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World War I

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Civil War and World War I winter parallels

Civil War and World War I winter parallels

I’ve almost finished S.C. Gwynne’s excellent book Rebel Yell – The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. And the parallels between one scene set in the winter of 1862-1863 with the first winter of World War I are revealing.

The Confederate Army is camped for four and a half months over the winter after the battle of Fredericksburg near the Rappahannock River. They are free of fighting, after one of the bloodiest battles they (or anyone else in the world, for that matter) had ever seen. Similar to the first winter on the Western Front in World War I, the men of the armies on both sides have seen slaughter of their fellow man on a scale unknown.

And now they get a chance for leisure time. From pages 512-513:

Probably the most fun the soldiers had that winter were the snowball fights. Many of them had never seen snow before. Now there was lots of it, and they knew just what to do. Every time it snowed – which was frequently – there were battles, usually involving small groups of soldiers. But on a least one occasion they mounted a fight on a massive scale. Two armies were formed, of 2,500 men each, complete with authentic generals, colors, signal corps, fifers and drummers beating the long roll, couriers and cavalry. They conducted head-on assaults and flanking attacks. There were formal demands under flags of truce, and fortifications everywhere. “It was probably the greatest snowball fight ever fought,” wrote one participant, “and showed that ‘men are but children of larger growth…’. If all battles would terminate that way it would be a great improvement over the old slaughtering plan.” Robert E. Lee, who came out to observe the battle, was struck by several snowballs. The Richmond newspapers each devoted several columns to accounts of the fight.

The sweetest and saddest moment of this dreamy season came one evening when several Union bands appeared on the northern bank of the Rappahannock to play some favorites, songs such as “When This Cruel War Is Over” (by far the most popular),  “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Thousands of soldiers in groups on the hillside sang along while the rebels listened. Finally the Confederates called out across the river “Now play on of ours!” Without missing a beat the Yankee bands pitched into “Dixie”, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Maryland, My Maryland.” They ended the concert by playing “Home, Sweet Home,” with 150,00 men on both sides choking up as they sang it.

To my knowledge and limited research, this did not happen again during the war.

Similarly in World War I, the Germans and British held an informal Christmas truce at several places along the front, that supposedly started with the singing of Christmas carols. As this article from Time says:

“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­ two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.

The phenomenon took different forms across the Western front. One account mentions a British soldier having his hair cut by his pre-war German barber; another talks of a pig-roast. Several mention impromptu kick-abouts with makeshift soccer balls, although, contrary to popular legend, it seems unlikely that there were any organized matches.

The truce was widespread but not universal. Evidence suggests that in many places firing continued and in at least two a truce was attempted but soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces.

And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Hostilities returned, in some places later that day and in others not until after New Year’s Day. “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one veteran from the Fifth Batallion the Black Watch, Alfred Anderson, later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.” As the Great War resumed, it wreaked such destruction and devastation that soldiers became hardened to the brutality of the war. While there were occasional moments of peace throughout the rest of World War I, they never again came on the scale of the Christmas truce in 1914.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is far more publicized than what Gwynne relates in his book on the winter of 1862-63. But both should be remembered as signs of hope and humanity during a time of massive slaughter never seen before their times.


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Letters from World War I – Corporal Ellis Edmond “Dutch” Ketchersid

My Grandfather was in the 132 Machine Gun Battalion in the 36th Division, First Army, sent to France in World War I. He passed away in 1982, and somehow I was the recipient of several of his World War I moments: a 48-star flag; the roster book from his Company “B”; a shell; and an Argentine Mauser, circa 1890s. Through his letters (which I have from my father) and through an excellent article called Panthers to Arrowheads: The 36th (Texas-Oklahoma) Division In World War I by Lonnie J. White, I pieced together much of his journey. I wish I would have asked him more.

Born in October of 1893, he was near his 24th birthday when he became part of the 132nd Machine Gun Battalion, which was formed in October 1917 at Camp Bowie, Texas from the 1st, 2nd and 7th Regiments of Texas Infantry and the 1st Regiment of Oklahoma Infantry. From Mr. White’s article:

Major Preston Weatherred was assigned command of the 132nd, and he would many years later command the Texas National GuardState pride was so great in both Guards that Texas officials sought as early as May, 1917, the permission of Secretary Baker to form a purely Texas division, and Oklahomans in July applied political pressure to have their Guardsmen trained in Oklahoma. The new divisional arrangement was particularly galling to the 1st Oklahoma, the pride of the Sooner state, whose recruits had been promised during the summer enlistment campaign that the regiment would retain its state identity. To make matters worse, the 1st Oklahoma was not to form a separate regiment, but was to be merged with the 7th Texas Infantry to comprise the 142nd Infantry.

Of the Oklahoma officers, the most upset was Lieutenant Colonel Jayne, who complained that there would “be no Oklahoma unit anywhere.” There were “so many Texas regiments” that they cannot lose their identity, merely taking different numerals.” Captain A. H. Drake of Childress, 7th Texas Infantry, perhaps reflected the sentiment of the Texans in his statement that the 1st Oklahomans “will not lose their identity any more than we will.” The 7th Texas would not be known as such “any more either.”

Oklahomans at home felt strongly enough about the matter to seek redress in Washington. Their efforts were to no avail, for Secretary Baker in a meeting with “prominent Oklahomans” on September 29 flatly refused to budge from the War Department’s decision to renumber the divisional units without reference to states. Consequently, Blakely’s order stood, though he was constrained, owing to the furor, to amend it to move back the date for the completion of consolidation and removal of the Guardsmen to their new unit locations at Camp Bowie to October 15.

Jayne was presumably so distressed that he took a 10-day furlough, leaving Bloor as the new commanding officer of the 142nd to deal with the unruly Oklahomans in the best way he could. Fortunately for Bloor, General Hoffman, who had every reason to be as dissatisfied with the rearrangement of units, which left his brigade without a single Oklahoma organization, as Jayne, urged the men of his former regiment in a farewell speech to accept consolidation. Standing on “a dry goods box” on October 12, Hoffman told the 1st Oklahoma troops, who were gathered around him, that orders “were orders, and you are soldiers.” He wanted them “to be friendly to the men of the Seventh” and to accept their new commander whom he declared was “one of the best colonels in the American Army.” Following Hoffman’s remarks, Bloor welcomed the Oklahomans to the 142nd and asked them as “experienced veterans” to assist the green Texans in becoming soldiers. “We want to make this the best regiment in camp.”

The troops began training in trench warfare. In November, a cold front blew in on Camp Bowie, which the camp was not prepared for. Pneumonia, measles and meningitis hit the crowded camp. Again, from Mr. White’s article: (more…)

The World Crisis by Winston Churchill (Part 1: 1911 - 1914)

The World Crisis by Winston Churchill (Part 1: 1911 – 1914)

Winston Churchill was a prolific author, and received the Nobel prize in Literature in 1953. His more well know historical works are his six volume memoirs of the Second World War, and his four volume History of the English Speaking Peoples. Both of these sit upon my shelves, but I started with his lesser known history/memoir of World War I, The World Crisis.

Though I am reading the “Abridged and Revised Edition, With an Additional Chapter on The Battle of the Marne”, I’m making my notes in accordance with The World Crisis‘ original separated books (that, and the fact that the book is longer than my memory). The Abridgment contains the first four volumes:

  • Volume 1: 1911 – 1914
  • Volume 2: 1915
  • Volume 3: 1916-1918
  • Volume 4: The Eastern Front

Volume 5, The Aftermath, is not included in the Abridged version, and is difficult to find. If anyone has a spare copy, they are welcomed to speed it my way.

The first volume was published in 1923, with the last volume and the Abridgment in 1931. Initially it was to only cover the Admiralty and the naval war with Germany, but expanded to cover the full of the war, including Churchill’s defense of his own actions in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli (the genesis for these volumes, according to the intro from Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert) and Churchill’s disdain for the decisions in the trench warfare stage.

As opposed to an event by event history, this is more of an observer’s record, with the observer in this case having a front row seat to the Admiralty, the fall of Antwerp and other events. It falls short it detailing some of the non-naval happenings at the beginning, and it is certainly biased; but it is an excellent read, infused with Churchill’s passion. (more…)

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