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Subject: ‘World War 1’

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The tragedy of Gallipoli almost ruined Churchill’s career

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, World War 1 on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about the First World War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Gallipoli, picture, image, illustration
The landings at Gallipoli by Andrew Howat

Every time the candidate got up to speak at an election meeting, several people in the audience would shout: “What about the Dardanelles?” The uproar continued right through the campaign that October in 1923, and, when Polling Day came, Winston Churchill was soundly defeated, losing his seat in Parliament for the first time since he had entered the House of Commons in 1900.

His enemies – and he had plenty of them – laughed gleefully at his downfall. Clearly, he was finished, his career in ruins. Anyone who had suggested at the time that he would one day save his country, as he did in the Second World War in 1940, would have been laughed to scorn.

Churchill, so his opponents claimed, was the man most responsible for one of the most scandalous disasters of the First World War of 1914-18, the Dardanelles Campaign in which there were nearly a quarter of a million casualties, British, Australian, New Zealand and French. An American wrote of it in the 1920s: “It is doubtful if even Great Britain could survive another world war and another Churchill!” And the official Australian war historian of the day had attacked Churchill savagely in print.

Amongst other charges, the Australian had flayed him for lack of imagination. Yet today, his Dardanelles scheme, though it failed tragically, is widely considered to have been one of the only inspired ideas in the long nightmare that was the First World War.

By 1915, there was stalemate on the Western Front in France and Flanders, with seemingly endless trenches stretching from the Channel to the Swiss border. Millions of Germans faced millions of Frenchmen and Britons across the barbed wire, mud and desolation of no-man’s land.

The only tactic dreamt up by baffled or incompetent generals was the occasional bloody frontal attack against machine guns and barbed wire, which gained at the most a few hundred yards at a colossal cost in lives. The object seemed to be to go on killing Germans (or vice versa) until there were none left to kill, leaving the handful of survivors on the other side as the victors.

But there was one possible way to change all this. The first to think of it was Lieutenant-Colonel Hankey, Secretary of the War Council of statesmen and soldiers and sailors who were running the war. Turkey had sided with Germany and Austria while Russia had joined Britain and France, and the Russians wanted the pressure relieved on their hard-pressed front. Hankey thought that if a fleet could sail through the Dardanelles – the narrow channel dividing Asian from European Turkey and leading into the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea – the fabulous capital city of Constantinople could be taken, Turkey knocked out of the war, and the Russians helped. Most of all, Germany could be attacked from the rear through the Balkans.

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Francis Brett Young became a great writer about Africa

Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, Literature, Medicine, World War 1 on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Francis Brett Young first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Francis Brett Young,  picture, image, illustration
Francis Brett Young leading his wounded patients to safety

They cut back the thorn bushes and unloaded the panniers from the mules. It was not the best place for a dressing-station but it would have to serve.

The Maxims were crackling ahead of them and other machine guns stammered suddenly. The first wounded were stumbling in and Francis Brett Young, the medical officer, was soon busy, stripping off field-dressings and checking the classification of wounds. He caught a brief glimpse of men filing up to the line; their helmets bore the striped brown flash of the Rhodesians. Then his orderlies warned him that supplies of water were low. He sent them to fill cans at the river. They scampered back empty-handed. German askaris, they babbled, had crossed to this bank and were approaching. At that moment rifles barked nearby. A wounded soldier coming out of his morphine doze, began to scream: ‘They’re coming! They’re coming.’

Ask most people about the First World War and they will tell you at once of the horrors of the Western Front, of Gallipoli and of Lawrence in Arabia. But the war reached the farthest limits of the British empire and men from the British colonies in Africa soon found themselves embroiled. British, Rhodesian, Indian and South African troops fought the Germans in the Cameroons, in Togoland and in German South West Africa.

The longest African campaign was in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania), where, under the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the imperial forces were held at bay by the brilliant German commander, Von Lettow-Vorbeck. The campaign had begun badly with a seaborne assault on the port of Tanga, at the head of a valuable railway. It failed disastrously. For the next year the campaign was bogged down until the South African leader Jan Smuts took command and, with a series of lighting moves, took the initiative once more.

In May 1916 Smuts ordered a second attack on Tanga, this time by land. The allies had to cut their way through the worst sorts of terrain – stretches of impenetrable bush, dense forests and stinking swamps. They had to drive the Germans and their native troops (askaris) from strongly-held positions. And they had to survive countless forms of disease. This last enemy was the worst. So much depended on the extent to which medical officers like the 32-year-old Brett Young could keep the assault force up to fighting strength.

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Corporal York began his military career as a conscientious objector

Posted in America, Bravery, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

One man with a rifle and a six-shooter against a whole German machine-gun battalion . . .

That was the line-up for one of the most sensational battles in the history of warfare.

For, single-handed, that one man killed 25 Germans, and captured four officers and 128 men. And then he marched them back through the German front-line into his own lines.

When his officers saw him, they couldn’t believe their eyes, and an inquiry was ordered into the exploit of Corporal York (later promoted sergeant) of the United States Infantry.

Sworn statements were taken from American and German soldiers. It was all true.

Yet York began his military career as a conscientious objector.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, he applied for exemption from military service on the grounds that killing was against his religion.

Despite many appeals, he was called up, and in March, 1918, Private York was in training as an infantryman.

He still believed that he would refuse to fight, until something that happened on one of his leaves changed his mind. In his Tennessee drawl, he has recalled that event.

“I went out on to the mountainside and asked Him sorter straight from the shoulder . . . I knelt down and I prayed and prayed all afternoon, through the night and part of the next day. And as I prayed there alone a great calm came over me and I received my assurance. He heard my prayer and He came to me on the mountainside. I arose and thanked Him and went home over the mountains singing a hymn.”

Private York went back to his unit and said: “God wills that I should fight and that I’ll come back unharmed.”

By the end of May he was in France. By the time his unit was moved up for the battle of the Argonne Forest, he had been promoted corporal.

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Gordon Campbell V.C., scourge of the German U-boats

Posted in Bravery, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

 HMS Farnborough,
British Q-ship HMS Farnborough by Graham Coton

She could have been the original “dirty little collier with a salt-caked smoke-stack.” She was about as shabby looking as any ship that ever put to sea, and the grey Atlantic waves upon which she rolled under a leaden sky did nothing to enhance her appearance.

She was called H.M.S. Farnborough and on that gloomy March day in 1916, when the sea was filled with predatory U-boats, the commander of U-38 watched her through his periscope and chuckled to himself at the ease of the kill which she presented.

Leisurely, the German submarine captain fired a torpedo. It missed. Suppressing a bored yawn, he surfaced. He would finish the wretched collier with his guns.

On board H.M.S. Farnborough all was panic and confusion as the crew leapt into the lifeboats. One boat slipped awkwardly and hung stern down in the water, adding to the terror. The U-boat captain watched indifferently from 800 yards away as he ordered his gunners to take action stations.

Then, in the next few seconds, occurred one of the astonishing scenes of the First World War.

From the bridge of H.M.S. Farnborough, her captain, Lieut.-Commander Gordon Campbell, rapped out a terse order. Suddenly, one side of the dirty collier dropped downwards on well-oiled hinges and four lethal looking long-range guns spat out a fusillade of fire.

Within a minute the submarine had dived desperately below the waves. But she was out of control and like a drowning man came up again, head first, to reveal a great jagged rent along her superstructure – a rent caused by the collier’s concealed guns. Then U-38 slid beneath the surface for ever.

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Edward VII reigned over an Empire on which the sun was soon to set

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, World War 1 on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about King Edward VII first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Edward VII and Alexandra,  picture, image, illustration
Edward VII was coolly received by the Parisians, but they soon warmed to him and Queen Alexandra, by Clive Uptton

Towards the end of King Edward the Seventh’s reign – he died in 1910 – a London couple, sensitive and intelligent, found themselves in the small hours of the morning, standing on a balcony of a great house where a splendid ball was all but over. There was a hush over the city and stars were bright in the sky. They stood in silence for a while, and then the wife said: “Do you feel something dreadful is going to happen?”

Her husband took her arm. “Yes,” he said. “What it will be I don’t know, but it’s coming.”

The “it” turned out to be the most senseless and meaningless holocaust in history. They called it The Great War. But, in the meantime, there upon the throne, growing paunchier month by month and smoking more and more cigars, sat Edward the “Peacemaker,” “Good Old Teddy.” The men and women in the streets could almost be heard chanting: “There’ll be no war as long as we’ve a king like good King Edward.”

Edward, of course, like all constitutional monarchs since earlier rougher days “reigned but did not rule.” And he reigned in a most human and humane manner. One of his very first acts was to turn one wing of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s marine residence in the Isle of Wight, into a convalescent home for officers. The King Edward’s Hospital Fund called into being both a hospital for officers in London, and, at Midhurst in Surrey, the famous sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. By these things is he remembered, and for his declaration, “My greatest ambition is not to quit this world until a real cure for cancer has been found.”

An ambition which, alas, he did not achieve.

What he did achieve was to make Britain reasonably well respected, if not actually loved, in the eyes of most of the world after the end of the Boer War. Although this whole miserable business was virtually over just before Edward came to the throne, and the main Boer armies defeated, handfuls of those annoying Dutch farmers just wouldn’t give in. Like angry hornets, the Boer “commandos” under their brilliant guerrilla leader, General de Wet, went on harassing the military might of Britain. Only by dividing the country into areas, and studding them with over 8,000 block-houses, did Lord Kitchener finally prevail.

But Britain had become almost the laughing-stock of the civilised world. Most of Europe was pro-Boer, and, what was even more embarrassing quite a multitude of British people were as well. It was not the happiest of situations which Edward inherited.

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Siegfried Sassoon’s poems revealed the brutality of WW1

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, World War 1 on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about Siegfried Sassoon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

World war One battlefield,  picture, image, illustration
When Night Sets in the Sun is Down by Richard Caton Woodville Jr

He was known in the British 7th Division as “Mad Jack” so reckless was his courage. He won a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded lance corporal under heavy fire from almost in front of the German trenches. He was later recommended for the V.C., after leading a small bombing party to retake a trench which had been lost by men of another regiment. Though wounded in the throat, he continued bombing until he collapsed, but, because the Germans later re-took the trench he was awarded another Military Cross instead of the V.C.

But the classic, maddest exploit of Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers, was when he captured a German trench single-handed after men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had failed to take it the day before. With two men giving him covering fire, he stormed into the trench, hurling bombs and chased away the surviving occupants, before settling down to read a book of poetry!

Instead of signalling for reinforcements, he had a good read, then sauntered back to the British lines, failing to report to his Colonel. The Colonel was furious when he heard about the exploit, having delayed an attack because he had been told that British patrols were out in no-man’s land. The “patrols” were Mad Jack Sassoon, equipped with bombs and poems. “You’d have won a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) if you’d shown more sense!” roared the angry colonel.

How then did it come about that this born soldier, who seemed the happy warrior of story books, became a pacifist who went on strike in 1917 in the most dramatic way he could think of? Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) lives on today as one of the greatest of all war poets, but the story of his startling breaking of the rules is as remarkable as any of his biting anti-war poems.

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In 1919 German sailors struck one final blow for the Fatherland

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Scapa Flow 1919,  picture, image, illustration
The German sailors at Scapa Flow opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the entire German Fleet on the instructions of Rear-Admiral Reuter, by Graham Coton

Seven months had passed since the guns had ceased firing on the Western Front. The soldiers had come home, and the politicians were just about to sign The Treaty of Versailles. The war to end all wars was over, and the British people were preparing to go on a gigantic spree which was to last well into the twenties.

It was the month of June, 1919, and for the British, at least, the horrors of the past four years were beginning to recede. But for the German people it was a very different matter. The twin spectres of poverty and hunger stalked the land, and inflation was around the corner. But worse still, perhaps, was the hopeless sense of defeat that pervaded the whole nation which was also all too conscious that The Treaty of Versailles was about to heap further humiliations upon them. If any people needed something to boost their morale, they were the Germans at this point in their history. As it happened, something was about to occur which was to cheer them up immeasurably.

Towards the end of 1918, when the terms of the armistice were still under discussion, the question of the internment of the German Fleet had been thoroughly examined, and it had finally been decided that the Fleet should be interned at Scapa Flow, a landlocked anchorage in the Orkney Islands. In due course the German Fleet, consisting of 74 ships and valued at £60,000,000 had arrived. And there it had stayed, while the Powers wrangled among themselves as to what should be done with them. France asked that they should be divided among the victorious nations, America suggested that they should be sold as scrap, and Britain put forward the idea that they should all be sunk. Six months later, they were still arguing among themselves.

Meanwhile, the German sailors at Scapa Flow were understandably growing more and more weary of the life they were being forced to lead. Technically, they were free German citizens, but in reality they were little better than prisoners of war. Condemned to be caretakers until the Powers decided what was to be done with the ships, they spent their days cleaning and polishing, or wandering aimlessly around the decks under the constant surveillance of the British drifters patrolling the waters of the Scapa Flow. It was a situation which was not helped by the instructions which the Admiralty had given the drifters. Any boat leaving a ship and attempting to land was to be fired upon, and, if necessary, sunk.

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The Western Front was one long siege with two trench systems

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons, World War 1 on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about modern warfare first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 570 published on 16 December 1972.

The Trenches,  picture, image, illustration
A British trench on the Western Front by Andrew Howat

It took many years of suffering before armies learned just what a difference the new weapons made to siege warfare. At a time when soldiers still dressed in bright colours and most people thought of war as a gallant succession of cavalry charges, trench warfare was hardly likely to stir the popular imagination. There was certainly nothing very picturesque about an army grubbing in the ground like moles!

In the early 1860s the American Civil War had proved that the new fire-power could only be countered by trenches, breastworks and rifle pits, but Europe’s professional soldiers refused to learn from a war that they regarded as having been fought by amateurs.

Plevna changed all that. There, in what is now Bulgaria, Osman Pasha defended the crumbling Turkish Empire from the growing might of Russia. Though Turkey was called The Sick Man of Europe, she was served by tough soldiers and skilful generals. On June 3rd, 1877 the Russian artillery opened fire on the fortress-city of Plevna. The Russian bombardment was particularly intense against an isolated but strongly entrenched outwork known as the Grivitza Redoubt. After hours of shelling the Russian assault began. The crack Penza Regiment led the way followed by the Kosloff, 17th, 18th, Tamboff and Galitz Regiments.

They reached the redoubt to meet a devastating barrage of small-arms fire as the grim-faced Turks rose up from behind their battered earthworks. Thousands died and the Russian attack was a costly failure – earthworks and rifles had won the day.

Everyone learned the lesson except the British who had to endure a sharp lesson of their own from the sharp-shooting Boers of South Africa. Accurate Boer rifle fire repeatedly broke up well disciplined British attacks. Yet in the end the British did learn and went even further than their foes, using barbed wire and block houses to defeat the mobile Boers.

Meanwhile the nations of Europe were experimenting with new types of fortress. The Franco-Prussian War had already demonstrated what heavy artillery could do to the old citadels of Europe, just as effectively as Osman Pasha’s stand at Plevna had proved the power of massed rifle fire against infantry assault.

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Kaiser Willie believed his U boats would defeat the British

Posted in America, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

Lusitania,  picture, image, illustration
The German submarine U20 at the sinking of the Lusitania

When the lookout saw the torpedo’s tell-tale tracks and shouted, it was too late. The giant liner shuddered as an explosion tore a gaping hole in her side. Within seconds stokers and engineers were enveloped in scalding steam as the in-rushing sea reached furnaces and boilers exploded.

The passengers, shocked and numbed by the suddenness of the events, gathered at their boat stations. Then, as the ship began to list to starboard, two boats were lowered, quickly but unevenly over the sides, so that they tipped throwing their occupants into the water. A few minutes more and the liner’s list to starboard was so acute that it was no longer possible to lower boats from the port side.

Then, as the angle grew even steeper, passengers began to jump from the ship’s decks, while many who had rushed below to collect belongings were trapped as cabin doors jammed and furniture scythed across lower decks blocking the companionways. Now the ship’s bows began to dip and men, women and children could do nothing but cling to the tilting deck.

As they struggled to pull away those in lifeboats saw the giant liner’s four propellers rise clear of the water. She seemed to pause there for a moment, before sliding faster and faster, stem first, beneath the wreckage strewn water – sucking swimmers down in a swirling vortex that marked her passing.

In the German submarine, U20, the commander, scuttling from the scene of action, entered in his log “. . . I hoisted the periscope. Far behind a number of boats were rowing on the open sea. There was no longer any trace of the Lusitania.”

In eighteen minutes in the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the 31,500 ton, unarmed, Cunard Liner Lusitania had been sunk without warning within sight of the Irish coast. She went with 1,198 people – 291 of them were women, 94 were children and 124 were American neutrals.

The German High Command’s instructions to disregard the maritime rules of war, which did not permit the sinking of merchant ships without prior warning and care for the lives of passengers and crews, had resulted in the mass murder of over 1,000 noncombatants by a German U boat.

The news of this barbarity horrified the world. In Britain, a wave of anti-German feeling culminated in protest riots.

It brought the Americans to the verge of war. In fact so strong was the American protest that the Germans, fearing America would enter the war on the side of the British, modified their orders to submarine commanders.

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America court-martialled her most visionary military patriot

Posted in America, Aviation, Ships, Weapons, World War 1, World War 2 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

William Mitchell in WW1,  picture, image, illustration
William Mitchell and the bombers of World War I by Graham Coton

The ex-German submarine, U-117, could be seen lying at anchor as the mist rose off the calm waters beyond the Virginian coastline. Near the sub – but not too near – were ships of the United States Atlantic Fleet, and on the decks of one of them, the Henderson, were Congressmen, Government officials, admirals, generals and observers from foreign countries, all staring at the once-sinister sub.

Suddenly, everyone looked skywards. The best American bombers, fragile and out-of-date, were heading for their target. For the first time, aircraft were going to try to sink a ship. Actually, there were four targets, only one of which was to be attacked that June day in 1921. The others, due for later assaults, included the “unsinkable” veteran of the Battle of Jutland, the battleship Ostfriesland.

The planes were led by Brigadier-General William Mitchell who had had the “ridiculous” idea that ships without air cover could be sunk by planes. Service chiefs thought him mad, though he was a war hero and was now Assistant Chief of Military Aviation of the U.S. Army, and therefore a man to whom they had to listen. But now they were lined up to enjoy his anticipated downfall.

Instead, in a matter of minutes, twelve small bombs had sent the U-boat to the bottom. But this great moment in the history of warfare was dismissed by one admiral with a sneering, “It proves nothing. Our guns could have sunk it in half the time!”

This was the beginning of a saga which resulted in the greatest prophet in the story of military flying being court-martialled and disgraced, and then to die shortly before his theories were proved right in the most dramatic way imaginable.

“Billy” Mitchell had joined the army in 1898. Later, he met the Wright Brothers, who, in 1903, achieved the first manned, powered flight, and he became keenly interested in flying. In the First World War, which the U.S.A. entered in 1917, he was the first American to fly over enemy lines.

He had an uncanny vision of the shape of aerial warfare to come, visualising a whole division of soldiers being dropped by parachute from 1,200 bombers. In fact, he was 20 years ahead of his time.

Yet even if his advanced ideas could not be put into practice, the air attacks he organised were great successes. But he ended the war convinced that the U.S. Army Air Force had been betrayed. Despite huge sums granted it, only 196 planes, many of them “flying coffins,” had reached France by the end of the war.

More urgent was the future. After several years of campaigning which did not even convince the brighter brass hats, he at last got permission for his demonstration.

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