Allies paused briefly to regroup before launching more attacks to include a planned offensive by the recently activated American First Army at St. Mihiel. At the end of August, the Germans were proving to be stubborn defenders against the relentless Allied attacks in the Amiens region.
In east Africa, German commander Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops continued to fight to survive and survive to fight. During these months, they defeated several more Allied expeditions sent against them. Despite losing one engagement, they captured large quantities of supplies, and still evaded capture.
Although officially out of the war, the war was not out of Russia. Concerned that White Russian (anti-communist) forces might attempt to free the Imperial household, Red Guards executed Tsar Nicholas and his family on July 16. British forces seized Murmansk in the northwest and the Japanese deployed a division to Vladivostok on the Pacific to “protect” Allied supplies from falling into communist hands. The United States did not want to get involved in the civil strife in Russia, but deployed forces to both places to protect its interests. In Baku, on the Caspian Sea, British and Russian (non-Bolshevik) troops were fighting Turkish forces for control of the city and the important oil fields nearby.
Airpower continued to have an increasing effect on the war. British bombers attacked the Ottoman capital of Constantinople several times and hit support facilities in the German port city of Ludwigshafen. German fighters gained local air superiority in Amiens and knocked out 50 British tanks slowing their advance along that front.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The war’s effect on the country was becoming more and more apparent in the summer of 1968. In July, Congress passed a 10% income tax surcharge to pay for the increasing costs of the war. General Westmoreland was “promoted” to Army Chief of Staff and General Creighton Abrams assumed command of MAC-V. In a unique joint mission called Operation Thor, Air Force assets worked with Marine and Army Artillery units to attack NVA anti-aircraft defenses along the Demilitarized Zone (by the late 1980s, when I entered the Army, this cooperation had become standard procedure incorporating Army helicopters and air defense to gain total control of airspace).
In an attempt to root out the Viet Cong, the CIA launched the Phoenix Program. This controversial campaign, while successful in its efforts became another public relations and political defeat when commentators at home (with assistance from North Vietnamese propaganda) portrayed it as barbaric.
As part of the nascent peace talks, Hanoi released three American POWs. President Johnson and President Thieu met in Hawaii to discuss objectives.
In August, the NVA and PLA launched another attack; this time, toward Da Nang. Conceptually part of the Tet offensive, it also failed to achieve its objectives thanks to the efforts of Marines, Army and ARVN forces. But the price for America remained high: over 1,000 US service members died in both July and August 1968.
At home, the Republicans nominated former Vice President Richard Nixon for President. Candidate Nixon declared that he sought an “honorable end to war in Vietnam.” Riots at Democratic National Convention in August helped to solidify the image of the nation coming apart at the seams. Given the assassinations of Martin Luther King & Robert Kennedy earlier in the year, the ongoing protests, growing casualty lists, and Soviet actions to crush the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia, it is no wonder that people were becoming so pessimistic.
May – June 2018
If you were a German citizen reading the newspaper in June 1918, you would have seen that your Armies were advancing in every direction, they were shelling Paris, Russia and Romania had surrendered, and your navy was still conducting offensive operations. You may have suffered from the loss of friends or family at the front, you probably had lost weight because of the blockade, but things were looking up. Soon the resources of the vast new Russian territories would arrive. Who knew, soon even Paris might fall.
The Allied Supreme War Council met early in May to discuss plans for a coordinated response to the recent German offensives. The French and British increased pressure on General John Pershing to allow American forces to be committed by battalion or regiment into existing Allied Divisions. Recognizing the political ramifications of such amalgamation – failure to fight as a separate (and equal) US force would diminish credibility at anticipated peace talks – Pershing adamantly refused and even threatened to curtail the rate of arriving replacements. He managed to negotiate that the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) remain independent in exchange for increased shipment of troops to Europe.
Ludendorff continued to execute his series of breakthroughs. On May 27th, two German armies attacked in the Chemin des Dames to draw Allied forces away for a planned assault into Flanders. They were to advance twelve miles toward Paris and no further to compel the French to pull forces from the next target area. The attack was effective beyond expectations (in part to the local French general’s mistakes) which left the Germans with a dilemma: stick to the plan or exploit success and drive to Paris, only 30 miles away. Ludendorff’s main problem was strategic; while a general should support success, if you lack the overall resources to take real advantage of a victory, one sometimes needs to have the discipline not to waste forces on meaningless secondary efforts. Ludendorff, approaching mental exhaustion, lacked that focus. He committed many of the troops conserved for the Flanders attack into an all-out drive toward Paris. By the middle of June, the French government was indeed preparing to abandon the capital and the Allied armies were scrambling to contain the penetration, but German casualties were heavy, particularly in the special storm troop units. There were no recruits left to replace them.
America’s first battle in WW I began during these events on May 28, 1918 in the Somme River sector. Regiments of the First Infantry Division attacked the town of Cantigny, killed or captured all the defenders and defeated enemy counterattacks. A week later, the AEF committed the Third Infantry Division at the Marne (including the Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood) where they fought for weeks while hundreds of thousands of new troops arrived in France.
Although Russia was formally out of the war, conflict had not ended in the east. With the disintegration of the Imperial government and the relative weakness of the Bolsheviks, the Austrians and Germans supported various separatist and anti-Communist armies from Persia to Ukraine.
The Austrians also sought to take advantage of the troops released by Russia’s capitulation. After transportation deficiencies forced delays, they managed to attack the Italians along the Piave River in mid- June. The Italians had learned of the coming offensive and successfully contained the advance at great cost.
On water, the British were trying to tighten their blockade by attacking submarine ports along the Channel. In the Adriatic Sea, the Austrian navy launched an unsuccessful sortie to break out of Allied defenses and into the Mediterranean. The Allied convoy system continued its success bringing men and materiel across the Atlantic.
Around the rest of the world, British troops took Kirkuk and moved to the border of Persia (Iran), German forces survived in Africa, and fighting occurred in northern Iran. The British made promises to both Arab and Jewish groups about the future of the Middle East.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The North Vietnamese attempted a second phase of their Tet offensive in early May 1968. This operation was also a military failure, but resulted in over 2,000 US Killed in Action (KIA) making that month the most deadly for America of the entire war.
These attacks occurred just as the first set of peace talks began between the two sides in Paris. The US wanted all NVA forces out of South Vietnam, the Hanoi government wanted the Viet Cong to be able to participate in a coalition government; the talks stalled.
US forces withdrew from Khe Sahn and other bases along the borders of South Vietnam because they had enough mobile forces that a defensive camp was no longer necessary.
Thailand sent 5,000 more soldiers to Vietnam. Australian troops did battle against communist forces northeast of Saigon.
March – April 1918
In the spring of 1918, little had been decided.
At the start of March, the Russians reluctantly agreed to the Treaty of Brest – Litovsk. It cost them large portions of their natural resources, industrial capacity, and people that they had incorporated into their empire over the last 200 years. The Germans moved as quickly as they could to consolidate their hold. They moved forces into Poland, Ukraine, and the Crimea. The Turks took cities in Georgia and Armenia while Romania made a separate peace with the Central Powers. The fighting in the east was, for all purposes over, but the war was not.
Ludendorff rolled the dice on March 21. The British had gathered enough intelligence to predict the date and the general location, but proved unable to do anything to stop its initial fury.
These tactics were new to the war. The German bombardment, while massive, mixed conventional and gas munitions, was more accurately targeted and shifted from place to place and intensity to throw off defenders and increase casualties. The lead “storm” troops would drive deep, bypassing strong points to get into rear areas and unhinge the use of reinforcements. It defeated the depth that had been the key difficulty in ever breaking through. Follow on forces eliminated the remaining enemy pockets. Fresh troops pushed forward to leap frog past the storm troops to expand the penetration.
The Germans met with great success driving miles into the British sector. General Haig had directed a defense in depth in anticipation, but this had little effect, on the contrary, where the British commanders maintained strength forward, the Germans actually had a harder time cracking the British lines.
For several weeks, the Germans repeatedly punched holes and enjoyed unprecedented tactical success, but although the British bent, and in some cases ran, they did not break. No one, on either side, appears to have thought seriously about quitting the war. On the contrary, the British and the French literally closed ranks. French General Ferdinand Foch became Supreme Allied Commander and began coordinating deployments. The French shifted forces to support the British and threaten the flanks of the German salients. The Germans responded by shifting their attacks from place to place, hoping to break through deep enough to push the British out of the war. They employed a massive railroad gun to shell Paris and used massed tanks in an attack for the first time.
Even in this desperate situation, the Americans were not yet committed to the fight. They had taken several hundred casualties while gradually gaining experience on the front. At home, the US government reorganized its industrial system to respond to the massive demands on the industrial capacity of the country.
While the drama on the Western Front unfolded, the British continued to advance in Mesopotamia. There were skirmishes in Africa, and the German fleet did sortie out to attack an Allied convoy, with little effect.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
In March 1968, the new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, led a study of the situation and realized that there is no overarching strategic concept for achieving victory in Vietnam. He brought together a group of veteran statesmen and soldiers, nicknamed the “Wise Men” who overwhelmingly advised the president to withdraw from Vietnam.
Meanwhile, US and South Vietnamese forces were mopping up the last pockets of resistance from the Tet Offensive. The relief of Khe Sahn would not occur until April 8 costing over 15,000 NVA casualties. A few weeks later, US Marines defeated an NVA attempt to penetrate the DMZ. The NVA would not try to invade again until 1972 when the US had largely withdrawn.
In the US, President Johnson was experiencing more and more political pressure. His approval ratings were below 40%, he narrowly won the New Hampshire primary and faced opposition from Senator Robert Kennedy. At the end of March, the President announced that he would not seek re-election and called for the beginning of peace talks with North Vietnam.
On March 16, 1968, one of the darkest days in the history of the US Army occurred when a platoon from the Americal Division murdered over 300 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Many more would have been killed if not for the intervention of helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who put his aircraft between the rampaging soldiers and fleeing civilians. It would take over a year for the story to get out and those responsible to be brought to trial. The only good that came out of the event was the greater attention paid to ethical training of soldiers and practical application of the Laws of War when making tactical decisions.
General Westmoreland’s request for over 200,000 additional troops was denied.
January – February 2018
Things were generally quiet in early 1918; there were no major offensives or another big push on the Western Front, but this did not mean that the killing ended. Every day, even in the “quiet” sectors, men would be lost to harassing artillery, patrols, trench collapses, disease, and other less dramatic causes. Always seeking efficiency, the planners had collected enough data that they could project losses in these and other situations. Reflecting the industrial management theories that were growing along with the war, the General Staffs used the term wastage to refer to these losses. Needless to say, this choice of words gave credence to the idea that the upper levels of the militaries were callous and uncaring of the fate of the men in the trenches.
While many leaders were further articulating their peace positions as the war continued, President Wilson presented his famous Fourteen Points in a speech on January 8, 1918. These points would provide an important initial position in the negotiations begun after the armistice. Here is a brief synopsis:
- Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at…
- Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas … except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action…
III. The removal… of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions…
- … national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
- A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based …the interests of the populations concerned…
- The evacuation of all Russian territory and … independent determination of her own political development and national policy ….
VII. Belgium … must be evacuated and restored, …
VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong …in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine… should be righted…
- A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy … along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
- The peoples of Austria-Hungary… be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.
- Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated … and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states be entered into.
XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an …opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage…
XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected …
XIV. A general association of nations must be formed … for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
In January, Lawrence of Arabia tried to continue operations in what is today Israel and Jordan. He led the Bedouins allies in some successful battles, but could not follow up on their victories when the tribesmen refused to fight because of the winter weather.
Although there were no major battles along the Western Front in January and February 1918, German General Erich Ludendorff was amassing soldiers and materiel for a great spring offensive intended to split the British and French before the Americans could contribute in force. These offensives, code named “Michael” reflected the lessons the Germans had learned over the last several years of trench warfare. The improved science of artillery that enabled precise, unobserved fires could isolate enemy units and destroy them. Specially trained infantry units with light mortars, flame throwers, and machine guns would bypass strongpoints driving deep into the enemy rear areas. Follow on forces would reduce the strongpoints and round up the prisoners. Ludendorff’s goal? Drive the British Army to the coast and out of the war.
Although not significant at the time, a crack appeared in Germany in late January 1918. Over 500,000 workers in Berlin and another 500,000 across the Reich went on strike over food shortages, rationing, and other hardships. This pressured the Imperial Government to push the Russians for a resolution to their war.
As the Bolsheviks cemented their control over the Russian state, they were stalling on signing a final agreement at Brest-Litovsk to avoid the territorial concessions demanded by the Central Powers. Finally in mid-February, the Germans and Austrians resumed offensives and forced the Bolsheviks to accept the harsh terms. In the treaty that will be signed in March, the former Russian empire would lose more than 1/3 of its population, farmland, iron ore, and manufacturing – all of it non-Russian lands that had been annexed many years ago.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
To understand what happened, it might be useful to take a brief side trip into North Vietnamese strategic thought. When I was teaching at West Point, we would take time to explain Dau Tranh to our Cadets. Although entire books have been written about the concept, here is a brief synopsis: the simplest translation of Dau Tranh is struggle. Some see it as a branch of Mao’s Protracted War theory which was used so effectively against the Japanese. Its goal was national power. It had two major sub elements, military and political, that worked in unity. The political used any means short of violence (economic, social, and psychological) to mobilize the people, undermine enemy morale, and demoralize enemy soldiers. The military aspect avoided battle when the enemy was stronger, utilized guerilla and minor conventional operations when at parity, and then launched all out conventional campaigns as soon as the enemy became weak enough. As the revolution progressed, the balance would tilt toward the military until the final victory was won.
All this was important in January 1968 because the North Vietnamese leadership had been having an ongoing debate about where they were along the path of Dau Tranh. They had certainly advanced to at least parity with the Americans and South Vietnamese. The argument centered on whether or not it was time to launch a general offensive which would encourage the people to throw off their oppressors and liberate the South. Back in the summer of 1967, those advocating major military operations won out and set in motion what would prove to be the turning point in the war against the Americans… but not how they intended.
On January 21, several People’s Army of Vietnam units launched an attack and laid siege to an American airbase in the north at Khe Sanh. The US responded with massive air strikes and aerial resupply to avoid another defeat like the French had suffered at Dien Bien Phu. Ten days later, Viet Cong and PAVN units launched attacks all across South Vietnam. They assaulted the US embassy, they captured Hue – the historic capital of Vietnam (imagine losing Philadephia), they hit nearly every provincial capital… over 100 cities in all across the country.
In full color on the nightly news, Americans watched as their friends, family, and fellow countrymen fought back, took casualties, and ground down the Communist resistance. People were shocked; we were supposed to have been winning! If that were true, how could this have happened? On February 27, newsman Walter Cronkite, probably the most trusted man in America, returned from a trip to Vietnam and announced on his nightly broadcast that the war, in his opinion, was a stalemate.
The reality on the ground was much more favorable to the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. By the time the fighting ended in early March, the Viet Cong were decimated, so heavily damaged that they would never again be able to launch military operations in the South; now the PAVN would do almost all of the fighting. The North’s politburo had been wrong… the South clearly was not ripe for overthrow. Although this miscalculation would set back their timeline for years, the irreparable damage to the American psychological will to continue the war guaranteed that they would prevail. So, although Tet was an operational and even strategic failure for the government in Hanoi, it was a political victory. And that’s what mattered.
November – December 2017
One of the hallmarks of industrial warfare in Europe was the change in the effect that weather had on operations. In the Middle Ages, there were almost no instances of battle outside of the campaign season (normally after planting and before harvesting). There had been some battles fought in winter during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) by mercenary bands who raided for supplies, but in the Era of Limited War (18th century) it was almost unheard and even considered unethical by some. Two campaigns highlight the risk: the first was Washington’s desperate gamble in the winter of 1776 against Trenton and Princeton. Although successful, he put the very survival of his army in danger. It was difficult to move soldiers, horses and artillery on the unimproved roads and trails. You could not find rations for troops or forage for the horses. The second was Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia- his original plan had been to defeat the Russians quickly and force them to accept a new peace treaty, instead he was drawn farther into the interior and continued because he was confident he could winter over in Moscow. When that city burned, he was driven out and forced to return west. Exposure, starvation, and devastation followed.
Armies simply could not be expected to sustain combat operations in the cold and snow, that is, until the railroad. Both sides in the American Civil War were able to keep troops in the field and even fought occasionally in the winter months. It helped that the active theaters were farther south, but the armies did engage in the winter months, most notably at Fredericksburg (December 1862), Nashville (December 1864) and around the trenches of Petersburg June 1864- March 1865). By 1917, industrial warfare could keep opponents locked in battle as long as there were enough raw materials to manufacture and men to fight. It wasn’t just the railroad that made the difference and reduced the natural impact of the weather. New machines were coming that promised to add mobility back to the battlefield.
I have explained before that the problem of the stalemate and high casualties in the First World War can all be traced back to the impact of the machine gun. Soldiers dug trenches to protect themselves from the machine guns, then laid wire to slow their enemy down so it was easier for the guns to do their grisly work. Armies used artillery to defeat the wire, the trenches, and the machine guns so they could advance, but tearing up the ground with high explosives made it more and more difficult to move across terrain. Gas, more artillery, more troops, and operations in other theaters could not solve the problem. In the winter of 1917 on the Western Front, both sides employed new solutions to the dilemma. The British answer was technological, the German solution was doctrinal.
After four months of futility, General Haig finally ended the Third Battle of Ypres on November 10th with the same outcome of his other efforts: massive casualties for minor results. Ten days later, the British tried something new, launching a six-mile wide frontal attack using a caterpillar tracked machine called a “tank.” Within a day, their attack at Cambrai had ruptured the German lines across the entire sector. But the assault petered out thanks to mechanical failure, broken terrain, accurate German shell fire and exhausted soldiers. At the end of the month, the Germans counterattacked testing a new method now known as “infiltration tactics” which used relatively precise artillery strikes and small teams of soldiers to drive through gaps in the enemy lines to disrupt defenses. By December 7th, German doctrinal adaptations had regained the ground lost to Allied technology.
In Italy, the Allies managed to stabilize their front with the help of British and French troops. This disaster led to one important change: all the Allied Nations agreed to establish a single strategic coordinating body. The new Supreme War Council met for the first time in December. Although the Americans were included, the US representative, James House, was not satisfied with the limited outlook and authority of the body. It would develop into something useful over time.
In the East, the Bolsheviks seized power and sought peace with all the warring parties. While the country spiraled into civil war, the new government embarrassed the Allies by revealing some of the unsavory secret aspects of the alliance, and signed a peace treaty with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk on December 15.
There was news of steady momentum building in the Middle East, British forces continued to press north from Baghdad reaching Tikrit on November 5th. The stalemate in the Sinai had broken at the end of October when Imperial Forces managed to take Beersheba. This precipitated a fighting withdrawal by the Ottomans, which culminated in the fall of Jerusalem on December 11th.
Responding to German bombing raids, the British launched their own against cities of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim along the Rhine. German destroyers attacked a British convoy north of Scotland and sank several ships. Despite some setbacks, German resistance in Africa had not dissipated. Meanwhile, the American units that had arrived remained behind the lines training. As the third full year of the war came to a close, neither side could realistically claim it was any closer to victory; the defeat of Russia and breakdown in Italy were counterbalanced by Ottoman setbacks in the Middle East and the steady inflow of the Americans. The stalemate continued.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
In November 1967, General Westmoreland maintained a very optimistic tone, telling one reporter that he was certain the enemy was losing and another that he hoped the Viet Cong would “try something, because we are looking for a fight.” More American Divisions and Brigades deployed to Vietnam including the 101st Airmobile. Additional allied units from Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand came to Vietnam to support American efforts. From November 3 to December 1, the 4th Infantry Division battled NVA units at Dak To and appeared to inflict much greater casualties than they received. On the diplomatic side of things, President Johnson, in mid-November, offered another peace proposal that was, once again, rejected by Hanoi. More cracks were beginning to appear at home: Secretary McNamara announced his resignation; Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war Democrat, announced he would campaign for president; more protests occurred New York City in December and President Johnson visited Vietnam. By December 31, over 460,000 US troops were in Vietnam to counter an estimated 300, 000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong forces operating in the South. There had been 16,000 US combat deaths.
One hundred years ago, during the First World War, a German offensive began in September 1917 in the Baltics against positions that the Russians had abandoned. While the Germans nearly encircled and annihilated an entire Russian Army, fierce resistance allowed most to escape. As the Russians fought for its survival on the frontier, other troops participated in a coup attempt against the Kerensky government in Petrograd. I have been recently listening to a lecture series on the Russian Revolutions and the rise of the Soviets. What I find most amazing is not that the Russians eventually collapsed in WWI, but that they put up as strong a resistance for as long as they did. The unpopular, autocratic, police state of the Tsar had many opponents before the war. Only a love of country had motivated most to fight the Germans and Austrians. When even this goodwill was squandered, the soldiers finally began to desert, the government collapsed, and the descent into revolutionary upheaval followed. On October 25, the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government.
The Allies knew that the collapse of Russia would result in the transfer of more German troops to the Western Front. When Haig met Lloyd George early in September, he admitted that his offensive was behind schedule and blamed the mud. After a review of the faltering status of the Russians, the precarious situation facing the French, and the recent defeats of the Italians, the War Cabinet accepted the status quo and allowed Haig to continue. The Prime Minister had clearly identified the problem with General Haig – he completely lacked the creativity and imagination to find a suitable solution to the problem of the trenches. The General returned to France and resumed his attempts to bludgeon the Germans into withdrawing at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties.
When Haig placed blame on the mud, he was not entirely making empty excuses. We have had a very wet summer and fall this year here in Minnesota. Have you been out hunting? Maybe you tried to walk across a plowed field to check your deer stand? Have you this summer or ever before experienced the mud, so thick and sticky that each boot gains ten pounds before you’ve gone ten yards? That is a small comparison to what the British experienced at Ypres. When you add unseasonably cold weather and enemy resistance to the mix, you begin to understand the reason this battlefield became synonymous with human misery. Yet, they persisted. Haig remained convinced that the sacrifice was necessary to save Britain and protect France.
Elsewhere, the Italians promised to renew offensive operations in exchange for additional Allied heavy artillery. Falling for an Austrian deception, they reneged and postponed their attack which prompted the British and French to cancel the transfer of artillery making it more difficult for the Italians to support a future attack. This proved to be a big mistake because on October 24, the Austrians, augmented by forces no longer needed to fight the Russians and several German divisions, launched a massive attack at Caporetto. Over the next two weeks, they made their greatest advances of the war, captured 250,000 Italian prisoners, and forced the French and British to send several divisions from the Western Front to bolster the collapsing Italian lines.
The American First Division had arrived and began training behind the front. On October 21, 1917 they occupied positions near Nancy to acclimate themselves to the trenches. More US troops were arriving weekly.
In the air, the Germans initiated their first night raids against England and continued several times during this month and into October. The British made the Germans pay, but some of their efforts proved costly. For example, they initiated a “blind barrage” firing massive quantities of munitions into the air and causing almost as many casualties on the ground from the spent rounds landing as the Germans did with their bombs.
British forces and their allies continued to pressure the Ottomans in Egypt and Iraq. Advancing from Baghdad, they captured the garrison at Ar-Ramadi (Iraq vets will remember that town!). T.E. Lawrence launched a raid that failed to destroy a rail line supporting Turkish forces in Iraq.
The war of attrition ground on in Africa. Although German forces still managed to outfight and outmaneuver the numerically superior Imperial British units, more and more arrived closing around them. In early October, one German unit, reduced to less than 200 African and European soldiers surrendered at Mount Kilimanjaro. Farther south, in what is today Tanzania, the fight continued.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
Both Vietnamese sides continued to dig in their heels. The North Vietnamese Prime Minister stated that Hanoi would continue the fight, days before the South held national elections which elected Nguyen Van Thieu president. From September 11 to October 31, NVA forces laid siege to Marines just south of the DMZ; although the NVA fired over 40,000 artillery rounds, the US responded with seven times as much plus B52 strikes before the NVA retreated.
In a poll taken in October, 46% of Americans believed military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, but that the US should still try to win. Protests continued, most notably against the Pentagon. At the end of the month, President Johnson stated his continued commitment to US involvement in South Vietnam.
Search and destroy missions continued across South Vietnam. Operation Swift and Operation Medina were just two examples of these actions that killed many NVA but also cost US and civilian casualties.
I have not watched all the episodes of the Ken Burns documentary yet, but based on what I have seen, I highly recommend it for its balance, multi-faceted perspective, and fair judgment of those living the quandary of Vietnam.
As the summer of 1917 continued, all sides (except the newly-entered United States) remained on the precipice of collapse while battles raged around the world.
Let’s review: the French Army was still in a state of selective mutiny, refusing to attack, but also not willing to let the Germans win. The Austrians had sent out diplomatic feelers while successfully maintaining operations against enemies on several fronts. The Russians were gamely launching offensives even as their soldiers increasingly refused to fight. The Germans, despite some strains, were holding strong on land while hitting hard in the air and under the sea, but passing resolutions proposing a peaceful end to the war. The British were desperately fending off those attacks while trying to strike a fatal blow of their own on the far end of the Western Front in Flanders. Active fighting continued at sea, in Africa, and across the Middle East, with no end in sight.
The great nations waging these campaigns all appeared strong on the outside, but were dying inside. Like that neighbor who suddenly receives a cancer diagnosis and dies within days; they seemed fine when you were visiting with them just before. Sure they looked tired, but everyone does once in awhile. In hindsight, you see signs that, so obvious now, were obscured at the moment.
The desperation is best seen in two campaigns. The Russians knew they needed to attack to keep the Germans and Austrians at bay, but in attacking, the resulting casualties further weakened their political position with the factions at home and encouraged even more of their soldiers to desert. By the end of August, Russian officers were only able to get a small percentage of their soldiers to attack. More and more men were just dropping their weapons and heading home.
We spoke last month about how close the Germans had been to starving Britain into submission. British naval leaders announced that they could not sustain ship losses much longer and supported General Haig’s proposal for a ground attack toward German sub bases as the last best chance to relieve the blockade. Prime Minister Lloyd George was not so optimistic of success, but recognized that there was not a better option. So, General Haig marshaled resources and launched another attack around Ypres, the third. The British leaders knew it would be a grind and that casualties would be heavy. The best they could think to do was use the same formula again, but with more tanks, more artillery, and, of course, more men.
This time, the Germans were not the biggest problem, they even fortuitously withdrew from several sectors before the attack began. This time, the greater enemy was friction – especially mechanical failures in the tanks and an unfavorable change in the weather. Rain, rain, and more rain – unpredicted because of the primitive nature of metrology – fell on the low ground. When churned up by massive artillery barrages, it became a morass of legendary proportions. The mud dampened the effect of high explosives, trapped tanks, and swallowed men whole. It became the poster child for everything wrong with World War I. Too important to be just the Third Battle of Ypres, it earned its own name: Passchendaele, for the village outside Ypres that was the main geographic objective. The fighting would continue into November. I have often noted the similarity of the name with the title for the suffering of Jesus Christ; he went through his Passion to pay for sins, did the British soldiers feel they had done the same for their people?
The Americans were busy laying out the basic framework for their buildup. In mid August, Pershing established the Line of Communications- a network of roads, depots, and camps between the ports and what was to become the American sector. The next wave of troops had yet to arrive.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
You may have heard the phrase, “tooth-to-tail ratio.” This refers to the number of military forces actually fighting (the “teeth”) versus the number supporting behind the lines at the “tail.” Even Julius Caesar had difficulties maintaining an effective balance when fighting Celts in what is today France. He solved it by making his legionnaires carry their own cooking equipment, rations, and building tools while living off the land as much as they could. Modern warfare, with its complex technologies, broad administrative requirements, vast distances, and uncertain sources of food, have made it essential for there to be an adequate infrastructure in place to allow the frontline soldiers focus on fighting. The challenge for the military leader is to make sure that his tail doesn’t weaken the teeth.
In July 1967, General Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops in Vietnam. This would bring the total number to over 650,000! As President Johnson was considering the request, it came out that of the 450,000 already in country, only 50,000 could be used for offensive operations; the rest were either part of the tail or protecting it. President Johnson authorized 45,000 more.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese government was making final decisions on a plan to launch a decisive campaign that would drive out the Americans and overthrow the Saigon government. There was much debate in the Politburo as to whether the time was right for such a dramatic act; the risks were considerable. At its conclusion, a consensus was attained; the attack would begin in conjunction with the Vietnamese New Year –Tet.
Secretary McNamara was called before a closed door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee in August where he informed them that the US bombing campaign was having little effect on the North’s war making capability or will to resist. At the end of the month, Chinese fighters downed two US aircraft that had accidentally entered their airspace. Remember Korea?
As I mentioned in our last installment, at the beginning of 1917, almost all the sides had reasons to believe in the final success of their cause. By the end of the year, that assumption would almost universally be in doubt.
British efforts in Mesopotamia (Iraq) redoubled in 1917. To review, the British had decided to attack along the Tigris in 1914 for two reasons: oil (no surprise) and the politics of their territory in India. Many British leaders feared that if the Ottomans succeeded against the Allies, pro-Muslim princes in India would be tempted to resist British rule. Despite defeat at Gallipoli in Turkey and a failed invasion that led to the loss of over 13,000 soldiers at Kut, south of Baghdad, in 1916, the British remained steadfast, rebuilt their forces and infrastructure, and launched a new offensive as soon as they could. In January and February 1917, British General Sir Frederick Maude began methodically maneuvering and fighting his way up along the Tigris river. He lost several battles early on, but managed to force the Turks to withdraw toward Baghdad even occupying Kut, the site of their earlier defeat. At the end of February, the British had paused to wait for supplies to catch up before they made a final assault on Baghdad.
Across the other side of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab forces advised by T.E. Lawrence secured the Sinai and much of the Red Sea coast for the Allies. More progress in the Mediterranean.
On January 9, 1917, the German War Council decided that Chancellor Bethmann-Holweg’s peace initiative had run its course and that the best solution to end the war was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. German leaders were aware that this might drive the Americans into the conflict, but they believed they could force the British to capitulate before that became a problem. Coincidentally, on the next day, the Allies responded to President Wilson’s peace proposal by blaming the Central Powers for the war and laying out their conditions which included restoration of occupied areas, reparations, and sovereignty for various ethnic groups divided by state borders.
Meanwhile the Allies were trying to further coordinate and unify their efforts. This would lead to some trying discussions over strategy, troop deployment, and timings of offensives. In mid-January, the new chief of the French Army, General Robert Nivelle, was in London seeking support for an offensive that he was certain would break the German Army in a decisive battle. By the end of February, the discussions had moved to Calais, France, and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was siding with General Nivelle in opposition to the two senior British generals Haig and Robertson. The Allies may have been achieving coordination of their efforts, but they were not building mutual trust and respect.
At the end of January 1917, the Germans set in motion a course of events that would lead to the American declaration of war a few months later. Their ambassador informed the US of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare beginning on February 1st. Just a few weeks later, on February 25th, the American government learned of the German foreign minister’s attempt to entice Mexico to side with Germany should war break out with the US. The infamous Zimmerman telegram (which the British had intercepted and covertly passed on to the US government) proved to be another key influence in the decision to go to war. Germany seemed to be doing everything it could to goad America into fighting.
While the situation had been relatively quiet on the Western Front, the British continued a series of large scale raids against German lines with minimal success. At sea, German raiders struck at numerous places along the English coast firing on radio towers and towns.
In February, one Central Power and one Entente power were wavering. The Austrian Emperor Karl was contacting royal relatives on the other side about possible peace deals. Riots were breaking out in St. Petersburg. As winter turned to spring, the entire balance of the war would change with the seasons.
50 Years ago in Vietnam-
The New Year 1967 started with Air Force Phantoms engaging and shooting down almost half of all operational North Vietnamese MiGs. However, they were not allowed to attack ground facilities for fear of antagonizing the Chinese. For most of the month, in the largest offensive up to that point, US and ARVN troops initiated Operation Cedar Falls which cleared out the Viet Cong from an area known as the “Iron Triangle.” As soon as the allied forces withdrew, however, the VC returned and reoccupied the area. Several important US political leaders, to include Senators William Fullbright and Robert Kennedy, were increasingly critical of the conduct of the war. President Johnson simply derided their comments and dismissed them. On February 13, the President announced a return to the bombing of the North after his peace initiative was refused. At the end of the month, the US kicked off Operation Junction City which would continue until May and be the single largest operation of the entire war.
Those of you who know what is coming in 1917 probably marvel, as I have, at the strategic and political decisions before and during that year. It is easy to ask how the leaders of the time could have been so blind and ignorant. Why did they not more aggressively seek peace? Why did they continue the bloody, grinding attacks. We mentioned arrogance as a cause in an earlier edition, but there are factors that affect all leaders, even those not guilty of hubris.
As we tour the theaters of war and the capitals of the belligerent states through the lens of their present, you can see a critical element of military theory in action: the fog of war. This concept, articulated by military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz, explains that leaders never really have clear vision of what is happening around them. Everything is obscured as if draped in a dense fog; the enemy’s real capabilities and intentions, even your real situation are clouded in uncertainty. Failure may appear as success, and apparent victory may mask impending defeat.
Given this reality, all the major powers, except perhaps the Russians, could align facts to prove that they were just one step away from winning. They could point out that they had absorbed many attacks, several defeats, and were still standing. Why would they throw away the sacrifices their valiant militaries had made to ensure survival?
We begin this installment in Southern Europe where the Italians launched their 9th Battle of the Isonzo. This four day affair earned them an advance of three more miles at the cost of another 28,000 casualties. Across the Adriatic in Greece, the British and French continued to bully the Greek monarchy out of its neutrality by landing troops, supporting opposition groups, and blockading the coast. To the north, the Germans blunted French offensives in Macedonia and achieved notable success in Romania where, along with troops of their allies (Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) they captured Bucharest in December. Continuing south into Mesopotamia, the British had reconstituted their forces and were launching another offensive up the Tigris River. Meanwhile, Ottoman control across the Middle East appeared solid despite threats and uprisings.
On the ever-important Western Front, two of the most horrific battles in history came to an end. After consolidating their most recent gains, the British ended the Battle of the Somme on November 19 – four and one half months of bloodletting with over one million casualties evenly split between the two sides. On December 22, the last French counterattack ended and, with it, the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle ever.
Further north, developments were mainly diplomatic and of internal political nature. The Germans and Austrians declared a semi-independent Polish state in the lands they had taken from Russia. All three governments experienced important changes of leadership. The most significant of these was the death of the emperor Frank Joseph who had ruled Austria-Hungary for 50 years. There was no change in Austrian policy. The Russians changed Prime Ministers; there was no change in Russian policy. In the middle of December, the German chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg, formally announced a peace initiative, inviting President Wilson to get involved as an arbitrator. He did this from a position of German strength- they had largely held the line in the West, succeeded against Russia, and their allies were standing strong. He also wanted to avoid a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare which he believed would cause the US to join the Entente.
The Allies were dealing with their own internal challenges as well. In November, military and political leaders agreed that the Western Front should remain the priority. They promised to come to one another’s aid if attacked and prepare to begin new offensives in February. The British government experienced some turbulence when David Lloyd George manipulated to reorganize the War Cabinet. In response to public criticism of naval failures, there was a major shuffle in the senior leadership of the Admiralty. By the end of December, French Premier Briand had forced the resignation of Marshall Joffre; Joffre, who had led the French military since before the war, was held accountable for the continuing stalemate.
As 1916 came to an end, the major powers could see cause for concern and reasons for hope. Yes, decisive victory still eluded them, but there was no overwhelming evidence that failure loomed. All it might take is one more push. Who knew? Who could see what lay ahead?
50 Years Ago in Vietnam-.
Secretary McNamara was confronted by protesters at Harvard in November. Most of the notable fighting during this period came from above. US air forces destroyed a village in North Vietnam and received rebuke for the civilian casualties which caused the government to further tighten control of targeting. Ground attack aircraft also launched heavy napalm and bomb strikes against Vietcong positions within South Vietnam. By the numbers, attrition seemed to be working: legitimate estimates placed VC losses at over 60,000, but the North Vietnamese kept coming, replenishing these losses and even increasing overall numbers in the South. Although in December, two more major US Army Units arrived in Vietnam to bring the total US numbers in country to over 380,000, there were approximately 280,000 enemy forces still contending with them for the hearts and minds and bodies of the people of South Vietnam. The chess game played on.
This is the time in the history of the First World War where events begin to sound like a horrible broken record, repeating the same notes of death and destruction over and over without ever reaching a meaningful conclusion.
Each side had already shown that they were willing to do whatever necessary to win the war –blockade, poison gas, etc. There were times when the extreme measures pushed the limits enough for the royal leaders to intervene. In September 1916, the Allied generals in Greece were supporting a faction trying to overthrow the King of Greece and end this country’s pro-German neutrality; this interference in the affairs of a fellow monarch upset the king of England the Czar enough for them to demand a stop to it.
The Germans continued to send their large hydrogen-filled Zeppelins to bomb London hoping to drive the British population to despair and the government to pull out of the war. However, Royal Air Force pilots shot down enough of these monstrous attackers to curtail their physical and psychological impact.
An important change occurred in the leadership of the German Army. General Paul von Hindenburg, victor in the east, and his Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, were put in charge of the entire German war effort. They would go down in history for their ruthless effectiveness in pursuit of victory.
On the Somme, Allied offensive operations continued with minor gains and major costs. The British and the French took villages here and there. The British even used tanks for the first time on September 15 with minimal success. They believed they were inflicting tremendous casualties on the Germans although in reality, their costs were higher. The weather was against the Allies with heavy rains making progress difficult through the low, water-logged land turned to deep mud by the repeated artillery attacks.
The Germans were debating whether to resume unrestricted submarine warfare; they decided to wait until the results of peace proposals that were being discussed. The Kaiser’s government was under increasing pressure as the impact of the British blockade became clear – the German people were beginning to show signs of malnutrition.
At Verdun, Hindenburg and Ludendorff saw the senselessness of the continued bloodletting and terminated additional attacks. Meanwhile, the French held on by the slimmest of measures hiding their own disasters from the Germans.
On September 14th, the Italians began their Seventh Battle of the Isonzo, two days later after unpromising results, they called it off. This demonstration of good sense did not last long as the Eight Battle began on October 9th and concluded three days later with the Italians regaining some territory previously lost to the Austrians.
In the east, the Czar ended the successful Brusilov Offensive in mid-October 1916. The Russian victories had forced the Germans and Austrians to pull much-needed divisions from other fronts. While this was beneficial to the French at Verdun and the Italians in the mountains, the cost of another 1.4 million casualties greatly increased the internal social and economic trouble in Russia.
When you reflect on what is happening during this time period- all the devastation with no clear progress toward victory – one is tempted to write off the political and military leaders of this time as corrupt, ignorant fools. Indeed, many contemporary commentators and several historians have done just that. However, the vast majority of those making decisions were the best and brightest their societies had to offer. So, why did this happen one hundred years ago? The simplest and most meaningful answer for us today can be summed up in one word – hubris. That same arrogant self-confidence that drove well-intentioned national leaders down a path of destruction a century ago is still alive today in those social, political, military, and business leaders who promise us success if we just spend a bit more, just give up one more freedom, and just make one more sacrifice.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
On September 12, 1966, the largest air attack of the war to that point occurred as over 500 aircraft attacked NVA supply lines and coastal targets. Later that month, US forces launch Operation Attelboro to search for and destroy Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam. After six weeks of heavy firepower and maneuver, the VC withdrew into Cambodia having lost over 1,000 men. Attacks such as this and 1st Cavalry’s Operation Irving in October were the result of General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition designed to kill as many North Vietnamese as possible. As we have seen in reviewing events of the First World War, notably at Verdun, strategies designed to “bleed an enemy white” run the risk that you will sever your own artery in the process.
At the end of September, the US acknowledged that it had begun spraying defoliant along the DMZ beginning the infamous saga of Agent Orange. In October, the most important events occurred diplomatically: the Soviets pledged military and economic support to North Vietnam and the South’s SEATO allies offered to pull out of the Republic of Vietnam if the government in Hanoi ordered its troops to return home.
Our last two installments focused on the great problems of the Western Front. With the return of summer and weather favorable for battle, now is a good opportunity to do a world wide roundup. During this period, fighting on the periphery continued unabated without permanent strategic results. The continuing stalemate in Europe revealed itself in a see-saw fashion: just as one side appeared to have an advantage, their opponent would counterattack, a new crisis would evolve, or the effort would collapse from combination of problems.
In Africa, allied campaigns against German colonial forces resumed. Combined and joint operations involving British naval forces and Belgian ground troops made progress around Lake Tanganyika in east Africa, but the Germans . Although the Ottomans had achieved a great victory against British and Indian forces at Kut in present day Iraq, British agents had managed to foment a revolt by the Arab tribes against the Turks (dramatized in the classic movie, Lawrence of Arabia) and once again put them on the defensive.
The most significant, but ultimately indecisive, naval encounter of the entire war occurred in June 1916 at Jutland (or Skaggerak) north west of Denmark. Part of the tension leading up to the war had been the naval arms race between Germany and Britain. Once the war started, the British had managed to establish their blockade of Germany, but the Germans did not have a strong enough surface fleet to confront the British in the style of decisive battle advocated by the influential naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan. So, they had turned to the U-boats as a means to counter and try to overturn the British by establishing their own blockade. Both fleets had been looking for an opportunity to strike. Both saw a chance with the improving spring weather. Both tried to lure the other into a trap. Both engaged the other accidentally. Both saw their plans fail through a combination of bad fortune, bad communication, bad decisions by subordinate units, and bad weather. The Germans sunk more ships, but returned to port never to attack again. The return to stalemate would push the Germans to resume unrestricted submarine warfare with all its political risk.
On land, three great campaigns, although vast distances apart, influenced the success and failure of one another. At Verdun, the meatgrinder seemed to be working despite fierce French resistance (for example, at Fort Douaumont, 100 French defenders held out for days against a massive German assault); the French were at the end of their tether, from the soldiers at the front to the politicians in Paris. The Austrians had begun a drive designed to penetrate toward Venice to cut off the forces defending along the Isonzo and were making significant progress against the Italians. However, the Russians under General Brusilov launched a great offensive based on heavy concentrations of artillery against the Austrians in Galicia (today part of southern Poland and western Ukraine). The Russian success forced the Austrians to transfer divisions from their offensive in Italy and the Germans to pull important reserves from Verdun; reserves that might have tipped the balance permanently in Germany’s favor. As it was, Verdun held on, barely. The French government begged the British to speed up their preparation for an attack against the Germans designed to relieve pressure at Verdun setting the stage for the next great bloodletting of the war, this time in the Somme River valley.
Meanwhile, the United States Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916. This legislation was the capstone of the Preparedness movement, a Progressive initiative to ready the country for the possibility of war. Among its more long-lasting effects, it established ROTC in high schools and colleges, encouraged industrial planning, and expanded the National Guard. While there is much debate about how much it helped us once we declared war, there is no doubt of its great influence on Military-Industrial relations. American citizens began flying their first missions for France in the Escadrille Americain. While looking for Pancho Villa, two companies of Pershing’s expedition tangled with some Mexican Army troops and were defeated.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
Secretary of Defense McNamara reported that the North Vietnamese were infiltrating about 4,500 men per month into the South. Political unrest between Buddhist and Catholic factions in South Vietnam intensifies with some firefights erupting between ARVN units friendly to one side or the other. The Prime Minister manages to restore order by the end of June. US Army and ARVN ground operations northwest of Saigon managed to drive North Vietnamese forces back into Cambodia. The Marines were successfully clearing enemy bases along the coast and continuing search and destroy missions. In response to the reported infiltrations, the US resumes bombing but remains reluctant to send ground forces North fearing a further escalation that might draw in the USSR and China.
For most periods in military history, there has been a rough balance on the battlefield between the face-to-face direct capabilities of infantry (hoplite, pikeman, rifleman) the indirect, longer range effect of projectile weapons (archers, spears, artillery), and mobile shock attacks (usually different types of cavalry). Infantry has traditionally done the dirty work of closing with and defeating the enemy usually by massing effects; this mass can also withstand most mobile shock attacks but can be an easy target for long range projectile weapons. Cavalry can quickly pursue or harass broken, dispersed infantry and lightly protected indirect firing forces, but will break against a mass of infantry. Long-range projectile capabilities can wreak havoc on massed opponents but are generally not agile or armored enough to withstand a mobile shock attack. I heard this relationship once compared to a big game of rock-paper-scissors with its trade off of strengths and weaknesses. When an imbalance in this equilibrium occurs, the battlefield often changes from a place of decisive action to either a place of annihilation or stagnation. You can see examples of annihilation by the highly disciplined infantry of Caesar’s legions and Mongol horse archers while the indecisive stagnation is observable during the age of Limited War in the 1700s and the American Civil War when cavalry was driven from the battlefield.
The machine gun was the cause of the imbalance that led to the stagnation and subsequent slaughter of the First World War. Although the big, water-cooled guns were not particularly effective in the maneuver phase of the fall of 1914 because they were so difficult to move; after the failure of the Marne offensive and the German decision to dig in on the high ground, the machine gun really made its mark. Some called the machine gun distilled infantry because it could deliver so much concentrated, direct damage on its target. I agree with the argument that the rest of the war became a competition to find ways to defeat the machine gun in order to restore mobility and decision to the battlefield. This led to a cycle of cause and effect that ran something like this… The Allies need to drive the Germans out of France and the Germans need to renew the drive to Paris. Both dig in and covered by machine guns. If either assault across open ground on foot or horseback, the machine guns destroy the massed attack. So, we before we attack, we fire artillery to kill the machine guns; but because we do not kill enough, more attacking infantry die. To make it worse, we put out barbed wire to slow attacks. In response, both sides fire more artillery which only succeeds in ruining the ground and further hindering mobility. When one side tries to use balloons to observe the enemy and help artillery be more accurate, the other side sends planes to shoot down the balloons to keep the artillery from targeting the machine guns. How does the one side respond? By building more planes to protect the balloons from other planes and the air war is born. The only sure result of the cause and effect relationship was the ever-growing casualty list as the war ground on.
Various efforts to end the slugging match failed. The Germans used poison gas first to try and punch a hole in the Allied lines, but were unprepared to exploit their initial success. The Allies pecked away at the German colonies and employed what Churchill called peripheral operations to seek a decision somewhere other than on the Western Front. Both sides used their naval forces to try to blockade their enemies and starve them into submission. The Germans tried bombing raids on England. Later, the Allies devised tanks to cross no mans’ land to kill machine guns so the infantry could get through, but even this adaptation was not enough to make a difference because they could not send sufficient support through the mire of no man’s land. Much later, and ultimately too late, the Germans would employ Storm Tactics that almost broke the Allies’ back, but by then, the Germans were too exhausted to exploit their penetration. In the end, this conflict remained the ultimate war of attrition with only the infusion of fresh Americans forces keeping the Allies from submitting first.
One of the major steps in this spiraling cycle of destruction occurred around a critical French fortress named Verdun. When I hear that name, I shudder. This was the meat grinder of meat grinders, a campaign whose stated purpose (as mentioned last time) was to bleed the French nation white and force their capitulation by killing as many as possible. Operation Judgment began on February 21, 1916 and continued until the following DECEMBER! The new German leader, von Falkenhayn, believed that by capturing all the key ground around this iconic and strategic city, he could fire artillery with impunity and force the French into desperate counterattacks that would cause them massive casualties. It sounded simple enough, but descended into hell when stiff French resistance prevented the Germans from taking all the ground in the first phase of the operation. The French poured in men to shore up the defenses and the Germans stubbornly kept trying to take the key terrain. When it was finally over, the Germans had certainly damaged the French by killing over 162,000, but had depleted they own manpower losing 143,000 men to do it.
In the spring of 1916, there continued a steady tempo of fighting around the world as the two sides tried to topple their opponent. Meanwhile, back in the US, our Army was chasing the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa while our planners were developing responses to what they perceive was the most dangerous threat to our Nation: the possibility that the Germans would launch an amphibious attack on Manhattan.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
During March and April 1966, the escalation continued while resistance built at home. Korea contributed an additional 20,000 troops doubling their force levels in the country. The 25th Infantry Division arrived to operate in the III Corps zone. B52s launched raids against targets in North Vietnam trying to interdict supply routes through Laos; the selection of these targets was carefully supervised by the White House. In South Vietnam, the Viet Cong picked the times and places to engage US forces; attacking when the odds were in their favor (a raid on Tan Son Nhut airport) and melting away when the Americans came out in force (Operation Birmingham). Meanwhile, civilians escalated their opposition as well: Vietnamese Buddhists launched protests in several cities against their government. Besides the obvious impact on local politics, the unrest interfered with the conduct of military operations. In the United States, there was a call to revoke the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (rejected in the Senate 92-5) and coordinated protests occurred in several major US cities including one by veterans of WWI, WWII and Korea. Who would flinch first: North Vietnam, South Vietnam, or the United States?
In January and February 1916, there was fighting in the Balkans, Africa, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Attacks continued at sea and in the air. The Allies withdrew from their fiasco on Gallipoli. Although I have done my best the last few months to show the world wide nature of the First World War, one cannot deny that the war is most remembered for the trenches of the Western Front. Posed pictures can give you a decent visual understanding of the deplorable conditions but the photographs only capture part of the experience. Harder to comprehend are the smell, the exhausting immobility, the cumulative discomforts, and what author Paul Fussell calls the troglodyte existence of life in the trenches. Indeed, the base experience can defy description.
How can you describe the combined odor of decaying flesh, unwashed bodies, gunpowder, rotting vegetation, and vermin that you could detect miles before you actually entered the trench zone. Have you smelled decaying road kill in August, your old high school locker room at the end of the season, that un-emptied state park outhouse on a warm summer day, a old barn infested with mice, the indoor firing range before the fan kicks in, a swimming pool after the chlorine has just been added, and a ripe compost heap? Put all those scents together, and you can begin to get a sense of the odor of the trenches.
How can you compare the morass of no mans’ land? Much of the ground occupied by the Allies lay in areas with low water tables. The massive artillery barrages not only destroyed forests, but also ruined the drainage ditches causing the rain to collect and the mud to deepen. To help cadets understand the challenge of movement this muck, we would take them to the auditorium and have them move across the seats from the front row to the back. This gave them a sense of the physical difficulty but still didn’t replicate the slippery or sticky mud, entangling wire, sweeping machine gun fire, or blasts of artillery.
How can you relate to life in the trenches? The exact nature of the trenches varied by purpose, geography, and culture. The French tried to avoid too much fortification because they wanted to reinforce the idea that they were going to drive out the Germans and therefore couldn’t get too comfortable. The Germans generally enjoyed the advantage of having taken the high ground and had dug in deep to hold their gains, even using concrete reinforced bunkers and defense in depth to counter Allied attacks. In Picardy, the trenches were cut from the chalk and pieces were stacked on the opposite wall. In the mountains of Italy and Rumania, trenches were near impossible in the rocky terrain and stone splinters flew as artillery impacted on the cliffs. In Flanders, our source for the most well-known trench experience, life was generally damp and dismal.
Even in quiet sectors, soldiers lived life underground and at night. During daylight, you couldn’t put your head up because of snipers. Harassing artillery would occur at any time. You spent your time rebuilding walls, standing watch, and distributing supplies. Nighttime was the right time to work above the trenches fixing or adding wire, patrolling, raiding, and moving forward or back. Sleep was intermittent, food was usually cold, feet were wet, rats and lice were everywhere, and fear could be continuous. Most armies rotated soldiers from support trenches to frontline to reserve areas, but there were often weeks between the transitions.
The inexplicable nature of trench warfare always leads to the question: how did this happen? The easiest explanation is the great imbalance at the tactical level between close combat, indirect fires, and maneuver. I will explain that more next time. For a fuller description of this unique battlefield, I recommend Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis.
Know for now, that although it had been relatively quiet on the Western Front since the fall of 1915, this would change forever at the end of February, 1916. At this time, the Germans launched their first great attempt to end the stalemate in the West: Unternehmen Gericht or Operation Judgment- a deliberate campaign to bleed the French white at the Fortress of Verdun.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
In January 1966, in his State of the Union Address, President Johnson pledged that the US would stay the course in Vietnam until the communist threat ended. The First Cavalry increased the tempo of their operations to hunt and kill the North Vietnamese near the coast of Vietnam. They continue to use their helicopters to find and fight the enemy. For the first time, the media used the term “search and destroy” to describe this type of mission; it soon came to be a common descriptor and a conveyed a negative image by the end of the war. After the month-long bombing pause fails to generate a response from Hanoi, President Johnson announces the resumption of air strikes against the north and a gradual increase in troop levels. Later that month and during February, the administration responds to harsh criticism and hearings from influential leaders, among them Senators Robert Kennedy and William J. Fulbright as well as journalist Walter Lippmann. South Vietnamese forces achieved several successes in the Mekong Delta.
Fighting continued around the world in November and December 1915 on land, sea, and in the air. Although the British had not yet found a solution to German air raids over London, a German airship (or zeppelin) was destroyed near the city of Grodno in Belarus during November.
In the Middle East, Ottoman and Russian forces clashed in Western Persia (Iran) while German and British agents sought to stir up tribes against each other’s interests in the region (can you say, “oil!”). The British advance in Mesopotamia succeeded, and then failed leading nowhere. The Senussi, a tribe from Libya and Sudan, raided the British in Western Egypt. However, Ibn Sa’ud, concluded a treaty with the British that would lead to another front against the Ottomans in Arabia.
Submarines were not only prowling the Atlantic. In November, the British submarine E19 sunk the German cruiser Undine in the Mediterranean and another sub destroyed the German cruiser Bremen in the Baltic. An Austrian sub torpedoed the Italian SS Ancona in the Adriatic. German subs struck Egypt, putting several coastal defense craft to the bottom of the sea and shelling shore emplacements. In addition to subs, ships were lost to undersea mines and an Austrian flotilla bombarded the city of Durazzo, Albania in order to slow the Serbian retreat as Bulgarian, Austrian, and German forces continued their invasion.
It is normal in war for there to be changes in leadership and adjustments to bureaucracy once the initial phase concludes. We already talked about the economic situation that resulted in the “Shell Crisis” and some of the policy changes that followed. In addition to the combined agency that would manage ammunition production, new rules and regulations evolved to meet the threat to ocean- going shipping such as the British Port and Transit Committee and a committee that would requisition shipping to make sure enough food arrived in Britain. After a month of negotiations, the British and French governments agreed to establish a Council of War to coordinate their actions allocating resources, recommending production priorities, and helping guide the strategy of the two Allies. This cooperation would prove critical to allied victory.
At the end of November, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and Italy signed the treaty of London which formalized their alliance against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Allies completed negotiations with the Dutch and the Danish that tightened the blockade against Germany. They also reached an agreement with elements of the Greek government to secure a foothold in Saloniki to support the Serbians.
French Marshall Joseph Joffre, the hero of France’s defense along the Marne, was kicked upstairs to serve in the ceremonial post of commander in chief French Armies. Field Marshal John French resigned as commander of British forces and was replaced by Douglas Haig. Several lesser-known generals were also replaced.
By December, the Italians were up to their fourth Battle of the Isonzo and had surpassed 170,000 casualties. In Africa, British gunboats, with Belgian assistance, were wresting control of Lake Tanganyika from the Germans.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
November 14-17, 1965, US forces went head to head with the People’s Army of Vietnam for the first time. This battle is immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. American leaders believed that our success proved that a strategy of attrition (killing more of the enemy than they kill of us) would be effective. However, Secretary of Defense McNamara privately warned President Johnson that the US could lose 1,000 killed per month while he had intelligence which suggested the North Vietnamese government was prepared to accept high casualty rates for a long time – two conditions which countered the idea that attrition would work. At the end of the year, President Johnson called a halt to US bombing of North Vietnam and tried to pressure the Communists to negotiate a peace. Ho Chi Minh’s government refused, they felt that their efforts were succeeding.
As we continue to explore the First World War in its centennial, we can use several different themes to organize our understanding. Last time, we looked at some economic aspects of the conflict. This is a good time to look at the geography because there is fighting occurring in every major theater of the war during this period.
In Eastern Europe, the war was one of vast distances, greater movement, and see-saw gains – almost exactly the type of war the military thinkers had visualized before the fighting actually started. Here the theater of war extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea over four times the length of the Western Front. There were some fortresses, but few trenches. After the great Russian invasion into East Prussia early in the war, the Germans had blunted the Russian colossus and managed to counter attack eventually seizing Warsaw. The Austrians had focused on their sworn enemy Serbia to the south and underestimated the Russian advance. Although able to hold at first, they gave ground and were routed within the first few weeks of the war. By the fall of 1915, the Germans had taken most of Poland, the Russians had withdrawn to re-group and the Austrians had nearly expended all of their potential military power. The back and forth of attack and counter attack would continue until the exhausted Russians revolted and withdrew. Despite its great mobility, the casualties were just as severe as in the West; they were just not as concentrated.
In southeastern Europe, Bulgaria had joined the German alliance and invaded Serbia. Although it had been able to hold off several Austro-Hungarian advances, Serbia could not resist attacks from two sides, it was soon overwhelmed. Belgrade fell on October 9, 1915 and the remnants of the Serbian army fought a valiant retreat through the mountains and into exile.
The battles in the Middle East were governed by water, mountains, and desert. This was more than just Lawrence of Arabia and the ANZACs against the Turks. There were campaigns across the entire region.
Water was the issue in the Sinai-Palestine campaign where the British solved their problem by constructing a water pipeline from Egypt across the Sinai as they counter attacked the Turks in 1916. At Gallipoli, wells could not keep up with demand and quickly ran dry. Fresh water needed to be shipped in and carried by teams up to the front. The water ration was about two quarts per day. In the summer, soldiers would bathe in the ocean, sometimes under shellfire.
The Mesopotamian campaign was fought almost exclusively in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley because of the difficulty of maneuvering in the desert. This channeled operations, but did not result in the same stalemate as the western front because the forces were smaller and more independent. During the fall of 1915, the British won an important victory at Kut-al-Amara, over-extended themselves trying to advance and seize Baghdad, and were driven back to their start point.
Fighting in the Caucasus occurred in mountains and high plains. The harsh weather claimed many lives. The armies battled back and forth along the pre-war frontier which sat astride Armenia. The Armenians were caught in the middle. They fought in units of both the Ottoman and Russian armies, but after being blamed for a Turkish defeat in 1914, the members of this ethnic minority were systematically disarmed by the Ottomans, driven from their homes, and killed. Millions died in the ensuing Armenian genocide.
The constricted, compact battle lines between Switzerland and the Channel Coast forced the massed allied armies to turn to trenches and seek penetrations along narrow fronts. Since the Germans had managed to occupy high ground in the “Race to the Sea” following their defeat on the Marne in 1914, the Allies basically had to try to punch a hole uphill. Whether the trench zone was in the mud of Flanders or along the chalk formations of Picardy, a decisive attack proved elusive. The Allies remarkably succeeded to penetrate in several places in the fall of 1915, however none were able to sustain their breakthroughs. In the Artois, the British used poison gas to open a gap and take the town of Loos, but the Germans quickly regrouped and stopped further attacks. In Champaign, the French drove forward three miles, but the Germans stopped them with troops rushed by railroad to re-establish defensive lines. The stalemate would continue.
While the geography of each area affected the fighting differently, it contributed to the devastation and loss of life. Whether on the plains of Eastern Europe, the deserts of the Middle East, the mountains of the Caucasus, or the lowlands of Flanders, men struggled against the elements even as they fought each other.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
America was fully implementing the military option as its solution to the problem in Vietnam. The first complete US Division, the First Cavalry, began to arrive in September 1965. This was a significant commitment because of all of the support troops, aircraft, vehicles, logistics, and basing requirements that division-sized units needed. In the middle of the same month, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne engaged the Viet Cong. Although touted as a major victory, many within the Army realized that it was a draw at best; leaders were increasingly crossing the line between optimism and inflation in their public remarks- a dangerous practice. More and more US aircraft were shot down over North and South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese doubled their anti-aircraft capabilities. General Westmoreland asked the president for 35,000 more troops. In mid-October, the first American burned his draft card and would receive 22 months in prison. On the 16th, there were protests in around 40 US cities. Even before the government went “all in,” a large percentage of people were voicing their opposition to the war.
The Western Front has always been considered the decisive theater of World War One because it was the place where the three greatest powers (Germany, France and Britain) squared off against one another. I guess I would not argue too strongly against that idea, but I dislike it when it appears the trenches were the only story of the war. There was so much more that, while perhaps not decisive in itself, did contribute to the success or failure of each nation’s war aims and certainly added to the human cost of the conflict.
For example, during the summer of 1915, there were small naval actions in the Baltic, the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Dardanelles involving submarines and surface vessels from the Russian, Austrian, German, Italian, Ottoman, and British navies. The Turks were advancing against the Russians in Armenia. The Austrians and the Germans launched a major offensive on the Eastern Front in July taking Warsaw in August. British Imperial forces drove the Germans out of their colony in what is today Namibia. Japanese forces captured German garrisons in China. The Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks were carrying their long-standing animosities into the larger world conflict. The Italians launched their Second Battle of the Isonzo. It was as if the initial clashes on the Franco-German border were rippling out around the planet.
These ripples were sometimes deliberate. One strategic option available for a leader is to pursue what is known as peripheral operations. Don’t confuse this with the computer term; in the military context, you are usually avoiding your enemy’s strength or stepping away from stalemate in order to gain an advantage against a weakness, create an opportunity elsewhere, or nibble at the edges of your opponent’s territory. Given the clear deadlock on the Western Front in 1915, the Allies were looking for other options to score a decisive blow or even make some progress against Germany and its allies.
The most notable of these operations was a combined Anglo-French landing on the Gallipoli peninsula that had begun in April. It was believed that this force (made up mainly of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand or ANZACs) could land, avoid trench warfare, seize key ground, and allow for the capture of Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire) rapidly knocking the Turks out of the war and putting the Germans at a severe disadvantage. This was a serious miscalculation. The Turks also had machine guns. They contained the Allies on the coast. Both sides dug trenches: stalemate. On August 6, at Suvla Bay, British forces landed to help relieve pressure on the ANZACs. This too failed. In January 1916, eight months and over 56,000 lives after the initial landings, the Allies withdrew; all they had accomplished was to increase the casualty lists while diverting resources from the main effort.
Meanwhile, in contrast, things were relatively quiet along the decisive Western Front. There were no major battles launched by the Allies in the west that summer because of a critical shortage. This shortage was not in manpower, guns, or fuel, but in ammunition. The British, in particular, were having trouble ramping up their chemical and industrial systems to produce enough explosives for their heavy artillery. In early summer 1915, each gun only had on average enough ammunition to fire 3-4 rounds per day – not nearly sufficient to support an attack much less a major offensive.
There were several reasons. No one anticipated that the war would require so much ammunition (in the Neuve Chappele offensive in the spring of 1915, British artillery had fired more shells in the first 35 minutes of the attack than they used in the two and a half years of their previous war against the Boers). They could not produce enough of the key chemical needed to make gunpowder and it took time to develop new sources or substitutes. Finally, the British had been slow to militarize their industrial system and organize their economy for war.
This “Shell Crisis” caused the fall of the British government and a series of new laws that mobilized the economy for war. It brought more women into the workforce and militarized society. This would not be the first or last time that war drastically changed an economy. The modern version of this phenomena dates back to the French Revolution and the levee en masse. Although the Germans started re-arming in 1933, they still needed to further reform their production systems in 1942. The problem facing the US in 1917 was that most of its industrial capacity was already committed to the Allies and they did not have enough excess to effectively arm themselves. Even in recent times, the US Department of Defense could not just pick up the phone and order MRAPs off the lot; it took time to finalize designs, adjust production lines, accumulate resources and assemble the vehicle. What is most peculiar about industrial warfare is the universal reality that it takes time to mobilize. Despite popular notions that you should be able to just flip a switch and transition from refrigerators to tanks, adjusting assembly lines, training workers, machining parts, and building chains of distribution does not happen overnight. When you lack the time or your plans do not realistically prepare you for the production requirements, you can expect a stall as you go from the army you have to the army you need. Even keeping your economy on constant war footing will not guarantee that you have enough of the right stuff.
The British solved their problem by holding off any major offensives on the Western Front until they could increase production. By mobilizing labor, increasing purchases from abroad (especially the US), and developing new sources of raw materials, the British were able to increase output from about 16 million shells in 1915 to over 50 million in 1917.
Fifty years ago in Vietnam-
In July and August 1965, there are still many firsts in the evolving conflict in Vietnam. US ground forces continue to arrive and begin offensive operations with allies (to include Australians, New Zealanders, and South Koreans) and unilaterally. The first reported incident of “destroying a village to save it” occurs. North Vietnam uses a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down its first US plane.
American leaders are still seeking a military solution to the situation. General Westmoreland informs Secretary McNamara that, with enough troops, he can destroy the Viet Cong by the end of 1967. Mr. McNamara recommends to President Johnson that the US send more forces, activate the National Guard and Reserve, and almost double the number of monthly air attacks against North Vietnam. On July 28, after meeting with Congressional leaders and getting their support, President Johnson announces an increase of forces in Vietnam to 125,000 and increases the monthly draft quotas from 17,000 to 35,000, but does not activate the Guard or Reserve. This decision is seen as a critical turning point because while committing life and treasure, it does not focus the entire national defense establishment to the cause. Some have supported this choice because it kept the war from escalating to a great power conflict, others see it as an indicator of the half-hearted efforts by political leaders toward Vietnam. From my reading, our leaders’ mistake occurred before this decision. When they realized that they were unwilling (or unable) to risk a larger military conflict over Vietnam, our government should have immediately sought a different solution.
While the US sends more troops, Ho Chi Minh publicly vows on July 11, 1965 that North Vietnam and the Viet Cong will fight for 20 years if that is what it takes to unify Vietnam.
Past Articles November-December 2014
I find the election of 1864 to be an amazing thing. While in the midst of a civil war, a crisis upon which the very survival of the government rested, the people went to the polls and voted. Not just about minor issues, but truly to decide whether or not the war to restore the Union should continue. We can criticize Lincoln for suspending the writ of habeas corpus and curtailing other liberties, but he submitted himself and his policies to a vote. There are more examples in history of rulers moving to consolidate their power in moments such as this than of those who trusted the system and the people to decide the fate of their nation. He could have maneuvered to postpone elections, but he did not. The people rewarded his trust in them by re-electing him to another four-year term.
Although Tennessee had elected a pro-Union government and the new Vice-President was from the state, it remained an active theater of military operations to the end of 1864. Two events stand out during the final months of 1864. The first was yet another raid by Nathan Bedford Forrest on a Federal supply depot as part of the continuing effort to force Sherman to give up his assault into Georgia. The second would turn out to be one of the last major offensives initiated by the Confederacy. The pugnacious John Bell Hood continued his September attacks designed to draw away Sherman. In what became known as the Franklin-Nashville campaign, Hood drove his Army of Tennessee north hoping to defeat scattered Union forces before they could consolidate. General Thomas was able to combine his units at Nashville and counterattack Hood’s weakened force on December 15-16, 1864 sending it reeling back into Mississippi and eliminating it as a threat.
By mid-November, Sherman had passed his forces through Atlanta dividing the 60,000 men into two wings. These armies moved on roughly parallel axis, about ten miles apart, along a line from Atlanta to Savannah. Separated from regular sources of supply and out of communication with Washington, they lived off the land selectively targeting industrial, transportation, and agricultural assets of the Confederacy. The Confederates tried to harass, deter, and deflect, but could not muster the manpower to defeat or halt the Union advance. Many have debated the methods Sherman used (I recommend Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War), but no one can deny their results: when he reached Savannah on December 21, he had indeed, “made Georgia howl” and effectively gutted the Rebel’s capacity to sustain further resistance.
Operations around Petersburg tapered off during the winter months. The only action of note occurred in December when Union troops moved south in an attempt to destroy critical Confederate supply lines. Although they damaged large sections of railroad and destroyed stockpiles, the Confederates were able to repair the track and restore the supplies.
Along the coasts, Navy patrols continued. In North Carolina, a joint Union force of ships and ground troops attempted to take Fort Fisher which guarded the last open port of the Confederacy. Beginning on December 24, the fire of over 60 warships was ineffective and the ensuing landing failed to take the fort. By the 26th, commanders had withdrawn their forces.
Setbacks such as those in North Carolina and the seemingly unbending resistance of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia help to explain why, despite clear victories in many critical areas, the end of the war appeared to remain just out of reach.
Fifty Years Ago: The complications continue. The Viet Cong were increasing their attacks on US forces and facilities. They launched mortars at an American airbase near Saigon destroying or damaging dozens of aircraft, bombed a hotel housing US officers, and killed US advisors working with an ARVN unit. The South Vietnamese military could not effectively drive out Communist incursions, but its leaders could manage to stage yet another coup in Saigon. American political leaders are trying to develop a strategic response. Should they continue with their gradualist approach, take more aggressive action, or end their commitment to what was already recognized as an unstable government? Johnson’s landslide victory in the Presidential election gave him the latitude to increase American military commitment to Southeast Asia; this was his preference.
In 1964, 216 American servicemen died in Vietnam. At the end of the year, there were slightly over 23,000 service members stationed there.
In this edition, we will pick up where we left off… Union operations along the coast and at sea, such as those at Mobile Bay, were part of what had been derisively called “The Anaconda Plan.” Federal forces would use various means to cut the Confederacy off from trade and assistance with the rest of the world. While this blockade was never 100%, it kept getting stronger and stronger; so strong, in fact, that by the summer of 1864, US ships are ranging far and wide to hunt down and capture Confederate blockade runners..
On September 1st, the Confederates began to evacuate Atlanta. The next day, the mayor surrendered the city to Union forces. While General Sherman consolidated over the next several weeks, his opponent, General John Bell Hood, attempted to harass US supply lines in hopes of forcing a withdrawal. Sherman sent forces to pursue him, but was not drawn into a major engagement.
A clear sign that the tide was shifting during these months can be seen in the formation of a pro-Union government in Tennessee while Louisiana and Maryland amended their constitutions to abolish slavery.
In the decisive East, two important events were unfolding. In response to Jubal Early’s attacks toward Washington and in the Shenandoah, Sheridan received significant reinforcements and began to push Early back. By the middle of October, Sheridan had simply overwhelmed the Confederates, pushing them out of the Valley for the last time.
Few of us would recognize the names of the battles around Richmond during this period. Most were relatively small affairs, but were part of a much larger and more important whole: the siege. The developing operations around Petersburg resemble classic sieges throughout history, from the legendary Troy, to the Romans taking Jerusalem, to the Turks outside Vienna, to Yorktown. It is a prelude to the great siege battles of the 20th century, like the Western Front in WWI, Leningrad and Corregidor in WWII, Pusan, Dien Bien Phu, and Khe Sahn.
Although the particulars change with technology and society, all sieges share common characteristics. They are more geography dependent than most regular battles- the terrain can be important in its own right like a city or made so by fortifications to control a route. Time is different in sieges. For the defender, time is on their side, up to a point. The longer they hold out, the more likely a relief will appear to save them, or the enemy’s army will be forced to withdraw because of a lack of supplies or disease. However, if neither of these situations materialize, it is the defender who risks starvation and epidemic before defeat.
In practice, it was usually difficult enough to completely surround the enemy strongpoint. If the attacker did have enough forces to achieve an encirclement, they would then begin to dig trenches, build fortifications, and fire artillery to strengthen their position and break through the enemy defense to bring a quicker end to the standoff.
What we are witnessing in these small forgotten battles around Petersburg during September and October of 1864 is the effort by Union forces to extend their lines around the Confederate positions. These actions would either force the Rebels to flee or cut them off from Richmond and its supply lines. If the Federals succeeded in closing the trap, then the Army of Northern Virginia would face its doom. Petersburg is this classic siege operation with trenches, attempts to encircle, efforts to relieve the defenders, attacks on strongpoints, and other actions to gain a dominant position that, in this case will force one side or the other to break and withdraw or be destroyed.
Fifty Years ago in Vietnam: In September 1964, things are getting more complicated in Vietnam. There is an unsuccessful coup attempt against Prime Minister Khahn, the leader of South Vietnam. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) called for a general offensive against the Saigon government. North Vietnamese forces began infiltrating South Vietnam. While in the US, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater is accusing the President Johnson of “recklessly” committing the American people to war. As the election approaches, administration officials are debating internally which course to take in Vietnam. Some argue that the loss of face in Vietnam will negatively affect US influence around the world. Others propose that the US not rely so heavily on the military option, but equally pursue a diplomatic course. But an event in October 1964, that many overlook, certainly influenced the US to fight with one hand behind its back in Vietnam: the Chinese, who already had massed troops on their border with North Vietnam, successfully tested their first atomic bomb. Things were not only more complicated, but the stakes were very high.
August 2014 During the summer of 1864, Union forces increasingly worked in concert with one another to squeeze the Confederacy into submission. The Rebels responded by delaying, digging in, and attempting to throw the Federals off balance. One of these attempts was not on the battlefield. Self-proclaimed representatives of the government in Richmond approached influential newspaper editor Horace Greely with a peace proposal. Greely contacted President Lincoln with the information. This put the President in an interesting spot: reject the proposal and appear to the war weary public as cold-hearted or embrace the notion and look desperate. Lincoln knew that Jefferson Davis would accept nothing less than independence. So, he authorized Greely to initiate discussion with two conditions- the restoration of Union and the end of slavery. At the meeting on July 18 in Niagra, New York, both conditions were rejected. Lincoln managed to avoid a domestic political disaster and stay true to goals that so many had fought and died to achieve. To relieve the pressure on Richmond, Confederate General Jubal Early launched a raid toward Washington on July 5. At first, he threatened the capital and even defeated the first hastily assembled force that tried to stop him. But within a week, Union commanders had recalled enough troops to man the formidable defenses around the District of Columbia and force Early to withdraw. By July 12, he had diverted his division toward the Shenandoah Valley. Out West, Confederate commanders were attempting similar actions to help slow the advance of William Tecumseh Sherman. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stephen Lee attacked US forces at Tupelo, MS on July 14 to try and cut off Federal supply lines from the Mississippi River. Although the Union held the field at the end of the day, they were forced to withdraw to the logistics center at Memphis. Within weeks, Forrest would even take Memphis for a day. Closer to Atlanta, General Joe Wheeler raided Union supply depots in August. Neither force could do enough damage to turn back Sherman’s army. Before Atlanta, Joe Johnston continued his Fabian strategy, named after the Roman general who had attempted to trade space for time to wear down Hannibal’s invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War. General Johnston met with the same military success and political failure that his Roman counterpart had experienced centuries before. Johnston kept his army intact, but as he fell back on the outskirts of the city, domestic political opposition became too great. President Davis replaced Johnston with General John Bell Hood on July 17. Hood, a brave and valiant fighter, spent the next two weeks attacking the invaders wherever and whenever he could, losing twice as many soldiers as the enemy in the process. The result? By the end of August, he lacked sufficient manpower to prevent the Union armies from maneuvering south of the city and cutting the last rail lines. Atlanta’s fate was sealed. As the lines solidified around Petersburg, leaders tried to find quick solutions to the problem. One of these schemes seemed brilliant on paper: dig a mine beneath Confederate lines, pack it with explosives, and, when the charge goes off, send a mass of infantry through the breach. Indeed, this had been an accepted technique of breaking sieges since the late Middle Ages and should have worked, however last minute changes led to disaster. The troops originally trained and designated for the assault were replaced hours before the attack over biased concerns about their ability. Once the blast opened a huge gap in the rebel entrenchments, instead of charging through, the untrained replacement force stayed in the crater and became easy targets for the Confederate reinforcements sent to counterattack. Slaughter ensued; it would be eight months before the siege finally ended. The Union was squeezing in the east, the west, and the southern coast of the Confederacy. For most of August, a joint Army-Navy force directed its efforts against the important port of Mobile, Alabama. The campaign began with army troops supported by navy gunboats landing and laying siege to one of the forts protecting the mouth of the harbor. A few days later, Rear Admiral David Farragut led his flotilla of ships past the batteries and into the harbor. When one of the Union ships struck a mine, Farragut is reported to have uttered a phrase now famous for the tenacity and determination it conveys: “Damn the torpedoes (mines), full speed ahead!” Forward they went engaging the Confederate fleet in the bay and forcing them to surrender. Within a few weeks, the last fort had fallen and the harbor (but not the city) was under Union control. As summer waned, so apparently did the hopes for the Confederacy. Looking back, it is amazing to consider that the Rebels still had the will to resist. But resist they would… to the bitter end.
Vietnam Fifty years ago this July, the US sent 5,000 more troops to Vietnam with total forces exceeding 21,000. The Viet Cong attacked a provincial capital, killing 11 ARVN soldiers and 40 civilians (including 30 children). August proved to be a key turning point in the US involvement in the conflict. You will remember that in June, President Johnson had authorized a CIA/ South Vietnamese operation to send commando teams against Northern radar sites. The Navy was to support these missions from offshore as part of their routine patrol and surveillance operations. On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approached the USS Maddox. After that point, accounts get confusing. There are debates about who fired first, about whether the Maddox was in international or disputed waters. There were reports of a second attack on August 4, which is now generally regarded as a false alarm. What is known is that the President authorized air attacks on North Vietnam on August 5th and a few days later Congress passed the Southeast Asia (Gulf of Tonkin) Resolution which effectively gave President Johnson unchecked authority to conduct military operations in Vietnam. They had unleashed the dogs of war.
June 2014 We have seen in our last few installments how the watershed Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in the summer of 1863 did not mean the war was over. As the two sides began their active campaigning seasons 150 years ago this spring, we can see that the initiative was tipping to the side of the Union. Federal military and political leaders had met earlier in the spring to discuss strategy for the upcoming year. The result had been a plan that represented the first truly coordinated effort by the Union. Each major advance was intended to support the other and deny the Confederates the opportunity to concentrate their forces against any one attack. In May 1864, these attacks began in earnest. First, in the Eastern Theater, Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to advance south. This was not just another “on to Richmond” adventure like so many before. The first battle occurred in a place known as the Wilderness, not far from the Chancellorsville battlefield. It was Grant’s plan and he accompanied the Army, but Meade remained in command. This battle was a slugfest, with units battering units at close range and in thick vegetation. Lee once again demonstrated his tactical agility and dealt several stinging blows as he had done so many times before. But there was one difference this time. When the armies broke contact to assess and reorganize, the northern army did NOT return home licking its wounds as it had so many times before. This time, Grant directed them to maneuver around the Army of Northern Virginia and proceed south. Gone were the vain attempts for a quick victory of annihilation, this campaign was to use the US advantage in resources (human and otherwise) to attrit or wear down the enemy enough that the Confederates would be sufficiently exhausted to finally end their struggle. For the rest of the summer the battles continued. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor to the city of Petersburg just outside Richmond, the fighting was brutal, grinding, desperate, and relentless. Meade pushed, Lee parried and technically won the battles, but had to give way. He could call on no reinforcements because equal pressure was being brought to bear from many other points. This pressure came from the Army of the James which landed east of Petersburg at City Point and attempted to advance inland. It came from Sheridan and other cavalry forces who raided into Virginia to cut railway lines. It came from Union forces trying to push all Confederates out of the Shenandoah where (in what I believe to be a sign of the increasing desperation of the rebels) the teenagers of the Virginia Military Institute fought in the Battle off New Market. It came from Tennessee where they hunted for Confederate raiders led by Nathan Bedford Forest. A few days after Meade began his campaign, Sherman launched his drive toward Atlanta in the west. For most of the summer, he and Confederate General Joseph Johnston engaged in a series of maneuvers. Johnston sought to preserve his forces trading space for time while looking for an opportunity to catch Sherman in a mistake and do enough damage to slow or even stop the Union advance which had worked so many times before. Sherman gave him no such opportunity as he inexorably approached Atlanta turning Johnston’s flank time after time. At Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia on June 27, 1864, Sherman launched a series of frontal attacks to keep Johnston off balance. Though these attacks were repulsed, the larger operational plan succeeded greatly when a demonstration maneuver by Major General John Schofield’s force compelled the Confederates to withdraw. The heavy Union casualties that came with this fighting, many the result of mistakes by Union generals, were wearing on the political will of the northern people as much as the mounting losses were draining the spirits of rebel resistance. Despite what we now recognize as necessary and ultimately successful efforts of Grant and Sherman, President Lincoln was entering his re-election campaign uncertain of his chances of retaining office. All he had to show for these campaigns was growing casualty lists and siege lines forming near Richmond. Fifty Years ago in Vietnam– For most of May, US helicopters supported the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during Operation Sure Win 202. ARVN forces succeeded in heavily damaging Viet Cong lines of communication. Meanwhile, back in the US, President Johnson’s aides begin work on a resolution to support his policies in Vietnam. In June, North Vietnamese Army regulars reinforce Viet Cong guerrillas in the south. The President also approved additional airpower inVietnam and a CIA 2014 March Army History by Jamie Fischer Events in early 1864 were largely inconclusive, but we do begin to see the foundations of the final offensives that would break the Confederacy. Although we now recognize that the tide had turned in the Union’s favor, there was still hard fighting ahead. The biggest turning point in March and April 1864 was the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to Lieutenant General and command of all the Union Armies. In early March, Union General Nathaniel Banks began his Red River campaign in Louisiana intending to bring more territory under Federal control, cut off Texas from the rest of the Confederacy, and destroy rebel forces in the area. Some historians believe the operation was also meant to send a message to Emperor Napoleon III of France who had sent troops to Mexico, effectively taken over the country, and was considering recognizing the Confederacy. Three Union armies and a Navy flotilla were to cooperate in an effort to capture Shreveport, Louisiana. After some early success, Confederate resistance, falling water levels, and evolving priorities led the Union force in mid-April to withdraw 65 miles short of its goal. In the end, Banks’ army narrowly averted disaster and only succeeded in drawing away resources that would have been better used to capture Mobile, Alabama. Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forest launched a raid into Tennessee and Kentucky in March. Their operations led to one of the most brutal events of the war: at Fort Pillow along the Mississippi River on April 12, Forrest’s men killed several hundred Union soldiers who were attempting to surrender after a fierce battle. More than half of those killed were Americans of African descent, many of them former slaves who had joined the Union Army to fight for their liberty. After word of the massacre reached General Grant, he refused to exchange prisoners until the Confederate government could guarantee the safety of all Union soldiers regardless of race. On April 8, 1864, the end of the cause of the war began. The United States Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. The House of Representatives passed the measure in January 1865 and it was ratified in December 1865. Most significant to the conduct of the rest of the war, Grant started to formulate his strategy. Hi biggest challenge was the fact that the Confederates enjoyed the advantage of what is known as interior lines. This basically meant that they could shift their units over relatively shorter distances to concentrate force against individual Union attacks. The best way to counter such an advantage in space is for the attacker to concentrate their attacks in time usually by attacking several points at once. And this is exactly what Grant proposed to do: he would remain with General Meade and the Army of the Potomac engaging the Army of Northern Virginia and pushing it toward Richmond. Benjamin Butler would drive up the James River putting more pressure on Lee and Richmond from the east and Franz Sigel would advance down the Shenandoah in the west. Sherman would drive into Georgia seeking battle with Johnson and Banks would capture Mobile, Alabama. This simultaneous pressure would strain the Confederacy to the breaking point, draining its resources, and killing its soldiers. As we will see next time, the actual conduct of operations was not a successful as the plan, but President Lincoln finally had a general who understood what it would take to end the rebellion: unrelenting pressure which would break the will of the Southern People to resist and prove beyond a doubt that the Federal government ruled. Fifty years ago in Vietnam- In March 1964, the US took more steps to increase involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. We backed mercenaries attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited Vietnam, pledged continued US support, and returned home to advise President Johnson to send more military aid in order to prop up Vietnam and maintain American credibility. At the end of April, President Johnson announced the General William Westmoreland as the new commander of US forces in Vietnam. 2014 January Army History by Jamie Fischer At the beginning of 1864, the major military forces of both sides continued their winter pause accepting the fact that effective campaigns were nearly impossible. While battles may have been rare during this winter, it did not mean that all political activity stopped. As a demonstration of the link between military operations and the political process, Union victories were translating into domestic political change. In January 1864, several initiatives began that would not have been possible without Union victories much like the Emancipation Proclamation depended on the “victory” at Antietam. This time, though, the Union military successes were more readily apparent. On January 11th, Missouri Senator Henderson proposed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which would formally end slavery – quite a big step from September 1862. Later that month, President Lincoln permitted elections in Arkansas (where people selected a pro-Union candidate as provisional governor) and Tennessee (where officials were certain that the majority were pro-Union). The Federal government lifted trade restrictions for the former border states Missouri and Kentucky. None of these initiatives would have been possible without the Union victories of the previous six months at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. In February, attacks in a number of places began to set conditions for the coming campaign season. William Tecumseh Sherman took his army back to Vicksburg to complete the destruction of Confederate infrastructure in the area. This action was a strategically sound one for it would make it more difficult for rebel forces to attack into this area while the Union army concentrated its manpower for a campaign towards Atlanta. Union forces captured Jacksonville, Florida, one more port to fall as the anaconda tightened its grip. At the end of the month, Union cavalry launched raids toward Richmond. It would be too soon to argue that these were all parts of a unified strategic vision for ending the war, but at least they were not working against each other. The noticeable change in momentum over the winter does not mean that there were not counter currents. Nathan Bedford Forrest continued his raids in Mississippi. There was also fighting in Alabama in January which resulted on local rebel victories. In February, the Confederate submarine, CSS Hunley destroyed the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor – an event which presaged a new element of naval warfare. A Confederate army halted Union advances from Jacksonville at the battle of Olustee on the 20th. Much bloody fighting remained and the Union cause was far from secure, but looking back, on can see that the tide had turned. Fifty years ago in Vietnam- At the end of January, 1964 General Nguyen Khanh staged a bloodless coup against the government formed by General Duong Van Minh who had led the group which seized power from and assassinated the Diems a few months earlier. In this environment of political instability, the Peoples’ Liberation Army, or Viet Cong, battled the Army of Vietnam at Long Dinh in February. Despite encircling communist forces, the ARVN failed to press operations and most of the Viet Cong were able to escape. According to www.thewall-usa.com/, there were no US KIAs during January and February, 1964 December Army History by Jamie Fischer As winter approached, the focus of military efforts remained west of the Appalachians. Outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, Confederate General Braxton Bragg seemed confident that time was on the side of his forces laying siege to the Union army in the town. He ordered Longstreet’s Corps east in an attempt to drive the Federals out of east Tennessee. He seems to have been unaware of the buildup of enemy forces under his nose. Sherman brought four divisions into the area in the middle of the month, but this did not prevent Bragg from sending yet another corps to Knoxville. Within days of this decision, Union forces begin a series of attacks to lift the siege. At Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge, these attacks, although not universally successful, managed to push away the Confederates and force them to withdraw into Georgia. Bragg resigned shortly thereafter. The success at Chattanooga allowed Grant to send Sherman to lift Longstreet’s siege of Knoxville. By the end of the month, Tennessee would be firmly in US hands until threatened by a new Confederate attack in late 1864. It has been some time since we spent time on the progress of the Anaconda plan. During November and December, Union forces besieging Charleston would repeatedly shell Fort Sumter. Meanwhile, the blockade continued to slowly strangle the Rebel economy. Back east, Meade had accumulated enough supplies and ammunition to begin an advance against the Army of Northern Virginia. His short-lived Mine Run Campaign along the Rapidan River accomplished little before the Army went into winter camp in December. Of course we cannot forget that one of the farthest reaching events of these months did not occur in battle- on November 19, Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. While panned by some at the time, today it is recognized as defining the United States and the war: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth.” During December 1863 the only major engagement occurred on the 14th when Federal units attempted to probe the perimeter of Longstreet’s camp. His forces drove them off and both sides settled down for the winter. There were changes in leadership as Joe Johnston took command of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee and Union general Ambrose Burnside was removed from command of the Department of the Ohio. Although both sides were resting and refitting, the Union enjoyed very favorable geographic conditions for resuming active campaigning in the spring. Fifty years ago in Vietnam– Vietnamese generals arrest and assassinate President Diem and his brother in a coup d’etat at the beginning of November. On the 20th, Secretary of Defense McNamara approve OPLAN 34A – a program of reconnaissance and sabotage operations against North Vietnam. Four days later, President Johnson re-orients American goals from supporting South Vietnam to defeating communist forces. “We will not lose Vietnam,” he tells Ambassador Lodge. By year’s end, the South Vietnamese government will have received $500 million in US aid. October Army History by Jamie Fischer Both sides had expended tremendous resources in the battles of July, 1863. Fighting certainly did not stop, but the main forces involved needed time to reorganize and re-equip. The battles of Gettysburg and especially Vicksburg rippled out to affect other areas by late summer. In the east, General Lee took up defensive positions and sent General James Longstreet’s Corps in early September to reinforce the Army of the Tennessee along the center of the Confederacy – an area that was now more vulnerable with the loss of the Mississippi. General Meade had the strength to maneuver, but was not ready to seek battle with his opponent. Union forces began advancing into other areas which had not been possible before Vicksburg’s fall. General William Franklin attempted to steam up the Sabine River to occupy Texas, but was unsuccessful. Confederate forces did manage to continue offensive raids in Missouri and Arkansas. Federal troops of the Army of the Cumberland advanced into Chattanooga, Tennessee after forcing the Confederate Army to abandon the town. This city was an important rail hub because of its location along the Tennessee River and passes through the mountains into Georgia. Led by William Rosecrans, this Yankee Army continued to push into northern Georgia on divergent axis using a series of turning movements to force repeated Confederate withdrawals. By mid-September, General Rosecrans had made noticeable progress, but his force was dispersed across 50 miles of difficult terrain. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s reinforcements had finally arrived allowing General Braxton Bragg to attempt to split the Union advance and defeat it piecemeal. What followed was one of the most confusing and bloodiest battles of the war along Chickamauga Creek, Georgia. In two days of disconnected punching and counterpunching, the rebels struck a lucky blow breaking through the Union lines and routing the Federals. Only a dramatic last stand by units which included the 2nd Minnesota and was organized by General George Thomas, known ever after as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” prevented a total Union disaster. As it was, the Army of the Cumberland was forced back north into Chattanooga where the victorious Confederates successfully laid siege to the survivors whose backs were against the river and surrounded by mountains. President Lincoln quickly orders reinforcements to their aid but was distressed to learn that the units and their movements were published in the New York Post! For the entire month of October, Bragg’s Army tried to keep the siege of Chattanooga intact while Union forces tried to re-open reliable supply lines. Cavalry raids cut the railroads shuttling supplies into Chattanooga. Longstreet risked a night attack to tighten the ring around the city. Ships were unable to steam into the city because of rebel guns on the heights above. Only one narrow, muddy road, lined with dead pack animals afforded access to the Union troops under siege. Although a near run thing for many weeks, the situation improved after Ulysses S. Grant was given command of the new Military Division of the Mississippi, Rosecrans was replaced by Thomas, and Union reinforcements opened the “Cracker Line” which brought supplies into Chattanooga. Back east, the two armies continued to conduct campaigns that sought to outmaneuver each other and gain an advantage for future operations. This resulted in several fights between the Rapidan and RappahannockRivers none of which really change the balance between the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia. Minnesota’s Civil War Commemorative Task Force, chaired by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and joined by Vessey Chapter President Don Kerr, traveled to the Georgia’s Snodgrass Hill to participate in anniversary events related to the battle of Chickamauga fought September 19-20, 1863. The Second Minnesota fought bravely at several locations during this battle being among the first units to engage Confederate forces and one of the last to leave the field after serving as part of General George Thomas’ heroic rear guard action which allowed the Army of the Cumberland to safely withdraw and earned Thomas the nickname: “Rock of Chickamauga.” Fifty years ago in Vietnam- US forces were over 16,000. The National Liberation Front attacks ARVN forces at Go Cong. After several efforts to convince President Diem to initiate reforms failed, the Kennedy administration decided not to stop Vietnamese generals planning a coup again him. August Army History by Jamie Fischer The first week of July, 1863 was arguably the most critical period in the American Civil War. Before this time, it seemed likely that the Confederate States of America might actually make good on their attempt to secede. After the events of these days, the chances for the Rebels to succeed waned. Two places distant from the capitols, two very different battles, can be clearly seen today to represent the “high tide” of the Confederacy. The great battle at Gettysburg is iconic; the recent commemorations in Pennsylvania caught the attention of the entire nation (to include a delegation from Minnesota) and rightly so. The two main armies collided in a classic meeting engagement-when the battle began, neither knew exactly where the other was, how their forces were arrayed, or what their intentions were. General Lee used almost every recognized form of maneuver- he tried a turning movement, an envelopment, and a penetration- in his effort to once again defeat the Army of the Potomac. There was bravery on both sides and moments where the actions of a few made a difference for thousands. Popular culture and history have made much of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s go-for-broke bayonet charge at the far end of the Union line on the second day of the battle. But they were far from the only unit who displayed heroics. At almost the same time, a few hundred yards to the north, the 124th New York did the same, but with an entirely different result- their charge broke the Confederate units before them but they were crushed by a new line of enemy troops. It was not too long after these events that our own 1st Minnesota launched its costly charge to buy five critical minutes for the Union reserves to come forward on Cemetery Ridge. On July 3rd, while Pickett’s charge was occurring (and failing) in Pennsylvania, another Confederate general was facing his own trial. General John Pemberton, besieged in Vicksburg, sent a note to General Grant requesting surrender terms. Grant accepted and sent Union forces (led by the 4th Minnesota for its bravery during the siege) into the city on the 4th. By July 6th Grant had paroled the 30,000 starving, sick defenders sending them back to their homes with the hope that they would carry the spirit of their defeat to the rest of the Confederacy. When Port Hudson surrendered a few days later, the Union had control of the entire Mississippi River. In two weeks, the fortunes of the Confederacy had suffered a major reverse; the gains won at Chancellorsville and elsewhere had been lost. Both sides conducted raids and reprisals during the summer of 1863. Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan continued his operations in northern territory fighting Federal forces in Columbus, Kentucky, crossing into Indiana to loot two towns, and riding through parts of Ohio before running into a heavily fortified Union position where most of his force was killed or captured. Morgan himself was apprehended on July 26 in New Lisbon, Ohio. In Kansas and Missouri, a war within the war continued- William Quantrill led over 300 men to on an attack against Lawrence, Kansas killing every military age male they could find (183) and burning the city. In response, Union General Thomas Ewing forced civilians out of their homes in several Missouri counties before burning their homes, barns, and crops. Vicksburg and Port Hudson were not the only sieges conducted by Union forces during this time. The joint Army-Navy operations against Charleston, South Carolina continued. When attacking forces failed to make headway against the city’s fortifications, they settled in for a siege, digging trenches, shelling positions, and reducing defenses. The events of June- August 1863 fuel debates about the role of “decisive” battles in history. Some suggest that battles like Gettysburg can immediately change the course of a war. I do not share that view. In hindsight, the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg are significant but should be seen more as tipping points than turning points. At the end of August, the South was still willing to resist and there were factions in the North who were still unconvinced that the Union would prevail. Those doubters would have cited the success of Morgan and Quantrill’s raids, the New York draft riots, and even the fighting with the Dakota in Minnesota as evidence that the Union could not be held together by force. Only later, looking back, could one see that the Confederacy never again had the resources to launch a major offensive. There would be other moments over the next 21 months where the decision hung in the balance. It would take thousands more casualties and millions of dollars of destroyed property before the people of the South would give up on their goal. Fifty years ago in Vietnam: Buddhist demonstrations occurred across the country. The Diem government cracked down only increasing unrest. The Kennedy administration debated whether the US should support the current Vietnamese administration or support a coup. Footnotes: 1. For some great books on Gettysburg and the First Minnesota in the battle see: Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004; Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: the Last Invasion. New York: Knopf, 2013; and Leehan, Brian. Pale Horse at Plum Run: the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. 2. Suggested reading on Vicksburg: Bearss, Edwin C. Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg: The Campaigns That Changed the Civil War. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2010 and Groom, Winston. Vicksburg 1863. New York: Knopf, 2009. 3. One of the failures that led to the assumption of siege operations occurred on July 10, 1863 when the 54th Massachusetts took heavy losses in its attack on Battery Wagner. This unit and its courage were immortalized in the movie Glory. To learn more about sieges, I recommend: Duffy, Christopher. Fire and Stone: the Science of Fortress Warfare, 1660-1860. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006. June Newsletter 2013 by Jamie Fischer To begin the spring campaign season, Union General Joseph Hooker had decided to head south. His plan was to fix Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee’s forces in Fredericksburg and envelop his left flank. The Union Army certainly had the forces. But Lee had the command team and guts. Violating many laws of war, Lee not only split his forces once but twice: he left a division under Jubal Early at Fredericksburg, shifted his main body northwest to the gathering Union threat around Chancellorsville, and after blunting the Union advance on May 1st, sent General Stonewall Jackson on a twelve-mile long maneuver west to the Federal right. The result was perhaps Lee’s greatest victory. Jackson’s attack on the Union right at sundown on the 2nd drove the Army of the Potomac in on itself. Hooker, losing confidence and further shaken up when an artillery round impacted near him, assumed the worst and began to withdraw even though US forces still outnumbered the rebels and held superior ground. As had happened too many times before, the Army of the Potomac pulled back with its tail between its legs. Courage, confidence, and a strong supporting cast had prevailed again over numbers. But this was changing. More and more Union generals were holding their own. Confederate casualties were degrading the quality of the Army of Northern Virginia, none more apparent than the death of Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire. Yet, the Army of Northern Virginia still enjoyed a powerful psychological edge. Lee’s victory did not solve the South’s problems. Defense would not suffice. On May 18, Confederate leaders decided that another offensive was necessary if there would be any hope of the North accepting secession. The Army of Northern Virginia began moving into Pennsylvania on June 3rd to draw supplies from the rich farms and seek a chance to destroy the Union Army. Meanwhile, out west, Ulysses S. Grant had led his forces across the Mississippi south of Vicksburg on April 30. Their wagons only carried ammunition and essential supplies intending to forage among the civilian population for most of their food. Grant planned to advance and seize the rail hub at Jackson, Mississippi before actually approaching Vicksburg from the east and pinning the defenders against the very river that provided their security. Confederate General John Pemberton lacked sufficient forces to hold the city and confront Grant so he decided to wait. Rebel troops attempted to slow the Union advance in several places- at Port Gibson on May 1 and at Raymond on May 12, but the inability of the Confederates in the area under General Joseph Johnston to concentrate their forces allowed Grant to defeat them piecemeal. By May 14, Grant had the city of Jackson, cutting off Pemberton and denying Johnston a base from which to mount any counterattack. Grant turned west where Pemberton had now decided to advance in an attempt to find the non-existent Union supply lines. As Grant approached, Pemberton’s army took up a defensive position at Champion’s Hill about halfway between Vicksburg and Jackson. After a hard day of fighting, Pemberton withdrew to one more position before being pushed back again by Grant on the 17th. The Union Forces closed in on Vicksburg; following classic siege theory, Grant launched strong probing attacks against the defenses on May 19 and 22. When these were repulsed, he began established regular siege works. Pemberton was trapped. While Grant’s army tightened the lines around Vicksburg, Admiral David Farragut led forces that attacked Port Hudson, LA – the only other CSA strongpoint still intact on the Mississippi. The city held out against several attempts to storm it. By the end of May, Union ground troops under General Nathaniel Banks had also dug in for a siege. Although there were one or two battles along the siege lines, things were quiet at the two remaining Confederate strongpoints along the Mississippi. In June, the east once again became center of action. Lee’s cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart fought U.S. Cavalry at Brandy Station on the 9th. The Army of Northern Virginia captured the Union garrison at Winchester on the 15th and crossed the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry one week later. By the last week of the month, the rebels were ranging widely across central Pennsylvania with Jubal Early capturing York on the 28th. This time, though, the Army of the Potomac had not sat idly by. Once they had identified Lee’s axis of advance, Union forces shadowed their foe making sure they shielded Washington and began identifying possible sites from which to fight. Hooker was fired and replaced by General George Meade on the 27th. On the last day of June, 1863, forces from both sides were moving toward the city that would define the war for most Americans- Gettysburg. Fifty years ago during the Vietnam War, U.S. advisors and support units were still below 15,000. March Newsletter 2013 by Jamie Fischer March and April of 1863 The early spring of 1863 is yet another time period in the history of the American Civil War where no monumental battle occurs, but we can look back with knowledge of the big picture, and see various long-term patterns playing out. A good theme for this month would be the role of campaigns in secondary theaters or what some call peripheral operations- military actions not obviously aimed at a decisive point but holding the potential for larger results from minimal investments. On the coasts, the Navy and Army continued to work together to complete the blockade. They attacked coastal forts in Georgia and raided Charleston, South Carolina. They expanded the territory controlled in Louisiana. These attacks did not cause a major city or port to fall, but the anaconda plan kept squeezing tighter and tighter straining all segments of Confederate society. The greatest source of Union pressure during this period was the continued efforts around Vicksburg. General Grant and Admiral Porter directed several operations designed to tie a noose around the Gibraltar of the Confederacy. On the water, they tried to push gunboats downstream unsuccessfully in early March while Admiral Farragut headed upriver from Louisiana. Farragut lost three gunboats moving past Port Hudson on the 14th but with his flagship and one other did become the first Union forces to bypass Vicksburg. Finally, on April 16, Porter ran twelve vessels south past the city with one loss. After sending six more transports (again with one loss), this fleet linked up with Grant to begin crossing the river at the end of April. On land, Grant continued his various “schemes” to gain an approach to Vicksburg. The Yazoo Pass expedition failed. Sherman’s defeat at Black Bayou on March 24 marked the last attempt to find an unguarded water route. Grant shifted McClernand’s operations on the north side of the city from the east bank to the west. Beginning at Milliken’s Bend, they spent the next two weeks building 70 miles of roads and bridges through the swamps to the city of Hard Times, Louisiana. Their efforts allowed Grant to shift sufficient forces to begin his campaign south of Vicksburg at the beginning of May. Grant also directed his share of raids into Mississippi, the most famous of which- Grierson’s raid- succeeded in diverting forces from the defense of the Vicksburg region just as Grant was beginning his offensive. Confederate countermeasures to this pressure being felt throughout the Confederacy could not achieve their goals. Rebel forces invaded the New Mexico territory in hopes of eventually reaching sources of gold and ports in Southern California, but were turned back at the end of March. For although they won a battle at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico on the 28th, they lacked the supplies to continue advancing. Southern raids into Tennessee and Kentucky confirmed that these areas were still contested, but did little to break the grip. Famous generals Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Unionville, Tennessee early in March. John Morgan captured a Federal outpost at Mount Stirling, Kentucky, and John Pegram conducted a series of raids from March 22nd to April 1st. A cavalry force under Brigadier General John Marmaduke drove into Missouri from Arkansas in mid-April. The last notable re-action of this period occurred when a combined ground and naval force under Robert Hoke captured the Union garrison at Plymouth, NC. Union forces did not sit idly back and allow the rebels to gain the initiative in any theater. They launched their own operations into areas still in rebellion with marginal success. US cavalry raided across the Rappahannock into Virginia in order to relieve the Army of the Potomac from similar CSA attacks. A brigade-size US Cavalry raid from Tennessee across Alabama to Rome, Georgia ended in disaster as Forrest captured them before they could return to friendly lines. While the Union still remained vulnerable to a knockout blow by Rebel armies, the ever-increasing pressure was exacting a toll. Less and less Confederate territory remained immune from Union attack. The Confederate government was taking more and more drastic measures to sustain the war effort. Inflation and shortages increased. On April 2, there occurred a bread riot in Richmond. Mobs looted stores and assailed President Davis himself. Something decisive needed to be done. That something would occur in the next campaign season, in the meantime, the Army of the Potomac was advancing into the Virginia Wilderness. Lee would have to act on this threat first. On April 6, 1968, in a successful completion of Operation Pegasus, US forces broke through on land and relieved the siege at Khe Sanh. This battle had been ongoing since January when the NVA had launched attacks designed to draw off allied forces and shape conditions for the Tet Offensive. Fighting would continue until early July after US Marines had withdrawn all equipment and left the shell of the base for the NVA to capture. October Newsletter: Army History Article by Jamie Fischer. September 17, 1862: the bloodiest single day in American military history. Outside the town of Sharpsburg, MD, Robert E. Lee made his stand with his back to the Potomac River. He had originally crossed the river to take advantage of his victory at Second Bull Run and simply see what might happen. There were many possibilities- Confederate sympathizers might flock to the stars and bars, the Union Army might again blunder into a disaster that would expose Washington, DC, he could take the ravages of war out of Virginia to the untouched counties of the Old Line State, and he might give strength to peace parties seeking an to the fighting. The story before the battle is one of rapid maneuver by the rebels, great risk taking by General Lee, and Fortune smiling on the Army of the Potomac in the form of the discovery of Lee’s entire plan. With this intelligence, even the ever cautious Union General McClellan vowed, “he could whip Bobby Lee.” Yet he moved with his characteristic timidity, slowly and deliberately pushing the Confederates out of passes along South Mountain while Lee consolidated his vastly outnumbered forces for a last stand in Union Territory. On the morning of the 17th, McClellan’s forces began a series of powerful, but uncoordinated attacks along the CSA line. Beginning in the north, first I Corps, then XII, then II Corps attacked in sequence. Each came agonizingly close to splitting the invaders in half, but the rebels held. The delays between Union deployments allowed General Lee to expertly shift forces from one position to another to blunt these attacks. The prices was high on both sides with many of the engaged units losing over 50% of their strength. There was a pause of several hours after the first three waves had spent themselves and been broken by last ditch Confederate counterattacks. After a delay that most attribute to his pouting over a perceived slight, General Ambrose Burnsides’ corps finally managed to get itself across Antietam Creek. Almost due east of Sharpsburg and south of the main line of the rebel defense, this final Union attack might still have cut off Lee from the Potomac and trapped him. But this was not to be. For as US units approached the outskirts of town, AP Hill’s Division completed its forced march from Harper’s Ferry, crossed the Potomac, crested a ridge, and struck Burnsides exposed left flank. As the sun set, Lee’s, lines still held and Union forces withdrew back to the east. McClellan had undeniably failed to whip Bobby Lee, but he had certainly halted the South’s first invasion. The two sides had combined casualties of over 25,000 in roughly eight hours of fighting, of which 8,000 were killed. The Union general had operated at his normal, glacial pace but still enjoyed such an overwhelming advantage in troops that he had almost destroyed the enemy army. Despite what could have been, McClellan’s operation was good enough to claim a Union victory. Although Lee held his position one more day before retiring back into Virginia, he did end his campaign. This repulse was enough for him to surrender the strategic initiative, dim the prospects of foreign intervention, and provide President Lincoln with sufficient political capital to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at month’s end. The Battle of Antietam 150 years ago is a great battle to study. It speaks of the bravery and horror of battle. Lee’s maneuvers are a classic example of the use of interior lines. The fight and its outcome also teach us much about the link between the tactical and political realms of war. If you want to learn more, I recommend Stephen W. Sears’ Landscape Turned Red or The Antietam Campaign by John Canaan.