Tag Archives: World War I

Trench Food

Most of the US new is passing over the World War I centennial, but for Britain, it was such a powerful force in their history, their papers are covering it in somewhat continuous detail.

And one interesting piece was on the feeding of Tommy throughout the war.

They say an army marches on its stomach, so feeding the two million men who were in the trenches at the height of the First World War was some task. It was a great achievement that in the entire conflict not one British soldier starved to death.

Yet no one should think that the Tommies enjoyed the food that was served up by the military. According to the wags on the frontline, the biggest threat to life was not German bullets but the appalling rations.

Most despised was Maconochie, named after the company in Aberdeen that made this concoction of barely recognisable chunks of fatty meat and vegetables in thin gravy.

When served hot, as per the instructions on the tin, it was said to be barely edible. Eaten cold for days on end in the trenches, where a warm meal was usually no more than a fantasy, it was said to be disgusting.

It was the stated aim of the British Army that each soldier should consume 4,000 calories a day. At the frontline, where conditions were frequently appalling, daily rations comprised 9oz of tinned meat (today it would be known as corned beef but during the First World War it was called bully beef) or the hated Maconochie.

Additionally the men received biscuits (made from salt, flour and water and likened by the long-suffering troops to dog biscuits). They were produced under government contract by Huntley & Palmers, which in 1914 was the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer. The notoriously hard biscuits could crack teeth if they were not first soaked in tea or water.

Simply adding tinned beef that could be issued to individuals was something of a major advance in ration technology. On the other hand, the Brits have never been famous for their cuisine, and such a limited menu would quickly become very monotonous. Coupled with the difficulties in heating the food, it’s not hard to see why the average Tommy was disappointed with his rations.

Battle to feed tommy, ww1, world war one, world war one food, soldiers food, imperial war museum,

When we think of a military ration today, the MRE springs to mind. In fact, the term ration is a technical one, meaning all the food intended for one soldier, for one complete day. Back in the days before the MRE, the C-Ration or the K-Ration, when the Quartermaster delivered food to a troop unit, it was fresh or canned food in bulk. How much food to deliver was computed by multiplying the daily ration for, say, beef, by the number of troops in a given unit. For instance, if the ration called for 1-1/4 pounds of fresh meat per day, per soldier, and a rifle company had 150 troops, the Quartermaster knew to deliver 187.5 pounds of meat.

As the article notes, how the troops might be expected to cook such a ration was their problem, not the Quartermaster’s.  Obviously, that changed over the course of the war.  The US Army faced many of the same challenges in feeding its troops in World War I. As a result of the dissatisfaction with field feeding in the Great War, a truly massive effort was put into improving the Army’s field feeding in World War II, resulting not just in the aforementioned C-Ration and K-Ration, but improved methods of transporting fresh and frozen foods, a much improved Army wide methodology of procuring rations, increased numbers of cooks, vastly improved field kitchens, and means of transporting hot foods forward.


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Tales from a forgotten front

Craig tipped me to this piece on a little known slice of history.

When we think of World War I, most of us think the epic bloodshed on the nearly static Western Front, with French and British troops, and later Americans, facing off across No Man’s Land against the Germans of the Kaiser. I’ll leave it to URR to tell the tale of the horrendous slaughter that occurred on the Eastern Front.

A less well known theater was the mountaintop struggle between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Fighting in an environment that could easily have inspired Lucas’s vision of the Battle of Hoth, both sides suffered the horrors of war compounded by some of the most inhospitable terrain and weather possible. And so many of the dead were to lay* where they fell.

Now, after almost a century, glacial retreat is exposing some of these fallen.

This became clear in 2004, when Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and the director of Peio’s war museum, whose own family fought for the Austrians, stumbled on the mummified remains of three Hapsburg soldiers hanging upside down out of an ice wall near San Matteo — at 12,000ft, scene of some of the highest battles in history. The three were unarmed and had bandages in their pockets, suggesting they may have been stretcher-bearers who died in the last battle for the mountain, on September 3 1918. When a pathologist was granted permission to study one of the bodies, to try to understand the mummification process, there was an outcry among local people who felt that the dead were being profaned.

*It’s early, I haven’t had my coffee. Lie? Lay?


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On Being a Veteran: SGT York

Originally posted this two years ago on my Civil War blog, save for a few updates as to the year marks, this still comes closest to capturing what I think being a veteran means:

Today being Veterans Day, I’ve spend time walking through my old papers and files from “my history” a bit. But in the end, I started pulling out the folders on World War I. We’ve put several coats of paint on this calendar day in the last 93 years [Now 95], but it’s still the eleventh day of the eleventh month. And in my mind, the man who stands tall when I think of World War I is Alvin C. York.

In spite of his somewhat un-military (and under educated) background, York offered one of the best explanations why a nation such as the United States must have soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. On Memorial Day, 1941, York gave these thoughts while speaking at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington:

There are those in this country today who ask me and other veterans of World War Number One, ‘What did it get for you?’ … The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop. You do not do that. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!*

President Franklin D. Roosevelt later used portions of York’s speech in his Armistice Day address later that same year. So perhaps it is fitting that I cite it here on Veterans Day.


* This portion of York’s Memorial Day is cited in Sergeant York: An American Hero, by David Lee (University Press of Kentucky, 2002).

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Battleship Texas

A while back, friend of the blog Aggiesprite went to visit the Battleship Texas Memorial, and kindly shared a few pics with us. I thought I’d posted them, but they got stuck in draft limbo somehow. I was reminded when our other friend of the blog Zekexas posted pics of his trip to BBTXM today.  Zekexas is a pretty good photog, so go take a look.

At any event, since Aggie went to all the trouble of taking pics of the old grey gal for me, I should post them.

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USS Texas, BB-35, was commissioned in 1914, and served in both World War I and World War II. She was decommissioned and stricken from the register in 1948.

She’s the only American example of a Dreadnought battleship remaining. At the time, the 27,000 ton New York class battleships were among the largest warships ever built. Mind you, today the  Gerald R. Ford is under construction, and will weigh in around 100,000 tons. And huge numbers of merchant ships displace far, far more.

Still, her ten 14”/45cal guns, in five twin turrets, were quite powerful, and were put to good use fighting during the invasion of North Africa in 1942,and the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.  In 34 minutes of sustained fire, she placed 255 14” shells on the Pointe du Hoc emplacements thought to contain a battery of 155mm guns. The Rangers assault on Pointe du Hoc is one of the more famous events of that incredible day.

Texas would also engage in a duel with the shore batteries of Cherbourg*, the Dragoon invasion of Southern France, and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Texas was an innovative ship. She was among the second generation of US Dreadnought battleships, shifting from 12” to 14” guns. She also was the first to implement modern fire controls such as rangefinders, directors and rangekeepers** She was the first US battleship to operate and airplane, and was a pioneer in the use of aircraft as spotters for gunfire, greatly improving accuracy at long ranges. She was also an early adopter of radar, mounting the Navy’s first operational air search set, the CXAM-1.

Almost immediately after the war, the state of Texas sought to turn their namesake into a museum. By 1948, she’d been pulled out of reserve, towed to Texas, laid up.  But time has not been kind to the flagship of the Texas Navy. She languished in disrepair until by 1988, she was in great danger of sinking. Indeed, when she was under tow to a drydock, leaks were so bad she was almost unable to be docked. A two year refurbishment brought her back to a much better state, but her advanced age and riveted hull means she still suffers from significant leaks, making the battle to keep her open an ongoing and costly one. Currently Texas is trying to convert her to a permanent dry berth, which hopefully will be complete by 2017.

In the meantime, at 99-1/2 years old, she’s still proud to represent Texas.

For some interior shots, MurdocOnline went on the rare hard-hat tour of her back in 2007.

*She was hit twice by 240mm shells, with 11 wounded, one later succumbing to his wounds.

**A rangekeeper was an early analog fire control computer used not just to plot the present location of a target, but to predict its future range and bearing to account for the time of flight of the ships guns projectiles.


Filed under history, navy


The small armies of Australia and New Zealand, during World War I sent  troops to serve with the British Army. Formed into the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, they quickly became known as ANZACs. Soon their wartime prowess earned them the reputation as the shock troops of the British Empire.

In World War II, both nations again provided key infusions of manpower into the imperial forces, and struggled to fight campaigns alongside the United States in the Pacific to achieve their own strategic goals.

And in virtually every major US campaign since World War II, troops from the antipodean nations have served alongside our soldiers and Marines.

Both Australia, and particularly New Zealand are small countries, with small armies. But both are highly respected for their professionalism, gallantry, and heritage. And so it is appropriate that we take a moment to remember the shared sacrifices of our allied neighbors from the other hemisphere as they celebrate ANAZC Day.

Head over to CDR Salamander’s for some excellent video of these warriors in action throughout the years.


Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING, Around the web

Artillery Evolutions: Anti-Tank Guns and their German Origins

From World War I until the end of World War II, from the standpoint of doctrine, the preferred way to deal with enemy tanks was an anti-tank gun. During World War I, only one of the belligerents developed a significant anti-tank capability – the Germans.  Ironically, when you consider World War II, the Germans fielded around fifty tanks including captured types during the war.  Facing thousands of allied tanks on the Western Front, anti-tank tactics were a matter of necessity for the Germans.

Although the American Expeditionary Force in France included a substantial armored force, few, if any, American troops faced a German tank in combat.  In the immediate post war period, while theorists debated the full potential of the armored fighting vehicle (A.F.V.), all agreed modern armies needed some anti-tank weapons.  Naturally, the Americans looked to the German experience as a foundation for anti-tank tactics and when selecting anti-tank weapons.  So was the German reaction to allied tanks during the Great War?

After the combat debut of the British tanks on September 15, 1916, the Germans turned to combined arms tactics and adapted existing weapons to counter to the tanks.  The infantry received steel cored bullets for the MG 08 machine guns.  In addition, for close range defense, the Germans issued package charges and bundled grenades.  The engineers studied tank movements and improved obstacles.  As is the case today, they also found mines effective against the tracks.  Engineers also trained to use flamethrowers against vulnerable openings in the hulls.  The artillery was at that time fielding light-weight versions of the standard 7.7-cm FK 96 n/A as an infantry accompanying gun.  These guns, along with smaller 57mm and 37mm guns offered decent performance against the early tanks.  Even the 7.58-cm leichte Minenwerfer (lMW) mortar  penetrated 10 mm of armor at close ranges.  Where these close range weapons failed to work, the Germans planned indirect fire and, where possible, aircraft strafing with armored piercing bullets.

The initial response to the tank worked well for about a year.  Allied employment of the tank was premature and tactically flawed.  Not only did the German high command believe their counter-tactics sufficient, they considered the tank of only limited value overall (explaining the limited German use of AFVs during the war).  This attitude changed after November 20, 1917 with the initial assaults in the Battle of Cambrai using between 430  and 480 tanks.  In the initial stages, British tactics, which included liberal use of smoke screens, confounded the German anti-tank efforts.    Slightly thicker armor on the Mark IV tanks resisted the German armor-piercing bullets.  Yet poor reliability and cross-country performance, along with evolving tactics, still proved the undoing of the British tanks.  After substantial gains, the tanks out ran their supports.  The British had squandered an opportunity.

British Mk IV tank knocked out at Cambrai

Still the Battle of Cambrai marked the first of many swings of the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum.  Faced with improved allied tanks, particularly the light French FT-17 (debuting at the same time, but not in the battle that is), the Germans started a crash program to produce a viable anti-tank weapon.  One weapon that offered promise was a converted 2-cm aircraft cannon.  With new armor-piercing ammunition, these cut through 13mm of armor at 250 meters.  But the German high command apparently preferred the standard 7.92mm machine guns.  Also heavier 13mm machine guns, then used as anti-aircraft weapons, received armor-piercing ammunition to improve utility of that type. Designated 13mm MG08 TuF, these saw limited service.

Foreshadowing the anti-tank rifles used in World War II, and perhaps even the modern lightweight anti-tank rockets, the Germans turned out a 13-mm Tankgewehr (T-Gewehr or anti-tank rifle) for issue to infantry units.  The T-Gewehr used an enlarged version of the standard Mauser bolt-action and had a bi-pod from a light machine gun.  The gun used the same cartridge as the MG 08 TuF, and was actually 13.2 mm for those with an eye for detail. Penetration reached 20mm at 500 meters.

Mauser 13.2mm T-Gewehr

But weighing nearly 40 pounds and possessing the kick of a full team of mules, the T-Gewehr had several tactical drawbacks.  Worse, the penetration figures were in “best case” scenarios.  At many tactical angles, the T-Gewehr could not penetrate the armor of the FT-17, the most common allied tank.   (As a side note, many references say the American John Browning copied the German 13mm cartridge when designing the famous M2 .50 caliber machine gun.  Although sharing a similar half-inch caliber, the two cartridges are actually different.  The Germans used a semi-rimed case while Browning opted for a fully rimmed case for easier extraction.  Truth is Browning designed the .50 caliber cartridge as an enlarged .30-06 cartridge, with development starting in 1910 without any help from the Germans.)

While the light infantry-carried weapons proved less than satisfactory, on the other end of the scale the Germans received favorable reports of 7.7-cm guns used against tanks.  While the infantry-accompanying guns did well, they lacked the mobility to react to tank thrusts.  More useful were the 7.7-cm Kraftwagenflak.  Yes… FLAK.  These were just light field guns on a turntable mount on the back of trucks.  Unarmored, but mobile, these guns were designed for defending captive observation balloons from allied aircraft.  But just as the 8.8cm FLAK turned against a later generation of British tanks in 1940, the 7.7-cm FLAK guns proved the better of those British tanks in 1918.  Trouble was the Germans were just not able to make enough gun tubes or trucks to meet the need – both anti-aircraft or anti-tank.

In the last months of the war, the Germans produced the 3.7cm Tankabwehrkanonen (or TaK).  The gun itself was the lash-up of a barrel from an old fortress gun (a Hotchkiss revolving cannon somewhat like the American Gatling gun in concept, thus one old gun made five new TaKs).  With a small wheeled carriage, the four man crew of the TaK could follow the infantry into battle.  But armor penetration was only 15mm at 500 meters.

3.7cm TaK, note the high sight line

As the war situation for Germany entered a more desperate stage in the fall of 1918, the Army called for an improved anti-tank gun.  Had the war continued, a 5-cm TaK may have seen service, which designers estimated would penetrate a full 50mm (two inches) of armor at 500 meters.  As mentioned earlier the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum was in full swing.

In summary, the German experience from 1916 to 1918 fighting tanks demonstrated the tank was best met with combined-arms tactics.  The experience also showed the need for weapons with increasing armor penetration.  These German lessons, gathered through post-war analysis, figured prominently as American officers drafted doctrine and considered new weapons through the 1920s and 1930s.  I’ll discuss the American interpretation of the German lessons in the next post of this series.


Filed under army, Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: More French – Grande Puissance Filloux

Can we say that without getting a mature rating?  Sure!  Grande Puissance Filloux is the “friendly” name given by the French to the “Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.”  In the last Artillery Evolutions post, I mentioned the French 155mm gun pressed in to service by the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) during World War I.  This wonderful cannon became the basis for later American designs, vestiges of which are still seen on current service types.

Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.

This particular make of gun came about due to the shortage of heavy field guns in the French inventory at the start of World War I.  In the void, the French pushed several expedients into service.  These ranged from ancient guns dating to the 1870s to more modern seacoast guns, in calibers ranging from 145mm to 155mm. The better of these guns was a 145mm seacoast gun mounted on a field carriage.  While providing a useful range over 20,000 yards, the 13.5 ton weight was cumbersome for a field gun.  Here’s a Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in action, but under new owners, circa 1942.

Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in German Service

During World War I, many of these returned to the shop with worn out barrels.  The French in turn rebored these to 155mm, conforming to the standard field caliber, and increased the range to over 23,000 yards.  While the French were happy with this heavy weapon for the static warfare of the Western Front, they looked to more mobile heavy artillery piece.  In an effort to improve the field handling, the government run Puteaux arsenal started work on a fresh design in 1916.  Part way through the project, Lieutenant Colonel L.J.F. Filloux pushed for a split trail carriage in order to allow higher angles of fire, wider arcs of traverse, and easier handling.  As result of his successful argument on this point the gun became the “High Power, Filloux” or “Grand Puissance, Filloux” gun, abbreviated to G.P.F. when the type was adopted in 1917.  On the carriage, the gun had an elevation up to 35° with a traverse of 60°.  Overall the gun on carriage weighed just under 10 tons.

G.P.F. in American use showing split trail and elevation

Aside from the carriage, the gun used rather conventional practices.   The breech and firing mechanism used was the standard Schneider type and similar to that of the 155mm howitzers.  The barrel was a built-up construction, externally appearing as an enlarged 75mm gun.  The recoil mechanism was also similar to the 75mm, but with a new twist – variable recoil.  At the maximum elevation, a conventional recoil system allowed the breech to bottom out.  Other guns of the time period required the crews to dig out a pit in order to deal with this problem.  What the G.P.F. introduced was a system to automatically adjust the resistance in the recoil system as the gun was elevated.

That’s the concept.  In use that meant the crew didn’t have to dig a pit for the gun.  And they could even put down some planking out to keep out of the mud(!).  Although I would add that some diagrams in the manuals still indicated pits were used.

American M1918 155mm with firing platform

For movement, the G.P.F. used a two wheel limber.  In traveling order, the setup weighed about 11.5 tons.  While heavy, still handier than contemporary weapons of the caliber.  The recoil system disengaged to allow the breech to ride closer to the limber.

G.P.F. in traveling order with "caterpillar" shoes

In the photo above, the guy at the front is not driving the gun.  Rather he’s handling the brakes.  The G.P.F. was perhaps among the first artillery pieces designed with mechanization in mind… but air-brakes were a thing of the future.

Although the G.P.F. introduced several advanced features, it’s range dropped to 17,700 yards when compared to the earlier 155mm mle 1916 mentioned above.  In order to improve field handling the G.P.F. sacrificed range for a shorter barrel and lower maximum elevation.  On the other hand, with ten times the traverse, a G.P.F. could command significantly more battlefield than the earlier gun.

The French built over 700 of the G.P.F. guns starting in late 1916.  The combat debut occurred in August 1917.  The gun’s arrival coincided with America’s entry into the war.  Starting in September 1917 the French supplied quantities of the G.P.F. to the A.E.F.  By the time of the armistice, the A.E.F. received over 200 French built guns of this type. The guns supplied by France became the M1917 155mm field gun in American use.  I think the example displayed at the Ordnance Museum (was at Aberdeen, Maryland, but moving to Fort Lee, Virginia) is one of those guns.

M1917(?) 155mm Field Gun at Aberdeen, MD

But of course with the massive American buildup, French sources would be insufficient for war plans extending into 1919.  So just as with the other French guns, the Americans opted for domestic production.  In 1917 the Ordnance Department translated French plans and tabulated them for American standard measures.  In November 1917, the Army set contracts for production a couple thousand of these guns, broken out – as we’ve seen with other guns – into sub-components.  Watervliet Arsenal and Bullard Engineering Works produced the gun tube; Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company produced the carriages and limbers; and Dodge Brothers produced the recoil components in a Detroit factory.

155mm Gun barrels in the factory

Like the smaller guns, G.P.F. production lagged due to difficulty producing the French recoil system.  However, the Army had ordered Dodge to put priority on the howitzer component production through 1918.  So by the time they turned to the G.P.F. most of the kinks were worked out, but the first rolled out of the factory in October 1918. Thus many American-built G.P.F. guns were fitted with French built recouperators.   Production of the carriage slowed as Americans had to adapt factories to the large castings required.  But the gun tube itself speed through production.  The Americans actually improved the design, adding a better system to lock the jacket in place and a spring operated breech mechanism.  As built, this became the M1918 155mm Field gun.

M1918 155mm Field Gun at Fort Morgan, AL

With the delays, only sixteen complete American-built guns got to the A.E.F. before the Armistice.  But, impressed with the gun’s performance, the Americans kept the gun in production into 1920.  Not only was the gun deemed the best corps level gun, it was also found useful for the coastal artillery.  In the inter-war period, the Army built “Panama Mounts” to allow these field guns to defend coastlines, particularly in overseas possessions. The gun also received pneumatic tires and air brakes on an improved carriage.

A G.P.F. gun on a Panama Mount during World War II

The Army would further refine the G.P.F. concept during the inter-war period, with the familiar M1 and M2 series as the result.  During World War II, several M1918 guns went onto a modified medium tank chassis to become the M12 Gun Motor Carriage.  But the G.P.F.’s long reaching legacy was a carriage layout which persisted in American artillery down to the M198 155mm howitzer.

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