South-East Asia Air War Outside of Vietnam

The Air Campaign in Laos

The air war transcended the borders of Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia, where similar insurgencies threatened the two royal governments. While each air campaign was considered a sideshow to the war in Vietnam, both provided vital assistance to America’s allies who were each fighting a growing Communist threat. The air war in Laos was significantly connected to the air campaigns in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Royal Laotian Government required American assistance in fighting its own insurgents, the Pathet Lao, while the southern region of Laos served as a conduit between North and South Vietnam and Cambodia via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As a result, the air war was divided into two distinct missions: ground support in the north and interdiction in the south.

After the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the United States decided once again to increase involvement in the struggle between the Pathet Lao and forces loyal to the Royal Laotian Government. American aircraft had already been engaged in northern Laos, flying armed reconnaissance missions in support of neutralist generals Kong Le and Vang Pao, both of whom were loyal to the Royal Laotian Government. The Government forces relied on American firepower, through Operation Barrel Roll, to serve as an equalizer to the better-equipped and motivated Pathet Lao, North Vietnamese, and occasional Chinese forces involved in the fight.

Interdiction was the predominant type of air sortie in the south. Operation Steel Tiger, which began on April 3, 1965, focused on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using existing intelligence, aircraft bombed the trails and roads, conveys, and depots established in military regions III and IV. Despite the high number of sorties flown and tonnage dropped, North Vietnamese traffic through Laos actually increased. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was of the highest strategic value for the war in Vietnam, and resources were diverted to the region to maintain trail activity. On December 6, 1965, part of the Steel Tiger area of responsibility was handed over to General Westmoreland to better coordinate air and ground interdiction missions. Operation Tiger Hound concentrated on interdiction, but also focused on the need to bottleneck North Vietnamese supplies at the major passes between North Vietnam and Laos. Even if the United States could not destroy the Trail complex, it could at least slow down the progression of supplies and personnel.

When Johnson halted bombing missions over North Vietnam in November 1968, Laos was the beneficiary of a surplus of aircraft and personnel. As a result, the United States shifted operations to Laos and initiated Operation Commando Hunt on November 15, 1968. The objective of this air campaign was interdiction and focused on the region between the 16th and 18th parallels. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had developed from a series of foot-trails to a well-established network of roads, trails, and pathways with truck stops, storage facilities, and rest areas, was the primary target. Commando Hunt created a serious obstacle to the movement of personnel and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but it did not achieve its ultimate objective of shutting down the transit system. The air operation did throw off the North Vietnamese timetable for its 1969 offensive, and provided a period of time for Nixon’s Vietnamization program to develop. In the end, however, it did not prove to be a deciding factor in the war’s conclusion.

American air asserts were next challenged during the failed Lam Son 719 operation in which the United States attempted to test Vietnamization using South Vietnamese troops to capture the strategic Laotian town of Tchepone. United States efforts were hampered by the December 1970 Cooper-Church Amendment to the defense appropriations bill, which prohibited American troops from entering Laos or American advisors from accompanying their ARVN counterparts into action. However, the amendment did not include air assets. While the ground operation failed, American helicopters managed to extract a number of soldiers from their precarious positions deep within Laotian territory, losing more than 100 of the aircraft in the process.

The Laotian air campaigns are noteworthy for the several variables that restricted American action. As a result of the 1962 Geneva Agreements that underwrote Laotian neutrality, most of the United States missions were not publicized. This secret war in Laos made it difficult to expose North Vietnamese violations of Laotian neutrality, as American personnel and aircraft were not technically allowed in that air space. Topography and weather also played an important role in the air campaigns. Laos was a rugged country with a primitive road network and a monsoon season that dictated the opportunity, and type, of air sorties. The wet season, April to November, isolated troops on both sides as the dirt roads turned to mud and the rivers became impassable. The numerically inferior Royal Laotian Army used American air mobility during this season to launch offensive operations against the Pathet Lao. Transporting the royal forces by air, American aircraft bypassed the quagmire created by the monsoons to engage isolated Pathet Lao units who were often cut off from retreat or reinforcement. During the dry season, November to April, United States airpower was used defensively to help against the numerically superior and offensively minded Pathet Lao and NVA troops.

While the air campaign in Laos failed to achieve its objectives, it was a necessary part of the United States’ war in Vietnam. Laos was strategically significant to the war in Vietnam and was also experiencing an insurgency within its borders. To aid South Vietnam but neglect Laos would have been an anathema to American foreign policy. There were over 500,000 American sorties and 2 million tons of munitions delivered on Laos during the course of the air campaign. While this was not enough to maintain the government or interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it did force the North Vietnamese to divert a tremendous amount of resources to the region to maintain the Pathet Lao and keep the Trail open. It is certain that the North Vietnamese needed these resources for the war in South Vietnam and the diversion proved costly for the North Vietnamese war effort.

As the American war in Vietnam wound down, so did the air war in Laos. On February 21, 1975, the United States signed a cease-fire agreement with the Pathet Lao. By August, the Pathet Lao had overrun the country and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The Air War in Cambodia

Cambodia also presented a unique challenge to the United States in Southeast Asia. Under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia had pledged neutrality in the Vietnam War but, through its actions, had established a close, and profitable, alliance with North Vietnam. By allowing North Vietnamese supplies and personnel to transit the country, as well as ignoring the establishment of Viet Cong base areas along the Cambodian–South Vietnam border, Cambodia had exposed itself to the brunt of American escalation. The Johnson administration failed to react to these blatant violations of neutrality, and did not make any response to the changing stance of Sihanouk. It was not until Richard Nixon entered the White House that American airpower was brought to bear on Cambodia. While the air campaign in Cambodia was effective, it arrived too late to change the course of the Vietnam War, and helped to push Cambodia toward a dark and torturous future.

In July 1968, General Creighton Abrams, who had assumed command of MACV, requested an air campaign to destroy the North Vietnamese sanctuaries that had been established within a three- to ten-mile area inside the Cambodian border. Operation Menu, broken down into missions called Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dessert, and Snack, commenced on March 18, 1969. Because Cambodia still proclaimed neutrality in the war, Menu remained secret until May 2, 1970 when The New York Times ran a story about the damage inflicted by the air campaign. During Menu, American and South Vietnamese aircraft delivered approximately 120,000 tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese base areas. While the sanctuaries were not permanently destroyed, the bombing did disrupt the planned 1969 offensive against South Vietnam, which was to originate from Cambodia.

On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced that the United States had begun a limited incursion into Cambodia, with the objective of locating and destroying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel and base areas. The incursion had come at the request of Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, who had succeeded in replacing Sihanouk on March 18, 1970. During the offensive, there were 12 named air operations concentrating around two of the points of incursion, the Parrot’s Beak and the Fish Hook. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel, base areas, and supply depots were located and destroyed; however, the main fighting forces were not. Airpower did play a decisive role, however, in limiting American and South Vietnamese casualties during the 60-day operation.

As the incursion continued, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formulated a new air campaign designed to interdict North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attempting to enter South Vietnam via Cambodia. Operation Freedom Deal, which absorbed Menu, concentrated on the area of greatest concern for the Cambodian Army and American armed forces. Freedom Deal was marked by the conflicting nature of the air war. It relied on quick and accurate intelligence to strike at the enemy, but also took great care not to damage or destroy culturally significant structures or artifacts in the region. In many respects, the United States tried to fight a culturally sensitive war against an enemy who used this restriction to its advantage. As the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began to avoid Freedom Deal strike areas, General Abrams expanded and renamed the operation to Freedom Action.

Freedom Action began on June 20, and stopped at the end of the month when the last of the American forces withdrew from Cambodia. This air campaign, which delivered approximately 384,000 tons of munitions combined with the incursion, did disrupt North Vietnam’s ability to use Cambodia as a launching point for further attacks directed against South Vietnam. After 1970, the United States used its airpower to aid the Royal Cambodia Government in its battle against the Khmer Rouge, a Communist insurgency similar to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. After the incursion, the Khmer Rouge became more of a threat to Cambodia’s stability as the North Vietnamese provided greater assistance to the group. While American airpower continued to serve as an equalizer, it did not diminish the insurgency. FANK forces became dependent on American military assistance and airpower in their fight. When this support was halted as a result of the Public Law 93-53, which prohibited the funding of United States operations in Cambodia after August 15, 1973, the Khmer Rouge swept through Cambodia. Lon Nol’s forces surrendered on April 17, 1975 and, when Phnom Penh fell, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, ushered in a reign of terror unprecedented in that country’s long history.

Air War in South Vietnam

While the air campaigns in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam required an extraordinary effort to maintain, they did not match the variety of air assets used in South Vietnam. The United States dominated the skies and, as a result, was able to effectively utilize airpower not only for attack and ground support but also in a variety of ways that buttressed the American effort in Southeast Asia. Airmobility, search-and-rescue, defoliation, and tactical airlift all played a significant role in the air war and allowed the United States to use its resources effectively. The greatest advantage the United States held was in firepower, which became an important part of the ground support mission in South Vietnam.

The nature of the United States’ build-up in South Vietnam, one of gradualism, coupled with the strategy of attrition (that is, destroying more of the enemy than he can replace) increased the significance of ground support missions in South Vietnam. Over a six-year period, from 1963 to 1968, American forces in Southeast Asia increased from 16,000 to 543,000. After the introduction of combat forces in March 1965, the mission changed from advice and defense to limited, and then active, engagement of the enemy. The objective of the air war in South Vietnam was to apply continuous pressure on the enemy as American forces built up strength, and to support the overall attrition strategy. As a result, airpower was present in all named military ground operations throughout the war. Because the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong seldom concentrated in force for a long period of time, direct military engagements were brief and the delineation of battlefronts was often blurred. American airpower, often in the form of ground support missions, helped the United States forces identify, locate, and then destroy enemy targets while lessening the exposure to American troops. Within this air campaign, Arc Light missions became one of the United States’ most potent, if not controversial, weapons.

Using B-52 bombers, the Strategic Air Command initiated Arc Light missions on June 18, 1965 in South Vietnam. The B-52 was noteworthy for the amount of munitions it could deliver over a target. As General Westmoreland described them, Arc Light missions were designed, “to assist in the defeat of the enemy through maximum destruction, disruption, and harassment of major control centers, supply storage facilities, logistic systems, enemy troops, and lines of communication in selected target areas.” The number of B-52 sorties supporting Arc Light missions increased during the war. By 1968, using the model F series, a flight of three B-52s over a pre-determined target could deliver approximately 114,750lb of munitions. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong stationed in South Vietnam did not have an effective defense against the B-52, and rarely did they receive warning of a planned attack. Surprise and the overwhelming firepower made the Arc Light missions a valuable weapon in the war, but there were some disadvantages. B-52s were not designed for precision bombing but, rather, to carry nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union. Carpeting an area with 153 750-lb bombs (each B-52F carried 51 bombs) often meant over-saturation of the target and sometimes resulted in the destruction or death of unintended targets. The mission, however, was vital to American strategy in Vietnam, and helped serve as a critical component to the American war in Southeast Asia.

If the B-52 represented American firepower in Vietnam, the helicopter became the symbol of American airmobility in the Vietnam War. Its introduction to the battlefield changed the strategy and tactics of how to fight a war. The helicopter was introduced into Vietnam in December 1961 as a means to move ARVN troops. As the war escalated, its role increased. The UH-1 Iroquois was the most recognized helicopter of the war. The “Huey” was a utility helicopter and was modified for a number of missions beyond transportation, including fire support, search-and-rescue, medical evacuation, defoliation, and reconnaissance missions. Another helicopter employed in the war was the AH-1 Cobra.

Usually organized into assault helicopter companies or within two airmobile divisions, the helicopter was a formidable weapon of the air war because of its significant firepower capability. Helicopters served as a troop multiplier when the United States was building up its forces, and an equalizer to the many obstacles and hazards presented by Vietnam’s topography. The helicopter made it possible for American forces and their allies to operate in the rice paddies, highlands, jungles, and bush of Vietnam.

The ability to move troops over inhospitable terrain quickly often resulted in surprising enemy forces. Rather than have to exhaust a force by land movement, the helicopter brought fresh troops to the field of battle and extracted casualties. The helicopter, as well as a dedicated fleet of fixed-wing transport aircraft, enabled the resupply of remote sites and forces operating in areas inaccessible by land. Airmobility allowed the United States to take the battle to the enemy, even if it meant that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would have the option of choosing the terrain on which to engage the United States. As a result, there was no place in South Vietnam that was free from the threat of an American operation.

Another air campaign in South Vietnam involved the dispensing of herbicides to clear vegetation used by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to their advantage. By destroying the brush around heavily used roads, base camps, and villages, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were exposed to American and South Vietnamese firepower. These defoliation missions also destroyed food supplies used by the Southern insurgents to sustain themselves during the war. The first defoliation mission occurred on November 28, 1961, in response to Viet Cong ambushes in the Mekong Delta. The United States Air Force modified six C-123 aircraft for the mission, which was deemed successful enough for continuation. The herbicide missions came under a new operation called Ranch Hand, which began on January 12, 1962. While the United States attempted many different types of defoliation missions, to include hand- and helicopter-mounted spray units, the slow-moving, but steady, C-123 proved to be the most efficient aircraft for the mission. Ranch Hand continued until 1971, spraying millions of acres with herbicides. The mission was successful in exposing enemy locations, destroying enemy food resources, and providing safer access along contested roads and canals. The effects of the herbicides have been controversial in the postwar period: some evidence has suggested that the chemicals used in the herbicides have caused long-term disease in those exposed to the spraying. While that controversy continues to elicit intense debate, it is fair to say that the defoliation of enemy terrain lessened the threat of casualty to American soldiers and their allies during the war. If the defoliation operation raised questions about the application of airpower during the war, other missions highlighted the usefulness of American air assets.


There is perhaps no more inspiring story of duty and courage than those involved in search-and-rescue in Vietnam. Those members of the Aerospace Rescue and Recover Service and supporting personnel risked their lives to save downed pilots and assist those injured in the line of duty. They also provided reassurance that aid was never too far away for those in distress.

Search-and-rescue missions began in Vietnam on April 1, 1962, and lasted the duration of the war. As the air war escalated, search-and-rescue operations expanded to Laos and Cambodia, and included non-military organizations such as Air America, Civil Air Transport, and Continental Air Service. Personnel earned numerous distinctions, including one Medal of Honor earned by Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger for his action near Cam My on April 11, 1966. When the 1st Infantry Division engaged the enemy and began suffering casualties, Pitsenbarger’s unit was called in to assist. He rode a hoist over 100 feet to the jungle floor where he then coordinated rescue and medical efforts. Pitsenbarger continued evacuating the wounded, refusing his own extraction until all were recovered, even after one of the two helicopters assisting the effort was damaged and forced to leave the battlefield. When the Viet Cong assaulted the position, Pitsenbarger, while defending himself, continued to aid the wounded, often exposing himself to enemy fire. Despite being wounded three times, Pitsenbarger continued his duties. The fighting was so fierce that the unit suffered 80 percent casualties. When the perimeter was breached, Pitsenbarger was fatally wounded.

Pitsenbarger’s decision to stay with the troops and help the wounded, rather than evacuate, resulted in his death. As his Medal of Honor citation reads, “His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.” The courage and sacrifice of the search-and-rescue teams was remarkable; Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger was one of the many thousands whose job it was to ensure that the wounded soldier or airman received the fastest and best care available.


Whether the air war during the Vietnam War was successful is a matter of perspective. If one includes all of the air campaigns in Southeast Asia, combat as well as non-combat sorties, a positive answer is more likely. Aircraft, in a ground support role, allowed the United States to pursue a strategy of attrition, but that strategy was fraught with error. Laos and Cambodia surely would not have survived as long as they did without air assets to serve as troop multipliers and provide ground support but, in the end, each suffered a similar fate to South Vietnam.

The use of aircraft in non-military missions provided significant advances for modern warfare. Medical airlift, search-and-rescue, and tactical airlift were extremely successful, and provided services to the armed forces that were without precedent. However, neither the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam nor the interdiction missions influenced events as the United States had hoped. The air war did not stop North Vietnamese aggression, nor did it save the South. Even if one concedes that these actions were not specific to the objectives of the air campaigns, it is fair to assess the air war within these parameters. Success and failure are often measured in inches; in Vietnam, such fine distinctions are lost in the tragedy of war.



‘Cor, look at the lyddite shells bursting along Jerry’s trench,’ a look-out in the trenches east of St Julien called down from the parapet to his pals below on the afternoon of 22 April. Lyddite was a novelty, a British-patented high explosive based on picric acid that emitted puffs of yellow smoke on impact, and it was good to see ‘our guns’ pounding the enemy lines. But, as he watched, the look-out was puzzled: there was something strange about those puffs. A few seconds later he gave a louder yell: ‘Blimey, it’s not lyddite, it’s gas!’, he warned; the 2nd battalion, Lancashire Regiment, discovered they were facing a new and terrible weapon. The Germans had released 168 tons of chlorine from batteries of 6,000 cylinders along more than 4 miles of front from the Yperlee canal at Steenstraat eastwards to the Ypres–St Julien–Poelcapelle road.

To those who lived through that first experience of gas warfare, the evening of 22 April was unforgettable. Lieutenant Louis Strange of No. 6 Squadron, RFC, had a unique view: ‘I was cruising up and down over the Salient . . . watching out for gun flashes in the fading light when suddenly my attention was attracted by what appeared to be streams of yellowish-green smoke coming from the German front-line trenches. This was such a strange phenomenon that we dropped to 2,000 feet to have a good look at it. At first I was completely puzzled but finally my brain connected it with rumours about poison gas,’ he wrote in his memoirs, adding: ‘We raced back full throttle to Poperinghe.’ From there he and his observer were taken straight to V Corps headquarters to make their report to General Plumer in person.

Down in the trenches south of Langemarck a Canadian officer watched with awed fascination as two ‘greenish-yellow clouds’ filled out and, carried westward by a light wind, became a ‘bluish-white mist, such as seen over water-meadows on a frosty night’. Another Canadian, Private Underwood, was to recall how ‘It was the first gas anyone had seen or heard of’; Sergeant Dorgan of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers explained, ‘We’d no training for gas prevention, never heard of the gas business.’ Within minutes of the first alarm Lieutenant-Colonel Beckles Willson was appalled to see, sweeping down the road to Ypres, ‘a panic stricken rabble of Turcos and Zouaves with grey faces and protruding eyeballs, clutching their throats and choking as they ran’. The gas had enveloped the French colonial troops’ trenches, and all discipline was gone. Further west, a regiment of French Territorials was in little better shape, with those who had fled the toxic smoke staggering wearily on towards the Yserlee canal without guns or equipment.

The terror weapon created a gap of some four and a half miles in the allied line, achieving in little more than five minutes the decisive breakthrough that had eluded Falkenhayn throughout First Ypres. It swept down not only on the French and the Canadians but also on the British 28th Division and on the Belgian Grenadiers and Carabiniers defending the line of the Yperlee around Boesinghe. Behind the gas cloud the 45th, 46th, 51st and 52nd Reserve Divisions of the Duke of Württemberg’s Fourth Army advanced with impregnated gauze pads protecting their mouths and noses. The 45th Division soon took Steenstraat; the 40th crossed the canal at Het Sas; the 51st entered Langemarck and, half an hour after the gas’s release, the 52nd were in Pilckem, only two and a half miles from Ypres’s Menin Gate. Before nightfall these four advancing divisions – some 50,000 men – had captured 51 guns, mainly French 75-mms, and rounded up 2,000 dazed or wounded prisoners. Then to the relief of their adversaries the Germans began to dig in rather than continue to press forward on Ypres itself. Their orders stipulated that the immediate objective was the seizure of Pilckem Ridge, and this task was soon accomplished. The Duke of Württemberg was without reserves on hand to back up what Falkenhayn had regarded in the first place as essentially a strategic diversion embodying an experiment in weaponry.


Although the allied troops in the trenches were taken by surprise, the possibility of resort to chemical warfare had long been recognized by governments and by humanitarians seeking to limit the horrors of war. The Hague Convention of 1907 condemned the development of weapons capable of spreading poison among combatants or civilians; Britain, France and Germany were among the signatories. Nevertheless individual scientists continued research into chemical warfare. Among them was the 12th Earl of Dundonald, a retired cavalry general and friend of Sir John French, who revised proposals put forward by his great-grandfather during the Crimean War for the emission of sulphurous fumes to prise the enemy out of prepared fortifications. In 1854 the great Michael Faraday authenticated the feasibility of the Dundonald project, though it was never tested. Sixty years later the revised version aroused little interest. At French’s request, Haig received Dundonald on 12 March, at the height of the battle of Neuve Chapelle but was dismissive. ‘I asked him how he arranged to have a favourable wind,’ Haig commented contemptuously in his diary.

The Germans treated science with respect and took inventors more seriously. Research scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin worked closely with IG Farben’s chemical experts, and the Prussian Ministry of War showed interest. Soon after the start of war, Pioneer Regiment No. 36 was established to develop weapons capable of discharging chlorine. Field howitzers fired shells containing lachrymatory gas against the Russians at Bolomow, near Warsaw, on 3 January 1915 but with no effect. As an alternative way of discharging gas, orders were given for the manufacture of cylindrical tubes, of small diameter and some 5 feet long. Training was then given to selected ‘gas pioneers’, serving soldiers who possessed some knowledge of science. The pioneers were to place the cylinders in position under cover of darkness, sited on their objective but concealed from prying eyes or cameras. Before the start of an infantry attack a pioneer wearing a primitive respirator would remove the cap on the cylinder, enabling the gas to be forced out of the tube by its own pressure and wafted into enemy lines by the prevailing wind. No explosive charge was required: all that was needed was a steady wind, fresh but not gusty and blowing from the right quarter.

Generals proud of the superior fire-power of Krupps big guns had no confidence in this bombardment by drain-pipe. Some 17 years later the Reichsarchiv history of the Ypres campaign recalled that officers and men ‘almost without exception mistrusted the still untried weapon, if they were not totally against it’.

But despite these doubts, the first cylinders arrived in Flanders in mid-March. Soon afterwards prisoners taken by the French blabbered carelessly about the new weapon, enabling General d’Urbal of France’s Tenth Army to circulate an intelligence assessment on 30 March that described the cylinders with remarkable accuracy. By then, however, d’Urbal and his Tenth Army had left the Salient and were 100 miles away, fighting in Artois. General Smith-Dorrien does not appear to have heard of the Tenth Army’s discovery until the second week of April, the news being followed by reports of a German captured in the Yserlee canal sector of the Salient who was carrying a protective gas pad. No. 6 Squadron, RFC, was ordered to search from the skies, but the gas-release batteries were so effectively concealed that neither pilots nor observers saw any signs of the cylinders. On 15 April, Smith-Dorrien noted in his diary that he had received information about ‘enormous tubes of asphyxiating gas’, adding the comment: ‘In case there is any truth in it, I have let all commentators know.’ General Plumer passed the report on to his divisional commanders ‘for what it is worth’, and Sir John French, who had also heard tales of a gas weapon, was no less scornful. When rumours of a German attack for the night of 15–16 April proved unfounded, this widespread scepticism seemed justified. Through the following week the fate of Hill 60 held the generals’ attention.

Falkenhayn originally contemplated no more than a limited offensive along the Menin Road, where he had been thwarted five months earlier, and the gas cylinders were stored near Gheluvelt. It was not a good site: Passchendaele Ridge acted as a wind shield, and promising north-easterlies – rare anyhow in western Belgium – tended to veer round unpredictably, threatening to blow back a gas cloud towards the attackers. In mid-April the cylinders were moved to the northeast sector, where the ridges were lower and ran for the most part parallel to the line of attack.

Poelcapelle, the pivotal village for the German assault, faced what was at that moment the most vulnerable defensive position in the Salient, for the Poelcapelle–St Julien road marked the northern boundary of the British Second Army’s sector. West of the road the line was held by the 87th French Territorial Division and the 45th Algerian Division, both under the command of General Putz. They had only recently moved up to the Front and were assigned some four and a half miles of trenches, reaching out to the Belgian Army’s southern posts along the Yserlee canal, slightly north of Steenstraat. The Territorials included elderly Breton reservists, les pépères (‘grandads’), while the 45th Division comprised Zouaves and a far from reliable ‘white’ punishment battalion as well as the so-called ‘Turcos’, native Algerian riflemen.

To the east and south of the road was the 1st Canadian Division, who had already seen action at Neuve Chapelle. Like Putz’s motley force, the Canadians were newcomers to the Salient, though they were troops of very different mettle. Their three infantry brigades formed part of General Plumer’s V Corps together with (from north to south) the 28th, 27th and 5th British divisions. The most experienced Canadian regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry – the veterans who had landed in France shortly before Christmas – remained attached to the 27th Division until November 1915, and on 22 April they were too far south to be caught under the asphyxiating yellow cloud. But within a fortnight ‘Princess Pat’s’, too, were to be caught up in Second Ypres, fighting desperately around Frezenberg and Wieltje as the battle moved into its final phase.

The initial success of the German attack carried them forward almost 3 miles in less than five hours. Fortunately the Canadians, on the left of the allied centre, held firm throughout the night of 22–23 April. Smith-Dorrien realized that the Front could only be stabilized if the French found substitutes for the two divisions that had fled in panic. But Foch was slow to respond: GQG was engrossed with preparations for their own offensive in Artois, and Joffre could not spare more troops for Flanders. The best Foch could offer was General Putz’s reorganized Territorials, augmented by some ‘loose’ battalions from his 10th Division. There was, however, no prospect of effective French aid plugging the gap earlier than the evening of 23 April, and it was left to Plumer and to Brigadier-General Turner VC of the 3rd Canadian Brigade to douse the German dragon’s fire and fury throughout St George’s Day.

Plumer ordered the consolidation of a line already improvised south of the Bois de Cuisiniers, an extensive copse off the Menin Road near Hooge, soon anglicized as Kitchener’s Wood (but no longer extant). At a quarter past four in the afternoon the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and the East Yorkshires pressed a counter-attack forward towards Pilckem. The Germans, however, had placed machine-gun nests on the slopes of the ridge, with tragic consequences. As soon as the attackers broke cover, they were mown down by machine-guns and suffered appalling losses. After three hours of heavy fighting the East Yorkshires, who had a nominal strength of 2,000 men at the start of the day, were left with only seven officers and 280 men alive and unwounded. Everywhere around the edge of the ground lost on the previous day Württemberg’s artillery rained down what was in effect a protective screen.

Next morning (Saturday, 24 April) the Germans turned their attention to the exposed apex of the Canadian trenches, releasing gas cylinders well before dawn. The artificial cloud on this occasion was some 15 feet deep and, caught by a strong wind, soon swept down on the Canadians. They had no respirators, but they gained some protection by taking advantage of the soluble character of chlorine and covering their mouths and noses with wet towels or handkerchiefs, sometimes kept damp with urine. Remarkably three-quarters of the defenders were fit enough to continue the fight after the gas dispersed, and the Canadian field guns gave the infantry steady support.

By nine o’clock the battle had become an artillery duel, in which the Germans possessed heavier howitzers, capable of shelling support roads and destroying signal wires. It was hard for Smith-Dorrien, and even Plumer, who was much nearer the fighting, to keep in touch with the balance of a battle that was constantly changing: it was harder still for Sir John French, studying the map out at headquarters in Hazebrouck, to appreciate the problems in the forward trenches. Yet, despite the difficulties of communication, GHQ accepted that a general directive was needed for commanders in the field. It came soon after four o’clock on that Saturday afternoon: Plumer received from French the laconic order, ‘Every effort must be made at once to restore and hold the line at St Julien.’

But St Julien was not, like Gheluvert and St Eloi, a village at a strategic crossroads. It was little more than a hamlet, 2 miles south of Langemarck and straggling along a road beside the Hannebeek, one of several small streams coming down from Passchendaele Ridge. A single day’s fighting had already reduced the line of cottages to ruin. When the 10th Brigade sought to fulfil French’s orders, in heavy rain early next morning, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Warwickshires were exposed to enfilade fire across the fields and shelling from the adjoining slopes, while also checked by machine-gun nests set among the rubble. Almost 2,500 of the brigade’s 4,000 officers and men were lost during the attack and to little purpose. The Germans remained firmly in control of the charred stones that had been St Julien, though the 10th Brigade succeeded in blunting the impetus of their assault. Later on that Sunday and 2 miles further east, a composite Landwehr division struck at the flank of the battle-weary Canadians and captured the village of Gravenstafel.

In the early evening most units of the 1st Canadian Division were pulled back from the forward trenches into reserve. The division, numbering some 10,000 men at the start of the battle, had lost 1,700 killed in the 72 hours that followed the first release of gas, with more than 2,500 wounded. But the Canadian casualties were not limited to the 1st Division. Today, Chapman Clemesha’s magnificent 35-foot high Brooding Soldier statue stands at Vancouver Corner, where the N313 to Poelcapelle meets the Zonnebeke–Langemarck road. The statue carries an awesome tribute as unadorned in its proud simplicity as the monument itself: ‘This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks, the 22–24 April 1915; 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.’

Individual acts of valour during the ordeal of the Canadians were subsequently recognized by the award of two Victoria Crosses, both posthumously. Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher braved heavy artillery fire to cover troops in a support trench with his machine-gun; Sergeant-Major William Hall twice left his trench to bring back wounded men under heavy fire. The shelling persisted even as the division pulled back, adding more names to the long casualty list. On 25 April, Captain Francis Scimager, a doctor serving at an advanced dressing station in a farm, won a third Canadian VC for saving his wounded patients when the farm buildings became a target for the German guns.

A week later, in a neighbouring dressing station, the death of a Canadian officer inspired an enduring tribute to those who took ‘up our quarrel with the foe’. At Essex Farm, Colonel John McCrae was saddened by the fate of his friend, Lieutenant Helmer, who was receiving treatment when he was hit by a German shell. After the fighting died away McCrae mourned Helmer in an elegy for the thousands killed in the springtime of their lives and buried close to where they fell. Punch published ‘In Flanders Fields’ on 8 December 1915, to rekindle emotions aroused earlier in the year by the war sonnets of Rupert Brooke. McCrae immortalized the image of the blood-red poppies that ‘blow between the crosses row by row’. His deeply moving sincerity has survived changes of attitude towards war through four generations.

After less than three days of battle it seemed as if Württemberg’s troops had secured a potential victory of far greater value than Falkenhayn ever anticipated. They were across the Yserlee canal at Lizerne, though the Belgian Carabiniers continued to offer stiff resistance. Their field artillery maintained a steady bombardment of forward positions from three sides, and their heavy guns pounded the congested roads along which relief columns were making their way to the Front. There was, it appeared, no answer to the improved Maxim machine-guns, and the constant fighting exacted a heavy toll of the best troops. It was a harsh week for George V’s armies. Across Europe, the first landings had been made at Gallipoli on 25 April; the British at Cape Helles suffered 1,700 casualties on that morning, and further up the peninsula 1,252 Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) were killed over the next six days, one-in-four of those who landed.

Yet although the Germans in Flanders had prised the latch off the gate barring access to the Channel ports, they failed to press forward into the open country beyond. The unexpected always caught Falkenhayn off balance: he hesitated, and time overtook him. The French recovered Lizerne on 27 April and supported the Belgians in clearing the western bank of the canal by mid-May; though the British continued to suffer heavy losses in counter-attacks, their line was never broken.

On 1 May the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division thwarted a gas attack for the first time, made on Hill 60. The 1st battalion Dorset Regiment were among forward troops issued with gauze and flannel pads to be hung around the neck, ready to be wetted by means unspecified when a gas alarm sounded. The attack, launched at 7.15 in the evening, took the Dorsets by surprise, but a young subaltern, Second Lieutenant Kestell-Cornish had the enterprise to seize a rifle and, with the only four men in his platoon still able to stand, fired rapidly into the yellow cloud from the trench parapet checking the advancing Germans, who could reasonably assume a machine-gun post had remained unaffected by the gas. Reserves from the 1st Devons and 1st Bedfords brought support to the Dorsets, but for three hours there was close fighting in the trenches at the foot of the hill. Ninety men were fatally gassed in the trenches that evening. Of 207 wounded brought back to the dressing station, ‘46 died almost immediately and 12 after long suffering’. Kestell-Cornish spent two days in hospital, recovering from the effects of the gas, but he was back in the trenches within a week.

Sadly the Dorsets’ resolute defence was to no avail; a second German attack four days later could not be repulsed. The 1st Cheshires were brought up hurriedly from their billets in Ypres to bolster the Dorsets, 1st Norfolk and 2nd Duke of Wellingtons after the Germans discharged thicker gas from flank positions that ran the length of their trenches, causing heavy casualties. At one point the Cheshires were engaged for half an hour in a deadly exchange of hand grenades, their ‘jam tin variety’ bombs less effective than ‘those horrid little black grenades that the Germans fling so accurately’, complained Second Lieutenant Arthur Greg, a Rugbeian who cut short his studies at New College, Oxford, to enlist in the previous September. ‘An officer of the Dorsetshire Regiment had his head blown off just as he was handing me a new box of grenades,’ Greg wrote. ‘I felt very upset.’ For 48 hours the British tried to hold the hill or recover it by counter–attacks, but they could not dislodge their enemy. Hill 60 remained in German hands for the next two years.

By 27 April, Smith-Dorrien had become seriously alarmed at the exposed position of V Corps and angered by the commander-in-chief’s insistence on pressing ahead with inter-allied counter-attacks. It seemed evident that GHQ at distant Hazebrouck did not realize the Second Army was short of troops and that French support had proved limited in numbers and reluctantly given. Without consulting Sir John, Smith-Dorrien ordered all offensive operations to cease ‘forthwith’, and he sent an urgent 900-word letter to General Robertson, who had become the chief of French’s general staff in January. Smith-Dorrien respected Robertson, known as Wully, the Lincolnshire lad who 38 years back in time ran away from home to enlist as a private and rose to high command through natural intelligence. Over strategic issues Wully seemed a sensible realist, and the letter put forward a sound case for pulling back to the so-called ‘GHQ line’, a defensive semicircle 2 miles east of Ypres prepared by the French in January. But Robertson’s realism was compounded of ruthlessness and ambition; he expressed neither agreement nor doubt. In the early afternoon he telephoned Smith-Dorrien to say that ‘the Chief does not regard situation nearly so unfavourable as your letter represents’. Smith-Dorrien was told to co-operate with the French in a simultaneous combined attack with ‘due regard to previous instructions’. A letter would ‘follow’, brought by a staff officer.

No letter came. Instead, Smith-Dorrien received that evening a telegram sent en clair by a staff major ordering him to hand over to General Plumer ‘the command of all troops engaged in present operations about Ypres’. Smith-Dorrien remained in the Salient another ten days, still technically responsible for II Corps, out on Messines Ridge. On 6 May, Smith-Dorrien received by telephone the news he had anticipated: ‘’Orace, you’re for ’ome,’ Robertson allegedly told him. On this occasion formal, written instructions did ‘follow’ the call: he was to return to England; Plumer would succeed him in command of the Second Army. Thus was the most senior general serving in the British army dismissed at the height of a critical battle; no explanation was given. Ironically, Plumer had by then already retreated to the GHQ line or, more precisely, to forward trenches hurriedly dug ahead of it. Sir John French would accept proposals from the tactful Plumer that from his predecessor would have been anathema. A feud between choleric generals fighting the same battle was potentially disastrous, as the Russians had found at Tannenberg in August 1914.

The slaughter of Second Ypres dragged on into May, irrespective of the retirement to the GHQ line. During the second week of the month the German 53rd Reserve Division attacked the 27th and 28th Divisions in great strength along a ridge that runs west of Frezenberg southwards from Wieltje to merge imperceptibly into a higher ridge, covering the woods and lake at Bellewaarde, to the east of Hooge chateau on the Menin Road. Heavy bombardment and persistent infantry assaults killed nine officers and 382 men in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on 8 May, leaving the regiment only 154 survivors. At nightfall the 12th London Regiment, nominally 1,000-men strong, could muster a mere 53 other ranks and no officers. The German bombardment was so deep that one company (250 men), marching through darkened streets on the eve of the battle, suffered 80 casualties from falling masonry. Several eye-witnesses comment on the agonies of horses hit by shell splinters or by breaking their legs in potholes. A pitiful neighing backed the stench of rotting carcasses along the roads.

Four days later (12 May) the ‘Cavalry Force’, fighting as dismounted infantry, relieved the 27th Division. They had hardly reached the lines facing Frezenberg on that Thursday when the full fury of bombardment fell on them. The shellfire continued for eleven and a half hours, inflicting heavy casualties, particularly on the 1st Life Guards, whose trenches were destroyed. The Leicestershire Yeomanry lost 96 of the 282 men who set out from their billets on the previous day; of those killed, 83 had no known grave; their names are inscribed on the Menin Gate. Yet somehow the North Somerset Yeomanry’s trenches continued to offer some cover despite the bombardment, enabling a counter-attack with bayonets to be made later in the day. Renewed shellfire checked two other counter-attacks by the regrouped cavalry during the afternoon.

Personal tragedies abounded on that ghastly Thursday: one robbed England of yet another poet of budding talent. Julian Grenfell, a captain in the 1st Royal Dragoons, was gravely wounded in the trenches on the edge of the wood north of Hooge by a shell splinter that penetrated his skull. His ‘Into Battle’, completed a fortnight earlier, conveys the alternating emotions of fear and elation he had experienced five months previously during First Ypres, the contrast between the soldier’s ‘dreary, doubtful, waiting hours, before the brazen frenzy starts’ and that ‘burning moment’ when ‘only joy of battle takes him by the throat, and makes him blind’ to all things else. Premonition darkens his later stanzas: ‘In the air death moans and sings’; calmly the poet–soldier resigns himself to ‘Destined Will’. The wound proved fatal; Grenfell was taken fully conscious to a military hospital in Boulogne. There he lingered for 12 days until night could finally ‘fold him in soft wings’.

Officially Second Ypres ended on 24 May, when four German divisions made a final attempt to push forward from a line north of Bellewaarde Ridge along the Menin Road. More gas was released than in any earlier attack, but counter-measures were improving day by day; East Enders working overtime at Allen and Hanbury’s, the pharmaceutists of Bethnal Green, enabled primitive respirators fitted with eye-shields to be rushed out from London. But only strong shields for the body could have given protection from the thrust and counter-thrust with bayonet that followed when the infantry clashed once the gas cloud lifted. The fighting continued all day, until around eight o’clock in the evening the British 4th Division pulled back from Wieltje to newly dug trenches extending GHQ line to the northwest.

After 34 days of battle the Germans had trimmed the Salient drastically, though most of the territory was gained in the first two days. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties, the French about 10,000 and the Belgians slightly more than 1500, a total of 71,500 allied dead, missing or seriously wounded. By contrast the Germans sustained 35,000 casualties, less than half their enemy’s number. On war maps printed in the newspapers the ground won seemed of little importance. Although Falkenhayn’s troops were in some places only 2 miles from the Grand Place, they had made little progress towards those elusive Channel ports: Dunkirk was still 30 miles ahead of them, Calais some 50. But the crests of the arc of ridges around Ypres were in enemy hands. From Bellewaarde and from Hill 60 the Germans enjoyed clear views extending well behind the British trenches. The roads to the French border had long come under haphazard shellfire. Now observers could sight the artillery on targets out at Poperinghe, Dickebusch and Vlamertinghe with ominous accuracy.


Sir John French admitted to Haig that he had spent ‘several bad nights as the result of anxiety’ over Ypres, but increasingly he was looking beyond the old frontier, tempted by the prospect of a battle for Lille. By 6 May, Haig completed plans for supporting Joffre’s spring offensive. In what might be regarded as Neuve Chapelle Mark 2, the First Army would make a second attempt to reach the high ground southwest of Lille, this time by securing Aubers Ridge, the objective that proved too distant two months earlier. The following day – while the Germans were massing their artillery in the Salient around Frezenberg – French summoned First Army’s commanding generals to GHQ in Hazebrouck for a confident briefing on the favourable position of the allies across Europe and his hopes for Aubers Ridge and the simultaneous French assault on Vimy Ridge.

His optimism was misplaced. On the Eastern Front the Russians were forced back from the foothills of the Carpathians into Galicia; from Gallipoli the news grew gloomier by the day; in Artois the French advanced 3 miles and briefly held the crest of Vimy Ridge, only to be overwhelmed by counter-attacks, and on the same day – Sunday, 9 May – Aubers Ridge proved a costly disaster. The First Army and the Indian Corps incurred 11,500 casualties in 12 hours of battle. Haig lacked guns of heavy calibre, and the artillery was woefully short of high explosive. Shrapnel shells failed to cut through the barbed wire, exposing the infantry to merciless machine-gun fire. Haig wished to resume the offensive on the Monday, but each of his three corps commanders reported they did not have enough shells to support further attacks. A second battle was fought around Festubert (15–25 May), when once again initial success was thwarted by lack of high-explosive shells.

On 14 May, the eve of Festubert, The Times caused a sensation in London with an article under the triple headline, ‘Need for shells. British attacks checked. Limited supply the cause’. Colonel Repington, the paper’s military correspondent, based his article on figures fed to him secretly by Sir John French, who also sent his military secretary and an aide-de-camp to London to contact Lloyd George, knowing that the chancellor of the exchequer had for the past month been chairing a cabinet committee on munitions, from which Kitchener was pointedly excluded. On 21 May the Daily Mail – the paper with the largest circulation and, like The Times, owned by Lord Northcliffe – blamed the war secretary for the ‘shell scandal’. To French’s disappointment, however, Kitchener was not swept from office. Asquith had already resolved to strengthen the government’s authority by bringing the Conservative Unionists into a coalition. Bonar Law, their leader, insisted on keeping Kitchener at the War Office: the head he demanded was that of Churchill, the initiator of Gallipoli.

On 27 May, when the Liberal–Unionist coalition took office, Churchill was removed from the Admiralty, while Lloyd George left the Exchequer to become minister of munitions. Sound administration, together with unprecedented powers of requisitioning, ensured that the manufacture of weapons and output of shells and ammunition were speeded up. Within a month shell production had risen to 4,000 a day and by the autumn it reached 10,000, but for Haig the improved figure was far from satisfactory: in battles on the Western Front the British guns could get through 40,000 shells in a single day. Lloyd George was convinced that in the spring of 1916 the BEF would have all the guns and explosives needed for a sustained offensive – but not sooner. And still lacking was any means by which infantry could penetrate sophisticated field defences, where concrete pillboxes and deep dug-outs seemed impervious to artillery.

The summer of 1915 became a season of ripe politicking. There were jointly productive Anglo-French talks over munitions problems at Boulogne; discussions over the extent of the British commitment in France at Calais on 6 July, with subsequent Joffre–Kitchener talks later in the month, and the first inter-allied conference over grand strategy, at Chantilly, on 7 July. Ever present in the background was the British fear that if the BEF failed to back Joffre’s planned offensives to the hilt an exhausted France would seek a separate peace. To guard against this contingency Kitchener, while opposing ‘a too vigorous offensive’, pressed Sir John French to pledge his support for GQG even if the BEF suffered ‘very heavy casualties’. The war minister left Sir John to face harsh decisions in the months ahead, sometimes taken against his own strategic instincts.

Meanwhile, as May came to an end, Plumer was made sharply aware of business left unfinished from Second Ypres. Hooge chateau remained a British outpost defying German mastery of Bellewaarde Ridge, and work began on a redoubt to strengthen an almost untenable position. On 2 June a heavy bombardment of the chateau grounds was followed by an infantry assault that forced the British to pull back before the redoubt was completed. Next day an attempt was made to recover the chateau, the 1st Lincolns pushing ahead to the ruined stables, but they made too good a target to consolidate their position. Careful planning was needed to loosen the German hold on either the chateau or Bellewaarde behind it. Much of the summer’s deadliest fighting was a quest for the ridge with a view.

Over the next ten days the staff of V Corps – under Allenby’s command since Plumer’s promotion – meticulously planned an operation on 16 June committing the 3rd Division to recovering Bellewaarde Ridge. The attack followed two days of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby’s staff even provided the forward troops with carrier pigeons to let headquarters know of progress or setbacks should shelling cut telegraph links. The attack was preceded by a two-hour bombardment of the German lines, a barrage that dug deeply into the limited stock of shells.

At dawn the 9th Infantry Brigade went over the top, met surprisingly little resistance and headed north-eastwards beyond Railway Wood to the embankment carrying the line to Roulers. A second wave from the 7th Infantry Brigade – the 1st infantry battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company (1/1 HAC), the Liverpool Scottish, the 1st Lincolns, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles – also went forward towards the embankment, advancing so rapidly that they came under shellfire from the British guns and, at the same time, from German positions along the embankment and on their flank. Casualties were heavy, and a German counter-attack drove them back to the trenches taken in the first attack. Out of 540 officers and other ranks in the Liverpool Scottish who fought on that day, 180 were killed and 218 wounded.

The dazed survivors of the brigade, now supported by the 3rd Worcesters, rallied and in the late afternoon attempted to resume their advance. ‘There was great confusion,’ Sergeant John Lucy of the Irish Rifles later wrote. ‘The German front line occupied by us was filled with the dead and wounded of about eight regiments, and our men . . . had to go forward without direct artillery support, over muddy ground spurting shell explosions every few yards and raked by enemy machine-guns from an unprotected left flank.’ By the end of the day the British had to be content with taking more than 150 prisoners, capturing two machine-guns and a half-mile line of better-built trenches 250 yards ahead of the ones they held when the attack began. To achieve these gains the 3rd Division lost 140 officers and 3,391 other ranks in 14 hours of battle. Among the 9th Brigade’s wounded was their brigade major, Archibald Wavell, who had been married in London on the day Second Ypres began. A shell splinter hit him on the forehead, blinding his left eye and threatening the sight of his right. He recovered in hospital in London. Colonel Wavell was beside Allenby when the victorious general in Palestine made his formal entry into Jerusalem in December 1917, and he went on to command in the Middle East in 1940–41. Two years later he became the only field marshal appointed viceroy of India.

Most of the fighting in the Salient during the summer of 1915 took place around Hooge, the apex of the British defensive line east of Ypres. It was even the scene of the first spectacular duel in the skies. In the evening of 25 July, Captain Hawker, flying a single-seat Bristol Scout from Abeele aerodrome, completed the pursuit of three German two-seaters that had begun above Passchendaele by swooping down sun from 11,000 feet to within a hundred yards of the rear aircraft and sending it crashing in flames by a burst of Lewis gun-fire over Hooge; Hawker was awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for most conspicuous bravery and very great ability’.

A map recovered from the crashed aircraft identified the position of German batteries in the neighbourhood. It did not, however, give warning of the attack that would come five days later, when liquid flame projected from a steel cylinder Flammenwerfer added a second terror weapon to the horrors of the Salient. The German assault was triggered by the British explosion of a mine, which had destroyed a fortified post behind the ruins of Hooge village on the evening of 20 July, enabling the 4th battalion the Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders to rush forward into and around the crater, occupying good trenches, dug recently. The Germans made every effort to prevent the British consolidating their gains but failed to dislodge them. Like Allenby in the previous month, the Duke of Württemberg ordered careful planning for a sustained attack.

It came soon after three o’clock in the morning of 30 July. ‘There was a sudden hissing sound and a bright crimson glare over the crater turned the whole scene red’, Lieutenant Carey of the 8th Rifle Brigade recalled. ‘As I looked I saw three or four distinct sheets of flame – like a line of powerful fire-hoses spraying fire instead of water – shoot across my fire-trench.’ Carey was the only officer of his company to survive the day; a neighbouring company ‘seemed to have been almost completely obliterated’. Flame-throwers were also employed in a simultaneous attack south of the Menin Road at the northern fringe of Sanctuary Wood. Inevitably the surprised defenders – mostly from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) – fell back across the fields towards Ypres. Once again ‘resting’ battalions were ordered from their billets and hurried eastwards up the Menin Road, under renewed shelling. By the afternoon the 1st Sherwood Foresters – technically the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment – and the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) had joined the KRRC in blunting the impetus of the enemy assault, but nothing could shift the Germans from the crater and the chateau stables.

‘I simply looked upon the coming adventure in much the same way that I looked forward to an exciting game of Rugger,’ Private Pollard of the HAC wrote years later, as he recalled his feelings on the eve of the first attack on Bellewaarde. At times it seems as if this terrible war, ever spawning agonizing ways to kill, had become trivialized into a deadly contest for possession of the ball among rival teams competing for a local trophy. No sooner had the British lost shell-pocked Hooge than they began for a third time to devise means to recover it and Bellewaarde Ridge, too. On this occasion resort was made to subterfuge: German airmen were able to see British and French troops assembling to the north, as if to bring the fighting back to Pilckem and Langemarck; observers at Messines could direct artillery on newly dug trenches that attracted attention, and there was constant movement out towards Zillebeke and Hill 60.

But at 2.45 in the morning of 9 August a half-hour bombardment of the Hooge crater area left no doubt of the objective. The 2nd Durham Light Infantry formed the vanguard of the 6th Division’s attack, together with the Sherwood Foresters. The day’s heavy fighting, much of it with bayonet, brought some success. The line was pushed back east of Hooge hamlet and to the south of the Menin Road, but ferocious German shelling made it impossible to retain the furthest gains. In the end, the 6th Division had advanced the British position some 250 yards. Sensibly the Germans did not attempt to come forward again. The two armies were separated by a wide no man’s land of broken tree stumps, shell holes filling readily with water and churned-up clay that a rain shower would turn into glutinous mud, even under the August sun. That night, as their colonel reported, the 2nd Durhams ‘marched to billets at Ypres – strength 4 officers and 166 men . . . For our time in the trenches’, they had lost 6 officers and 92 men killed, 6 officers and 262 men wounded, while another 100 were ominously listed as ‘missing’.

A billet in Ypres was hardly recuperative. ‘The town is a mere heap of rubble, cinders and rubbish’, the Life Guards captain, Sir Morgan Crofton, wrote in his diary a few weeks earlier. ‘Not a cat lives there now, it is the abomination of desolation.’ It was also at times a death-trap, liable to attract attention from the German heavy guns whenever intelligence believed troops were massed inside the city. On 12 August a company from the 6th DCLI was caught by a bombardment of the Grand Place. Some sought refuge under the twelfth-century cloisters of the cathedral. There they were trapped when another round of shells struck St Martin’s. Efforts to rescue them were frustrated by more shelling, in which their commanding officer was killed. After the war ended 40 bodies were discovered, entombed by fallen masonry.

‘The Salient at Ypres is simply an inferno,’ Crofton had added in his diary entry. ‘It is not war, but murder pure and simple . . . As a strategic or tactical point Ypres is worthless. Why we don’t give it up now, God alone knows.’ It was, he assumed, a question of pride and prestige. Crofton was jotting down private opinions at the close of a hot and humid day, and perhaps his comments should not be taken too seriously, but he was an intelligent officer from a military family, and he may well have been right. Ypres was already symbolic, a name in the headlines for the last eight months, the town where in November the ‘Old Contemptibles’ denied the kaiser the triumphant entry he daily anticipated. Crofton thought ‘this muck heap’ should be evacuated, with the Germans denied possession by using ‘our guns’ to make the place ‘untenable’, though at the same time he deplored the shortage of guns and ammunition: ‘If only we had shells, we would push through to the Rhine,’ he wrote confidently. Other field officers, including on occasions Haig himself, considered straightening the Salient by withdrawing from the forward trenches and falling back on the canal and the remains of Vauban’s ramparts. But Krupps and Skoda fire-power had already destroyed with ease Brialmont’s fortresses: it is doubtful if improvised defences amid the rubble of Ypres could have long delayed a German advance to the Channel ports.

After the failure of Aubers Ridge and Festubert, the ‘sleek deadheads of the Headquarters Staff’– as Crofton contemptuously called French’s team – turned again to plans for backing GQG’s grand offensive. Joffre intended to strike at the German right flank at Vimy, and he suggested the BEF might find the Loos area ‘particularly favourable ground’ for an attack: Loos, 5 miles south-west of Lille, was an unattractive mining town in which a historic Cistercian abbey now served as a prison. Haig disliked the project from the first, insisting that First Army still lacked shells and artillery. French vacillated. He rode forward to a distant ridge on 12 July, peered down on the industrial murk of the Loos valley, where the slag-heaps, canals and miners’ cottages revived memories of the difficulties of fighting in Mons, and he shared Haig’s doubts. But assurances that he could now employ chlorine gas and would receive two divisions of Kitchener’s New Army as reinforcements induced him to change his mind.

Haig’s First Army launched the attack on Loos at 5.15 in the morning of 25 September, after four days of preliminary bombardment (in which 250,000 shells were fired). The town was taken, without the costly struggle French had feared, by the 1st (Scottish) Division – to Germans ‘the devils in skirts’. The chlorine gas threw the defenders of the formidable Hohenzollern redoubt into such panic that it fell within the first hour of battle. But by half-past seven the gas cloud had drifted northwards; the British encountered the solid line of the German second position and could make no dent in it. The Germans summoned up reserves, including a guards division. But when Haig, in turn, called for reserves, they were held back on French’s orders, for he feared Haig would commit them too early. By the time 12 battalions of Kitchener’s New Army – 10,000 initiates – went into action on the second morning, the Germans had strengthened their positions, and artillery stocks were running low. In four hours the 12 battalions suffered 8,000 casualties. Like the battles in the Ypres Salient, the carnage continued long after the first two decisive days; officially the battle of Loos ended on 4 November. By then, 16,000 British soldiers were dead and more than 25,000 wounded: 2 miles of French soil was freed from the enemy.

As a feint, intended to prevent German reinforcements from being drawn southwards to Lille, Plumer was ordered to mount a diversionary attack on 25 September along the Menin Road. At precisely the same hour that the chlorine gas enveloped Loos, the Second Army’s 3rd division went forward on a mile-long front straddling the road between the lake at the foot of Bellewaarde Ridge and the northern edge of Sanctuary Wood. The brunt of the fighting was left to the veterans of the 1st infantry battalion of the HAC and the 2nd battalion Royal Irish Rifles (RIR). There was a shortage not only of shells for the gunners but of grenades and wire-cutters for the infantry as well. The RIR fought with particular tenacity, amid craters and shell holes familiar to them from the attack three months earlier. On this occasion the holes held more water and the churned-up clay made for slow progress. Little could be achieved; another 4,000 names were added to the lengthening casualty list of dead and wounded.

For the remaining weeks of the year the Salient was, officially, ‘quiet’. In reality, there was constant activity and the imminence of a mortal wound never receded. Around Zillebeke opposing trenches were no more than 25 yards apart. For a tall man to raise his head above the fire parapet was to court a sniper’s bullet. Any suspicious move sighted in a communications trench would bring a ‘whiz–bang’ crunching down, to be followed by an artillery duel that might drag on for more than an hour. The bitter cold, constant rain and need to wade through flooded communication trenches made life intolerable even without the proximity of the enemy, and spells of duty in the trenches rarely lasted longer than four days at a time, although the processes of being relieved and marching back again a few nights later were no less dangerous. The vibration of a bombardment would loosen the wet earth of dug-outs, which would then collapse and trap any troops taking cover within them. Shells exploding short of the trenches would leave gaps in the barbed wire.

On the night of 22 December, in bright moonlight, Second Lieutenant Roland Leighton of the 7th Worcesters was ordered to take his platoon forward to repair just such a gap in the wire. As he was supervising their work, a machine-gun already trained on the gap opened up, and he was hit by a bullet that penetrated his stomach. An ambulance took him, mortally wounded, to a clearing station 10 miles behind the lines, where he died the following night. He had been granted Christmas leave in England and his fiancée, Vera Brittain, by now a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, awaited him jubilantly at the Grand Hotel, Brighton. There on Christmas Day a telephone call from his sister told her Roland had been killed.

Similar tragedies rent other grieving families across Britain and Canada, France, Belgium and Germany in that traditionally festive season. On Christmas morning a Bavarian gesture of fraternization tempted some Coldstream Guards, but it was sternly rebuffed on orders from their Corps commander. ‘Our Artillery fired throughout the day as ordered,’ Major-General Cavan assured Haig. There would be no Flanders truce over this second Christmas at war.


All Mexican governments after the end of the nineteenth-century French occupation and Maximilian’s ill-conceived liberal monarchy had tried to bring about national economic development through foreign involvement. This meant enduring the consequences that came with immigration and the importing of foreign know-how, technology, investment. Foreign pressures came in the form of arrogant, demanding French creditors, political pressures from the U.S. State Department, manipulations by recently knighted British oil barons, and recently arrived Japanese male contract labor. In addition, Mexican governmental planners also dealt with merchants and financiers from the recently unified Germany, which they esteemed as less imperialistic than their counterparts in London and Paris. Nevertheless, planners also discussed rumors and difficulties arriving from Venezuela and the Caribbean, where German gunboat incidents suggested that they, too, continued to nurture the hope of a Latin American sphere of influence in the new twentieth century. Privately, high-level officials in the Porfirio Díaz administration admitted a certain sympathy for such aggressive foreign impulses. After all, for decades Mexicans had affirmed a distinct sphere of influence over Guatemala and other Central American countries. It seemed as much fueled by the simple human impulse of wanting control as it was part of white Western “civilization” politics.

Foreign cultural influences shaped Mexican attitudes as much as capitalistic economic constraints and diplomatic pressures from London, Paris, or Washington. The Catholic Church, dominated as it was by Spanish clergy, preached its mantra of a revival of European piety based on the iron dogmas of the Counter-Reformation. With it came an insistence on the preservation of Spanish social, racial, and gender hierarchies, as well as the unfounded, but inspiring and romantic, ideals of Hispanidad; that is, that groups of Spanish speakers formed an almost biologically separate ethnic group in the world. Mexico was included in nineteenth-century global efforts by the Catholic Church to deter believers from falling under the influence of new and attractive ideologies, such as the natural sciences and Marxism. This also meant a silent papal tolerance for a new, more radical Catholic labor organization that also addressed the inhumane working conditions of industrial workers in cities such as Puebla and Monterrey. Mexican anarchosyndicalists, cheered on by Spanish and Italian friends, were no longer the only ones attacking the problem.

In the few large urban centers, upper-class Mexicans continued efforts to construct and then impose one national culture based on European mores on the obstinate large majority who wanted none of it. Sometimes this meant promoting Italian opera and imitating Parisian dress codes. At other times it appeared in the form of promoting new behavioral norms at small industrial shops and, on occasion, as a frontal attack against Catholic holidays by less pious but more entrepreneurial modernizers. The Porfirian government backed this battle for the hearts and minds of mestizos with architecture competitions for federal buildings and designs for historical monuments and stamps. Even the national archaeology and international fairs were employed for this purpose. The elites expected that these new cultural rituals and their accompanying blatant government symbolism would transform the nation from a composite of many diverse geographical areas, dominated by Mexico City, into one nation that had left its Native American legacy behind and functioned increasingly according to European positivist standards.

Rural people stubbornly undermined these high-class flirtations with foreign ideas by creatively disregarding them culturally, as well as by staging the occasional riot. The majority of the rural population did not want to become modern, rejected the emotional adjustments that came with the industrial lifestyle, and laughed at French aesthetic ideals. All the tensions created by the contradictions of the thirty-five years of Porfirian developmental policies connected more and more Mexicans through frustration. By 1910, all classes were certain that the government and its president had to change.

Most contemporary foreign observers did not understand the profound depth of the nation’s contradictions. Whatever political tensions and accompanying rebellions occurred during the electoral game in 1910 between Porfirio Díaz, Bernardo Reyes, and Francisco Madero, foreign observers interpreted them as something that could be expected in a cultural and political setting they considered deeply uncivilized. They noticed the higher-than-usual number of local rebellions in the north, Zapatista fights against sugar plantation owners in Morelos, and the suppression of urban revolutionary conspiratorial cells in the cities. Nevertheless, they consoled themselves with the cliche that these, too, comprised just one more “Latin American uprising.” Owners and managers of foreign companies saw these challenges to Díaz, first, as an opportunity to expand their economic turf. Second, it was argued, disgruntled and disunited elites might be willing to make new concessions to foreign economic interests and perhaps reduce the influence of rivals. For example, U.S. oil interests reinforced Madero’s reservations about British oil. By coincidence, this sentiment translated into a rise in German financial influence within the strengthening Madero camp. Not surprisingly, British and French companies backed the status quo, hoping that the iron fists of Porfirian soldiers and rural militias would eventually overturn U.S. and German gains.

In contrast, the leaders of regional revolutions were much more realistic about their links with foreign interests. For Pancho Villa, access to the U.S. hinterland guaranteed the flow of American weapons to his and other Chihuahuan rebels. For Madero, temporary exile in San Antonio, Texas, provided safety and the chance to reorient his previously reformist urban political challenge to Díaz toward an alliance with the rebels in Chihuahua. He was helped by Felix Sommerfeld, who dabbled in several regional secret services. The Zapatistas in Morelos distinguished themselves through their lack of foreign support and therefore felt the full brunt of governmental repression in a race war without end in Morelos. Ironically, in Yucatán the profitable links with agricultural markets in the United States and Europe cemented the social and political status quo, therefore avoiding the outbreak of open sustainable revolutionary movements among Mayan debt peons.

Along the U.S.–Mexican border, rebels appreciated how foreign money, weapons, and access to a logistical hinterland could be as important as ideology and social bonds, if their rebellions were to last longer than a few days and stand a chance against the government in Mexico City. For the counterrevolutionaries in Mexico City, control over the ports in the Gulf of Mexico and continued tax income from the British petroleum industry provided sufficient money to initiate a hastened modernization and military deployment.

The political collapse of the Porfiriato in 1911 and the reluctance of revolutionaries in all regions to trade in their weapons or join the federal army of Madero’s newly created government suggested to domestic and foreign observers that something radically different was happening. Clearly, these developments were more than an average rebellion or a fight between national rivals that could usefully be exploited by foreign business interests. Foreign interests and domestic elites alike agreed that the continuously expanding power of the lower classes and their unchanneled, increasing political activity needed to be stopped.

Suggestions for solutions to “the problem” differed sharply from camp to camp. European governments and company representatives favored straightforward repression and, unsurprisingly, backed the person they saw as the neo-Porfirian counterrevolutionary, Victoriano Huerta, against the rebels. In the middle stood U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, who mostly followed his own objectives and disregarded the directives of the newly elected Woodrow Wilson. He played a critical part in enabling General Huerta to realize a coup against Madero, and in Madero’s assassination, along with his vice president.

In Washington, D.C., President Wilson began to see Mexican developments as an example for his idealistic, yet naive, efforts to turn Latin America into a democracy. After several months of failed efforts to gain control over Huerta or at least to reach a modus vivendi with him, President Wilson became a determined opponent of Huerta’s emerging military dictatorship. Left with few alternatives, Wilson shifted his support to the revolutionary coalition of the Constitutionalists in the north. Wilson’s idealism had elevated the conflict into a regional Latin American issue.

In 1914, the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the accompanying establishment of the British economic blockade of the Atlantic Ocean again reframed the international context of the Mexican Revolution. For Europeans, Mexico’s oil reserves and its proximity to the United States suggested a manipulation of the revolutionary factions as an indirect tool to deprive their enemies of valuable strategic resources and manpower for future battles. For example, German war planners theorized and experimented with how a possible U.S.–Mexican war might tie up U.S. troops on a Mexican battlefield and thus guarantee the continuation of U.S. neutrality in World War I. Also, sabotage in the oil fields could deprive the British navy of an important source of fuel for its defense against Germany. In turn, British war planners debated how they could protect British oil production in Mexico against German attacks without inviting rival U.S. companies to exploit such a clash. For the British navy, a critical issue was how to maintain control over Atlantic shipping routes, so that it would not be deprived of a critical fuel source.

The British pondered the issue of whether and how to drag the United States out of neutrality and into the war on its side. Having the United States as an ally would certainly tip the strategic balance against Germany within months. U.S. planners watched with growing concern the activities of German and other European agents in the various revolutionary camps. For different reasons, the continuation of the Revolution was in the interest of all the major foreign powers. By then, the domestic conflict had developed new international dimensions as a bilateral U.S.–Mexican issue, a Latin American concern, and an increasingly important sideshow for European and U.S. military strategists.

The revolutionaries recognized their growing importance and, in turn, tried to sell their involvement as expensively as possible. Short-term military gains began to replace national long-term political plans. For the Constitutionalists, the internationalization of the Revolution offered critical foreign allies in their fight against the Huerta dictatorship in Mexico City. When the U.S. ordered a limited intervention in 1914 in Veracruz, President Victoriano Huerta suffered a decisive humiliation. Eventually, the combined pressure of domestic revolution and U.S. opposition forced him to abandon his attempt to turn back the political clock in Mexico. The internationally sensitive situation demanded that President Wilson engage in political negotiations with every major revolutionary faction to determine Huerta’s successor. In the end, the expanding world war and the links of its European players with anti-U.S. revolutionary factions made it impossible for U.S. planners to pick a Mexican president. Instead, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile acted as mediators in the ensuing competition over the presidency. Presidential selection issues would not again have such a strong role in the hemisphere until the 1990s. The unexpected winner was the nationalist politician Venustiano Carranza, certainly not a comfortable candidate for Wilson. After Carranza’s rise to the presidency, the nature of the Revolution changed into a civil war fought between factions of the previous anti-Huerta revolutionary coalition. In addition, regions that had not participated in the Revolution were occupied by the Carrancistas and forced to bring their regional politics and economics in line with the changes in Mexico City.

The intensification of fighting offered more options for renewed behind-the-scenes European and U.S. manipulations. Pancho Villa felt so betrayed by Wilson’s reluctant but expanding support for the Pax Carranza that the Chihuahuan decided to violate U.S. territorial sovereignty and attack the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. Villa hoped both to bring about a shift of popular nationalist support away from Carranza and to provoke the United States into invading Mexico. Immediately, a U.S.–Mexican war would demonstrate the limits of Carranza’s power vis-à-vis the United States. Villa expected that Carranza’s predicted helplessness could bring about a revival of Villa’s rebellion in the north. He expected to fight simultaneously against Carranza and the United States and to reenter the battle for the presidency.

Villa’s actions failed to provoke a full-fledged U.S.–Mexican military confrontation. Yet angry U.S. popular opinion demanded from President Wilson some public action against Villa’s violation of U.S. territory and the murder of U.S. citizens. Wilson chose to placate popular anti-Mexican sentiment by sending General John J. Pershing and ten thousand soldiers on a punitive expedition into Chihuahua with the task of capturing Villa. During the following months, Villa eluded U.S. pursuers in the impenetrable mountains of Chihuahua. More important, Carranza turned the crisis in his favor. An unexpectedly aggressive diplomacy and a confrontational press policy, as well as determined Mexican soldiers at the Carrizal garrison, who fought one battle against Pershing’s troops, brought about the withdrawal of U.S. forces. General Pershing’s failure was somewhat hidden by the year-long expedition in Chihuahua, followed by an impressive but unjustified triumphal return to U.S. territory. The relationship between Carranza and Wilson received lasting damage. Carranza recognized that in the years to come, he could not expect any U.S. financial or political help for the reconstruction of his nation. Thus, ironically only Germany, if it had won the war, could have been a possible friend to Carranza’s government.

The emergence in 1916 of unrestricted naval warfare among Germany, Britain, and the United States only confirmed the continuing international significance of the Mexican conflict for the European great powers. Germans pondered how to entangle U.S. resources in the Americas so that they could not be deployed on European battlefields. One option under consideration was the creation of a German–Mexican military alliance that would turn Mexico into enemy territory for the United States. Germany tried to entice Carranza into considering the offer seriously. In February 1917, the Germans promised him as a reward the return of territory lost to the United States as a result of the U.S.–Mexican war, after a victorious conclusion of World War I. When the discussion of the offer between German Minister to Mexico von Eckhardt and German Undersecretary of State Zimmerman was intercepted by British and U.S. intelligence forces, luck provided the Allied powers with a propaganda weapon that would be remembered throughout the twentieth century. The revelation of the German scheme proposed in the so-called Zimmerman Telegram reinforced deep suspicions among Washington policy makers about Carranza’s loyalties and the possible motives behind his nationalism. Not surprisingly, Carranza’s insistence on Mexican neutrality during the war was interpreted in the U.S. Congress as nonbelligerency on behalf of Germany. It helped Wilson to gain support within U.S. Congress for entry into World War I in April 1917.

Carranza did not confuse German promises of involvement in case of a Mexican–U.S. war. He wanted confirmation that the Germans saw in Mexico more than the back door to the United States, a potential strategic hinterland, and an ideal staging ground for secret attacks that exploited Mexico’s continued neutrality. In June 1916, the German government admitted its inability to give Carranza what he needed most: gold to stock an independent Mexican national bank. Carranza became more selective in German partners but continued relations with a small number of critical individuals. He could not simply reject German approaches. Any openly negative attitude toward Germany might encourage Berlin to abandon careful consideration of Mexican sensitivities and initiate sabotage activities in the oil fields. Most likely, sabotage in the petroleum industry would trigger a U.S. intervention that would reduce Mexico to a battlefield between Allied–German militaries. For the remainder of World War I, German–Mexican relations remained officially friendly and engaged. Von Eckhardt helped Carranza with intelligence information about Allied agents. In late 1917 and 1918, he encouraged Carranza’s representative, Isidro Fabela, to move among Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Madrid, exploring whether German government support could make the revolutionary chief financially independent from Allied banks. Mexican agents became friendly with German and Japanese agents, working against the United States in South America. A few Japanese Navy leaders were pursuing arms sales relations with Carranza that the Japanese emperor ignored. Rightly so, in Washington, U.S. observers followed German–Mexican–Japanese interactions as a national security issue and considered the possibility of confronting German forces inside Mexico. Outstanding U.S. intelligence work prevented a major 1918 German sabotage campaign in the United States planned in Mexico City.

Select Mexican, German, and Japanese activities against the United States continued after the November 1918 armistice. Because French and U.S. policy isolated revolutionary Mexico, Carranza attempted to unify anti-U.S. groups in Latin America, trying to defeat the launching of the League of Nations. In addition, he negotiated with Spanish, Belgian, Italian, and Austrian arms manufacturers to build an independent Mexican arms industry that could supply his forces in a potential future war against the U.S. Army. Carranza’s assassination by political rivals in 1920 eliminated this major Latin American nationalist from the anti-U.S. political scene, exceeded in scope and skill only by Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Still, only the successful 1921 Washington Naval conference turned a strengthening Mexican, Japanese, and German intelligence exchange from a gathering threat into a historical curiosity.

In retrospect, Carranza deserves to be recognized as one of Mexico’s greatest foreign policy makers of the twentieth century. Under the most difficult revolutionary circumstances, he succeeded in keeping his country and its citizens out of direct military involvement with both the German and the Allied sides during World War I. His skillful diplomacy prevented a devastating U.S.–Mexican war or a longer U.S. military presence on Mexican soil. Meanwhile, he succeeded in assuring Germans of enough Mexican interest in future cooperation to avoid sabotage of the British and U.S. petroleum industries in Mexico. He also isolated Villa in Chihuahua and kept German manipulators at arms length. Finally, he confronted U.S. President Wilson vigorously through diplomacy, propaganda, and the symbolic display of military courage. In the midst of this explosive situation, he and representatives of other revolutionary factions passed the Constitution of 1917, which created the legal foundation for subsequent presidents to achieve sovereignty over national territory and natural resources.

Publicly, Carranza preferred to talk only about a set of political principles—later called the Carranza Doctrine—that guided foreign relations through several decades of the twentieth century. Its most important points were the rejection of the Monroe Doctrine, a demand for foreign respect in regard to Mexico’s economic and territorial sovereignty, an insistence that all foreign powers accept the concept of nonintervention in Latin America, and, finally, an emphasis on the importance of negotiating alliances with European and Latin American countries that could counterbalance Mexico’s geographic fate of bordering on the United States. Under the most difficult domestic and international circumstances, Carranza had broken with Porfirian laissez-faire and established a distinct nationalistic revolutionary agenda that sought domestic solutions to the international challenges of expanding capitalism and centuries old great-power rivalries in Europe.

Carranza’s dogmatic insistence on self-definition turned out to be timely. Following World War I, the United States replaced Great Britain as the most important economic and political power in Latin America. The newly founded League of Nations recognized the application of the Monroe Doctrine, refusing to aid Latin American countries against short-sighted and amateurish U.S. policies of big-stick and dollar diplomacy during the Republican presidencies of the 1920s.

By 1921, Villa’s retirement from revolution, the assassinations of Zapata and Carranza, and Wilson’s retirement from the White House provided a new opportunity for Mexican and U.S. representatives to forge a closer, more constructive relationship. Yet the next four years remained as difficult for the emerging revolutionary state as the previous years had been.

In a sharp break with Wilsonian universalism, Harding brought relief from the naive perception that democracy could be decreed overnight in Mexico. Other possible benefits from the United States’ turn toward isolationism did not materialize. U.S. racial discrimination against Mexicans continued and even intensified within the context of the xenophobic immigration debates of the 1920s. The Republican political and economic laissez-faire stance only made U.S.–Mexican bilateral relations more difficult. Now that the U.S. government was only one among many laissez-faire political interests in Washington, U.S. contacts with Mexico diversified to the point of destructive chaos.

Union Ironclads of the Mississippi River

The strategy to win the war proposed by Winfield Scott and dubbed the Anaconda Plan called for a Union blockade of the southern coast and for Union forces to seize New Orleans and push down the Mississippi River, capturing enemy strongpoints, turning them into bases, and opening the river. Controlling the Mississippi would not only allow goods from the North to flow freely again to New Orleans but it would also assure a Union victory by cutting the Confederacy in two. Union planners focused on seizing control of the Mississippi River, but they also understood that Southern railroads had limitations when it came to moving men and supplies. Using rivers and waterways offered the Union a more effective means to penetrate the Confederacy with combined forces, seize bases, and ensure communication and transportation.

To implement the strategy outlined in the Anaconda Plan, the Union army had to raise thousands of volunteer troops and outfit, train, and transport them to theaters of war. In the case of the western theater, they had to be marched overland or conveyed by rail and river steamer to staging areas such as Cincinnati or Cairo. To transport men and supplies and to secure control of the Mississippi and other western rivers, the Union navy had to lease, purchase, or construct a flotilla of steam-powered vessels suitable for operations on these narrow, shallow rivers. The navy had to protect the vital areas of these river craft from shot and shell, and it had to arm these newly constructed or acquired vessels with modern ordnance and staff them with officers and men.

Creating a brown-water navy almost from scratch called for innovativeness. The first steamers acquired by the Union navy for western service in 1861—the A. O. Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga—were converted from commercial side-wheel steamers. Protected by five-inch timber bulwarks, they were, as one officer remarked, unprotected against “anything more formidable than musketry.” However, these ungainly looking timberclads proved their worth at the battle of Belmont and continued to serve the flotilla at Forts Henry and Donelson, during the battle for Shiloh, on the Yazoo River, and in the lower Mississippi.

The timberclads were followed by a class of warship specially designed for service on western rivers. The seven city-class ironclads—the Cairo, Cincinnati, Carondelet, St. Louis, Mound City, Louisville, and Pittsburg—completed in 1861 extended the navy’s capabilities and made a vital contribution to the war in 1862 and well into 1863. The new ironclads’ sterling performance in their baptism of fire at Fort Henry had the unfortunate consequence of convincing many that these Pook turtles were invincible, but Fort Donelson’s gunners disabused them of that notion. The city-class ironclads were, indeed, vulnerable to enemy fire. In a running fight with CSS Arkansas, for example, the Carondelet sustained considerable damage, one 8-inch shot striking it in the stern, gutting the captain’s cabin, and knocking a twelve-inch oak log into splinters.

Despite being struck repeatedly by enemy shot and shell in engagements with Confederate gunboats, rams, and fortifications, the Pook turtles were remarkably sturdy vessels, and several that were damaged or disabled underwent repairs and returned to service. On the St. Louis, casemates greased with tallow deflected enemy shot from Fort Hindman, but the gunboat suffered casualties when shot entered its gun ports, and one that landed on the muzzle of a 10-inch gun caused an explosion. Three other city-class ironclads were eventually lost: an enemy mine sank the Cairo in December 1862, a boiler explosion caused by enemy shot claimed the Mound City, and, pummeled by enemy fire at Vicksburg, the Cincinnati sank.

The next large ironclads constructed by the Union navy for western service—the rams Lafayette and Choctaw—were better able to withstand enemy shot and shell. Although hit nine times while passing the Vicksburg batteries, the Lafayette suffered little damage. The Choctaw, converted from a side-wheel river steamer, had one-inch armor over one inch of India rubber, but the rubber proved useless, and the armor and armament were too heavy for the hull. Nonetheless, the ironclad served at Haynes’ Bluff on the Yazoo in May 1863, sustaining eighty-one hits, and then went on to participate in the Red River expedition.

The Chillicothe, commissioned in September 1862, followed by the Tuscumbia and Indianola, commissioned in January 1863, were smaller and had an unusual arrangement of machinery consisting of both side wheels and screw propellers; they were armed with 11-inch smoothbores. A Confederate vessel rammed the Indianola near Vicksburg in February 1863, running it aground. The Tuscumbia proved far sturdier, being hit eighty-one times during the bombardment of Grand Gulf. Rebel gunners at Fort Pemberton on the Yazoo River aimed their fire at the Chillicothe, putting a shot through the bow gun port as the gun was being loaded, and both exploded. After repairs, however, the Chillicothe returned to the squadron in September 1863.

The most formidable ironclad in the Mississippi Squadron was the Essex, formerly the snag boat New Era. It was acquired in the fall of 1861 and converted by Eads into a timberclad, then an armored vessel with three inches of iron on the casemates. The Essex served in the Cumberland River expedition and at Fort Henry, and it took part in the attacks on CSS Arkansas. A lucky shot hit the Essex at Fort Henry and caused a boiler explosion, but commanding officer William Porter had the vessel repaired and upgraded, enabling the ironclad to support the bombardment of Port Hudson and the 1864 Red River expedition.

The Mississippi Squadron’s flag boats, the Benton and Black Hawk, were also converted to ironclads from river steamboats. The Benton, though formidably armed, was not impervious to shot and shell. Enemy fire roughed the vessel up at Grand Gulf and in the Yazoo, and in July 1862 a shot from an enemy Whitworth rifle went clean through the bow, exploding and injuring several sailors.

The little gunboats dubbed tinclads—the Marmora, Signal, Rattler, and Red Rover—were not yet in service and thus did not take part in the battles for New Orleans or Memphis or in the engagements with the Arkansas, but they made valuable contributions to Union naval operations on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Yazoo, and Red Rivers. Designed to patrol shallow, twisting western rivers, they were converted from steamboats by the addition of thin boilerplate iron as armor. The Union produced sixty-three of these tinclads during the war, and they served admirably, fighting rebel sharpshooters, enforcing revenue, and acting as towboats and dispatch vessels.

During the Vietnam War, the US Navy looked back to these unique river craft and designed or converted similar, lightly armed vessels to patrol the Mekong Delta. For example, the 130 PBR Mark 1 patrol boats deployed for Operation Game Warden were modified commercial sports craft ordered in 1963 from American builders; they were armor plated and armed with three .50-caliber machine guns and a 40 mm grenade launcher.

In addition to these navy craft, in 1862 Charles Ellet developed steam-powered rams by purchasing river steamers and reinforcing their hulls and bows with timber. The Army Quartermaster Department converted the Lioness, Lancaster, Mingo, Queen of the West, Switzerland, and Monarch. Ellet formed a command that was independent of the navy, but his rams took part in the battle of Memphis and passed the gauntlet of fire from the Vicksburg batteries.

To bombard Confederate batteries, especially those positioned on bluffs above the Mississippi River, the Union navy turned to the army’s 13-inch seacoast mortars. The Western Gunboat Flotilla ordered flat-bottomed rafts to carry these monstrous mortars and manned them with fifteen-man crews. Lacking their own propulsion, the mortar boats had to be towed into position. Initially, the new mortar boats went into action against Confederate batteries at Island No 10. Foote had great confidence in the effectiveness of the new boats and told his commanders to “let the mortar boats do the work.” They could not, however, silence the rebel defenses. In the battle for New Orleans, Porter deployed twenty-one 13-inch mortars placed on mortar schooners. Firing every ten minutes, the mortars pounded Fort Jackson, setting fire to the citadel, but enemy fire managed to damage two of the schooners. When Farragut and Davis met at Vicksburg in July 1862, Porter’s mortars were placed along the riverbanks in the hope they might reduce some of the enemy defenses. Sailors like coxswain John Morison of the Carondelet continued to have faith in the efficacy of these mortars, but orders from Secretary Welles sent Porter and twelve of the mortar boats back to Hampton Roads.

Porter continued to believe in mortars, and when he assumed command of the Mississippi Squadron he took mortars to the Yazoo in December 1862 to support the army’s assault at Chickasaw Bluffs. Mortar boats also participated in the fifty-two-day bombardment of Fort Pillow, and by April 1862, they had fired 531 of these 13-inch shells. Mortars played an important role in the prolonged siege of Vicksburg as well, augmented by naval guns brought ashore to bombard the rebel fortifications at that stronghold.

Although typically used to bombard enemy batteries on bluffs, owing to their arching fire, the Union navy occasionally employed mortars against enemy vessels. The most famous incident involved Mortar Boat No. 16, which had only its mortar to defend itself against a rebel attacker. Mortar schooners also fired on the CSS Arkansas.

Union navy mortar boats were plagued by bad fuses, and because long-range, direct fire requires sophisticated fire control, their 13-inch shells had a limited impact on rebel batteries. Although the Union navy continued to employ mortars against enemy fortifications along the Mississippi River, these mortar boats never lived up to the navy’s expectations for them.

The Western Gunboat Flotilla, renamed the Mississippi Squadron in September 1862, took part in three engagements with Confederate naval forces and repeatedly dueled with rebel gun batteries and riverfront defenses. In addition, the Confederate navy initiated construction on several ironclads and put together a Confederate River Defense Force of rams and “cotton-clad” gunboats. Yet there were only two confrontations between Union and Confederate forces that could be classed a general fleet action. The first engagement took place off Plum Point above Memphis. In this “sharp but decisive” engagement with the Confederate River Defense Force in May 1862, the federal squadron parried the rebel rams, but the Cincinnati and Mound City suffered serious damage before the Yankee boats retreated to shallower water and the Confederates withdrew. Then, when Davis’s flotilla met Confederate rams above Memphis, it was Ellet’s rams Queen of the West and Monarch that boldly dashed past them to take on the enemy.

Union gunboats, mortars, and rams also bombarded and exchanged gunfire with Confederate forts and gun batteries on numerous occasions. The first was the battle of Belmont, when Walke’s timberclads fended off rebel fire. The Western Gunboat Flotilla moved down to Paducah and then to Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Cautiously advancing against Fort Henry’s eleven river-facing guns, the four Eads ironclads encountered less than robust return fire from the rebel batteries, as those at water level had been rendered useless by flooding. All the ironclads were hit by rebel shot and shell but sustained no serious damage, and Fort Henry’s defenders surrendered before Union troops could make an assault, handing Foote a victory. When most of the enemy troops withdrew to nearby Fort Donelson, that became the flotilla’s next objective. There, the ironclads closed Confederate batteries positioned on bluffs above the river, allowing rebel gunners to pour plunging fire down on them. Unable to elevate their guns to return fire, the Pook turtles took a beating.

The flotilla’s pummeling at Fort Donelson made Foote cautious about exposing his ironclads to enemy batteries at Island No. 10—until Walke agreed to run the Carondelet down past them under cover of darkness. Farragut had less compunction about Confederate river defenses and took his Gulf Squadron past the forts at New Orleans, Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Port Hudson. Foote and Porter, Davis’s successor, confronted enemy batteries on the Yazoo River, at Fort Hindman at Arkansas Post, and at Vicksburg. The Mississippi Squadron, in fact, became the army’s “floating artillery.”

In many of these engagements with Confederate gun batteries, Union naval vessels came through relatively unscathed, despite being struck repeatedly. As the war progressed, commanders learned that coiling chains, placing hay or cotton bales on deck and near bulwarks, or greasing casemates with tallow helped protect their vessels from shot and shell. During the attack on Fort Hindman, for example, enemy shot struck the Cincinnati at least eight times but simply bounced off the greased casemates.

Chains and tallow could not always protect a vessel’s boilers, and pilothouses were vulnerable as well. Union ironclad gunboats and rams were conned from pilothouses sheathed in iron plate, but the pilothouses were often targeted by enemy gunfire, and when shot or shell penetrated them, the splinters could inflict serious damage and casualties. When officers stepped outside these pilothouses, they risked injury, as Roger Stembel learned when a rebel sharpshooter’s bullet struck him during the battle of Plum Point.

Whether down on the gun deck or in the pilothouse, the officers and men of the Western Gunboat Flotilla risked death or injury from musketry, enemy shot, splinters, and gun or boiler explosions. The bursting of a rifle gun onboard the St. Louis on March 17, 1862, for example, killed two seamen and wounded fifteen. A similar gun explosion killed fourteen men on the Chillicothe in the Yazoo River. During the assault on Fort Donelson, a shell hit the Carondelet, killing four men and wounding the pilot and twenty-seven other crewmen. At Chickasaw Bluffs, the flagship Benton suffered twelve sailors killed, and in the assault on Arkansas Post and Fort Hindman, Porter’s flotilla incurred thirty-one killed and wounded in capturing that enemy strongpoint. Even one well-placed enemy shot could inflict devastating damage, as was the case with the Mound City.

Confederate gunfire did not discriminate. Foote suffered an injured foot, Stembel was shot by a sharpshooter, Augustus Kilty died from burns suffered in the Mound City boiler explosion, A. Boyd Cummings lost a leg, and William Gwin was mortally wounded. The ships and gunboats of Farragut’s fleet also sustained casualties during operations on the Mississippi River. Farragut’s squadron, for example, suffered five killed and sixteen wounded, and Davis’s Mississippi Squadron had thirteen killed and thirty-four wounded while passing the Vicksburg batteries.

Combined operations in the West during the Civil War required senior army and navy commanders working together to formulate strategy and to allocate troops and resources. Cooperation with the Union army proved essential in the assaults on Confederate strongholds at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Grand Gulf. Naval gunboats and mortars shelled these fortifications, attempting to silence the rebel batteries, but in many cases it took federal troops—“boots on the ground”—to assault, occupy, and hold these positions. The Union army’s failure to allocate sufficient troops could doom these combined operations to failure, as was the case with the first Vicksburg campaign.

In addition to Confederate gun batteries and naval forces, Union naval units faced opposition from rebel sharpshooters, from irregular Confederate troops or guerrillas, and from a new weapon—the “torpedo,” or mine. From almost the beginning of the war in the West, Union naval vessels, army transports, and other river steamers found themselves under fire from local pro-Southern citizens, armed bands, and Confederate guerrillas. Walke’s flotilla at Milliken’s Bend repeatedly encountered enemy sharpshooters, and sharpshooters harassed Porter’s vessels during the Steele’s Bayou expedition as well. In fact, guerrillas visited the banks of the Mississippi with impunity, took potshots at passing transports, and seized the Sallie Wood. When federal rams or gunboats pinpointed these enemy guerrilla bands or rebel artillery pieces, they did not hesitate to lob a few shells at them, as the Lancaster did against one band of rebels. The Forest Rose surprised a guerrilla camp on the Yazoo, and in some cases the army landed men to pursue guerrillas. Towns were not spared the federals’ wrath either. When rebel guerrillas fired on a dinghy from Farragut’s flagship Hartford off Baton Rouge, the ship’s gunners immediately retaliated by firing into the town. None of these guerrilla attacks on Union naval vessels inflicted serious damage or caused a large number of casualties, but they did force commanders to use caution and in some cases to carry their own sharpshooters on board.

The Confederacy contested Union naval operations on the Mississippi, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Ohio Rivers with both steam-powered rams and gunboats, but also with a new weapon: the “torpedo,” or mine. These “infernal machines” proved capable of causing serious damage to federal gunboats, sinking the USS Cairo in December 1862. Dragging for floating mines became one of the Yankee flotilla’s ongoing missions, consuming time and manpower. Furthermore, mines could render stretches of the river unsafe for federal gunboats, curbing their ability to provide fire support to the army.

The Mississippi River itself proved a challenge to Union naval operations and sometimes seemed to be the “enemy.” The Mississippi River rose with winter and spring rains, causing extensive flooding; then it fell with the approach of warm weather. Low water proved hazardous to Farragut’s deep-draft wooden vessels. The Hartford grounded on its way north, and many others, even lighter-draft gunboats such as the Winona, also went briefly aground. Federal vessels also risked damage from snags or sawyers, collisions, and falling trees, and the swift current in these narrow western rivers made positioning the gunboats to bombard enemy positions difficult.

Manning the burgeoning number of ironclads and gunboats of the Western Gunboat Flotilla proved even more challenging than constructing or converting them. Foote repeatedly asked the Navy Department to send him men to fill out the complements of new vessels and to replace men whose terms of enlistment had expired or who had fallen ill. The Union navy competed with the Union army for recruits, and when recruiting efforts failed to produce enough seamen, the navy turned to foreigners, African Americans, and Confederate prisoners of war who were willing to enlist. As a last resort, commanders asked the army to detail soldiers to serve on naval vessels.

When federal gunboats appeared on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, African Americans, most of them slaves belonging to plantations situated on these waterways, often greeted them warmly. Some of them offered to provide food or information about Confederate activity or to act as guides. Soon, increasing numbers of slaves, and even some free blacks, began to seek safety on federal vessels. Naval commanders did not always oblige these fugitives, but they gradually came to value the intelligence they provided about the enemy. They employed these contrabands as crewmen, stevedores, and laborers, and the women worked as cooks, laundresses, and aides in Union hospitals and aboard hospital boats such as the Red Rover.

Union navy policy toward African Americans in the West varied over time. In deference to the bias of the Southern people, Foote did not want contrabands shipped on his vessels, and the enlistment of blacks had to wait until April 1862. Porter issued regulations to segregate blacks in his crews; they were to be “messed by themselves and also [to] be kept in gangs by themselves at work.” But segregation on shipboard was not always possible, and Porter finally had to admit that his contraband sailors “do first rate.”

In the summer of 1862 the army employed a large force of slaves, along with some troops, to dig a canal across the peninsula opposite Vicksburg. When Davis and General Williams departed, scores of African Americans who had dug the canal were left behind, denied their promised freedom. Sherman, however, welcomed slaves as laborers, putting them to work and housing their families. In the fall of 1862 he ordered that runaway slaves be treated as free, pending a final ruling by the courts. This opened the “floodgates of freedom,” and the fugitive population grew sharply as a result.

African Americans seeking sanctuary on Union vessels presented commanding officers with opportunities, but also with the challenge of feeding and protecting them. Many were sent ashore to army commanders, but the navy retained the able-bodied males as first-class boys, coal heavers, and landsmen. By the summer of 1862, many Union warships, rams, and gunboats had African American crewmen. Black sailors fought alongside their white comrades on Union vessels and risked injury and death. One contraband had both his arms and a leg shot off while serving on the ram Lancaster. Shot and shell from the Arkansas also injured seven black deckhands and coal heavers.

When the Union army recruited African Americans as troops and deployed them in the Mississippi Valley campaigns, Union gunboat commanders were asked to support these black soldiers and defend them against enemy attack. The extent to which African Americans, slave or free, supported the Union war effort in the West has not been extensively studied, but as this narrative of Union naval operations on the Mississippi River has shown, African Americans made substantial contributions to the Union navy’s opening of the river.

Union navy vessels operating on these western rivers did incur combat casualties, but more officers and men suffered from various illnesses. Fevers and gastrointestinal illnesses often drastically reduced the number of seamen fit for duty on navy vessels. When the Carondelet met the CSS Arkansas, for example, half its crew were ill, and Walke could man only one gun division. Foote himself succumbed to an injury and the debilitating effects of the Southern climate. Watson Smith asked to be relieved of command of the Yazoo expedition because of an unspecified illness, possibly suffering a nervous breakdown.

Naval operations on the Mississippi River involved transporting these ill and wounded sailors and soldiers from the battlefields to hospitals in Memphis and Cairo. Numerous cases of fever and other illnesses prompted the Union navy to outfit river steamers as hospital boats, the Red Rover being the most famous example. Naval gunboats also carried prisoners north to Union prison camps or escorted vessels carrying flags of truce or conveying prisoners of war for exchange.

Service in the brown-water navy was not glamorous duty. As one historian put it, “the brown water sailors of the riverine war struggled like their army comrades with a hostile, combatant populace, disease, boredom, and death in the shadows from marksmen known as bushwhackers.” The almost two-year battle to implement Scott’s Anaconda Plan to “open the Mississippi River” might not have succeeded without the brown-water fleet. As Admiral Porter wrote, “The services of the Navy in the West had as much effect in reducing the south to submission as the greater battles fought in the East.”

Ottoman Empire was the command of the Black Sea

Hobart Pasha

The Turkish fleet at Buyukdere

Ottoman fleet organisation during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78)

One potential advantage possessed by the Ottoman Empire was the command of the Black Sea, and the not inconsiderable fleet that was available to exercise it. The Turks had acquired a number of vessels that would have been the envy of any navy. The most powerful of the ironclads was the Messudieh, built by Thames Iron Works and commissioned in December 1875. Of just under 9,000 tons, she was armed with twelve ten-inch muzzle-loading rifled guns and three seven-inch muzzle-loaders. On her trials she achieved a speed of just under 14 knots. She was originally to have been joined by a sister ship, launched as the Mahmoudieh but subsequently renamed Hamidieh; this vessel was, however, compulsorily purchased by the British government and entered the Royal Navy as HMS Superb. Described as ‘one of the most formidable vessels of her class afloat,’ the Messudieh had a belt of 14 inch armour plate.

In addition there were the four ironclads of the Osmanieh class, three of which were built by R Napier and Son and one by Thames Iron Works. These were of 6,400 tons, and were armed with one nine-inch muzzle-loader and 14 eight inch muzzle-loaders. Named Osmanieh, Azizieh, Orkhanie and Mahmoudieh, they were protected by a belt of 4.5 inch armour, and had a speed of 13.5 knots. There were also ten other ironclads, five wooden steam frigates, eleven wooden corvettes, two wooden gun vessels and eleven gunboats. Seven of the gunboats were armoured, and these constituted the flotilla based on the Danube.

In terms of numbers, a Daily News correspondent reckoned that Turkey had ‘one of the finest fleets in the world,’ sufficient for a comprehensive blockade of the Russian coast:

Properly watched, not a vessel ought to be allowed to escape out of a Russian port; and although there is a fine fleet of merchant steamers at its disposal, the Turks ought to be able to prevent the Russian Government from sending any supplies to its various corps d’armée except overland.

The commander of the Turkish navy was a flamboyant Englishman. Hobart Pasha, as he was known, was the son of the Earl of Buckingham. He was born in 1822, and served in the Royal Navy for over thirty years. He saw service against Russia in the Baltic during the Crimean War but later, having reached the rank of post captain, he was according to the procedure at that time obliged to remain on shore for four years to await assignment to an appropriate command. Bored with this, during the American Civil War he became an extremely successful blockade-runner, operating under the pseudonym of ‘Captain Roberts.’ After the war ended, he went on a tour of Europe, and found himself in Constantinople, where he greatly impressed the Grand Vizier, Fuad Pasha, and was as a result offered the post of Naval Adviser to the Turkish government, a post that had just become vacant on the retirement of Admiral Sir Adolphus Slade. Hobart’s acceptance of the post seriously annoyed the Admiralty, where the assignment of an officer to the post was regarded as being in the gift of the British government.

Hobart was a man of enquiring mind, and was particularly struck by the potential of the torpedo as a naval weapon. Not long before the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, while on a visit to his home in England he had conducted experiments with torpedoes on the village pond. Hobart was a man of strong opinions, which he usually expressed with more force than tact. In command of the Turkish fleet he achieved some success off Crete during the insurgency there; but he has been described as ‘a reluctant and intolerant administrator.’

The fact that the Turkish fleet possessed so many large units owed a good deal to the personality of Sultan Abdul Aziz. Always a man of extravagant tastes, he had been hugely impressed by the British fleet which he saw in the course of a visit to England in 1867. After receiving him at Windsor, Queen Victoria took him on a fast train to Portsmouth, where she appointed him a Knight of the Garter, and where he watched the ships of her fleet pass before him. The Queen was greatly impressed by the Sultan, and wrote to her daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, to describe the Portsmouth visit:

Our Naval Review was a very fine sight in spite of the most awful weather – and really it was an act of great dévouement to my Oriental Brother to go out in it and to have to go in and out in of boats in a horrid swell which always frightens me so… The poor Sultan was not comfortable and had to lie down a good deal below.

In spite of the discomfort he had endured, the Sultan returned home with the conviction that he must have a fleet to be proud of. He had always been interested in naval affairs, and was convinced of the value of a strong navy. His succession to the sultanate had given him the opportunity to indulge his interests:

On tasting power he rapidly fell into extravagant ways, including spending large sums on the armed forces. Unfortunately, although he was intrigued by new technology, he was not sufficiently educated to discriminate between a practical invention and a visionary scheme, and so was prey to every projector and salesman. This weakness extended to warship procurement, and the Sultan’s whims burdened the navy with warships it did not need and could not effectively use.

Nonetheless, it did mean that in 1877 the Turks had a formidable weapon in their hands which could and should have had the effect pointed out by the correspondent of the Daily News.

Its overall size may be judged from the fact that its Navy List for 1876 recorded it as possessing a total of 132 vessels and 18,292 officers, seamen and marines. In building up such a force, the Turkish government had called upon the services of a number of overseas officers, whose contribution was, however, not as effective as might have been hoped, as has been pointed out by the historians of the Ottoman Navy:

The Sultan was also unfortunate in his technical advisers, most of whom were recruited in Britain. With the exception of the long serving Slade, who was mainly employed on naval staff work, and Henry S Wood, who took over command of the naval school at Heybeliarda, they were generally adventurers who were ill-equipped, or ill-disposed, to deal with the obstructionism of the navy ministry.

This was perhaps not a problem confined to the Turkish navy; the chaotic and corrupt administration and low morale of its officers and men was a more general reflection of the style and behaviour of the Turkish government.

So far as major naval units were concerned, the Russian navy could not compare with its adversary. In 1877 it possessed only seven seagoing ironclads, and six of these were in the Baltic. One, the elderly Petropavlovsk, was at Spezia in southern Italy, where she remained, taking no part in the war. In the Black Sea the Russians had not taken advantage of the removal of the Black Sea clauses to build up their naval resources to an effective level. There, they had the extraordinary and quite useless circular ironclads, the Admiral Popov and Novgorod, which if they had served any purpose at all would have been as floating forts. For the rest, Fred T Jane summarised the Russian situation:

In the Black Sea there was nothing; or rather, there was worse than nothing, a number of old tubs of no fighting value whatsoever. About twenty merchant steamers were purchased and armed, and a number of torpedo boats (launches we should call them nowadays) were sent across country by rail from St Petersburg, but practically at the outbreak, and in the early stages of the war, Russia was worse off than she would have been without a fleet at all. For the consequent forced inactivity, as in the case of the Petropavlovsk at Spezia, might be assumed to have a fatal effect on the morale of the men. Inaction soon neutralises the finest fleet, and its effects are likely enough to spread to the military in a long campaign.

Ironically, considering Hobart’s interest in torpedoes, it was to be the Russians who made most use of these weapons. Even before the war, their development of the torpedo was generally regarded as noteworthy:

In those days the torpedo was a new weapon, and though possessed by all Powers, was more associated with the name of Russia than any other. These torpedoes the Turks were supposed to be particularly afraid of, and this has been put forward as a reason for their extraordinary inactivity; actually, however, circumstances, lack of ammunition, or defects in machinery, may be considered more probable causes.

The weakness of the Russian navy in the Black Sea was principally due to the government’s reluctance to spend very much on building up an ironclad fleet there. In addition, the redevelopment of Sebastopol’s shipbuilding capacity was not, by 1877, very far advanced. The only vessels built for operation in the Black Sea after the removal of the restraints of the Treaty of Paris in 1871 had been the absurd circular ships designed by Admiral Popov. No attempt was in fact made to employ them in 1877 since they were, as Fred T Jane put it, ‘unique curios of naval architecture – nothing more.’ He described what happened on their trials:

Such mobility as they had was soon heavily discounted. On a trial cruise they went up the Dnieper very nicely for some distance, till they turned to retire. Then the current caught them, and they were carried out to sea, whirled helplessly round and round, every soul on board hopelessly incapacitated by vertigo.

It might have been expected that with such a pronounced advantage at sea, the Turks would, in the period leading up to what was seen as a virtually inevitable war, do all they could to prepare their navy for the coming struggle. Clearly the Russian strategy would be based on an invasion of Bulgaria, and the Turkish fleet would, or could, have a big part to play in resisting it. Hobart was sent to the Danube delta to advise on the situation, and when he got there was at first optimistic:

It was soon made clear to me that much could be done, in the way of defending that great estuary, had nautical experience and the splendid material of which the Turkish sailor is made of been properly utilised. But alas! I found that, contrary to the views of His Majesty the Sultan a line of action was followed showing that pigheaded obstinacy and the grossest ignorance prevailed in the councils of those who had supreme command in that great river. I found that my advice and that of competent Turkish officers, in comparatively subordinate positions like myself, was entirely ignored.

SD 2 Schmetterling

The air-delivered German SD 2 Schmetterling (butterfly) cluster bomb appears to be the first purpose-built scatterable landmine laying system employed in combat. It was first used against the Poles in September 1939. The Germans used air-burst/impact (SD 2A (41) and SD 2B (41) A), anti-disturbance (SD 2B (70) B, with selectable self-destruct times from four to thirty hours) and time-delay (SD 2B (67) with a 5-30 minute delay) fuzes with their SD-2s. “All three types of fuze were used indiscriminately in the same container load.” The Luftwaffe deployed the Schmetterling from low-altitude as submunitions carried in the AB 23 (23 SD 2s), AB 70-3 (22 SD 2s), the AB 250-1 (96 SD 2s), the AB 250-2 (144 SD 2s), the AB 250-3 (108 SD 2s), the Mk 500 (6 SD 2s), and the AB 24t (24 SD 2s). By May 1941, fifteen different groups of the Luftwaffe had the specially modified aircraft (five of Ju-88s, three of Do-17s, four of Me-109s, or three of Ju-87s) required for emplacing the SD 2. Each modified Ju-88 or Do-17 could dispense 360 SD 2s, while the modified Me-109 or Ju-87 could dispense 96 of the SD 2s. The Germans planned to modify two groups of Me-110s (each capable of dispensing 96 SD 2s) beginning in July of 1941. “As long as fronts remained fluid, these bombs proved highly effective although unfortunately in short supply.” However, effective antiaircraft defenses could limit the ability of the Luftwaffe to employ them. Although the Germans had several other types of cluster bombs (e.g. SD 1, SB 3, SD 4 (with a shape charge), and SD 10), none of these were fuzed to function as a landmine and these were not used in quantities comparable to that seen of the SD 2. In addition, the German ABB 500 container could carry 2,200 “crow’s feet” (caltrops). Interestingly, these early cluster bombs (with anti-disturbance fuzes) were not officially called “mines” until the Vietnam War. Perhaps the vocabulary with respect to these devices developed in this fashion because the air-scattered landmine evolved from a cluster bomb as well as the fact that these rested on the surface of the ground and were not buried as landmines were.

Royal Engineer Major Arthur Hartley, who performed EOD work during the Battle of Britain, noted that in 1942 one of the principal developments was the increased use of butterfly bombs by the Germans. “Butterfly bombs had already made their appearance as an occasional and minor constituent of the dose in large raids, but it was only now that they began to be regularly employed. As the year wore on the reports on nearly every raid recorded their use and the casualties they had inflicted. These little devices, each weighing two kilos (about 4 ½ lb.), were launched from the bomber in a sheet metal container which usually was designed to hold twenty-three or twenty-four… Once armed the butterfly bomb could not be disarmed again. The only method of disposal was demolition in situ… Since their thick-walled cases gave powerful fragmentation and made them very effective anti-personnel weapons, great care had to be exercised in accounting for them. Several officers and N.C.O.’s were killed at different times not by the bomb they were engaged in demolishing, but by the sympathetic explosion of another lying undiscovered some little distance away. Thus it was usually necessary to account for every bomb in a batch before demolition could start; something easier said than done, for though recovery of the original container would indicate the number scattered over a particular spot, these hideous little mobile booby-traps had an extraordinary aptitude for hiding themselves in garden hedges, long grass, and a thousand other places.” Beginning with a saturation raid on east London and Essex, the Luftwaffe began employing the SD 2 “very effectively.” The heaviest use of them against an urban area occurred on 13 June on Grimsby and Cleethorpes when the Luftwaffe dropped “great numbers of the sensitive, post-impact booby-trap type” (nevertheless, the majority of SD-2s had time-delay fuzes) and brought both towns almost to a standstill. During this time a single company (No. 3) cleared 1,500 butterfly bombs. “Considering how successfully this raid had dislocated movement and production, it was naturally feared that this would be a prelude to a series… But the expected raids never materialized… There is little doubt that this was at least partly due to the great improvement in security arrangements. In spite of the scale of the operation it seems that the Germans never realized the full measure of the bomb’s potentialities” against civilian targets.


Unexploded Bomb, A History of Bomb Disposal, by Arthur Hartley, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, page 213. The failure to use SD-2s against Operation Overlord may stem from the fact that the Luftwaffe had higher priority tasks (such as defending their homeland and fighting the Russians) or the fact that they may have exhausted their supply of SD-2s and never replenished it.


The German SD 2B Schmetterling was also used effectively against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, beginning in June 1941. The SD 2B, fitted with the (70)A chemical/mechanical long delay and anti-disturbance fuze with a selectable self-destruct time from four to thirty hours, constitutes one of the earliest self-destructing scatterable mines. Nevertheless, the Germans forbade the use of SD 2s with anti-disturbance fuzes against retreating opponents due to the hazard to friendly forces. The SD 2 with anti-disturbance fuze was intended for use against targets behind enemy lines for “harassing effect” only. The Germans “at least understood the value of these little bombs against military formations. Colonel S. M. Lovell, a member of a British military mission to the U.S.S.R. who had the duty of advising on bomb disposal matters, had found that the Russians attached the greatest importance to the butterfly bomb… Used in high concentrations it had cost the Red Army great numbers of casualties and effectively held up the movement of formations. Russian soldiers had been reduced to detonating bombs by rifle fire, a method certain to cause casualties since the butterfly’s fragmentation range was a hundred yards, at which distance it presented, at best, a poor target-and the rifleman was bound to have his face toward the bomb.”

During the campaign in North Africa, Field Marshal Rommel employed scatterable mines. On 5 April 1941 Major Heymer, one of his staff officers, “had been sent on a mission with two aircraft to mine the tracks east of Mechili”, presumably to further isolate this post in preparation for an attack. During the period August to September 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped “many thousands” of ‘butterflies’ just in the 2nd New Zealand Division area, but caused few casualties. At the end of October during Operation Lightfoot, German aircraft dropped SD 2s on the 2nd New Zealand Division’s artillery, apparently in one of the first attempts to re-seed a minefield that the British 8th Army had breached earlier in the battle. The Luftwaffe also employed SD 2s in Tunisia and Italy.

During the difficult days at Anzio in February 1944, “The enemy used increasingly large percentage of anti-personnel ‘butterfly’ bombs in his night attacks, which caused casualties throughout the beachhead.” Soldiers serving at Anzio referred to the German pilots who regularly dropped strings of antipersonnel bombs that crackled as they dispersed, Popcorn Pete. These landed in every corner of the beachhead. “Between January 22 and March 12, antipersonnel bombs dropped from German planes killed 40 men and wounded 343.” On 7 February, a German plane under attack by British Spitfires jettisoned its cluster bombs. In the tightly backed beachhead, these fell on the 95th Evacuation Hospital, killing 28 and wounding 64. “Two raids on March 17 killed 16 and wounded 100.”

During preparations for the invasion of Europe, the British were deeply concerned about the use of butterfly bombs against the marshalling and embarkation areas. “No such attacks were made either on the ports and their surroundings or on the close-packed Caen Peninsula (in Normandy). The neglect of such an obvious, effective and economical weapon at such a time was never to the author’s knowledge, been satisfactorily explained.” Impressed by the effectiveness of the SD 2, the US attempted to copy it as the M83. After numerous tests Aberdeen Proving Grounds through 1944, the US Army standardized the cluster bomb with three different types of fuzes (M129 impact, M130 Clockwork long delay and M131 Anti-Disturbance) and two different sizes of container (the M15 and M16 cluster adapters, holding 24 and 90 M83 respectively), with testing continuing through the summer of 1945. However, “Fuze failure and the tendency of the cluster to open too soon after release sometimes made experience with the bomb in the field discouraging.” Consequently, the M83 did not see significant action during WWII. However, the US did employ it in Korea and Vietnam.

Italy soon followed the Germans with their air-scattered “Thermos Bombs” (also called the 4-AR Anti-Personnel Bomb Manzolini). Like the SD 2, the thermos bombs also came with anti-disturbance/time-delay fuzing (but apparently no impact fuze). The time-delay feature of the Manzolini Fuze causes the Thermos bomb to self-destruct between 60 to 80 hours after its deployment. Twenty-four of the Thermos Bombs could be carried as a submunition in an aircraft dropped Bomb Container. They made their combat debut against the 4th Indian Division under the British in Egypt on 14 September 1940. “A group of Italian bombers strewed the Baqqush and Naghamish areas with thermos flasks and shaving-stick antipersonnel bombs – vicious little contrivances which exploded when moved. An unwary officer and four other ranks were killed in picking up these missiles. Rough harrows towed by carriers were devised to deal with them but for some time natural curiosity took its toll and these booby traps retained considerable nuisance value.” During the subsequent campaign in North Africa, the Italians employed them fairly extensive numbers. For example, the Italians also dropped Thermos bombs on the 6th Australian Division as it invested Bardia in January 1941 and to cover their retreat along the trails west of Tobruk in February. However, on 4 April 1941 as Rommel directed an advance by his 5th Light Division (which later became famous as the 21st Panzer Division) along the Trigh el Abd toward the Libyan coast between Derna and Tobruk, the remaining Thermos bombs posed something of a problem. An Italian general anxiously pointed out to Rommel, “that trail is a death track! We saturated it with Thermos mines two months ago during our retreat.” Rommel ignored his objections. Consequently, “Hefty explosions suddenly lit the sky as the first Thermos mines were hit. An ammunition truck erupted in a ball of fire, illuminating the desert for miles around.” The Italians also used them during the siege of Tobruk in April and May. During Operation Crusader in November 1941, the 6th New Zealand Engineer Company had “an unpleasant experience by camping in a nest of thermos bombs, one of which advertised its presence by exploding under Lieutenant McFarland’s truck. ‘We walked on tip-toe all night; marked off 20-odd more without further explosion, then moved out and set them off with rifle-fire. MacFarland wasn’t hurt, but the truck was very battered underneath.’” Although early scatterable mines, such as the “Butterfly” and the “Thermos Mines” laid on the surface of the desert with contact-fuzes (and hence could be easily avoided), they routinely caused casualties among the unwary.

However, there seems to be little information on British use of their air-scatterable mines, called the Mk II fragmentation bomb. It was fitted with long-delay (factory-set up to 6 hours on Tail Fuze No. 880) and/or anti-disturbance fuzes (tail fuzes No. 881 and No. 883). Field Marshal Rommel makes reference to them (or something similar). Describing actions on the night of 2 September during his failed attack at the Battle for Alam Halfa, “the Afrika Korps, part of the Italian armoured divisions and the 90th Light Division were once more subjected to non-stop pounding by powerful British bomber formations… vast quantities of H.E. and fragmentation bombs, even some landmines, dropped into the territory occupied by my troops… Hundreds of our vehicles were destroyed or damaged.” The British “Cluster Projectile 500-lb. No. 7 Mk I” could carry 56 Mk II fragmentation bombs.

During the Korean War, beginning on 31 May 1951, “In an effort to establish roadblocks, 3d Bombardment Wing B-26’s strewed M-83 butterfly bombs at prebriefed choke points on the enemy’s main supply routes.” The US Air Force used M15 and M16 “cluster adapters” to carry the M83, each holding 24 or 90 munitions respectively. Apparently, a B26 Intruder (which frequently dropped the M83s in Korea), could carry up to fourteen M16 Cluster Adapters (a total of 1260 M83s). As finally fielded, the US copies of the German SD 2 came fitted with one of three fuze options: Impact (M129), Clockwork long delay (M130), or Anti-Disturbance (M131). The US Air Force continued to refine its mining tactics. Beginning in late August 1952, “At last light, fighter-bombers cratered selected highway intersections, and at first darkness two intruder B-26’s dropped butterfly bombs and delayed action ordnance on adjacent feeder and secondary roads. Two major and two minor roadblocks were usually established each night on the highway net south of Pyongyang and on the lateral road to Wonsan. Forty-five minutes following the establishment of a major roadblock, and at such intervals throughout the night, individual B-26 intruders flew armed reconnaissance missions over the isolated roads, attacking stalled vehicles with … fragmentation bombs. The new tactics worked well. Up to 25 vehicles were frequently found and destroyed within a roadblock area, and the September destruction claims rose to 2,167 vehicles.” Toward the cease-fire, Communist prisoners “stated that they had been highly demoralized by the butterfly bombs which they stumbled on in the dark.”

However, ineffective (or non-existent) reporting of the locations where M83 had been dropped could cause problems for friendly ground forces. For example, “In the Hongch’on area, the [1st] cavalry division stood fast along the Hongch’on River on the 15th [of March 1951] to wait for the marines to come up on its right. Strong enemy positions on a ridge due east of Hongch’on stalled the marines in that area, but at the far left of the Marine zone the town itself fell to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, at noon. A motorized patrol, first to enter, found the town ruined and undefended. On the return trip, following an explosion that damaged a truck, the patrol discovered that Far East Air Forces bombers had liberally sprinkled the eastern half of the town with small [M83 butterfly] bombs set to explode when disturbed. A company of Marine engineers began the uncomfortable task of clearing these explosives while the 1st Battalion passed through and occupied high round immediately northeast of town.”

References and notes:

  1. German Explosive Ordnance (Bombs, Fuzes, Rockets, Land Mines, Grenades, and Igniters), TM 9-1985-2, Departments of the Army and the Air Force, Washington, D.C., March 1953, pages 33-42, 95-108, 132-134, 187. Unexploded Bomb, A History of Bomb Disposal, by Arthur Hartley, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, pages 132-134. “Those [SD-2s] equipped with the sensitive after-impact fuzes would often detonate from the shock caused by another bomb of the batch exploding in the vicinity.” German Air Force Operations in Support of the Army, by Paul Deichmann, USAF Historical Studies: No. 163, Arno Press, New York, pages 43-44.
  2. British Explosive Ordnance, TM 9-1985-1, Department of the Army, July 1952, pages 5, 6, 187-189, 201-203, 208-210, 220-224, 229-233, 236-237, 258-260, 279-281, 285-289; and Japanese Explosive Ordnance, TM 9-1985-4, Department of the Army, March 1952, pages 144-154, 179-182. Of the major combatants in World War II, only the Soviet Union appears to have not developed some form of scatterable landmine. See Soviet Explosive Ordnance (WWII) (Russische Munition), DTIC # ADB031828, January 1944, particularly page 4.
  3. The Rommel Papers, edited by Liddell Hart, Harcourt, Brace, & World, New York, 1953, pages 113-114. 2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery, by W. E. Murphy, Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand, 1967, pages 397, 401. See The Turning Point, With the N. Z. Engineers at El Alamein, pages 181-182. See also German Air Force Operations in Support of the Army, by Paul Deichmann, USAF Historical Study No. 163, Arno Press, New York, 1962, page 43. However, this study is mistaken in one respect, the SD-2 (not the SD-1) was subsequently copied by the Americans. See also German Explosive Ordnance (Bombs, Fuzes, Rockets, Land Mines, Grenades, and Igniters), TM 9-1985-2, Departments of the Army and the Air Force, Washington, D.C., March 1953, pages 34-35, 97-98, 100-110. For the efforts of a Major Reid of the Royal New Zealand Engineers to disassemble a German butterfly mine in the summer of 1942, see The Turning Point, With the N. Z. Engineers at El Alamein, pages 112-113. No information has been found to date that discusses the methods used by the Axis to employ or mark the locations of their scatterable mines (however, maps are extant which show the general areas into which they were dropped). In the German case, it appears, considering the small number available, that the ‘doctrine’ for their use was left to the discretion of either the senior ground commander or his air force staff officer. In North Africa, at least, the Axis’ scatterable mines do not appear to have been well integrated with any of the ground tactical operations. North Africa, 1940-1943, Landmine and Countermine Warfare, Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories, Washington, D.C., June 1972, pages15, 20, 30 50, & 51.
  4. North Africa, 1940-1943, Landmine and Countermine Warfare, page 15. Luftwaffe Handbook, 1939-1945, by Alfred Price, Charles Scribner’s Son’s, New York, New York, 1997, page 42.
  5. Anzio Beachhead, 22 January – 25 May 1944, CMH Pub 100-10, US Army Center of Military History, Washington, D. C., 1948, pages 52-53. A photo in this book shows part of a AB 500-1 cluster bomb. Anzio, The Gamble that Failed, by Martin Blumenson, Dell Publishing Company, New York, 1963, pages 145, 147.
  6. Unexploded Bomb, A History of Bomb Disposal, by Arthur Hartley, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, page 213. The failure to use SD-2s against Operation Overlord may stem from the fact that the Luftwaffe had higher priority tasks (such as defending their homeland and fighting the Russians) or the fact that they may have exhausted their supply of SD-2s and never replenished it.
  7. The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War, by Constance McLaughlin Green, Harry C. Thomson, and Peter C. Roots, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington, D. C., 1955, page 461.
  8. The 1st Cavalry Division and Their 8th Engineers in Korea, edited by Frank Armstrong, Bull Run of Vermont, South Burlington, Vermont, 1993, page 180.
  9. Viet Cong Boobytraps, Mines, and Mine Warfare Techniques, TC 5-31, Headquarters, Department of the Army, December 1969, page 2-11.
  10. North Africa, 1940-1943, Landmine and Countermine Warfare, Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories, Washington, D. C., June 1972, pages 15 (based on Fourth Indian Division, by Stevens, Constable, London, 1955, pages 37-38), 20, 30, 44, 51. The claims that this was the first use of scatterable mines is incorrect, nor does it appear the Italian design influenced the German development of the SD 2. For technical data, see Italian and French Explosive Ordnance, TM 9-1985-6, Departments of the Army and the Air Force, Washington, D. C., March 1953, pages 3, 24-25, 59-60). A Corporal Ted Madigan (a New Zealand sapper) and a Major ‘Waddy’ Wadison, Royal Engineers, disassembled a dud thermos mine in late 1940 and learned how it worked. See New Zealand Engineers, Middle East, page 16. Trail of the Fox, by David Irving, Clark, Irvin and Company, Toronto, 1977, pages 76-77. Die 5. (lei.)/21. Panzer-Division in Nordafrika, 1941-1943, by Heinz-Dietrich Aberger, Preußischer Militär-Verlag, Reutlingen, 1994, pages 44-45.
  11. The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953, by Robert F. Futrell, Office of Air Force History, US Air Force, Washington, D.C., 1983, pages 131, 132, 165, 302, 327, 328. However, it proved next “next to impossible to evaluate the success or failure” of the delayed-action mines against hostile supply lines, consequently, “Bomber Command soon rejected this tactic.” Brooks filed his patent application on 19 October 1942 to improve the 3,000 year old design of the caltrop, however, it is uncertain if the caltrop dropped by the US in Korea was related to this patent in anyway. Most US and European patents are available online at ,however, for older patents, one must know the number or be prepared to search by “patent category.”
  12. Ebb And Flow, November 1950-July 1951, by Billy C. Mossman, United States Army In The Korean War, Center Of Military History United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1990 reprint, page 328, available online at: .